Wednesday, October 28, 2015

David Brooks & the Effective Executive

Candidate sought, no experience required
Sometimes I feel that I pick on David Brooks too much. His ideas are usually sound, but not quite. In his column entitled "A Sensible Version of Donald Trump", Brooks imagines an attractive version of the political outsider. But he stumbles in important places.

Extreme make-over needed
He provides a speech for his fantasy candidate: "I’m no politician. [Brooks doesn’t address how someone running for president isn’t by definition a politician, but we’ll let that slide for the moment.] I’m just a boring guy who knows how to run things." “Run things”? Politicians, at least politicians who aspire to leadership, don't“run things," they lead people. In a democracy, they should be leading citizens. The Brooks fantasy (all too common) is that business executives, who often enjoy a degree of command and control greater than found in the military, make good political leaders. They don't. Governing is a matter of leadership, and the greatest presidents in American history on this list includes no business executives. Washington and Jefferson, who operated slave plantations, come about as close as any of the possibilities. (And Jefferson wasn’t very good on the business aspect of his plantation.) The most common background besides having held office? Lawyer. All of the top 10 were accomplished leaders. Even former generals like George Washington and Dwight Eisenhower are distinguished by their ability to work with others and to use persuasion as well as command. Politicians—at least the ones we should elect--articulate visions and then translate those visions into laws and policies for the benefit of their constituents—and they have an encompassing definition of their constituency. It's not a matter of managing things; it's a matter of leading people. That too many politicians don't do this well is unfortunate, but it doesn't change the reality of what is necessary and possible.

I understand that those politicians who have held office, as opposed to those that are now running for office for the first time, have records that show them bending to the will of their constituents and campaign contributors. That is, they've had to take positions and make decisions that reflect the tug-of-war between the myriad interests and ideologies of American politics. The difference that Donald Trump and Ben Carson share is that they have the luxury of not having served and not having created a record of political performance. We would be na├»ve to believe that somehow their inexperience would allow them to rise above the quotidian world of political give-and-take arising out of the demands of contentious voters and contributors.

Brooks rightly notes that we have a polarized and corrupt political culture with little accomplishment. Congress fiddles while we burn. However, he refuses to identify the overarching role played by big money in politics, the regime of legalized corruption that now pervades our campaign finance system. Reforming the system, which in some measure all of the Democrats support (especially Lawrence Lessig), isn't a cure-all, and it won't make fringes of political discourse come to reason, but it is the first and most important step and should be promoted on every occasion. Brooks seems loath to do this.

Brooks is certainly correct in identifying the fact that those in the lower echelons of the income and wealth distribution, not necessarily accurately defined as just “the lower half,” have seen their quality of life deteriorate in many ways that often begins with financial loss. Brooks goes on the cite a study that shows that the integration of poor families into better neighborhoods results in a long-term improvement in many measures of quality of life for those families. He cites this as an example of the value of society and community in improving the lot of individuals. He takes a cheap shot at Bernie Sanders because he accuses Sanders of being a "statist" and claiming the term "socialist" (seeking maximum irony) for his outlook. There's a good deal of irony in Brooks’ assertion given that some of the most dynamic communities in America have arisen on the political left, specifically in the labor movement. Community exists in small towns, as well, along with the dull force of conformity. Like many a conservative, Brooks likes to ignore the role the state can play in fostering community and collective action when the demands of a problem exceed those of civil society and smaller units of government.

Brooks hedges his “socialist” bet by saying we should be “getting a little moralistic." By this, he means setting standards for individual behavior. In this, I'm all for him. I value an integral approach to social and political problems of all sorts. By integral, I’m referring to the work of Ken Wilber and those working along similar lines. For example, problems in communities suffering poverty, crime, family disintegration, poor education, etc. are “wicked" problems that demand assessments and actions from a variety of perspectives. Human problems can't often be resolved only through individual initiative or through community action alone, but only through a combination of both. Brooks seems to have this sensibility, but he doesn't articulate it nearly as well as Ken Wilber and Alan Watkins (for example) whose book, Wicked and Wise: How to Solve the World’s Toughest Problems, I’m currently reading. Their template is the most sophisticated template for addressing “wicked” problems. By the way, “wicked problems” as they define them, have multiple stakeholders, multiple causes, multiple symptoms, and multiple solutions, and the problem continues to change. Thus, the business executive who believes that she (a nod to Carly Fiorina for the sake of gender equality among poor candidates) can say just do “x” or just do “y” and the problem will be solved. That doesn’t work in the Middle East or Ukraine, in dealing with Putin or China, or with global climate change, or—well, just about anything involving a multitude of human beings.   

So once again, thank you, David Brooks, for almost getting it right and thereby allowing me to finish the job. At least to my mind.