Last week, my friend Jack Altschuler asked me to weigh in on an interesting topic. As an entrepreneur, Jack attended a class on the Theory of Constraints (TOC). He learned the lessons well, applying the theory to his own business with great results. He now asks how TOC applies to our nation and what I think are the “undesirable effects of what is going on right now – what needs fixing.” I should mention that Jack, now retired from his business, writes a political blog expressing some far-left ideas about our national politics. Recognizing that my politics are “somewhat to the right” of him, he seeks to broaden his perspective.
Lots of things rushed through my mind: national debt, dysfunctional government, political polarization and so on. But, I settled on one word: trust. Or, perhaps I should say the absence of trust.
Jack and I are contemporaries, early Baby Boomers. Growing up in the 50’s and 60’s, the government delivered for our parents’ generation. They were educated under the GI Bill. The bought starter homes with VA loans. Government invested in the interstate highway system. They bought cars and moved to the suburbs.
While all that was going on, the Supreme Court demonstrated extraordinary political courage in rulings from Brown v. Board of Education to Roe v. Wade, while Congress passed groundbreaking civil rights legislation.
Oh, and they put a man on the moon!
Why wouldn’t they believe in their government?
But the immediate post-war period was also the beginning of the era of big government. The proliferation of laws during FDR’s administration led to the passage of the Administrative Procedures Act of 1946. The new law authorized government agencies to write rules and regulations to implement laws passed by Congress. The Cold War led to the creation of a permanent defense industry that evolved into the military-industrial complex. Faith in government led to more government. Congress authorized the creation of new cabinet departments – Commerce, Transportation, Energy and Education.
The U.S. entered an ill-conceived war in Southeast Asia. Civil Rights marches and peace protests were met with violent response from police and the National Guard. The final nail in the coffin of trust in our government was the Watergate Affair, which led to the resignation of a president.
After Watergate, the media stopped ignoring the human frailties of our leaders – their peccadilloes and abuses of power. The imperative for full disclosure has, over time, contributed to the coarseness of our public discourse. One doesn’t have to read extremist publications like Breitbart or the Daily Kos. The epidemic of partisan attacks is on full display in mainstream newspapers like the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times.
It’s challenging to trust anyone or certainly any bureaucracy with one’s fate. Large corporations expect you to be loyal but will ship your job to another city or another country if it suits their strategic needs. Government agencies must follow one-size-fits-all rules developed by faceless bureaucrats who know very little of the needs of our local communities.
So, who can you trust? (Or, is it whom?)
Simple answer: people you know. The relationships you develop locally or through your network engender trust when people of different beliefs find common cause. Here in the small city of Rochester, NY, economic development, real estate projects, a charter school movement and anti-poverty measures have been initiated by a bi-partisan coalition that includes politicians, business leaders, educators and the Chamber of Commerce.
Do our local leaders occasionally fail? Do they make mistakes? Are there occasional breeches of integrity?
But, our community traces its success to a legacy of progress back to 19th Century leaders – George Eastman, Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass. We endure occasional failures because local leaders have a track record and we trust they have our best interests at the center of their agenda.
Meanwhile, what’s happened nationally? Trust has been lost over the last half century, as power has become centralized. We feel as though we can’t influence our national agenda. Consider:
- Since the Department of Education was founded in 1978, our schools have been in decline. The response has been to create programs with which we must conform or lose federal funding. Yet, the decline continues.
- Women, who thought the matter of their reproductive rights was settled decades ago, are now fighting to preserve them.
- Citizens of small communities wonder how federal courts could have banned prayer and the recitation of the pledge of allegiance in their schools.
- Presidents of both parties resort to executive actions to make new laws, bypassing the Constitutional powers of the Congress.
In a nation that is geographically larger than all of Europe, regional philosophies of government are no longer allowed to flourish under local control. And so, as power has become more centralized, we have become more polarized.
So, who can you trust? (Or, is it whom?)