Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Politics of Patterns

Here is an interesting piece of research that just passed by my desk:

Here's a policy -- essentially allowing people to take care of themselves and loved ones -- that is likely seen as yet another left/right issue, where the left cares all about "people" and "their needs" and the right cares about "business competitiveness" and "lazy employees" taking advantage of the system. 

Our political system is so predictable that it indicates to me that we are no longer really looking at issues anymore -- we're only looking at patterns.   And if we're looking at patterns, then what we're really doing is slotting in any given issue into a pre-defined template that has been established in prior political fights.  

This reminds me of one of candidate Obama's key themes, which was that we keep on re-fighting old battles in this country, which is really not moving us forward. 

We're kind of stuck.

Of course, there are real legitimate reasons for disagreement around a policy such as government-mandated sick leave rights for workers.  But the legitimate reasons are largely based on institutionalized distrust of either side's ability to craft policy that doesn't serve their own power-bases' interest first over that of general society. 

For instance, if Democrats craft this policy, it will likely not include enough protections for the small business owner to mitigate fraud and abuse of this new federally-mandated benefit.  And, at a minimum, the Democrats won't frame the language as such to assuage Republicans that they "get" how much small business owners live in fear and distrust of any government control of how they run their businesses -- after all, many have put their entire economic future on the line with the risk of starting up a business.   And the punch line is that Republicans would never even think of crafting such a policy in the first place, as it would tarnish their brand credibility with their important small business and libertarian constituencies.

So, that covers the institutional problem with modern-day politics.  Now let's briefly get into the dynamics of the policy debate itself:

Putting on the analytical hat, both sides have legitimate points:  The research states that a healthier society provides more security to -- and freedom for -- workers, and the counter is that any federally-imposed mandate is ripe for abuse and fraud, and takes another bite out of the freedom of a small business owner to run their business as they see fit.  Yet, I would argue that both sides wouldn't disagree that providing more flexibility -- nay, freedom -- for employees wouldn't be such a bad thing if there were no downside. 

The difference between the two sides is in the assumption set.  If Democrats are ever going to get pro-business and libertarian people on-board with these work/life balance policies, the policy needs to take in account the real issues with implementing a cushion for the workforce.  These issues include people taking advantage of a cushion policy (imagine if 1/2 the employees see this as a federally-mandated 7-day paid vacation, thereby abusing the spirit of the law), and the perceptions that government-enforced policies take control away from the risk-taking, hard-working entrepreneurs (thinking primarily smallbiz here, as corporations can more easily withstand these types of policies).  In addition, the symbolic nature of this type of government mandate rubs completely against the libertarian/small business culture in this country.  Pro-worker policies also works against our not-so-honorable-yet-absolutely-real history of taking advantage of underprivileged immigrant groups.  The other part of history -- the rise and successes of labor unions -- is not seen as so triumphant these days due to the overall poor image that unions now embody. 

Yet, if there is a broad agreement that this research is correct -- that providing workers with more freedom to take care of themselves and loved ones while being employed is a good thing for our society -- then all the activity and politics around this issue will not be focused on what we agree upon; and the policy will be crafted around the politics of passage, not the original intent of the legislation. 

This goes back to trust and powerful interest groups.  In the end, the elected power base will typically push through good ideas, poorly.   Which, ultimately, makes the idea itself look bad.  Which then informs the next debate.   Which, of course, loops us back to the notion that we're battling patterns at this point, not real problems. 

So, I've now outlined my views on some of the systemic issues facing our current politics in the context of a single issue facing our society.   If readers have any ideas or suggestions on how to address the current situation, the blogosphere is listening...