I made a mistake this morning before work. I looked at Facebook, and saw the usual political posting going on about some offense or another the side the author didn’t like did. Raised my blood pressure, which is something I don’t like to see. I’ve been thinking about this all morning, and so I thought I would share with you some of my basic operating rules. Perhaps they will help you view such political discussions differently in the future.
Rule Nº 1: Never Ascribe To Malice That Which You Can Ascribe to Stupidity
I sometimes change the last word to “laziness”, but the intent is the same. Often, we see people putting sinister thoughts and actions behind a move when there is likely nothing more than someone just being stupid, lazy, or inept. Good example of this is the recent IRS kerfluffle. I’ve seen a number of folks insisting that Obama is behind all of this, implying some sinister intent or conspiracy. The answer, more likely, is that some office had to make a decision… and given the intensely partisan climate, made the wrong one. To put it another way (as I saw in the LA Times):
The decision by agents in Cincinnati to flag groups that appeared to have a conservative ideology was “very bad,” said Brett Kappel, a campaign finance lawyer at the firm Arent Fox in Washington. “But I don’t think it was politically motivated; I think it’s incompetence.”
We’re also seeing this rule apply in the Benghazi situation. More and more the situation is not looking like an elaborate conspiracy from the top — it is looking like various fiefdoms trying in a very stupid way to protect themselves. In particular, this one looks like there was CIA involvement in facility in Benghazi, and the CIA made some stupid choices to try to hide the fact.
The important take away from this is that usually there are not elaborate conspiracies behind everything. Life really doesn’t want to be complex. In reality, people are just stupid.
Rule Nº 2: The definition of “Insanity” is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
The primary example of this rule today is the House of Representatives, which just tried for the 39th time to repeal the Affordable Care Act. I get the first couple of times. But at this point, it is just a waste of time and money. The House has more important things to do, such as passing legislation to move this country forward: immigration reform, tax reform, budget bills. Am I trying to say that the ACA (Obamacare) is perfect? Far from it — we’re all starting to see ways in which it isn’t working right, and the recent IRS situtation also shows the importance of providing the IRS with clear definitions of how to interpret the provisions. Instead of trying to repeal Obamacare — which is a waste of time — the House should be working at this point to incrementally improve the bill to make it something workable.
The take away from this rule: If you keep failing at what you do, perhaps you need to achieve the goal in a different fashion.
Rule Nº 3: People will go for “best abuse of the rules”.
The point here is that people will always go through the existing rules, and try to find the loopholes and use them to their advantage — be that political or personal advantage. We certainly saw bankers doing that during the financial crisis, and we’re still seeing that today. We’re also seeing it politically. After the Citizens United decision, non-profits realized that they could donate to political campaigns (previously, they couldn’t as they were corporations). They discovered the 501c(4) organization, which was originally designed for civic groups such as parks or beautification associations. These organizations could receive donations without having to declare the income as tax and without having to disclose the donors. The IRS had ruled they could do limited political activity, but that was never specifically defined. So after Citizens United, the number of applications for such groups grew… and many people thought they were doing this to do political activity. This was the root cause of the problem at the IRS. There were originally a small number of these groups, and the IRS was focused on real charities (think religious institutions) being too involved in politics. After the Citizens United decision in 2010, 1,735 groups applied for 501(c)4 status — a figure that nearly doubled by 2012, according to the inspector general’s audit. This overloaded the office, and made that IRS office need to find a way to determine which groups to examine. How did they do it? Consult Rule Nº 1.
We’re also seeing this in the partisan climate. I think everyone will agree that the partisan atmosphere led the IRS office to make the wrong decision. But such an atmosphere was also likely legal — there were no direct orders, only an environment that took advantage of people’s stupidity.
The primary take away from this: Take the time to get the specification correct the first time, and try to think through all the angles. If it looks like people are abusing the rules in an unintended way, the first thing to do is refine the rules to solve the problem.
The secondary take away from this: If the rules appear to be being abused, investigate in a neutral manner. There should be three goals from the effort: (1) to discover the errors in the rules that need correcting; (2) to discover errors in guidance and education that need correction; and (3) to determine if there are any real and significant legal violations (which should be prosecuted).
Rule Nº 4: Discuss to understand, not to convince.
Far too often, I see discussions on Facebook or elsewhere on the Internet where the end goal is to convince someone that you are right and they are wrong. That’s too ambitious of a goal, and one that ends up just wasting people’s time. I do not believe that I will get my Conservative friends to switch over to the Liberal side, and I don’t believe that Conservative arguments (especially as I’ve seen them done) are going to convince Liberals to change. Remember Rule Nº 2 here and the definition of insanity. The purpose of our discussions should be more to gain an understanding of where the other side is coming from, and what their real concerns are.
Again, let’s use the IRS example on this. I wrote the other day about the underlying tax problems that led to the mess. A conservative friend of mine hijacked the discussion to start discussing criminal wrongdoing by agents. He was trying to convince me of his agenda of a large conspiracy from the top. I was trying to illustrate the underlying problem with the system in a different way. In other words, my conservative friend was trying to argue ¬Nº-1 (i.e., that there was malice), and I was trying to argue Nº 3 (that there was abuse of the rules going on and we need to fix the rules). We were talking at cross purposes and not listening to understand. I simply ended the conversation.
This is often a problem on the Internet. People come in convinced of a particular Worldview — Obama is a socialist [he isn't, if you look up the definition of socialism], the GOP wants to destroy the social safety net [no they don't]. Our discussions should be to learn information, not convince. Hopefully that’s something I do with my discussions — I’ve learned a lot from how I behaved during the previous administration.