The debt ceiling impasse in Washington is an inevitable consequence of a deeper problem: we govern like frogs.
Students of introductory biology learn a basic lesson about sensory perception in a quirky behavior found in certain amphibians that has become common lore. By now we all know that if a frog is placed in hot water he will immediately jump out to safety. However, if the frog is placed in cool water that is gently heated to boiling, the frog does not perceive the gradual rise in temperature or the impending danger. Likewise, when our leaders are faced with a problem or emergency that is an obvious attention-getter, they will react quickly to solve the immediate threat -- a frog leaping from scalding water. But like the doomed frog sitting patiently in water growing imperceptibly ever warmer, we often miss the cues to the more insidious danger of a mortal threat that results from an accumulation of smaller less noticeable problems. That is exactly what has happened over the past decade.
Washington collectively suffers from what is known in the manufacturing world as "process drift" as our democracy ages. Process drift for our politicians is analogous to that water coming to a slow boil for our hapless frog, now dead and boiled. In the comfort of our global dominance our attention wanes, we become complacent and ignore what truly threatens us. Our human nature focuses our attention on novelty; we lose interest in the familiar, making it ever more difficult to take on systemic and chronic problems of national security and economics.
Our politicians have become like experienced pilots who fly a perfectly good airplane into the ground because they are so focused on a trivial problem, losing sight of the big picture. Probably the first classic case of this phenomena in modern aviation is the 1972 crash of Eastern Airlines Flight 401 in which the pilots allowed the jumbo L-1011 Tristar to plow into the Florida Everglades while fiddling with a landing gear light. They killed 101 people and lost a multimillion dollar airplane because of a $2 light bulb. Aviation has learned much since then, but our politicians have not. They in fact are about to drive a perfectly good economy into the ground on the basis of petty partisanship.
Manufacturers address the issue of process drift by looking for "root causes." In understanding why processes are drifting, procedures can be implemented to prevent such drift. We need to do the same in the world of politics. In Washington we see at least four root causes of process drift and its multiple consequences: complacency, false confidence, arrogance, and tunnel vision. Let's look quickly at each.
Complacency arises from the inertia of past success and from fortuitously positive results from previous indiscretions. "I've done this a hundred times before." With each successful outcome we become ever more insensitive to any brewing dangers, willingly dismissing warming signs upon the weighty evidence of favorable outcomes. The problem of ignoring the consequences of and becoming complacent about debt began with Ronald Reagan. During his eight years in office, Ronald Reagan (1981-89) ran up more debt than all 39 of his predecessors combined, from George Washington through Jimmy Carter. Reagan tripled the national debt. And no, that is not the fault of a Democratic congress: the budget as submitted by Reagan actually included more debt than what was eventually passed. This is easily enough verified by a quick Google search, but I know this from personal experience too -- I was at the State Department at the time and saw the annual budgets submitted to the Congress by the Executive Branch. During his eight years, George W. Bush ran up more debt than all 42 of his predecessors combined. Bush doubled the national debt . Under Bush the Republicans voted seven times to raise the debt ceiling, from $5.7 trillion in January 2001 to $10.7 in December 2008. The water was getting hotter but nobody noticed or more accurately, pretended not to as everyone began to perspire. And as a result we now find ourselves near the fatal boiling point.
False confidence results from our inability to distinguish between dumb luck and skill, usually dismissing the former and claiming the latter. "I've gone through tough economic times before and came out just fine. I don't see what the big deal is. I know what I'm doing." Such false confidence leads to a form of amnesia and blindness, so we quickly forget that much of the current debt crises originates in George Bush's tax cuts. If we are filled with confidence that our views are correct, how could we possibly entertain the notion that we need to change course?
Arrogance is a relative of false confidence, but has different consequences. The most recent incarnation of this arrogance is the revived and heavily modified idea of "American Exceptionalism." The modern version ignores or offers lame excuses for all the ugly aspects of our history, including slavery and the near destruction of native Americans, while implying America has a god-given mandate to save humanity. With god on our side we can't be wrong, and therefore we become immune to reason and logic. By definition all that America does is right -- because America did it. So with that tortured logic torture is accepted for a greater good; individual rights are encroached in the name of security (illegal wire tapping, suspension of habeas corpus). Foreign policy is reduced to "you are with us or against us."
Tunnel vision compels us to see only that which supports our conclusions and to ignore all else. We invaded Iraq on the basis that Saddam Hussein was developing and would use weapons of mass destruction. Bush, Cheney and team saw in the evidence only what they wanted to see. Yet we know now that the intelligence community repeatedly warned the administration that the case for WMDs was weak at best. With tunnel vision Bush supporters made the odd argument that he was best suited to keep us safe because no terrorist attacks had occurred on his watch (9/11 of course did; but that was Clinton's fault). Yet we hear no such argument to support Obama, when in fact there really have been no terrorist attacks under his watch (and if one did no Republican would claim it was Bush's fault). With tunnel vision we filter out any data that does not support our conclusion.
Process drift is seen in how we elect our representatives. With the exception of just a few years between 1964 and 2010, we reelected incumbents to the House more than 90 percent of the time, and in many years, like 1998, 2000 and 2004, the number is an astonishing 98 percent. In most years the number of incumbent Senators reelected is well above 90 percent. These numbers alone indicate a system in which elections can hardly be called a fair referendum, but they become surreal when we understand that a majority of Americans "disapprove of the way the U.S. Congress is doing its job." A majority of us reelect virtually the same Congress (98% the same) of which we strongly disapprove. Process drift.
The best cure for process drift is to acknowledge the phenomenon. We cannot fight complacency if we are unaware of being complacent. We will not be motivated to address the consequence of false confidence if we do not recognize the process of slow degradation in our objective analysis. We cannot break free from our tunnel vision if we believe our sight to be wide field.
So what can we do to get to prevent process drift and tackle the root causes of Washington's ills? Jeffrey Liker, a former executive at Toyota, explained that the auto manufacturer bore down to their problems' root causes with "a very 'sophisticated' technique; it is called five-why. We ask why five times." What that means is that few problems are more than five degrees of separation from the problem initially discovered and that problem's ultimate cause. This principle of five-whys can be broadly applied to discover root causes in almost any circumstance in virtually any field, including politics.
Let's first look at how the principle is applied outside of politics to get a sense of its utility. Take an alternator failure in an airplane. Why did it fail? The belt came loose. Why? The mounting bracket broke. Why? Too much engine vibration. Why? The mounting bracket pads are worn and need to be replaced. Why? Because the maintenance program was not designed to catch wear of the mounting pads.
Now to politics. Why do we have mounting debt? Expenses exceed revenues. Why? A combination of tax cuts, a slowing economy, rapidly expanding entitlement programs, and the cost of two wars. Why? Political leaders in both parties have failed to lead, and instead have pandered to voter whims and succumbed to the growing influence of lobbyists pursuing narrow rather than national interests. Why? Voters have not demanded better; we are ultimately responsible. Why? American voters want benefits without paying for them, or want others to pay for them, and have not sacrificed to pay for the on-going conflicts in the Middle East; we want something for nothing, and that leads to crisis.
By being vigilant against the insidious drift that robs us of reason, we can mitigate danger, manage risk properly and be better citizens and voters. We do so by making a concerted and conscious effort to avoid a fate similar to that poor clueless boiled frog. Beware of slow creep.
Jeff Schweitzer is a scientist, former White House senior policy analyst and author of Calorie Wars (July 2011) and A New Moral Code (2010). Learn more about Jeff at http://jeffschweitzer.com.