No simple solutions to our complex and messy world

The Thinker by Rodin

Kentucky senator Rand Paul has been busy pushing the Libertarian gospel lately. Today’s New York Times (which is one of the few sites we can read for free on our cruise ship) talks about his recent appearance at a libertarian meeting in Virginia where he was busy preaching to the faithful. If only government were minimal and capitalism were unrestrained, he preached, freedom would blossom and life would be beautiful.

Doubtless he got many rounds of applause for expressing these sentiments. The meeting contained the usual interest groups drawn to libertarianism: the John Birchers, the obsessively anti-war, the isolationists, ideological capitalists, extreme civil libertarians and not a few overt racists. Racism is a view that Senator Paul rejects, although his father, crank and former representative Ron Paul did raise money for the Ludwig von Mises Institute. The money was used to start the institute, and which is overtly racist.

It’s not hard to find groups with simple solutions to our world’s complex problems. They tend to go by one word banners: socialists, libertarians, communists, fascists, free-marketers, environmentalists, unionists and many more that I am sure you can readily bring to mind. What’s true of all of these one size fits all solutions is that when they have been tried they haven’t worked. Libertarianism hasn’t been properly tried, and there is a good reason for that: it simply won’t work. Occasionally you see efforts that meet the spirit of a philosophy and you can observe the wreckage. The state of Florida that we return to on our cruise ship tomorrow has libertarian Rick Scott as its governor. He’s running for reelection but is certain to lose, after four year of libertarian-lite government and overwhelmingly conservative Republican control. During his governorship, Florida suffered disproportionately as businesses fled the state. With the thinnest of safety nets, the poor descended further into poverty and crime increased. Housing prices plummeted and unemployment soared.

Communism was given a good long run and failed miserably. It sounded good in theory, but quickly morphed into a dictatorship of the proletariat that looked a lot more like fascism which, in fact, it was. Those communist governments that remain are largely so in name only. China is still officially run by the Communist Party but Chairman Mao would simply not recognize it. If he were alive, he’d be fighting to overthrow it. Cuba remains the only truly sizable communist state in the world and is mired in poverty. Venezuela looked a lot like a communist state, but is really a socialist state. By the time of its next election, if not sooner, it will cast off socialism. The cost of socialism has been borne out in hyper inflation and high unemployment rates.

Successful states, such as they are, tend to be those that are politically hued. They are invariably democracies. Establishing democracies tend to be straightforward. Keeping a democracy, which is currently not happening in Egypt, tends to be much harder. Running a democracy takes a lot of work. It expects those in charge to be civilized and to follow an agreed on constitution. It expects its citizens to put a democracy above their own political persuasions. Democracies generally require a reasonably educated and informed populace and need neighboring states with hands off attitudes toward it. In a democracy, political consensus rarely lasts for long. When consensus is absent it becomes paralyzed. We have seen this played out in the United States the last few years. Democracies also need independents, who tend to be its most valuable asset. It is independents that break political logjams by voting for their interests rather than a partisan agenda.

Rand Paul is probably hoping to be the Republican Party’s presidential nominee in 2016. He is busy trying to increase his political capital and to sell himself as viable to the party’s establishment. In doing so he must subtly show himself as not as hardcore libertarian as his hardcore activists would like him to be. He must come across as likable, not extreme, which is why he is distancing himself from the racist wing of the Libertarian Party. Even if he were fortunate enough to be elected President, he would certainly not be working with a Libertarian controlled House and Senate. Political compromise would still be required. He could make some changes via executive order to make the executive behave more libertarian, but he cannot overturn a law or abolish an agency or department. Even with political gerrymandering, it is very difficult to achieve one party rule. When it happens, it tends to fracture. There are many wings of the Libertarian Party, and they would fracture along predictable political fault lines. But even if consensus could be achieved, there is still a Supreme Court that as an institution resists change.

Our society is a tangle of laws, free market capitalism, entrepreneurship and various political and social forces, all interacting in a generally messy manner. It is human nature to look at such a messy system and to want to straighten it out in a way that matches your political inclinations. But it will remain a mess regardless of who is in charge and what philosophy of the day is dominant. Technology will continue to make advances. Humans will probably continue to populate the planet beyond our ability to sustain the population.

The only constant in life is that it changes, otherwise it would not be life. People through their governments must try to manage this chaos as best they can. Whatever system is tried is going to have its disadvantages. In the case of libertarianism, it is simply unworkable, as is true of any “-ism” philosophy. No system will perfectly fit all the myriad cases it is expected to address. Any system will favor some at the expense of others. The best political system will be one that understands these dynamics and will tend to intelligently accommodate the current changes that are underway.

This is a much harder road to follow. It requires debate, discussion, compromise, science, respect for science, respect for people of all beliefs, lots of education and open debate. It requires an understanding that compromise is imperfect but necessary. It requires respect, if not admiration, for those willing to compromise and a realization that perfection is rarely achievable and when achieved rarely lasts. It requires an acknowledgement that no system will be perfect, that external forces will affect whatever system is in place, and that adjustments will be required. Most importantly, successful governorship is simply being pragmatic and flexible. It’s an imperfect process, but it’s as perfect as we are likely to get at governing.

Voters get a full plate of fruits and nuts

The Thinker by Rodin

Republicans may still be insane, but at least some of them have a toehold on reality. I am talking about Republicans like Karl Rove, the boy genius behind Republican domination of Congress between 2000 and 2006. In a recent fit of sanity, Rove acknowledged the obvious: that Tea Party activist and now Delaware Republican Senate nominee Christine O’Donnell was nuts and unelectable. By nominating her, Delaware Republicans have flipped a likely Republican senate seat into a Democratic senate seat. If the game is about controlling power, Delaware Republicans shot their party in the foot.

O’Donnell’s personal issues alone should have squashed her. They were well known but Delaware Republicans nominated her anyhow. You could write a book about all of O’Donnell’s missteps and weird life. To give you a taste, her failure to pay her taxes forced the IRS to place a lien of nearly $12,000 on her house. She also stopped making payments on her mortgage in 2007, forcing the bank to move to foreclosure it in 2008. She won’t tell anyone where she lives. She spent decades avoiding paying off her student loans. Right now, she is apparently unemployed and living off campaign contributions, which is okay because her headquarters is in her home, at an apparently undisclosed location. She unsuccessfully sued a right wing think tank for gender discrimination. Moreover, she is dreadfully concerned about things that simply don’t matter, like female masturbation. In short, she is the exact opposite of the self-reliant person Tea Partiers supposedly want, but she was nominated anyhow.

O’Donnell is hardly alone. Tea Partiers have nominated a whole slew of genuinely bizarre nominees for prominent and not so prominent offices. An objective person would have a hard time determine who is the nuttiest. Could it be Republican Nevada senate nominee Sharron Angle, who says if elected she will go to Washington and not help create jobs for Nevadans? Who twice refused to disavow statements that there are domestic enemies in Congress? Who thinks that armed insurrection is perfectly fine if Congress refuses to reduce the size and cost of government?  Oh, and her income comes partially from her husband’s government pension. He is a retired federal employee.

Or could it be Joe Miller, who recently trounced incumbent Lisa Murkowski in Alaska’s Republican senate primary? Miller believes in no-abortion ever, including in cases of rape and incest. Also, although he is all for cutting spending and never raising a tax, of course he doesn’t want to cut defense spending at all. Naturally, he does not believe in climate change. But that goes without saying for Tea Partiers as well as most Republicans.

And so it goes. In Colorado, Tea Partier Ken Buck also agrees with Joe Miller: no abortion ever. If your father rapes you, just deal with it and the child for the next twenty plus years (and of course, don’t charge the government one dime)! Moreover, he believes there is too much separation between church and state. Perhaps if elected he will sponsor a bill for a national church. So what’s wrong with a Church of America if it gets us and our government closer to our Lord Jesus Christ? Creating the Church of England worked fine for Henry VIII.

If you are going to put a group of nuts and crazies into office, the timing is ideal. Given the full plate of fruits and nuts Americans will choose from this November, if you are angry and want to make a statement you will pick one of the nuts. It’s hard not to be angry with near ten percent unemployment, one in seven Americans living in poverty, and with a record 51 million of us now without health insurance. Some states are naturally fertile ground for extremists. In most states, a nut like Rand Paul would be trounced in an election, but not in Kentucky, a deeply red state. You have to wonder though how any sane Kentucky voter could possibly vote for the man. Until he later corrected himself, he argued the government should not prohibit discrimination by private employers. Like Sharron Angle, he wants to make life even more difficult for those in his state, for example by getting rid of all farm subsidies for his agriculturally intensive state. Yet current polling shows him slightly ahead of Democratic senate nominee Jack Conway.

Yes, voters are angry, but voting for Tea Party candidates is just irrational. If, for example, you are angry because you don’t have a job, it doesn’t make much sense to vote for a Tea Party candidate who wants to take away your food stamp benefits and unemployment compensation. Tea Partiers are particularly focused on ending allegedly “socialist” programs like social security. They’ve peddled an entirely false meme that Social Security is in imminent danger of going bankrupt. In fact, with no changes whatsoever it is fully solvent for at least two more decades. At least a third of retired Americans have no income other than social security. Most people living wholly off social security benefits live in poverty. Tea Partiers would have us replace a solvent, defined benefit retirement program with a risky, market driven approach where it is unclear how much money you would receive to live on every month. All this is to solve a problem that doesn’t begin for several decades.

Tea Partiers are also dreadfully concerned about deficits, but it is clear that the only acceptable way to deal with them is to cut spending. Even if we eliminated the Department of Defense and its $700 billion budget, we could still not close the deficit as it is currently sized. Moreover, social security is not contributing to the deficit. Rather, surplus funds from social security withholdings are used to buy Treasury Bills that are used to finance deficits. These subtleties are largely lost on voters. This means if you rule out increasing taxes, then the only way to bring deficits under control is to reduce payouts (not collections) of social security, Medicare and Medicaid, or eliminate these programs altogether. Social security, Medicare and Medicaid money goes disproportionately to the middle and lower classes so those voting for Tea Partiers will in effect be screwing themselves. The effect would be to further impoverish those who need these services.

What is really needed is a national conversation on whether we want the United States to become a second-class country. If we cut programs like Medicare and Medicaid, we reduce our intellectual capital, not to mention our life spans. If we judge that we cannot afford to maintain our infrastructure, then transportation will become more problematical, less safe, and massively more expensive to fix at some nebulous future date. How much money would you really save if you neglected all home repairs for a decade? In a decade, would it cost more or less to fix all these problems compared to fixing problems before they become acute? Of course, the same is true on a national scale. Deferring maintenance is ruinously expensive.

The alternative is some sanity. If deficits are a concern, surely we can raise taxes on those who can afford to pay them, like those making over $250,000 a year. We can invest money where it is most critically needed, like in our infrastructure, which also has the effect of creating jobs. When the economy recovers we are positioned to deliver the goods and services the world needs. Meanwhile, we can keep Americans from starving and dying unnecessarily by fully funding antipoverty programs like food stamps and Medicaid instead of cutting them as Tea Partiers want to do. And we can make strategic choices to bring down long term spiraling costs, like health insurance costs, by changing the incentives for providing care to be outcome based rather than fee based.

Or we can effectively decide that to keep deficits down now and taxes low, in twenty years we want most of our citizens to be living in tarpaper shacks. The choice is yours to make on November 2nd, America. I recommend avoiding the fruits and nuts.