Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Don't Misread the Midterms, The Polity Has Not and Will Not Change

So once again we have an expensive, poorly attended mid term election, and to no one's surprise the Party in power has given some of it up. In a repeat of the same old script, Mitch McConnell and other Republican leaders are talking up the spirit of cooperation while no doubt plotting to put the finishing touches on what will soon be 8 years of subverting our political system to bring down a President they have a personal animus towards and to turn over our legislative process to lobbyists and other outside influences who have found legislation to be a more cost effective way of growing their business, having found the marketplace and growth through innovation and proper management to be much too demanding.

In our Congress, the notion that representatives reflect the wishes and interests of its citizens has become perverted by gerrymandering and the hugely disproportionate influence of lobbyists on all sides of the spectrum. That is why, in spite of everything you hear about smaller government, the number of laws being written continues to climb.

The distaste for politics, and hence government (they are NOT the same), continues to grow as the parties become more and more defined by an ideology. Finding a liberal Republican or a conservative Democrat is becoming harder and harder as our parties begin to look more and more European. President Obama, and I'm sure most other national politicians, are acutely aware of this. In the President's news conference today he said as much, noting that the majority of voters- unlike the 32% that voted in the midterms- "are not interested in ideology, they are ma interested in practical, good government," and that "my job is to do some practical, hard nosed things while I am in office."

This gets me back to the point I have been making since the start of this blog, that there is a huge "Pragmatist Party" made up of the majority of American citizens. We don't care about Party, we are reviled by ideology, and we are tired of platitudes that divide more than unite.

The bottom line is this: regardless of whether the idea starts from the right or the left, the American people will support whichever position is seen as the most practical. The farther a Party moves from the Center, the harder it will be for their policy to capture the support of the Center, home of the pragmatists.

So the Republicans now control both houses of Congress, and the public will now expect them to produce. Back when I was a Republican, back before the days of the Tea Party, I would have been confident that my Party would succeed at producing legislation pragmatists would support. Now I'm not so certain. President Obama seems to "get it." Unless the Republicans "get it" too, we are going to have another two years of pathetic, ideologically driven drive that will satiate the needs of those with access to the halls of Congress, but will do nothing for the majority of us who are simply along for the ride. And a bumpy ride it will be.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Israel Crisis and How News Shows Handle Their Choice of Guests

I just listened to a "debate" on the current crisis in Israel and the Gaza Strip, and frankly I could have turned the volume down and "heard" every word. In the effort for balance, news shows like that on CNBC or Fox are prone to select polemics on either extreme of the issue. This might make for good drama and entertainment, but the event sheds no new light on the conflict, offers no true solutions, and reinforces the already horrendous level of extremism in today's political environment.

In the same way that I have tried imploring people to take a fresh look at our pragmatic center and its ability to draw the left and right towards it, we need to do something similar in the political debate being broadcast. My personal desire would be to eliminate speakers from the left and right and instead use a group of pragmatists that would engage in intelligent discourse we could learn from, but absent that these shows should at the very least include one or two voices from the majority center to buttress the goofiness we hear on the extremes.

The "talking heads" on TV today are so predictable that I have to seriously question what values are guiding the current offering of news shows; it certainly gives the impression that news shows are conceived of as a form of entertainment programming, and that is certainly disappointing. It is time that the pragmatic center received the respect it deserves, which includes a seat at the table when debate is on the agenda. At least then I would have reason to turn the volume back on.

The other issue that I want to consider involves the use of a point/counterpoint format, with  of an equal number of people arguing for either side. But what if the debate is over an issue where support is overwhelmingly on one side or the other. Let's take global warming for example. If 90% of all scientists in the field are on one side of the issue, creating a 50/50 ratio on a news show elevates a position that is in the extreme minority to a plateau where it is now perceived as "the equal" of the other side. Should there not be 3 or 4 believers of global warming on the stage against 1 denier? Wouldn't that arrangement be more representative of the state of opinion in the field? Just a thought.

By the way, before I close out this post, I want to point out that the current crisis in Israel and Gaza once again lends credence to my belief that until we throw out this idea of a "Two State Solution" and construct a new paradigm based on a "Three State Solution," we will never make progress towards resolving this conflict. By pressing hard for Israel and the West Bank to settle we can then isolate and pressure Hamas to participate in talks or remain isolated, denying residents any chance of a better life and exposing them as the intransigent, hard line Israel deniers we know them to be.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Lessons from Yugoslavia, At Least for Some of Us

I guess I shouldn't be surprised that we continue to learn nothing from our past, and it might not be such a big deal if the consequences of this unforgivable ignorance weren't so dramatic. It's not exaggerating to suggest that hundreds of thousands of people have died as a result of our failure to totally grasp the lessons we should have drawn from the breakup of Yugoslavia. The series of events and interactions that transpired since the death of Tito and the failed attempt at a unified government have played out throughout the Middle and Near East, where a myopic US foreign policy time and again fails to understand that it cannot control events and cannot design an outcome contrary to the natural inclinations of similarly situated groups of people.

Yugoslavia's stability was a direct consequence of it being under the rule of a powerful leader who understood the need to create a strong but culturally diversified central government, but to balance that with a certain degree of local autonomy over matters of local interest but not having ramifications at a national or international level. With Tito's death, it was only a matter of time before that experience with local autonomy would intensify and transform into a sense of nationalism and desire for self-determination. At the very least it would translate into demands for greater representation in any national government.

You could even go back to the experience of the Soviet Union for lessons that should have been applied to the current crises in the Middle and Near East. President Gorbachev's perestroika and glasnost initiatives were risky attempts at satisfying the growing impulses of an impatient public, but their success in fact planted the seeds of its own destruction, setting in motion desires for autonomy that led to the eventual breakdown of the Warsaw Pact and then the Soviet Union itself.

How is it possible that our so-called foreign policy experts did not foresee what would happen in Iraq, in Libya, in Syria, in Afghanistan, literally in all of the nations throughout this region. I realize that our foreign policy is driven by a myriad of influences and concerns over national interest and national security, but how could we even have that debate without even once making reference to the experience of Yugoslavia. The Kurds certainly learned from the experience, and no doubt the tribes and ethnic groups of the region learned from Yugoslavia's dissolution as well. What they learned is to be tenacious and firm in your demand for greater autonomy, greater power, and greater control over resources.

I mean, is my observation wrong, or does it seem that the only people pushing for a strong national government are the United States and those who spent much of the post war period living in exile where they had a disadvantage forming a strong internal coalition of power.

I have so little confidence in our political leaders and so-called experts; they all pursue agendas that are personally enriching and fail to represent our true interests overseas. Can we please, once and for all, stop this charade that we can manipulate and coerce people to do as we say. Once and awhile we are lucky and our interests may align, but otherwise we are simply kidding ourselves. We cannot make the world in our image, nor can we make it as we imagine it to be.

Once again, it is the pragmatists and the realists who are being silenced, as our foreign policy, much like our domestic policies, move from one mistake to another. No matter what the stage, it is the theatre of the absurd. Frankly, its a performance I'm tired of reviewing.

Friday, June 13, 2014

The Injustice System is at it Again

Frustration has kept me from this blog for quite some time; I need to realize of course that my writing will do little if anything to provoke change where it is needed or to "inform" those who just don't get it, like with understanding the reality of an amorphous but no less real "Pragmatic Party" that dominates the center of American politics and draws the left and right to come to "it" rather than "it" moving left or right. But every once in a while I read a story or hear a newscast- in this case on the Colbert Report- that leaves me so flabbergasted I would otherwise explode if I didn't write something.

Such is the case with the story that almost 25% of the people in state and (mostly) local prisons are there simply because they could not afford to pay the court costs associated with a case that was litigated in their name. So yes folks, we have people in jail for the crime of being too poor.

You would think that in a society where there are payment programs for just about every debt imaginable, that our court system could not do the same. When you also consider that we also have people in jail because they are too poor to post bail, then you add in the number of people incarcerated for victimless drug possession arrests, it is becoming all too clear that our justice system is captive to an industry that profits from building and maintaining prisons rather than a system guided by principles of fairness, equity, and just plain decency.

The havoc that this type of incarceration is no doubt doing to poor families is unimaginable and unforgivable. The problem is that this problem is of no consequence to our political leaders, who have so many other supposedly vital interests to pursue. But, seriously, what could be more vital than a further degradation of a system supposedly guided and driven by the principle of justice.

As I learn more about this I will share what I find, but let us not lose sight of the fact that we are a country with a dysfunctional political system, a heavily manipulated financial system, and an economic system that pays little more than lip service to notions of opportunity and mobility. If we add to this a justice system defined by injustice, is there much left for us to tout to the rest of the world as a "shining city on a hill." The shine has oxidized. We are a mess, and, given the complete disconnect between our elected officials- especially but not only at the Federal level- and our citizenry, how can we be at all confident that our government is truly representative of the People. When we incarcerate people simply because they are too far, we really have sunk to a new low. Debtor prisons were the stain of a past century; it is said to see that we really never went away.

Friday, February 7, 2014

The Philosphical Inconsistencies in Republican Thinking on Unemployment and Taxes

Once again our soulless federal government failed to approve extending unemployment insurance for those suffering a long term loss of work. For those unemployed who have dependents, this kick to the groin has collateral victims; for a Party so quick to praise the traditional nuclear family this failure to provide money to workers- workers who have paid into the system for years and now simply want some of that money back- it seems unconscionable that they would increase the amount of stress, anxiety, frustration, and conflict (often physical) within the family. The philosophy at the root of this madness is the idea that by creating a greater sense of urgency and "poverty" among the unemployed that they will work harder to find a job. Set aside the fact that the demand for labor is uneven throughout our nation, and that it stands to reason that many of the long term unemployed are living in those pockets where demand is low. The point: make money more scarce and people will try harder to obtain more of it.

Now let's turn to the rich and taxes. If we are to take Republican reasoning to its logical conclusion, then it stands to reason that what we should do is raise taxes on the rich as a way to motivate them to work harder to produce their income and wealth. Make money more scarce and the rich should work harder to get more of it. Right?

Well, apparently not, and the reason is very revealing, because it suggests something very pernicious, namely that there is a fundamental, immutable difference between the "haves" and the "have nots." For the rich, the key is to let them keep more of what they have; that will motivate them to want even more. But for the poor, the undeserving, the morally inferior, the key is to tighten the screws and forcibly push them to a precipice: the truly worthy poor and unemployed will rise up and overcome, while the others will wither and die, literally.

This reasoning of course defies much conventional economic wisdom, a common failing of the current Republican Party. More evidence was on display when they bemoaned the fact that a growing number of workers, now aware that they can still receive health care by working less hours, choose to work less rather than the more "natural" inclination to always want to work more and more. The Party must be unaware of a basic Eco 101 lesson on the "income" and "substitution" effects of labor. Some people choose to work less so they can pursue other things like spending time with the family. That's called "opportunity cost," another basic economic tenet.

The Republicans have already shown themselves ignorant of basic science, we can now add to that basic economics. Is there anything that Republicans truly understand. I now understand why they are such fervent supporters of school choice; they clearly didn't learn much in their public school education.

So the heartless policy on unemployment insurance can be traced to two possible things. On the one hand they are simply ignorant of basic economics and the expansionary impact of maintaining or even increasing compensation to the unemployed. Or, on the other hand, they are avowed Social Darwinists who believe that the poor and long term unemployed are inferior beings that should be denied government support. Its a horrible choice, but then again the people who have hijacked my former Party are showing themselves to be horrible people.


Friday, January 31, 2014

Debating the Role of Government, I Have the Answer

In his State of the Union address President Obama raised the issue of the proper size and role of government. It is an enduring debate, one that dates back to the inception of our nation. It is a healthy debate, or at least used to be. With the rise of the Tea Party the debate has become distorted, as practitioners of a perverse form of conservatism, one more akin to a rabid form of individualism, blended with a touch of social Darwinism and loaded with logical inconsistencies, has hijacked the Republican Party, purged it of its political diversity, and moved it so far from the political center that it no longer offers the pragmatic solutions sought by those- mainly self-described independents-who dominate the middle of the political landscape.

It this debate on the proper size and role of government, the important starting point is the historical belief in limited government, that government has legitimacy but that our first principles rely on "The People," either individually or through associations, to manage our economic and social lives ourselves.

Three other aspects of the debate must also be considered. One is the notion of federalism, meaning that some of the responsibility of government falls primarily on the States. The second is the social contract, a central tenet of Enlightenment thinking and one of the organizing principles of government and its legitimate role in society. And third is the acknowledgment that there are three main values for government to address, and that the balance among these goals- liberty, equality, and order- is always in flux and that these values are to some extent mutually exclusive; to increase order necessarily means sacrificing some liberty, to increase liberty means sacrificing some equality, and so on.

So having said this we get back to the question of what is the proper size and role of government. No where is this debate more prominent than in the debate over "what to do about the poor," and no where else does this debate acknowledge the complexity of our society and the difficulty of problem solving. For if there was a vibrant middle class, and if there was a healthy degree of socioeconomic mobility, and if there was enough equality of opportunity, and if our education system providing children, no matter what their circumstances, or the same opportunities, then the argument for a limited government role is much easier to make. The last thing anyone wants, liberal or conservative, is for people to become dependent on government for their subsistence.

Debate over government invariably brings out individual prejudices and is invariably connected to one's own personal experiences, meaning that the debate will never be resolved. And that is of course a great thing, because there is nothing worse for a democratic society than to have uniformity in opinion. Liberal science- an expression coined by Jonathan Rauch I believe- dictates that no one has a monopoly of "what is right;" no one has the final say. We cannot, nor should we want, everyone to think conservatively, or liberally, for that manner. Conceding legitimacy to other points of view is ESSENTIAL to our society; we cannot have it any other way.

So let's get to the heart of the matter and allow me to offer a "resolution" to this debate. First assume that our Founders and the documents they created are "scientific" documents. Our Founders were born and lived during the Age of Reason, and as such they assumed imperfect knowledge and the realization that knowledge is not static and that they did not have all the answers, merely a template on which to base the notion that reason dictates a government where the people are sovereign and that government must thus be limited to those things that are necessary. Acknowledging this fact leads us to the only proper conclusion, one that I believe is accepted by the majority of our citizenry, that is, that government action should be based on the ideal of pragmatism. Whenever there is debate over the proper role and size of government, whether it should be doing more or doing less, and what it should be doing, that the proper answer is to choose the solution that is most practical. The pragmatic solution might in some cases be the more conservative one, in some case the more liberal one. It will then be the role of the majority- The Pragmatic Center- to choose which solution has the greatest utility, which has the most likely chance of resolving whatever issue is "on the agenda." It follows from this that there is no proper size of government, no final say on its role.

The Republican Party, by deviating so far from the center, is right now losing the debate on the size and scope of government; none of their answers seems particularly pragmatic. The Democrats don't necessarily offer particularly pragmatic solutions themselves, and to me this is the root cause for the public's negative view of government and politicians.

Broad political participation is also essential for our system to work; common sense tells us that the more people we have involved in civics, the larger will be the center, and the less likely it is that the center will be subject to manipulation by those on either side of the debate.

So the answer to the debate is that there is no answer, it comes down to whatever is most pragmatic and thus has the greater likelihood of working. And isn't that really the way it should be; isn't that the best way to honor our Founders: to have a government that solves problems

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Unemployment Insurance and the Soulless Republican Party


The Republican attack on unemployment insurance is another example of their latent social Darwinism run amok. Led by the extreme right, they espouse a two century old belief that the poor suffer from defects, both innate and behavioral, that make them inherently inferior to other citizens. Supporting them would be akin to keeping alive people that would only go on to produce other inferior beings. Now this may seem an extreme reading of their philosophy- I’m sure that none would so boldly admit to this underlying belief- but if you read between the lines of their public statements the sentiment is certainly there.
Now with unemployment insurance these extremists are under the belief that providing this sort of safety net is somehow a disincentive to look for work, as if the poor and middle class who find themselves without work somehow enjoy not working. This is clearly assigning a belief system they would never say about themselves. Even if there are some that use the system to their benefit this way, how can you justify penalizing all long term unemployed for a “few bad apples.” I use this expression because it is the same one these same people used to explain why any sort of banking reform or punishment of those who led us down the path to depression would be wrong; you can’t punish everyone in the banking system for “a few bad apples.” Does anyone see a problem here??
That argument aside, there is a much more basic, practical, economic reason for extending unemployment insurance. There is a stimulative effect to be sure, but the most salient point is that employment in this country is not evenly distributed geographically, so there are most certainly parts of our nation that are not experiencing any sort of recovery. In these areas the supply of jobs is far less than the demand. Trenton, where I live, is such an area. Sad to say, there are parts of our country where it will take longer to find work, and extending unemployment benefits is the only decent thing to do as people continue their search for work. It is really that simple.
I left the Republican Party about 8 years ago when it sold its soul to the Tea Party and its benefactors. My Party no longer has a conscience. It no longer understands the social contract. It no longer understands that we are a nation united. This policy towards the unemployed is soulless, heartless, and cruel. It is unbefitting a great nation. Until my former Party is willing to reconnect with its past, with Lincoln, with Roosevelt, with Eisenhower, with Reagan, and yes, with Nixon, it will remain an empty vessel. And it will definitely never have my vote.