Sunday, September 4, 2011

Diversity is Key to Policymaking

FUN FACT: Those who are too smart to engage in politics are punished by being governed by those who are dumber.”

These words ring just as true today as they did when first uttered by Plato, commenting on the democracy of his time. Just as they in Plato’s time, politics today are off-putting. From pointless arguments and scathing rhetoric to underhanded tactics and outright corruption, most of us struggle to see the point in even voting, let alone ever holding public office. This leaves us at the mercy of those who fill the void, and a federal government that barely reflects the population it governs.

We’re all familiar with the lack of racial, gender, religious, and ethnic diversity within the halls of Congress compared to society at large. However, another largely unreported aspect is perhaps the biggest roadblock to Congress’ ability to function – the lack of occupational diversity.

On the August 5 edition of Real Time with Bill Maher, astrophysicist Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson presented the panel with some startling figures,“57% of the Senate, and 38% of the House [of Representatives], cite law as their profession,” Tyson reported. “In the courtroom, it doesn’t go to who’s right, it goes to who argues best. The act of arguing, and not agreeing, seems to be fundamental to that profession. And Congress is half that profession.”

Technically Congress is only 41% that profession, but Tyson’s point remains the same. Just as troubling is another figure: 39% of lawmakers list business as a profession. The next closest occupations are education at 15%, and health care professionals at 4%. Every other occupational background held by Capitol Hill lawmakers combines to form the remaining 1%.

The lack of occupational diversity is especially troubling for a governing body that is supposed to reflect and serve the interests of the American people. What’s more troubling, however, is that these numbers are indicative of a larger trend that has persisted for decades. According to the Congressional Research Service that provided the above occupational statistics, “in the overwhelming majority of previous Congresses, business has followed law as the dominant occupation of members.”

Thus, the overwhelming majority of Congress is comprised of people who think and act based on their personal training and experience, leaving them ill-equipped to address issues that often have little or nothing to do with the legal or business sectors.The ability to compromise is crucial to achieving meaningful results in our bicameral, two-party Congress. Yet, as Tyson suggests, 41% of its members draw most of their professional experience from the courtroom, where no room for compromise exists. New and innovative solutions to the current crises we face are routinely defeated by the same, stale ideas that are camouflaged in fiery rhetoric better saved for the courtroom.

Nearly the same amount of legislators come from the business sector, which at its heart serves the opposite purpose of government. Most businesses operate with the CEO directing traffic, working in concert with a board of directors to comprise the corporate oligarchy that governs the company’s actions. Its responsibility is not to the public, but to shareholders who have invested in the business. Long-term planning always comes at the expense of increasing short-term growth.

Despite Republican lawmakers constantly arguing to the contrary, the U.S. government is in no way comparable to a business of any size. It can create revenue from thin air by levying taxes, something that every business wishes it could do. Its authority to act comes not from a board of directors, but from American voters who elect its personnel. Its responsibility isn’t just to the shareholders, but to all Americans, for as long as the country itself continues to exist.

Of course, the “government is like a small business” argument championed by key Republicans such as (Speaker of the House) John Boehner and (House majority leader) Eric Cantor was always disingenuous, as only employed as an excuse to refuse funding for projects they oppose. According to them, our commitment to invading the Middle East and deposing sovereign governments in response to vague threats of terrorism knows no monetary bounds. But when it comes to less lucrative projects like disaster relief or preserving Social Security, suddenly our government better resembles Larry’s Tile and Roofing, who had a tough winter and can’t spend another dime without risking bankruptcy.

Even some Democrats, however, have wrongly compared our government to a small business. And really, what else can we expect when 2/5ths of Congress come from the world of business, which demands behavior completely antithetical to how a government should operate?

We find ourselves constantly asking for a change in tone and imagination from the lawmakers we have, often to lackluster results. We must instead turn to our best and brightest outside of Washington to be the change we desire. While remaining in the private sector can be more noble, prestigious and even lucrative, new ideas are sorely needed that are birthed every day from the multitude of occupations left underrepresented in Congress.

Perhaps health care reform would be easier to solve if there were more than a scant 24 members of Congress who hail from the medical sector. Maybe NASA’s budget could consist of more than table scraps if the Senate had even one scientist within its ranks, and we could continue our reach for the stars. And perhaps our military would not find itself so easily drawn into armed conflict, if more than 22% of its members had actually served in the Armed Forces.

This is not meant to be an attack on lawyers and businesspeople, or their intelligence. But leaving things as they are, making the same inadequate arguments, and trapping our government in its insular occupational bubble can make the most cunning lawyer and smartest businesswoman look dumb as they cling to the same tired ideas and shout the same inadequate arguments. It’s up to our most gifted scientists, artists, teachers, doctors, farmers, and engineers to dirty their hands in politics and rescue us from Plato’s prediction.

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