A Free-Market Military

The American military has historically prided itself on its officers’ ability to take advantage of momentary situations in the field, to be creative in the execution of their duties, and to solve problems that inevitably occur in utterly unpredictable combat situations. Now, however, many of the highly creative and talented officers that attend West Point, Annapolis, or OCS leave before completing their careers.

In his recent piece in The Atlantic, Tim Kane examines why the American military loses many of its most talented and, as he puts it, “entrepreneurial” officers. The most important factor, Kane determines, is what he calls the “rigid promotion ladder” in the military. Indeed, the career paths in the military are traditional and very fixed in their requirements for promotion. According to the Army Times,

Title 10 of the US Code requires officers to have a bachelor’s degree and complete a branch basic course for advancement to captain; have three years time in grade for promotion to major and lieutenant colonel, and complete Phases 1 and 2 of Joint Professional Military Education to attend a senior service college as a colonel and for promotion to brigadier general.

The Army sets other milestones for promotion, such as company command; Intermediate Level Education; S3 and executive officer assignments; battalion command and branch specific developmental assignments, and these are extremely time sensitive.

The inflexibility inherent in the promotion system forces many soldiers who are willing to take risks out of the service and promotes a culture of risk averse officers who can be unwilling to try new things. Other reasons examined by Kane include the lack of influence suffered by “entrepreneurial” officers who are not promoted, compensation issues and the call of the private sector to retired generals and officers. Indeed, the private sector certainly pays better and involves far less danger with a higher chance for promotion.

Kane proposes an alternative to the current military promotion system, which he terms simply “chaos.” His proposal is actually a free market alternative (an internal jobs market) to the command and control model currently applied by the American armed services.

In Kane’s system, commanding officers would have hiring decisions for their own commands; officers could apply for any job at any pay grade and commanders could choose officers of alternative ranks to fill their billets. For example, a colonel could fill his XO’s position with a major instead of a lieutenant colonel if he felt that the major was a better candidate; commanders would be held accountable for their hiring decisions. Alternatively, an officer could choose to remain in their current billet and specialize in their career track, passing over promotion. Kane determines that this form of system would do a far better job of matching talent with jobs and with promoting a culture of meritocracy within the armed services.

But can the military turn to a chaotic system? There are a number of problems with Kane’s proposal. For example, in corporate America, if a corporation’s organization fails, or if a CEO fails, the market will replace that corporation with a competitor, the corporation will replace the CEO; there are no competing armies or armed services and precious few people with enough training to hold down a chief of staff’s position. If a culture of patronage and nepotism arise within the armed services, the United States cannot simply raise another army.

Another problem with Kane’s proposed system is the idea of letting certain officers remain in their positions for as long as they would like, passing over promotions in favor of doing their lower level jobs for the rest of their careers. Talented at their jobs they may be, this has the potential of keeping fresh blood out of some positions and may hurt advancement of some even more talented young officers. Many colonels, for example, truly enjoy commanding their brigades and a glut of older brigade commanders could hold a group of talented majors and LTCs back.

A final problem is the inevitable disorganization that comes with any free-market solution, as well as with a major change in structure to a group as large as the American armed forces. With troops involved in conflicts in the Middle East as well as commitments around the globe, the American military is ill equipped to deal with a major institutional shakeup at the moment.

So what can be done to reform the system? Should anything be done? A lifting of strict timeline restrictions in the promotion ladder would go a long way toward promoting talented officers into positions of influence faster. It would also create more of a structure of meritocracy, allowing officers who have demonstrated more talent or intelligence faster promotion and thereby pay increases.

Further, increasing incentive pay for continuing education and/or professional development as well as specifically targeting incentive pay instead of simply “throwing money at key areas” as the Pentagon currently does would help to keep talented and entrepreneurial officers in the service. Overall, the career path of officers in the armed services is in need of an overhaul to promote creative and daring officers, rather than risk averse ones who cannot be expected to be creative after years of following every regulation to a “t.”

A Government by the People

Just a few days ago, President Barack Obama and his staff announced their Open Government Directive. In a memo, beginning with the lines, “My administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in government,” the White House announced its intentions to work toward a form of “collaborative democracy,” in which citizens would be able to input their ideas and contributions toward governance.

With programs like Peer-to-Patent already around, collaborative government seems closer than ever. Its tool? The Internet. Or, the “tubes,” as disgraced former senator Ted Stevens referred to them. The directive lays out a specific timetable that can be found online and that orders all executive departments to create “open government” websites within ninety days of December 8, 2009.

It seems quite clear that this is a major change in how citizens will be able to deal with government. What is the nature of the change? As Clay Shirky tells us, “the impulse to share important information is a basic one, but its manifestations have often been clunky.”

Back in the days of having to clip an article out of a newspaper, one had to do a great deal of work to share that information with a group. Now, with the advent of blogs, discussion forums, and other Internet technologies, it is “all but effortless” to share the information. Further, “forwarding the story to a group was as easy as forwarding it to an individual” — with this new open government directive, we see the same idea; with email and databases online, it is far easier for, say, federal employees of a department to search for and look at citizen contributions rather than having to open mail, read it, file it, and then dig through filing cabinets to find it again. In a collaborative government of the Internet era, citizens can submit proposed legislation online that can be viewed by anyone and instantly looked up with a database query.

Clearly, this change won’t come all at once. According to a recent Gallup poll, 76 percent of Americans use the Internet at their home, business, or school. Only 61 percent of Americans use the Internet “frequently,” and even less (48 percent) use it for more than an hour per week.

Even more damning, only 26 percent of citizens describe themselves as “very” or “somewhat familiar” with blogs. It seems that citizen participation in government online would be limited to this group; blogs are a prime example of Internet interactivity, and if one is not familiar with them, it would be difficult to participate in any sort of online collaborative government.

Thus, it seems for at least some time that many of our old methods will remain in place, and that the majority of citizens will not be taking over writing legislation or regulations anytime soon. Until the bulk of the population becomes more familiar with the Internet, a collaborative online government will not reach a majority of the public. Indeed, this does seem to indicate that some sort of “digital divide” may come to affect this new collaborative government initiative.

This chart shows a comparison of Internet usage by education and income levels. As is to be expected, more educated people who make more money tend to use the Internet more, and are likely to be more familiar with it. We must expect that they will be the ones who would do more with this new collaborative government, as they have the tools and knowledge to participate both online and with politics.

There seems to be little we can do to close this gap, except to provide more universal education about the Internet and how to use it. Public schools with Internet access as well as free public libraries that provide access are excellent resources to those too poor to use computers. Classes in libraries that offer computer training will also be handy; devoting a portion of the budget for the Open Government Initiative to providing these classes would be a wise move on the part of the Obama Administration.

The benefits of collaborative democracy are obvious; many citizens of the United States who do not work for the federal government possess expertise across the spectrum of fields. As Beth Simone Noveck puts it:

The notion that government knows best is a myth. Even in the absence of bad intentions or personally corrupt motives, the bureaucrat or politician in Washington simply lacks access to the right information and useful ways of making sense of good science.

Someone with, for example, expertise in the cultivating of redwood trees could help the Department of the Interior draft regulations for government workers in the National Parks of California. Another person, who has been a truck driver for his or her entire life could offer practical advice to the government about highway safety laws and road design. The list goes on, but the short version is, citizens can offer valuable insight to government.

One of the problems the government will have to solve is the classic collective action problem — how will they get the citizens to contribute their expertise? This is clearly a major issue that will need to be addressed; perhaps the mere idea of helping one’s fellow citizens and having an effect on law will be enough for people to contribute. We’ll have to wait and see.

Major downfalls of this system include many of the same downfalls of the new Internet media in general: this collaborative government will be an example of publishing, then filtering. Any citizen will be able to give their ideas and advice to government, and the government will have to filter out the bad and find the good in the input they are getting.

Another danger, noted most famously in Madison’s Federalist Paper No. 10, is the danger of faction; the public may be so fractious and divided on issues that the government will have an overload of options but no clear solution. Collaborative government also presents an opportunity for the majority to tyrannize the minority or vice versa; if a large group of people from the minority contribute ideas on legislation without the knowledge of the majority, or if the majority mobilizes and contributes more than the minority, it may force regulation that is harmful to a large segment of the American populace.

This open government initiative certainly presents an interesting concept and it will be utterly fascinating to see what happens with it. I personally will be interested in the citizen legislation, and regulation, drafting processes. Will the American populace be up to it? Can we create, with our new technologies, a government truly by the people?

Participation — Why Bother?

Participate? Why? You’ve got enough people in your movement that I shouldn’t have to participate. I don’t need to join your group, you guys will do the work for m–

A free glossy magazine? Group potlucks? A tote bag with a logo on it? Why didn’t you say so?! I’m in!

The above is just one illustration of how leaders of informal political processes mobilize people; by offering selective benefits (as Mancur Olsen and many others suggest), a group can gain members, money, and thus power. Because public goods are, by definition, public and usable by all, they have the opportunity to fall victim to the tragedy of the commons–overuse by selfish (or perhaps rational-thinking?) individuals. Indeed, Olsen and many others wonder why Joe the UPS Delivery Man Who Never Comes On Time and Jane the Part-Time Working Mother Who Is Completing Her Master’s Degree At Night School bother to participate in informal processes at all — why fight for something that other people can fight for for you?

Selective benefits are one of the methods to mobilize people, as proposed by Olsen and illustrated above. Jamil Zaki, in the article linked to, describes the solution to the tragedy of the commons as altruism — simple good nature. Even Zaki, though, admits that there are ulterior motives for many altruistic people — fighting for a public good can, for example, improve one’s reputation in society. Olsen discusses this idea as well, referring to it as a sort of negative reinforcement of social pressure. Zaki gives Olsen’s theory even more weight, citing a study that says people tend to act altruistically more in public than in private. A study at Duke University (PPT) also supports this idea.

What other methods are used to mobilize people? Political parties rely on familial socialization to bring in new recruits, along with appealing to peoples’ ideological preferences. Interest groups offer a wide range of selective benefits — material benefits (like the glossy magazine and tote bag), solidary benefits (a group potluck and new friends!), and expressive-purposive benefits (oh boy, I’m saving the environment/helping the poor/forcing the government to allow every last person I meet to carry a concealed tactical nuclear device!) Community organizers offer the opportunity for a group to make their voices heard and to use their collective resources to fight for an issue of local importance. Social movements give potential participants the opportunity to participate as much or as little as they wish to, and to respond to new developments while still making their voices heard. Terrorism — that last, desperate resort — offers the chance to show a fanatical devotion to one’s cause. Clearly, the common thread running through all of these forms of mobilization is some form of selective benefit–the exact form of the benefit varies wildly, but in almost all cases the participants are getting some form of benefit.

Modern technology (such as Ted Steven’s network of tubes that connect all computers) has forced many important changes onto the landscape of mobilization, and in many cases seems to have made it easier; from President Obama’s incredible online fundraising machine and campaign social network (offering clear solidary benefits), to Iran’s Twitter-based organization and communication during the recent elections that led the State Department to ask Twitter to avoid interrupting their service, communication is far more instant and the movement of data has been made far easier. This faster, easier way to communicate with groups of people makes organization and mobilization a far easier task. (Interestingly, this article suggests that no particular technological tool was instrumental to Iran’s revolution.)

Classical methods of connecting citizens with government are through the various models discussed above — political parties, interest groups, community organizing, etc. Political parties do this in perhaps the most clear way, getting people from their party elected and using party affiliation on official ballot tickets. Parties deal with problems of ambition, as well as broadly representing their constituents’ preferences. Interest groups and organized interests represent narrower interests to government, either through professional staffs of lobbyists and experts, or through mobilizing and organizing their grassroots members. Community organizations help people represent themselves to government, and social movements do the same.

However, with new technology available, it seems as though linkages between citizens and government will become far easier as well; the Internet and the instant communication it offers are already being put to use, in programs such as Peer-to-Patent and

How Disturbed Are You?

No, really, how disturbed are you? Disturbed enough to join a social movement? Maybe help out as a checkbook member? Perhaps you’re disturbed enough to go out and start your own social movement. But wait a second — are you rich? You aren’t. Well, that may cause some difficulties. You see, the heavenly choir sings with an upper-class accent (as E.E. Schattschneider tells us), because clearly they are able to represent their interests better than you, shall I say, more “blue-collar” types.

Whoops, sorry about that folks. Slipped off for a moment there. However, my unconscious mind does raise an excellent point — wealthy interests are so often more able to represent their interests to the government, whereas poorer groups, or groups less able to speak for themselves, are simply not as well represented in government. This is why we see more groups like the National Governor’s Association, the MPAA, and the Association of Trial Lawyers in America on Fortune 500’s list of top lobbying groups. What we don’t see is, for example, the National Homeless Association, the American Society for Hobos, or the Panhandler’s Club of America.

Clearly, these last three groups have some disturbance to be angry about — many of the homeless we see today have been made so by the recent economic collapse. Others have had their own personal experiences in becoming without a home, or going bankrupt. David Truman would almost certainly describe them as “disturbed”. In fact, if one subscribes purely to his theory, this disturbance should cause them to rise up and take action against the government, form an interest group or social movement, and march on Washington, walking all the way there from the Dunkin’ Donuts in Kenmore Square!

Quite simply, these people don’t have the resources, or the leaders to make their personal interests heard. Much as they may want a more extensive social security net, or more low-income housing, or a new cup to collect spare change in, they simply can’t make themselves heard. The way our current informal political processes work, it is incredibly difficult to start any sort of organized interest or social movement without some form of leadership and resources. Indeed, without a leader or some sort of communications network, it may be difficult for the man who sits in Kenmore Square to find out that there are people in quite the same predicament as him at the Rte. 2 intersection near Alewife Station. Perhaps if a wealthy entrepreneur took on these people’s cause, or if a community organizer brought these people with their resources (cardboard signs) together, they could make their voices heard. As things stand, however, they have no way to mobilize.

Indeed, if one considers a group with few resources, perhaps the best way to organize these people is by simply bringing them together and giving them a sense of cohesion. Community organizing, as talked about by Ganz, and giving the people a sense of community and shared hardship, may make them more aware of their voice and power, and cause them to mobilize. On the other hand, with no material resources at hand, these people still have no way to, for example, hire a lobbyist and send them to Washington to negotiate for thicker cardboard for their signs, or a more comfortable milk crate. If a wealthy entrepreneur took on their case and provided them with these resources, then the people’s living conditions may improve, but they would probably not be personally mobilized.

Now what is interesting is that wealthy groups do indeed take up the cause of the homeless. The Coalition for the Homeless advocates for the homeless in New York City and works for legislation on their behalf. The point is that the homeless themselves — the leaderless, resourceless bunch they are — are not being mobilized. Instead, they are being mobilized for. “Homed” people, if you will, are brought together by the purposive-expressive benefit of helping their fellow man and advocating for the homeless. The leaders of the group offer a strong material benefit by publishing the names of large donors to the cause, giving them social prestige and a better societal standing.

What does this example show? To me, it shows that leaders and resources are necessary for mobilization in our modern day and age. Even for groups that Clay Shirky talks about in Here Comes Everybody (2008), those people have one important resource: the Internet. Access to the web is not free, and it is indeed a strong resource for those who have it available to them. And even then, leaders emerge online, whether on message boards, blogs, or chain emails–someone has to lead the charge regardless of the format.

To wrap up, a few suggestions on what organizers and leaders can do to get people more involved and motivated to join the process:

Use technology: Shirky’s ideas about the Internet and its effect on our everyday life cannot be ignored. Getting a good web image and making connections online is incredibly cheap for organizers (relative to other possible costs) and can attract many people very quickly if done right.

Make people believe: Anti-abortion activists show mutilated fetuses, anti-death penalty activists show desecrated bodies, environmental activists show cute fluffy animals getting stuck in oil spills. Strong images, powerful messages, and a clear purpose are necessary today.

Educate yourself: Consult unbiased experts, study all options, and pay attention to every last detail of your cause. This leads to…

Educate your people: Don’t let your people become a flock of sheep, just doing what they’re told. A sheep’s bleat never convinced anyone of anything. Logical, reasoned, and well-educated arguments just might.

Make your communications public: This is something important that isn’t done enough–let people know what you are saying to the government, or, better yet,

Encourage your people to communicate, to talk to their elected officials themselves. As I’ve learned from working in a state rep’s office, a personal, heartfelt message from a constituent means infinitely more than a form letter or some paid lobbyist coming in to see us.

Make your group a corridor: Show that your group can get results. Tell people that they can too, and tell them that their participation and communication with government are crucial. There is no better way to encourage people than by showing them results.

Why Do We Bowl?

Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000)
Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000)

In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam suggests that we act politically because of a shared trust and sense of community. Other political scientists (such as Benedict Anderson) believe that cultural cleavages are what drive us to act. Still others (Lipset, Almond, Verba) think that a shared tradition and shared cultural norms are what drive our political activity. These culturalist schools of political science all have merits and all can explain some past forms of political motivations.

Putnam’s idea of shared trust (“social capital”) and sense of community can explain a lot and is closely related to those who believe in a shared tradition and cultural norms as motivational factors. Read more

Brain Dead Conservatism

In The Washington Post, Steven Hayward lays out his argument that conservatism has become a brain-dead movement:

Consider the “tea party” phenomenon. Though authentic and laudatory, it is unfocused, lacking the connection to a concrete ideology that characterized the tax revolt of the 1970s, which was joined at the hip with insurgent supply-side economics. Meanwhile, the “birthers” have become the “grassy knollers” of the right; their obsession with Obama’s origins is reviving frivolous paranoia as the face of conservatism. (Does anyone really think that if evidence existed of Obama’s putative foreign birth, Hillary Rodham Clinton wouldn’t have found it 18 months ago?)

The bestselling conservative books these days tend to be redmeat titles such as Michelle Malkin’s Culture of Corruption, Glenn Beck’s new Arguing with Idiots and all of Ann Coulter’s well-calculated provocations that the left falls for like Pavlov’s dogs. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with these books. Politics is not conducted by Socratic seminar, and Henry Adams’s dictum that politics is the systematic organization of hatreds should remind us that partisan passions are an essential and necessary function of democratic life. The right has always produced, and always will produce, potboilers.

Conspicuously missing, however, are the intellectual works. The bestseller list used to be crowded with the likes of Friedman’s Free to Choose, George Gilder’s Wealth and Poverty, Paul Johnson’s Modern Times, Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, Charles Murray’s Losing Ground and The Bell Curve and Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man. There are still conservative intellectuals attempting to produce important work, but some publishers have been cutting back on serious conservative titles because they don’t sell. (I have my own entry in the list: a two-volume political history titled The Age of Reagan. But I never expected the books to sell well; at 750 pages each, you can hurt yourself picking them up.)

About the only recent successful title that harkens back to the older intellectual style is Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism, which argues that modern liberalism has much more in common with European fascism than conservatism has ever had. But because it deployed the incendiary f-word, the book was perceived as a mood-of-the-moment populist work, even though I predict that it will have a long shelf life as a serious work. Had Goldberg called the book Aspects of Illiberal Policymaking: 1914 to the Present, it might have been received differently by its critics. And sold about 200 copies.

Is the media to blame? Hayward continues:

It’s tempting to blame all this on the new media landscape. The populist conservative blockbusters of today have one thing in common: Most are written by media figures, either radio or TV hosts, or people who, like Coulter and Malkin, get lots of TV exposure. The built-in marketing advantage is obvious. The left thinks talk radio and Fox News are insidious forces, which shows that they are effective. (Just ask Van Jones and ACORN.) But some on the right think talk radio, especially, has dumbed down the movement, that there is plenty of sloganeering but not much thought, that the blend of entertainment and politics is too outre. John Derbyshire, author of a forthcoming book about conservatism’s future, We are Doomed, calls our present condition “Happy Meal Conservatism, cheap, childish and familiar.”

The blend of entertainment and politics is not unique to the right (exhibit No. 1 on the left: The Daily Show). And it is perfectly possible to conduct talk radio at a high level of seriousness, and several talkers do well at matching the quality of their shows to their intellectual pedigree. Consider Hugh Hewitt (Michigan Law School), Michael Medved (Yale Law School), William Bennett (Harvard Law and a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Texas) — all three of these brainiacs have popular shows on the Salem Radio Network.

With others — Michael Savage and “Mancow” come to mind — the charge of dumbing down is much more accurate. Rush Limbaugh adheres to Winston Churchill’s adage that you should grin when you fight, and in any case his keen sense of satire makes him deserving of comparison to Will Rogers, who, by the way, was a critic of progressivism. Others among the right’s leading talkers, such as Sean Hannity, seem unremittingly angry and too reflexively partisan on behalf of the Republican Party rather than the conservative movement (they are not the same thing).

I take issue here with the charge against Stewart’s The Daily Show. Stewart has done an excellent job combining comedy and information, without acting like an idiot. Stewart manages to present his news and opinion with his wit, all while showing his intelligence and ability to understand the news. I don’t quite understand Mr Haywards aversion to combining news with comedy — Stewart’s ability to do so has shown that a quality news program can be humorous.

Overall, though, I have to agree with Hayward’s assessment of the right as becoming brain-dead. Too much, the right-wing media supports the ideas of the radicals on their side (birthers, teabaggers, etc.), or resorts to cheap personal attacks (Chicago Olympics bid), or even blow a racist dog-whistle as we saw throughout the campaign this past year.

All of this seems to be a result of something deeper though; the right-wing doesn’t have any ideas to fix anything. All that they have to offer now is, “no, I don’t want that.” How should we fix health care? We shouldn’t have a public option, they say. What, then, should we do? The Republicans have become the party of “no” — the downfall, really, of conservatism. The adhearance to the status quo, not wanting to change anything when things obviously need fixing. The desire to go back to an imagined “good old days,” or “golden age” that never really existed.

Some would say that it is the job of the opposition party to attempt to stop what is happening in the majority party. I agree. But when it comes right down to it, it’s infinitely better to oppose ideas with ideas, rather than oppose ideas with the word “no.” “No” is childish, petty, and not a substitute for policy. When all someone has to offer is a “no” to a viable, workable idea, why bother listening to them? Why bother paying attention to someone who has no alternatives, only denials? This is the root cause of a brain-dead right wing now: the lack of ideas, of alternative options, and only offering a five-year-old “No, I don’t want that.”

What We Call the News

This title stolen from JibJab’s song of the same title found here.

In talking about the information networks of the twenty-first century, one cannot omit the rise of the Internet and the revitalization of conversational media.

As lecturer Alex Whalen has told us, in the first era of the American newspaper, conversation was key; the back page of every newspaper was left blank for people to leave their comments. These newspapers were passed from person to person and the conversation was looked upon by the founders as vital to a republic.

Indeed, in the words of Jack Anderson, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist:

Thomas Jefferson… He advocated and supported a free press and yet Thomas Jefferson was savaged by the press. He was excoriated by the press. He was abused more by the press than Bill Clinton or Richard Nixon or anybody that we have had in recent times. Thomas Jefferson was savaged by the press. Excoriated. And he was human. He didn’t like it. He went nose to nose with a couple of editors in Philadelphia. He said to one Philadelphia paper: “Nothing in this paper is true, with the possible exception of the advertising, and I question that.” And yet that wise Thomas Jefferson, in a moment of truth, said, “If I had to choose between government without newspapers and newspapers without government, I wouldn’t hesitate to choose the latter.” After all he had been through, he was wise enough to understand. And there is no one here that has been through as much as Thomas Jefferson.

But now, with information almost instantly available to us from more sources than we have ever had available to us before, what effect will this conversation have?

For a little less than a century, we have been completely reliant on one-way media — television, newsreels, radio — that turn the general public into passive consumers of information.

Now, with tools like this blog and the newly-added comment sections on the websites of major news outlets, as well as online forums and Twitter, conversation is making news interactive again, much like in colonial times. Read more