Yes, politicians deserve vacations – because we benefit

By Frank-Jürgen Richter

Nikkei Weekly, August 19, 2013

Vacations help. Of course we all should, from time to time, take a break from the hassles of the daily grind, even if many of us can only stay at home this year due to austerity. Those in public service also can gain immeasurably from a long vacation – even if the rest of us complain that we are paying them to do nothing. This is one example of how unfair we can be; many public servants will take only brief breaks and rightly return to parliamentary business, quietly and dutifully.

On vacation, our public servants can get a break from the daily cacophony from the public and the media braying at the slothfulness of politicians. We say that politicians ignore the facts in front of them. This is what I wish to talk about.

An example: A common refrain from the public is the need for more prisons (though not nearby, please) to incarcerate every and all found guilty of crimes. In many cases, the nature of the crime is inconsequential. “Three strikes and you’re out” has filled U.S. prisons to overflowing, with a disproportionate representation to Afro-Caribbean and Hispanic prisoners. Though there is some debate over lesser sentences for lesser crimes, it is difficult to define a legislative boundary. And then there are even those, in places where it has been abolished, who advocate bringing back the death penalty. What they seem to ignore is that, in our time, crime rates are falling, across almost all categories.

The rates of burglaries, car thefts and even crimes against the person have all fallen in most developed nations. This is due to stronger social cohesion – in creating neighborhood watches, installing burglar alarms, or simply not displaying purses and phones in unattended cars and inviting an opportunistic theft. It is also due to better policing with more patrolling of neighborhoods done on foot, bicycle and even on Segways. Better still is the police use of big data analyses to predict where crimes might erupt and increasing officers in such areas. In some parts of the U.S., this new technique has reduced certain crimes by 90%. Other technological developments have also helped. Vehicle anti-theft and tracking devices have been effective, and the falling prices of TVs, DVDs and so on also deter theft – a few dollars’ gain is not worth a criminal record it seems.

Yet, we tend to harbor great distrust toward the police, and toward politicians.

We tell ourselves that we inherently know that these authority figures do not tell us the truth – that they abuse the facts. The 2013 annual Edelman Trust Barometer showed, as it has done over several years, that most people give a negative answer to the question, “How much do you trust each institution to do what is right?”

This year, however, those surveyed were a little more positive. For government, the ratio of people who responded “trust a great deal” was 16%, up from 12% in 2012. For business, this trust was 17%, up from 14%. For media, it was 17%, up from 15%. For nongovernmental organizations, it was 22%, up from 19%. But the figures are still harsh pills for politicians to swallow. They know that many of their institutional responses need to change to reflect the whims of society – but clearly we do not trust their words.

We don’t universally incarcerate all those who act differently than us. We know we ought to consider the best treatment for prisoners and to those in need of medical aid. Simply locking people up, drugging them or keeping them confined to beds is not appropriate or beneficial. Much crime is done by hot-headed youths, and after being in prison for 30 years, they have become just like most of us – middle-aged and wanting simply to have a quiet life of gardening and watching TV, not one of rampage or hurting of others. Sentencing therefore requires a review and redesign. But the public would then grow fearful, insisting that the judges and the politicians are bent on being soft on prisoners.

Hospitalization, or more accurately, the provision of a full hospital service near to one’s abode, is also a difficulty for politicians to realize. As populations grow older, we find that the elderly can’t be cared for in the traditional manner by their offspring, as they are often old and weak as well. Thus, the elderly take up hospital beds, occupy hospital staff and deprive younger and oftentimes more desperate people from receiving urgent treatment. Social care at home needs to be boosted, thus freeing hospital beds for their obvious task of emergency and critical care. But the public demands local beds for lifetime treatment, saying their politicians are short-changing them – after years of paying into pension funds, the bargain is that there will be a bed for them waiting. The public see home care as a cheap substitute. To some extent I agree with this. Social services need to be redesigned, and this means more cash for new support operations.

So we have a gross gap in our perceptions. The politicians and the media need to inform the public about the facts. We all need to discuss these facts and the options available, with the full costs of each explained and how it can all be paid for. Instead, during much of the year we receive misinformation, sometimes politically motivated. Sometimes after a horrendous event, imprisonment seems a reasonable outcome to impose on the perpetrators. But we must face up to changes and come to informed decisions – holidays may help to isolate the anger of the past and to generate a willingness for future discussion. I hope so, as globally all is changing.

Growth may be slowing around the world, and general austerity may be here to stay. That is not to say that we do not have, collectively, the cash to alter processes for the general betterment. But we must manage all our resources in a modern, well-informed way that will support future generations. We must learn to believe that those for whom we voted will act faithfully on our behalf – that is democracy. They, in turn, must be transparent and stop petty politicking.

Frank-Jurgen Richter is founder and chairman of Horasis, a global visions community.