Politics, Policies and Pragmatism

Two years ago, we ran a three part series on the correlation of Buddhism and the philosophical school known as Pragmatism. Now we’re going to apply the popular understanding of pragmatism to politics and policies. In this quarter’s article, we will introduce the concepts and some of the issues. In subsequent quarters we will flesh them out. We’ll try diligently to avoid being too wonky and keep this at a level understandable by everyone. That’s important because it’s the public that most needs involvement in the process.

So let’s begin with the conceptual background. In management or financial circles, a pragmatic approach may entail considerations like return on investment, cost-effectiveness and quantitative analysis. Apart from the technical nomenclature or management methodology, looking at it on a basis understandable by ordinary people it’s this: do the policies or programs achieve the stated objectives or not? Or more simply still, what’s the bang for the buck? In the corporate world, CEOs and managers (theoretically) are held accountable by boards of directors and, indirectly, by shareholders for the success of the company at meeting growth and profit objectives. One can argue how well that process works with for-profit concerns. In the capitalist model, the intrinsic value of a product or service is largely irrelevant; so long as customers buy it at a price that appropriately exceeds cost (including not only production but also salaries, etc.) the company’s profits are assured.

Government, on the other hand, doesn’t have to make a profit—in fact, of course, it shouldn’t. What it should do is render essential services at the least cost necessary. Unfortunately (in our opinion) efforts to ensure that the taxpayer gets a good return on government dollars spent are not often successful—assuming such efforts are even made. Why is that? Politics plays a prominent role in that failure, but it’s not all because of politicians or the government workers who implement policies and programs. It’s the public, too. They make their desires known and the politicians pander to them in a bid to get elected or reelected. We’re talking about government all levels—state, local and federal in America. What we think is needed is some education of the public on expectations about what government can do and what they should do. Beyond that, some new ways of looking at things are needed both from elected officials AND the public.

Nobody wants to pay taxes. If they must pay taxes, then they want to pay as little as possible. Many people want smaller government. Many want to cut programs they think are non-essential. Unfortunately, one person’s favorite is another person’s wasteful expenditure. Of course most also have programs they find worthy of maintaining—just cut those other ones. That’s where the pandering politician and the lobbyists for special interests come in. That’s not news to you, is it? But everyone wants the government to keep them safe. That means spending plenty on defense, police and fire. Education? Not so much for some. Entitlements? Well if you’re a member of the public who receives or hopes to receive Social Security or Medicare then no, don’t cut them—keep them strong. Even if you’re not, you might have parents, grandparents, other relatives or even friends who you might want to keep protected. Then there’s infrastructure—those roads, bridges, pipes, etc. that carry essential stuff from here to there–including us. It’s hard to get enthused about a bridge, but it’s easy enough to get very angry with public officials when one collapses.

We really don’t want to get into a full-fledged discussion of the budget priorities of government, from state and local to the national government. What we really want to talk about is perspective and methodology. Let’s start with safety. After 9/11, Congress and the President knew they had to do something. So along came the Department of Homeland Security. For me, it’s an inauspicious name, bringing to mind thoughts of the Third Reich. I know, it’s only semantics and the purpose of securing our country is legitimate. It’s just the name. By now it’s worn off—some. The budget of the entire department is enormous. It has many responsibilities. Let’s just look at one, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

Nobody wants to die on airplane blown up by a terrorist. So the United States has spent $70 billion to fund this effort to keep the flying public safe. Is it working? Is it money well spent? What about the intrusions into personal liberties and the annoyances—take off your shoes, get your body scanned, figure out what you can carry on a plane and what you can’t (if you made a mistake, it gets tossed). Most recently, TSA delays have caused thousands of people to miss flights. How early to arrive before a scheduled departure? Earlier! But is it all the fault of TSA? No, airlines imposing significant fees for checked baggage causes more and more people to try to get by with carryon bags—which TSA must examine. But we don’t want to be blown up do we?

But what about passengers queued up in lines like those in Brussels, many of whom died in a new form of terrorism? Or the people at the Bataclan arena in Paris? What about large gatherings of people anywhere? What about trains? We know terrorists like planes because of the fear it strikes in the hearts of the public. So we focus on keeping bombers and hijackers off planes. Yet it’s not just fellow passengers that pose a risk to the flying public. Baggage handlers, ground and flight crew and other personnel also pose a risk. They must pass pre-employment screening before hire but they aren’t  necessarily checked each and every time they go about their jobs.  Is that OK? Lots to examine here. We’re just going to introduce some data this issue. In the next, we’ll get into more depth and connect that with the pragmatic approach we want to focus on to evaluate this and other programs.

  • Since 9/11 there have been NO other attacks on flights originating in the U.S
  • There are currently about 50,000 commercial flights per day in America[1]
  • Five billion people have flown on those flights since the last fatal air crash in America in 2009 (that came NOT as the result of terrorism)[2]
  • 70,000 American Airlines (the company, not the country) passengers have missed flights reportedly as a result of excessive security wait time, as of May 26, and 40,000 checked bags missed accompanying passengers[3]
  • “TSA has projected it will screen 740 million people at U.S. airports this year”[4]
  • That projection means an average of over two million people per day are screened by TSA
  • On the other hand, 32,675 people died in vehicle crashes in America in 2014; 2015 totals are not complete but were trending up over 8% for the first six months of the year[5]
  • The odds of dying from a terrorist attack in America were 1 in 20 million from 2008 to 2013 (less than the odds of dying from a lightning strike)[6]
  • Since Sept. 11, 2001, nearly twice as many people have been killed by white supremacists, antigovernment fanatics and other non-Muslim extremists than by radical Muslims (48 to 26); from the New York Times, June 2015[7] (NOT on aircraft, of course) [See also the addendum to an article in the Quarterly on Gun Violence in America from November 2015]

[1] According to a speech on May 16 by Peggy Gilligan of the FAA.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Time Magazine report (do a web search and you’ll find dozens of nearly identical stories)/

[4] Ibid.

[5] NHTSA report

[6] “Nine Facts about Terrorism in the United States since 9/11,” from the Washington Post

[7] “Homegrown Extremists Tied to Deadlier Toll Than Jihadists in U.S. Since 9/11”

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