28 August 2008

Werther's Law

Here' a longish quote from this site. Not sure I agree with everything the writer says, but s/he sounds like an insider—and a wise one at that. Not least because this article echoes some points we've made previously. [Don't worry, we'll be getting back to our creative writing quandary soon. But remember: this is an eclectic blog—check out the title.]
To explain why the American political class invades the wrong countries, indemnifies criminals, picks people like Joe Biden for responsible positions, and engages in so many other destructive acts, we modestly propose Werther's Law, or the Iron Law of Adverse Political Selection: in decadent political systems the most damaging policy option tends to be the one chosen.

To explain how Werther's Law works, we need reference to another political rule of thumb, the Iron Law of Oligarchy, which states that all organizations tend to develop into hierarchies with oligarchs at the top. We submit that those oligarchies over time tend to become inbred, either literally (think Bush family), or because they select members based on obedience to hierarchy, a groupthink mentality, and ability to self-censor. The rewards for correct behavior are lucrative: not only the thrill of wielding power when in office but a virtual ironclad guarantee of well-remunerated lifetime employment as a lobbyist, a board member of a defense contractor, or a holder of an endowed chair at a foundation.

Making serious mistakes, or even pursuing disastrous policies, are no impediment to one's career moving onward and upward. "Failing upward" (known cynically in Washington as "f*ck up and move up") is an occurrence as frequent in Washington as the common cold. How else to explain Paul Wolfowitz's horrific tenure at the Department of Defense being rewarded with a plum job as president of the World Bank, where he could make further business contacts that would keep him well-paid even after he failed in that job? It is no sin to be incompetent; it is a sin to be competent and diligent in one's job if it involves blowing the whistle on malfeasance in one's organization. The fate of whistleblowers in the Bush administration is abundant evidence of this. No one with a mortgage likes to be demoted, fired, or blackballed from future employment.

As the oligarchy metastasizes, it penetrates and transforms other governmental and non-governmental organizations, including those intended to serve as watchdogs. Congress ceases to oversee military spending, because every weapon system is built in somebody's district. The media hires "news analysts" straight out of the White House and "military analysts" whose explicit understanding of their jobs is to present wars in the best possible light.

The public becomes less and less able to affect the issues. The American people are not noted for their driving intellectual curiosity in the first place, but should public indignation lead to protest it is quickly channeled into electoral politics, where the protest is drained of life. Elections themselves are characterized by personality contests, horse-race trivia, and strenuous efforts to avoid real issues. The opposing candidates, chosen by political hierarchies, afford the voter the choice between Coke and Diet Coke even if he desperately wants Bordeaux.

The oligarchy, and the political system that radiates outward from it, becomes an interlocking and self-reinforcing web of interests. Success becomes what serves the interest of the oligarchy (including the financial interest of individual members thereof); failure is whatever does not serve its interest. The system is inwardly focused, self-referential, and hostile to new ideas. The illusion of free debate is maintained by allowing marginal, process-oriented criticism ("not enough troops"). Those who reject the rules of the game and fundamentally critique the system, like Ron Paul or Dennis Kucinich, are simply quarantined, ridiculed by the bought media, and often face primary challenges organized by the party hierarchy.

Such a system is either notably incurious about the world outside its own power structure or else it seeks to interpret that world in ways that complement its own flattering self-image. Left to mature long enough the system becomes delusional. Hence all the crowing in the past 20 years about indispensable nations, hyperpowers, and so forth. Given that war is incredibly remunerative to the oligarchy (hundreds of thousands of people within a 50-mile radius of the Capitol make a really, really good living off it) even as it drains the resources of the public at large, it is no wonder that Washington habitually resorts to the sword. The fact that it provides an overseas scapegoat doesn't hurt, either, in terms of keeping the home folks in line.

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