Government Dysfunction: Opening Remarks by Larry Kramer

Government dysfunction is a problem that is shared across the ideological spectrum. It’s important to realize that, because whether you want government to do more, less, nothing, or something different, you can’t get anything done.

February 12, 2014

The importance of the topic goes without saying, so I’m not going to say anything about it. The one note I want to underscore is that the problem we are discussing today is shared across the ideological spectrum: whether you want government to do more, less, nothing, or something different, you can’t get anything done.  Even the libertarian, for example, can’t get the government to do less than it does.  Thus, the idea that we want a functional government  that we can then work through to determine if it should do less, more, nothing, or something different, is what we’re really after here.  Today we are hoping to begin to see solutions and ways to move that idea forward.

There has been, and continues to be, a lot of analysis as to what the problems are.  Even with all this research, however, there are important knowledge gaps that remain.  But really, new thinking about ways in which we can get things moving in the right direction is the most important thing now, because we can’t wait that much longer.  So the key things that we’re looking for, and I just want to underscore what we hope will come out of today, is first and foremost, fresh thinking.  There is a lot of conventional wisdom out there, much of which we think is bad, and much of which is contrary to a lot of research.  Getting beyond that, and beginning to get an understanding of both what is not right and what is possible, is a really important thing that we need to talk about and to share.  This is one of the reasons that we are so happy to see academics and activists together in the same room, sharing ideas, as opposed to having separate conversations. 

When I moved from the academy into the foundation world, one of the most striking things to see was just how much research we were funding but not using ourselves.  A lot of foundations fund a lot of research, but don’t necessarily talk to the people whose research is being funded.  This realization was paramount when it came to thinking through how we wanted to approach problems ourselves.  This is also true for a lot of the activist organizations, so conversation is a good way to begin to develop fresh ideas and fresh thinking about how to solve some of these problems. 

The second goal of today’s meeting is to begin to develop long-term thinking about the problems. We need to worry about the system as a whole and not whatever short-term or medium-term partisan gains we can get out of it.  This is, of course, a major problem when you begin to push any idea forward because everything that we might do has a short-term consequence that favors either the left or the right.  Getting both sides to understand that, regardless of the short-term consequences, in the long run these proposals are all going to be ideologically neutral is a very difficult feat.  Additionally, it is imperative to convince both sides that the best way to compete for support and promote ideas is not to try and exclude portions of the populace, but rather to make the system accessible and workable as a whole.  That’s a long-term proposition and not a short one.

Related to that is the idea of thinking indirectly, in terms of solutions, rather than directly. Every organization and funder here has a substantive agenda and not just a procedural one.  If you’re thinking in terms of what we are going to do now that will advance your substantive agenda immediately, then this process of democratic reform will itself become just one more contributing factor to polarization.  The only way we’re going to get beyond the polarization debate is if people can put those agendas aside and say what we’re after in this work is, indirectly, to create the conditions in which we can begin to directly argue and fight for our agenda.  If the agenda is strong, we’ll prevail in that fight, regardless of what the agenda is.  To me, that’s true whether you’re on the left, the right, or in the center. 

The last thing that we’re looking for, and one of the things we’re most excited about, is to get funders aligned around this process.  The audience here is comprised of academics, activists, and quite a few funders.  And in that connection I want to underscore what Michael said about not holding back.  We funders, we’re not that thin-skinned.  Feel free to criticize us and tell us what we’re doing wrong, or what we’re not doing or should be doing.   Most importantly, feel free to just talk openly, because we have no interest in funding things that aren’t going to work just because we think they might be the right thing to do at this very moment.  That’s an important part of the conversation, and I hope having us here really becomes part of a process of getting all of the funders aligned in terms of what we’re supporting.  The problem is so large that if funders approach this the way they traditionally do, which is to think in terms of a particular little program and what can we do to advance that forward, we’re not going to solve the problem as a whole.  This is not worth doing if we’re not going solve the problem as a whole, just to be able to boast at the end that we achieved little reform X in five states, but then did not actually do much to solve the larger problem of polarization.  If that is going to be the case, there are other areas where we could have more of an impact.  An impact in this is going be measured, and needs to be measured, by some sort of broad solution, and that’s only going to happen if we are all working together.  So the last thing we would like to see come out of this meeting is to begin to get everybody, if not on quite the same page, at least within the same chapter. 

Thank you all for being here, and I’m really looking forward to hearing what you all have to say. 

(Note: This transcript has been edited for clarity and accuracy.)