Saturday, February 22, 2014

Let's expand the concept of "public interest" from campaign finance to an objective vetting of all political candidates, irrespective of political ideology

There are so many reports about the fiscal crisis, based on the assumption that the primary purpose of the political class is to maintain unemployment rates below 7%, and debt to GDP ratios that are tolerable, given the history of economic comparisons, and the ideology of the various "schools" of economic theory. And then there is the "balance of trade" equation, and the DOW and the NASDAQ and the TSX and the various stock exchange indices that take the temperature of the so-called financial body of health of a country, and when combined with a similar and matching set of numbers from other developed countries, comprise a daily "read" on the state of global economic health for the purpose of generating "investor confidence" in the markets and increased economic stability.
And, just as the doctors in their offices consult the latest findings in the Lancet, and the New England Journal of Medicine, and the AMA Journal, on the most recently discerned evidence of what works to stabilize the health of their patients, including new technologies and new pharmaceutical products as well as new procedures with both, so too is the political class expected to "stay current" on the latest information in order to continue to practice their profession. Unfortunately, rather than "credit hours" of study, research and colloqium engagement that applies to the medical profession in order to maintain their license to practice, the political class "puts in time" doing whatever it is that the headlines and their constitutents, especially those with deep pockets, and waits for the next election or the next scandal to determine their professional fate.
And, so, without our objective and systematic attempt to provide a score on the performance of the governments of various nations, provinces and states, we have developed the dreaded "opinion poll" that, like the daily stock reports, purports to tell us which political issue is "hot" and which has receded to the back burner, which politician is "rising" and who is "falling" in the eyes of the public.
And there is a thriving industry training and deploying its agents to take the pulse of a given population, for governments, for corporations, for the military and for sociologists whose task includes the planning of various activities from the highly profit-centric to those that are more philanthropic, or even centred on national security. Supporting both of these thriving sectors, opinion gathering, and medical and technological research, is a media whose task it is to disseminate the information they receive from the public relations offices in the various segments of these "sectors" in order that we too can form some modicum of a gestalt on the culture in which we live and play and make our living, if we are so privileged to have a "living wage".
Except anecdotally, we have not produced measurements of an objective nature for the level of confidence, and strength of character and compassion and  balance of our leaders, especially those we put into positions of judgement and decision-making, on our behalf. We watch their "television sound bites" and note the amount of gray hair that has increased over the years, and we listen to their facial and rhetorical expressions as a window on their ability to maintain our trust and our confidence, in a world in which the levels of confidence and trust in every person seems to be dropping by the hour.
And while there is solid evidence of the dangers and the threats we all face, including new super-bugs that are resistant to the current crop of antibiotics, and the new deep internet whose capacities we are yet to discover and to untap, and the next threat that might jump out at us when we least expect it, for example when thousands of us are just finishing our latest marathon, and temptations for every public servant to abuse the expense accounts or to tell one audience one promise and another audience a contradictory commitment in the hope that no 'journalist-researcher' will uncover the duplicity...and the list of threats is literally endless.
At the same time, we are discerning a new kind of communication in which millions if not billions of people are engaged, that also undermines personal, and thereby public confidence, because it permits a level of visciousness, even contempt and libel, without having to face those we have chosen as the latest target of our venom and without having even to take responsibility for that personal venom. Who has the funds to launch a legal battle to call out this level of erosion of the public trust and the public confidence that we have innocently and collectively placed in those whose lives are focused both on profit and the next "techie" device that can make them rich and the rest of us even more dependent on their corporate empire and the culture that supports it.
Not so long ago, we used to have debates and discussions about the relative importance of the individual versus the group, in our political discourse and our political ideological debates. Putting one ahead of the other signalled our preference and our personal world view. It was also a debate in which all people of all economic levels and intellectual status and professional credentials could and did participate on a relatively level playing field. Today, that lens has been replaced by the juxtaposition of those who have with those who have not, as if our personal wealth was equal to and determinative of our "value" to the society. And, as part of the list of inevitable results of the new framing of the political discourse, the status and the confidence and the relative importance of those who "have not" has dropped almost off the scale of consideration, as if our political class has become beholden to those whose cheques made and make their election feasible and therefore their loyalty has been earned, in spite of the glaring fact that they have been "bought" and "paid for" by their puppeteers.
No person who is beholden to another, even if it is to a group of "others" can or does have adequate confidence to merit trust. And no person willing to enter into the game of public leadership can afford the price of being purchased, in a world in which bringing truth to power has become a hallmark and a sine qua non of achieving balance and equilibrium through collaboration, rather than dominance and increasing hegemony through more spending and more military and all the other  forms of hard power. We are, it is generally agreed, competitive in nature, and that competition is displayed on so many stages, to grab profits, votes, trophies and 'bragging rights' for whatever group seeks to earn public trust and confidence. And while there is good reason to celebrate that competitive spirit at Sochi, or in other Olympic venues, and in school gyms and small town ice pads, it loses its relevance and significance when the public interest is being both served and sought.
The degree to which a political leader superimposes his/her personal goals and ambitions ahead of those of the people he serves is an index of the degree to which that individual has failed in the execution of his/her responsibilities to those people. And those goals involve not only the platform on which s/he campaigned, but also the methods deployed in the execution of those planks in that platform. And we need some objective measuring device(s), not merely anecdotal stories that grab headlines, to ascertain the degree to which one is a servant, not a slave but a servant, to the public interest. And in order to achieve such  measurements, outside the scope of the next election, and provided at least monthly by research that is funded by public funds, we need to deploy independent scholars as we do "independent" reseachers in the scientific community. Think tanks, for the most part, seek and find financial support from their ideological soul-mates, and can be counted on for their framing of social and political issues in ways that support their ideological persuasion. Needed, of course, but not adequate for this purpose.
Transparency and accountability are mere words without consistent, objective and verifiable research on the public scale of both values and methods of leadership, for all elected, (and who would oppose even appointed executives) in order to better ascertain the level of trust and confidence of which a potential leader is worthy, and the level of confidence that would be "inspired" in the people as part of the legacy of such a leader.
While individuals can and will continue to inspire others to pursue activities in which both have a deep and lasting interest and commitment, the public interest is so abstract and so pervasive and so vulnerable to the latest "selling" and marketing seductions, as to be vulnerable to the take-over by the most cunning and the least honest and authentic of those who seek to serve the public interest.
And when it is reported that both sides of the environmental protection debate will throw millions, if not billions, of private funds into that debate in the upcoming mid-term elections in the U.S., we are watching the de-facto take-over of that debate by those who can afford to "pay less tax" on their caverns of cash, by "creating jobs" and "generating public debate" in favour of their personal agenda.
And when the process is taken over by those who "have" we know that those who "have not" will become even more "pawns" in a chess-game over which they have no influence.
Public debates are, unfortunately, too often framed in a binary manner, as if to walk and chew gum were incompatible and mutually exclusive, and a third option is considered a sell-out by both sides who consider their position moderate, but to an objective observer, it could legitimately be considered extreme. And democracy, different from the court room, requires more than two options, and more than a Manichean world view, if it is to operate and grow organically, and serve the public interest, even at the expense of "not favouring" those with deep and filled pockets.
We need more people who can count on being seen for their nuanced willingness and capacity to discern the complexities of the many and varied crises facing the world, because they are willing to risk the public disclosure of that nuanced view, and because we have ways to demonstrate that nuanced and complex world view that are objective, verifiable and consistent. And along with public financing of election campaigns, we need public funds dedicated to the vetting of all public figures, irrespective of their political ideology.  And we need to develop curricular opportunities in our young people that will engender their confidence and their willing participation in the public arena, for the merit of their values and their intellectual contributions and their world view, not for their capacity to "survive" some kind of phony and fatuous black and white competition that includes the sacrifice of their good name and reputation. And the public "interest" requires both mechanisms and their adequate and long-term public commitment through both legislation and public funding to sustain them.
If the political class were a "self-regulating profession" we would demand higher standards from their own "professional college" that could and would be publicly documented, and not leave such important matters to the muck-raking of the latest tabloid seeking sales and advertising.



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