State of the Union

The Thinker by Rodin

President Obama gave a pretty good state of the union speech on Tuesday. He ended it with the usual rhetorical flourish that speaks more to our aspirations than to reality. He closed with:

We do big things. The idea of America endures. Our destiny remains our choice. And tonight, more than two centuries later, it’s because of our people that our future is hopeful, our journey goes forward, and the state of our union is strong.

I won’t be running for president so there is no chance that I will be giving a state of the union speech. However, if I were to give one it would read in part a lot like this:

Thank you very much. As you know it is my duty as president to annually report on the state of the union. Unfortunately, I have to report that the state of our union is fractious. At no time since the Civil War have we been so divided as a nation. Extremes on both sides of the aisle are pulling us apart as a country. This extreme polarity as well as refusal on both sides to move toward meaningful compromise are undermining our national security, economic growth and put our nationhood at jeopardy.

Barry Goldwater once famously said, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” Goldwater was dead wrong. Our liberty is only sustained through finding and expanding our common ground. It happens by moving toward consensus rather than confrontation. At this critical time, true patriotism will be measured in our ability to come to consensus and make painful but necessary choices that one Congress and White House after another has punted.

We cannot undo these past damages, but we can move toward a sustainable and prosperous future for our country. Finger pointing no longer serves any national purpose. None of us here are blameless. We all contributed to our national problems. It includes me, Harry Reid, Mitch McConnell, Nancy Pelosi and new Speaker John Boehner. Many of us followed what we believed was the right and sustainable path. Sometimes an individual policy we advocated may have been right for the nation. However, if it is not congruent with our national needs it is still wrong. What can be said is that, in the aggregate, we were all wrong and have been mostly going in the wrong direction for decades.

For example, taking care of our senior citizens in retirement is a worthy national endeavor, but only if programs for them like Social Security and Medicare are put on a sound footing and are soberly and competently administered. It is scandalous that both Democrats and Republicans allowed Medicare costs to expand without addressing its inefficiencies and creating a plan to keep it solvent. Similarly, it is scandalous that both Democrats and Republicans allowed the last Administration to lead us into a war based on false pretenses. It was scandalous to offer tax cuts without offsetting these tax cuts with reductions in government services. My administration, previous administrations and previous Congresses failed to competently manage and govern our own country. Time and time again we put short-term thinking and ideology ahead of the national interest.

These are facts beyond any reasonable dispute. The evidence is overwhelming and can be found in record numbers of mortgage defaults, our bloated budget deficits, the high unemployment, the growing ranks of our homeless, our obesity epidemic and a fouled environment. By virtually any metric that you can use, our government has failed our job as national stewards. We, its leaders, have failed America.

The state of our union is fractious at best and alarming at worse. Now we must right-size our government so that it meets the needs of our nation. We need a new national strategy and we need sound tactics that align with our national strategy. Our strategy requires clear national goals, and both parties must agree on these national goals.

I offer six goals. Our most immediate challenge is not the budget deficit, as wrenching as it is in scope and size. It is to break the back of unemployment in this country, which has been dangerously high. In breaking the back of unemployment, we must do it in a way that creates good jobs that will restore our fading middle class. We don’t want to restore it by putting talented people to work flipping burgers or sweeping floors. Prosperity drives everything and makes anything possible. We can do this today by continuing to invest in common sense infrastructure projects, all of which will aid our current and future prosperity. To facilitate that our infrastructure investments are made wisely, we need an independent commission that places our money in investments that will create an improved infrastructure in the most productive ways possible.

That is our short-term goal and it should be easy for us all to agree on. However, infrastructure does not just happen. It will take money, and if we cannot agree on something simple like raising taxes on the rich to levels that were in effect in the Clinton administration, then we must keep borrowing the money. Projects that promote short-term employment and are most needed to improve our infrastructure should get the highest priority.

Our long-term goals should also not be controversial. I propose five long-term goals, in priority:

  1. Ending the extreme partisanship in this country
  2. Fix the federal government’s deficit spending
  3. Living in a sustainable way
  4. Making the United States the 21st century leader for new technologies and services
  5. Ensuring that all Americans receive quality health care

First, partisanship. Partisanship is not necessarily bad. However, our partisanship has reached extreme and dangerous levels. This did not happen by accident. It happened because we permit gerrymandering of our legislative districts where partisan interests are unduly represented and the interests of moderates were squeezed out. To solve this problem, Congress must pass and the states must ratify a constitutional amendment requiring all states to draw federal congressional districts in a politically impartial manner to be overseen by our federal judiciary.

Our government’s deficit spending has reached dangerous levels. We do not want America’s future to be like Greece’s present. To achieve fiscal solvency, a number of unpopular things must be done. Entitlements like Medicare must either have self-funding mechanisms in place or be limited to a percent of GDP or the federal budget by law. Both must be governed by independent and impartial commissions empowered to make changes to the system to ensure their viability. Medicare spending, for example, could be limited to twenty percent of federal expenditures or require premium increases annually to ensure that it remains solvent. Do these things and most of our other federal financial problems will take care of themselves.

America’s failure to live in a sustainable way increases the likelihood of war and suffering at levels so extreme they are hard to imagine, but are frighteningly real. Climate change and population growth are already causing wars, unrest and mass migration. It contributed to unrest in Tunisia. We must find a way to cap our population growth and live sustainably with nature. Our failure to get our environmental act together inside our country and with the rest of the world ultimately dooms not just our country but also our species. It will change life irretrievably here in our sacred home, the Earth. However, if we succeed we will do so by developing many of the products the world needs so that it too can live sustainably. Being green is not just good for the planet, it is good for our prosperity and it helps mitigate future wars and immense suffering.

To prosper, we must out innovate the rest of the world. Our prosperity rests in nurturing our human capital. Not only do we want to create business environments to allow companies like Google and Apple to flourish, we want to make sure that our children receive a first class education so when it is their time they can out innovate the rest of the world in the future. This cannot happen when we won’t pay teachers salaries that correspond to their importance to our nation, or when school districts in states like Oregon cannot afford to put their children in public schools five days a week.

Lastly, but certainly not least, we must make health care available and affordable to all, not just to those who can afford it. America cannot flourish unless we are healthy. There are plenty of examples in other countries of national health care systems that work. Some align very well with the American way. Japan’s health care system, for example, offers enormous competition at very reasonable prices. Let’s let an independent commission tell us which of these many plans will work best here in the United States, then let’s move aggressively forward to make it happen in our nation.

I am offering six steps toward a prosperous and sustainable future for our country. I need each of you to work in the common national interest. If you do so, you and this Congress will be forever revered in our national history.

Thank you and good night.

Citizens are united against Citizens United

The Thinker by Rodin

Trying to find bipartisanship these days on any political issue is virtually impossible. So when I see a poll where there is strong agreement between Democrats, Republicans and Independents, I take note. What do eighty percent of very polarized Americans agree on? They agree the recent Supreme Court decision, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission sucks. Moreover, Americans are as mad as hell with the decision. In the 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court said that corporations and unions could spend as much as they wanted on political campaigns, overturning long-standing regulations that limited this spending for individual candidates within a few months of an election. According to The Washington Post poll, eighty five percent of Democrats disagree with the Supreme Court, as well as 76 percent of Republicans and 81 percent of Independents.

The only ones who seem to disagree, not surprisingly, are congressional Republicans. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell says he plans to oppose any legislation that would attempt to blunt the impact of this ruling. Americans of all stripes though understand what is really going on. Just like in George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm, some animals are more equal than others. With this Supreme Court decision, it’s official.

Most Americans understand what happens when one group of well moneyed interests can outspend and out organize us ordinary citizens. The result is clear in Congress: a strong resistance to change in any form and a tendency to serve the interests of those with the money. Nowhere was this more evident than in the recent health care debate. By throwing hundreds of millions of dollars into lobbying efforts, the health care industry gummed up the process rather effectively. Clearly, the status quo works fine for the health care industry, as evidenced by record health insurance company profits and exploding health care costs in general. How does it work for the rest of us who aren’t self financed multimillionaires like Rush Limbaugh? Not so well, as evidenced by outrages like 39% premium increases on some Anthem Blue Cross plans in California and the growing percentage of Americans who simply cannot afford health insurance.

Health care reform is the issue of the day but the same can be said about most of the problems that Americans care about that are affecting this country. If we were happy with the status quo, there wouldn’t be historically high levels of unhappiness with Congress in the polls. However, it’s not easy to throw the bums out and elect new bums, particularly now that the Supreme Court has given the green light to corporations and unions to spend as much as they want to elect their preferred candidates. All this does it raise the bar even higher for those of us who have less money to convince our fellow voters to vote for this other guy (or gal). And we happen to be actual breathing U.S. citizens.

Of course it also doesn’t help that most states carefully draw congressional districts to ensure they are either highly Republican or highly Democratic (generally, depending on the party in power at the time the district boundaries are drawn). The effect of this practice is to disenfranchise anyone who is not among the highly partisan wing of the predominant party of their congressional district. It also inflames partisanship in Congress and creates very safe districts for incumbents. Once elected, these incumbents can create large war chests that discourage challengers. Even with a challenger, their war chests allow them to dominate the media prior to Election Day. Not that they have to worry much about losing anyhow because their districts are specifically drawn to make it likely they will be reelected.

The effect of this policy is to reduce the influence of ordinary citizens for those who have influence money. Republicans in Democratic districts feel disenfranchised, as do Democrats in Republican districts. My congressman is Frank Wolf, who first won election to Congress in 1980. That means he has spent thirty years in Congress. Part of his district is in Fairfax County, Virginia where I live, which is principally Democratic. A much larger part of it is in safe Republican counties like Loudoun, Fauquier and Prince William. It seems likely that when Virginia redraws congressional boundaries after the census, his district will somehow manage to remain predominantly Republican. Frankly, Congressman Wolf is more likely to die in office than retire from it.

Who is funding his campaign? According to OpenSecrets.org, it’s a lot of the usual suspects. In the 2008 elections, organizations representing retirees gave him the most (about $180,000), so don’t expect him to be voting to cut Medicare or Social Security just because both are tending toward insolvency. Next were real estate ($171,000), lawyers ($99,000), Republicans and fellow conservatives ($65,000) and various Israeli lobbies ($48,000). As for the health care industry, they came in at sixth at $48,000. Needless to say, he voted against the health care reform bill in Congress.

The effect of all this extreme gerrymandering is to end up with a congress that is more deeply polarized than it would be if congressional districts were drawn up impartially. At the same time, because they are fed by well moneyed special interests, we get a Congress that is resistant to change. This is turn means that current problems like deficit spending and entitlement reform are less likely to be solved, thus making problems that much more chronic. This ultimately is what is bankrupting the country, not Bush tax cuts or prolific spending on social welfare programs.

Really, even Glenn Beck and Arianna Huffington should be able to find common ground here. Last week at the odious CPAC convention in Washington, Glenn Beck was railing about the need to elect true Conservatives instead of Republicans. Arianna Huffington is one of many liberals, like me, feeling disenfranchised by supposed “Democrats” in Congress. Beck is frustrated because he cannot get rid of the welfare state. Why? Because Republicans will ultimately do the bidding of those who give them money. There are plenty of Republicans, like Congressman Wolf, who take heaps of money from senior citizens lobbies, so don’t expect him to vote to kill Medicare. Huffington meanwhile is in a huff because Democrats like North Dakota Senator Ben Nelson vote for the interests of Blue Cross instead of supporting a public option health care plan. Why? It is because Nelson gets a ton of money from the health insurance industry. Yet it’s not only the extremes that are upset, but also those in the middle whose interests are also not being served. That’s why hardly anyone is happy with the status quo. That’s why eighty percent of Americans are irate about the Citizens United decision while also realizing it is just more evidence of who really is running the country. It sure is not the people! Conservatives and liberals should come together to kill off corporate lobbying simply so they can actually advance their agendas!

It’s the system that is providing disincentives to pragmatically solve current problems. Congress gives highest priority to those who give them the most money. Otherwise, partisanship triumphs. For those few issues that are non-partisan and which there is no vested industry with their hand in the public till, we may get bipartisanship. Consequently, the two biggest things we can do to end our national dysfunction become easy to identify.

First, and probably the hardest thing to get Congress to do, is to change the process by which Congressional districts are drawn. We have an opportunity because the 2010 census is underway. A law that required states to have an impartial commission or judges draw up congressional districts would make it possible for more moderates to be elected. Moderates tend toward being pragmatic rather than idealistic. This would have the tendency to better balance Congress so that bipartisanship is more likely.

Secondly, the power of corporations and unions to influence elections must be checked. At the Washington Post poll demonstrates, there is overwhelming support for restricting the amount of money that these institutions can contribute. Congress could probably succeed in passing a law reforming the most egregious abuses, but this is one of those cases where a constitutional amendment really is needed to settle the issue of corporate “personhood” once and for all. Nowhere in our founding documents does it say that corporations are entitled to the same rights of citizens. This was due to an earlier Supreme Court interpretation that it has now effectively codified to mean without any restraints. If an amendment could pass Congress (a tough hurdle), it is likely to be easily ratified by the various states.

If these two systemic problems could be addressed, we might actually get a government representative of its people again. Consequently, government would be more likely to do the bidding of a majority of its citizens. We might as a result still find ourselves polarized, but it won’t be because of special interests or gerrymandering. Whether America swings to the left or the right as a result is really not as important as restoring a fully representative democracy. The truth is that these days our republican form of government is at best 30-50 percent representative of the people.

The end of Camelot also means the death of bipartisanship

The Thinker by Rodin

I was born into the Camelot era. Yesterday, with the burial of the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy in Arlington National Cemetery, I saw its end.

For those of you who happen to be much younger than I am, “Camelot” refers to the mystique and perceived larger than life aspects of the extended Kennedy family. Back in the 1950s, particularly with the ascendancy of John, the extended and privileged Kennedy family became sort of like national rock stars, all larger than life. The Kennedys were a whole family of Barack Obamas, personable, stylish, accessible, passionate, outspoken, political by nature, but unlike Obama, rich. Yet, perhaps because of their Catholicism, they were sincerely interested in rectifying the inequities between the rich and the poor. When President John F. Kennedy asked us to give back to our country instead of take from it, we of the Camelot generation felt energized. Nationally we also embraced his ideas of American greatness by succeeding in quixotic national quests like putting a man on the moon by 1970. Moreover, we believed that through applied intelligence that were going to lead the world into a new, peaceful and utopian age.

The current sad and nasty debate over health insurance reform, the cause of Edward Kennedy’s life, shows how far we have come from the days of Camelot. For those of us still captivated by the Kennedy aura, there is nothing more natural or patriotic than to ensure social justice for all Americans. We believe this because only a few can meet their potential if they go through life economically and socially handicapped. No senator ever did more (or is likely to do more) to advance social justice than Edward M. Kennedy. Judging by Republicans in particular, the only socially acceptable way to “ask what you can do for your country” is to serve in the military. Otherwise, it is every man for himself, brother. The sanctioned game is no longer national unity or promoting the common welfare, but to see who can accumulate the most stuff and lord it over their less fortunate neighbors. To Republicans, government should not be redistributing wealth at all, except, of course, to farmers, small businessmen and very large corporations. To them, an important role for government is to make the rich richer at the expense of everyone else. Charity is okay only to the extent it is done by churches and non-profit organizations, even though such endeavors do not come close to meeting the need for services.

Bipartisanship, which was on critical support, also died with Senator Edward Kennedy. Kennedy was a consummate cross-the-aisle type of politician. He made friends with staunch conservatives like Senator Orrin Hatch and the late Senator Jesse Helms. The right is giving Orrin Hatch all sorts of grief for his having the audacity of even being a friend of Edward Kennedy, a liberal. How could he do this? How could he associate with one of them? How can anyone call someone a friend when they do not share the same political ideology? The mere idea!

Modern American politics is sadly resembling some lyrics from the musical Chess:

But we’re gonna smash their bastard
Make him wanna change his name
Take him to the cleaners and devastate him
Wipe him out, humiliate him
We don’t want the whole world saying
They can’t even win a game
We have never reckoned
On coming second
There’s no use in losing

Senator Kennedy, partisan though he was, was not vindictive. In short, he was civilized. With his passing, it appears that political discourse must henceforth be all coarse, all the time. Any compromise is now perceived to be a sign of weakness and a reason to be cast from your ideological tribe. Anything to give you the upper hand is okay, even if it is spewing nonsense like the government is out to kill grandma.

President Obama, usually a very perceptive guy, seems to think that bipartisanship is still possible. He assumes that at some fundamental level politicians can be reasonable people. Unfortunately, our politicians mirror the nation at large, which is full of dogmatic, uncompromising, my way or the highway, plain unreasonable people. As in the book 1984, today we perceive ignorance to be strength. In doing so we merely hasten the time when our country moves from a first-class country to a second-class country.

We are rapidly devolving into the Divided States of America. More agile countries, like Canada, address societal issues like national health care with pragmatism and evidence-based approaches. We try to solve problems through turning our ideology into law.

It is unclear to me if this can be changed. I do know that with Kennedy’s passing I am very worried about our country. If we cannot inculcate and foster an evidenced-based society, our nation is doomed. If extreme partisanship is more important than using our common sense to step forward and solve problems on behalf of all the people, rather than just our own ideological tribe, our nation is also doomed. We need politicians like Edward Kennedy brave enough to cross the aisle, listen and engage in give and take, and know the other side as people. Right now, the divides in our Congress seem more intractable than those between Israelis and Palestinians.

Perhaps education will eventually turn the tide. This is essentially what I told my students yesterday. I teach part time in a community college where the percentage of students who attain their associate’s degree is only about forty percent. This is not at all unusual for a community college, which welcomes all including lots of students who lose nerve on their path toward a degree.

The country does not need a nation of relatively unproductive citizens in low skill, low paying jobs for the rest of their lives. To retain our greatness, increase the common wealth and successfully complete in the 21st century, my students need to hang in there and complete their degrees. In addition to learning advanced skills in college, they also need broad liberal arts courses so they have a better appreciation for how the world actually works. Knowing why things are the way they are will help them as our future leaders pragmatically address the problems of the day.

Perhaps as part of acquiring their degree, they should also pass classes in negotiating and listening. Ideological wars solve nothing. All wars, whether real or ideological, are karmic in character; all are zero sum gains and merely sow the seeds for the next conflict. Bipartisanship is hard but it is a worthy goal, but it is impossible if neither side will negotiate honestly and in good faith. Both sides must be willing to compromise.

If peace can come to Northern Ireland, perhaps we can find political leaders brave enough to stand up to the flack within their own party and cross the aisle. With the end of Camelot, that day seems very far off. While it continues, I worry that our great nation is moving down a slippery slope toward national dysfunction.