Thursday, June 4, 2009

Puntucated Equilibrium And Our President

I recently read an article by Justice Little (contributor to the Taipan Daily investment newsletter) that talked about "change at the periphery." According to Little, "change at the periphery is related to a powerful concept from the theory of evolution known as “punctuated equilibrium.” A key thrust of the punctuated equilibrium idea is that, despite what many assume, the center does not actually evolve or change. Instead, the center remains relatively stable, while interesting things happen out on the fringes (the periphery). These fringe-area happenings are mostly inconsequential...But then, given enough time, something happens. One of those fringe happenings out on the edge catches on. Something new and powerful takes place at the periphery. This new model or idea or experiment or whatever it is – the precise technical term doesn’t matter – begins to catch on. The source of peripheral change then begins to compound in force and impact, reaching a stage where it grows and expands rapidly. And then, seemingly out of nowhere, the dominance of the old center is challenged. The old center does not actually change or evolve. Instead it is challenged and eventually dominated – perhaps dominated out of existence – by a new center that quietly grew in the shadows, out on the fringes, while few were paying attention."

Whew. Punctuated equilibrium...peripheral change....what does any of this have to do with politics? I think it's very relevant to the Obama administration's method of operation. In his case, I would call it relentless change at the periphery. People, Republicans mostly - notably Sarah Palin in her speech at the convention last year - mocked Obama's experience as a community organizer. In retrospect I think that was a mistake. I think people have underestimated the determination and power of the community he has brought with him, and underestimated the organization of it. Thanks to Obama and an all too willing and compliant Congress, the entire periphery of our national values are being attacked, and there seems to be nothing the GOP can do to stop it.

Part of the organized community is the media. Some things get a tremendous amount of play in the press, which takes our collective eye off of the real issues that are happening, much like a magician uses misdirection to fool your eye into thinking the coins really disappeared or the woman was really cut in half. We're well familiar with the nomination of Sotomayor to the supreme court, but how much have we heard from the media about the testing of a nuclear device under the soil of North Korea? Were it not for Fox News, the protest of over a half million people on April 15th would have gone unnoticed (the New York Times ran a story on the tea parties on page 14. On page 1? A story about climate change). Then wonks like Keith Olbermann bring up the protests only to mock the protesters, which creates another distraction.

Obama the uniter has proven to be Obama the divider, and the opposition is digging in it's heels against everything he does and says. This plays right into the hands of the Obama team, which I have to admit is one of the craftiest political teams I've ever seen - for now. More on that in a minute.

To paraphrase Robert Menzies, no government does the wrong thing all the time. By opposing everything Obama does, the GOP becomes the party of NO, and that doesn't play well with the public, because the public WANTS to believe in their leaders. We look up to them, we want them to do good things so our lives can be better tomorrow than they were today. Instead of opposing everything, the GOP needs to make big stands on the major issues. The first - the stimulus package - was resoundingly opposed by all but a few Republicans. As this misuse of our money continues to bear no fruit, that opposition will appear wise in retrospect. The next big one is the prospect of cap and trade. This is a horrible idea that will smother business and raise living expenses of everyone who uses electricity. The other big issue looming is heath care. A national health care plan is not a good idea for several reasons, not the least of which is that people with chronic diseases will die more often under a nationalized plan. On these things, the GOP should be loud and strong in their opposition because they affect everyone. Every one of us has skin in the game if these travesties become the law of the land. As people see the danger posed by the big plans, the little ones become more suspect. It will be peripheral change in reverse.

Back to the political smarts of Obama's team. They're riding high right now, they have a media that simply adores them, a pliable congress that condescends to the GOP and the public when they're not ignoring them completely, and the wind of a freshly won election at their back. Dick Morris in a recent column likened this to a reflexive impulse against buyers remorse. Admitting now that Obama is bad for America is, as Morris puts it, like a new bride realizing that she's married the wrong man. To make that admission early on is to admit making a mistake that one must do something about...and doesn't one really need to give a new marriage a change to work before calling for the coroner?

But, with a principled stand against the peripheral changes, soon the polls won't be as high and the accolades as frequent. Unlike a marriage, in politics we're invited to change partners every couple of years. In 2010 the congress will look much different than it does today. In 2012, God willing, neither will the person in the Oval Office.

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