Saturday, April 30, 2016

The perils of reading the fake government org chart

Out of the many oddities of the democratic process in the west, two points stand out.

First, the average citizen has very little idea about how his government works.

Second, the average citizen has very little idea that he has very little idea about how his government works.

If pushed, I think the second point is the more remarkable one. It is quite an amazing feat of propaganda. The evidence that government doesn't work the way most people assume it does is all around them. But they somehow manage to never notice.

I think it comes back to the distinction between the real and the nominal organisational chart of government.

In the case of China, your average American understands that he has no idea how its government functionally operates. Furthermore, he also assumes, rightly, not to trust the notional description coming from China of how its government works. America has a Congress. China, as it turns out, also has a Congress. The average American, however, is likely to be correctly skeptical about whether this body is actually exercising any substantial decision-making authority. He suspects that finding out how China's government actually works is likely to be a difficult task, and one that will require some considerable research.

But for some reason, these thoughts never seem to occur to him about his own government, even though every single one would be just as appropriate.

In the case of America, he has been inculcated with the official organisational chart since birth. There are three branches - legislative, judicial and executive. They exist in a separation of powers, and all are ultimately answerable to the voters, who elect Congress and the President, and thus can eventually appoint all the Supreme Court nominees.

Granted, this is not an absurd description. All these bodies really do exist. At some point, perhaps, this was how governmental decisions in America were actually made.

On the other hand, our hypothetical reader would need to only click on a news website on almost any given day to find events that seem wholly inconsistent with this being the set of people who in practice make decisions as to how government runs.

To take but one example, it was recently announced that Harriet Tubman will replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill.

This, of course, raises a number of questions that the average person almost certainly never gets around to asking, but probably should.

Let's start with the basics.

Who, exactly, decided that this would happen?

As a beginning, he has absolutely no idea. Without googling, he couldn't even name the office behind this decision.

Reading through the article, we're told that this was announced by Treasury Secretary Jack Lew. Hands up, nice and high, if you've ever heard that name before.

More to the point, being announced by Jack Lew is not the same as being decided by Jack Lew. If it were just decided by Jack Lew, then we can somehow finagle all this akwardly into the notional chart. Obama appointed Lew, he could fire him (perhaps - who knows) and get someone else in who would put Jackson back on.

But how do you know who else was involved in this decision? Are you sure it was just Lew? There are 86,000 people working at the Treasury. You're certain it was just the top guy, on his own, who came up with the plan? Let's be honest, that seems pretty damn unlikely. If every decision is made singlehandedly from the top, what on earth are those 86,000 people doing each day?

If you fire Lew, it's possible the plan gets reversed. It's also possible that you've just fired the guy who's the spokesman, or the frontman for the operation. He'll just be replaced by someone else, and the show will merrily go on.

But even the 'treasury employees make the decision' model seems a little too neat. Indeed, the Washington Post article lists a number of groups and people that seem wholly alien to how this process is meant to work, including:
-Kari Winter, a professor who studies slavery at the University of Buffalo
-A viral campaign by a group "Women on $20s"
-Ben Bernanke
-A musical about Alexander Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who apparently was personally contacted by Lew in the leadup to this decision (when it was decided that Hamilton wasn't getting ditched from the $10)
-Liz Maatz, vice president of government relations for the American Association of University Women

One of two things seems true. Either these people are part of the actual decision-making process. Or the Washington Post is just asking random nobodies to give their opinion

Which do you suppose is more likely? Who do you suppose knows more about how government operates, you or the Washington Post?

Because, dear average interlocutor, let us get to the heart of the matter.

You still believe the notional org chart, because this is all you know. This decision must come from the Secretary of Treasury, which comes from the President, which comes from us, the voters. Ergo, we can reverse this by voting for Trump in November, who certainly wouldn't put up with this nonsense.


But didn't they tell you this when you voted for George W. Bush twice? Looking back, what exactly did that get you?

You would do better to start by admitting some basic truths.

You have no idea who made this decision.

You have no idea how, or if, it could be reversed.

You have no idea who is actually governing you.

And if you've gotten that far, why are you so sure that voting will fix it?

No comments:

Post a Comment