Yes, it seems scary. But it’s all in the name of science.
- By Rosa BrooksRosa Brooks is a law professor at Georgetown University and a senior fellow with the New America/Arizona State University Future of War Project. She served as a counselor to the U.S. defense undersecretary for policy from 2009 to 2011 and previously served as a senior advisor at the U.S. State Department. Her most recent book is How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything.
Try to think like a scientist.
If you think like a citizen, the first 100 days of the Trump administration will reduce you to weeping and wailing.
But if you think like a scientist, you will see things differently. You’ll see that the United States of America has developed an excellent fourth grade science fair project.
This project is called “A Four-Year Experiment in Not Having a Government.”
Until recently, the United States has had a “government” with “policies.” That is: We have had an adult president, we have had other adults occupying senior government positions, and those adults have sought to develop reasonably coherent and consistent approaches to governing based on the assumption that the usual rules of physics, mathematics, and so on must be taken into account when developing policies, and the corollary assumption that “facts” and “evidence” can be said to exist.
The United States was reasonably successful when it had a government. It was by no means perfect but laws were passed, taxes were collected, revenues were used to fund public services, treaties and international negotiations were concluded, and so on.
But do we need an American government?
Perhaps not! Perhaps the United States and the world can chug along just fine without one. Thanks to the Republican Party, we’re in the middle of a once-in-a-lifetime experiment to find out.
The study began by placing a child in the White House. Child labor laws passed by previous U.S. governments (and the Constitution) preclude sending a fourth grader to the White House, but we have done the next best thing by electing Donald Trump, a 70-year-old who makes decisions based on TV shows, doesn’t read, and announces new policy positions via late night tweets IN ALL CAPS.
Next, we made sure there won’t be any other adults in the executive branch. A few were able to sneak in early, but for the most part, we have successfully created an adult-free executive branch. Of the more than 550 key jobs requiring Senate-confirmed political appointees, 530 remain vacant, and President Trump has refrained from nominating anyone to fill most positions.
As a result, we are as close right now as we will likely ever be able to get to not having a government at all. At the Defense Department, only one political appointee — Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis — has been nominated and confirmed; the other 52 top DoD positions are vacant. At the State Department, only three out of 119 key positions have been filled. The halls of other government agencies are similarly empty.
Meanwhile, President Trump froze most federal hiring, ensuring, for the experiment’s sake, that the executive branch is also short-staffed at middle and lower levels. Similarly, Trump has asked Congress to slash the budgets for most civilian agencies, in the hopes that those employees who remain will be unable to fund any programs. He has moved quickly to eliminate many of the regulations put into place by previous governments, leaving private sector actors more free to pollute the environment and fleece the general public. This week, President Trump announced his intention to precipitously slash corporate taxes as well, in an apparent effort to reduce federal revenues and thus further reduce the federal government’s ability to function.
When it comes to foreign affairs, Trump is also working on making the United States as government-less as possible: He quickly declared his desire to repudiate or ignore most major multilateral treaties, he made clear his lack of interest in traditional U.S. alliances, and he has confounded allies and adversaries alike with his refusal to stick with any foreign-policy position for more than a few minutes at a time.
Many find this situation dismaying. In fact, polls suggest most Americans are terrified. How can the United States survive, ask the naysayers, with so many vital executive branch positions empty? How can its government survive with so little revenue? How can the globe remain stable if the United States ceases to play a leadership role, and instead oscillates randomly between isolationism and sudden spasms of bellicosity?
But if you think like a scientist, you will see instead this as a wonderful opportunity. Will America survive? Will it slide into authoritarianism, collapse into civil war, or simply slump into permanent economic and political decline? Will the world successfully adapt to a government-less United States? Will China become the new global superpower? Will a rudderless Europe fall victim to resurgent nationalism and become a Russian dependency, or will it step up to take America’s place as champion of liberal cosmopolitanism? We’ll find out!
In his 1973 classic, A Random Walk Down Wall Street, economist Burton Malkiel famously argued that “A blindfolded monkey throwing darts at a newspaper’s financial pages could select a portfolio that would do just as well as one carefully selected by experts.” He was, it turns out, largely correct: Studies show that when it comes to the stock market, randomness (and diversified index funds) gets better results that the experts.
In our new national science experiment, we’re now embarking on a four-year, uncontrolled experiment in whether the same principle applies to governing. Just as child labor laws (for now!) prevent us from placing a 9-year-old in the Oval Office, ethical concerns about the treatment of animals prevent us from literally installing a blindfolded monkey in the White House. With Donald Trump making decisions, however, we’ve got the next best thing.
Ain’t science grand?
Photo credit: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images