Sunday, November 8, 2009

Flow and Politics

Loved this section:

The Wider Community

A person is part of a family or a friendship to the extent he invests psychic energy in goals shared with other people. In the same way, one can belong to larger interpersonal systems by subscribing to the aspirations of a community, an ethnic group, a political party, or a nation. Some individuals, like the Mahatma Gandhi or Mother Theresa, invest all their psychic energy in what they construe to be the goals of humanity as a whole.

In the ancient Greek usage, "politics" referred to whatever involved people in affairs that went beyond personal and family welfare. In this broad sense, politics can be one of the most enjoyable and most complex activities available to the individual, for the larger the social arena one moves in, the greater the challenges it presents. A person can deal with very intricate problems in solitude, and family and friends can take up a lot of attention. But trying to optimize the goals of unrelated individuals involves complexities an order of magnitude higher.

Unfortunately, many people who move in the pubic arena do not act at very high levels of complexity. Politicians tend to seek power, philanthropists fame, and would-be saints often seek to prove how righteous they are. These goals are not so hard to achieve, provided one invests enough energy in them. The greater challenge is not only to benefit oneself, but to help others in the process. It is more difficult, but much more fulfilling, for the politician to actually improve social conditions, for the philanthropist to help out the destitute, and for the saint to provide a viable model of life to others.

If we consider only material consequences, we might regard selfish politicians as canny because they try to achieve wealth and power for themselves. But if we accept the fact that optimal experience is what gives real value to life, then we must conclude that politicians who strive to realize the common good are actually smarter, because they are taking on the higher challenges, and thus have a better chance to experience real enjoyment.

Any involvement in the public realm can be enjoyable, provided one structures it according to the flow parameters. It does not matter whether one starts to work with the Cub Scouts or with a group exploring the Great Books, or trying to preserve a clean environment, or supporting the local union. What counts is to set a goal, to concentrate one's psychic energy, to pay attention to feedback, and to make certain that the challenge is appropriate to one's skill. Sooner or later the interaction will begin to hum, and the flow experience follows.

Of courses, given the fact that psychic energy is in limited supply, one cannot expect that everyone will be able to become involved in public goals. Some people have to devote all their attention just to survive in a hostile environment. Others get so involved with a certain set of challenges - with art, for instance, or mathematics - that they can't bear to shift any attention away from it. But life would be harsh indeed if some people did not enjoy investing psychic energy in common concerns, thereby creating synergy in social systems.

The concept of flow is useful not only in helping individuals improve the quality of their lives, but also in pointing out how public action should be directed. Perhaps the most powerful effect flow theory could have in the pubic sector is in providing a blueprint for how institutions could be reformed so as to make them more conducive to optimal experience. In the past few centuries economic rationality has been so successful that we have come to take for granted that the "bottom line" of any human effort is to be measured in dollars and cents. But an exclusively economic approach to life is profoundly irrational; the true bottom line consists in the quality and complexity of experience.

A community should be judged good no because it is technologically advanced, or swimming in material riches; it is good if it offers people a chance to enjoy as many aspects of their lives as possible, while allowing them to develop their potential in the pursuit of ever greater challenges. Similarly the value of a school does not depend on its prestige, or its ability to train students to face up to the necessities of life, but rather on the degree of the enjoyment of lifelong learning it can transmit. A good factory is not necessarily the one that makes the most money, but the one that is the most responsible for improving the quality of life for its workers and its customers. And the true function of politics is not to make people more affluent, safe, or powerful, but to let as many as possible enjoy an increasingly complex existence.

But no social change can come about until the consciousness of individuals is changed first. When a young man asked Carlyle how he should go about changing the world, Carlyle answered, "Reform yourself. That way there will be one less rascal in the world." The advice is still valid. Those who try to make life better for everyone without having learned to control their own lives first usually end up making things worse all around.

That last paragraph explains exactly why I was so hard on Bill Clinton during the 1990's... He just didn't seem right to me, and I guess the Monica Lewinsky scandal confirmed that for me. In retrospect, he governed better than I gave him credit, and I'm sure the Republican party at the time was on a witch hunt. But despite some of his successes (he reduced the deficits drastically and presided over a pretty prosperous time, and some of that was because of his policies - although most of that came because of the internet revolution), but I think also he governed selfishly, looking mostly toward his own legacy, concerned more over how he was seen by others.

The Bush Jr. presidency was different I think. More or less, I think Bush was probably a pretty good, sincere person, but prior to the presidency, I'm not sure how much he really had to push himself toward difficult goals. Sure he was governor of Texas, owner of the Rangers, etc. But most everything he got was received with a pretty serious assist from his name and his family connections. And his resume was bereft of any really serious accomplishments, and plenty of failures litter his stat sheet. I think his brother Jeb may have been a better candidate and probably would have been a better president.

As a result, much of the first six years of his presidency was presided over more by Cheney than him, especially foreign policy. And his administration was very slow to react, to recognize the failures of their actions and to adapt. Most notably, the Iraq war deteriorated for 6 years without any adjustments, until Rumsfeld was tossed aside and the reigns were handed over to Patreus. And although Paulson and Bernanke responded violently quick when it became obvious the economy was teetering, we got to that point, under the neglectful care of Bush and his administration.

With Obama, I remain hopeful, but his presidency is still young. Unlike Bush, Obama has worked his way up from a much lower rung of the ladder. And he has seen some significant life accomplishments, especially academically and politically. His main successes were in the classroom - both as a student and as a professor (he was a constitutional law professor at the University of Chicago for 8 years) and as a campaigner: he knew how to work the political machine to get ahead. And his campaign for president was masterful and disciplined. You could say this was not sufficient enough to qualify him for the presidency, and I would agree. But in my view, he was significantly more qualified than Bush was before him. And more suited for the office than Clinton, so has the chance to exceed both of his predecessors.

But he also faces much more complicated challenges: two wars, a tinderbox in the Middle East, a global recession with unprecedentedly high unemployment, a health care system that is on a trajectory to bankrupt our country, serious global warming concerns, and a toxic and politically poisoned political environment.

I think his first year has been good but not great. He has not lived up to impossibly high expectations many had of him. Given his experience and the circumstances he faces, I think it was unrealistic to have expected him to live up to some of our past great presidents - at least right away.

I'm still not sure if his pursuit of the presidency was a pursuit of political power or a pursuit to take on the challenge to improve our country. I expect its a combination, but we'll know more as we see things progress.

But even if he is doing everything he's doing for the most sincere reasons, I'm not sure whether his administration is even capable to meet the incredibly complex challenges he is being asked to face.

In fact, on his own, its impossible. He needs the cooperation of both political parties and the minority party serves an important purpose in this regard. All successful presidents have to work with the opposition party at least to some degree and the Republican party can if they desire do nothing more than to try to sabatoge President Obama at every turn.

Or they can try to work with him to come up with viable solutions in the spirit of compromise.

I hope we see the latter. I'm afraid we're getting too much of the former.

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