Thursday, December 1, 2016

Beyond disgust and shame in a post-truth world

I watched a video posted on Facebook this morning from CNN about an interview with a few ardent Trump supporters. As the text accompanying the video stated, "Donald Trump supporters made several debunked claims about election fraud in a post-election interview with CNN anchor Alisyn Camerota."

One comment made during this interview was regarding 3 million illegal voters in California. When pressed, the women making the comment didn't speak specifics about the issue. She walked back the earlier comment she made about the number. She also referred to President Obama saying illegal immigrants could vote by referring to an interview which has been proven to be edited to be deceptive by Fox Business Network (here is the video in question).

The import question here is raised by the reporter: where do you get your information? The response: "from the media...all across the media." Later multiple people stated you could simply "Google it."

While my immediate response is what idiots these people are, my slightly more reflective response is that this is exactly why we need civic education, discussion, and deliberation about important issues with one another, especially those with whom we disagree. We can quite easily dismiss this woman as someone who is uninformed and lacking basic knowledge. But what steps, practically, might we take to engage someone like this who is relying on outlets of information for confirmation of her presumed positions? This is one of the great challenges we face now in a "post-truth" environment.

While "post-truth" was the 2016 word of the year for Oxford Dictionary, we have long wrestled with the uncomfortable truths as a society. Here is quite an episode of The Diane Rehm Show on this issue in our society. I would encourage you to listen to this in its entirety.

It is important to have settings where ideas--including absurd ideas--are able to be expressed. Allow them then to be stand up to some scrutiny. Have a claim about 3 million illegal voters in California face the light of day. But we can't simply express our disgust from afar. This is where civic work has come to in. We don't win people over by simply supplying facts to back our claims. In fact, they can further divide us into our ideological campus. If you want a more academic take on this, take a look at this paper recently posted on the SSRN. The authors of this paper also wrote a piece in the New York Times about this research. While now dated (Sept. 2), their point is instructive to us, particularly the last line:
Voters are now receiving a steady stream of both positive and negative information about Hillary Clinton and Donald J. Trump. Which kind of news will have a large impact will depend partly on people’s motivations and initial convictions. 
But there’s an important qualification. In our experiment, a strong majority showed movement; few people were impervious to new information. Most people were willing to change their views, at least to some extent. 
For those who believe in learning, and the possibility of democratic self-government, that’s very good news.

UPDATED - December 3, 2016

Dan Rather, in a post on Facebook, has offered another way to think about the challenge (and impossibility) of living in a "post-truth world." That commentary can be found here

Sunday, November 20, 2016


It has been nearly four years since I've done anything with this blog. In many regards, it feels like a vestige tail from a digital animal long gone. Yet, here it is. And it is particularly because it is something that feels out of place that I would like to start using this more.

Since I last did anything here, I've become more active via Facebook and Twitter. I've written academic articles and am working on a number of projects that get at the heart of the types of questions I want to explore professionally. I hope to outline some of that work here in the future. So this is a reintroduction of sorts. While I will continue to write, post, and engage through various media, it seems like a step back from the always immediate and ever-present cycle of news.

I realize that, in my own little way, I contribute to the constant process of refreshing of News Feeds and the like. It makes me think of one of my favorite lines from a writer that I should turn to more often than I have in recent years. This is the first of two points I want to make.

In an essay published in Faith and Violence: Christian Teaching and Christian Practice, Thomas Merton has an amazingly timely and insightful remark that I often think of when I'm finding myself consumed by "news," particularly the immediate and round-the-clock process we now see through uncritical eyes. Here is Merton's quote:

What was on TV? I have watched TV twice in my life. I am frankly not terribly interested in TV anyway. Certainly I do not pretend that by simply refusing to keep up with the latest news I am therefore unaffected by what goes on, or free of it all. Certainly events happen and they affect me as they do other people. It is important for me to know about them too: but I refrain from trying to know them in their fresh condition as “news.” When they reach me they have become slightly stale. I eat the same tragedies as others, but in the form of tasteless crusts. The news reaches me in the long run through books and magazines, and no longer as a stimulant. Living without news is like living without cigarettes (another peculiarity of the monastic life). The need for this habitual indulgence quickly disappears. So, when you hear news without the “need” to hear it, it treats you differently. And you treat it differently too. 
This leads to my second point: not only might we be well-served to step back a bit, but we would also seemingly benefit from speaking and engaging with others unlike ourselves. As we know from the "blue" and "red" feeds that shape our lives, and this great SNL skit below, we largely live in our own bubbles and (mostly) like it that way.

John Oliver has also done a great job pointing out, in more detail, our bubbles.

I argue that we can and should engage with those around us, particularly those who don't share our political views. A recent story in the Manhattan Mercury about my work spells this out a bit more. I made a similar point in a USA Today interview: we can't scapegoat or honestly clump everyone who doesn't agree with me into some category, as easy or as comforting as that might be.

So what is to be done? Here are some interesting/thoughtful/provocative links to help us see beyond our bubbles.
I hope to, with some regularity, write here rather than always posting and sharing via Twitter and Facebook. You're welcome and encouraged to follow here. You can sign up for RSS, but I will also make these posts available through other media. But as Merton helpfully reminds me, there is a benefit to stepping back. I am easily consumed by information, but I'm not always sure it's helpful. I'm going to try to do my part make sense of our work, not only through the algorithm Facebook thinks I want but through a more critical perspective and one that is open to others.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Kludgeocracy: Government Through Patchwork Fixes

As the recent “fiscal cliff” episode highlights, there are serious ongoing debates about the size of government in the United States. Underneath the cacophony of partisan voices across the political spectrum, Steven Teles points to a larger inherent problem in our democratic decision-making structure. In his provocative recent essay, “Kludgeocracy: the American Way of Policy,” he argues we are witnessing the rise of “kludgeocracy,” a form of government “with no ideological justification whatsoever” (1). This results in layered policy solutions, and multiple mechanisms that can distance citizens from decision-making processes. Teles defines kludgeocracy as:

“an ill-assorted collection of parts assembled to fulfill a particular purpose…a clumsy but temporarily effective solution to a particular fault or problem.” The term comes out of the world of computer programming, where a kludge is an inelegant patch put in place to be backward compatible with the rest of a system. When you add up enough kludges, you get a very complicated program, one that is hard to understand and subject to crashes. In other words, Windows” [Microsoft’s operating system] (1).
He continues:

“‘Clumsy but temporarily effective’ also describes much of American public policy. For any particular problem we have arrived at the most gerry-rigged, opaque and complicated response. From the mind-numbing complexity of the health care system (which has only gotten more complicated, if also more just, after the passage of Obamacare), our Byzantine system of funding higher education, and our bewildering federal-state system of governing everything from the welfare state to environmental regulation, America has chosen more indirect and incoherent policy mechanisms than any comparable country” (1-2).
The implications for kludgeocracy are numerous, with the most insidious feature being the “hidden, indirect and frequently corrupt distribution of its costs” (2). Teles uses the current U.S. tax code as an example of kludgeocracy. The tax code, he suggests, is “almost certainly the most complicated in the Western world, both on the individual and corporate side” (2). There are estimates that direct and indirect costs for complying with the complexity of the tax code are $163 billion each year. That is in addition to 6.1 billion hours spent complying with the filling requirements of the tax code. Taxes are but one example of the costs of kludgeocracy at work.

With layer upon layer, public policy becomes more complex and vexing. As a result, organized interests have a much more realistic possibility of shaping policy rather than average citizens. This is especially true when issues are out of the public gaze (3). Moreover, Kludgeocracy reinforces the image of government incompetence and/or corruption by masking the government’s extensive role in our lives through habits of “dishonesty and evasiveness rather than openly making the argument for a muscular role for government.” For instance, the fact that so much of our welfare state is jointly administered by either intergovernmental agencies or through private contractors makes it very difficult to attribute responsibility when things go wrong. This leads to blame for the government in general rather than being “affixed precisely, where such blame could do some good.” One result of kludgeocracy, then, is “diffuse cynicism, which is the opposite of the habit needed for good democratic citizenship” (4). What are citizens to do when they have no idea what agency or agencies to engage about an issue of public importance?

The costs of kludgeocracy lead to questions about what to do in response. This requires that we understand why American politics has so frequently turned to “kludge solutions.” Teles identifies three interlocking causes: the structure of American institutions, the desire to preserve the fiction of small government while also addressing public problems, and the emergence of a “kludge industry” that supplies a “constant stream of complicated, roundabout solutions” (4). The implication of these interlocking issues is that this complexity leaves citizens out of public decisions because our system of government, and the kludge industry intimately connected with it, functions without opportunities to include strong citizen voices.

American institutions generate complex policy partly because of numerous
“veto points for action.” Not only is there separation of power between Congress’ two bodies and the president, but there are also other less obvious veto points such as separate subcommittees. The recently passed health care reform bill went through five separate committees in Congress, for example. This is all in addition to hyper-partisanship and the ability to filibuster within the Senate. This veto power functions less as a roadblock and more as a tollbooth, with “the toll-taker able to extract a price in exchange for his or her willingness to allow legislation to keep moving.” It is through this process that programs don’t get changed or replaced, but added to as “new ideas have to be layered over old programs” (5).

In addition to this “tollbooth” legislative process, once laws are passed the dynamic between levels of government in our federal system is affected by kludgeocracy. The federal and state governments are “pervasively intertwined” and this leads to what has often been called “marble-cake federalism.” The consequence is that domestic policy in the United States lacks clearly defined lines of responsibility. Additionally, spending is also done in a way that is best described as “indirect.” Federal monies come with a bewildering array of regulations and requirements. The result is that Americans have a more active, but also incoherent and frequently ineffective, state (7).

In addition to the kludge of government, an “army of consultants and contractors” has made itself an indispensible piece in the kludge pie; the kludge industry has “significant resources to invest to ensure that government programs maintain their complexity, and hence the need to purchase their services” (7). This expert-focused approach to complex policy issues further diminishes the voice and agency of those outside the kludge industry.

So what gets us out of this mess?  Teles notes that kludgeocracy is not an accident; rather, it is a predictable consequence of deep features of the American regime. Because of this, it would be facile to pretend that “its baleful effects can be reduced without major (and extremely unlikely) changes in our larger system of government and dominant values.” But Teles suggests that subtle changes can occur at the margins and offers his own list of remedies. These include eliminating or radically reducing the filibuster in the Senate and substantially reconsidering our system of federal grants to states, among other recommendations. But his recommendations are squarely focused at federal government and become somewhat perplexing when he admits that significant institutional reform is, at best, a long shot. When is reforming how the Senate functions, for example, not a serious challenge? Nevertheless, Teles suggests that a more plausible target is an attack on the kludge industry, “given that it both lives off of and helps create demand for policy complexity” (8). The most important tool against policy complexity, he argues, is a change “not in institutions, interests, and rules, but in ideas” (8). It is only when politicians are explicitly associated with kludginess that change might begin to occur. To accomplish this, there is a necessary step of increasing the “visibility of policy complexity’s costs” so that politicians and citizens might recognize what is occurring (9).

Making kludgeocracy into a recognized public problem will be an uphill battle, Teles warns, but helping citizens see the manifestations of it in their ordinary lives is an essential first step. Teles writes: “When they get frustrated trying to figure their way through federal education aid programs, or flustered trying to understand their taxes, or perplexed at the complications of our civil litigation system, they need to recognize their problem as a part of a larger system that connects up to other, seemingly unconnected grievances” (9). Teles argues that giving a name to the designed complexity of piecemeal governance—kludgeocracy—is a necessary step if American democracy is to be simpler and more effective. From the standpoint of being concerned about the sidelining of citizens, Kettering can benefit from this line of research because utilizing the term “kludgeocracy” is yet another way of naming the institutional and systemic challenges inhibiting citizens from having a stronger role to play in policy decision-making. Whether the term becomes something used or not, the ideas behind kludgeocracy could be useful to Kettering’s thinking about the challenges of a highly professionalized and expert-driven approach to public problems.