Read The Gardens of Democracy: A New American Story of Citizenship, the Economy, and the Role of Government Online

Authors: Eric Liu,Nick Hanauer

Tags: #Political Science, #Political Ideologies, #Democracy, #History & Theory, #General

The Gardens of Democracy: A New American Story of Citizenship, the Economy, and the Role of Government (14 page)

BOOK: The Gardens of Democracy: A New American Story of Citizenship, the Economy, and the Role of Government
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We believe, as did FDR, in “bold, persistent experimentation” in government. But today we do not (fortunately) have a world war to distort the experiments. So we have to be far more disciplined in our experimenter’s mindset : We have to be ambitious in our goals, imaginative in our means, ruthless in our evaluations, and aggressive in funding successes and starving failures.
The Elements of a “Big What”
Let’s explore in greater depth, then, the elements of a
big what
for government:
set strategic goals
for the community, whether it’s a nation, state, or city, and to do so with an implicit moral opinion that some outcomes are preferable to others. Clean energy is better than dirty. Going to college is better than not. Real food is better than junk food. Generating credit for productive economic activity is better than casino capitalism. When a market is left to itself, what ensues is an anti-social race to the bottom. The government’s job is to forge broad agreement on goals and set in motion pro-social races to the top.
equip every citizen
with the greatest possible capacity —and equal opportunity—to join in the pursuit of those goals. This begins with common defense and police and courts and so forth. It means spending some of the common wealth—generated by taxes—to improve education and health and to ensure that the disparities between the wealthiest and the poorest never grow so wide that it undermines social mobility. It also means investing heavily where it’s strategic and where national scale is essential, whether that’s physical or technological infrastructure, and where only the government can build a wealth-generating commons that market participants alone would never venture to build.
generate trust
and to encourage cooperation. In a capitalist society, competition is not actually the prime imperative—cooperation is. Trust is the most precious form of capital, generating prosperity and security. That is especially so in a society like ours, so prone to fragmentation along so many lines. One of government’s core purposes is thus the active promotion of trust and creation of social capital—not just a personal ethic of honesty but a collective condition of reciprocity generated by shared experiences. This is why national service matters, and why it should be mandatory: it enables people who wouldn’t otherwise cross paths, let alone work together, to do so. It’s why any government-funded project should require robust collaboration as a condition of funding. It’s why, at a local level, seed funding that helps neighborhood groups get started is a wise investment.
and break up concentrations of wealth and power that are unearned and self-perpetuating. In a non-linear, critical-complexity world like ours, advantage and disadvantage compound rapidly. Inequities of opportunity become self-reinforcing. This entails redistribution of wealth, yes, through progressive taxation. But let’s be very clear. Conservative leaders already rule in such a way as to redistribute wealth—toward the already wealthy. This is not consistent with any idea of America. Market fundamentalists contend that inequality is natural and inevitable. We concede that talent is not equally distributed and outcomes will never be equal. But in true capitalism there is true competition, in which unearned and inherited advantage is leveled so that talent can compete against talent.
Elements of an Effective “Small How”
If government is to do more what and less how, here are some of the ways to approach the
Radically re-localize.
If, as we propose, the federal government is to forge national goals, then it needs also to radically re-localize the means—and, in contrast to the “devolution” of the Reagan era, actually provide robust funding for those local means and intentionally link up all the local experiments. Obama’s Race to the Top education initiative is a good example of combining leverage at a higher level of government in an area of strategic national interest with responsibility and creativity at lower levels. We would go even further. There should be strong national content standards in education, with far more federal education funding. And that funding should then go to a diverse ecosystem of educators who develop a multitude of ways to get kids to the standard. Thus, the parents of each public school should take far more ownership of the quality of the education within the building. That means having more choice about how to staff and run the school, and on what style of pedagogy, but it also means taking more responsibility for the results. Creating high and common standards. Funding them. Pushing authority ever downward. Setting off waves of experimentation. And then forming national, even global, networks to allow the local experiments to learn from one another. In nature, as ecologist Rafe Sagarin has observed, systems that sense change are always decentralized so that threat detection is as local as possible—but then all those local sensors are always connected into networks so that response can be coordinated for the whole. The same approach—creating local laboratories, generating bottom-up innovation, connecting innovators across geographies—should be applied to homeland security, as Sagarin has suggested, to energy policy, health care, economic development, and other arenas. To flip the old creed: think locally, act globally.
Be the citizen’s hardware store.
As government re-localizes authority and responsibility, it must also provide the resources to enable locals to act robustly and to be networked with one another. By resources we do not mean only cash; we mean tools to empower citizens to solve problems on their own: apps that enable citizens and even cities to share information and solutions without middlemen; rewards for leaders who take on the responsibility of organizing Dunbar groups; templates and guides to enable Dunbar groups—aka small groups of citizens—to plant gardens, clean up streets, create business districts; and requirements that government agencies like public libraries be civic connectors and incubators for such activity. In this age of social entre-preneurialism, we also want government to incubate the next Teach for America and the next City Year so that civic innovators can experiment and take successful experiments to scale.
This is a vision that the technology guru Tim O’Reilly has described simply: “government as a platform.” Government should create open standards and systems, and encourage the flowering of citizen-created, data-driven apps. He means this both literally and figuratively, and we agree. Our default settings should shift. Government, wherever possible, should be the catalyst for crowd-sourced citizen action and when necessary, a provider of resources and expertise. Think about a dilapidated city block, with boarded-up buildings, litter, and graffiti. Rather than wait for the municipal government to fix it up, what if neighbors—using tools (both digital and physical) and some funding from the city—organized to fix it up themselves?
Be a smarter prime contractor.
Liberals too often see government as a service provider of first resort. That outlook is inadequate to the times. Government bureaucracies are generally incapable of providing high-quality, low-cost services that adapt to the changing requirements of citizens. At every level, we think the imperative should be to shift responsibility for executing what are now government services to private competitive organizations. This can and should include non-profits, particularly where profit motives in the delivery of social services would be harmful. Government must become a highly disciplined contracting agent with the ability to set standards, create transparency, and hold accountable those who do the work. Wherever possible it should get out of lines of business that it can’t do better than others. Government printing offices are a relic. The licensing of drivers or hunters or boaters should be franchised. As with any franchise model, there’ll be uniform standards of product and service and branding—but local owners of the actual organization will deliver the service.
It’s true that there’s plenty of contracting already happening in government, particularly at the municipal level, and that this privatization has often yielded waste and subpar performance. Too much government contracting today merely replicates the non-adaptive, non-competitive dynamics of government agencies. We are calling on government, like an effective foundation or venture investor, to get far better at running competitions. It has to develop more competence to assess performance, replicate successes, and fire failures. It has to challenge the firms in its operating ecosystem to learn from each other, to improve and exchange practices, to pool resources and leverage learning.
Create and amplify positive feedback loops.
One of the central features of open complex systems like our economy is feedback loops, both good and bad. Government plays a central role in setting both kinds in motion. Governing to anticipate socially destructive feedback loops like financial bubbles or storms of fraud is a central role. But a modern government should seek also to create hurricane-like storms of pro-social activity as well. The national government can and should create prosperity and positive feedback loops by using its capacity to birth new markets through basic research (as DARPA Net begat Google) and to create demand through its enormous buying power and leverage (as should be happening in alternative energy).
Offer pounds and pounds of prevention.
An effective epidemiologist invests more in prevention than in cure, nipping epidemics in the bud rather than trying to contain them after the fact. Every part of government needs to think more like a public health officer: to be mindful always of desired outcomes, track closely trends in behavior, look at the world like a network of networks, identify the key nodes of virulence, and focus energy and effort on those nodes to foster contagions of good and to contain contagions of bad. To put it simply, focus on prevention rather than cure. In the last 20 years, urban policing has moved this way, as shown by the emergence of national coalitions of cops and children’s advocates like Fight Crime, Invest in Kids. So now must efforts to combat obesity or teen pregnancy or to promote stable families or responsible environmental behavior. Government is in a unique, bird’s-eye position to map the network and set off the epidemics it wants. It can and should make networked collaboration and early intervention—things that most public entities are not incentivized today to pursue—actual conditions for continued public funding. Government should scale up proven, evidence-based pilots that show that investment early in the pipeline yields far more dividends than investment at the end. Does that mean that starting today, the state should stop funding prisons and fund only early learning? Of course not. It does mean, though, that the state today must set an intention and a timeline, at the end of which we are indeed investing far more in early learning than in prisons.
Design more nudges.
By this point it should be clear that we believe government should not be neutral—in fact, it should be very clear and vocal—about pro-social goals and activities. More even than Cass Sunstein, the head of President Obama’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs and co-author of
Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness
, we believe that such judgment should sometimes be expressed in direct government action. But like Sunstein, we are fans of what he describes as “nudging”: designing “choice architectures” that give citizens the liberty to choose but steers them toward the more pro-social choices. Whether it’s designing opt-outs rather than opt-ins for retirement saving, or labeling food ingredients or household energy use, nudging and the application of behavioral science to policymaking is smart and adaptive.
Tax more strategically—and progressively.
America’s tax code today is an incoherent jumble. The power to tax should be used more strategically, in line with the broad goals the national government sets. We should use the tax code like a personal trainer: to get us in shape by reinforcing good habits and punishing bad ones. A strong carbon tax, to reduce energy consumption. Soda and candy taxes, to attack obesity. Estate taxes, to correct for unearned advantage and to stave off aristocracy. But the most strategic tax of all is more progressive income taxation, with fewer loopholes, for both individuals and corporations. Allowing the accumulation of uncoordinated tax breaks to release a corporation like GE from paying any taxes whatever is profoundly irresponsible. Skewing our helter-skelter system of tax incentives for housing and education toward the affluent, such that the wealthiest Americans receive more than $95,000 in tax benefits while middle-income families receive a few hundred dollars and poor families actually face penalties for saving, is counter to any theory of opportunity. Letting over a third of the nation’s wealth “clot” among just 1 percent of our people—as we will do if the next 30 years are like the last 30—is national suicide. Progressive taxation is the only way for a society to create the virtuous circle of ever-increasing shared prosperity.
Create incentives and rewards for over-performance.
Ex-ante regulation and ex-post punishment are the two tools that government uses most often to affect the behavior of firms and individuals. A third tool is missing, the critical one from an adaptive government perspective: incentives for excellence. Government anticipates and punishes underperformance. It also must create massive and system-wide incentives for over-performance. There should be more competitions to design better systems across government—in building codes, early learning, health care, car gas mileage. There should be challenge awards like the X Prize—a prize given by a private foundation to innovators in the field of manned spacecraft—in every part of government. The strategic recognition and rewarding of over-performance is the fastest way to set off cascades of innovation in the public sector. In the case of pollution, bad performers should pay extra fines that subsidize rewards for high performers. Over-performers should get “EZ Pass” advantages—expedited regulatory approval, easier access to credit for productive investment, and more—so that government can help the excellent perpetuate their success and pressure the bad to end their failure.
BOOK: The Gardens of Democracy: A New American Story of Citizenship, the Economy, and the Role of Government
6.85Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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