Chasing Dinosaurs, Killing Dreams

Why America is finally ready to move past the tired "government is good/evil" schism

This has not been a very encouraging last few months for the U.S. federal government.

The Obamacare debacle, combined with the NSA spying scandal (ironically proving the staggering ineptitude and ruthless effectiveness of government power simultaneously), has provided a wealth of fodder for TV talking heads and, perhaps surprisingly, even agreement between normally combative political factions at times. (Everyone loves watching a spy onscreen but nobody wants one looking over their real-life shoulder.)

But I think, in the end, this may prove to be a very productive and illuminating course of events, as they seek to manifest one very salient point:

The federal government is unable to perform what we would expect of it, despite the best of intentions.

This is why public opinion polling related to Congress is abysmal and even Obama’s perennial goodwill among the people is falling away fast. It’s not so much that everyone thinks government is evil. Some folks still believe in their heart of hearts that a successful, healthy, and robust federal government makes everyone better off. The issue is that we can’t seem to find any way to get there. Government’s just simply…broken. And we all know it.

Government has become a dinosaur.

There’s just not enough green foliage around to feed the beast. The business world has adapted; technology has enabled us to feed off of a wide variety of available reasources. But not government. It’s, quite simply, living on borrowed time.

But this isn’t good news, for conservatives or for liberals. Trillions of dollars of federal debt, and bankruptcy trickling all the way down to local municipalities, are threatening to kill the American dream. If the 1900’s was the era of unbelievable U.S. power and prosperity (despite some obvious speed bumps along the way), will the 2000’s mark its decline?

Answers to these problems are few and far between, despite the blustering rhetoric of those in office. But I think there’s a path forward that can certainly move things along in a positive direction.

Here’s my answer: genuine transparency.

Politicians love to give lip service to “transparency” in government: free access to data, reduction of closed meetings and backroom deals, no obtuse financial trickery, public feedback loops…that sort of thing. But it rarely turns out to be what is promised. The last five years, sadly, are a poignant example.

But I fully believe that a transparent, and thus more readily accountable, government is better for all of us. And I include “national security” in this mix. No, we don’t need public airing of all state secrets so enemies can find weaknesses in our defense systems or war zone surveillance tactics. But we do need clear policies and truthful communication of how surveillance and defense systems are being designed for use on a national and global scale. It’s unimaginable how a free society can remain truly free when its own people are subject to automatic dragnets. And our geopolitical standing now even with close allies is dangerously threatened.

Beyond that, for the sake of our financial markets, innovation centers like Silicon Valley, educational sectors, and new transportation & energy development, we need and must have more transparent government.

It’s no longer a nice-to-have. It’s mission-critical.

Start by using your vote wisely. Vote people out who show a blatant disregard for radical transparency. Vote people in who campaign on this issue, and then hold their feet to the fire. Lobby for transparency. Support organizations (such as Electronic Frontier Foundation) that advocate for computing and data freedom and right to privacy, for we live in the age now where wherever computing goes, society then follows.

Make your voice heard. Government is only as broken as we, the people, allow it to be. It’s time for real change — not the flimsy change of partisan bombast and charismatic campaign speechmaking — but change of concrete policymaking at all levels.

The time for government transparency is now. We simply can’t afford to wait any longer.

Jared White