Logical Answers to Political Problems

Most Americans share the same concerns when it comes to basic institutions in their everyday lives. So why do politicians steer clear of discussing these issues on the national stage?

Politician and American flag

Straightforward answers to consequential problems stare us in the face, though there remains no political path to their actual resolution.

Photo by Fotolia/andriano_cz

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A number of public policy institutions in America are unsatisfactory. They cannot all be tackled at once. But in his book, Five Easy Theses (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016), James Stone presents some of these large issues — education, healthcare, social security, and more — in a light that makes clear some basic solutions. Stone remarks upon the failure of majority leaders to speak loudly about five very real concerns that hang over the everyman of the American people. He admits that none of the answers can be found in a day; some obvious answers seem politically unachievable at this time. But that doesn’t change the fact that the topics are worth a debate and silence on these issues helps no one.

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Let me explain the title of this book. Americans, on the whole, are deeply dissatisfied with the inability of our government to solve a host of obviously consequential problems. Some are genuinely hard to solve because they don’t have solutions that equitably resolve nasty tradeoffs between winners and losers. But the paralysis today is worse than that. Our system can’t even seem to deal with eminently solvable problems.

This book is about five of those. It presents straightforward answers to several of today’s most important public policy issues. Or, more precisely, it asserts that straightforward logical answers to some issues are staring us in the face, yet there is no political path to their resolution. I hope you will declare this an unacceptable state of affairs. Worse still, the key issues are too seldom part of what passes for political debate these days. Politicians in both parties steer away from exactly the subjects they ought to be addressing in favor of sound bites, “gotchas,” and mini-matters. My book title, I admit, is slightly facetious because the logic of the five issues is not entirely beyond debate and the politics may appear hopeless. But I wanted to make the point that these are issues politicians should stop running from. An alternative title for the book was Too Big to Touch. Please don’t mistake the conversational tone or intentional lack of bombast in what follows for a belief that the recommendations offered here are of small consequence or could be readily enacted. Together, they are transformative and thus would be heartily resisted.

Americans disagree about many things, and so it shall always be, but I would wager at pretty good odds that most of you share the concerns embodied in these five questions:

• Are you confident that Social Security and Medicare will be solvent enough to meet their promises when you and your children need them?

• Do you want to live in a society in which a tiny fraction of the public and a few corporations hold a greater share of the wealth and influence than has ever been the case in America before? Can a society so tilted be as productive and stable, not to mention pleasant, as the America you grew up in?

• Must your health care cost almost twice as much as it costs your counterparts in every other advanced nation, while our health system delivers objectively worse results than most of the others?

&bull ;Why can’t the schools of this affluent and admired nation train students not headed to college for realistic careers and stop busting the budgets and burdening the futures of so many who do go on to university?

• Did we learn anything from the Crash of 2008? How have we allowed our financial sector to accumulate even greater derivatives positions than prior to the crash, to concentrate its assets in even fewer institutions than before, and to take home a massive and unprecedented share of the economy’s profits?

I am a Democrat, but this is not a partisan book. Americans of every political stripe — the Right, the Left, the Center, the not-sures, and even the don’t-cares — share these concerns. Many talk about our nation as adrift, with hazardous rapids not necessarily around the next bend but maybe the one right after that, and surely somewhere ahead. I am not so pessimistic, but it is true that you are not getting the deal you had counted on, and that your children have even slimmer prospects of getting it in the future. We are still the most affluent and powerful nation the world has yet produced, and at little risk of losing that status anytime soon. But most Americans today believe that we are leaving our rising generation a society in worse shape than the one we inherited. If you believe that, you are probably right ... but it doesn’t have to be.

As the problems grow larger, alas, it seems that our politics become smaller. It is standard fare in civics classes to describe democracy’s requirement that officeholders find a balance between representing and leading, between following the wishes of their constituents and acting on their convictions. Similarly, there is a recurrent debate in campaigns for office between those who want to follow the polls at some critical moment and those who want the candidate to demonstrate courage and philosophical consistency. These tensions are inevitable, but today’s balance is way out of whack. Few current politicians dare to go beyond nearsighted polls, and those who do are often dismissed in the media as hopelessly outside the mainstream.

Scanning this forbidding landscape, many of you may have concluded that issues like those I have listed cannot be solved in ways that will provide any genuine benefits to you and your families. Perhaps you feel that a better life for your children has rather unexpectedly moved out of reach. America is in decline, some can be heard to complain; the century of America is in the past. To this, I say nonsense. I could hardly disagree more. This is, in fact, exactly the attitude I wish to challenge. That America has passed its peak is far from an inevitability. Ours is still the country that most favors, at least in the private and academic sectors, intellectual challenge to the established ways of doing things. And from this spring innovation and creativity no other society can match. The advantage, moreover, is proving robust. I will try to persuade you that the public sector can tap into this energy and become a worthier partner for the rest of the country — if only it would adopt some specific, commonsense policies. Only the will to act is missing; the course is relatively clear.

The course corrections I advocate are largely off the table in contemporary politics. There are three ingredients of serious political progress, and all three are currently missing. The first is clarity of vision — pragmatic thinking about courses of action that will really work. I hope to provide a bit of that here. The second ingredient I cannot provide. This ingredient is political leadership, at an opportune moment for change, imbued with the unusual guts, charisma, and communications talent to champion a bold change, even if it risks defeat and the polls suggest the public isn’t ready to follow yet. Politics is a tightrope for an elected official. You fall off to one side if you don’t get elected. You fall off as well, though, if you waste your opportunity to lead. An election to office is a chance to demonstrate leadership, in both philosophy and action, to advance the values you believe in. Public servants without idealism, politicians who don’t care about improving their slice of the world or promoting values to which they are committed, are little more than career freeloaders.

This is not, on the other hand, to suggest that all those who fail to bring about transformative change are parasites. Some of the best in public life will try and fall short. It takes more than intellect, vision, and personal courage, however admirable, to produce great leadership success. Timing counts, too. In the history of any nation, there will be moments that particularly call for tilting toward compromise and moments that call for leaning toward courage. This country has been remarkably lucky to have great statesmen who have chosen a bold leadership path and rallied public opinion in times of obvious crisis. That’s why we remember them as great. Ours are times of less apparent crisis. It remains to be seen whether, in the absence of charismatic events, leaders will rise — or the times will allow them to rise — to galvanize public opinion and act boldly in the common interest.

Clarity of vision and leadership, the first two ingredients required for change, are necessary but not sufficient. The third ingredient of change is a countervailing force to set against the well-armed protectors of the status quo. Constructive change will always find opponents in those campaign contributors and lobbyists whose goals are antithetical to the public interest on any issue. This is an inherent quality of democracy. Even in the best of times, the hand-to-hand political combat of reform has been an uphill battle. And these are not the best of times in that regard by a long shot. The recent tide has favored the already powerful. Of the three ingredients of change, winning the battle against entrenchments is the hardest to count on. Ideas, even clear ideas, will certainly be offered from time to time. History has provided the occasional brave and talented change agent. The battle against the interests is more formidable. But I am sure it cannot be won without a clear agenda and the emergence of courageous leaders to precede that battle.

An astute friend told me years ago that the United States is S ruled by a bicameral government, but it’s not the one described in civics books. He said we have a House of Money and a House of Votes, where the former is in charge day to day and even year to year but the latter is a sleeping dragon that could rise up and take control briefly when properly stirred. I’ll be proud if this work contributes even a jostle to awaken the dragon from its sleep.

As a Democrat, I considered at one point writing a book addressed mainly to members of my own party. Much of what I propose, though, ill fits the political mainstream for both major parties at the moment. I have more hope that Independents and open-minded people more generally can make progress than I have for the most partisan factions of either party. At this juncture, the Democrats are weak in both clarity and farsightedness, and the Republicans are disinclined to change what must be changed. Too many Democrats have fallen into espousing bland policies that voters see as unlikely to bring any major improvement to their lives and finances. Republicans have not broken free from wealthy interests with manifestly narrow objectives.

The Democrats are hurt nowadays by the natural pendulum of politics writ large. Left-of-center ideas had held sway from the time of Franklin D. Roosevelt until the Reagan Revolution. Lofty expectations proved unmet, and the pendulum swung. An even grander pendulum was simultaneously in sweep. From the time of Karl Marx until recently, idealistic egalitarian thinking was in vogue worldwide. Many intellectuals around the world looked forward to the near-perfectibility of their societies; this was a futile notion from the start. The harsh truth is that we humans are an imperfect species by our evolutionary nature, forever to be conflicted between altruism and selfishness, warlike and peaceful urges, competition and cooperation, hierarchy and rebellion, empathy and antipathy. The Left has never recovered from the embarrassment of having fallen in love with a disillusioning dream. As the reigning giant of evolutionary biology, E.O. Wilson, likes to say, “Great idea. Wrong species.”

We are destined to continue with little concept of what an ideal society would look like. That’s why cartoonists envision heaven as a place where souls with little winglets sit on clouds strumming harps. Try to picture what you would like to do every day in blissful eternity, and you will come up short, too. For that reason, this book makes no attempt to lay out universal advice applicable across time or place. I have, however, a predilection for free enterprise democracy. Properly regulated market economies have proven themselves beyond reasonable doubt. Pluralistic democracy, even if not as robust, has proven itself as well. The invisible hand is a powerful idea. Enlightened self-interest is good for the economy, and with a level-enough playing field, it can contribute to sound governance. This agenda is not, therefore, a call to sacrifice, debilitating austerity, or the nobility of adherence to some rigid ideology. Instead, it offers solutions that deliver tangible benefits for the majority of us today and, all the more so, for future American generations. I will not be asking Americans to search for their better angels. More emphatically, I’m not counting on any alteration of human nature. I do ask the reader to think logically and try to put aside political categories and opportunities for sophistry in favor of the national interest. The alternative is a less pluralistic, less democratic, and less prosperous future America.


James M. Stone is the author of the new book, Five Easy Theses. He is the founder and chief executive of the Plymouth Rock group of insurance companies, former chairman of the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission, former Commonwealth of Massachusetts Insurance Commissioner and an active philanthropist.

Excerpted from FIVE EASY THESES: Commonsense Solutions to America’s Greatest Economic Solutions. Copyright 2016 by James M. Stone. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.