Argues that in contrast to the eighteenth-century concept of society as a predictable machine, twenty-first century American democracy needs to be viewed as a series of complex, interrelated systems capable of coming up with adaptive solutions to its problems.
For example, they remark that the "American frontier" produced an ethic of independence rather than interdependence (33-4), when historical data do not really support this notion. Instead, the personal independence associated with the frontier is a product of its representation in 20th-century mass media, which were concerned to cultivate individualism. Our modern ideology of individualism was not an accidental feature of the essential rationality of Enlightenment thought, as the authors seem to suppose, but rather an engineered feature of mass society, to cultivate a uniform, atomized population, theoretically more susceptible to top-down control.
Another instance is where they discuss the negative effects of Wal-Mart stores on the small towns where they were first located (48). What they omit to address is the fact that Wal-Mart expected these effects, and were able to enter an effectively competition-free market in small towns that other big-box discount retailers had avoided, knowing that the business would be unsustainable. Looking for a competitive edge, Wal-Mart decided to treat the economies of these small towns as a consumable resource.
The book contains a fair amount of the sort of both-siderism common to elite political discourse in the US, which in this case may be simply a rhetorical tactic in order to get a hearing from those who identify with the conservative portions of the political spectrum. Although this book was published in 2011, parts of it read like they could be literature for the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign. "Letting over a third of the nation's wealth 'clot' among just 1 percent of our people--as we will do if the next 30 years are like the last 30--is national suicide. Progressive taxation is the only way for a society to create the virtuous circle of ever-increasing shared prosperity" (148).
Perhaps the most important prescriptive elements in the book are in the short section on "Reclaiming Democracy" (150-2), which the authors note are a prerequisite for any of the other reforms that they hope to see in American government and citizen participation. None of these reforms (fairer redistricting, political finance reform, addressing "revolving door" corruption, filibuster reform, greater access to voting) are new ideas, but none of them have had the remotest traction in the current political environment. I fear that the exhortation of this book is unlikely to provoke the necessary action to see any of them realized, without reinforcement from tumbrels and guillotines.
For all that, the book is a quick read with some legitimate food for thought.
Hanauer and Liu argue that the system of government as it has devolved in the U.S., has allowed the upper 1% to accrue the lion’s share of wealth, while gutting the middle class to the point of extinction. This, they argue, is not only morally wrong, but fiscally stupid. They contend, correctly, that wealth does not evolve from the top and trickle down (as so many still think), but rather is created in the middle class, and trickles upward.
The current economic mode of thought is rooted in the industrial revolution: a philosophy that the authors call ‘machine brain’. They define this as a tendency to see things in a linear, input/output way. People, economies and systems work like machines. This is obviously wrong, Hanauer and Liu argue. Consumers make choices, mostly based on emotions, wants and desires. One cannot accurately predict what they will want, or do in any given moment. Liu and Hanauer argue that instead of machine brain, we should think more on the lines of ‘garden brain.’ Instead of treating economies and government like machines, we should think of them as gardens. Gardens cannot be wholly predicted. A gardener can plant seeds, but not predict the outcome. He may, however, weed the garden, water it, and tend it. To let it go, laissez faire, would be to invite weeds to take over. This is what has led to the imbalance of wealth in modern capitalism, according to the authors.
The authors contend that it is the role of good government, or good gardening, to recirculate (not redistribute or ‘spend’) wealth, from those that have benefitted most from the infrastructure and security that government affords, back into the system to reinvest it in more and better infrastructure that benefits all citizens, starting with the middle class. This, they argue, will benefit not only those at the bottom of the economic ladder, but put wealth back into the hands of a strengthened middle class, who will in turn spend it, fueling the economy which benefits the wealthy as well.
They vigorously attack Libertarian ideals that ‘any government’ is too much government, or the idea that all forms of governing are somehow tantamount to communism. They take on the Republicans, who have co-opted much of the Libertarian mentality, as well as the Democrats who have on the one hand argued for more government involvement, but made little changes—even when they had the chance—to the underlying assumptions about how capitalism is supposed to work, i.e., they basically buy into the machine brain mentality. The authors argue that good democratic government can be big on the WHAT—in other words, set out a theory of what government should do, and the goals that the nation, state, or municipality, should aim for (something that the Democrats might agree to)—but small on the HOW to accomplish those things—not micromanaging from the center, or top, but giving power to the local governments to adapt resources to their particular situations—something that Republicans argue for.
The authors acknowledge that in order to accomplish all these changes, major issues of corruption in government must be dealt with. The problem is that their solutions to this problem, while great in theory—they do a damned good job of laying out the issues—are blocked by the very corruption they set out to solve. How does one push through major changes to government, changes that would eliminate corruption, when you need the corrupt institution to make the changes? It’s a Catch 22, and I suspect that Hanauer and Liu know this. I also suspect that they know what must really happen in order to clean up the corruption at the highest levels, since it is corporate money fueling it, but that since Hanauer himself, is a product of corporate money, and a believer in the American Economy, is loathe to articulate it. Instead, Hanauer and Liu’s book seems to be an appeal to the one-percenters to ‘lay off,’ so to speak, and to start thinking about government and taxes as a way to refuel an economy that is dying, something that will not benefit them in the end.
The radical nature of their argument isn’t so much in the actual ideas put forward, which are reasonable, sound and logical. What’s radical, is who is writing it, especially Hanauer, who is firmly in the top .01% of the billionaire club! He is an insider to a world that most of us simply cannot imagine. But he has an unusual interest in history, for one so privileged, and as such, can read the writing on the wall if things remain the same. His insider perspective is refreshing. If you want to know more about his position on issues, I would suggest reading his article, “The Pitchforks are Coming,” online HERE. It’s an eye-opener for sure, and the reason I stumbled onto his book in the first place.
All in all, this is a book that everyone in America should read. The plan laid out is neither Conservative or Liberal, but Reasonable. Maybe there needs to be another political party? The Reasonable Party? The plan they lay out in Gardens of Democracy should be implemented, immediately. I doubt it will be, due to the corruption that blocks such decisions. Maybe the book will reach enough of Mr. Hanauer’s peers to make a difference, since they are the ones corrupting the system. I hope so, for all our sakes. We could stand for some weeding out in the current Garden of Corruption.
For a little book, they Hanauer and co-author Eric Liu tackle an enormous subject and do it well. The current system, which praises the self-regulating market and the self-interested behavior meant to create it, is broken, they say, rooted in outdated 19th century notions of human behavior and large systems alike. The reductionist, atomistic belief in society as a Victorian clockwork and the human being as a rational, selfish decision-maker -- a perspective they call the Machinebrain -- both come under fire.
As an alternative, they offer the Gardenbrain, and it's here that they really caught my attention. Mechanistic thinking has given way to a more subtle view in recent decades. Economies aren't self-correcting machines, but rather a type of phenomenon called a complex adaptive system. Economies are networks, and networks have emergent properties which aren't immediately evident by looking at the component pieces. Humans, too, are more than rational calculators; an array of research shows that, while we do have a selfish streak, we're also what they call emotional reciprocal approximators -- not quite irrational, but biased by our emotions and asymmetric in our preferences.
With a new set of building blocks, Hanauer and Liu set out to dismantle many of the long-cherished beliefs held by both Right and Left, creating new proposals for individual citizenship, economic growth, and government policy following from their concept of the Gardenbrain. Society needs tending and oversight at all levels, not the market free-for-all of the Right or the statist bureaucracies of the Left. We need to be good citizens and realize that our "not my problem" self-interested view of the world has consequences.
We need to be Gardeners rather than viewing our world as mechanistic systems that work independently of our actions.
The only reason this didn't get five stars was because of the length, although I don't want to misconstrue my thoughts: this is a superb read, and in challenging the fundamental axioms of our worldview it handles the topic in a way that transcends rah-rah partisanship. As a blueprint and a summary of much-needed fresh thought in politics, it works. I'd appreciate this topic given a more fleshed-out and in-depth treatment, but I can hardly be too critical as, for its purpose, this book works.