ALONG INTERSTATE 80, SOMEWHERE IN IOWA — When I last checked, the United States was a nation of approximately 301 million people, with a gross domestic product of $13 trillion. The annual federal spending budget stood at $2.8 trillion. Total federal indebtedness is around $8.5 trillion. We spend, as a country, $2 trillion on health care each year, and 47 million Americans are lacking health care coverage. Around the world, perhaps 3 million people have died in armed conflicts from 1998 to 2005, and perhaps 25 million have been displaced because of conflicts or human rights violations during the same period. Perhaps 1.1 billion people around the world live in poverty.
Notice that there wasn’t a single number in that string of very important facts that had a value of less than a million. In most of these cases, we’re talking about numbers in the tens of millions, billions or trillions. Is there anything that any of you are required to exercise some conscious effort to control within your daily lives that is numbered in the tens of millions, let alone in billions or trillions? The answer is no. I don’t care who you are, or what you do. These are numbers that are really beyond the scope of day-to-day human understanding. Even the heads of multi-national corporations, guys like Rupert Murdoch and Bill Gates, aren’t really called upon to control the effective, socially responsible dispensation of trillions of dollars on a day-to-day basis, or to worry about the welfare of hundreds of millions of souls.
And yet, as I watch the debates that have transpired over the last several weeks, I find that there are at least 10, maybe 11 Republicans, and at least 8, maybe 9 Democrats, that are telling you that they can do it, that they can actually exercise effective, socially responsible control over such numbers – with every promise they make, with every admittedly artful critique of what is wrong with our country, and with all of their body language.
They’re probably fine fellows, the lot of them. Mrs. Clinton, too.
I don’t know any of them personally, but I can assure you that each and every one of them … is probably certifiably nuts.
Really, you have to admit that the notion that they are seriously vying for the privilege of occupying a role that each of them would describe as being “the most powerful human being in the free world” has all the earmarks of a certain pathology to it. If you look at the DSM –IV – the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as published by the American Psychiatric Association – there is a description of a character of mental disorder known as the “narcissistic personality.” It is described as a “pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy … an exaggerated sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements) … preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love” … someone who “believes he is ‘special’ and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions)” and “has a sense of entitlement.”
It is without any apology whatsoever that I assert to you today that any man or woman that believes that he or she can solve our most important problems, standing as the protector of a billion people and directing the movement of trillions of dollars, is defined, inherently, as someone having a narcissistic personality.
And I hate to say it, boys and girls, but there is no Superman, and there is no Wonder Woman. Heck, there isn’t even a Flash or a Hawkman. At best, we’re all a bunch of Jimmy Olsens and Lois Lanes – flawed, with flashes of heroism and cleverness.
The fact that there are no super-human beings in brightly-colored dancewear available does not, however, mean that the United States is inherently ungovernable. Especially with regard to our most pressing domestic issues – energy independence, poverty and the availability of medical and elder care – our best chance to achieve effective governance in this country is to take a cue from Aristotle. Break the problem down into easily manageable and understandable sections. Divide and conquer.
Thomas Jefferson, one of our most revered founding fathers, certainly thought this was a good idea. In a letter to Gideon Granger in 1800, as he prepared to become our third President, Jefferson wrote: “Our country is too large to have all its affairs directed by a single government. Public servants at such a distance, and from under the eye of their constituents, must, from the circumstance of distance, be unable to administer and overlook all the details necessary for the good government of the citizens; and the same circumstance, by rendering detection impossible to their constituents, will invite public agents to corruption, plunder and waste.”
And after his presidency, in a letter to Joseph Cabell in 1816: “The way to have good and safe government is not to trust it all to one, but to divide it among the many, distributing to every one exactly the function he is competent to. Let the National Government be entrusted with the defence of the nation and its foreign and federal relations; the State governments with the civil rights, laws, police and administration of what concerns the State generally; the counties with the local concerns of the counties, and each ward direct the interests within itself. It is by dividing and subdividing these republics from the great national one down through all its subordinations, until it ends in the administration of every man’s farm by himself; by placing under every one what his own eye may superintend, that all will be done for the best.”
And in a letter during the same year to Samuel Kercheval: “We should thus marshal our government into, 1. the general federal republic, for all concerns foreign and federal; 2. that of the State, for what relates to our own citizens exclusively; 3. the county republics, for the duties and concerns of the county; and 4. the ward republics, for the small and yet numerous and interesting concerns of the neighborhood; and in government, as well as in every other business of life, it is by division and subdivision of duties alone, that all matters, great and small, can be managed to perfection. And the whole is cemented by giving to every citizen, personally, a part in the administration of the public affairs.”
You can say that it is impractical in the 21st century to approach the problem of, say, health care in the United States by focusing on how you provide it to groups of 5,000 to 7,000 people. I would say that it is impractical not to look at providing health care in this way, that we are in dire need of looking at the problem in this way … to improve accountability, to tailor our measures to the specific problems of our own community, and to avoid corruption, plunder and waste. I would say that your Democratic and Republican Presidential candidates, with their pathologically narcissistic point of view, have led you to believe that the federal government needs to “be big” and “think big” in order to handle the issue – even the ones that talk about smaller government. Each of the major candidates for President talk about providing universal health care coverage, or at the very least, about tinkering with federal programs like Medicare. They have led you to believe that a President should control these issues, as if in the final analysis, in practice, one size fits all.
I want to propose to you a new role for the presidency, a new role for Congress, and ultimately, a new role for every citizen of this nation. And by “new,” I mean something that’s incidentally a lot closer to the original intent of the framers of our nation’s political institutions. But I say “incidentally,” because my argument here is not that we need to have the government operate in a certain way because some good, smart fellows said so a couple of hundred years ago. That’s certainly helpful, but … I propose these “new-old” roles because the wisdom and human instincts reflected in the design of the founders are still compelling – and we’ve gone completely astray from such wisdom and instincts as a nation and as individuals.
The new role of the President and Congress in a community-oriented society will be to set the tone and to formulate the policies for a federal government that shifts the focus of problem-solving to citizens at the local level. The governing principle of such a presidency is that the best solution to many if not most of the primary challenges we face in our country is one that is designed and implemented locally.
Divide and conquer. Delegate control, assist with resources. Tailor solutions to fit local circumstances. 5,000 to 7,000 people at a time. With greater accountability for failure, and for corruption, plunder and waste. Engaged, self-governing communities, enabled by the federal treasury and enforcement, subject to the basic principles that reflect one of the best services our federal government is capable of providing: a national playing field of fairness and individual human dignity.
I’ll be spending the next several months talking about the national issues that are best served by a community-oriented approach – ones that desperately need to be wrenched away from the pathological control of unchecked federal actors – and some issues that still require a practical and supportive overlay of federal regulation and enforcement, or the sure and steady hand of an appropriately empowered chief executive.
And finally, another theme we will be looking at is the new role of the citizen. Don’t think for a moment that you were going to get away so easy. Unfortunately, the best enabler of a pathologically narcissistic President or member of Congress is an apathetic populace that expects the federal government to fix all our problems without bothering us too much.
It is time for us to break the cycle of co-dependence, people. It is time for an intervention. Let’s start soon. The problem is only going to get worse if we continue to deny it exists.
I thank you for listening, and I’ll be seeing you along the trail.