Thursday, February 23, 2012

If I Ran The Country #1: Civil Service Exams

Hi! I'm back. I'm not in Korea anymore-- I came back in August, and am staying with my mom &co while I work on what I hope will be my first polished novel. You can read more about that over at my other blog, where I post anything not related to reading or writing. (You can even read two of my stories, Under Glass and Warmth in Winter. Don't you want to? Go! Go!)

Anyway. Back in Korea, I had a notebook I had dedicated to ideas I planned to implement if I were ever somehow placed in charge of a country. This country, more specifically. I'm not sure where the notebook is now, but I still have the ideas-- and I might as well put them here, right? I mean, if I don't have anything else going on over here, I might as well publish the occasional manifesto.

Here goes:

Our political system is ridiculous.

I think we all know this. The two main political parties have too much power; lobbying destroys the integrity of the government; the Electoral College is nonsensical. Most importantly, our political process has been more or less reduced to a reality TV show: we elect whoever looks the best on camera.

It is entirely too easy to qualify for public office in this country.

If you're like me, you learned in elementary school what it takes to be a Presidential candidate here. If you want to run for President in the USA, you must:
  1. Have been born here.
  2. Be at least 35 years old. 
  3. Have lived in the country for at least 14 years. They don't even have to have been consecutive.
That's it. Those are the only requirements. As you go down the ranks-- Senate, House, Governor-- it gets even easier. There's a reason pro wrestlers and movie stars are able to ascend the ranks of political leadership in this country: you don't have to be qualified to be elected. You just have to be charismatic.

I'm sure a lot of people think this is a good thing. Everyone loved Dubya because he passed himself off as a a beer-drinkin' good ol' boy who was Just Like You.  You can be a total idiot and still get elected to public office here-- one could argue that it helps not to be too smart, or at least not to admit to it.

It's no good for anyone when you have elected officials who, say, lack a basic understanding of modern technology, or believe US law should be subject to the dictates of the Bible. Knowledge is power, so it's important that those in power be well informed if they're going to do their jobs.

One of the things that's almost always mentioned in stories about pre-Revolution China is the civil service examination. The idea was that any candidate for government office of any kind had to be well-versed in a certain group of disciplines-- literature, Confucian philosophy, military strategy, economics, etc.-- before they could be appointed to positions of civic responsibility. Naturally, like any human system, this one had its flaws (most notably the fact that only upper-class men could actually expect to make any headway). Still, I think it's a good concept. We like to convince ourselves that our Presidents and other public officials are exceptional human beings, capable of making wise and well-informed decisions in high-pressure situations. But how many of them are really qualified for the jobs they're elected to do? I am a hard-core Obama supporter, but I believe his election is due at least as much to his charisma, good looks, interesting background, photogenic family, and terrific PR campaign as it is to his ability to lead. With a good enough advertising team, even an incoherent buffoon can have a pretty good chance of being elected to public office. As we've seen.

So if I ran the country, all candidates for public office would have to meet a set of clearly-defined standards before they could even be considered for the jobs they wanted. For example:

  • Public service
My mom thinks everyone should be required to do a term of public service at some point in their lives, and I think she's probably right. (Do as I say, not as I do-- I thought about the Peace Corps, but it wasn't financially feasible at the time.) The idea here would be to get away from home and family for a while (a year? Two years?) and spend time doing things that had a positive impact on the world. Habitat for Humanity, Teach For America, and Doctors Without Borders are some examples. Exceptions could be made for people who've served as soldiers, police officers, firefighters, EMTs, etc. It can be considered a gesture of good faith: "Look, folks, I may not be a completely selfish bastard!"

  • An encyclopedic knowledge of the Constitution
Mandatory. Everyone should know more about "the supreme law of the land" than most of us do, but the person in charge of executing it should be held to much higher standards than the rest of us. Candidates for state and local government would also need to know all about their state constitutions, local charters, and whatever other documents were relevant.

  • Knowledge of languages other than English
Apparently Newt Gingrich has been sneering at Mitt Romney because he speaks French. Now, from personal experience I can tell you that studying French is not of much practical use in this country, and I'm not saying Mittens doesn't give us plenty to sneer at. I'm disgusted, however, that Gingrich would imply that an ability to communicate with non-English speakers makes a person less reliable. Doesn't bode well for his ability to lead our decidedly multicultural country.

Studying foreign languages changes the way you think. If you learn a language, you also learn culture, and start to see new ways of looking at the world. Furthermore, if you're trying to represent your country-- and that is one of the POTUS' most important jobs-- then you'll make a much better showing if you're able to communicate with people when you travel outside of it. I was very disappointed to read that Obama doesn't speak a foreign language (and surprised, as well! I'm not sure how he managed it). If I ran the world, I would require every Presidential candidate to speak and write three languages besides English fluently. If I couldn't have that, I'd require at least two. Impossible, you say? South Africa, India, Belgium, Switzerland, and a number of other countries beg to differ.

You know how, when you go overseas, everyone's able to speak to you in English? That's because (unless you're traveling in a Commonwealth nation) the people you meet have been studying English for years. They are using it to make new friends, get better jobs, and advance in ways that are now out of reach for most Americans.

Honestly, that's another subject. But I think it's clear why an extensive knowledge of foreign languages is one of my requirements for an ideal political candidate.

So: secondary languages. At least two for Presidential candidates-- though three or more would be better. One for Congressional candidates and everybody else. Candidates for political office would have to pass a university-level proficiency test of each language s/he claimed to speak within two years of running for office. These tests, and their results, would be open to public scrutiny, so as to discourage cheating.

If you're from Hawaii, or any state where more than 10% of the citizens speak a language other than English at home, then congratulations: your secondary language is already picked out for you. I just learned that Hawaii is officially bilingual, and also that the Hawaiian language is endangered. French is apparently the de facto second language of Maine as well as Louisiana. Officials in Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, and Texas should be fluent in Spanish. (As should everyone, really. Even if no one in the US spoke Spanish, it would still be the official language of most countries in the Western Hemisphere. Good manners alone suggest that we learn it.)

(Note: I know very little Spanish. It's on my list of things to do. If I ruled the world, I would tell myself to get on that shit pronto.)

  • An encyclopedic knowledge of US culture, history, and geography
Self-explanatory. To discourage cheating, make each test a different combination of randomly-generated questions. Submit and grade anonymously. Results and answers would all go into the public record.

  • A very thorough knowledge of world cultures, history, and geography
Also self-explanatory. "I can see Russia from my house" does not cut it. Bonus points for time spent abroad. (For state officials, substitute-- or, preferably, add-- an encyclopedic knowledge of the state in question.)

  • Graduate-level coursework in law, economics, and political science
Look, we want the best of the best, right? In a nation of 313 million people, I'm sure we can come up with at least a few stellar individuals who meet all these criteria.

You've probably noticed the obvious problem: education requires money. The way things are now, things would play out the same way they did in Imperial China: only the rich and powerful would be able to take the test, let alone pass it. Unfortunately, we're not yet at the point where we can start everyone off on the same foot, and people always want to give their kids all the advantages they can. If you start everyone on the same footing, those who can afford it will pay to get their kids extra help in the form of tutors, books, summers abroad, etc. For right now, we're not likely to solve that problem.

But you know what? I would rather rich people got elected to public office by being better educated than other rich people than by simply having more money (which is what generally happens now).

Maybe the exams could be free to anyone who meets certain criteria-- the right age, the right GPA, letters of recommendation from teachers and public-service supervisors. For the Presidency and other high-level positions, maybe candidates would have to prove themselves by finishing out terms in humbler positions first. That would level the field drastically.

The exams should be free (they'd just be standardized tests, anyway, and lord knows we already give plenty of those). You'd conduct them in rounds, making cuts as needed as you moved from level to level. At the end, you'd be left with a small pool of highly qualified candidates-- whom you could then put on the hot seat.

Phew. That took awhile.

So much for the qualifications. Now: the election.

1) Extremely strict limitations on campaign advertising.

Leave the internet alone-- there's no point in trying to regulate banner ads-- but get the worthless attack ads out of the other media. Each candidate would be allowed a set number of advertising minutes per channel/station per day. In each ad,

  • You may state your positions on various issues.
  • You may list your qualifications for office.
  • That's it.
    Political attack ads are ugly and unproductive. They accomplish nothing worthwhile, and lend an unsavory tone to the entire political process. (Not that it didn't have one to begin with.) Political candidates can say whatever they want to on their own blogs and in their own literature, but they shouldn't be allowed to manipulate public opinion by throwing buckets of dollars at the TV stations.

    I would limit ad minutes because just limiting spending  doesn't work. If you put a cap on how much individuals can spend, they'll just find other individuals to act as smokescreens: "This ad paid for by the Basket Weavers in Support of Joe Blow."

    (It would probably be best to have some kind of clean election financing system, anyway. I don't know enough about campaign finance to really comment, though, and my eyes are getting tired.)

    2) Kick out the parties.

    I'm not saying political parties should be shut down. They're a great way for people to organize themselves around ideological lines. But in my system, candidates for office would be legally required to remain politically neutral throughout the election and (if applicable) throughout their terms in office. Naturally most candidates would feel that one party or another suited their interests the best, but it's not right for public officials, whose duty is to the city, state, or country, to owe their election to a political group that's the enemy of half their constituents. Once the pool of politically-neutral candidates has been selected, the political parties can decide who they like and go crazy supporting them. But I don't think a given candidate should run as a Democrat or a Republican. It's a built-in conflict of interest.

    3) Debates: High-pressure oral exams from hell.

    Once the candidates are established-- and at this point they should be the best of the best-- schedule a series of debates. The more the better, probably-- maybe one pertaining to each major department? I don't know much about debating, but the Canadian system looks like a reasonable way to manage it.

    Debate moderators should be like that one professor who never let you get away with anything. "Can you expand more on that argument? Tell me why you chose this word. I noticed a factual error in the statement you just made that renders your entire argument invalid. Would you like to reconsider?" This is the candidates' last chance to show off for the audience. It should serve mostly to tell the voters what they can expect if a given candidate is elected. It is not an opportunity for grandstanding.

    This process would take forever, but that wouldn't matter. Since the selection of candidates wouldn't be politically motivated-- at least not till the end-- there wouldn't be nearly as much stumping and glad-handing to get through before the race began. At the end of the debate series, each candidate-- maybe now you'd be down to two or three-- would have a chance to make a final speech, like a lawyer's closing arguments, summing up all his/her positions and qualifications. And after that would come Election Day.

    I want my political leaders to be decent, intelligent, thoughtful, well-informed, eloquent, and diplomatic. I would really like to see if this is a way to get them that way.