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How Can The System Known As The United States Be Made To Work To Provide “Liberty and Justice For All”?

The idea of “system” can be a powerful engine of thought that helps us understand our world.  I’m wondering:  How can the system known as the United States be revitalized?  How can we make our system work?

W. Edwards Deming, a systems thinker acknowledged as a guru of the quality movement, would ask business owners and organization leaders, “Is your organization a system?”  He would say, “Yes, you have people running around, answering telephones, having meetings, spending money, making reports, but is your organization a system?”

Every tiger is a system.

Every tiger is a system.

Deming pointed to the tiger as a “system.” He said that millions of years of evolution have created a tiger body and tiger instincts that work together to sustain the tiger and to fulfill the purpose of assuring many new tigers for the future.  The tiger has an aim.  And Deming taught that every system has a controlling aim or purpose, and that the structures of a system work to fulfill that aim.  It’s a pretty simple idea, but Deming demonstrated that it is a powerful idea.

Systems thinking can be applied to a school, a family, a country, a political party, a city, a business, a factory, a tiger, a human — you name it.

Rick Warren uses systems’ thinking when he advocates that humans should be “purpose driven.”  But, the fact is, we are already purpose driven — it is just that the purpose that drives any individual is often hidden even from the individual him /herself.  It’s not easy to “know thyself.”

We know that the ostensible aim of a system often is not its actual aim.  Every system puts its best face forward.  Schools may define their purpose in grand terms — helping children fulfill individual potential, preparing children to be independent thinkers, equipping children with the skills and attitudes needed for effective participation in a democratic society — but, in the end, all school purpose, anymore, is simply to produce adequate test scores.  But even this ostensible aim of schools is not the actual aim of the system. 

The East German, pre-1989 communist made car, the Trabant, as I’ve noted before, was notorious for its poor quality.  But, the Trabant factories fulfilled an important aim in the communist system.  These factories supported the communist bureaucracy, gave perks to communist leaders, employment to the buddies of the communist hierarchy, etc.  The Trabant was a system with an important aim, that for years it fulfilled brilliantly.  It’s just that its aim never was to produce quality automobiles.

It is interesting to look at the United States as system, and attempt to understand what the aim of this system is, and how the system actually works.

David Cay Johnston has a great article, “Fiscal Therapy,” in Mother Jones.  He writes, “For years now, whenever I’ve been invited to lecture students on how our tax system works, I have asked a simple question: What is the purpose of the United States of America? The most common answer, be it at prestigious universities, elite prep schools, rural community colleges, or crowded urban high schools, is this: To make people rich.”

According to Johnston’s anecdotal research, people don’t identify the purpose of the system known as the United States in terms of “freedom and justice for all,” or any other grand idea promulgated by our founding fathers.  People see the purpose of the United States, “To make people rich.”

Johnston writes, “This should come as no great surprise. For anyone born after, say, 1970, the world has been shaped by Ronald Reagan’s remaking of government’s relationship with private interests—a vision of lower taxes, less regulation, and maximum economic leeway for those at the top. In this view, the pursuit of wealth is the warp and weft of America; everything else will follow.”

Johnston says, “By contrast, the preamble to the Constitution tells us the nation’s reason for being in 52 words that can be reduced to six principles: society, justice, peace, security, commonwealth, and freedom. Individual riches don’t make the list. They are a product of American society, not its guiding purpose. ”

A good argument can be made that the system known as the United States is acting similarly to the Trabant system.  Like the Trabant system, it is acting brilliantly to accomplish an aim — to give more privilege, wealth and power to those already privileged — but, it is accomplishing the wrong aim.  It is focused on the wrong aim and, the fact is, in the long run, because the system is focused on the wrong aim, it is not sustainable.  As with the Trabant system, unless there is a major correction, the system known as the United States is doomed to fail.

Johnston says, “Progress must begin with a return to the best of the values that created this Second American Republic—one born, it’s worth remembering, from the failure of the Articles of Confederation, whose principles (weak government, unfettered capitalism) found their resurrection in the economic policies of the past three decades.”

The key question is:  How can the system known as the United States be revitalized?  How can we make our system work?  Johnston, I believe, is right.  We must return to our founding values.  We need to work to create the system Lincoln spoke of — “a government of the people, by the people, and for the people” — we need to revitalize our democracy.

We have a great structure for democracy already in place, but we have allowed it to fall in terrible disuse and deterioration.  We need to rediscover the historical aim of the system –”freedom and justice for all”  — and we need to make the system work to focus on achieving that aim.

Revitalizing our democracy is a grass roots project.  An obvious place to start this revitalization is in our political parties.  Here, at the grassroots level in Montgomery County, I’ve discovered that the Democratic Party is very undemocratic.  It utterly fails to represent the Democrats in Montgomery County or engage the Democrats in Montgomery County in any kind of meaningful democratic community.  By all evidence, the Montgomery County Republican Party acts the same.  See here, here, and here.

In March 2010 all 548 precincts in Montgomery County will have an opportunity to elect a person to Montgomery County Democratic Party’s Central Committee.  After this election the party will reorganize.  This procedure is established in state law.  In 2006 at the reorganization meeting only about 100 people showed up to reelect Dennis Lieberman as party chair. We have structures in place that, if used, would make our democracy work.

I believe that The Ascending Issue In Our Democracy Is Democracy Itself.  I believe that democracy will become the ascending issue because, eventually, people will figure out that the reason our country is deteriorating, the reason the future prospects for average Americans is rapidly diminishing, is because our democracy is failing.  We are far from having a government “of the people.”  We are far from having a government “for the people.”

The answer to, “How can we make our system work?”, restated is, “How can we get our democracy to work?”  We need to refocus the aim of the system.  We need to bring to life the underused and deteriorating structures for democracy already in place.


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4 comments to How Can The System Known As The United States Be Made To Work To Provide “Liberty and Justice For All”?

  • Joe C.

    As is my experience, those that answer the question: “What is the purpose of the United States of America?” with “To make people rich.” are products of cynical leftist indoctrination or are cynical leftists. No one else would answer the question that way. Anyone else would answer, “Freedom and liberty.”

    The way I know to whom he is speaking is from his next refrain: “For anyone born after, say, 1970, the world has been shaped by Ronald Reagan’s remaking of government’s relationship with private interests—a vision of lower taxes, less regulation, and maximum economic leeway for those at the top. In this view, the pursuit of wealth is the warp and weft of America; everything else will follow.”

    This “warp and weft” of Ronald Reagan is the lazy bastardization by the Left of Reagan’s vision. If he had written, “lower taxes, less regulation, and maximum economic leeway for ALL.” He still would have been only half way there, but at least he’d have been in the ballpark.

  • Mike Bock

    Joe, C. Wow. What a quick response.

    You write, “As is my experience, those that answer the question: ‘What is the purpose of the United States of America?’ with ‘To make people rich.’ are products of cynical leftist indoctrination or are cynical leftists. No one else would answer the question that way. Anyone else would answer, “Freedom and liberty.”

    According to Johnston, he’s asked his question to a lot of students in a big variety of settings and to make people rich is “the most common answer.”

    You seem to want to believe that all of those students, who came up with this answer, are somehow brainwashed or indoctrinated by cynical leftists. You seem to want to believe that none of these students arrived at their conclusion via independent thought. Interesting. I wonder if what you say could possibly be true? I’m willing to believe that in a profound sense we have all succumbed to a matrix and that we only imagine we have thoughts, but that everything we think is pretty much preprogrammed.

    I’m willing to admit that probably a majority of students who answered “to make people rich” were simply repeating something implanted in them via their culture. But what about those students who chirped some version of “freedom and liberty”? Why would it not be true that these students also are simply reporting what has been ingrained within them? But whatever the answer, it’s too depressing to conclude, as you seemingly do, that none of these students arrived at their conclusion via their own thinking, their own thoughtfulness. But, regardless that it is a depressing thought, I have to admit that what you are saying may well be true.

    But it is not just the immature who are lacking in thoughtfulness. Thoughtfulness is a very lacking quality in our whole culture. I can’t remember anything in the recent billion dollar presidential campaign that could be considered a display of thoughtfulness. I believe that a lack of thoughtfulness is at the heart of what is destroying our democracy. We have created an interlocking system whose very purpose seemingly is to discourage and defeat thoughtfulness.

    We need to give a lot of thought as to how to define the aim of public education. If we agree that one important aim of the public education system is the building and sustaining of our democracy, we need to find ways to make thoughtfulness a foundational structure for the whole system. Public education as it is, seems intent on destroying thoughtfulness. If we could agree, as taxpayers, that the aim of public education is to build and sustain our democracy then we would have a completely different way of evaluating students and schools.

    And, you write, “This ‘warp and weft’ of Ronald Reagan is the lazy bastardization by the Left of Reagan’s vision.”

    It seems to me that Ronald Reagon set into motion a lot of bad ideas that have unfairly favored the wealthy. Johnston writes, “For the past 14 years, on my former beat as the tax reporter for the New York Times, and now as a columnist for the trade journal Tax Notes, I have been documenting the myriad ways in which our economy has been recalibrated to take from the poor, the middle class, and even the affluent and give to large corporations and the very richest of the rich.”

  • Stan Hirtle

    The purpose of the United States of America is “to make people rich?” Which people?

    If the purpose of the US was to make all people rich it would operate very differently. It might be impossible to do that because of environmental and resource restraints. But you certainly would not have the extent of poverty and its socvial burdens that prevent large numbers of people from entering the economic mainstream. We would have more wars on poverty than we have wars for oil or for that matter wars for dominance. And of course things would actually be better for the “middle class” as well. We would have an expansions of the benefits that union organizing brought to working people rather than a rolling back of those benefits.

    It is arguable that the purpose of the United States is to create a class of rich people and offer them the best life we can create for them (material and power wise anyway). It is also arguable that the purpose of the US is to preserve the existence and dominance of that class of rich people. Not necessarily that particular individual rich people remain in that class. In fact the existence of possible social mobility has a preservative effect on the dominance of the rich, even if the reality of such mobility has been more and more restricted. What happened is that people in America identify with the rich and see themselves as potentially rich even when they are not and are not going to be. When Obama talked about spreading the wealth, many of those who had relatively little wealth were more concerned about their wealth being spread to others than that someone rich’s wealth might be spread to them.

    Interestingly, as the military arm of a global economy of rich people, it is arguable that the purpose of America is to make and keep people who aren’t Americans rich.

    In post 9/11 America freedom and liberty have taken a huge hit. And in the economic downturn, there is even less. If freedom and liberty were America’s purpose, again we would act very differently.

  • Mike Bock

    Stan, I guess that I am saying that the idea and concept of “system” offers a powerful tool to analyze our reality. Deming decried “individual profit centers” within a system because a system should be organized to best fulfill its aim. In manufacturing, of course, the aim should be efficiency — to produce goods at low cost and high quality. In a democracy, you’d think the system would be organized to best achieve “liberty and justice for all.” Certainly, in our money driven society, money and justice are closely linked. So, all of those students who said the purpose of the U.S. is to make people rich have a point. But “individual profit centers” within a system are selfishly advancing their own agendas. The Trabant, from the standpoint of these power centers, as I said above, was brilliantly successful. The education system in the U.S., from the standpoint of certain power centers, is brilliantly successful. The financial system in the U.S., from the standpoint of certain power centers, is brilliantly successful.

    You write, “If the purpose of the US was to make all people rich it would operate very differently.” Yes. And this truth should be the starting point for economists and theorists. How in the world can we, as a democracy, structure and organize ourselves to best meet our ostensible aim: that everyone in our society would enjoy freedom and justice for all? How do we minimize the power of “individual profit centers”?

    My conclusion is that the key to achieving a better society is through democracy — through the vitalization of our democracy. And, furthermore, it seems to me that this vitalization can only come through a vitalization of community. A vitalized democracy would not be more partisan, it would be less partisan. It would focus its energies on cultivating and rewarding imaginative, competent leadership.

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