Leadership, Politics and the News – Part 2

In part 1 we tried to define leadership and how that might be different from dictatorship. This line of thought was brought on by an opinion piece in the paper by David Harsany which was headlined ” Admit it: you just want your own dictator”.  In this article he opined that the “incessant clamoring by voters”  and some news pundits for better leaders is “dangerous and un-American.  He thinks what these folks want is a leader who will do only what they want done.  While I agree with him that this is not the way our government should work.  I think we have some changes in today’s world that are causing problems that our forefathers did not expect and the news media does not understand.  In Part 1 we tried to define what a leader should do that is different from a dictator.  A leader is one whose job it is to unite people behind an idea that is good for everyone and strive for a universal commitment to make it work.  Dictators don’t have that problem, they have their own ideas and the power to implement them regardless of whether they are universally helpful or not.

When our forefathers designed our government structure, communication technology did not exist as it does today.  It might take days or weeks to get information to hinterlands.  Voters in those remote locations were mainly concerned with taking care of themselves and their families.  They might be aware and knowledgeable about the specifics of local issues, but in our republic with the National government limited in the things it might do to  provide for their welfare, they had full-time jobs looking out for themselves.  Local issues were no doubt more important in most of the time than national issues.  Elections were held every two or six years and the elections were based no doubt on things that had been done by representatives and senators since the last election. They did not vote directly for a President – there was no way for them to know much about candidates not from their state of district, so they voted for local “electors” to go to Washington to decide who the best “leader” would be.  Things were a lot simpler in those days.  The National Government was not in charge of the economy or the environment or a lot of other things in the news today.

Where are we today?

With today’s instant communications we can get minute by minute news of what is going on anywhere in the world.  We have open meetings laws and open records laws that enable anyone with a press pass access to anything done or said, and there are plenty of news people with press  passes.  A few years ago there were only 3 news channels on TV and they only had national news once or twice per day.  Now there are many more channels and 24 hour coverage.  With more TV news and the internet, newspapers are struggling to stay afloat.  With all the growth in competition, news media company’s have to be looking for a way to attract subscribers and viewers.  Everything seems to be covered,  there are committee meetings covered, interviews and official records.  Urgent and sensational news sells papers and attracts viewers, and all this is done for the “noble” purpose of keeping voters informed.  In the last presidential election years, the news media has questioned the need for the electoral college and talks about the U.S. government being a democracy and not a representative government.  And the government is responsible for more stuff – the economy, the environment, individual welfare including healthcare and retirement, as well as interstate commerce – which now covers almost all commerce.  So what is the problem?

I believe that there are several problems.  But the first is that with all the instant and open coverage, the professional politicians are always campaigning.  Creative problem solving requires that people to be able to say things in group discussions without them being public statements.  Sometimes without fellow group members making evaluations without at least pointing out pieces of ideas they might agree with.  If everything that is said has the possibility of ending up in the news – whether it’s taken out context or not – inhibits free discussion.  Plus it makes it difficult to change one’s mind.  If we are being recorded and later change our mind, we could be accused of not being sincere or truthful about what we believe or stand for.  It could be made to sound sensational, which might sell papers and lose us votes. Without the freedom to alter one’s point of view through objective discussion it is difficult or maybe impossible to arrive at a consensus.  With professional politicians needing to maintain their positions with the voters, and the amount of competition in the news media which motivates sensational reporting, I think this is a major problem.

There was another op-ed piece in the paper recently by John Stossel which was headlined “Politicians are completely oblivious about economics.”  He list eight or ten economic “myths” that are used by politicians running for office and seemingly believed by many of the voters.  He goes on to say why most economists would not agree with them.  I have read all his “myths’ reported, uncontested, in the paper, and his refutation sounds like what I learned in economics classes in college.  So I think he’s right about seemingly accepted ideas that are really “myths”.  But I’m not sure of his conclusion that politicians don’t have any understanding of basic economics.  I think they probably understand more than he gives them credit for, but the “myths” represent problems that we need the government to save us from.  So with professional politicians running for office it’s good for them to say “here is a problem that I will help solve, if you vote for me”.  Part of the problem at this pont is that reporters for the news media may understand less than the politicians about economics.  Most of them have college degrees in journalism, where the curriculum doesn’t require courses in economics.  They may know how to write without understanding what they are writing about.  It may be even worse when one gets to issues that require an understanding of science.  The press makes the argument to keep open meeting laws and open records because they need to keep voters informed of the truth.  But it takes knowledge of the subject to ask intelligent questions.  So another problem might be we don’t get intelligent reporting.

There may be a few more problems, but we’ll save them for Part 3.

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About tjc13

BE - Chem Engineering, Vanderbilt Univ, MBA, University of Tulsa - Worked for an energy and chemical company for many years and then started a management consulting business working for both for-profit and not-for-profit organizations.
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