Micah Saul: This project is built on a hypothesis. There are moments in history when the status quo fails. Political systems prove insufficient, religious ideas unsatisfactory, social structures intolerable. These are moments of crisis.
Aengus Anderson: During some of these moments, great minds have entered into conversation and torn apart inherited ideas, dethroning truths, combining old thoughts, and creating new ideas. They've shaped the norms of future generations.
Saul: Every era has its issues, but do ours warrant The Conversation? If they do, is it happening?
Anderson: We'll be exploring these sorts of questions through conversations with a cross-section of American thinkers, people who are critiquing some aspect of normality and offering an alternative vision of the future. People who might be having The Conversation.
Saul: Like a real conversation, this project is going to be subjective. It will frequently change directions, connect unexpected ideas, and wander between the tangible and the abstract. It will leave us with far more questions than answers because after all, nobody has a monopoly on dreaming about the future.
Anderson: I'm Aengus Anderson.
Saul: And I'm Micah Saul. And you're listening to The Conversation.
Micah Saul: Well howdy, sir. It's just you and I tonight.
Aengus Anderson: It is. Neil's off duty, you're on duty. Hand the baton, change the shift. Something like that.
Saul: So today, Oliver Porter.
Anderson: We're taking a big change in directions, you know. The last conversation with Puck was set on this big national, global, strategic stage. And now we are going down to the micro level. We're going down to Sandy Springs, Georgia, where Oliver Porter is the man who helped Sandy Springs incorporate, and in the process of incorporating become largely privately-run.
Saul: Right. This is a sort of new idea in city government. It's the public-private partnership.
Anderson: It's interesting because it's one of the things that's new and yet it's an extension of an ideology that is old, right. You know, in this project we talk a lot about the free market. That's a dominant strain in our thought. It's one of our biggest models for development. It's one of the normals, I think, that we critique a lot.
And yet what's interesting is of course when that idea, applied to the market, gets extended into other places; when you privatize government functions. And later in this project we're actually going to have a conversation with Walter Block, an economist down at Loyola New Orleans. And he's going to take it to its most logical extreme, where you really talk about privatization and what that means for the individual. But here we're going to look at it in the urban context. So Oliver's going to take us through that. And since Sandy Springs has been incorporated he's worked on a lot of other incorporation efforts in cities in Georgia but also in other states, and internationally as well in Japan.
Saul: Right. He's written a couple books, one about the creation of Sandy Springs, and another more general one called Public/Private Partnerships for Local Governments. He came to this from the corporate world. He was an executive at AT&T.
Anderson: And he just lived in Sandy Springs and so he kind of fell into this and has undert— I mean, he's kind of the guy you talk to when you want to talk to people about this new trend in urban management. So, let's talk to him.
Oliver Porter: It had been an almost thirty-year struggle to move to cityhood. The legislature controls that in Georgia. And the driver for it was principally to be able to be in control of our future. And that exemplifies itself in the area of zoning, planning, zoning, permitting and those sorts of things. The situation was that the county seemed to us to be basically approving anything; business, buildings, whatever it wanted here as long as it generated revenue. Which they in turn then could take and spend in other part[s] of the county. So you could almost feel this whooshing sound as money left town.
But that wasn't the real driver. I think people would have continued to pay the taxes and been satisfied if we had gotten reasonable service and if we felt there was some local control over the future of the community.
Anderson: Now, when I think of other people who've faced sort of local control issues, they may have incorporated in a traditional way. Why did Sandy Springs choose to incorporate and explore a totally new option?
Porter: It was a matter of necessity, to some degree, and a matter of philosophy to other degrees. In the bill that we finally got through the legislature, all it did was provide a referendum for the people to vote. But it provided for a very short timeframe for establishing the city, and it gave no help in the area— There was no funding, no staffing, and most importantly no authority. And by that I mean we could not hire a person, buy or lease a system or any equipment and certainly no buildings, do anything until the moment the city was incorporated. And at that moment it had to be a fully-operational city. And it was going to be the fifth-largest city in the state at birth. It was not an insignificant town. We had focused all those years so hard on fighting the legislation, no one had really put together a method for implementing the city, and I did agree to take on that responsibility with not a lot of time to do it.
It became obvious to me that with the problem of no authority, we just could not form a traditional city. And I began to frantically search for alternatives. And I suppose it's my corporate background in part gave me a lot of confidence in the capabilities of private industry. So I began to look at the idea of well, could a private company or companies do this for us? Became convinced that they could. And drew up fairly massive RFP to go out to seek bids for companies to do this job.
So that was on June 29th, and we had a city December 1st. We had to select a company, then we had to find and negotiate an actual contract. The beauty of it is on December 1st, at one minute after midnight, our council met—brand new council met for the first time, and we had a fully-operational city.
Structurally the only change between this and a traditional city is in one of three areas. A traditional city in this country is set up with a group of elected officials, a professional class, a city manager, and then the worker bees. The only difference in our model— Elected officials are still there, they set the policy, control everything. People originally were worried oh, a company's going to run the city— [crosstalk]
Anderson: Right, it will be anti-democratic.
Porter: No, they have nothing to do with policy, nothing to do with setting the budget. It's still just like it was. So, you just removed one level and said no, that's no longer the worker bees, that's the company; it's the only difference.
Anderson: What's better about this type of city?
Porter: Well, I think you look at cities from two principal measurements of success. One is efficiency, and the second is responsiveness. Is it responsive to the needs of the people? Bringing it closer to them has made it far more responsive. From an efficiency standpoint, the city was formed without increasing taxes one dime. All around us during these economic times we've seen cities, counties, go into trouble. Many other cities are actually bankrupt except for subsidies they receive from state or federal. If they had to stand on their own they'd be bankrupt. During that time, we've not increased taxes, we have created a reserve of about $25 million, we have increased our capital spending, all without one cent of debt. We have zero long-term liabilities. And that's what's sinking cities now, the liabilities for pensions, for other benefits, for debt they have incurred. And they can't bear the load of the interest on those. It's sinking them and we have zero long-term liabilities and I hope never will have any long-term liabilities.
Anderson: What's the difference in terms of the long-term liabilities? Is that something that because these other cities are much older, is that something that will happen to Sandy Springs as well or is there a major structural difference?
Porter: There's a major difference. Your pensions and liabilities build up because you have employees. We don't have employees, except in public safety—police and fire. But the predominant number of employees are not employees of the city but employees of the company. And so the city will never have a liability for them, for their pensions. So it is inherently a more debt-free system than what is currently, I won't use the word "enjoyed" but applied in most traditional cities.
Anderson: So thinking about sort of from the company's perspective, did they then get to a point where they could go bankrupt because the debt is moving from the city as carrier to the company as carrier?
Porter: Sure, but they've been smart enough from way back to have moved away from defined benefit plans towards defined contribution plans. So they're able to handle their future liabilities in the same way. If the people have not contributed enough to them and they have not earned enough, they just don't get as large a pension. In a defined benefit plan, you've already promised them the benefits no matter what sort of earnings you have on your assets in the pension plan. And the public doesn't even notice because you know, it's not reported as a true debt. And there's no way it's going to right—the ship's not going to right itself.
Anderson: I hear a lot of conversation about efficiency, and typically public sector things are viewed as inefficient. Is it something in the nature of those structures—
Anderson: —or is it just that they're really badly-managed?
Porter: Both, but yes there is something in the nature of it. One, there's little incentive to cut costs. When a typical budget is drawn in the public sector, it's drawn on a departmental basis, and each department starts building what it thinks it needs to meet the demands. Well, the demands are always greater than can be met. No one's satisfied with this current level of service, you always want more. So the department head, what does he need to do? Get myself more resources. And nobody is saying, "Wait a minute, what can the city afford?" until it gets to the very top and then it's a matter of trying to squeeze these things out and then maybe say well everybody's gotta give up 10%, which is a horribly inefficient way to manage something. You need be managing on the merits of the needs.
So that's the structure that we have gotten ourselves into in the public sector, it's these departmental budgetings. That is torn down completely by these public/private partnerships.
There is the whole issue of employee performance in the public sector. Because generally their jobs are so structured that doing better doesn't necessarily get you a raise, it doesn't get you a promotion, it doesn't even get you a pat on the back. On the other hand, since there's no carrot there's also no stick. There's very little that can be done to an unproductive employee. They're sort of there for life, in many cases. You know, it's important be able to say, "You know, if you don't do the job you're not here." Well that's what happens in the private sector.
Anderson: I guess I just don't understand why we couldn't make a public institution work like that, where it couldn't fire people more aggressively. Or it couldn't restructure… Setting aside all the cultural baggage, that we have a hard time even imagining a public sector that works like that.
Porter: As you get into larger and larger entities, there is a creeping level of inefficiency often there. But, there is a controlling element in the private sector that is not there in the public sector, and that is profit. Ultimately, that inefficiency has to be stopped in the private sector. If you don't make money, eventually you're not in business. That does not exist in the public sector. There's no cap on this thing of give us more, give us more, give us more resources. There's not the same incentive to drive down cost. The profit motive is what basically free enterprise and our capitalism is based upon. It is the controlling element that has made our country grow.
Anderson: It makes me think like, you know part of the profit thing is that you can go bankrupt. And it makes me wonder for traditional cities, do we need to have a few of them collapse, go bankrupt, fail, with the public model? And then they could almost rethink the public model? You know, in a way to have a public bankruptcy?
Porter: A crisis does cause people to look at alternatives. So yeah, the answer to your question's I think you're right that it has to get bad in a sense before it can get better. But it is so ingrained and so universal, this public model, that it is going to be hard to shake it. The city populace, they don't recognize in Sandy Springs on a day-to-day basis that they're being served by private industry. They're the city employees to them. And it's just so much better. I mean, we used to see— If we had a pothole in the county you couldn't get it fixed. Now what you have is two guys come out, they have a truck with a magnetic sign that says Sandy Springs— They don't work for Sandy Springs, they work for a company.
Tomorrow those same two guys, that same truck, may be sitting in an adjacent city with their signs on them, doing the same job. And the third day they might be in a private parking lot somewhere fixing a pothole. You get maximum utilization of people, maximum utilization of equipment. Sandy Springs owns no equipment. We don't have to maintain it, we don't have any costs associated with it. In terms of efficiency, there's just no comparison. The innovation that's come with it, the cost-sharing that's come with it, the motivated people that have come with it. All of that adds up to letting the company cut our costs and still make a very nice profit on its own.
Anderson: When you're talking about these cities that are sharing services, what's the point at which it ceases to be efficient? Or does it actually make sense to sort of scale this model up, like if you could blanket Georgia and say this is one gigantic resource-sharing region of privatized cities, would it make sense to make it huge? Or would it make sense to break it down even smaller and say, actually this is something where each person in the community should be contracting independently? Like, which way do you get more efficiency from, going up or going down?
Porter: Up to a point it's going up, but then that changes. As you increase in size from very small to where you might say medium you get a lower cost per capita. You do reach a point, though, where that turns up again. There's been some good studies that show that going from zero—obviously, that's not a good-sized city. Moving larger and larger, your cost per capita goes down, down, down. And then in the about a hundred to a hundred and fifty thousand range it sort of flattens out and starts up again. And that's where your bureaucracy and your complexity and all of that starts coming into the picture.
But, for every person you add to it, you lose just that much more local control. So even if you could be more efficient on an ever-increasing scale, you should not be, because you're moving too far away from the people. The concept should be bring government as close to the people as possible, consistent with efficiency.
Anderson: There's a very Greek notion of like the ideal size for the democratic polis there, right?
Porter: Exactly. And I think there's something to that. As you get too large, you just lose that contact with the individual, and the individual's liberties, the individual's ability to control their own destiny goes away as you do that.
Anderson: One of the big tensions that sort of comes up in conversation after conversation is sort of, in the problem of government how do we balance the individual versus the collective. Like if you think strictly in terms of the individual you go well, why have cities at all? And then there are people who say well, the pragmatic response to that is, "Are you kidding? We're social animals. We function best in groups." And other people say, "Well, but once you focus on that too much you lose the individual in these bureaucracies."
Porter: Yeah, and I think that's what I'm saying. You know, a small group can't have a police force. It can't have an adequate fire. It can't supply its own water or build its own roads.
Anderson: Mm hm. And when we were talking about efficiency, we were talking about an efficiency within our financial system. There are a lot of different ways to measure that. Finance is one, but I'm thinking of a woman I spoke to at The Happiness Initiative in Seattle. And she has a whole series of metrics for measuring the happiness of a community. And there's a financial efficiency that's built into that, but there are a whole variety of other things like open space, free time… She'd say a more efficient community takes these other things into account which a strict dollars and cents point of view might not.
Porter: I would not disagree at all because remember I said the two measures are efficiency and responsiveness. To me what she's saying about those happiness elements are being responsive to the community's needs. That you absolutely have to weigh that in. If you had to pick one that is the greater of the two, its responsiveness. Because government giving to the people what they need and want is the starting point and then you try to make that as efficient as you can. You don't start by making it as low-cost as you can and then seeing what you can do.
So I would agree with her. I think maybe we term it differently but I agree [with] that. Measurement, that's a soft measurement, though, on responsiveness. Efficiency is a much more hard measurement, our finite measurement.
Anderson: When I think about waste—because we've just been talking about efficiency. And so in these other systems where we've got all this waste, it seems like we've talked about pensions, bureaucratic nonsense, drag, stuff like that. I'm trying to stack about waste in my mind up against kind of the waste of considering like, a company's in it for profit, right, so they still have to have a certain amount for them. So as far as the taxpayer's concerned, that's waste. So you're comparing public waste in these ways versus private waste, hoping that the private waste is smaller. I'm kind of curious about where that waste actually goes. This is a project where I talk to a lot of people about very big systems. So for all of the people who would've had pension money, would that have cycled back into the community and in a way like, will we sort of see the short-term efficiency of a city like Sandy Springs in the long-term maybe having a retired class that can't spend as much money within the community?
Porter: I suppose that that's possible, but you're comparing apples and oranges. In the first case you're talking about having people have spending money in retirement that is coming out of the community's taxes. Alright, that's not new money. You haven't put any more money into the community, you've taken it from one pocket and put it in another.
In this other case, you're talking about not having more taxes but still having pension money, and maybe it's less but it's still a plus. So I don't think the two things are comparable. The same thing is happening to us on the federal level, but when we tax to be able to spend more, we aren't creating anything. We're just shifting it and then the government's taking a percent out of it as it goes by. So I don't think that's an apples to apples comparison. I think that if we can keep the cost and thereby the taxes lower, the community has more money to spend, period. And if some of that also even flows back through pension, that's just—that's gravy. But to start with, the community has more resources because it is taxed less.
Anderson: If there was any big theme to this series that I've seen it's that a lot of people working in a lot of different areas disconnected from each other are interested in a move to the local. Our conversation fits right into that framework. Why is local better? What do we gain by having more direct representation or smaller, more representative systems?
Porter: Well once again, I hate to be redundant but it goes back to being responsive. How can someone who represents a million people be responsive to individual needs?
Anderson: It seems like there's a real optimism embedded in there that people can make the best choices for themselves.
Porter: They may not be the best choices but they're what they think they want. And isn't life really about that? It's not necessarily what's best for you. I mean, right now I'm on a terrible medical diet. What I want and what is best for me are two entirely different things, I can tell you that every time a pass a McDonald's.
But who's to decide what's best for me? I have to ultimately take that responsibility. What is your tradeoff between living long and living well? There are some of us who might say I'd rather live well than live long. We need systems that allow people to make individual choices, or collective choices in smaller groups. To make critical decisions about their future, about whether they want to live well or live long, to use it as an example, and not try to cookie cutter everybody in our society.
Certainly giving people some guidance as opposed to laws, you might say, about what is good for them is fine. And to me that's the perfect system, is where you create a factual knowledge base for as many people as possible and then they are able to make those decisions for themselves. And where that decision does overlap and impinge upon someone else's life is where it gets sticky and where you have to have elected government to help manage the different needs of two different people or two different groups, to bring them to some kind of compromise. That's what government essentially ought to be, I guess, is an arbiter between one set of choices and another. And we do it on a democratic process saying the majority wins in that. There's some great philosophical arguments against that, too. But right now I don't know a better system. But there are a lot of people who really have come to think that government is the answer for everything and that we should really basically look to it to be our provider and our decider. And I just can't come to that as a conclusion that that leads to a better way of life for us.
Anderson: You know, obviously I've talked to a lot of people on both sides of that line in this project. For people who see it…maybe not as a provider but, I've talked to people who see it as maybe it should have a floor. There's a conversation I'm editing right which I'll probably post later this week with a guy named Chuck Collins. He's the great-grandson of Oscar Mayer. And he's been really active in sort of…basically a group of multi-millionaires and billionaires who advocate for higher taxes and to keep estate taxes.
He used the metaphor of soil. That they had good soil prepared for them and that they may have worked extremely hard to grow things in that soil, but they're basically paying back for the soil itself. Whereas if they'd been born in maybe Guatemala that might not have been the soil to start Oscar Mayer or something like that. So for him there sort of a role for government to provide a floor that people can't fall through. So he's not interested in a system of any kind of perfect equality, but he's interested in raising the floor a little bit so that the people who do the worst in society don't die, you know. And for him that's a moral argument, ultimately, and that's also arational. What do you think of arguments like that? Does that have any place in our political conversation?
Porter: It obviously has a place in it 'cause it's there. The concept of the safety net, floor, whatever you want to call it is a huge one. Where one runs into really practical considerations with regard to that is, as you raise that floor do you leave the level of necessity and move into the level of okay you're just going to make it better off. And when you do that do you drive away the incentive to do it on your own?
We now have forty million people on food stamps. Huge abuse in it, everyone knows that. And yet it's performing a vital function for those who really need it. We have people who are on unemployment. One can make a very rational argument that that is a disincentive to find a job, particularly the way the programs are run sometimes. So there is a tradeoff between that humanitarian floor and creating a society in which the government is the provider. Which means that what you're getting is coming from someone else. The government doesn't make it. People who really needed it are sometimes suffering, and people who are just wasting it are out there galore, and we can't distinguish because the program has such magnitude.
I think there is a strong debate to be held about whether we're moving in the right direction with that, and I'm more concerned about that than I am providing the safety net at this point. I think we're doing a pretty good job of— Anyone who's traveled in other countries and seen what they call poverty and what we call poverty, are two totally different creatures. We don't know what poverty is, almost, compared to going into Africa or areas of Asia. This country's never been about saying everyone must be equal in their status of earnings, but it has been about trying to give everyone the opportunity to grow in that way.
Anderson: You know, a lot of people talk about the social lottery and the natural lottery. Where you're born within a society, and then the gifts that you were born with. But how do you make it level, especially because it often involves really—what we were talking earlier about, soft issues. Places where I could try to go do something and someone else from a very different background could go try to do the same thing, and there are these invisible structural things that make it possible for me and not for them.
Porter: It is my opinion that you cannot level the playing field for everyone. There are people who are born into certain capabilities that others don't have. We shouldn't penalize them for it, but we shouldn't necessarily reward them. Let them get out and use them. There are people who are born into social situations that are better than others.
I don't suffer from the guilt of the rich that feel like we've got to go do it, because I came from a very humble beginning, materially. I had a wonderful family. And then you can say well, you won the social lottery there. You had a loving family, that is huge. Absolutely huge. But we didn't have any money. I mean, we had outdoor plumbing and a small, tiny little house. Lived in a single-room apartment in my great aunt's house till I was four. So what I've managed to achieve in life I can feel very good about having earned. I don't think other than say a loving family that I won the social lottery at all. So I am aware that in this country you can by hard work and some native abilities, you can do well.
Anderson: Well we're also speaking as white guys, right?
Porter: Yeah. Yeah. Sure, absolutely. And so that's a part of the social lottery that we won. One can go back in time on that and say well Africa, apparently from every study, began before Europe. So the white guy's must've done something right to sort of pass them by. So you know, what all that is all about is well beyond my scope to talk about. But there are people who've had advantages who've made a rotten mess of their lives. I can cite numbers of those. So it isn't that you are guaranteed just because you have an advantage to do well because of it. You still have to put yourself out there.
To me, coming back to this whole idea of satisfaction, we all draw our satisfaction from what we ourselves have been able to do with our lives. And if somebody, some government or someone else is just giving to me, I'm not going to be a happy person. I think we deprive a large part of our population from being as happy as they can be by thinking we know what's best for them and handing it to them. And by the way at the same time taking that away from someone else.
Anderson: So there's almost a greater moral good to self-fulfillment than there is to a sort of charity?
Porter: Certainly if you are starving your imperative is "get me food." Go beyond the starving level and talk about what makes life worth living. If satisfaction is a good word for that, then I think there is a strong moral imperative that says we need to give people the right to satisfaction.
Anderson: This project is built on the idea of there are these historical moments of conversation, and it's typically when an existing system, be that social or economic or religious or whatever isn't answering questions anymore. Do you think we're at a point now… One, where we need that? And two, where it's even possible because of our sort of linguistic fragmentation?
Porter: I think that it would be a kind of a neat thing to have a constitutional Congress called. And I don't think it would be the linguistic differences that would be the more overweening problem. It would be again that basic philosophical problem about what is the role of government.
Anderson: Do you think that's kind of the central question of our time?
Porter: I do. I do. It's…this question that America has to answer to continue to grow. And it is deeply, deeply divided, we as a country are on that issue.
Anderson: Are you optimistic that we'll be able to have a conversation about it?
Porter: No. I think I have crossed the point where I believe that we have now created a majority of people who are looking to government for support. That it doesn't make sense for them to change until the whole system blows up. Maybe at that point we do have a new beginning. But I think we're going to have to come to cris—financial crisis, basically—before we get a change of direction.
People all the way back to Greece have predicted that— In different words, but have said that when a majority of the people are being able to vote themselves more from the minority of people, you have ended democracy. It's hard to see how you reverse a situation like that.
Anderson: And I guess, you know, circling way back to when I was asking what if we choose the McDonald's when we need the health food, when we were talking about what actually is a better choice. If the other choices collapse or don't, maybe we can said "don't" is the better choice?
Porter: Well, I think at that point we finally have a common ground for discussion. But at this point you don't have people believing collapse is possible.
Anderson: What if the majority of people want something that ultimately destroys itself.
Porter: Yeah. That's… And I think we're nearing that situation. And that's terribly discouraging to say, but I think it's true.
Anderson: I don't know. I feel like I hear a similar narrative arc from people who feel that we are too individualistic. But it's always the story of like, the other side's not listening, the other side's basically won the battle, we're going downhill, nothing's going to get better until a crisis. And some people say well you know, you can still have a conversation. But others don't. So it's interesting for me that I hear kind of, you know, the same story.
Porter: Yeah. And that is interesting that you would. You know, human nature being what it is probably not all that big a surprise. The difference in my case is, just a few years ago I would not have been nearly so pessimistic, I guess, about the future.
Porter: I thought we still had a chance to turn back. So there's been a dramatic change in my view of both this country and the world. And I have come to the conclusion that there's not much that I as an individual, or individuals can do about something as large as our national government, our federal government. Or even the state level. And that's why I've focused my energies into the local government, because I believe it's possible to have an effect there. I guess I'm looking for a trickle-up effect.
Anderson: You know, I think that's… That really feels like a lot of the people I've spoken to who would probably be on the far other end of the political spectrum, in the same way that it does make me wonder if you go around to the same point again, you know.
Porter: Probably so.
Anderson: Maybe that's the common denominator that I'm seeing here, it's that a lot of people feel that things are so big and so complicated, the individual doesn't matter much. And I wonder if that isn't part of the crisis of the world we live in now. It's a size thing.
Porter: Yeah, and the growth of the powers that we have allowed to take place in the federal government have made that situation far more difficult. Everywhere you turn you're now faced with an expanding role of the federal government in your life.
Anderson: Is that also connected to the concentration of capital. The point where the government becomes enormous and regulatory but is also being pressured to be that way by giant companies? I mean, they're pursuing their own self-interests—
Anderson: —in a way that could hurt small business.
Porter: All companies want to be rid of competition. You want competition out, you want barriers to competition thrown up. You don't want any restrictions placed on you. That's the name of the game. It's natural. But I can't see where companies are able to drive the types of regulations that we are seeing put in place. They tend to be driven more by a perceive social need. Because most of the companies come to the point where oops, I have overreached if I make this be regulated any further. Because it's going to get me too, now.
Anderson: Okay, so larger corporations in terms of changing laws aren't the problem.
Porter: I don't think they are. Obviously they try to be. In most cases I think large companies intend to counterbalance each other and their political impact. One of ridiculous things is most large companies give a lot of money to both parties. In a sense they offset themselves, their own influence—
Anderson: Or do they just win.
Porter: Yeah, they don't just win. They've been tending to just lose recently. I don't think that their impact is nearly as much as the press would have us believe. I have seen large company lobbying from the inside and I think it's probably a lot less effective than people think it is. So no, I don't think it drives out of that. I think it's driving out of a natural tendency of political figures to play to the majority. And I think we're seeing a shifting majority.
My family's always laughed at me when I have said that on the whole the world is getting better. And they say, "And you say all these things you don't like or that bother you." And I say yeah I do, and those are true, but on the whole. And again I'm looking at peoples who have absolute poverty. And no hope for the future. Forty, fifty years ago we didn't even know they were there. We didn't even know they were there; we now know they're there, we may not be doing a lot about it. But we are. They are able for instance through cell phones, TV, computers, all kinds of things, they're able to learn there's more out in the world, and just the very fact that things exist better is pulling them up over time. Are we getting better as a country? I don't think so. But that's not the world.
Anderson: So there's some kind of hope there, I guess? There's this hope that we as a species are marching forward despite this apparent decline in America?
Saul: Apparently. Apparently that's his big vision.
Anderson: That's a real difference between him and Mark in our last conversation. You know, Mark giving us the sense of battle but also of rise, of new hope. And Oliver seems to feel that over the past couple of years we've taken a pretty dark turn and that the hope now is elsewhere.
Saul: You know, I think key to where that turn is, like how we are in decline comes down to one of the big questions…certainly in this conversation and in the project as a whole, and that's the role of government. What is government for?
Saul: And sort of the big tension in this conversation is centralized versus localized control. Or even more fundamentally that tension between the individual and the collective again.
Anderson: Right. It feels like a lot of the beginning part of our conversation, you know, as we talk about Sandy Springs and government, that's the central local. As we moved through the conversation we'd get closer to philosophy. Then it becomes a real individual/collective, what are the responsibilities, what are the roles of government…
Anderson: I think there are a lot of questions of fairness that we're going to want to get into here.
Saul: Mm hm.
Anderson: Let's get into some of those things and talk about the way Oliver thinks about what government should do. He gives us two things that he's really interested in. The first is making government more representative to people. He wants it to be more responsive. And subsidiary to that would be making it more efficient.
And something I really liked here was that he says efficiency should not be the driver there. You know, we shouldn't go what can we do in terms of efficiency and then decide what do we want to do. We should really have a conversation about what do we want to do? Where are we going? And then figure out how to best execute that.
Saul: Yeah. I really like that. I also just liked his focus on representativeness and localness. I mean, that whole idea that he mentions of the trickle-up theory. Like, fix the local first.
Saul: That really really appealed to me. My own personal biases.
Anderson: Mm hm. And I mean, that's something that I think we've talked before about. If there's any major title movement underneath all of the people in this project, it's a drive towards the local.
Anderson: the same time, though, by the end of the conversation we're talking about representativeness in a very different light. Because as we mentioned earlier he's concerned about where we're going, specifically "we" being America.
Saul: This comes back to the conversation we've had, only once or twice before, of democracy eating itself.
Saul: It's very easy to tout the wonders of representative democracy, as long as it's going your way.
Anderson: So can we square these things? On one hand, pushing towards greater representation, on the other hand perhaps seeing the fruits of representative governance yielding a result he doesn't agree with. How do we connect one to the other? You know, what's the journey that takes us from point A to point B. Or are they fundamentally contradictory?
Saul: I think we can connect them. I think the way to start is to talk about one side first and just see where we get. There is something going on here.
Anderson: Well let's take the journey, then. Let's start with where he begins us, with public and private institutions and the question of how they deal with the role of government. He seems to feel that public institutions are uncompetitive. There's no drive to do anything better. They're not very accountable, except to the electorate. And that many things that a public institution can do can be done better by private institutions which have both the profit motive but also the accountability of true bankruptcy.
Saul: Why is the public sector inherently disincentivized? Or is it inherently disincentivized? Can you imagine a public sector that you can include incentives, be those profit incentives, or risks of failure incentives, or you know, more along the lines of Laura Musikanski and The Happiness Initiative more sort of happiness-related incentives? You pushed him a little bit on this and he didn't really have much of a response.
Anderson: And is accountability to an electorate… Is that enough accountability? Because that does seem like in a way getting voted out is akin to getting fired by your board, right. There is an accountability. It may be that that accountability could become greater if perhaps his other aims to encourage representativeness were achieved.
Saul: Yeah, absolutely.
Anderson: Yeah, if we go from there we can back up a little bit and we can get into the real philosophy question beneath this, which is a question of human nature, I think. It seems to be that a lot of how you interpret human nature's going to determine how you interpret this public/private question. And if you think that people need incentives, like financial ones, and if you think that without those people are basically going to be inefficient and lazy, that's a human nature assessment, right?
Saul: Yeah, oh absolutely. If that is your view of human nature, then the way we currently view the difference between private and public becomes obvious, right.
Saul: Because clearly you need that carrot— You need the carrot and stick if human nature doesn't reward people just based on, you know, the joy of work.
Anderson: And on the flip side of that I would think that if you assumed that people did things for reasons of say, ethics or morality or virtue, or pride? That maybe you could have a system that did not reward or did not encourage that same level of competition that was still functioning.
I like it. There's kind of a deep optimism pessimism about what we are, right. If you're the optimist you might think that like, maybe we haven't gotten there yet but we could have more moral, better people doing the job for the right reasons because they believe in it and they take pride in their work, versus perhaps the more pessimistic approach just saying that really we need to just know that people respond to fear and greed. And if we want to structure good government we take that into account front and center.
Saul: I think we know where Oliver stands on that one.
Anderson: Yeah, and I think it would actually be interesting to kind of go through the project again and look at it through that lens and go who, leans more towards the "humanity as fear and greed," who leans more towards the "humanity as on a scale of virtue/vice but trainable?" So we're moving forward from a point of humanity is fear and greed-driven.
Saul: Then you know, some of the later parts of the conversation make a lot more sense in that light. If humanity is driven by fear and greed, then his issues with the welfare system, or the safety net system, becomes
Anderson: Oh, it seems quite self-evident. Because if—yeah, if we're fear and greed-driven then really what you want to do is you want to create a system which is pretty hands-off but guarantees that no one's going to rig it. And that within that fairness, people can work as hard or as little as they want. And if you work minimally you don't do well. There's that deep sense of personal responsibility and fairness… There's almost a mathematical quality to it, right?
Saul: Yeah. Interesting. Yeah.
Anderson: Like, the amount you put in yields x amount of return, and it's kind of assumed— Like, it's very decontextualized, I think. As a history person that was something that I was thinking about. That it doesn't really take history into account. He acknowledges that well no, it's not fair. The playing field's not level.
But I think where we need to break that apart is, socially and biologically and culturally. Like there are lots of different types of fairness and levelness, right. So it seems like Oliver will totally say that yeah, we're not all created biologically the same. We don't all come from the same social backgrounds. He cites his own example, coming from a really poor background and ending up doing remarkably well. So while things are not equal there, Oliver does assert that things are equal in terms of our ability to better ourselves, right. Sort of like the system of competition has giving everyone a fair shot, and is never going to be perfect.
Saul: But that didn't— That ignores a lot of things, right? And you sort of…jokingly brought it up and he kind of ran with it in an interesting way. But you said well you know, we're saying this and we're two white guys.
Anderson: Yeah. He says look, historically there have been a lot of changes, essentially. And I think what he's trying to get to is everyone's been king of the hill at some point. Specifically, though, he cites that like, Europe (and white people presumably) have outcompeted everyone else. Which is sort of a racial, social, Darwinian thing. I mean, I know that he's trying to say that like look, the people in control have changed throughout history and there's no sense in feeling guilty about the point that we're in now where we have an advantage. At some point other people will have an advantage, maybe if they compete more effectively.
Anderson: Now the question there is, is that a cultural thing? Is that a racial thing? It's certainly a teleological thing. We're looking at the present moment that we inhabit, where it's pretty advantageous to be a white guy. Right? And he's saying that the reason we are here now is because white people have outcompeted other people, historically. I have real trouble with that. Actually… I don't buy it. I just don't buy it. And uh—
Anderson: That's something that I would actually like to talk to him more about. Because I'm not sure if he sees that as a cultural thing…or if it's just racist.
Saul: It came across to me as racist.
Anderson: But again I don't know if that's how he meant it.
Saul: Even setting that aside, regardless of why whites are more privileged now, is the fact that they weren't at one point or that somebody else was more privileged at a different point… Is that good justification for not trying to…level the playing field?
Anderson: And I think this is one of these things— I'm going back to Mark Mykleby's conversation where he's talking about breaking apart truths and assumptions. And it feels like here we're looking at the past through the assumption of people are in a competitive environment, always. And it's fear and greed-driven, always. And if you look at the past that way, you see a narrative of groups clawing on top of each other and beating each other down. If you view it through that light of competition I think you'll feel that that's something we can never escape from.
Saul: But if you view it through some other lens, the story looks different, right?
Anderson: Right. And I guess that other lens would be at different points in history we've been better or worse in terms of quality of life. There's nothing inevitable and nothing cyclical about it. You know, some civilizations got it right, some got it wrong. But if you look at it that way, then you would look at our civilization now and you might be more inclined to say…we're more plastic. We're not locked in this inevitable competition.
Saul: Right. And can we look to the past, look at what was done well, look what was done poorly, learn from the past and maybe, maybe make our system a little more fair?
Anderson: So going back to your original point, I don't think— I mean for me at least, right. I don't think we can justify inequity now by saying oh there's been inequity in the past. I think that sells ourselves short as actors. And maybe that's naïve of me. But God knows this is a naïve project, right.
Saul: Yeah, no. Exactly. That's part of what makes it— Well, it's part of what makes us able to actually do it.
Anderson: Well, and I think it's a prerequisite. Because if you didn't believe to some extent that people weren't a little bit plastic, that we couldn't actually change, then there'd be no point in having this conversation at all.
Saul: If that's truly human nature we would never get past Torcello's chair-throwing stage.
Anderson: We get a little bit of that vibe from Oliver as well, when we talk about conversation. And he's not really optimistic that we'll be able to have a conversation about the American future within America because we're so polarized. And because it feels like the takers have basically outcompeted.
Saul: So this brings us back to something we were talking about at the beginning of this outro, that we should kind of end on. And it comes in this context of democracy is making the wrong decisions. They're making the decisions that are going to collapse the system. It's really interesting that it's the same language used by both the left and the right. And it's always the other side that's winning. What do you make of that?
Anderson: I want to go back to Mark Mykleby be again and go "our assumptions are our truths." For everyone, in every part of the spectrum. And I think this project is pretty well beyond a left/right binary in any way. I mean, we've got so many people who are all over the place. And yet it's a declension narrative, right? And it's one that we like. I think. I mean, there's kind of a fascination with it. But I mean, I've talked about this before, and this is what I wrote in my op-ed in Boing Boing about like, maybe we have so many declension narratives across the spectrum because there's something to it.
So let's just leave those as points of contemplation. This was an amazing conversation that took us a long way from questions of how do you make Sandy Springs, Georgia work, to these enormous questions of fairness, the role of government, race, historical trajectories. There's a lot I enjoyed about this, and I'm really glad we've got this one in the project.
Saul: Yeah, me too.
Anderson: That was all Oliver Porter, recorded in his home in Sandy Springs, Georgia, November 26th, 2012.
Micah Saul: And you are of course listening to The Conversation. Find us on the web at findtheconversation.com.
Neil Prendergast: You can follow us on Twitter at @aengusanderson.
Saul: I'm Micah Saul.
Prendergast: I'm Neil Prendergast.
Anderson: And I'm Aengus Anderson. Thanks for listening.
This interview at the Conversation web site, with project notes, comments, and taxonomic organization specific to The Conversation.