You have to bear with me on this one. I don’t find my way to the real point for a bit, but I do get there. I’m really looking for ideas.
Years ago, I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The book was a good read and I remember enjoying it. It made me think about some things I had taken for granted. Only one thing from that book, however, stayed with me. The book chronicles a cross country motorcycle trip of discovery by a father and son. While waiting for repairs to be done on their motorcycles in a small town in Montana, the father suggests that the son draw a picture of the old Jail in town. The son looks at the jail from where he is sitting across the street and declares (paraphrasing), “I can’t draw that. It is too complicated.” To which, the father replies, “Sure you can. Just draw one brick at a time.” Every time I am overwhelmed by the scope of a task, I remember to look at it one brick at a time.
I am currently overwhelmed by the task of being a good citizen and doing my part to right the wrongs in our country today. The list is long and varied. Our economy is weaker than it has been at any time in my life. Family values, integrity and ethics seem to be only old-fashioned notions that don’t fit in our modern society. Our country seems to be more about sizzle than steak – paying entertainers millions of dollars a year while teachers and nurses and secretaries and farm workers make little over minimum wage, it seems. Our Constitution and our Borders and Security seem to be under constant and determined attack. We don’t trust our government yet we continue to turn over more of our responsibilities to government. Our public education system seems to be turning out a product that can’t compete in today’s world while the cost of providing that education soars through the roof. We are living longer but are less healthy. We have unprecedented communications networks and tools, yet we don’t talk to one another. The list would fill a book.
Peggy Noonan wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal a few days ago that talked about the discouragement of the American People. She concludes that we, for the first time as a nation, see problems we can’t fix, not challenges that drive us to greater accomplishments. She points the finger at our leadership in politics and business and she may be right. Though I am often discouraged by our times, I remain an optimist and of the belief that there is no challenge too big for the American People.
So, maybe what I (we) need to do is draw one brick at a time. If Peggy Noonan is right, maybe the best place to start is with government and political leadership. It makes sense to start here since Federal Government spending, alone, accounted for over 37% of the U.S. GDP in 2008 (far more now with Trillion Dollar Stimulus and Health care programs). I ask my self, what is the best way to make our political leadership more responsive to the people, not the lobbiests, and how can we take back much of the control of our lives that we have ceded to government. Let’s start with a discussion of some ideas that would change our government and our politicians into the people’s tools and assets from the current state where our government and our politicians control much of what we do and consume much of the fruit of our labors without a reasonable return.
First Brick: The mayor of the small town of Silverton, Oregon may be on to something. He is proposing that the State legislature meet, not in the Capital city of Salem, but, in public teleconferences with each representative remaining in his or her district and participating in a space accessible to the public. What would this do? Well, currently, if a private citizen wants to participate in a legislative discussion, he or she must discover when and where (in Salem) the hearing/debate is to occur, must drive there (as much as a 12 hour drive, each way), sign up for a two minute comment period (if any are available after all the Salem residents – read lobbiests – have signed up), and then drive home. With a remote site teleconference legislature, if a person wanted to lobby your local legislator, he, the lobbiest, would need to go to where you live and get in line behind you to make himself heard. The technology is certainly available and would likely cost less than physically getting all the participants to Salem for each meeting. What do you think? Give me your thoughts pro and con about this idea.
Second Brick: Make politicians “pigs” not “cows” or “chickens.” The old tale is told of the farm animals who loved their farmer so much they decided to prepare a big breakfast for him as a thank you. The cow suggested that she, the cow, would contribute milk and butter to the feast, the chickens could donate some eggs,and the pig could give some bacon. Only the pig really has any skin in that game. Why do we have a ‘pigs and chickens’ system where politicians pass laws by which we must abide while they operate under different rules? The pig would never suggest having bacon because it is his flesh. What would happen to you if, like Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, you were caught not having paid over $25,000 in taxes for a two year period? How do we get politicians to live by the laws they create? How do we make them live with the consequences of their actions?
Third Brick: What would happen if Members of Congress had a strictly limited budget for their offices? Much like England used to do with its House of Commons, where each member of Parliament had an 80,000 pound stipend for staff each year, the member could hire one highly qualified assistant or a few lesser qualified people. The staff of today’s U.S. Congress member is theoretically limited to 18 while Senators have no limit on the number of staff they can employ. Members of Congress spend around $2,000,000 on average for their offices while Senators spend more like $3,000,000. Does this make sense? Does anyone have a better idea? Could their be a staff pool that all legislators would share? Is this even a significant cost to taxpayers?