Excitements, Alarms, Scandals… Or How We Deal With Complexity

Asked what changes surprised him after so many years in government, Governor Jerry Brown said in an interview with The San Francisco Chronicle brought up the complexity of modern California.

First of all, these things are enormously complex. Understanding the water system of California, I’d bet there aren’t 100 people in California that could really give a detailed accounting of what our water system is, its local, state and federal components. These things take an enormous amount of time. The environmental documents probably go 1 million pages. This is complex stuff.

Maybe that’s what’s changed. The complexity of the criminal law, the water law, the tax law, all these laws are very complex and the Legislature, as is the executive branch, is very dependent, as I am, on well-schooled and well-experienced staff. … [C]ertainly in the last eight years there is a centralization of decision-making into relatively few hands, just by the nature of the multitude of factors. And it’s not something you can lightly talk about.

Brown leaves office after serving four terms as Governor of California over a 44-year period.  The transcript of the interview by John Wildermuth is here.  Brown emphasized the complexity of modern California again, acknowledging

the need for highly trained staff and the dependence of the electeds, including myself, on staff that’s highly trained. For example, the Department of Water Resources, or even the high-speed rail or Caltrans, much less the Public Utilities Commission — let’s leave out the Public Utilities Commission, that body is pretty expert — I’m just saying the staff is having the conversations.

…So you asked me what surprised me. That’s something that people probably don’t quite get. But if you’ve been at it long enough, you realize things are shaped not only by events, but by the experts working within our modern complex society.

In other words, our society and our problems are complex. Government requires people who have deep expertise to understand these complex problems and work on them.  This complexity is what is driving government more than we think and there are few easy or simple solutions.  Complexity also makes it harder for more people to participate effectively in government.  It also gets harder at state and federal levels to know what is working and what is not.

Brown draws a distinction between what drives government and what drives politics:

So the politics tend to get off on sidebars: excitements, alarms, scandals, the hot topics or what we call the shiny new objects that can be handled at the relatively simple level at which politics is conducted. So I’m making a point about the democratic system itself. We’re not in Independence Hall with a relatively small number of people in a face-to-face debate. We’re spread over a massive state called California, dependent on a system of interaction between federal and state laws that go into the millions of words, and the people who come and go through our term-limited environment only have a relatively superficial view of what it is they do.

Brown’s point is that most of politics, especially what gets our attention on TV and social media, are the sidebars, the superficial things, not the substantial work of governing.  We should understand what happens in government, or at least appreciate the staffers or civil servants who manage this complexity.

This is also the point of Michael Lewis’s book, “The Fifth Risk”, which I read over the holidays.  It is a fascinating read, and a bit of a disappointment in that it was so short an examination of the inner workings of government.  Lewis follows the transition from the Obama administration to the Trump administration.  To put it bluntly, the incoming Trump administration is not at all interested in what government does — what agencies like the Commerce Department or the Department of Agriculture.   Administration officials in the Obama administration prepared extensive briefing books on what the agencies do and the processes they manage.

How to stop a virus, how to take a census, how to determine if some foreign country is seeking to obtain a nuclear weapon or if North Korean missiles can reach Kansas City: these are enduring technical problems. The people appointed by a newly elected president to solve these problems have roughly seventy-five days to learn from their predecessors.

President Trump and his team just didn’t want to know.   Or they wished to cling to what pre-conceptions they came with to avoid the complexity.  Lewis said that Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, as “one of those people who thinks that, because he’s rich, he must also be smart.”  Lewis had little interest in Trump as a person, and as a personality.  He was instead pointing to early signs that running government wasn’t a priority for President Trump.

The “experts” in the federal government that Lewis portrayed in his book were mission-driven, not money-driven.  They do important work to make things better.  The government’s ability to predict weather and provide storm warnings earlier than in the past can save lives, and also spare communities from worse damage.

Imagine if we as a nation took great pride in our nation’s government, its many accomplishments and the many people who work there.   I admire people like Kathy Sullivan, the former astronaut and NOAA administrator that Lewis profiled.  I admire Jerry Brown.  In 1978, when he announced his candidacy in Boston for the 1980 presidential election, I went to see him in Faneuil Hall.  Brown started out idealistic, but became pragmatic, and he got things done.  Governor Brown said that he realized that “you can’t solve all problems.”  Yet he was surprised at all that he was able to get done in his years in government. That’s progress and it takes years to see it. The many young progressives coming to Washington this January may eventually learn that same lesson themselves.



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