What is Going On in Washington DC?
If it weren't so tragic it would be funny. I'm not worried about whether or not the government stays shut down, or even that the US should default on its promises. The return to recession is not going to be prevented by avoiding these possibilities. It is baked into the cake. No, I am worried about the implications of some of the most “powerful” people in the world acting like absolute idiots (on all sides). I see no evidence of even a small smattering of sapience in any of the decisions being made in Washington. In my opinion the Tea Party members of Congress are demonstrating the antithesis of sapience right now. But I see nothing in the balance of the Republicans or the Democratic leaderships either. And the president doesn't get a pass either. The US government is broken because those people are there because of the democratic process that led to their selection.
What is most worrying about it is that the citizens who sent them to Washington seem not to have a clue. The people get the government they deserve.
In Feb. 2008 I ran a series of posts critiquing democracy and how it works as a system for choosing who will participate in the governance process. The first, “Might we have gotten it wrong about democracy?”, asked that question and examined a microcosm of democratic governance in the form of academic institutions. It considered how real people make decisions in situation where they are expected to have the competence (or so they think) but do not, in fact. I examined the way in which the academy's “shared governance” model is failing to work. Using this microcosm as an example of the larger problems with democratic (or representative democracies) politics and governance. I concluded: “...government would work if people were wise.” If they were wise they would be able to meet the minimum requirements for an electorate to choose capable people to represent them in their governments.
The second post, “How is representative democracy working out for us in the modern world?,” pointed out some of the cognitive issues that produce obstacles to a viable democratic process. A big problem is the cognitive load, or overload, that modern people under due to the complexity of modern society and especially technology. I said, “The concept of democracy depends on citizens who understand the issues and the way things work.” The modern world is overwhelming to the vast majority of citizens. The coping mechanisms that have been adopted by so many have made it impossible for democracy to work.
Finally, I posted “If not democracy, then what?” In that post I introduced an alternate way to look at governance from the perspective of hierarchical cybernetic theory (and mentioned how it operates in many natural systems). In a separate series of posts, “Sapient Governance,” I followed up with a description of that alternate perspective. In all of these I have given evidence that the current system is failing badly given the context of the modern, technological world, overpopulated world. I have argued that the real underlying cause is that humans only evolved a primitive level of sapience (the attribute that makes us different from all other animals) that is simply inadequate in this world. Democracy depends on capacities in the electorate that are simply not being met, and the people they are sending to office are no better able to make good judgments.
A Knowledgeable, Informed, and Thoughtful Electorate
Democracy can only work if the electorate has these capabilities. Granted that the environment has a lot to do with how these are actualized. For example, to be knowledgeable depends somewhat on the education system. I say somewhat because I know many people who survived the modern school-based education system and came out knowledgeable in spite of it! A fundamental aspect of sapience is sensing that you do not know and then seeking information that helps you self-educate.
Nevertheless, the education system is responsible for literally squashing curiosity in the young minds while training them to simply memorize what will be on the test and calling it education. Notice I said the education system. There are many fine and capable educators out there who understand this problem from personal experience. But the system determines punishments and rewards to teachers. In the university we have student evaluation surveys at the end of each term. Students fill out a bubble sheet of Likert scaled questions meant to evaluate how the teacher has done and the quality of the course. Aside from the many obvious criticisms of this approach (its validity in measuring quality of teaching and curriculum) administrators rely on the outcomes when deciding on those rewards and punishments. The high schools have done a great job of teaching students that the game is actually teach/learn to the test, which is actually fairly straightforward and devoid of any real cognitive work on either the teacher or the student. When they get to college, they expect the same sort of system, one they now know how to game for the coin of the realm - grades. The most common question I get from freshmen is, “Is this going to be on the test?” The most common complaint I get, even from juniors, is that my courses are not structured enough (take a look at my syllabi and tell where they get that notion). The fact is that many of my colleagues seem to have acquiesced to this game and especially in order to get tenure and promotion they teach from the textbook to the tests. Those students generally give better grades to their teachers! Fortunately for me, I got tenure before the No Child Left Behind (at the bottom all alone - keep them all there) mentality with its standardized tests providing the measure of success, had yet had a major impact on students' attitudes. The student evaluations from that time reflected that many students appreciated the greater rigor of college and expected to have to work at thinking and integrating knowledge. My scores while still an assistant professor reflected that. Even then, administrators were happy to take the expedient path of evaluating teaching on the basis of this one measure.
We now have seen several high school graduating classes come to college after the NCLB-standardized testing (high stakes testing) has left its mark on the culture of high school. And we have seen new junior faculty who need good evaluations in order to get tenured quickly pick up on how to play the game (this also goes for lecturers who have to get their contracts renewed). Indeed some of them actually went to high school as the transition to the game was underway and so know very well what to do.
So just how knowledgeable is the citizenry that has been emerging out of our education system over the last two decades? There are numerous studies now that indicate that most are not very well educated when it comes to critical thinking. Indeed they are not even educated about facts. I asked some freshmen how the three branches of government (US) interacted systemically as we tried to model a governance system. Over half could not remember what all three branches were let alone how they interacted. They would say things like, “the president, the cabinet, and the senate.” I don't know but that doesn't sound promising to me. When I corrected them and showed them the model they all then suddenly remembered that they covered something like that in civics courses, but it was so dull they didn't pay attention. At least they were honest about their experience. But seriously, this same thing has been shown for college graduates and people who have worked for years after college.
So strike out one for democracy. Over forty percent of the American population don't “believe” in evolution, as if it was an option to believe in. Though the number is growing smaller, at one point more than half of American citizens didn't “believe” in human-caused global warming. But now that it is too late to seriously do anything meaningful about it, the freaky weather patterns that are taking over have got more of them believing. The point is that none of these people were in a position to critically evaluate the evidence and the science.
Strike out two — informed electorate. To have an informed electorate you need an information system that actually works. Here I would put much more blame on the modern main-stream media. It is supposed to be their job to detect the changes in our societies, analyze the causes, and report unbiased to the public. How does Fox News measure up to that? But Fox News is an abhorrent example. They are driven by ideology to begin with. The other networks, even including National Public Radio and TV are culpable for a slightly different reason. Their approach to reporting has been shaped by the markets. For-profit networks have to publish what sells to gain eyeballs and thus advertising dollars. PBS and NPR never have sufficient resources and so often rely on commercial news feeds for their content as well.
Let me give you an example of misinformation that has gripped the media of late and has had an influence on public media as well. For the past year or more the ideas of energy independence for the US and vast resources of oil and gas, albeit in tight shale plays, have been filling the papers and airways. The story is downright false. Even as I write this some of the early plays are winding down because the availability of oil or gas was tremendously over hyped in the media by the carbon companies because they needed to attract investment capital to stay in business. Those plays, which we were told by the media, would last a hundred years, are already in serious decline and will fall far short of the promises. The media's role in this was to simply parrot what the so-called expert talking heads were feeding them. Those folks, in turn, were in the pockets of the major carbon players. But did anyone in the media stop to critically analyze what they were saying? Of course not. They played the game. Sell advertising spots. Sell viewer/listener support. Tell the audience what they WANT to hear. Even while these stories (which are still circulating even as the plays are starting to decline) were being foisted on the public, there were several researchers who had already determined, scientifically, that the tight gas and oil was just a hyped story. They had the data and the models to prove it. But did any of the media want to listen. Hell no. That isn't the way to sell papers or advertising spots.
So the public's information channels are simply dysfunctional. More misinformation than information is being spread. And in the area of political information it is even worse. The media people have absolutely no concept of critical thinking when it comes to presenting various ideological views. In the so-called interest of fairness to all sides they present Tea Party nut jobs as somehow equivalent to liberal politicians. Well, I guess, in some sense they are equivalent. But more often the liberals show a bit more respect for facts (and science) than do the right wingers.Which leads to strike out three: thoughtfulness. We are a hedonistic species. Given the option of reading a knowledge book or a juicy novel, guess which one most people will choose. Given a choice between going to a lecture on the evolution of plants or going to a NASCAR race, again, which one will most people choose? Entertainment rules. And it really isn't hard to understand why. Start with a pathetic education, a lack of motivation, and a spoiled lifestyle (too many energy slaves) and it isn't really any wonder that people are basically just entertainment/novelty junkies.
We do not teach people how to think. In a sense we really shouldn't need to teach them. The human brain is a natural learning machine. But what we do is teach them how to not think, how to accept what the talking heads and prominent leaders say is true. Since they can't evaluate claims for truth of subjects, competing claims cause a deepening division. Conservatives listen only to conservatives and liberals listen only to liberals. It is much easier than being thoughtful about the claims.
The world has become incredibly complex. And in a sense you can't blame people for wanting to take the easy way out.
All of the institutions that are supposedly there to support citizen development are failing badly. And because they all interact with one another they form a reinforcing loop that is driving us deeper and deeper into ignorance, disinformation, and simple hedonistic responses, the antitheses of what it takes to be successful in democratic governance.
What we have ended up with is a governance system that is broken (in my opinion beyond repair). We get the likes of James Inhofe, senator from Oklahoma as Chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. The guy consistently claims the global warming is the greatest left-wing hoax ever perpetrated on the American public. In order to make that claim work, of course, he has had to accuse the entire legitimate climate science community of lying about climate impacts and change. Explain to me how this could ever happen if our democracy is working.
As another example of the sorry state of affairs in government take a look at this article about Congressman Paul Broun, a member of the House Science Committee dismissing evolution. This is not an aberration, unfortunately. Most of the members of the House and many in the Senate do not understand or believe that evolution is the explanation for all biodiversity and our origins as a species of animal. Please explain to me how this man and others like him (and many her's such as Michele Bachmann, a Republican representative who rails against homosexuality as being against god's plan) can make thoughtful and knowledge-based decisions.
The Absence of Sufficient Sapience
You cannot point to any one aspect or institution and say, “There, that is the prime cause of everything else going wrong.” Everything ‘causes’ everything else. It is a great recurrent web of interactions and positive feedback loops that exist because the actors in all of these institutions are human beings — Homo callidus (formerly sapiens). We are so clever we can figure out, subconsciously of course, how to avoid facts that don't support our a priori held beliefs and find pseudo-facts that support them. And therein is the problem. If there is a cause it isn't the cultural and structural elements of the system, it is the actors and decision makers, and benefactors of the system and their lack of sufficient sapience to deal with this complex world that we have created. The few examples we have of more highly sapient beings are not selfish, hedonistic, narcissistic beings. They are more often cooperative, moral, selfless, and thoughtful. They care about others and they think about the future of everyone. They would desire to help make things better if possible. But they also recognize when the systems aren't working. Unfortunately, the vast majority of people on this planet are inherently low in sapience and that is why they dominate the system.
But there again it isn't even our fault! We didn't decide to be low sapients. Blame evolution. Blame natural selection that led us to agriculture where a different set of selection pressures may have started us losing much of the sapience we had evolved up to that point. It does little good to bemoan our situation. It is what it is. I just would like to understand it better, I guess, to satisfy my curiosity.
I don't write this stuff to point out what the problems are and thereby find solutions anymore. I have long ago realized that the system simply is what it is and it will continue in a dynamic that was set in motion by the evolution of Homo callidus and will lead to, I think, the evolution of Homo eusapiens in the distant future. You and I and our whole human-culture system are just milestones along the path. We can't be saved, preserved forever. We should not be saved in the sense of preserving the population and going on with business as usual. The essence of humanness, the sapient, abstract symbol processing, tool making, creatures that evolved on this planet does not depend on the current species existing forever. But that essence needs to be saved (if we can). Some of our kind need to succeed in persisting beyond what will surely be a massive population bottleneck event so that the seed of a new, emergent species will be available when the time is right.
Keep your fingers crossed.
Meanwhile try to enjoy the comedy-tragedy that is Washington DC, and for that matter, every other national capital in the world. Washington is probably just the most dramatic because it was the most powerful capital in history. All good things must come to an end eventually.