Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Bring in the Technocrats

On June 11th of this year I wrote a piece called the “Failure of Leadership” where I highlighted the intense failures of government at all three levels in my home region, province and country. Having strong opinions on matters it is not difficult to feel disappointed in our elected leaders, but I expect that. I feel as though I can separate my partisan and political differences and appreciate good governance when I see it. When I look at jurisdictions around the continent it seems like people, above all else, desire competence over ideology.

Let’s begin with the looming American elephant. For over a decade now it appears that the governing class of the United States is incapable of running the country it is sworn to serve. I should be more specific, the federal government. The articles I routinely read about successful mayors and governors in the United States definitely offers hope. Sadly these leaders operate with the hindrance, not support of their federal peers. It is a popular tact for other orders of government to beat up on each other, it also makes for fine politics, but it seems remarkably true. Mayors struggle to build their cities into globally competitive, attractive locations because of antiquated federal government policies around transit, or economic policies that hurt cities.

The American deficit/budget crisis is really not that complicated a problem. A combination of spending cuts and tax increases will be required to counter severe budget problems in the long-term. Many moderate, sensible political observers note this with great regularity, but the American ruling class exists in a political climate where it is unprofitable to take such actions. A “cuts only” tact that the Republican want to take might work, if they agreed to return to the early twentieth century roots and dramatically slash military spending. Democrats could delay cuts to social programs if they were willing to propose bold measures like a national sales tax.

This is not the reality the United States finds itself in. Therefore instead of measured, thoughtful compromise, or long-term plan, the Americans are dealing with a shut down government.

Things are not much better here in Canada. Because I am a sucker for punishment I have been following the grueling saga over the Scarborough subway/LRT. While I write about transit a lot, and it is a passion of mine, I am not an expert. However, people who are considered experts say that Scarborough would be best served by light rail. However, because of politicking by provincial parties, the Premier Kathleen Wynne (OLP – Don Valley West) and calamitous input from Toronto City Hall, a subway will be built (possibly). The proposed subway will serve less people, cost more money and take longer to build. Subways make for better politics and so there we are.

I imagine a great many people in the United States are very tired of their democratic government at the moment. It appears that our elected officials that supposedly speak for us increasingly represent narrow interests that unsurprisingly also serve themselves. If elected leaders are bad can anyone besides the voters be blamed? Perhaps it’s because politicians are ever only speaking to the ~50% who vote, or the under 25% who are paying attention (or will ever vote for them) at a given moment, but it certainly seems like we are getting less effective government.

In my moments of hopelessness I wonder if the public would be happier being served by technocrats. If the faceless bureaucrats, experts and intelligentsia just made decisions, accepted public feedback but never had to worry about elections would people be happier with government? If that were the case Toronto would probably have several fold more transit than it does today, and the United States would pass a budget annually, of that I am fairly confident.

During the heights of the Great Recession, when the West was feeling down on itself, eyes turned to countries like China that were accomplishing amazing things and using the economic crisis to spur recovery with incredibly projects. It helps that China is a totalitarian regime. We don't do many mega-projects like that anymore. The public won’t stand for them. As is oft quoted, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” Is it citizens who are tired of democracy, and now politicians answer to the small number, such as myself, who are paying attention? The argument goes that public policy is too complicated to be carried out in mass media. Does a vote for one party in preference from another send any clear message? I think not.

I may be overly cynical at present as representative democratic governments from coast to coast to coast struggle. Competency, effective, predictable governance is critical to twenty-first century life and I worry how much the public at large cares about voting/participating to make it happen. If they don’t, well, bring in the technocrats. 

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