Reading P. J. O'Rourke's latest in Cato's Letter, Spring 2008, Vol. 6, No. 2, The Problem is Politics, was not only humorous in the way only P.J. O'Rourke can be humorous, but it brought home a clean and clear distinction between Politics and Politicians. This is something that has been lost in this campaign season and on a pretty willing basis across the board:
But let’s make a distinction between politics and politicians. Because there are a lot of people
who are under a misapprehension that the problem is certain politicians who stink. They say that if you impeach George Bush, everything will be fine. Or if you nab Ted Kennedy for a DUI, the nation’s problems will be solved. But unfortunately it’s just not that simple.
The problem is not really politicians. The problem is politics. Politicians are chefs—some good, some bad—but politics is road kill. The problem isn’t the cook. The problem is the cookbook. The key ingredient of politics is the idea that all of society’s ills can be cured politically. It’s like a cookbook where the recipe for everything is to fry it. The fruit cocktail is fried. The soup is fried. The salad is fried. So is the ice cream and cake. And your pinot noir is rolled in breadcrumbs and dunked in the deep fat fryer. It is just no way to cook up public policy. Politics is greasy. Politics is slippery. Politics can’t tell the truth.
That is the process of politics, not political tracts written by thinkers and theoreticians. Politics is a process carried out by people and one of the key parts of politics, as a process, is that people are bound to act in ways that is dictated by the process.
Say you have a great chef, using P.J.'s view from above, who works at a 5-star restaurant and has great creativity, can design menus out of thin air, can teach a staff how to prepare it over a short span and introduce new and exciting dishes to bring in customers willing to pay top dollar for that experience. Now, put a sudden downturn in that chef's life and, for whatever reason (and it is very improbable!) the new employment position is McDonald's flipping burgers. That process has no real place for culinary talent and has a strictly controlled and regimented system for producing large quantities of food at a set quality level. In the restaurant the chef is a theoretician, working with what is available to utilize creative skills via his liberty to produce wonderful comestibles. At McD's he is part of a process and no matter how good a chef that is, the position is that of one in a process to output set types of food at a given quality level in a given amount of time.
You don't mind waiting an extra 10 minutes for a grand meal at a 4 star restaurant.
Waiting that period at McDonald's? Customer revolution.
A major distinction between the two parties, and about the only one that is left, is that the Democratic Party sells 4-star menus, and then takes you into McDonald's while pocketing the 4-star money to expand the franchise and sell more glitzy menus and offer the same food while paying the staff at 4-star rates. Republicans usher you in to a very high class establishment tell you they can't offer you 4-star cuisine, hand you the McDonald's menu and you see 4-star prices so that they can expand the franchise, which has a high cost due to all those lovely trimmings which get swapped out as often as the menu used to be changed.
No analogy is perfect, of course, but if your process only outputs a set and relatively low quality of product you find it is hard to sell based on just that quality or quantity alone. On the campaign trail each party will sell what it thinks you will buy: a great menu or a great looking establishment. What you get, however, is a McDonald's hamburger with fries and a shake. By implying quality the process of politics is set up to mislead you into getting the impossible: 4-star cuisine at any price. That is because the process is to turn out large quantities of set quality food to reach a lowest, minimum standard that has some general appeal.
That brings us to the uncomfortable fact that Mr. O'Rourke hands us:
But I don’t blame the politicians for this. Because just think what the truth would sound like on the campaign stump. Even a little, bitty bit of truth. “No, I can’t fix public education. The problem isn’t funding or teachers unions or lack of vouchers or absence of computer equipment in the classroom. The problem is your damned kids.”
Now, that’s just not going to work.
This is the 'Lake Woebegone Effect': where every child is above-average. Every parent wants to *believe* that and if their child *fails* it must be the fault of the *system* and not that of the individuals involved. You want top notch Private School education at Public School? Why? Exactly why and how can EVERYONE get such schooling from a process that is not meant to output such effects? The Democrats want to increase staff pay and the Republicans point to adding bells and whistles.
The problem is, that this is a mass process where the politicians at ALL LEVELS are now part of the process. It used to just be the local and state levels, but the busy bodies and worrywarts from 1958 onwards finally got this 'elevated' to the national level... your local franchise which offered localized menus and servings got changed into McDonald's. And now people have the temerity to complain that the quality went DOWN or, even worse, STAYED THE SAME with a menu they don't like and at HIGHER PRICES? By 'elevating' the problem it was made WORSE and INTRACTIBLE because politicians have no interest in *solving problems* only *offering solutions* and getting more money for government. If education got *solved* an entire part of the federal government would GO AWAY along with all the hanger-on positions, consulting agencies, research departments in companies and universities : all of that would disappear in a puff of smoke for education if the thing was actually *solved*.
By handing off responsibility that parents still have for ensuring a good education for their children to a bureaucracy, they have decided that they are unfit to MAKE THAT DECISION FOR THEMSELVES. You actually can get what you pay for if you go to a private establishment that concentrates on EDUCATION and COST CONTROL, because the immediate feedback of getting paid or not getting paid concentrates the will to educate children. Very much like the hangman's noose, though not as drastic in failure. But you would, actually, get what you paid for and have direct say on what happens if you *don't*. In public establishments, have you seen what you have to go through to get *any* accountability?
There is one way to keep the politicians under wraps in the system, however, and Mr. O'Rourke looks at that earlier on:
I have been covering politics for 38 years. Trust me: we don’t want politics to quit. That’s why we need a Republican president—not because Republicans are good but because we need gridlock. I love gridlock. Gridlock means government can’t do things.
The two most frightening words in Washington are “bipartisan consensus.” Bipartisan consensus is when my doctor and my lawyer agree with my wife that I need help.
Bipartisan consensus—like the stimulus package that has been delivered to us courtesy of Congress and the president. A $168 billion stimulus package that is supposed to change the trajectory of a $13 trillion economy.
Now, even somebody who flunked high school physics—and I did—can tell you that the energy of $168 billion is not sufficient to budge $13 trillion worth of inertia. It’s like trying to use Dennis Kucinich to push Hillary Clinton off the Democratic campaign platform.
We could wind up with a Democratic president. We will wind up with a Democratic Congress. Now, I am a Republican. I’m a rotten Republican quite a lot of the time, but a Republican nonetheless. And as a Republican, I’ve got to say that the 2006 midterm elections made me very upset at the Republicans. I mean, Jack Abramoff, Bob Ney, Randy “Duke” Cunningham, Tom DeLay, Mark Foley. The electorate was almost too nauseated to make it to the polls to vote Democratic.
And this is the problem that the Republican nominee-presumptive *has*: his major claim to fame is 'bipartisanship'. As the way we do politics right now, that awful process of delivering us something of low standard when promising and paying for something better, electing a 'bipartisan' Republican is essentially casting a vote for more expanded government with fewer fiscal controls even if the nominee-presumptive promises in a crosses-his-heart-and-hopes-to-die way that he will veto any budget that goes over, by a single penny, what he asks for. We have heard that *before* in 'read my lips, no new taxes', and yet 'bipartisan consensus' got us new taxes and that from a man who had been Ronald Reagan's Vice-President.
A purely partisan political hack as nominee could get tons of votes just by being a purely partisan political hack because there are a lot of folks who do not WANT 'bipartisanship' from the White House. A bit of the bold, brash 'can't satisfy all of the people all of the time so don't even try' sort of deal. Add some hawkishness like 'hey this government beast needs some limb hacking and here are the Departments I want to disband' and 'the wanted dead or alive posters will be distributed right after my inauguration for every terrorist on the planet' and you just might have someone who could win and bring gridlock. Just so long as it didn't have a whiff of 'reaching across the aisle' to 'achieve consensus' with his or her bipartisan buddies.
Would it take so much for a President to run on the platform: No Omnibus spending packages, No extras tacked on beyond what I ask for, All new 'initiatives' come in separate, clearly defined bills one per initiative?
Of course that would take courage, eschewing 'bipartisanship' and actually requiring fiscal responsibility.
Finally, Mr. O'Rourke sums up his article with this:
After all my time covering politics, I know a lot of politicians. They’re intelligent. They’re diligent. They’re talented. I like them. I count them as friends. But when these friends of mine take their intelligence, their diligence, and their talent and they put these into the service of politics, ladies and gentlemen, when they do that, they turn into leeches upon the commonwealth.
They are dogs chasing the cat of freedom. They are cats tormenting the mouse of responsibility. They are mice gnawing on the insulated wiring of individualism. They are going to hell in a hand basket, and they stole that basket from you. They are the ditch carp in the great river of democracy. And this is what one of their friends says.
It is the rare, very rare, fine upstanding individual that can come away from politics with their ethics, integrity and honor intact as politicians. Outside of politics I like and even admire a few of those running, but that cannot and must not blind me to see what they do as politicians. The 'personal bio' only goes far enough to show that you aren't a crook, thief, con-man, mafioso, chiseler, or serial murderer. Yes, *most* of those get weeded out by the political process... well, I can't remember any serial murderers showing up as Congresscritters, but I haven't looked hard, either. A good bio shows where you start off.
Then they volunteer to become the line cook at the McDonald's of government and they promise to expand the menu and add nice soy protein across the board for our own good.
And these days more than a few of the customers are asking: Where's The Beef?