I write about the things that matter to me. All opinions are my own.

Search This Blog

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Bureaucracy's Drive To Survive Keeps The Debt Crisis Alive


It's pretty obvious to me, looking at the collapse of the debt talks, that something is deeply wrong with our society.

It's like everybody knows this, everybody wants to do something about it, but nobody can seem to figure out exactly what to do.

Interestingly, if you ask people on the individual level to describe the status quo, what's wrong, and how to fix it - you will usually get a pretty intelligent response.

But when you assemble those individuals together and ask them to run large social institutions as a group - more often than not they fail. Doesn't matter if we're talking business, government, education, healthcare, correctional facilities, you name it. The reality is that groups tend toward dysfunction. Because it is a law of groups that they develop a collective consciousness that literally turns the system into a separate, distinct entity. One that perpetuates its own survival - even at the cost of its members.

On a micro level, you see this very often with parents and children. The parents are there to nurture the child's development. You would think that this automatically makes for happiness. But instead, the typical Thanksgiving table is a petri dish of personal misery.

Take it a step beyond - go bigger. Think about the implications of this statement: The very bureaucracies that are supposed to be most efficient at running society, end up adding to the social burden. Creating more problems than they solve.

Again, this is not unique to any bureaucracy but common because we are programmed for survival. The large institution perpetuates its own existence, even at the expense of the mission it is supposed to serve. So if a particular individual within the large institution has, let's say, a way to get the mission done faster, better, cheaper and with half the personnel and budget - the institution will of course resist this. What the group wants is more: more budget, more power, more reason to exist. Not less, not fewer, not the equivalent of the group's death.

The connection with the debt ceiling and other current social problems is obvious. The problem is not what it seems on the surface. We are defining it incorrectly. America is a smart country. We can get this fixed and fix it quickly. We've faced crises before and we can do it again.

The problem, unfortunately, is that correcting the economy is going to mean the death blow - or at least critical injury - to some big social institutions. Perhaps, even, we will end up rejecting the axiom that only large, complex groups with massive funding are capable of administering a particular social function.

In other words, what is at stake on all sides of the aisle is survival. Are the parties to this traffic accident willing to impale themselves on the sword for the sake of doing what needs doing? Are they willing to tell the highly coordinated, massively funded groups to whom they owe their existence: "Back off. We are doing what needs to be done." (?)

No.

Would you?

I wrote a column the other day about horrible bosses (the movie and the reality) and somebody commented that a friend had done some pretty nasty things, firing and all that, because he saw it as part of the job. He felt he had no choice but to survive. So he became a person he didn't want to be. As a part of the system that paid his bills, his own individual ethics, beliefs, values were subordinate to the paycheck.

Every time I've seen a big problem get solved - an individual did it. Or a very small, tightly coordinated group, working closely together. These forces detoxify the system that created the problem by doing an end-run around its dysfunctional logic. They blast through the walls. They just don't care about anything but GETTING IT DONE.

An example of someone who gets it - and was punished for her excellence in furthering the mission - is Michelle Rhee, the former Chancellor of the D.C. Public Schools. Rhee dared to insist that the schools actually perform the mission for which they are being paid by the public: Teach children. And every single thing she did left me applauding.

Why don't we have more people like Michelle Rhee running our social institutions? People who think straight and simple and clear, who do what has to be done, who don't quibble and waffle and blame the other person for their screwups.

The answer is not, as one may think, the ego of the leaders themselves. Although we could have the discussion of whether leaders are inherently narcissistic egotists whose personalities are designed for the deflection of all blame and the seeking of all spotlight.

Rather, the problem is that big institutions reward constipated thinking. While incrementalism can be a good thing - enabling correction of mistakes before they are rolled out on such a large scale that they become disasters - and enabling a massive system to absorb the change - it is also not suitable when the problem being faced requires a radical adjustment.

We are in that kind of situation right now.

Unless this country radically changes direction - detoxifying our thinking about the problems themselves and the range of options available to solve them - we are going to keep lumbering along until someone chops us off at the knees and we fall.

I am a Jewish-American, and my family was brutalized during the Holocaust. My grandparents had to run. And eventually my parents settled here, together. Giving me a beautiful life, for which I am extremely grateful. I work for the government, which to me is an incredible honor, and has sensitized me tremendously to the urgent need to take care of each other; the pressure for institutional survival; and the diversity of the groups that share our nation. I also teach students from many different countries. All of us are grateful to be citizens here.

This is all the more reason that I am worried about our collective future. I try to think aloud in the hope that some of this can be used as part of the solution to our problems. Railing for or against Big Government or Big Business or what have you does not help anything. Constructive action does.

Long way of saying, I want to look around and think, as the song says, "the future's so bright I've got to wear shades." But the way things are going, I see extremism on all sides, potentially devolving into chaos and "every man (woman) for himself" type thinking.

I often wish we could remember where good fortune comes from - not really our efforts. We are only asked to try. The One above sustained the Jewish people in the desert with only a mythical food for sustenance. G-d can do anything. It's when we sink to the lowest common denominator that we are smitten with punishment.

So let us get up, support each other, and make our society better. Forget the hatred and division and start working together. It's not about "group vs. group" but keeping humanity intact - as one.

Have a good weekend everyone, and good luck!

_______

Image source here