Understanding Structural Problems

What is a structural problem? Why are structural problems very serious?

Imagine that you live by a river and have a rowboat. You use the boat for many things — for work, for play, and relaxation, as well as for getting necessary supplies. Now imagine that the boat develops a slow leak. A few times a day, you must spend time emptying the water. Not only does the water in the boat wet your shoes, but also you must spend your time and energy to bail out the water. Besides that, when there’s a lot of water in the boat, it is more difficult to row. It will be more difficult to do everything with all of that water — to work, play, gather supplies; even relaxation will take more effort!

Your boat has a structural problem. There is a hole in the structure of the boat. In politics, a structural problem means that there’s a persistent problem or defect in the political process that causes inefficiency. A leak in the boat of politics may be inefficiency in time (problems are solved more slowly) or money (problems cost more to fix than they should) or they could even be lower quality solutions coming out of the political process.

For another analogy, imagine a car with a clogged spark plug. This car will have much less power if it starts at all. Furthermore, the gas injected into that cylinder will be wasted, literally pouring out of the car’s exhaust. Or imagine a person with clogged arteries and is overweight. He or she becomes exhausted easily because the heart has to work too hard. This problem in the circulatory system’s structure affects almost everything the person does.

Not only do structural problems make life harder, but they often lead to even a complete breakdown. The boat can take on too much water and sink. The car’s engine can stop. And a person who ignores their weight and heart condition can die prematurely. Similarly, enough structural problems can make us economically or politically vulnerable, disrupting the American dream or even sinking the boat of democracy. Many governments in history have been completely overcome by structural problems.  Rome is an ancient example, but the Soviet Union is a modern example.

One reason that structural problems don’t get addressed is that it can be hard for many people to get passionate about them. It is easy to get passionate about things that directly affect you or the people you care about. For instance, if a friend or relative of yours is shot by a gun, it may be easy for you to become anti-gun. Or if the environment near you becomes polluted, you can see it and this could drive you to act. But since structural problems aren’t directly visible, most people don’t get passionate about them. For instance, the overuse of filibuster in the Senate has made it impossible to pass a number of bills that a majority of Americans and a majority of Senators support. But since it’s causing problems indirectly, it’s hard to mobilize people to address it.

Yet the filibuster and many other structural problems are extremely destructive. It’s critical that a majority of Americans learn about them and address them. To help you, we invented another analogy. Imagine a person who lives in a two-story wood home. Imagine that they only took care of the exterior of the top story, because that’s where they live most of the time. They paint the second floor each year. But they let the ground floor go. Eventually you know that the wood on the bottom floor will be exposed and rot. The house will cave in, no matter how well they take care of the top floor. This is very much like what will happen if people take action on the issues that directly affect them but ignore the structural problems, which are the foundation of the political process.

Since structural problems affect the efficiency of almost everything that government and politicians do, we ask members of Proof Through the Night to pay special attention to them. We also ask them to do regular advocacy on at least one structural problem.  Because of the two-story house analogy above, we really encourage members to spend a third to half of their advocacy time on structural issues.

Other kinds of structural problems

By the way, countries, states, and cities can also have other kinds of structural problems, for instance, economic structural problems. A good example of such a problem is how Social Security is heading for bankruptcy in the future because of the large number of baby boomers reaching retirement. Even if it doesn’t become bankrupt, it will place a huge burden on younger Americans unless the problem is fixed.

Another example of a structural problem that isn’t directly a political issue is the problem of poor news quality. As newspapers die off, due in part to the Internet, quality journalists cannot be paid to do good investigative reporting. A result is that there’s a lot more opinion and less fact. There’s also a lot more news that is preselected or biased in favor of the corporations or businesses that own the station broadcasting the news. Thus, to the extent that the problem is not corrected, people will lack the quality information needed to make good decisions.


Specific structural problems

What follows is a list of some of the structural problems that currently exist. If you think we’re missing a significant structural problem, please let us know. Also, we hope that making this list doesn’t kill much of your hope for the future. Ultimately, we believe that chain reactions of political empowerment like PTTN can quickly grow and address these problems if people act in time. Remember, we’re not asking you to address all these problems.

Political structural problems

1) An uninformed, uninvolved electorate with poor critical thinking skills. Such an electorate will keep electing low-quality politicians and will allow other interests to control our government. (We think we’re addressing this one!)

2) Too much corporate influence over the election process. Corporations are created mainly to make profits for their shareholders. Their goals are not always aligned with the interests of most people since they are not intrinsically motivated towards increasing quality of life. The huge sums of money they put into campaigns can encourage politicians to cater to their interests with legislation that unduly favors these corporations over small business and consumers. This influence also leads to a “revolving door” situation between government and industry. “Revolving door” means that sometimes business leaders are chosen by newly elected leaders to police or regulate the very industries they came from. Similarly, the revolving door also means that members of Congress or state legislatures, when they retire, join lobbies and use relationships they gained while in office to give advantages to these lobbies. The high-paying jobs they get are rewards for favors they’ve done for the industry.

3) Too much corporate influence over the legislative process. Corporations will lobby to lower environmental standards, worker benefits, product quality standards, and regulation of finance markets so that they can maximize profits. Also, senators, congressmen, and other officials pay more attention to lobbyists and short-change their constituencies — they people who elected them.

4) The filibuster in the Senate.  (Already mentioned.)

5) Voting integrity. When voting is done through machines that can be hacked and do not leave a paper record, it becomes easier for elections to be stolen. The public loses confidence in the process.

6) Gerrymandering (also called Redistricting). This is the process of changing the size and shape of voting districts. As in the district shown here, they are reshaped to allow candidates, who would otherwise lose a popular election, to win political offices. The new district lines are drawn as to allow certain demographics to choice the politician and to drown out other demographics.

7) The Electoral College. In some cases the presidential candidate that received the most votes lost because of the Electoral College process.

8)  The Fast Track process that allows the President to negotiate international trade agreements with much less Congressional oversight. (Currently Fast Track only applies to agreements that were in process when Fast Track expired in 2007, but there are attempts to renew it.)  Constitutionally, Congress must ratify treaties and Fast Track restricts the information they receive about treaties and limits their impact to a yes or no vote.

9) Earmarks.  (“Pork” or “Pork barrel legislation”)  When a certain bill doesn’t have enough votes, senators and representatives will demand earmarks, which are essentially favors or extra benefits for the people in their district in exchange for their vote. This is essentially extortion. It helps to get them re-elected but it’s unfair to the rest of the country.

10) People in Congress spending too much time campaigning for re-election and not being able to give adequate time and attention to legislation. Term limits are proposed as a solution to this problem. (On the state level, 15 states have some form of term limits. Source.)

11) The very large federal deficit. Because of trillions of dollars of debt, a payment on the debt leaves less money for other federal programs. At a certain point, high debt could lose the government its AAA credit rating, leading to austerity and hardship for much of the country. 


Other structural problems

1) The expected loss of funding for Social Security, due to the great number of baby boomers soon to hit retirement, as well as increased longevity.

2) Decrease of quality journalism and fact-finding.  (Already mentioned.)  Although not part of government, a widespread loss of quality journalism could be considered a political structural problem if it impairs the ability of government to function.

3) Over-consumption of limited natural resources.  It’s widely believed in the scientific community that the human population should be about two billion people, since that is what the Earth can sustain for the long-term.  With seven billion people, we are over-consuming resources such as oil and fresh water.  While in theory we could switch to renewable energy sources and purify seawater, transitioning to these technologies will take time. The more that people reduce their ecological “footprint” the better, but the overpopulation situation will have dramatic and far-reaching environmental, political, economic, and social impacts if solutions are not found quickly.

4) Climate change. Severe weather, rising sea levels, and desertification are expected to create 800 million refugees (roughly one-eighth of the world’s population) and also affect agricultural production.

5) Regulation of the finance industry. Through derivatives, the finance industry was largely responsible for the financial meltdown and the recession beginning in 2008. The structural problem is causes by a lack of checks and balances and adequate regulation of the finance industry. This is partly due to the “revolving door” between government and the financial and banking industry. In other words, due to the second political problem listed above, government leaders choose regulators from the industry they are regulating.

6) Economic rules that allow for a concentration of wealth via a “Monopoly effect.”  Many people believe the rules of the current economy almost automatically lead to a concentration of wealth in the hands of a few. This becomes a problem when the majority of people do not have access to vital resources needed for life, such as fresh water, farmland, and affordable housing. The situation is very similar to the game Monopoly where a player lands on a resource controlled by another player and must pay rents on property. Certain kinds of property, such as land and natural resources, are limited. Those who control these resources have an unfair advantage. Taxes are one way to partially level the playing field but if wealthy people have too much control over the political process, it’s likely that tax laws will be re-written in favor of the wealthy.


More information

Here are some more detailed explanations of some structural problems.

On the Issues version of Government Reform:

Voting process integrity   www.electionline.org
527 and Campaign Finance Reform   http://citizenjoe.org/node/181
National Debt     http://citizenjoe.org/node/206
Deficits and Debts   http://www.citizenjoe.org/node/216

Budget Reform    http://citizenjoe.org/node/170
Estate Tax (the Death Tax)   http://citizenjoe.org/node/186
Line Item Veto    http://citizenjoe.org/node/208
Lobby and Earmark reform    http://citizenjoe.org/node/174
Redistricting      http://citizenjoe.org/node/198
Filibusters     http://www.citizenjoe.org/node/209

Voting and Ballot Initiatives   http://www.citizenjoe.org/node/134




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