This is a guest note, exclusive to The Washington Note, by James P. Pinkerton — a contributor to the Fox News Channel and frequent poster at FoxForum.com. Pinkerton is also fellow at the New America Foundation, and contributing editor at The American Conservative magazine.
America is in crisis, and yet a great resource, available to all of us, is substantially untapped. The most powerful development of the last 40 years, anywhere in the world–the flowering of computer/Internet culture–has occurred mostly within the United States. And yet the US government has been generally uninterested. Sure, officials are happy to have the gadgets that Silicon Valley provides, and happy to enjoy the campaign contributions and tax revenues, but politicos and policy wonks have distinctly not been interested in absorbing the deeper implications of geekdom: that computers and the Net offer new tools for problem-solving–most notably games and simulations–that could bypass traditional governing mechanisms. So while entrenched elites might have a self-interested reason to reject new problem-solving tools, such rejection doesn’t make sense for the country, because we need all the help we can get.
My colleague Steve Clemons has blogged extensively about the “Solarium Project,” a role-playing study of Cold War strategy, as conducted by the Eisenhower administration. That was back in 1953, when the Cold War raged hot in Korea and the coldest of cold everywhere else. The main problem: What was the best approach to dealing with the Soviet Union? At the behest of the newly sworn-in 34th President, three different teams advocated different approaches to the Cold War; the “game” was “played” within the White House complex. Eisenhower himself, of course, was hardly unfamiliar with critical issues of war and peace, but as the first Republican president in 20 years, he felt the need to sound out all possible policy options. The “winner” of the Solarium Project was “containment”–that is, a continuation of Truman administration policies. But the containment idea, as it went forward, was vastly strengthened by Eisenhower’s bipartisan buy-in; the Republican ratified the overall Democratic policy, even as he put an honorable end to the Korean War. And so while it would be too much to say that the Cold War was won in the White House solarium, it is fair to say that America’s successful Cold War strategy was strengthened by role-playing theater at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
As a geopolitically minded soldier-turned-politician, Ike understood the power of simulations, of imaginative alternative exercises. What the poet Coleridge called the “willing suspension of disbelief for the moment” is the essence of such speculation; it helps to get oneself in a different mindset, to see old problems from new angles.
And so we come to the present day, when America once again faces peril. What to do? Maybe, as a way of assessing the situation, we should take a page from Eisenhower’s playbook.We should try “gaming” through the problems–and various solutions; we need new and better perspectives on our most stubborn dilemmas. And today we have an advantage that Ike didn’t have; we have robust gaming technology, created by some of our best and geekiest. Indeed, thanks to the Internet, we have the capacity to include, in a constructive way, the input of virtually all Americans.
Let’s start with the economy. Unemployment hovers near double-digits, even as the national debt pushes up toward 100 percent of our economic output. At what point does unemployment become intolerable, even as the debt becomes unmanageable? At what point do we become Greece? Robert Samuelson, the distinguished economics columnist for The Washington Post, points to trillion-dollar deficits as far as the eye can see, concluding that America could, in fact, be headed toward banana-republic-ization. Indeed, Samuelson looks at the fate of industrialized countries on both sides of the Atlantic and concludes that the welfare state itself is in a “death spiral.”
Not every expert is as pessimistic as Samuelson–and others are pessimistic for different reasons. But for their part, the American people are plenty worried. A Gallup poll taken in May shows that by a 74:24 margin, Americans count themselves as “dissatisfied,” not “satisfied,” with the way things are going in the nation.
Yet as we all know, American politics today are gridlocked. The Republicans are against tax increases, the Democrats are against spending cuts. And amidst that crossfiring, anything resembling a “third way”–to say nothing of a genuinely new idea, the political equivalent of a better mousetrap–is shot down immediately in the partisan and ideological crossfire.
Many Washington wonks bemoan such polarization and paralysis, but, in fact, they themselves are part of the problem. On the left and on the right, ideologues speak to each other–fight with each other is more accurate–in obscure and jargonized language that seems almost designed to exclude ordinary Americans from the conversation. Indeed, a battle between dueling purveyors of esoterica has its advantages–to the purveyors; their policy abstractions are a “barrier to entry,” keeping the unwashed out of Washington. But the result of such relentless abstruseness is the alienation of ordinary Americans, who are less inclined to pay attention, and less inclined to vote. And it’s politicians who are, in a way, victimized. In such a hostile environment, they might win an election–somebody has to win–but when they do win, they find that their mandate is brittle, at best. If the American people are not deeply consulted about proposed policies, they will not be deeply invested in the success of those policies.
Today we are seeing the price: President Obama thought that he had a broad mandate for change, but he and the Democrats soon discovered that they did not. Republicans might soon discover the same weakness on their side.
So why don’t we enlist the American people in the effort? Why don’t we get creative as to inclusivity? Both parties, after all, are confident that a more fully engaged electorate will be more likely to support their agenda–right?
In the past, we used newspapers, radio, and television to communicate ideas. And while most of that old-paradigm communication was one-way and top-down, at least it was communication. More recently, of course, we have had the Internet, which opens up new vistas of interactivity, allowing for a genuine real-time nationwide conversation. People enjoy that sort of empowerment on Facebook–more than 100 million Americans have accounts on a service that has existed for only six years–so why can’t they have that sort of connectivity with their government?
So we could think about a “Solarium Project” for the whole country. It could be informative, it could be fun–and at the end of the process, we could see a new and powerful mandate for constructive change.
There is nothing new about seeking out the wisdom of crowds. Back in the early 18th century, the British government had plenty of power. But Queen Anne and her ministers understood that mere force could not elicit the creativity that was needed to solve one of the great problems of the age: the navigational calculation of longitude. Decades later, John Harrison, a self-educated clockmaker, was awarded a substantial monetary prize for inventing the marine chronometer, which enabled British ships to navigate more accurately and safely. Harrison’s great achievement was described in a best-selling book a few years ago, Longitude; the epic British expansion over the following century-and-a-half would simply not have been possible without Harrison’s prize-winning invention.
The American people are a great potential resource, waiting to be tapped–if we know how to tap them. Not only do we have undiscovered John Harrisons, who could transform everything with a single invention, but we are also a country full of contestants and sweepstakers and lottery-ticket-buyers, each jockeying for a better chance at winning a big prize. To put it another way, this is a country full of invisible hands, willing and able to improve the commonweal–even the government–as the fruit of their own personal ambition and self-interest. And we like to play games. From sports to snooker to Scrabble, we enjoy being part of the action. And if we aren’t playing, we are watching, and odds-making, and wagering.
OK, so we know there’s energy in games, but what’s the practical heuristic value of, say, baseball to our national problems? Admittedly, not much, most of the time–although the potential value of baseball as a tool of diplomacy is considerable. Forty years ago, America and China grew closer together as the result of “ping pong diplomacy”; we will rediscover, someday, the value of baseball when we seek better relations with such b