State University of New York Institute of Technology
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Is This Any Way to Run a Government?

Is This Any Way to Run a Government?

Apr 11th, 2011 • Posted in: Commentary

by Rushworth M. Kidder

Last week, when a threatened shutdown of the federal government was averted within minutes of its deadline, you almost could hear a national sigh of relief. All winter we’d been discomfited by crises, not only in our own economy but in Egypt, Japan, Libya, and Syria, so we had little stomach for this latest one. When Congressional negotiators announced a deal late Friday night, we stumbled off to bed grateful for their hard work — and happy that we’d dodged that bullet.

But the gratitude was short-lived. In the sober light of dawn, the One Big, Unavoidable Question returned. It had nothing to do with whether Republicans were right in wanting to reduce government spending (which they were) or whether Democrats were right in seeking to avoid messing up a fragile economic recovery (which they were, too). Instead, it had to do with eight words that have puzzled voters and baffled foreign onlookers for weeks: Is this any way to run a government?

Answers to this kind of question emerge only at a distance. In mid-crisis, locked in hand-to-hand combat, politicians are apt to answer, “No, of course it’s not! BUT…!” Only on reflection do the buts disappear. That’s when something within us, looking back over tiresome weeks of political melodrama and media hype, begins to find the process distasteful, immature, even mean spirited.

What are we to make of these feelings? We try to remember that our elected officials are good people doing their best — even when the whole process strikes us, in Shakespeare’s words, as “a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing.” Are we right to suspect that something fundamentally unethical is at work and that government truly is broken? Or is this just the way government really works and demanding something nobler is simply naive?

For answers, we can take the measure of three things — values, decision making, and moral courage — that define the ethics of good governing. If these three are violated — if core values are dishonored, if decision making is warped, if courage is lacking — most of us would agree that something unethical is happening. By these standards, how do we rank the recent government-shutdown kerfuffle?

  • Values. Of the five values that appear to characterize ethical activity — honesty, responsibility, respect, fairness, and compassion — three of them were at risk in this debate. Was it responsible for those in charge of maintaining a functioning government to put partisan loyalty above constitutional obligation? Was it fair for them to threaten the integrity of the departments of government upon which so many citizens depend — and the financial stability of federal employees working in them? Was it honest to portray the issues as of such overriding importance as to justify shutting down the institution they were elected to run?
  • Decision making. As with every serious policy question, both sides of this debate were right. Behind each side’s arguments, in other words, lay a body of morally sound evidence that was accurate, complete, and relevant. In such circumstances, the challenge for decision makers is never to try to prove that the other side is wrong — an impossible task if both premises are morally valid — but to make the most compelling case that their side represents the higher of two rights. In this case, the atmosphere was so polarized and the logical processes so blinkered that each side saw the fight merely as right versus wrong. Only in the final moments, it appears, did they push beyond black-and-white rigidities and recognize the imperative for collaboration.
  • Moral courage. This quality, central to any legislative process, has many definitions: doing the hard right versus the easy wrong, taking action when your values are put to the test, being willing to endure significant danger for the sake of principle, or (as John Wayne put it) “being scared to death and saddling up anyway.” Our research suggests that morally courageous leaders have three attributes: a healthy disregard for personal loss, a willingness to take the lead and risk unpopular exposure, and a high tolerance for ambiguity. It also suggests that courage often is obscured by its counterfeits, which include bluster, bravado, and one-upmanship. By these standards, it would appear that courage was in short supply in recent weeks, though there was plenty of posturing.

These three tests — concerning values, decisions, and courage — are the mark of moral maturity. Seeking values beyond the self, seeing nuances rather than right-wrong opposites, and standing for conscience despite fear — these are the rites of passage whereby youth enters adulthood. Not surprisingly, thoughtful observers of the current debate have described it as adolescent and immature, wondering aloud where the grown-ups went.

Is there any hope that the group that brought us the government-shutdown debacle can lead the nation through the next (and more significant) deliberation on the soaring national debt? Yes, but only if their final, eleventh-hour compromise represented a truly transformative venture into courageous decision making. If that experience merely made them more skillful at gaming and posturing, look for more adolescent bickering. If, however, it annealed them in the searing fires of self-sacrifice, look for adult leadership to emerge: real values, applied to highest-right decisions, all in a context of moral courage.


I found it very ironic that Republican leaders have recently taken the position that they are trying to cut back on government spending.  Don’t get me wrong I am a proponent of smaller government however, dating back to the Regan administration the Republican Party has been anything but small government.  In fact they have consistently and carelessly driven National deficit to astronomical levels time and time again.  Just to keep things even a bit, I place a lot of the blame of this recent recession in the laps of the Democratic Party.  It was during the Clinton administration that lending parameters were irresponsibly changed to allow banks to make bigger profits.  Why do you think those parameters were set in place to begin with?  It was done after the great depression to help keep us from getting in this kind of mess again.

There is no doubt in my mind that this recent stunt pasted all over the nightly news with catchy sound bytes from Republican leaders like “We are serious about cutting government spending” is no more then a cover up of their true intentions.  This is to push their radical beliefs on the American government.   Make no mistake they really just wanted to cut funding to Planned Parenthood.  Is this going to help our country balance its budget, heck no. 

What we need is what all these politicians promise us when they are elected, bipartisan cooperation.  I am sick of this bias crap coming from people about “liberal crazies” or “right wing extremists”.  Both parties have made mistakes over the years and neither one is any better for the country then the other one.  We just need to start making sound business decisions to get our economy back on track and leave the personal agendas at home.  

John Ryan    


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