Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Congress Rides Buses and Trains

Public officials should be required to ride public transportation.

Public officials, whether elected or appointed, tend to live in a very different world than most of us. Even when they are financially middle class, they have benefits that allow them to avoid the circumstances of life which we, middle and lower class people, regularly encounter. Unfortunately for the public interest, most of them are much wealthier than middle class. And because they do not live with the same conditions and circumstances of most of the people whom their decisions effect, even when they are trying to be empathetic it is primarily a conceptual, theoretical and political process.

It does not matter where in the political spectrum officials are. The issues among those on different sides of the political spectrum are about what to emphasize, which aspect of a decision or the consequences of the decision to focus on. For instance, a generalized question might be, do we focus on the benefits of spending or on the burdens of taxing? Another instance, do we focus on the need to maintain and increase national security in the face of potential enemies or do we focus on concerns about the effects of military industrial coalitions in terms of power corruption and wasteful spending, as well as unnecessary violence?

We lack a way to allow those who make the decisions, especially the legislative and administrative officials on all levels of government, to experientially sense the consequences of their actions. Therefore they miss seeing many sides of the issues and potential options. Instead, often it is only the limited conceptual and ideological positions which are the focus of their attention.

Public officials should be required to ride public transportation. Similarly, when rules are made for airport screening, this should apply to ALL – including administrative officials, legislators and even TSA officials. ALL means rich and poor, doing away with special privileges to those who pay extra. Then all might experience a bit more what the results of their actions are for people on a daily basis. And therefore they might reflect more deeply on what rules and decisions they make, whether these are appropriate and will accomplish what is desired without too many negative side effects. If they experience the results of their rule making then what is done politically and administratively would reflect this. It is good to have all walk in the same shoes – and take off the same shoes.

No more special planes for government officials (except maybe for the President and VP for security reasons). Even the press corps, those who opine and attempt to lead the public thinking on various matters, should have to be part of the public if they want to speak for and to the public. Similarly, the decisions about highways, traffic rules, parking and public transportation funding and regulations should only be made by those who live the talk, taking away special parking permits and reserved parking of public officials in crowded cities, taking away the chauffeured vehicles  and the many other ways that these officials avoid the rules they impose on everyone else.

These are just the tip of an iceberg of finding ways to insure that political leaders and rule makers experientially live the changes they make in our societal and cultural life.

This sort of approach is relevant to a number of different areas, including some recent or longstanding political conflicts. For instance, regarding illegal immigration, here are just a few of the questions we could look at:

What is it like for citizens in communities and states who now face increased tax burdens and decreased publicly available services because of an increased population of illegal immigrants, most of whom do not and have not been paying their share of the taxes to provide these services? 

What must it be like for the immigrant who is facing a life of poverty and other hardships in their homeland to take the risks to enter the US illegally and living as an illegal resident, with the potentials for arrest and limited opportunities? 

And what does hiring of the illegal immigrants do to the moral fiber of all of those involved? 

What happens to the society where the rule of law is flouted? 

Unfortunately, in the political debates on this issue, in the difficulty in finding an appropriate solution, of finding a skillful means to address the reality of the conditions on the US border and within the US, often we tend to focus on only one perspective. There is not the willingness by most public officials, the media or even scholars to encompass the many different perspectives, to see them all as legitimate for some individuals, and to see that what is done needs to at least acknowledge them all, despite the fact that there will always be those who do not like any decision, who will feel that they “lost. ” 

Do we need to believe that decisions will be a zero sum game – where if one wins that means the other losses?

This sort of experiential creative empathy approach that I am writing of is also relevant to thorny and long standing areas of conflicts. For example, between the Israelis and Palestinians there is a conflict that is about two peoples having two very different perspectives, history and claims to the same land. Around abortion in the US the conflict is between the rights and life of the woman verses the life and rights of the fetus/unborn. (Notice that even the way of framing these issues can generate disagreement.) It would be interesting to explore these issues from an experiential empathy perspective. Because of the complexity of the issues it would take more than just a paragraph to clarify this matter, so I will write about those in future blogs.

Creative empathy is not simply “walking in someone’s shoes.” Regarding public policy, it is on an ongoing basis not exempting the rule-makers from the rules, enabling them to truly be part of the greater public, living their life, seeing with their eyes. Then, even in the midst of political and ideological disagreements and compromises, they can truly act with the public interest, for the public interest.

Lest we forget, these sorts of issues with public officials are not new: "The arrogance of officialdom should be tempered and controlled, and assistance to foreign hands should be curtailed, lest Rome fall." said Marcus Cicero   - 55 BCE.

© 2011 Elihu Genmyo Smith