Posted tagged ‘dysfunction’

When Divided We Stand, United We Fall

February 17, 2014

“The American system of government is adversarial in nature but not a win-at-all-costs system.”

-Anonymous Atlanta Lawyer at a Leadership Conference

It surprised me last December when Congress passed a budget for fiscal year 2014 with such little drama.  Albeit it was almost three months into the fiscal year, which started October 1st, but after the reckless inaction in recent years, it was a marked improvement.  That occurred again last week with seemingly normal legislation to increase the debt ceiling.  After Mitch McConnell, the Senate Minority Leader, voted to increase the borrowing authority of the United States causing the measure to pass, several in his party changed their votes before the official count to support him.  Those are telling shifting winds in a political party that recently shutdown the government over similar financial controversies.  (Further it is a particular option to change your vote after one knows the outcome before the final recorded vote; one can vote against and decry something beneficial to their district as often happened with government spending during the recession of recent past.  Alas that is another post.)

What has caused the recent drastic shift in political calculus for both parties; over the last few years Congressional dysfunction is seemingly both politically and personally beneficial.  And it is still present.  As political brinkmanship again threatened a politically dramatic show of wills over the country’s financial solvency, the reversal of reductions in military retirement pays—at no small cost to the country—sails through nearly unanimously.  I do not recall those cuts passing with such unanimity in the weeks prior.

It was at a conference on Ethical Leadership many years ago that a local litigator offered a beautiful insight.  The American system of government is adversarial in nature but not a win-at-all-costs system.

If politics is the gaming of a political system, the current sitting Congress, and those of recent years past, would well heed this lesson.  Which Congressmen fail to understand and heed that divided we stand, united we fall?  There is no shame in not winning or getting one’s way.  This country gives freedom to the minority voice.  What is does not offer is permission for the minority to hijack the process until their way is met.  There is a greater good that is seemingly lost in the reckless pursuit for individual interests.  What comes to mind is the colonial America cartoon by Benjamin Franklin of a rattlesnake chopped into pieces.  Each piece was labeled as a state and the picture carried a simple caption: “Join, or die.”  Today’s snake contains more pieces in a world not less fraught with dangers.

From the outside, I prefer relationships in which the other is more predictable and less self-centered than the one I currently share with my representatives in government.

So it again returns to us.  Do we permit this hijacking by any political party?  Do we trust those that represent us or not; if not, we deserve better.  Do we hold them accountable or do we permit ourselves to tolerate an abusive relationship?

Finite and Infinite Games: How Politics Fits In

January 11, 2013

It has been insightful reading news articles and political commentary as 2012 came to an end. There was relief with the brief reprise from the political drama. Then there were individual politicians holding press conferences with posturing, grandstanding, criticisms and promises that next time the results will be more to his wanting. This was generally followed by the disturbingly continued use of yesterday’s news today as justification for political election plans years from now.

I was surprised to find most news articles in these fevered days before the automatic funding cuts placed focus on the coinciding expiring tax cuts and not sequestration itself. The latter is the far larger problem but its impact on the constituency is less direct than the then pending tax increase.

Perhaps because it is a significantly more complicated, politically charged issue, it just makes a more difficult, rare story. Perhaps this is the nature of politics, but to me it has the feeling of another poorly-scripted reality television show.

(Are you feeling lost in what sequestration is? The State of Arizona’s Department of Education contracted for an excellent summary on that here

My question: If we made such little progress over the preceding 15 months, even with a bi-partisan committee formed to address the matter, what will be done differently in the next two months to avoid repeat of December 31. I do not see public reactions from politicians encouraging or desiring this. That is disturbing to me. Today’s colloquialism describing this is “to kick the can down the road” to describe the constant state of delaying the tough decisions.

I am suddenly reminded of “Finite and Infinite Games” by James Carse.  In his book, finite games are those governed by an agreed upon set of rules and have a defined beginning and end.  The rules cannot be changed and the object of the game is to win.  The outcome of the game is not known beforehand.  An example would be a football game.  The players and spectators know the rules, but no one knows for certain which team will emerge victorious.  Games do not have to be games or sports in the traditional sense and can be fun or serious.  War, for example, is a finite game played until one side concedes victory to the other.

Conversely, in an infinite game the goal is the keep the game in play.  Hence the rules must change if they will bring the game to an end.  It is a game without a defined beginning or end.  The philosophical example in his book is life.  The book then continues on to provide other lenses to view the world that, while not contradictory to this writing, would generate unnecessary clutter.

As I watch college football Bowl Games I contrast them with politics.  Interestingly, politics seems to be morphing into an infinite game.  Politicians, regardless of ideology, seem to prolong their time in office by avoiding the difficult questions for fear of failing re-election.

This exposes a critical flaw in American government.  What is the career path of a politician?  What does a 45-year-old politician do after holding elected office for only a single or a few terms?  There is not a compelling incentive for politicians to leave and there can be a sharp penalty for leaving voluntarily or involuntarily through a failed reelection campaign.

This introduces career politicians who act not in the finite game of a term but rather as the infinite game of maintaining political careers.  This conflict of interest between politicians and American citizens drive politicians to avoid difficult conversations and accountability.  These are both aspects of a finite game and run contrary to the career politician’s interest of an infinite game.

This maladaptation of the political process in not in the spirit of the Philidelphia Convention which drafted the US Constitution.  As history tells us, this was not a document created by unanimity.  The divides were startling and only 39 of the 55 delegates signed the final document.  Yet decisions were made in the interests of the country that were not to the complete satisfaction of all.  All of this happened in less than four months, between May 25 and September 17, 1787.  I cringe in dismay that the current Congress, irrespective of political party, could not accomplish a fraction of such a dramatic feat.

An interesting twist is that the finite games of political terms provide the necessary conditions to inspire action today.  For they inhibit procrastination and self-serving delays with a limited time for action before one’s replacement arrives.  This continual renewal is needed to protect perhaps the most important infinite game: freedom.

Congressional Failure: Betrayal of Trust and Our Wishes

November 25, 2011

As I read about the unfettered drama and dysfunction of my country’s political leaders, I am aghast by one thing: collectively as the American people, we trusted these individuals to run our government.

The November approval rating for Congress is 13% according to Gallup. 1  That seems to hollow out individual congressmen rhetoric that the current woes and problems are principally caused by the sitting president.  While we may not be overjoyed with either, the President’s approval rating is more than three times higher at 43%. 2  To me that indicates the public resoundingly disagrees with that self-serving assertion.

What causes my disbelief is that our founding fathers designed a representative democracy.  The American people pay each congressman $174,000 a year. 3  Many commentators are predicting that politicians will not meaningfully revisit the hard issue of our country’s financial health until 2013, after the 2012 elections.

The individuals I am employing through my tax dollars are taking a year off at the expense of the American public to get re-elected?  This is after they have collectively been unsuccessful in accomplishing the tasks placed before them.

My taxes are hard-earned monies during difficult times.  Those unable to solve the problems before us are squandering it.  My elected official are not being paid more than four times the average national salary of $41,674 4 to be concerned about re-election; they are there to solve the problems left by those unwilling and incapable before them.  They are there to address new problems.  They are there to do so collectively in the best interests of the American people as a whole.  For me they are failing to fulfill their charges.

I ask: are your elected officials acting in what you believe to be your best interests? In that of the American people as a whole?

If yes Main Street, then we are to blame for entrusting those on Pennsylvania Avenue.  We elected them to reflect our values and further our wishes.  It is us, as much as them, acting like immature two-year olds on a playground insisting on our way or nothing.  Does this caustic rhetoric and inability to find partial resolution to difficult problems truly reflect the American people and values?  I hope not.  If it does, I believe we have profoundly lost our way.  We are not acting as a positive role-model for the world as its sole Superpower.

If no, talk with each other, find your voice, raise it and return responsibility and moderation to the conversation through your actions.  Give direction to your elected officials.  Hold your elected offices responsible at the polls.

The founding fathers did not promise that our way of life would be easy.  They gave us a government in which the ultimate responsibility lies with the people for we elect the government.  They preferred death to continued existence under a government that ignored their wishes.  Let us rise above the squabbling, noise, and drama, and move towards a different way.  I hope that Americans have not become so disillusioned as to believe that neither their vote nor their voice will change anything.  Our country was founded on quite the opposite, and it is only us who can cause the change again.


1. Newport, F. (2011, November 14). Congress’ job approval entrenched at record low of 13%. Retrieved from

2. Gallup Daily: Obama job approval. (2011, November 21). Retrieved from, ()

3. Longley, R. (n.d.). Salaries and benefits of US congress members. Retrieved from

4. Social Security Administration. (n.d.). National average wage index. Retrieved from