Thursday, February 12, 2015

Serving the pubic interest

At present, service to the public interest is a meaningless concept in politics. Advocates arguing for a new law, absence of a law or a tax break define the serving public interest to mean doing whatever conforms to their own ideological beliefs or much more importantly, serves their own economic interests. Others who have considered what the public interest is believe that it should be assessed impartially. That amounts to acknowledging that the public interest is more than just an endless fight between competing ideologies and/or special interests for a bigger slice of the pie. Logic points to an absolute necessity for rationally balancing competing interest demands or needs.

Without rational balancing, America's complex economy and civil society will remain inefficient, polarized and gridlocked because most subjective ideological arguments cannot be rationally resolved. Subjective ideological beliefs or values are akin to subjective religious beliefs or values - they are subjectively infallible and subjective infallibility cannot be rationally debated.

From the point of view of the "real" public interest, an initial description of serving the pubic interest is this:

Governing in the public interest means governance based on identifying a rational, optimum balance between serving public and individual or commercial interests based on an objective, fact- and logic-based analysis of competing policy choices, while (1) being reasonably transparent and responsive to public opinion, (2) protecting and growing the American economy, (4) fostering individual economic and personal growth opportunity, (5) defending personal freedoms and the American standard of living, (6) protecting national security and the environment, (7) increasing transparency, competition and efficiency in commerce when possible, and (8) fostering global peace, stability and prosperity whenever reasonably possible, all of which is constrained by (i) honest, reality-based fiscal sustainability that limits the scope and size of government and regulation to no more than what is needed and (ii) genuine respect for the U.S. constitution and the rule of law with a particular concern for limiting unwarranted legal complexity and ambiguity to limit opportunities to subvert the constitution and the law.

That description, like everything else in politics, will be criticized. For example, terms are not defined in detail and constraints such as "responsive to public opinion" and "economically sustainable manner" are subject to interpretation. Ideological differences would come into play. A conservative partisans' description might exclude mention of the environment, while a liberal's might exclude mention of commercial interests, economic sustainability or both.

Despite ideologue criticism, precise definition of all terms isn't the point. That is not practical in a relatively short description like this. Instead, a concise description of serving the public interest is intended to force policy analysis to seriously and objectively consider all of the relevant major political principles or values that most Americans, including liberals and conservatives, consider important and relevant. In short, this description is intended to shift political thinking and policy debate to a more rational, fact-based competition among subjective political ideologies in an honest, i.e., fact- and logic-based, marketplace of ideas.

Among other things, this explicitly rejects America's intuitive-emotional spin- and misinformation-based two-party politics in favor of more pragmatic or objective fact- and logic-based politics. Two-party political rhetoric and thinking is based primarily on (i) constitutionally protected spin, (ii) biased perceptions of reality or fact and (iii) bias-flawed logic and (iv) policy choices based almost exclusively on opaque special interest money and self-interest, instead of the will of the American people.

If change in politics is the goal, this description of service to the public interest is a starting point or intellectual framework for understanding how pragmatic, non-ideological or objective politics would work in practice.  

A criticism of this definition from two-party status quo defenders could be that it shifts the focus of normal political discourse from the current focus, partisans, their ideologies and special interests and their demands, to a broader public interest. In Dissident Politics (DP) opinion, that is no criticism at all. The two-party system is self-interested and it serves the public interest by mostly by accident. As it is now, the balance of power is tipped too far in favor of special interests, which include the democratic and republican parties, their ideologies, politicians, partisans and major campaign contributors.

American public opinion may have literally no impact on policy choice at the federal level. Special interests with money dominate policy choice. Based on the data, fidelity to special interest demands appears to constitute the single most powerful political ideology or value in American politics. Liberal and conservative ideology, principles or values are largely irrelevant. The basic argument here is that in the long run, both the public and special interests would be better served by the shift in the balance of power that the DP's intellectual framework encourages.

Context: Why political debate is empty
A key basis for DP's rejection of standard two-party politics is the empty, deceptive nature of most political discourse or debate. There are several key factors that fosters emptiness and deception. One of those factors is a lack of definition for key terms. For example, liberals and conservatives routinely accuse each other of spinning (lies, misinforming, etc), but the concept is never defined. If one steps back from the partisan fights and looks at coldly and objectively at political rhetoric, it is easy to see that nearly all of it is based on spin to some degree or another. From a public interest point of view, spin is reasonably defined broadly as speech or acts that are 'dishonest' or intended to mislead in some relevant sense.[1] 

Common sense says that winning arguments is easier when you define terms to favor your position. Another, probably equally effective, way to win arguments is to leave key terms undefined. There is a reason for a lack of definition. Most listeners will subconsciously read into the advocate's arguments what it is the listener wants to hear and undefined terms facilitate the process. For terms that are not defined, the human mind tends to effortlessly fill in gaps even if the gaps are only subconsciously perceived. That is just how the human brain works.[2] The process is usually subconscious and very effective, even though it often leads to false perceptions of reality or flawed logic or conclusions.  It takes conscious effort and time to be aware of such things and even more effort to blunt the impacts of how the human mind can inaccurately perceive and process information. All of this is well-known to all political partisans and special interests. They use that aspect of human biology to get help them what they want. Spin serves that purpose very well.

The first DP post argued that politics is more a contest between competing interests than between competing ideologies, although most people might understandably believe otherwise. Two-party political fights are framed as ideological in nature and that is how the partisans, media and press usually portray it. That explanation (spin) serves their interests. Despite that, DP argues that ideological fights are primarily a red herring to disguise the actual nature and goals of modern two-party politics. That beast serves to distract and divide voters while quietly serving special interests. Both distraction and division nurture the two-party charade.

The real fight is among special interests competing against each other and the weak, unfunded, unrepresented public interest. In DP opinion, the fight is more about power, influence and money than ideology. That can be criticized as a distinction without a difference, but the criticism really doesn't hold up, as will be pointed out in subsequent posts. Although the ideological fights are genuine and heartfelt (and ancient, endless and unresolvable), they are quietly overlaid on top of the more important matter of special interest goals and demands. Ideological fights have power to distract and divide the public, but does that really serve the public interest? That begs of question of exactly what the public interest is.

1. The DP definition of political spin: Spin is one or more of lies, deception, misinformation, withholding, distorting or denying inconvenient facts or arguments, unwarranted character or motive assassination, and, conscious or not, reliance on fact or logic that is distorted by ideology and/or self-interest. Unwarranted character or motive assassination includes, e.g., "you are a liar" "you are an idiot", "you say that only because it serves your business interests", etc., when such statements are objectively false or have insufficient basis in fact. The definition of spin is broad because the goal of spin, to win policy or ideological arguments, influence or power by deceit, is broad. Any rhetorical or other tactic, honest or dishonest, pleasant or vicious, can and will be employed if the advocate thinks it will help more than hurt. That is the reality of political speech, not an unsupported opinion. Partisans on each side might agree that this applies only to the opposing side. To the extent that is true, it is evidence that the allegation of spin applies to both sides. In DP opinion, both sides are correct when they accuse their opposition of usually or always spinning.

2. Two examples illustrate the point. First, in 2008 Barack Obama ran on a platform of hope and change and "Yes we can". Mr. Obama did not define what he meant by hope or change or what 'Yes we can' meant. Millions of voters simply read into him what they wanted or needed to see or hear. Many liberals thought he would be a hard core liberal once in office. Moderates thought he would be pragmatic or moderate. Many who voted for him hoped Obama would fundamentally alter the nature of two-party politics. Many of those voters now see him differently. Regardless, the "hope and change" and "Yes we can" tactics were brilliant and highly effective. Mr. Obama played on how the human brain, when faced with insufficient information to truly assess something, for example, what hope and change really means, tends to see or hear what it wants. Second, in running for his second term in 2004, president Bush was trailing in the polls until he changed his rhetorical focus to attacking his opponent as soft on terrorism and a danger to the American homeland and public. Mr. Bush did not explain exactly how his opponent would let hoards of terrorists into the U.S. so that they could slaughter innocent babies in their cribs or whatever horrors were implied or stated. Nonetheless, enough voters read into president Bush's comments a sufficient basis to generate the perception of fear and that fear led to his re-election. The tactic was, again, brilliant and effective. Mr. Bush played brilliantly on how the human mind fills in knowledge gaps. Re-election was his reward for understanding how humans think and using that knowledge to manipulate voter perceptions. Assuming that these two examples fairly and accurately represent reality, and they do, it is easy to see how high the stakes are for politicians and partisans who can exploit knowledge of how people perceive reality and think. Obviously, partisans on each side will reject this analysis as wrong when applied to themselves, i.e., it's just honest free speech when their own side does it. By contrast, partisans will see this critique as reasonably fair and balanced as applied to their opponents, i.e., the opposition uses deception and lies. This game generally works to the advantage of most special interests who win, but not necessarily the public interest.

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