Steve's Blog

The System Is Not Broken, You're Just Not Working It

Author: Stephen J. Turnbull
Organization: Faculty of Engineering, Information, and Systems at the University of Tsukuba
Contact: Stephen J. Turnbull <>
Date: 2020/01/11
Copyright: 2020, Stephen J. Turnbull
Topic:society, podcast

It's, I mean, to govern democratically, that is a process, that is an effort. It takes like daily paying attention and participating and so on. It's not so easy. -- Vladimir Milov, Brussels Sprouts podcast, 2020/01/11, at 29:38

"The system is broken"

"The system is broken" is the battle cry of political tribes of both the right and the left. They mean different things by "broken" (the populist right thinks that the system favors the "elites", which is true -- of all systems; the "progressive" left thinks that Donald Trump should not have been electable -- but one glory of the American system is that even a chaotic orc like Trump can dream of being President).

It was an episode of Pod Save America [1] with Elizabeth Warren interviewed by Jon Favreau that triggered this post. If anyone has the "right" to say the system is broken, it's the successful proponent of the Consumer Financial Protection Board or a member of Barack Obama's team in Obama's successful 2008 Presidential election campaign. They have made the system work as they think it should; if they say it's broken, they're in a position to know.

I think not

But I think they shouldn't say so. They did make it work. Mrs. Warren in particular is running on doing so again, with the slogan "I have a plan for that." I support Mrs. Warren (though I will vote for any Democratic nominee) because I believe she does have plans, and she's shown herself strong and flexible enough to carry them out.

More important, when the tribalists chant "the system is broken," they mean little else than "I deserve more!" When journalists, pundits, and podcasters report or opine on the alleged breakage, they lack the knowledge gained through experience that justifies that claim. The evidence they present is like that of the tribalists: this group or that has too much or too little power, gets too much or too little benefit. That doesn't mean that the system isn't working -- it means that some are working the system, and others aren't.

The system is pretty well-designed. As Mr. Milov believes about Russia, America clearly has a path to make its system work for its people. But I don't think we're trying hard enough, any of us. Thinking about Mr. Milov's comment, I think we need to understand that our system is working pretty much as designed, but we aren't daily paying attention and participating, we aren't in the process, we aren't making the effort. It's not that the system is broken! It's not that the system "isn't working for us." It's that we aren't working the system.

We need to start -- right now.

We have the numbers. Compared to Mr. Milov's Russia, in America the effort needed is not so great. We just need to daily pay attention (just a little, but daily), avoid being suckered by demagogues who play on our sense of grievance, and vote. America is a great nation, as well as the preeminent geopolitical power. We can afford universal health care and universal basic income, too if we want to. We need to decide we want a better America, and to vote in a President who can move Congress to implement it. Then we can work out in detail precisely what we want, and make it work.


Mr. Milov, of course, was speaking of Russian politics. He adds, "Even in the West, many people abstain, heh, not to mention Russians who does not have, do not have particular experience in that, but, look, we'll fix that." (Hmm, who does "look, we'll fix that" sound like? I'm looking at you, Mrs. Warren.) The full "speech" starts at 28:42, and it's worth listening to. While the conditions of the Russian polity are far worse than ours, I'd like to see more American politicians express this kind of hope and confidence in the American people.

Writing is what I do well (I think so, anyway). This essay is my contribution to paying attention and expressing hope.



Pod Save America podcast, 2020/01/10, at 1:20:12. Interview starts at 1:08:37.

If you'll listen carefully, you'll notice that Mrs. Warren doesn't say "the system is broken," she refers to "what is broken." I just trigger on the word "broken". I'd still prefer it not be used, especially by my preferred candidate.

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