Friday, March 27, 2009

The General Opposition Party (GOP)

This morning the Republicans released an ad in my area blaming President Obama and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner for the AIG bonuses. This came a day after members of the same party released their proposed “budget”—a 19-page pile of piffle that is almost entirely devoid of numbers.

As usual of late, the Republicans are several days late and several billion dollars short of anything approaching genuine intellectual engagement with the complex, monumentally important issues of the day. All they seem to be able to do is point fingers and snarl, launching ad hominem attacks against anyone in the administration who happens to grab a headline.

I’m a great believer in honest, respectful debate as a means for reaching deeper understanding and eventual consensus on issues that divide us. A Republican Party of the 21st Century that could offer what has been called (often euphemistically) “loyal opposition” could enhance the clarity and depth of public discourse in this country. Perhaps intelligent and respectful disagreement would result in a more informed electorate, rather than large segments of the population who merely react emotionally to hot-button phrases without the least idea of what those phrases really mean.

In order to regain some credibility, perhaps the leaders of the GOP (if leaders there are) might suggest to their members that they wait until they have something to say before they say it. As an alternative, those among them who believe in real principles that differ from those of the Democrats might wish to start their own party—one that is for something instead of against everything.

For the life of me, I cannot understand how educated, intelligent citizens who call themselves Republicans (some of whom I know personally) can stand to continue being tarred with the same brush as Sarah “Pray-with-Me” Palin, Michael “I-Said-It-on–Purpose” Steele, and Michele “Armed-and-Dangerous” Bachmann.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Church of Over-Simplification

The Catholic Bishop whose diocese includes Notre Dame, John D’Arcy, has announced that he will not favor the university’s May 7 commencement with his presence. The reason for this pique-ish pronouncement is that he disagrees with the main speaker for the event, Barack Obama, about a single issue: the use of embryonic stem cells for research.

This attitude is analogous to the silly policy on homosexuality now under review by the military: “don’t ask, don’t tell.” The bishop’s position—a throwback to the Bush-era approach to foreign policy—is “don’t listen, don’t talk.” The basic premise is that when you disagree with someone, you get on your high horse, stick your nose in the air, and ignore the offending personage. You don’t listen to anything that person has to say, on any subject; and although you don’t sully yourself by speaking directly to whomever you happen to disagree with, you do plenty of talking about him or her.

This is a popular game played in middle schools. It’s also first cousin to the head-in-the-sand approach to problem-solving, both of which are variations on a theme: “Ignore it and it will go away.”

It’s fundamentally silly and counterproductive to simply not talk and not listen to those we disagree with. But apart from that, let’s look at a few facts.

First, neither the President nor anyone else is advocating that we kill any babies to do stem cell research. There’s no need to do that. Here’s the reality, like it or not: over 800,000 abortions are performed every year in the United States, and thousands of embryos are “left over” from fertility procedures. If that embryonic tissue is not used for some purpose—such as stem cell research—it’s discarded. If those embryos are going to be destroyed anyway, why not allow a few of them to be used in a way that may some day allow others to live better, more productive lives?

It’s a terrible thing that children and young adults die every day in accidents; but isn’t it good that sometimes their organs can be transplanted into the bodies of others to allow them to live? The donors are dead, anyway. There’s a need for organs, but no one is advocating that we go out and kill healthy teenagers in order to get them.

Second, what about the issue of quality of life? How do we quantify the amount of human misery—in the United States alone—represented by figures like these: over 5 million with Alzheimer’s; at least 500,000 suffering from Parkinson’s disease; 30,000 living with ALS (the disease that killed Lou Gehrig and disabled Stephen Hawking); millions living with the effects of spinal cord injury, burns, heart disease, diabetes, and arthritis—all conditions that may be relieved or reversed as a result of stem cell research.

Ironically, D'Arcy's boycott comes 25 years after former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo delivered a speech at the same august institution in which he argued for a true separation of church and state and acceptance of others who may, in good faith, have arrived at different conclusions than we have.

“Catholicism is a religion of the head as well as the heart,” Cuomo said. “I am absolutely convinced that we will all benefit if suspicion is replaced by discussion, innuendo by dialogue.”

Speaking of Catholic bishops, Cuomo observed that the National Conference of Catholic Bishops had said they would not “take positions for or against specific political candidates” or “use the power of their position . . . to give an imprimatur to individual politicians or parties.” Apparently the bishops—or at least some bishops—are not as enlightened or socially responsible as they were 25 years ago.

The Catholic Church is a huge barge that takes a long, long time to turn. The medieval inquisitions weren’t officially abolished until the mid-1800s. It wasn’t until 1992 that the church admitted that it made a mistake in condemning Galileo for teaching that the earth revolves around the sun. Clearly, intellectual progress in the Church sometimes moves at a glacial pace.

Meanwhile, however, President Obama has a lot of damage to undo and a world to save in terms of the economy. For God’s sake, let’s quit quibbling over abstractions and get on with business.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Obama's Stimulus Package Hits My Town Hard

People are weeping—with joy. Jobs have already been saved and creation of 14,000 new jobs was announced immediately—mostly in research and development for projects and industries that will benefit this area for many, many years to come. The local development counsel, whose public announcements had become desultory and infrequent, is now hard at work, attracting new business to the area. The skeletons of new houses, long abandoned, are beginning to flesh out, as the local real estate organization (which just gave a life-time achievement award to a Republican politician who rails against this kind of progress) is expressing optimism about the months ahead.

I was personally pleased to learn that my paycheck at the end of the month will be fatter—to the tune of $400 to $800 divided by twelve. Multiply that by the number of workers in the area—some 200,000—and that means that a lot of small businesses won’t be shutting their doors, after all.

Thank you, Mr. President!

Friday, March 20, 2009

Mark this Day . . .

. . . on the calendar. Citizen Jane agrees with Rush Limbaugh.

Demands have gone out for AIG to name names. Just who are these dastardly executives who had the audacity to accept bonuses when the company was going under?

Yesterday, Rush Limbaugh—stalwart defender that he is of all things capitalist—likened this quest for names to the witch hunts of the 1950s, in which Senator Joe McCarthy demanded the names of alleged communist sympathizers. I think the comparison is apt.

The desire behind these mean-spirited demands is to find scapegoats, and—like many or most of the casualties of McCarthyism—the people in question have most likely done nothing wrong—or, at least, nothing illegal.

That’s the whole point. There are not and apparently never have been laws to prohibit insurance companies from taking unreasonable risks, selling insurance on assets, or compensating their top traders and executives with exorbitant sums of money they didn’t earn.

And as for those individuals themselves, as far as we know, all they did was accept obscenely ridiculous sums of money for doing little or nothing—or in spite of making horrendous and costly mistakes. They all had a sweet deal going, some for many years. This doesn’t make them particularly admirable as individuals. But on the other hand, how were they to know that, really, the whole system resembled a huge Ponzi scheme? None of the rest of us—including Senators and Treasury Secretaries and Presidents—knew that the whole house of cards would come crashing down. Why should those individuals at AIG have been any more far-sighted?

Lots of people benefit from keeping the pistol pointed at these so-far blessedly anonymous AIG executives. People like them at other banks, investment firms, and insurance companies—who are probably checking about now to make sure their passports are still current. Members of the Bush administration, who probably would have cut off their own noses before admitting that they smelled a rat. People who brokered the deals on the receiving end of policies to insure high-risk mortgages and assets.

In a way, maybe we’re all partly to blame. In retrospect, there’s been a lot of strange stuff going on in the financial world for a long time now. As citizens, maybe we should have tried to educate ourselves better. Perhaps we might have wondered aloud why credit cards were being passed out like cookies at a grand opening—or how a coworker struggling from paycheck to paycheck can afford a quarter-million dollar house. Maybe we all lived a little—or a lot—beyond our means. How convenient it was to put off worrying about those things.

Let’s quit pointing fingers. Let’s quit worrying about a few measly millions that are a relatively tiny symptom of a potentially terminal illness. Let’s just figure out, from this day forward, how to fix this mess.

And let’s support the President we elected. Let’s give him and the all-star team of financial experts he assembled a little time to get things done.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

In Other Outrages

Amidst all the hullabaloo about AIG bonuses, little has been said about the outrageous—and potentially far more destructive—behavior of Pope Benedict VI in a recent visit to Cameroon. In a country where fully 5% of the population is diagnosed with AIDS and an unknown number infected with the virus, the Pope claimed—against all logic and scientific evidence—that distribution and use of condoms wouldn’t help the situation.

Of course the regular use of condoms helps to mitigate the spread of AIDS. They form a barrier to prevent virus-laden sperm from entering the body of an uninfected person. No virus, no disease. And to suggest that more people will just go out and have sex because condoms are available is ridiculous. Let’s face it, having sex is just something that normal, healthy people (especially young people) do—condoms or no condoms. If the Pope is concerned about saving people’s souls, let’s start by saving lives and allowing youngsters time to grow and mature.

There’s something else that regular use of condoms does—it prevents conception. I can understand the church’s stand against abortion, even if I don’t entirely agree with it in all its particulars. After all, once conception has occurred, there is a rudimentary, emergent human being to be considered. But in today’s world, to pontificate against the use of birth control measures that prevent conception is irresponsible in the extreme—for several reasons.

First, the earth has enough people on it already. That’s been true for decades—we’ve just quit talking about it for some reason. Secondly, people who use birth control do so because they’re not ready to have a baby. Someone needs to explain to His Holiness that not being ready to have a baby is not the same thing as not being ready to have sex. And people who aren’t ready—physically, mentally, spiritually, or financially—to bring a child into the world and care for it shouldn’t.

A brief look at the world mortality rates of infants and children shows that virtually all the countries with the highest rates are in Africa. These figures, of course, don’t reflect the number of sick or malnourished mothers who die before they can give birth. Nor do they reflect the children for whom survival means persisting from one miserable day to the next, orphaned and hungry and emotionally destitute. Statistics can never measure real human suffering.

How many of those dead and dying women and children, how much illness and starvation occurs among Catholics who are doomed because of where they live and because they try to live in accordance with the dictates of their church? Even in wealthy, developed countries, I wonder how many abortions the Catholic Church causes by its ridiculous, antiquated, either-or attitude toward sex education and birth control.

These days, parents can’t send their children off to some isolated convent or monastery on a mountain to “protect them” from the world. Kids and young adults will crave love and affection. They will act in accordance with their feelings, be impulsive, make poor choices. When it comes to sex—especially with AIDS abroad in the world—those choices can result in horrific consequences—for individuals and for the planet as a whole. Not to promote simple, inexpensive precautions—other than the obvious one, abstinence—is nothing less than obscene.

I think the Pope needs to go back to the Vatican and have another chat with God. And I also think, for what it’s worth, that the next time around, the Cardinals should consider candidates for Pope from among the under-70s crowd.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Mad as Hell

Well, the pundits have been at it again, squealing in outrage all weekend, on Fox News and elsewhere. This time they’re in good company. We’re all mad about the audacity of the multimillion-dollar bonuses being paid to AIG executives.

Call me na├»ve, but I thought a “bonus” was a reward for good work paid out of the profits of a company. I thought that if the company lost money, there would be no bonuses. And that executives were responsible for the well-being of the companies they manage—in other words, for making them profitable.

But unless you call begging for bailouts on capital hill “making a profit,” these people were abject failures. But it turns out that they were locked onto contracts to get millions in “bonus” money regardless of whether their bets paid off or whether their companies gained or lost. And these are the very people the CEO says had to be bought off so the company could “attract top talent.” If that’s top talent, let me have a go at one of their jobs. I betcha I could do better.

As for the bonuses that they are apparently entitled to by contract, I say give them the money but call it something else: severance pay.

Back in the day, when I worked at Boeing, everyone got bonuses at the end of the year. If the company sold a lot of planes during the year, the bonuses were bigger; if the company sold fewer planes, the bonuses were smaller. It was in everyone’s best interest to produce superior products while finding ways to cut costs. And to one degree or another, everyone reaped the benefits of success.

Of course, a few other things were different back then, too. Companies had to bid for government contracts—which was another big incentive for keeping an eye on costs. And there was also plenty of government oversight to be considered: enough safety inspectors, auditors, and federal design specialists to ensure that every job got done right. Government oversight was considered a benefit—added incentive to meet the highest of standards. As I recall, companies and the government worked hand-in-hand and did not consider one another the enemy.

But clearly oversight is inconvenient for those who have billion-dollar secrets to keep or who want to get rich by doing nothing—or worse than nothing. Banks and businesses sailed along for quite a few years with no one to answer to but themselves. So much for the theory that businesses will do the “right” thing because, ultimately, the right thing is also the most profitable. Hogwash.

Opportunity begets greed, and greed has no moral philosophy; it’s simply the impulse to grab as much as possible for as long as possible and damn the consequences.

Now the whole world is suffering the consequences of the kind of greed evident in these AIG executives (not to mention Bernie Madoff)—who, if they don’t fall on their swords, should be ashamed not to at least make some token gesture of giving back a little of the money they so patently didn’t earn.

Let’s hope they invest their ill-gotten gains more wisely than the rest of us did when we entrusted people like them with our money.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Government and Money

Yesterday we discussed the Preamble of the Constitution, which clearly states that the purpose of government is, among other things, to “promote the general welfare.” We concluded that the United States of America is a democracy, a form of government in which the country is run by freely elected representatives of the people.

The opposite of a democracy is an oligarchy, a system of government in which a few wealthy people hold power over the larger group.

It’s important to distinguish between our form of government and our economic system. In the United States, our economic system is capitalism, defined as follows by Dictionary.com:

an economic system in which investment in and ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange of wealth is made and maintained chiefly by private individuals or corporations, esp. as contrasted to cooperatively or state-owned means of wealth.

The polar opposite of capitalism is socialism, defined as follows:

a theory or system of social organization that advocates the vesting of the ownership and control of the means of production and distribution, of capital, land, etc., in the community as a whole.

Although these are distinctly different concepts, they are intimately entwined: to function properly—and to “promote the general welfare”—a government must spend money—a lot of money. Exactly how much it should spend and for what purposes are issues that are at the heart of the debates between the two major parties in the United States.

It is not the purpose of capitalism to promote the general welfare—and it doesn’t. Capitalism is designed to enrich those who invest in it. Pure socialism doesn’t work either as a means of promoting the general good, as is evident from the most cursory look at the history of China or the Soviet Union. Regardless of how it’s acquired or distributed, money is a tool used by those in power to implement their goals and strategies. Deciding what those goals and strategies should be—that’s the job of government.

Clearly, there’s no such thing as a “pure” democracy; in a great society, there will always be a few who clearly have a great deal more power than most. Likewise, those who have attempted to set up pure oligarchies have virtually always been defeated by revolution—the historical means of returning power to the people.

Clearly, there’s no such thing “pure” capitalism; to sustain any kind of government, the state must have some control over money. Nor can there be a viable system of pure socialism, which fails to distinguish between users and producers. Somehow, the system must allow for greater rewards to those who work the hardest.

Politically, what we have in America is an inspired system of compromise between democracy and oligarchy: a few people are a lot more powerful than most of us and can make decisions the impact the whole country—but we get to decide who they are.

Economically, what we have in America is an evolutionary compromise between capitalism and socialism: companies and businesses are privately owned, but the government has control of a lot of the money, which it spends, among other things, to “promote the general welfare.”

So as we go forward in our debates about government and the economy, let’s be clear about our terminology. “Democracy” and “capitalism” are not the same thing; “socialism” is not the opposite of democracy but rather the opposite of “capitalism.” When we elect representatives in government, we aren’t electing “capitalists” or “socialists”; rather, we’re electing men and women who we hope will have the knowledge, wisdom, and experience to find compromises that will “promote the general welfare.”

And as members of a democratic society, we should expect them to be transparent about what they are doing and why.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

We the People

A lot of the polarized, partisan rhetoric in America in recent years has centered around our interpretation of the Constitution of the United States—with the First and Second Amendments getting more than their share of attention. As we contemplate where our “more perfect union” is headed today, I suggest we review the first sentence of that august document, wherein the Founding Fathers laid out the purpose of the whole enterprise:

“to . . . establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity”

This, in a nutshell, is the purpose of the United States government: to ensure that government serves the people—all the people—rather than the other way around.

As we know, this is not the case in many countries. The government of North Korea, for example, is an imperial cult of personality centered on worship of its founder, Kim Il-sung, father of the current leader. Its purpose is to sustain the memory of the “Eternal Leader”—and, of course, the personal power of his descendants. In Iran and other theocracies, government is a means of extending the power of religion—and religious leaders—to every aspect of the lives of the people. Communist countries, like China, are one-party governments in which power resides in the leaders of the party. In each of these examples, the purpose of government is to enhance and preserve the power of a few privileged individuals.

So while the purpose of many governments is to ensure the power of the few over the many, the purpose of democracies—and, specifically, of this democracy—is to ensure the power of the many over the few.

Nobody ever said this would be easy. The minute it begins to look simple, questions arise; for example, “What is a person?” “Who are “'the many'”?

We pretty much all agree that even the Founding Fathers failed to get it right—many of them were slave holders. But even today, we struggle over fundamental questions:

  • Is an unborn fetus a person? What about an embryo? A zygote?
  • What rights should people have who live and work in this country but are not citizens?
  • What should be the fundamental rights of all human beings—including prisoners and “alien combatants”?
  • Should “the many” include sentient beings that are not “human”? For example, should the laws of the land protect domestic animals from suffering and abuse? Should they protect entire species from extinction?
  • Is there such a thing as a right not to live, or continue living?

We in America have a long, long way to go before we reach consensus on any of these questions.

But here are a few things that, hopefully, we can agree on—at least in principle, of not in practice:

  • Government should be separate from religion.
  • Top leaders should be elected, not anointed or appointed by those who already hold those positions.
  • Executive, legislative, and judicial powers should be separate and balanced.

There’s only one real problem with all of this: the lust for power and dominance is a fundamental fact of human nature. There will always be those who think they know best, who crave power, who believe influence should be bought and paid for with money. We must always be on guard against those forces, whether they reside in an individual, a religion, or a political party. As the old saying goes, “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Wunderkind

If I’m not mistaken, today is the birthday of Jonathan Krohn, who turns 14. You might have caught his speech last week at the Conservative Political Action Conference, where he spoke about the principles of right-wing politics and promoted his book, Define Conservatism. (Amazon.com doesn’t seem to have a link to the book yet, but it’s only a matter of time.) If you missed the speech, don’t worry—you can hear a lot more from Jonathan by following his appearances on Fox News, and his fledgling web page will undoubtedly flesh out in the months and years to come.

Jonathan is an accomplished musician and actor, a home-schooled child of undeniable intelligence and talent as a performer. (He’s been performing on stage since he was 8, and has had three call-backs for a major role in a Broadway play.) He says he became interested in politics by listening to conservative talk radio. If he hasn’t already replaced Joe the Plummer and Sarah Palen as the face of the conservatism movement . . . well, as I say, it’s only a matter of time.

The spectacle of this child performing at that convention was one of the most frightening things I’ve seen in my life and the best argument in the world against home schooling. There’s a difference between “schooling” and indoctrination.

According to my dictionary, indoctrination can be defined as “to imbue with a usually partisan or sectarian opinion, point of view, or principle.” The word imbue, in turn, means

1 : to permeate or influence as if by dyeing (e.g., the spirit that imbues the new constitution) 2 : to tinge or dye deeply

It’s one thing for parents to model and explain their values to a child in the hope that the child will share them when he becomes an adult. It’s quite another to isolate and imbue him with only the attitudes and ideas of their particular subgroup of society. Exposing an impressionable young child to daily hours of emotional, partisan rhetoric until he can faultlessly mirror the mindset of that group—that is propaganda. Whether the values are those of a political party, an extremist hate group, or a religious cult, the moral problem is the same: the child is deprived of the right to learn to think, as well as the ability to understand and learn from others whose opinions may differ.

Most of us like to believe that America is a country where freedom flourishes and people have the right to choose what to believe. But there are niches in America—just as in Pakistan, North Korea, or any totalitarian state—where young children are isolated and indoctrinated into a closed system of beliefs. Children thus “educated” lose the ability to apply reason to new ideas, think critically, and make choices based on their own life experience. This is wrong—and frightening in a time and place where bright young minds are needed to find new solutions to critical problems.

For Jonathan, I can only hope that his interests other than politics will eventually allow him to discover and grapple with a wide range of ideas. I wish him deliverance from the smug confidence that comes of having no doubts whatsoever. I wish him well and will watch his career with interest. If he should persevere in his desire to be a political leader, I hope he’ll grow in wisdom as the years go on.

And I’ll tell you this—even at this stage in his development, I’d rather see him in the White House than Sarah Palin. He's got a much less hostile attitude, and he seems to be even better at learning and delivering his lines.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

The Existential Conversation

Thanks to a friend who has kindly been forwarding them to me, I’ve been reading a few editorials by fiscal conservatives. These articles tend to be the intellectual equivalent of Evel Knievel’s attempt to rocket across the Snake River Canyon—the leaps of logic are sometimes breathtaking.

For example, a March 3 WSJ piece attempted to blame the five-week-old Obama administration for the fact that the economy hasn’t already begun to spring back. (Doctor, the patient is already prepped for heart surgery! Why can’t he go home now?)

In a publication called The Business Insider, John Carney puts an interesting spin on the matter of credit default swaps—the practice of selling bogus insurance on extremely risky (if not downright worthless) business assets. He blames this practice on the one measly, inadequate banking regulation that the Republicans failed to demolish in all their years in power—the one that says banks have to have assets enough to cover their commitments to investors. The riskier their assets, the more money they have to keep in reserve. So to get around this common-sense requirement, banks were “forced” to find some way to “maximize their profits” without being responsible to investors. They did this by bluffing about the value of their assets—and selling insurance on them, over and over again. That’s like a life insurance company with $1 million dollars selling numerous $500,000 policies on the same person; if they guy dies, everybody’s screwed.

And mind you, the companies “had to” do that to get around the regulation. This reminds me of a kid who once told me that he “had to” steal a car because his parents wouldn’t let him drive theirs.

In an extremely convoluted essay filled with the typical shotgun rhetoric of people who proselytize, conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer seems to claim that the Obama administration is blaming the economic crisis on “energy, health care, and education” and using these issues to justify sweeping economic proposals. Evidently it’s not the logic of this piece of writing (which, admittedly, escapes me) but the strident, aggrieved tone that’s meant to please his readers. In all fairness to the author, I doubt if I fit the profile of his target audience—this essay was intended for believers.

This brings me to what I perceive to be a difference in discourse between the Right and the Left these days—and perhaps the one area in which I fear, in my worst moments, that President Obama may be so idealistic as to be a bit out of touch with reality. Progressives and liberals keep trying to reach “consensus” through reason and persuasion. Conservatives simply seem to want to make converts. No wonder the conservative movement has had such affinity for so many years with the Christian Coalition—the whole enterprise seems to be based on creed and blind faith.

So, now . . . who’s been drinking the Cool Aid?