Thursday, December 27, 2012

My Pragmatic Plan for Gun Control

It goes without saying that whatever resolution Congress comes up with on the issue of gun will be so convoluted as to be rendered inconsequential.  I have no doubt that the final bill will complex and filled with “exceptions.” Every special interest- on either side of the issue- will have to be satiated and every member of Congress will have to be able to claim “victory” to their respective constituencies. What is so frustrating is that crafting a bill that is respectful to gun enthusiasts worried about the “slippery slope,” and gun control advocates demanding stronger limitations on access is actually feasible, avoiding the aforementioned contrivances.

As I have argued in posting after posting, the majority of Americans demand pragmatism from its leaders; they want something that is easy to grasp, enforceable, and reasonable in its scope. With this in mind, I would like to suggest such a plan:

1)      Background checks specifically designed to weed out those with a history of mental illness. This is more difficult than one might think, since our HIPPA laws limit access to an individual’s medical records and history. It seems that the only way to approach this is to simply broaden the type of purchases that require background checks, and to possibly create a list of criminal behaviors that are indicative of someone with “instability,” using this as a “red flag” to restrict purchases.

2)      Limits on the size of magazines and limits on the number of automatic weapons that any individual may purchase in a given time frame. I would personally prefer a ban on all automatic weapon purchases, but this will certainly delay passage of any legislation and rekindle the “slippery slope” debate.

3)      A national gun “buy back” program modeled on the program recently run in Australia. The program could be run by government at local levels, many of which have already run such programs in their own cities and suburban communities. The current buy back in Los Angeles has shown great success. Rather than provoke those concerned with “big brother” taking away “our” guns, give individuals an incentive to turn in some or all of their weapons.

4)      Use moral suasion in much the same way that we have approached issues like drug use and drunk driving. Aggressively challenge the “no snitching” mentality that dominates inner city neighborhoods and construct a message to dissuade people from feeling the need to own a gun, or at the very least own their own arsenal of guns.  Make people aware of statistics associated with gun ownership and gun violence, statistics that demonstrate who are the real victims of gun use. And take the issue of moral suasion into the business and entertainment industries, reminding business executives that they are parents too. Confront those that glamorize violence and try to actually trigger a sense of shame in adults that profit from the excesses of gun violence. This moral message should also be constructed towards children and young adults that revel in the violence of popular video games. It is imperative that we try to influence the next generation of possible gun purchasers.

5)      Although hampered by free rider issues, encourage and support community watch programs so that people don’t feel the urgent need to defend themselves. Tie these programs to community policing policies like those that have been developed as part of a “broken windows” approach to police work.

6)      Provide funding for schools that want to study ways to improve their security, and funding to support reasonable strategies to do so. On this issue Wayne LaPierre is correct; we have a duty to do more to make our schools safe. I do not support arming teachers or administrators, but as a former teacher I can tell you from experience that much can be done to make schools more secure.

7)      And finally, require all gun owners to take out insurance on each of their weapons. Every car owner in New Jersey, and I assume in the nation, is required to have liability insurance, assuming the risk for any injuries that a “victim” may incur. The NRA already offers such insurance to its members; such a program should now be expanded and required of all gun owners.

In much the same way we approach First Amendment issues, restrictions on gun ownership should be structured around the lenses of “time, place, and manner.” For those demanding a more aggressive and forceful approach, this plan will probably be a letdown. But we do need to remember that gun ownership is a constitutionally protected right, and so restrictions on this right must carry a presumption towards personal liberty.

It is going to be a fool’s mission to think that we can craft a bill to stop the next mass murderer, but there is much we can do to end America’s “love affair” with guns and prurient love of gun related violence, especially violence in the name of entertainment. I wouldn’t doubt that some people actually derive some sort of sexual gratification from owning and firing a weapon. For whatever reason, American is awash in guns, and it would be the height of irresponsibility for our political leaders to act impotent. Take away guns where we can, use guilt, shame, incentives, and a stronger sense of community to lessen the demand for guns, do a better job enforcing laws and protecting fellow citizens,  make guns less “sexy,” and make gun owners more accountable for  actions taken with the weapons they own.  Taken together, the “Brown Plan” is a pragmatic approach to gun ownership and gun violence, and pragmatism is the key. Americans don’t need “holier than thou” speeches, and they don’t need to have the fears of Big Brother unnecessarily stoked. They need solutions, and this is one that will work.

 

Friday, December 21, 2012

A Conversation with James Madison

Imagine sitting in front of the TV with James Madison (who miraculously reappeared in modern times) the day after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary.

“My G-d,” exclaimed Madison, “I can’t believe the horrible things that men continue to do to their fellow man, and to kill children, this is an unspeakable horror.”
“I agree,” declared the host, “to kill so many children so quickly and shamelessly is an act of pure evil.”

“But how was this act carried out?” Madison wondered, “What kind of weapon was used?”
“It was a Bushmaster AK-47 automatic rifle, “ I responded as I took my cell phone from my pocket and logged onto You Tube. “If you take a look at this ‘picture box’ you can see how it works.”

I let Madison view the You Tube demonstration of the automatic weapon in action at a shooting range.
“That is a rifle?” Madison questioned. “But it shoots so many bullets so quickly. Why do you allow people to own such destructive weapons?”
“Well,” I answered, “People are allowed to buy these weapons because of the Second Amendment that you wrote in the Bill of Rights.”

“Are you freaking insane?” Madison shouted. “Are you modern people nuts?”
Enough said.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

A Role for Average Citizens on Gun Task Force

President Obama predictably called for the establishment of a Task Force to study the issue of gun crime, including obvious ancillary issues like mental health care and access to weapons.

The Task Force, to be chaired by the Vice-Presiden,  will undoubtedly include a variety of politicians and public policy experts with a broad base of knowledge on the issue(s). The panelists will of course cut across the political spectrum, including libertarians, conservatives, liberals, and some moderates. Of course, regardless of an individual's political leanings, the most important issue is whether the participants can set aside ideology once the hard work of constructing a viable pubilc policy recommendation is made. More important than broad ideological involvement is the need for pragmatism.

It has always been my position that the vast number of American citizens are "ideologically" pragmatic, and that pragmatism is truly the dominant ideology in our nation. Americans don't "swing" conservative or liberal, they gravitate to the Party that presents the most pragmatic public policy. Indeed, the current trend towards the Democratic Party does not represent a shift in thinking to a more liberal view, but instead represents the fact that Republicans have failed to offer any perceived pragmatic solutions to contemporary issue.

In addition to this need for pragmatism among the politicans and "experts," I believe that it is time for our "transformational" leader to do something truly transformative and include the general public in the Task Force.There is absolutely no reason that average American citizens cannot participate. Not only would there inclusion represent a true desire to give citizens a voice, but it would help insure greater transparency in the process.

There is no reason why a computer cannot select average Americans and see if they are interested in participating. If more citizens are desired, then maybe we should consider empowering a second Task Force that will directly represent public views. A survey can be used to insure the inclusion of diverse viewpoints, and a proven leader can be found to guide the Task Force.

I don't know about you, but I would be extremely interested in seeing what kind of solutions a "public task force" would come up with compared to theTask Force of experts.

The inclusion of average citizens in the policy making process would be a truly transformational act by our President. I implore him to consider seeking out and including average voters in this Task Force and any future task force empowered to constuct new public policy. Its time to make our democracy a bit more democratic, and this would be a wonderful step in the right direction.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Undemocratic Supermajorities

I am absolutely flabbergasted with the use of so-called supermajorities for the passage of "important" legislation in the Senate. It absolutely flies in the face of the traditional notion that our government is run on the basis of simple majority rule.

Please explain to me why some legislation should require 60 votes to pass? The inordinate power that this gives to the minority to thwart legislation is completely without justification.

This shift in the balance of power to favor minority views is a slap in the face to our founding fathers.

The efficiency it creates and the requisite deal making it  engenders  no doubt contributes to the already horrible opinion the public already has for our Congress.

This is tantamount to a legislative filibuster, causing endless delays in a body already known for its indecisiveness and rancor.

I have poured over the writings of our founding fathers and no where have I found the belief that's 41 percent opposition rather than 51 percent opposition is sufficient to strike down lelegislation.

This is a travesty that must be stopped.

Monday, December 3, 2012

End Use of the Word "Entitlement"

In political discourse, the choice of certain words can weigh heavily on the tenor of debate. Words like "death tax" and "job creators" create imagery that necessarily affects perspective. Controlling the language of political debate allows one to influence public opinion and from that, policy choices.

Nowhere is word choice more important than in the current budget debate. Republicans are putting pressure on Democrats to make important concessions on entitlements. Now I'm not saying that entitlement programs aren't  in need of reform, but I am adamant that reductions in funding to program participants is absolutely wrong in this current economic environment. The Bush tax cuts created the most egregious redistribution of income in our lifetime.

In order to help deflect pressure to decimate these programs I implore the Democrats to begin referring to entitlements as "earned benefits," because quite frankly that is what most of those programs represent.

In the same way that the word mandate negatively impacted Obama's health care program, many Americans tend to recoil at the notion that people feel entitled to something because it strongly suggests that they are getting something for nothing, and that is just not the case.

It's Democrats are ever going to gather the support they need to sustain these programs, they need to control the language of debate. Calling these programs what they actually are, earned benefits, will put Republicans on the defensive and help the majority of Americans who ever come to depend on these services in times of need.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Obama Administration, the ACA, and the Importance of Words

You would think that someone so adroit with words would have done a better job framing debate on the Affordable Care Act, but President Obama clearly dropped the ball. I would go so far as argue that their mistake singularly caused most of the backlash faced by the bill and gave conservatives the opening they needed to turn the public off and put the Administration on the defensive. At issue is the “Individual Mandate.”

Americans are predisposed to reject the idea of mandates. They don’t like being told that they are being forced to do anything. The word mandate raises negative images in people’s minds, and by choosing that term the Administration gave Republicans the ability to control the debate and frame the ACA as something being imposed on the American people. Poll after poll shows that when people are asked their opinion on particular aspects of the ACA that they are favorably received; only the individual mandate seems to meet with displeasure. This, in spite of the fact that only a very small segment of the population, most probably single males in their late 20’s to early 30’s, will be resistant to  a requirement that they purchase health care. The majority of people without health care will in all likelihood participate in the extended Medicare program.

The idea behind the mandate is reasonable enough; with more people receiving health care, insurance companies will be better able to spread the risk across a larger population as they receive more and more new clients. Moreover, the penalty for non-participation in the system is not particularly onerous, so those choosing not to participate are not really being compelled or forced to obtain health care.

But so it goes that a provision of the bill that really doesn’t impact that many people nonetheless has made people skeptical of it. As President Obama prepares for his 2nd term he should give strong consideration to introducing a new phrase to replace “individual mandate.” Maybe it can be called the “Personal Accountability” provision, or possibly the “Individual Responsibility” provision, or some derivation of those ideas. Accountability and responsibility are, by their nature, considered “conservative words.” Accountability and responsibility are terms typically associated with individual behavior; inherent in these words is the notion of choice. A mandate, on the other hand, is associated with government power and reach.

Since the ACA is filled with provisions where individuals and businesses will make choices, using either of these terms is also consistent with the philosophy behind the bill; it was not meant to be conceived of as a government directive in the way that a single payer plan is.

Hopefully the Obama Administration will see the light and aggressively reframe the arguments validating the ACA. A crucial component of that new “marketing” campaign is the language chosen by representatives of the President. Let’s hope they have learned their lesson and decided to scrap the term “mandate” in exchange for language more consistent with the belief system of our culture; the decision to use it was a huge blunder.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Pragmatism and the GOP

Pragmatism is the key to success in American politics. We are constantly bombarded with ideology fed to us in platitudes and buzz words meant to elicit images of what are essentially stereotypical portrayals of opposing ideologies. We are inundated with visions of “fiscal cliffs,” “class warfare,” “job creators ”and“ conspiracies” to name but a few.

But when you really study people, when you really listen to them, I think you’ll find that what inevitably “seals the deal” for the electorate is pragmatism. I would go so far as to argue that a major reason some people opt out of participating in the political system is what they perceive as, not an appealing ideology, but a perception that our legislatures are not doing enough to solve our problems. This value is the essence of pragmatism. Most Americans have learned pragmatism the hard way, through life experience at work and at home. Pragmatists control the center of the political spectrum, willing to lean in whatever direction seems to offer the most reasonable, constructive arguments to resolve policy issues. Thus to say that the electorate is “becoming more liberal” is often misleading; you must discern between those responding to ideological messages and those responding to actual policy. Wasn't only a few years ago that people talked about a "revolution" to the right, how the American public had swung decidedly more conservative. The point is that those responding to a preferential policy can just as easily swing the other way, but only if the opposition party can make an equally reasonable case.

This preference for pragmatic rather than ideological solutions has implications for those who abstain from politics. Unless these “unwilling” participants are substantially affected by government policy or regulation they will not connect or reconnect with politics until they are reasonably satisfied that our politicians are committed to a pragmatic course.

The implications for our political parties, and especially for today’s Republican Party, are substantial. Governor Romney’s defeat exposed huge fissures in the Party, as party leaders struggle to determine whether the Party’s future demands greater adherence to “conservative values” or a greater willingness to be more inclusive and more “open minded” to more progressive ideas, ideas invariably more pragmatic in tone and substance. Even since the Tea Party hijacked the primary process and forced greater allegiance to their philosophy, a narrow, somewhat skewed version of conservatism has been able to take hold. These conservatives are fundamentalist by nature, rejecting outright views that conflict with their own. Not only is this anathema to our ability to govern, it is contrary to “liberal science” and the virtues of skepticism and reason.

Conservatism can take on many faces, but it has one backbone. That is the idea that change not be extreme, that it be respectful of culture and custom, respectful of individual freedom and autonomy, and weary of government overreach and premature involvement in issues that may best be solved by the people themselves. From that platform a litany of policies can be envisioned, tailored to meet the needs of people in the cities, the suburbs, the workplace, the market, or any other environment that people live in.

From what I have heard so far in the aftermath of President Obama’s victory has me sanguine that GOP leaders, those more comfortable in the center, are willing to stand their ground against the intractable ideologues of the Tea Party and reactionary right. I have no doubt a “bloodbath” will ensue; my hope is that the majority of Republicans will recognize that their success is not dependent on their imprimatur, and that they should not back down when confronted in the primaries. What will clearly be needed are donors willing to support Republicans in the center. They need to exercise some pragmatism themselves, even if that means sacrificing some personal financial gain for the long term goal of a more vigorous, popular Party.

“We’re on the road to nowhere,” intones the Talking Heads David Lynch. That is the danger facing the Republican Party as it searches for its soul. The GOP needs to find its backbone, and not be seduced by the money, promises, and platitudes of the Far Right.

 I am one of those disaffected “former” Republicans. I didn’t leave the Party so much as the Party left me. It turned its back on reason, “true” rhetoric, and the art of productive, pragmatic negotiation. And so I’ve turned my back on it as well. What currently masquerades as the GOP is nothing more than a cabal of fundamentalists undemocratic at its core. They are suffocating the Republican Party. We desperately need some fresh air.

 

 

 

 

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Tea Party Fundamentalism is Anathema to Democracy

The more I listen to members of the Tea Party, the more convinced I become that its members are ill suited for a republican political system based on a clear separation of powers and distinct branches of government, a government potentially governed by both parties. My greatest concern is that the closemindedness of Tea Party members, their intransigence, their uncompromising belief in the veracity of their own views, will prevent progressive Republicans like myself from rejoining the GOP.

On the one hand I have a great deal of respect for people that demand obedience from its members for the views of its Party, so I have no problem with Tea Party leaders expecting obeisance its membership. The problem is that the days where Republicans or Democrats were all of "one mind" went away a long time ago, basically since the time our nation moved beyond the Mississippi. You need look no further than the varied geography of our nation to understand that unanimity is impossible. I am not arguing that the Republican Party can't have an overarching philosophy such as limited government, a belief in the relative virtue of free market solutions, or of the primacy of traditional families as a social goal. But there must be room for nuance, for accepting different paths to reach a goal. And there must be acceptance of the fact that the poltical process demands compromise, and that ideology must yield to pragmatism for our system to work.

In a parliamentary system, where the Prime Minister is chosen by its party members, ideology plays a more fundamental role. Party discipline is not only desired but expected and justifiably demanded. But we are not a parliamentary democracy with one party rule. Our parties are by and large huge marketing firms enlisted to help people win elections. The parties have a philosophy, but they must also demonstrate some flexibility.

The Tea Party just doesn't get it, they don't understand that for the GOP to survive and grow that it must be inclusive, not exclusive. And it must understand, most of all, that a democractic system is founded on what has been termed "liberal science," an expression of which can be found in this quote from Jonathan Rauch in his wonderful book Kindly Inquisitors:  "Diversity, of belief, thought, opinion, experience, is a fact, like it or not. Harness it, and you have the engine that generate knowledge."

Thus, he concludes, our nation is founded on skeptical principles, on the belief that "sincere criticism is always legitimate." The logical conclusion of this belief in skeptical principles is that, to again quote Rauch, "No one gets the final say, and no one personal authority."

Most Republicans, and most Democrats, accept, though grudgingly in some cases, these basic first principles. The Tea Party does not, and their resistance to liberal science and the skeptical principles that make democracy flourish makes them ill suited for our political system. I'm sure they can find some small island whose inhabitants they can dictate to, but the United States is not that place. The Tea Party should be rejected by the Republican Party, its members cast out to form a party of their own. Their fundamentalism is a threat to the future of the GOP. There are tens of thousands of "displaced" Republicans like me just waiting for an opening, for a chance to restore vitality to the Party we were raised in. I feel like an orphan; I want to come home.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Iranian Connection to Gaza Rocket Attacks?

Given the increased tension between Israel and Iran over Iran's desire for nuclear arms capability, and given the fact that any conflict between the two nations will be conducted through the air, I think it is perfectly reasonable to raise the question of Iranian complicity in Hamas' recent assault on Israeli cities, including such vital towns as Tel Aviv and Jersusalem.

I can't help but think that Iran is determined to learn all that it can about Israel's air defenses, particularly their "Iron Dome" version of the Strategic Defense Initiative first proposed by President Reagan during the Cold War. Israel in fact activated its defense system, knocking down at least one missile directed at Tel Aviv. I have no doubt that Iran is paying close attention.

It is understandable that, so far at least, mention of Iran be kept to a murmur, if mentioned at all. Adding a level of complexity to an already inflamed situation complicates efforts to settle the flare-up and put an end to Hamas' aggression.

But we cannot forget the connection between Hamas and Iran, and we must not be naive in our assumptions about the  causative factors behind Hamas' behavior. Iran is raising the stakes in the Middle East, and they must continue to be held accountable for its efforts to further destabilize the region. For the Persians, an Arab world in chaos shifts the balance of power in their direction. They are benficiaries of the new turmoil facing Israel; their is no doubt they are highly motivated to keep shifting Israel's attention from event to event.

Iran is behind this latest Hamas' aggression. Of this I have no doubt.

Friday, November 16, 2012

A Three State Solution to Palestine

As Hamas once again threatens Israel's borders, provoking them to defend their sovereignty with retaliatory air strikes, the question arise whether a solution can ever be reached to create a sovereign Palestinian state with defined borders and legitimacy on the international level. The greatest problem as I see it is the lack of a singular authority in palestinian lands, an authority with both popular and international support.

For almost 4 decades negotiatians have used a two state solution as its blueprint for peace. Besides the current lack of a unified voice to speak on behalf of the palestinian people, other practical problems exist that preclude a successful two state solution ever be reached. The most glaring problem is geographic; the West Bank and Gaza Strip lack continuity. The lack of contiguous palestinian territory presents strategic and economic problems for both Palestine and Israel. A look at the world map shows that there is no sovereign nation on earth, excluding Alaska's detachment from the continental US, that has its territory divided into two parts. The military implications are clear for both sides; Israel and a sovereign Palestine would each have the ability to "divide and conquer" their adversary. From an economic perspective, not being contiguous means that goods travelling between Gaza and the West Bank must be transported through Israel, givng the Jewish State enormous leverage should disputes arise.

Besides the difficulties a two state solution presents geographically, the greatest danger to a legitimte Palestinian government is internal; Hamas simply will not relinquish authority to Fatah, and the good will they have been garnering in Hamas controlled land means that the people will in all likelihood support their demand for power. Israel will not negotiate with Hamas, whom it does not consider an honest broker, and I'm sure that Israel is somewhat more comfortable having Hamas' influence geographically and politically isolated in the Gaza region.

The bottom line is this: A non-contiguous sovereign state is not viable. It will fail as surely as the sun rises.

So how do we move forward? One proposition, one that I believe would yield the most viability and stability, would be to have the West Bank and Gaza be integrated with Jordan and Egypt, respectively, into confederations under the sovereign control of those states but with the independence inherant in a confederated state. There are obvious problems here, most noteworthy the reality that neither Jordan or Egypt is enthusiastic about having to be responsible for palestinians and palestinian behavior within their state. Theoretically, this would be the best solution, but from a practical matter there is little chance that the idea would be supported by the people in these lands.

If a two state solution won't work, and a confederation won't work, then what can be done to move this process forward? The most obvious solution, one that seems to jump right out at you with a look at the regional map, is to have a three state solution, creating separate sovereign nations in Gaza and the West Bank. There is so much to be gained by Israel and leaders in the West Bank by even raising the prospect of a three state solution. It would immediately isolate Hamas, it would eliminate the problem Fatah would face having to govern a somewhat hostile and non-contiguous territory, and it would find popular support in Israel; most Israeli citizens are justifiably suspicious of Hamas but would, I believe, be much more willing to negotiate with leaders on the West Bank, especially if Jordan shows  willingness to enter the peace process.

A three state solution would benefit both Israel and the West Bank, isolating Hamas would be in both parties self-interest. It is time for negotiators to "think outside the box" and consider a new path to peace. Proposing a three state solution would be a great strategic shift. From  a practical standpoint, it is really the only way to go. It is time for new thinking in the peace process; how many more decades must go by before we accept the fact thata two state solution simply will not work.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Conservatism and Government, Perfect Together

One of the great lies in current conservative thinking in public policy is the notion that government involvement in the economy is anathema to conservative political philosophy. Conservative thought must stay contemporary to stay relevant. Adam Smith, father of free market economics, believed that government has a duty to help provide “complete information” to consumers so that they can make rational decisions on how to allocate their resources efficiently. It also had a duty to help insure “perfect competition” by regulation. The salient issue is not if government should play a role, but to what extent it should play a role. Conservatives today need to understand that, as far as government action is concerned, the ends can justify the means. To the extent that government helps “produce” citizens that are independent, rational, self-sufficient actors not dependent on government support, conservatives should embrace a role for government.

No less a conservative as George Will suggested the idea that government action can be compatible with conservative thought. In his 1983 essay “In Defense of the Welfare State,” Will argued that government had a legitimate role in helping to ensure “equality of opportunity” in the economy. He went on to argue that entitlements are now part of the social fabric in our culture, and that conservatives must tailor their policies to acknowledge this reality. It is perfectly legitimate to argue against their expansion and to similarly try to diminish public reliance on such entitlements, but they are here to stay; their elimination would be so fundamentally disruptive to social unity and social order as to be contrary to conservative values.

Conservatives must learn to speak the language of government. Rather than rail against government, conservatives must synthesize their belief in limited government with the goals of using government to promote the worthy goal of equality of opportunity. Thus job training programs, a strong public school system, access to capital for entrepreneurs, and enforcing laws against discrimination are all legitimate goals for government to address.

The reflexive rejection of government, including the funding of government through tax revenue, is more properly in the domain of anarchists, not conservatives. For those Tea Party crazies that think our Founders saw no role for government, I suggest they reread the letters of both farmers in the South and industrialists in the North. Government has, and will always be, an important piece of the social fabric. Social conservatives seem to have no problem arguing for government having a legitimate function controlling our private lives, a position I abhor. Economic conservatives have a much more sound argument for government and a government partnership with the business community. It is time for them to quell the shrill voices of the far right wing and proudly promote the idea that government, by promoting equality of opportunity, will make our free market more accessible, more efficient, and more popular.

The Tea Party's False Claim to History

It is high time to challenge the Tea Party and knock it off its self-erected pedestal as “apostles” of our Founding Fathers. The assumption that the Party is the voice of our Founders, that their beliefs are consistent with the Founders, and that we as a nation need to behave as if “the Founders would have us behave” is one of the great lies of our day. From the belief that the Constitution and Declaration were at their core religious in tone to the belief that we must be guided by the Constitution’s “original intent,” the Tea Party demonstrates absolutely no understanding of history. Shame on their history teachers, for they clearly did not learn much on those days in class.

The late 18th Century was part of what we refer to as the Age of Reason or Enlightenment. It was a time of great scientific and philosophical thought. The salons of Europe were replicated here in the colonies, as the learned people of the day sought to digest the lessons of the Reformation and the horrific wars of religion and class that swept up the Continent.

The point is this: The Constitution was a scientific document, not a religious document. The Founders were by and large deists, seeing G-d through the lens of science. G-d was justified by reason, not faith. The Constitution was our Founders attempt to create government through reason; republicanism and democracy were the product of “political science.” Here is the important point. As the product of scientific reasoning, it was understood by our Founding Fathers, great men like Jefferson, Franklin, and Madison, that knowledge of science and of the world was never static, never complete. Jefferson for example understood that they possessed imperfect knowledge, and that it was perfectly reasonable to expect thoughts on governance to grow and change.

Our Founders would be aghast at people like those in the Tea Party who thought that they created the “perfect” document, that they knew all there was to know about government, and that people in 2012 should be governed solely by the thinking of those who lived in the late 1700’s. It is time for the Tea Party to be challenged, to be exposed for the “posers” that they are, hiding behind “original intent” as a way of justifying their narrow, angry, anti-social, and oftentimes downright racist views. The last election was a punch to the gut of the Tea Party. It is time for a knock out punch.

 

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Defending Price Gouging...Are You Kidding?

One has to wonder how James Stacey Taylor ever received tenure as an economics professor at TCNJ. In a recent Star Ledger Op Ed piece the good professor offered an argument in favor of price gouging, essentially arguing that suppliers will rush to meet demand for "gouged" products; suppliers would happily raise their prices to retailers who in turn gouge the public with higher prices. I'm assuming he believes that this sudden increase in supply will in turn help restore prices to equilibrium. Forgive me if I have his line of reasoning wrong, it is hard to make sense of something so nonsensical. Retailers would of course not reduce prices since their price structure must reflect their higher costs. We also would have to consider the elasticity of the product after all, since the demand for some products don't respond as well to price changes.

But more importantly, Professor Taylor seems to forget that most basic of economic ideas: opportunity cost. With incomes assumed fixed, and for the poor both fixed and limited, consumers would be faced with some horrendous trade-offs. Do I purchase fresh water, or do I buy food? Should I put high priced gas in my car, or pay the phone bill? With choices like this, it's understandable why economics is called "the dismal science."

Fortunately for us, price gouging is only successful in non-competitive environments where providers feel more free to raise prices. Thank God for the marketplace!! Price gougers pray on consumer with limited choices for goods. It would not be a stretch to see this is a monopolistic environment. Using the same logic Professor Taylor uses to justify price gouging, I suspect he'd have no problem with monopolistic practices as well.

In the aftermath of a natural disaster, should we be more concerned with the choices faced by consumers or whether or not businesses under conditions of imperfect competition can efficiently and profitably market their goods. The choice, to me, is pretty simple. Price gouging, especially in times of emergency, represents a dispicable assault on the body politic. I think the good professor needs to spend a little more time out of the classroom and join us here in the real world.

Obama's Victory: Was It the Message or the Marketing?

Democrats, we get it. You won the election, and the Republicans are in disarray. But's lets be honest, this was a contest between two flawed candidates, and quite frankly the Democrats didn't win the election as much as the GOP blew it. A better Republican candidate- if such a person exists- would have won this election.

The Republicans should have realized long ago that marketing Governor Romney as a successful businessman was fraught with danger, especially in states with large manufacturing sectors. The workers in these states have a wholly different image of a successful businessman; they see him as someone whose success was the result of "building something." To people like this, Romney was not a successful businessman but a money manipulator, a man who built his wealth through transactions, not through the sweat on his brow as head of an actual company.

With this message gone, voters then focused on the "faces of the Party" rather than the candidate himself, and what they saw they did not like. To a large number of voters, the GOP was filled with people completely foreign to their own lives, people they rarely cross paths with and, frankly, people they would never really desire to hang out with.

So seeing Democrats looking so smug, acting like sour winners, is somewhat disheartening. Enjoy the victory, but understand that they share an incredible burden to chart a fiscally sane course for our future. For the economy is surely going to soon right itself, and as the economy grows upward pressure on interest rates will build, threatening to choke off any recovery.

Democrats that fought for Obama's victory deserve enormous praise for the deftness with which they organized and implemented their strategic plans. It will hard to convince me that this was a clear victory of ideology. It was, rather, a testament to the importance of collecting voter data and aggressively  marketing your brand with messages literally tailored to individual "shoppers." Whether this is a good or bad thing is still open to debate.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Saving the Republican Party with A New Urban Conservatism

Let’s face it; the Republican Party is a mess. The residue from this election could not be more profound; this is a Party dominated by grumpy old men and their compliant companions. Those who voted Republican in the last election include these aforementioned people, racists, and people still horribly impacted by the Great Recession and lay the blame on President Obama. Mix into this group those who ideologically oppose Big Government and those reactionaries fearful of a changing culture and you basically describe the core of the Party. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

I was raised as a Republican; more specifically I am one of those often discussed Montgomery County (PA) republicans. My representative for much of my youth was Lawrence Coughlin, the bow tied progressive that had no trouble winning reelection for well over a decade. Representative Coughlin was a true centrist, a group that can now only be found in fossil records.

Given this new reality, it is certainly fair to conclude that the Republican Party is at a crossroads. If those who now seem to dominate the party, mainly the rigid, strident, doctrinaire Tea Party republicans and their minions, refuse to be inclusive, and refuse to leave their ideology “at the door” as they engage in budget and other negotiations, there is a real danger that, at least at the presidential level, they will drift into irrelevance. Their presence also led and will lead to defeat in Senate and House races, as more and more electable party members refuse to run; those that do run face primary challenges by fringe candidates benefitting by the Tea Party’s ability to mobilize supporters to vote in primaries where low voter turnout amplifies their influence.

There are four demographic groups that shepherded President Obama to victory: African-Americans, Latinos, single women, and young people. Without overwhelming support from these groups President Obama would not have won reelection. The inference is obvious; if the Republican Party is to have any chance at remaining relevant they must appeal to any or all of these groups. The Republican Party can either embrace the new demographics or fight windmills while Democrats grow their base and support from independents.

My hope is that the Party will choose to broaden its base. This will require a new “variant” of conservatism, one that will appeal to those four groups. Already today there are several variants of what is described as conservative thought. Personally, I think that the Tea Party variant is so extreme as to be Reactionary, the right wing version of radical. On a continuum, they would properly be placed “to the right of right wing.” Some may see this as a contradiction, but I believe that there can be such a thing as “progressive conservatism,” progressive in the sense that the issues it chooses to emphasize will oftentimes differ from other conservative thinkers. Similar to President Bush’s “compassionate conservatism,” progressive conservatism is tailored to find appeal  in our urban centers, where the issues and concerns often differ from those in the suburbs. So what does this progressive, Urban Conservatism look like?

Eight issues form the core of Urban Conservatism. First is a push for greater home ownership, a key to revitalizing inner city neighborhoods and a source of equity for families to support their children’s education. Next is a push to support, either through micro-lending or more traditional sources, local entrepreneurs. Third is a commitment to public education, not through vouchers and choice, but by pushing to turn existing public schools into charter schools; the idea is to increase accountability and adopt performance pay in exchange for greater academic and managerial freedom; parents, teachers and school leaders essentially taking ownership of the schools.

Fourth is a pledge to reform the criminal justice system by, for example, supporting alternatives to incarceration and supporting the idea that drug use be rethought of as a public health rather than a criminal issue. It also means reforming the bail process to lessen its impact on jobs and families, especially for those accused of non-violent crimes. A fifth issue for this Republican “brand” is the family: make a push to “market” the benefits of traditional, two parent families: find ways to incentivize a push to have children raised by both parents. Affordable health care is always in the minds of citizens, and it is time for Republicans to drop its virulent opposition to “Obamacare;” push for reform but support the principal.  Job training is another key component.  Yes, job training does necessitate government action, but the focus of conservatives should be on the outcome, which is greater independence, moving people from dependence on government to the personal freedom derived from self-sufficiency. And finally, support our veterans. The military is a major source of upward mobility among minorities; a message that ties their quality of life to their relationship with the armed services will resonate throughout communities.

Urban renewal has been off the political radar for the better part of a decade. Democrats have, quite frankly, done little, believing they have residents’ votes sewed up. It is time for Republicans to step in and take a proactive stand on life in the cities. They have nothing to lose, and oh so much to gain.
 
It is somewhat ironic that the current struggle for the heart and soul of the Republican party coincides with release of the epic movie Lincoln, based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s retelling of the battle within Lincoln’s cabinet over, among other things, passage of the 13th Amendment. Lincoln’s ability to unify the disparate voices in his Party made them stronger, winning 9 of the 11 presidential elections leading up to World War I. Is there someone out there able to guide today’s Republican Party now and for the near future? One can only hope; the survival and relevance of the Party may be in the balance.
 

 

Bayes Theorem and the Sad Truth about Political Participation

In one of my grad courses in Political Science the subject turned to citizen participation in the political process, more specifically the issue of voter turnout. The professor introduced us to a mathematical concept known as Bayes Theorem. Now without going into details of “the math,” the Theorem illuminates the true reality of voter turnout. Here is how it goes: 70% of Americans over the age of 18 are registered to vote. In a typical presidential election, let’s say that turnout is 60%. So now we are down to 42% of Americans 18 or over actually voting. Of that 42%, let’s say that 52% voted for the victor, such as what happened in the election last week. What this means is that, in reality, the President of the United States was actually elected by 22% of the voting age population!! That is one in 5 Americans actually voting for our leader.

Now if you think about off year elections, where voter turnout is oftentimes well under 30%, what this reveals is that our political leaders are actually being voted into office by a ridiculously small number of American citizens. For a nation that hails itself as the beacon of democracy, as the model for the world, this is an absolute embarrassment.

Unless something is done to broaden political participation, I do not see how our politicians can honestly say that they are representing the will of the people. If it was the case that those who don’t register to vote, and those who don’t turn out to vote, choose to do so, I would have to concede that it is their own fault if policies are in place that they don’t like. But research indicates that there are a variety of reasons why people are not registered to vote, and a variety of reasons why people don’t actually turn out to vote.

It is incumbent on our leaders to make a sincere, proactive effort to broaden political participation in the United States. The problem, and this is a killer, is that these elected officials were put in power with the current reality, and so there is little interest by these leaders in increasing participation. Unless organized pressure is brought to bear on our political leaders, progress in this matter will be slow, subject to enormous resistance, and inevitably unsuccessful.

For those like me that believe in true participatory democracy, with true participation by a preponderance of the citizenry, we can only hope that some influential voice will step forward to shame and embarrass our political leaders into reforming the system. Who that person might be is anyone’s guess!

Friday, October 26, 2012

Thoughts on the Election and a Romney Presidency

I just could not let this election go by without getting my “two cents” in regarding the political scene. My background by the way is in the social sciences. My B.A. is in International Relations, I have minors in Economics, Philosophy, and Government, and my Master’s is in Political Science, with an emphasis on studying the relationship between the media and Executive Branch. So how did I end up in education, with a blog on education reform. That is a story for another day. I’m actually thinking of starting a second blog devoted to the aforementioned topics.

With respect to the current election and political scene, I have some random thoughts I want to get off my chest. First, I believe that if Romney did win the election he will follow the Reagan model, governing as a pragmatist with a conservative slant, but someone who WILL raise taxes in a second term. I say second term because, given the cyclical nature of our economy, our next President will inherit an economy that will begin to grow at a more robust rate than we see now. By the way, it is worth pointing out that the US is the only Western country experiencing growth, tepid as it is.

Second, I believe that a Romney presidency will show clear moderation on social issues and not face a challenge from the extreme right wing of his Party. I have no doubt that upon taking office he will strike a “grand bargain” with these wing nuts on the right, wherein they will stay relatively silent in exchange for the nomination of an ultra-conservative for any vacant seat on the Court.

Third, I believe that there is unfortunately a small but important group of so-called liberal whites who attest to their support for President Obama, but will actually vote for the white guy on election day. Their reasoning is in essence a form of affirmative action; “We did the ‘right’ thing and voted for the African-American, we gave him a shot, but he just wasn’t up to the job at hand.” I am convinced that this group of, yes I’ll say it, liberal racists, may actually end up swaying the outcome.

And finally, a word to the so-called Pro Life people as it relates to the issues of rape and abortion. It is a scientific fact that most fertilized eggs never attach to the uterine wall and are discharged in an action known as “spontaneous abortion.” By the definition of many among this group, life begins at conception. If that is truly the case, and if “G-d is nature,” then G-d is actually allowing “human life” to be aborted. I am amazed this issue is never raised by the Pro Choice crowd, for it clearly puts the Pro Life people in a philosophical bind. Saying that life begins at conception is tantamount to saying that G-d aborts human life. This is clearly a dilemma. And further, if life does begin at conception, how can you make allowances for rape and incest? This would seem to confirm my suspicion that, to many of these politicians, the Pro Life decision is a matter of political expediency, not some deep philosophical position.

Believe me I could go on forever. I miss talking about these things. As the election approaches, I am reminded how much I abhor our system of voting. The legislation allowing for one to vote simply says that each person has a right to vote, not that they only have one vote. There are a host of voting methodologies permitting citizens to cast more than one vote, and it is definitely time that we explore these alternatives if we are to broaden the number of people and parties choosing to run for office. If I do get this second blog going, I will jump right into this issue.

Ok, I’ve gotten off my chest those topics that have been “bouncing around” in my head these last few weeks. Tomorrow I will get back to education and the position our candidates have taken on the issue of reform. I would like to say that at least candidate has staked out a position I could wrap my arms around, but, alas, I can’t. And that is a real concern.