It's Worse Than It Looks, But It Can Get Better

01/23/2013 04:49 pm ET | Updated Mar 25, 2013

Accurately identifying the primary cause of America's ineffective government is a necessary step in repairing that government's functionality. Recent books by Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, and Nate Silver, read together, are a good place to start.

Silver's outstanding book, The Signal and the Noise, is ostensibly about predictions but provides fundamental lessons about problem-solving, the dearth of which is the most obvious flaw in our policy-making. Silver demonstrates that many diverse challenges (weather forecasts, baseball team management, poker betting, artificial intelligence enhancement and others) can be met by applying reason, repeatedly and honestly, to data. That is, finding the best answer (the signal) requires considered, open-minded, and falsifiable human examination of data and previous theories to work past the noise (that which distracts us from the signal). Silver notes that modern media often add noise, preferring to highlight conflict (rather than build consensus) in pursuit of both viewers and perceptions of balance.

Silver's approach can help us solve our governing problems only if we correctly diagnose the source of those problems. To use Silver's terminology, groups like No Labels and Third Way actually add noise to our search for signal; their very names misdiagnose the American problem as one of mere partisanship. In It's Even Worse Than It Looks, Mann and Ornstein correctly identify the problem as extremism in one political party. This extremism seeks to delegitimize government itself and therefore purposefully thwarts effective action in many policy areas, making impossible that which is truly only difficult. Moreover, the minimal and ineffectual policies produced by compromise with extreme views are used to delegitimize government action.

Our country faces vexing problems in many areas, including public safety, federal deficits, and climate change. Fortunately, these problems have solutions and other humans have identified and implemented them. Other people in other places and at other times, including Constitution-loving Americans, have acted collectively to regulate lethal weapons, tax themselves appropriately, and regulate pollution. Those people have learned, based on evidence and experience, to balance their thirst for the blessings of liberty with the need for collective self-regulation to insure domestic tranquility; they've realized that not wanting to be taxed more is not the same as not being able to afford to be taxed more; and they've understood how to balance a desire for cheap energy with the need to regulate pollution in the name of the general welfare and our posterity.

America's current predicament is not caused by the depth of our policy challenges but rather the intransigence of extreme elements in one party, exploiting a political system that is poorly suited for effective action absent cooperation between our two parties. These extremists are abetted by a profit-seeking, viewer-maximizing, infotainment-producing media which often adds literal noise -- screaming, name-calling, righteous indignation -- and gives equal time to the profound and absurd in the name of balance. The general public does not object to the distractions countenanced by the media because that public is not only disengaged from politics but also mis- and under-informed by that very media. As Mann and Ornstein have experienced, pointing out these basic facts will lead to even more noise, as media analysis of such well-documented arguments will include not only examination of the evidence but also ad hominem accusations of bias and elitism.

Better policy outcomes will result when absolutist and fantastic assertions are treated as the noise they are rather than given serious consideration simply because elements of one party claim to really believe them. The search for good policy outcomes cannot proceed as the midpoint between reasonable efforts to find solutions and assertions that all gun laws, all government spending, all tax increases, and all regulations on energy production and consumption are absolutely wrong. In order to be part of the serious debate, those advancing absurd, distracting, and anachronistic arguments must be required to provide consistent and reliable empirical support, not mere theoretical plausibility and outlying occurrences. The solution to extraordinarily high numbers of gun deaths in a gun-saturated country is almost certainly not even more guns and no additional restrictions about who can buy them when and where; the solution to deficits is almost certainly not lower taxes; and climate change is almost certainly a real danger and should be addressed (and while we're at it, the president was born in Hawaii, and in-person voter fraud is essentially non-existent).

In the recent past we had a Republican party that proposed market-based solutions that tried to minimize governmental involvement in the economic sphere, advancing arguments like an individual mandate for health insurance and cap and trade for pollution reduction. We'll all be better off when that party returns, but universally acknowledging its departure is a first step in hastening that return.