September 9, 2012

Must we always win?

Colin Read, Everybody's Business

---- — We are in the midst of election season. The big parties have had their nominating conventions. The word of the day is “win.” Locally, I go to school board meetings and I hear about who wants to get paid for what, and I hear about working conditions. I’m confused.

Does an individual really win an election, or do we select the best candidate? Is school spending about the parents and the teachers, or is it about the kids and taxpayers? Are we a bit off kilter here? I am wondering if when “they” “win,” we lose.

The lore of the intentions of our founding fathers was that politics was something one does part time. Our leaders served out of a sense of noblesse oblige, in fulfillment of a higher calling that should, once in a lifetime, call for each of us.

We do not “win” such a calling any more than a priest “wins” being called to the cloth. Rather, we do so through our sense of civic duty.

It is this duty to civilization that should be the focus of politics, from the presidency to the school board or zoning committee. It is not about our leaders, but is rather about us, the taxpayer.

Now, I realize it would be a lot to ask of our leaders to make this noble sacrifice for very long. After all, we want people to do the job out of a sense of dedication to something bigger than each of us, and not to dedication to the almighty buck. Indeed, if we make political service financially attractive, we all of a sudden shift a motivation from noblesse oblige to notorious opportunism.

We want people to serve on our behalf not because it is easy and lucrative, but because it is hard and requires sacrifice. We may not even want the independently wealthy who could most easily afford public office to serve because they may be induced to serve longer than their term.

Under such a framework, we would never need term limits. If the job is part time, and does not require large fundraising budgets and large blocks of time to cultivate donors, and if it does not pay well, then our representatives would happily step aside once their turn is over.

Of course, a political term limited because one can only sacrifice for so long, or because there are term limits, runs the risk of losing an individual who was truly skilled at the art of compromise on behalf of their constituency or country. It would be arrogant, though, to think that there could not be someone almost as good lurking in the crowd standing behind our leaders.

One might also argue that the job of political representation is so difficult and the learning curve so steep that once we find someone with the set of skills to succeed, we should keep that person on for as long as we can.

I think this reasoning is based less on how politics was intended, and more on what politics has become. We should leave the intricacies of governmental micromanagement to experts in their fields. More government functions could be left to technocrats. In fact, non-politicians, or ex-politicians may be more effective in proposing and implementing unpopular policies that are nonetheless in our best interest.

For example, the one group that has provided the most balanced, most sound in the long run, and most rational set of budget and tax reforms is led by Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson’s Presidential Commission on the deficit. These individuals have made an excellent set of recommendations. Both parties seem to detest the package equally, and for very different reasons. This leads me to believe they are on to something. They are making recommendations that are hard to swallow for politicians looking for the next easy and short term fix.

These two brave individuals can do so because they are interested in doing the civilly responsible thing, not the politically expedient sound-bite solutions endlessly espoused by either party at their recent conventions. Simpson and Bowles know noblesse oblige. They devoted countless amounts of time so we can win. After all, there was nothing in it for them, except what is in it for us all. I wish that could once again be the mantra of politics. Damn the dogma, and let’s put the public first.

Colin Read is a contributor to and has published eight books with MacMillan Palgrave Press. He chairs the Department of Finance and Economics at SUNY Plattsburgh. Continue the discussion at