At a Harvard Kennedy School conference last week, John Deutch, the former director of central intelligence and deputy secretary of defense who is now an institute professor at MIT, challenged his friend Joseph Nye to complete an unusual “assignment.” Nye — a former senior Pentagon official, a Harvard University distinguished service professor, and former dean of the Kennedy School — has now handed in his homework. We hope this kicks off a useful discussion among those concerned about governance in the United States. Readers are invited to use the comment form at the end of this post to contribute their views and join this debate.
My friend John Deutch has challenged me to explain the breakdown of governance in the United States and to identify what can be done about our capacity to deal with it.
The problems are real, but “breakdown” is too strong a word to describe them, and it is important to put current problems in historical perspective. The founders deliberately designed American government to be inefficient with checks, balances, and delays. As the joke goes, it was designed so King George could not rule over us — nor anyone else. Some argue that an inefficient 18th century design cannot cope with 21st century global problems like the rise of Asia or the transnational diffusion that I describe in The Future of Power. However, our inefficient system has coped with even greater problems in the past with only one serious breakdown a century and a half ago.
A little over a decade ago, the Kennedy School Visions of Governance Project published a book entitled Why People Don’t Trust Government. We found that over the long view of American history, the anomaly was overconfidence in government in the 1950s and early 1960s, not low levels thereafter. The sharpest decline occurred over four decades ago in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Yet the Internal Revenue Service sees no increase in cheating on taxes and the World Bank gives the U.S. a high score ( above the 90th percentile) on “control of corruption.” Behavior does not seem to have changed as dramatically as have responses to poll questions.
John is correct that effective governance combines rational and political dimensions, but in a democracy the latter comes first. It is much easier to build high speed rail lines in China where there are few lawyers and weak property rights. John is also correct that intense partisan politics in the US is cyclical and goes all the way back to the founding fathers.
In recent years, however, American politics and political institutions have become more polarized than the distribution of opinion in the American public where political opinion is roughly a normal distribution. As The Economist put it, “America’s political structure was designed to make legislation at the federal level difficult, not easy. Its founders believed that a country the size of America is best governed locally, not nationally….So the basic system works; but that is no excuse for ignoring areas where it could be reformed.”
Among the remedies that I support:
(1) Address systemic obstacles, such as gerrymandered safe seats in the House of Representatives and the blocking procedures of Senate rules and filibusters, to improve the political process in a way that would make compromises (such as the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction plan) easier to achieve;
(2) realize that many policy problems (such as cyber security) require partnerships with the private sector;
(3) encourage more lateral entry into government bureaucracies than is currently possible under antiquated civil service laws;
(4) train young people to develop the contextual intelligence to move effectively among public, private and non-profit sectors while contributing to public value; and
(5) persuade academics to use blogs, new media and other efforts to prevent policy discourse from being totally dominated by the shouting matches on the “infotainment news” cycles. None of these answers is sufficient but if they stimulate others, perhaps John’s challenge can draw wisdom from the democratic crowd.
(This virtual debate is the second edition of The Power Problem, an occasional series of mini-forums on Power & Policy, asking specialists from the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School to suggest policy responses by the United States to pressing world issues.)