Monday, November 01, 2010

The Simple Solution

A couple of months ago, I came home to discover my son and his friend toying with a small brainteaser puzzle while taking a break from homework. Both of these boys are high magnitude techno geeks. They gobble up calculus together. Each of them has native genius that far exceeds my own somewhere-around-average level. Yet the boys were highly frustrated with a child’s toy.

We’ve all played with brainteaser puzzles where tiny silver spheres must be guided to destination spots in some type of sealed plastic maze. This particular oblong puzzle was about three inches long with a curved bottom surface. It contained two spheres that were to end up in small divots at the two extreme ends of the puzzle. The curved bottom caused the balls to gravitate to the center. The divots were such that the boys could keep only one ball successfully in place at a time.

At the encouragement of the boys, I tried my hand at the puzzle, only to run into the same difficulty experienced by the boys. It didn’t take me long to set the puzzle aside. As it sat on the kitchen counter for the next couple of days, pretty much every member of the family took a number of unsuccessful shots at solving it.

One day I came home from work and got a drink of water in the kitchen. As I was standing there with my cup, staring at the puzzle, a childish though occurred to me. The puzzle easily rocked on its curved bottom. But in my mind’s eye I could see the puzzle spinning on the counter. I thought it would be fun.

Nobody was around to see me playing with the thing. So I quickly gave the puzzle a spin. The two silver balls immediately migrated to opposite ends of the puzzle and each fell into its respective divot. I smiled to myself both out of a sense of pleasure and out of recognition of my own stupidity.

I was pleased to have discovered the simple solution to the puzzle (by accident). But it chagrined me to realize I had been unable to detect the obvious solution. Instead of observing the nature of the puzzle to derive the readily visible answer, I automatically tried to solve the thing by employing the same unsuccessful method that the boys had been trying.

How often do we approach life matters in this way? We try to solve issues by employing manifestly unsuccessful approaches, thinking that success will come by tweaking this or that. When the actual answer is to step back and observe the actual nature of the thing to see the solution that is in plain sight.

I thought of this as I read pollster Scott Rasmussen’s WSJ article about the thumping Democrats are going to take in tomorrow’s mid-term elections. It’s not a question of whether the outcome will be bad for Democrats. It’s only a question of how bad it’s going to be.

It has been difficult to ignore the fact that many Republicans over the past few months have been positively giddy about the political tide that is now moving strongly in the party’s favor. Pre-election GOP gloating has been almost as bad as it was among the Democrats two years ago.

The solution, many Republican stalwarts have assured us, is tweaking the political system a bit to move it to the right. Rasmussen, on the other hand, assures us that Republicans are not winning this election. Rather, Democrats are losing it. They are losing it much as Republicans lost the 2006 mid-term election two years ago. The only thing voters currently detest more than the Republican Party is the Democratic Party. But how long can it be before the shoe ends up on the other foot? As Rasmussen says, “This reflects a fundamental rejection of both political parties.”

Few pundits on any side seem to have noted that Americans are now in a pattern of voting against the party in power. This massive thrashing from party to party is occurring at the most rapid pace in the history of the nation. The stunningly obvious answer is that Americans are voting against, as Rasmussen put it, “a bipartisan political elite that's lost touch with the people they are supposed to serve.”

Americans are not looking for more political solutions. They are lashing out against political solutions. Rasmussen seriously quips, “Voters today want hope and change every bit as much as in 2008. But most have come to recognize that if we have to rely on politicians for the change, there is no hope.”

I can only assume that Rasmussen is drawing on polling data when he claims that “Americans instinctively understand that if we can unleash the collective wisdom and entrepreneurial spirit of the American people, there are no limits to what we can accomplish.”

It seems to me that there are plenty of Americans that are willing to ride the dependency gravy train to whatever destination it will take them, as long as they have the promise of a seat that appears comfier than the ones in the vehicle of self responsibility. Never mind the facts that somebody else has to pay for the seat and that the seat comes complete with shackles.

Rasmussen’s final dig is likely to be lost on politicians, its intended audience:

“Elected politicians also should leave their ideological baggage behind because voters don't want to be governed from the left, the right, or even the center. They want someone in Washington who understands that the American people want to govern themselves.”
Turning more governance to individuals works directly against the interests of politicians. Whether they admit it to themselves or not, politicians tend to choose political involvement because it is a way to accumulate power — ostensibly power over the lives of others. Few conceive of devolving power back to others as the way to amass greater power for themselves.

Our Founders developed the Constitution as a contract that tried to grant the central government just enough power to be effective while thwarting its capacity for tyranny. Statists have successfully chipped away at the effective application of the document over the years through legislative, executive, judicial, and bureaucratic systems. There is always a perfectly “sensible” reason for finding this or that element irresponsibly restrictive. This has led to ever increasing centralization of power, no matter which party is in control.

The centralization of power has become so deeply culturally and systemically entrenched that it is now on autopilot. There is no simple way to turn it off. Asking politicians to go to Washington and work to reduce their own power is a fool’s game. While they will no doubt excel at posturing, trying to fix the system this way is akin to trying to solve the brainteaser puzzle by repeatedly employing the same unsuccessful approach.

Rasmussen is correct that many Americans simply want the politicians — left, right, and other — out of their lives. But are there enough Americans that think strongly this way to make a real difference? And does anyone see the obvious simple solution?

As I see it, there are two likely ways to return power to the people. Both of them come down to taking power back from the political establishment. One is to actively fight. The other is to marginalize the establishment by ignoring them and turning them off. Admittedly, this second approach could land us back with the first approach.

Neither of these approaches is as easy as spinning a toy. Both are fraught with serious problems. I’m not sure that Americans are really at the boiling point yet where either of these solutions is feasible. Maybe a few more rapid thrashing cycles will do it. Maybe not. But one thing should be obvious. Regardless of party affiliation, Washington politics is not the solution; it is the problem.

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