May 19, 2010

A paradigm shift, a loss of words.

I've written before in this space of communication theorist Walter Fisher's proposal that America's most enduring narrative, the American Dream, comprises two competing strands, both rooted in our founding documents and history.

One of these strands, which I'll call the free enterprise story, envisions an ideal of individual potency, entrepreneurial success, and limited government restrained from tyranny. The other strand, the fair play story, envisions an ideal of universal fairness, public service, and strong government of, by, and for the people.

One can interpret the history of American public debates as a gladiator-like battle between these two stories, chained together, forever wrestling, each gaining and losing dominance, but never permanently.

There are times when the contest is relatively quiet. One narrative or the other dominates, forming most of our assumptions and expectations. But inevitably, the ruling story encounters problems, often arising from its own premises, that expose its weaknesses and overwhelm its abilities. When that happens, the shift is on. The contest gets louder. The new/old narrative presses the debate with increasing confidence and persuasive power; the regnant story digs in to protect its hegemony.

In the late 1970s, the fair-play narrative had driven the action for more than four decades. But it ran out of words to account for and address problems of its own creation: soaring inflation, economic stagnation, embarrassment on the world stage, and declining confidence. Ronald Reagan inspired us with a new story, comprising a vocabulary juxtaposing American individuals' power, value, and potential with government impotency, bureaucracy, and failure.

The result was a sweeping paradigm shift, nearly Kuhnian in its scope. The language of the Reaganite free-enterprise narrative—lower taxes, deregulation, American global power, the idealization of entrepreneurship—not only drove public policy but also informed and shaped the way we think and talk.

For the last 30 years, our words have been lifted from the free-enterprise lexicon; our sentences, from its script: Government is the problem. The era of big government is over. The government should never interfere with the market. Trust business more than government. Entrepreneurs are good; bureaucrats are bad. Public figures are brands. Run schools (and everything else) like a business. The profit motive produces self-regulation. The private sector is better than the public sector. [Fill in the blank] should be privatized. Taxes destroy freedom.

I've heard every one of these and more—and said a few. I'm sure you have too.

We're in a time of transition between the two stories. A new paradigm shift is taking place. Hence the election of Barack Obama, who eloquently expresses a modern rendition of the fair-play narrative. Hence the loud and sometimes frighteningly extreme language of conflict in today's public debates.

The free-enterprise narrative is losing its ability to speak reasonably. Reminiscent of the Coolidge-Hoover version when the Roaring '20s crashed, the latest edition has no sentences to account for or address problems arising from its own premises. In my next post, coming very soon, I'll offer three recent cataclysmic events—the Massey mine disaster, the BP oil debacle, and the Goldman Sachs interpretation of the financial collapse—as evidence.

Rings true to me. And you?

May 5, 2010

The Tea Party, the new Anti-Federalists.

"We'll keep clinging to our Constitution." —Sarah Palin
Countless times I have heard my conservative friends, some of whom are Tea Partiers, claim exclusive fidelity to our nation's founding document.

The narrative plays out like this: We, the Tea Party (I'm using the term as a synecdoche for today's ultra-conservative voice as a whole), honor the Constitution by sticking to its original intent, which is relatively straightforward and simple to interpret. You big-government liberals dishonor the Constitution by treating it as a "living document" that means whatever you want it to mean, making America whatever you want it to be.

The irony is that Tea Partiers, in belief and in tone, have more in common with those who opposed the Constitution (the Anti-Federalists) than those who supported it (the Federalists) during the public debate about its ratification.

To the Anti-Federalists, the Constitution's federal government was too big, too powerful and too elitist. A national government comprising James Madison's "enlightened lawmakers" representing large areas and empowered to tax, to legislate and to raise a standing army would surely trample the rights of the people and the States.

The Tea Partiers—er, excuse me, the Anti-Federalists—pressed their points with frothy certitude about what the future would bring under the tyranny of such a strong national government.

"You gentlemen, the Preachers of the Constitution," wrote A True Friend (advocates of both sides used pseudonyms during the debate), "will not sure contest a fact proved by the records of all ages and of all nations that the liberties and rights of the people have been always encroached on, and finally destroyed by those, whom they had entrusted with the power of government."

"To lay and collect internal taxes in this extensive country must require a great number of Congressional ordinances," wrote Federal Farmer. "These must continually interfere with the State laws and thereby produce disorder and dissatisfaction till the one system of laws or the other ... must be abolished."

The Constitution's national government would produce "a vast number of expensive offices"; it would "totally annihilate the separate governments of the several States"; it would "have to be supported at a vast expense, by which our taxes would be doubled or trebled."

Sounds eerily familiar, doesn't it?

The Federalists, on the other hand, argued for a strong national government, one that clearly superseded State authority.

In fact, James Madison—primary author of the Constitution and co-author of The Federalist Papers—deeply distrusted what he regarded as the pettiness and self-interestedness of "local" politics, by which he meant any politics lower than national. During the Constitutional Convention, Madison argued vociferously for an absolute Congressional veto power over State laws. He thought national veto power "may at once support a due supremacy of the national authority, and not exclude the local authorities wherever they can be subordinately useful."

He lost that debate. The Constitution contains no such federal veto power. But clearly, Madison was hardly a "States Rights" advocate in the modern understanding of that term.

What's more, Madison was deeply skeptical of the public's ability to responsibly evaluate the merits of the Constitution without having participated in the Convention's vigorous and complex interplay between ideas, interests and personalities.

"It is a misfortune, inseparable from human affairs," he lamented, "that public measures are rarely investigated with that spirit of moderation which is essential to a just estimate of their real tendency to advance or obstruct the public good."

As to the meaning of the Constitution and how it is to be ascertained? On this, Madison anticipated communication theories yet to come that would understand meaning-making as a transactional interplay among parties in the discussion.
"All new laws, though penned with the greatest technical skill, and passed on the fullest and most mature deliberation, are considered as more or less obscure and equivocal, until their meaning be liquidated and ascertained by a series of particular discussions and adjudications." —James Madison
When we debate the meaning of the Constitution, liquidating and ascertaining its meaning in our world by a series of particular discussions and adjudications, we are simultaneously formed by and form the Constitution's meaning. In doing so, we have the approval of no less than the document's primary author.

Does this mean that the Tea Party's concerns about the size of today's federal government are without merit? No. Does it mean they should quiet down about their concerns? Certainly not. Does it even mean that Madison was right and the Anti-Federalists were wrong? Not at all. None of these necessarily follow from the facts of the ratification debate.

But this does: Tea Party claims of exclusive Constitutional fidelity are false. They should stop clinging to the falsehood. Doing so might serve "that spirit of moderation" Madison extolled. Which would be good for our country. You know, the one formed by the Constitution.

Rings true to me. And you?

Apr 27, 2010

When taxpayer's money is engaged, accountability.

One more from French Economy and Finance Minister Christine Lagarde's interview on Morning Joe. Her comments stand in stark contrast with the shameless remarks of Goldman Sachs bigwigs before the Senate.

Asked about the French perspective on the American approach to the financial crisis, she advanced two operating principles: clarity and accountability. A couple of days ago, we heard her on clarity. Today, we hear what she said about accountability—particularly when taxpayer's money is, as she says, "engaged." Watch this, and pay special attention to her attitude.

"Those who make mistakes should pay for it," she said. Thank you, Mme. Lagarde.

French banks that received taxpayer engagement must pay back the money with interest. And bank executives who received "bonuses in excess of certain amounts," or "excessive compensation," must pay an extra tax (a 50% tax on any discretionary bonus above $39,000 in American money, according to the NYT).

What was special about Mme. Lagarde's attitude? Well, ... nothing. And that's what made it special. While speaking of a 50% tax on executive bonuses, she was perfectly relaxed—one could even say mundane. No defensiveness. No dilemma. No ducking. Just a simple, unremarkable two-pronged qualification, hedging against regarding the tax as "trivial" (perhaps a response to German Chancellor Angela Merkel's dismissing the idea as "charming") or "interventionist" (almost certainly referencing American anti-tax indignation).

Mme. Lagarde could say all this with no dilemma because she isn't an American. In particular, she isn't an American who embraces the "materialistic vision" (see my post "Why we Americans argue the way we do" for a fuller explanation of that phrase).

People who embrace the materialistic vision of the American Dream narrative believe in personal responsibility. They believe in accountability. But they also feel a visceral revulsion for taxes, especially those that they regard as punishing individual achievement that leads to financial success. In the context of the recent financial crisis, these two impulses are at odds.

For 30 years, the Reagan version of the materialistic vision dominated the American landscape. But it ran out of gas to account for and solve the problems of our era. It can't embrace real accountability with heart all in. That would require full-throated regulation of Wall Street's acquisitional impulse. That would prohibit the moral hazard of allowing arrogant traders to load their wallets with taxpayer-engaged largesse.

I like Mme. Lagarde's principles of clarity and accountability. And I like how easily accountability lives in her world without hand-wringing qualification or nauseating obfuscation. President Obama and the Congress would do well, it seems to me, to contrast Mme. Lagarde's principled accountability with Goldman's moral solipsism as they address financial reform.

Rings true to me. And you?

Apr 26, 2010

Clarity trumps transparency.

This morning, Morning Joe featured French Economy and Finance Minister Christine Lagarde discussing the financial situation in Greece and the EU’s response. Toward the end of the conversation, she was asked to comment on the American financial "reset." Here’s how it went:

Lagard: “It all rotates around key issues and principles. And to me, anything that supports clarity, things being over the counter for real …”

Joe and Mika: “Yeah, transparency …”

Lagard: “I’m not sure that transparency is the right thing. [With] transparency, you can have so much information that you’re lost in it. So I'm much more in favor of clarity with what really matters.”

Ms. Lagard's distinction between clarity and transparency is right on. The difference is point of view. It’s a difference that matters.

Transparency considers only the message giver—in this case, financial institutions. Transparency requires publication and nothing more. Once all is published, all is transparent, whether or not the audience gets lost.

But clarity as a communication concept includes the message receiver. A message is clear only if the audience understands it. Clarity implies interplay among parties in a communication transaction that successfully transfers intended meaning. In that sense, clarity is a stricter standard than transparency. To demand clarity is to require financial institutions to communicate so that reasonable people will actually understand what the institutions are doing and what the risks are. To bring things over the counter, for real.

All too often, institutions use transparency to obfuscate, not to clarify. Messages about the details of a car lease displayed on a TV screen in 4 point type and spoken at lightning speed are transparent; they’re not clear. Pages and pages of legalese on credit card applications are transparent; they’re not clear.

Words—in the context of sentences, paragraphs, and stories—shape and reflect the ways we think, act, and value. Mme. Lagard is right. We need clarity about what really matters. That ought to be one of the standards against which any financial reform legislation is measured.

Rings true to me. And you?

Apr 20, 2010

Why we Americans argue the way we do.

In the 1980s, USC professor Walter Fisher proposed the narrative paradigm, a sweeping theory of human communication. He said that the human race was, in its essence, homo narrans—man the storyteller. In all situations, we think, talk and choose within the context of a web of stories rooted in our experiences and supplying our value systems.

We reason not through a neutral rationality divorced from values but through a narrative rationality comprising reasons we value as good—a “logic of good reasons” in Fisher’s parlance. When an argument satisfies my logic of good reasons, it “rings true” to me. Hence the name of my blog.

The narrative paradigm might sound like ivory tower philosophical stuff. But it has very practical implications for the way we talk to each other about our country.

Fisher argued that Americans’ most powerful and enduring narrative is The American Dream. When most of us hear that phrase, we think about buying a house and giving our children a better life. But Fisher meant something bigger than that.

The American Dream comprises two linked and balancing sub-narratives: the free-enterprise storyline and the fair-play storyline. (Fisher called them “the materialistic myth" and "moralistic myth"; I’ve chosen free-enterprise storyline and fair-play storyline to avoid the language of academia and connoting what he didn’t mean: false fables.) Both are rooted in foundational American documents, history and values. Understanding the relationship between these two visions within particular moments in American history is helpful in understanding the logics of good reasons we bring to public policy debates.

The free-enterprise storyline tells a tale of individual effort, potency and success. Left unfettered by draconian laws, State-sponsored gods, or inherited class limitations, the hard-working individual can succeed at building a better life as measured in achievements and acquisitions—new car, new house, college for the kids, comfortable retirement.

The free-enterprise storyline’s freedom is a freedom to do as one pleases. The self-made individual—or in modern parlance, the entrepreneur—is its most enduring hero. Competition is the process by which the hero does well. Ultimately, the measure of success is an individual’s net worth, which has no necessary ceiling.

Society is a contractual arrangement agreed upon by individuals and existing solely for individuals’ good. The government that governs least governs best, for excessive government regulations only inhibit the freedom and ability of potent individuals to pursue and achieve the American Dream.

The fair-play storyline tells a story of human rights. All people are created equal; all have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; governments derive their powers by the consent of the governed and therefore must govern of the people, by the people and for the people according to the better angels of their nature.

The fair-play storyline’s freedom is a freedom to be as one conceives oneself. The public servant—whether statesman, teacher, philanthropist, or nurse—is its most enduring hero. Self-sacrifice for the benefit of others is the process by which the hero does good. Ultimately, the measure of accomplishment is the degree to which others are uplifted.

Society arises as a natural community to protect and elevate those rights for all. A strong government ensures that the rights of all are secured so that all can pursue the American Dream.

Throughout American history, from the revolutionary period to today, public debates have been steeped in language, values, sentiments and policy prescriptions rooted in both of these narratives.

Citizens whose personal interests, histories and temperaments are amenable to the free-enterprise storyline reason reasonably when they advocate for free enterprise, reduced government regulation, the primacy of markets and the superiority of private institutions.

Those whose personal interests, histories and temperaments are amenable to the fair-play storyline reason reasonably when they advocate for civil rights, universal healthcare, reducing income inequity and public education.

Neither of these narratives is more American than the other. Each represents one aspect of the “American Dream,” “what America is all about,” and “the American people”—phrases often employed by advocates in public debates with the implicit (and false) claim of exclusive conceptual ownership.

Perhaps our public-policy conversations would be more constructive if we saw these two storylines as competing but authentic strands of the American Dream. Perhaps there would be a greater willingness to listen constructively to others if we didn’t see ourselves and those like us as in exclusive possession of American identity and values.

That rings true to me. How about you?