In 1987 I looked out on a very strange scene. Its appearance was both worldly and otherworldly.
I was looking north across the demilitarized zone (DMZ) that separates the two Koreas. My angle of view, North Korea—the land of the Kim family (“eternal leaders of Korea”), where sleight of hand is a government imperative. North Korea, while largely impoverished, is at the DMZ made to look majestic— “all hat, no cattle.”
While Korea might feature one of the best-known sleights of hand, it is a world-wide phenomenon. Russia, today, must show the world it has taken a hit and come up stronger. The economic sanctions occasioned by Russia’s brutal attack on Ukraine are said not to hurt that much. The numbers that are crunched by various macro-economists come from Russia and are too often published as truth. The truth is that the fact-checkers at various publications have no idea what the numbers really are.
And in the United States the Jackson, Mississippi’s water system has been on the road to disaster for some number of years. How do I know? Well, a properly maintained water system does not abruptly fail, regardless of flood waters.
Have you ever heard a candidate for Mayor or Governor or President campaign on “maintenance”—worrying more about the interior than the façade? Or, trumpet a larger “depreciation reserve”? Or, begin or end a campaign speech promising that if he/she is elected they will make sure critical infrastructure is stress-tested and that maintenance schedules will be rigorous? I wonder how many waste treatment facilities are in good shape.
I know, competence is not persuasive. It is technocratic. So, we elect people whose sleight of hand suggests all will be well if we follow their eight-point plan. How many visionaries do we want to elect and fund? We are, too often, dupes.
When we elect a legislator to become a commanding executive it is as if we are hiring a newly licensed driver to truck our household belongings halfway across the country. Maybe it will work, but probably it won’t.
I would like to think America has turned the page. Not by falling in love with technocrats, but beginning to understand information (what is working or not) and choosing hands-on experience over a quick tongue.
Political contests are often defined as a Liberal (or now Progressive) against a Conservative (or now, well who knows). How about a fact-based differentiation, if not in the rhetoric, in our choices?
Perhaps Conservatives who fear runaway government might pay more attention to candidates who deliver, who know what the word productivity means. Who have an operational sense of how productivity measures might be applied in spending our money and patience. It might also make sense to understand taxes and triage. At some point reducing taxes simply adds to our long-term debt; maybe triage (prioritizing treatment) would prove useful.
On the Progressive side, theories should be tested against the real world. We have fifty laboratories (called States). It is fine to be for this and that, but how do you make it work? What will be the proof of efficacy? If billions are spent, what do we get in return? If we are going to scale up, where is a smaller scale version working? If social engineering seems justified, has the likelihood of unintended consequences been fully considered?
And to be even more current, how does a loan portfolio intended to make humans more productive (student loans) end up bankrupt?
But, let me return to Asia. Taiwan is about the size of Maryland. China is 267 times larger. Taiwan’s size: 35,980 square kilometers. In North Asia or perhaps the world, these are some of the most productive square kilometers. If China is to remain a formidable presence, it will nurture its relationship with Taiwan not bomb it. If Xi Jinping takes the Vladimir Putin approach he will, like Putin, be one of history’s most vivid failures.
President George W. Bush’s presidency offers a lesson. He decided he could manage Afghanistan and then Iraq. Not just defeat them, but make them democracies and allied ones at that. Failure was embedded.
In a democracy we choose our leaders. The choices we are presented are always made less clear by the marketing war that precedes election day. Perhaps we should pay more attention to what they did or didn’t do before they filed their papers to appear on the ballot.
North Korea features family succession. The United States features the will of the people. We need to do a better job.
Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al writes on themes from his book, Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books.