Of Projects and Plans

How could it be that less than 20% of Americans think that “government is working?” It would seem more projectable, (given our grand political divide) that roughly a third of us would always be happy with our government, another third deeply discouraged, and the last third deciding on their “governmental happiness equation” on a day-to-day basis. But that is hardly our current state.  Effectively, no one is pleased with Washington. And most of us, for all our native temperance, are downright angry.

How did we get here?

The seemingly obvious answer to the question is a function of our experienced pain. When we hurt, we want someone to blame. Given the high profile of the Federal Government, they have become the natural target. The current administration, in demanding this lofty and exalted-profile, set themselves up as a complete goat if their grand schemes deliver short of expectations. And our current situation is clearly very long on expectations and very short on results. But, that is not enough to draw the level of governmental disdain that we are now experiencing.

Americans, common-sensical creatures that we are, are sensing a much more fundamental operation of angst. Simply stated, we all see a very large and bloody wound, and what we are being offered as the bandage is a small sampling of one-inch Band-Aids. Instead of being offered a coherent and understandable long-term plan to solve for our issues, we are being offered “projects” and “programs” and more empty platitudes. We all understand the difference between plans and projects. A project is planting an azalea bush in my back yard…to replace the one that died. A plan is a set of drawings done by a landscape architect that shows what the future of my backyard might actually look like.

And thus we find our current state of despair and loathing. We all know that governments can establish a “set of rules” by which the system can operate. We generally see the role of government as then periodically tweaking those rules to best fit our constantly emerging situation. Government provides a framework within which the real work of the people can be conducted. They, the government, create an environment where the planning is done by all of the non-governmental institutions, with the government restricted to the maintenance of the framework and an occasional, and usually misguided, project or two.

Enter our current situation.

The Federal Government has now been transmogrified into a large and pernicious operating unit within the economy. More importantly, it is an operating unit with exceptionally large and endemic problems. They are the type of large problems for which long-term planning is required to enable the constituent stakeholders to believe that they can actually be fixed. The problem is that the democratic system of government is almost completely incompetent in creating these long-term plans. That is why the Founders knew that the framework was not only essential, but essentially, and by design, very limiting.

The kind of long-term planning that businesses do is anathema to democracies. Autocracies can do long-term planning. Families can do long-term planning. Businesses do long-term planning. Democracies are not designed to do long-term planning. Democracies were designed to avoid the need for planning…because governmental planning within a democracy (or anywhere else for that matter) does not work.

Enter the “Great Unease.”

We have now all concluded that we need to agree on a coherent and executable plan to dig ourselves out of our economic hole. At the same time, we see ourselves arguing and disagreeing ad nauseum over the simplest tactical and short-term details of running the government. The need is to figure out where the family is actually going on vacation, call it “the destination.” And yet  as the members of the family cannot even agree on the choice of luggage, everything is rendered subject to question and uncertainty.

In the grand history of American democracy, no one has ever believed that consensus within government would be easy. What we have historically agreed to is that the objects of our disagreements would be at the framework-level and not the operating-level. We have been willing to negotiate on the rules, but not on the “running” or the system. And this is true not because the government cannot effectively run anything (it cannot, but that is not the point.) The point is rather that when an institution becomes an operator, it must have a plan. And our form of government is not built for creating and ratifying effective long-term plans.

The American people are both intelligent and appreciative of our system of freedoms. They are now cognizant that the government has moved from making-the-rules to running-the-system. We are now in political la-la land. We either need a new autocratic form of government or we need our democracy back. The government needs to become the economic planner for the economy, or we have to exit the government from that function. Our decision on that matter is yet uncertain, but the opinion surveys well-reflect that our current state is both emotionally and economically untenable.

Our attitude towards our government will only improve once that seminal decision is made… once again.

 

About the Author

Mr. Nygaard is a Managing Director with Atticus Advisers, a marketing consulting firm in Atlanta, Georgia.

 

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