Elections: Making Sense of the Senseless

I have no profound insight to offer as a result of the election, but was thinking about the main presidential candidates and what they represent.  I read a sapiential comment from the desert fathers which made me think about candidates in the election.  As with many sagacious sayings one has appreciate them by meditating on them.

It is why art museums place benches in the galleries – to give the viewer time to take the art in, to appreciate the details and all that is captured in the art. [Interesting that a bench gives us time!]   Or, it is why one has to sit in the garden for a bit to fully appreciate all the colors, scents, movements of the flowers to truly imbibe all that is being offered to us.

Though I read this some days before the election and I thought it relevant to our election, it didn’t help me decide how to vote for I remained unconvinced that our candidates possessed all the virtues praised here.

An old man used to say, ‘Wisdom and simplicity form the perfect order of the Apostles’ and of those who examine closely their rules of life and their conduct, and to this Christ urged them, saying, Be  harmless as doves and subtle like serpents (St. Matthew 10:16). And the Apostle [Paul] also admonished the Corinthians to the same effect, saying, ‘My brethren, be not childish in your minds, but be as  babes in respect of things which are evil, and be perfect in your minds’ (1 Corinthians 14:20). Now wisdom without simplicity is wicked cunning, and it is the subtlety of the philosophers among the pagans of which it is said, He catches the wise men in their own cunning (Job 5:13; 1 Corinthians 3:19), and again, The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are vain (Psalm 94:2; 1 Corinthians 3:20).

And simplicity without wisdom is the foolishness which is prone to error, and concerning this also  the Apostle spoke, and he wrote unto those who possessed it,  saying, I fear lest, even as the serpent led Eve into error by his craftiness, so your minds also may be destroyed in respect of your simplicity which is towards Christ (2 Corinthians 6:3). For they accepted every word without testing it, even as it is said in the [Book of] Proverbs, The simple man believes every word “ (Proverbs 14:15).     (adapted from The Paradise or Garden of the Holy Fathers (Volume 2), Kindle Loc. 3403-13)

There is a difference between wisdom and intelligence just as there is a difference between knowledge and wisdom.  In the wisdom of the desert fathers there was a recognition that even wisdom had to be combined with other virtues to be of value.  A criminal can be very wise and knowledgeable about his illegal activities.  Politicians can be astutely wise but that can mean only that they are wickedly cunning if they lack integrity and humility.  There can even be a person who has a certain simple straightforwardness but who lacks wisdom – that becomes nothing more than total foolishness.  Folly is sin according to the Bible (Proverbs 24:9; Mark 7:22)

Election Loses and Regrets

This is about all I’m going to say about our current election.  I don’t endorse candidates or political parties.  As a parish priest, my job is to pray for this country, its president, the congress, supreme court, its armed forces, all civil authority and for all its people.  I do this no matter who wins the election.  My prayers are not based on election outcomes, but upon my faith in the Trinitarian God’s love for creation including all people on the planet.

It is no wonder that Americans suffer from election fatigue.  From the moment the presidential election is decided, the political parties and machines begin gearing up for the next election.  Running campaigns has become a full time process, not just once every four years but every day of every year.  The political parties and PACs raise millions of dollars to spend on electing candidates, but how much does anyone invest in actually doing governance?  How much time and energy do the political parties, the PACs, the political pundits put into helping these candidates learn to govern in a democracy in a diverse society?  Precious little, which is part of the terrible money imbalance in American politics.  Political office is treated as “for sale to the highest bidder” rather than as the means to serve the nation and to lead the free world.

As soon as the election is decided, political parties and political fundraisers begin focusing all their time and energy on the next election and getting their party’s candidates elected.   If they invested in good candidates who could actually govern and who could help build American democracy we all would be better off.  They however are really interested in investing in winning and holding on to power, even if they have no wise or virtuous candidates to put forth.   How much better for us all if they focused on how to make the American democratic process work and on how to help our leaders govern our country in the 21st Century with its diversity, all its many issues and problems and with the world as it is today (not as we wished it were).

The political machines pick candidates who can win elections, not necessarily those who are capable of governing.  The political machines spend tens of millions of dollars on getting people elected, but nothing on training them in governace – how to work in, with and for a democracy.   Forget having a candidate be a statesman, as they will have no time for that – their purpose is only to win elections.   Any wonder that the Putins of the world have an easier time being statesmen, being world leaders and getting things done?   The Putins of the world can set goals and accomplish them while American presidential candidates are forced to short-shortsightedly focus on winning elections.  Putins can conquer enemies, American presidential candidates have to conquer the electorate which turns half of the very people they are supposed to serve into enemies of sorts and the rest into the vanquished.  This is why negative elections seem to work so well, in my opinion.  Americans have forgotten that both political parties and all elected candidates are supposed to represent and serve all the people not just the ones that agree with them.

Presidents are said to have about 100 days of their first administration to accomplish anything.  We spend 1461 days to elect a person who apparently is only going to be able to accomplish anything about 100 days in four years.   The rest of the time (935 of their four years) they will spend campaigning for themselves or others in their political party.  The elected politicians have to cater to those who financed their election and to the talk show hosts and their legions who endlessly criticize the politician.  Apparently,  the politicians weren’t elected to lead, but only to cater to money and to continually appease the squealing media wheels.  The “next” election looms over everything elected do not because of the electorate but because of the big money and big voices.

The media superstars, not elected by anybody, dominate the airwaves and the Internet and so it appears also the thoughts of the many who listen to them.  They fire up their base so that the president and congress have to spend most of their time paying attention to the political machines and to the media commentators rather than to issues before them.   The media moguls do not want the politicians to see anything except through their lens.  Don’t pay attention to the issues but only to those who loudly yell about the issues.   But these commentators do not pay attention to or care about  what strengthens democracy in a diverse culture.  Rather they really advocate against democracy and in favor of a one party system, with their own way as being the only acceptable way to see the world.  The word dictator comes from a Latin word meaning  “to say often, prescribe, to speak frequently.”   All talk show hosts are dictators.  Why do we listen to them?  We should favor democracy not dictatorship.  We are addicted to them and the next thing they might say, which is what also comes to haunt and fixate the politicians.

We invest so heavily in the elections but do not invest in governance.  We need to change the system so that it works to strengthen democracy not tear it down like the media people and political chieftains do today.  Their goal is purely to get their people elected.  But that isn’t necessarily what is good for the country or the world.

votevoteThere is in our country the wonderful freedom of speech, which unfortunately the Supreme Court says includes setting no limits on how much money people can spend or raise on elections.  But we the people should learn “freedom of listening.”  We can turn off all of the political talk show people.  We can stop listening to or watching political ads whether from the airwaves or on the Internet.  We need to find something better to do with our minds, like learning more about democracy and how it works, why it is so important to our lives and what we need to be as voters to make democracy work.  We should shake off our own laziness of listening to dictators and encourage politicians to be statesmen and leaders.  If we don’t like their ideas we vote them out of office.  Those candidates in favor of democracy should also support the idea that they can be removed from office rather than spending all their time and energy making sure they stay in office.

I have never made it my position to comment on “who” to vote for in an election.  However, I do value American democracy and consider it a strength of our nation.  I do think our current election trends and the power ceded to political parties and to media talk show hosts is weakening democracy.  We need to work on changing the system, and then we would get better candidates.

Dems-GOPIn a democracy, the majority decide which direction the country will go.  Political parties can hold to an ideology, but face the reality that their beloved convictions can’t win a majority of voters.   They can change their position to try to create an alliance of voters to win the election, or they can hold on to their ideology but lose elections.  What shouldn’t be accepted is that they try to buy elections or to have their unpopular ideas win through deceit or negative campaigning.  If they can’t convince us that their ideas are good for the country, even if painful, they need to try harder, improve their message, or find a combination of ideas that convince us to vote for them.  In my opinion as it is they instead just spend all their time and energy trying to get their candidates elected with no regard for how that effects the country. For them the end justifies the means, no matter what price democracy has to pay.   Their goal is to stay in power not necessarily to strengthen the American democratic process.  We voters can changes this, but we have to change our habits to do it.

I would recommend listening to the TED Talk: Democracy on Trial for further thinking about democracy and its importance and why we need to strengthen it through the election process rather than weaken it by allowing ourselves to become part of the partisan polarity problem.  I think a total reform of the party driven primaries would be helpful.   Let all candidates from all parties be put into a common pool in the primaries, and the voters decide who are the top two candidates – no matter what party they are from.  The general election would have the top two vote winners in the primary face off.  That way all candidates in all elections would have to offer a message that appeals to all or the most voters.  This I think would help end the parties become more polarized through the primaries and then offering no middle ground for voters.  I’m sure this would create other problems, perhaps some unseen at the moment, but it would help change the tenor of the election process now at work in America.

War: The Primary Cause of Big Government?

 I do in this blog write about things I’ve read that interest me or give me pause to think.   I read an article in a recent issue of The Wilson Quarterly which to me came at an anti-war argument from a different point of view.

Ivan Eland, director of the Center on Peace and Liberty at the Independent Institute writing in The Independent Review, Fall 2013, “Warfare State to Welfare State” makes the case that conservatives who favor small government need to have a stronger anti-war sentiment since wars have been a major cause of an expanding U.S. government and the growth of taxes that go with it.   The American reliance on the military to do its foreign policy causes a need for bigger government especially in benefits given to entice people to serve in the military.  Historically, the expanded government caused by war never is completely rolled back to pre-war levels, and it tends to create new populations of special interest within the country which are dependent on the expanded government and who defend the bigger federal budget to protect their own interests.

In 1795, James Madison, an architect of the U.S. Constitution, wrote:

“Of all the enemies of public liberty, war is perhaps the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies. From these proceed debts and taxes. And armies, debts and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the dominion of the few…. No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”

Ivan Eland writes that

“conservatives should be more leery of jumping into wars.” War, he argues … inevitably leads to a larger government, requiring new taxes and vastly expanded powers that are only partially rolled back in peacetime. The Founding Fathers were wary of foreign entanglements, and many bridled at even the notion of a standing army. “War is the parent of armies,” said James Madison. “From these proceed debts and taxes.”

James Madison quote

Eland claims that “pensions offered as an inducement to soldiers during the Revolutionary War … eventually led to the 20th century’s massive federal retirement programs.”  The Civil War further expanded the federal government so that by “1910, forty-five years after the end of the war, about 28 percent of American men 65 years of age and older were receiving federal benefits.”

The income tax was introduced first to help pay for the war debt from the Civil War and then was revived just before WWI.  By the end of that war it was the main source of income for the federal government.  Eland argues that “World War I was transformational in bringing about permanent ‘big government.”  He claims that after WWI the government expanded its role by helping provide housing and employment opportunities for veterans.  Eland claims the government began in this time period to intrude in every aspect of American lives.  Eland claims thethe Vietnam War directly contributed to the expansion of Medicaid.”  

Eland has a long list of other war-related expansions of government, including bank bailouts (the War of 1812); price controls; government takeovers of industry; Daylight Savings Time (World War I); and subsidized child care (World War II).

The lesson, Eland argues, is plain. “Traditional conservatives recognized in the past that war is the primary cause of big government in human history, so they promoted peace. . . . That important lesson needs to be relearned.”

Maybe such thinking will help break the logjam in Washington political thinking and liberals and conservatives will find an issue they both can agree on.

In 1821, John Quincy Adams  said America’s “glory is not dominion, but liberty.”  Something for all of us to consider – maybe we’ve come to think that America’s strength is purely found in her military power whereas the true strength we have in the world is not in dominating other nations militarily but in our citizens having a liberty free of centralized government dominion.   America was not the world’s military power in it’s first hundred and fifty years of existence but it grew and became an economic power in the world while military might existed in other parts of the world.  That is an enviable history that America might want to try to regain; for in recent years we seem to think our military domination is our only glory in the world.   It is a tail wagging the dog scenario.

The Statue of Liberty is our national symbol, not the Statue of Domination

Democrats Vs Republicans and E Pluribus Unum?

This is the 3rd and final blog in this series reflecting on former Congressman Mickey Edwards’ book, The Parties Vs. The People: How to Turn Republicans and Democrats into Americans.   The previous blog is Turning Democrats and Republicans into Americans.

“A successful democracy is largely dependent on shared values and a commitment to civil discourse. A nation that is allergic to nuance and complexity can offer little guidance to its elected officials; a nation that cannot tolerate ambiguity or weigh evidence cannot easily be brought together in a common understanding of the community’s problems, much less in a reasoned conversation about proposals to address those problems. (This is why the decline in educational standards and the disappearance of classroom instruction in civics and critical thinking are so devastating to our attempts at self-government.)”   (Mickey Edwards,Kindle Loc. 2307-11)

Trying to make everything black and white, perhaps for some makes life easier. All or nothing thinking  is also a thinking found commonly in teens and in people suffering from addictions.   The world however is far more complex and nuanced than black or white thinking allows.   Mickey Edwards advocates for changing our way of looking at things in political America – everything is not Democrat or Republican and there certainly is not just one issue that governs our lives or which politicians must grapple with to govern the nation.

Additionally, those who think “the other party” endangers our country might be happier in a one party nation – Libya under Khaddafi, Iraq under Saddam, Communist North Korea or Russia or China are a few examples.   A one party system may make life considerably easier for those with all-or-nothing, black-or-white thinking.  But in a true democracy, many different ideas exist, and the people have to form a governing system that deals with the variation and the minorities.  That is the democracy envisioned by America’s Founding Fathers who created three independent branches of government (not 2 political parties) to balance power.  And anyone who reads history realizes the Founding Fathers disagreed on many fundamental issues and debated furiously about them.

Edwards in his book offers the example of Ben Franklin who realized the implication of democracy in a society which allowed various opinions to co-exist. Franklin had resisted signing the Constitution because he objected to parts of it, but in the end he embraced a compromise realizing that is the nature of democracy.

“Franklin readily admitted that there were parts of the Constitution ‘which I do not at present approve’ but, he added, ‘I am not sure I shall never approve them. For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged by better information, or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise. It is therefore that the older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment, and to pay more respect to the judgment of others.’ Franklin closed his remarks with an appeal to his fellow delegates to join him in approving the Constitution that guides us today. “On the whole, sir,” he wrote, “I cannot help expressing a wish that every member of the Convention who may still have objections to it would, with me, on this occasion, doubt a little of his own infallibility, and to make manifest our unanimity, put his name to the instrument.”  (Kindle Loc. 2349-55)

Ben Franklin understood that individual’s all-or-nothing, black-or-white thinking could not hold the United States of America together.  Too much power given to two opposing parties will not keep the States United.  As Edwards, as well as many other historians, have pointed out, the founding fathers generally abhorred political parties.  “We the people” are responsible for limiting the power of government in these United States.  We also have to come together to limit the power of the political parties which do not have a balance of power as their main goal, nor the interest of “we the people” at heart, but who strive to preserve and increase their own power in politics.

“The beautiful thing about our governmental system is that, in the end, the power rests with us. We don’t just determine whom we elect; we can also dictate how we elect them. In many states, legislators can submit issues to a vote of the people themselves. In addition, twenty-four states allow citizens to bypass the legislature altogether and put important questions—like changing the congressional redistricting process and eliminating closed party primaries—on the ballot.”  (Kindle Loc. 2577-80)

Turning Republicans and Democrats into Americans

I am not much energized by the partisan and polarized politics plaguing and poisoning the public discourse in America (that is my alliterative analysis, I know some would say what we observe is democracy at work).  I keep wondering if there is some kind of change that can be made to the system to make it more effective in solving America’s problems.  I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it all, but I found  Mickey Edwards The Parties Vs. The People to be an interesting read because it offers some ideas for changing the way we do things.

Mickey Edwards is a former Republican Congressman from Oklahoma (he is a former congressman, he is I think still a Republican).  The subtitle of his book, How to Turn Republicans and Democrats into Americans, tells us his theme.  Edwards too has found partisanship and polarization to have moved to an unhealthy level in our country.  He has set out in this book to address what he sees as a leading cause of the problem with American politics: the two major political parties (two private clubs or organizations is how Edwards characterizes them) have too much power in America.  His book title suggests the Democrat and Republican Parties (two private organizations) are taking away the constitutionally guaranteed power of the people by creating a system in which only the two Parties have all the power.  The parties run (and rig) the elections and run both houses of congress as well.

“Ours is a system that has become focused not on collective problem-solving but on a struggle for power between two private organizations.”  (Kindle 365-66)

As Edwards sees it politicians have forgotten their loyalty is to the United States of America and instead have replaced this with a loyalty to a political party.  When congressmen and women take office, they swear an allegiance to uphold the Constitution.

“The oath of office requires loyalty to the Constitution—not to the president, to a political party, or to any outside organization demanding fealty. No man or woman should enter Congress with divided loyalties. It is time for every candidate to refuse to sign any pledge, or take any oath, other than to ‘fully discharge the duties upon which they are about to enter. So help me God.’”  (Kindle Loc. 2282-85)

Edwards says those driving partisan politics in America demand their  candidates to swear allegiance to the party’s platform (for example, those who are forced to take Grover Norquist’s pledge not to raise taxes).  Edwards sees this as compromising the congressman making them incapable of governing in a democracy because their loyalty is first to their political party and only secondly to America as a nation.

Litmus tests of loyalty are regularly administered to congressional candidates to pressure them to remain 100% loyal to the party or the president or some outside organization.  This is a conflict of interest in Edward’s view.  Those elected to congress are there to serve the public interest not their party’s interest.  Thus Edwards is working to change Republicans and Democrats into Americans.  The polarized, partisan politics are not serving our nation well.  But the parties have become institutionalized and exist now to preserve their power.

“We Americans believe in choice. In almost every facet of our lives, from soups to soaps to stereos, we expect, and demand, multiple options. How strange it is that in the area that counts far more than any of these and that determines how much we will pay in taxes, what government services we will receive, and even whether our sons or daughters or husbands or wives or brothers or sisters will be sent off to fight and possibly die on a foreign battlefield, we allow two private organizations whose principal goal is the gaining and keeping of power (Republican and Democratic party leaders generally support their club’s nominees, almost regardless of their political beliefs) to tell us that on election day we are allowed to choose between only the two people they have told us we must choose between.”  (Kindle Loc. 760-65)

The two politic parties have taken control of American politics and thus of the American government.  Party control of politics is not what the founding fathers wished for our nation.

“But the government is working just as we’ve designed it to work, not for debate and deliberation but as a vehicle for partisan advantage-seeking. It takes no genius to understand why things are the way they are: we have created a political system that rewards intransigence. Democracy requires divergence and honors dissent, but what we have today is not mere divergence and does not deserve the label “dissent”; it’s a nasty battle for dominance, and it’s often the dominance not of an idea or a great principle but of a private club that demands undeviating fealty.”  (Kindle Loc. 2463-67)

Edwards works with organizations trying to change the lock the two parties have on American government.

“But here’s the thing: the leaders of those clubs will not voluntarily surrender the enormous power we have allowed them to accumulate. They can draw congressional districts to suit themselves, they can keep potential candidates off the ballot, and they can tell elected members of Congress that their views don’t matter. In what way, exactly, does this resemble “democracy”? Do the holders of such powers ever willingly relinquish them? So egregious is the hold parties have over our election and governing systems that when they execute their closed primaries to choose their preferred candidates (and to keep others off the ballot), it is we, through our tax dollars, who pay for them to limit our choices.”  (Kindle Loc. 2491-96)’

Edwards’ book is not merely descriptive, it is a call to Americans to take their government back from the hands of political parties and professionals.

“It is time to break free of the power these private clubs exercise over us and to tell them that they can no longer be in charge of drawing congressional district lines; that they can no longer keep potential candidates off the ballot just because they haven’t been blessed by party activists; that they must allow divergent ideas to be debated and voted upon; and that they must pay for their own club events. We need that money for our schools and roads and health care expenses.”  (Kindle Loc. 2498-2501)

Edwards does not oppose political parties and continues to belong to one.  His criticism is that the two major political parties have taken over our system and reshaped it to maintain their party’s power.  Edwards says the Founding Fathers didn’t create the two party system nor was our democracy designed to operate effectively with two adversarial powers who each want to maintain their power.

Washington resigned his commission for the good of the country. Political Parties should follow his great example.

Next:  Turning Democrats and Republicans into Americans

Of Democrats and Republicans

This is the conclusion of a two part blog that began with Political Campaigns: The American Way.

I did learn a bit of history about how the thinking of Democrats and Republicans on big government and taxes have evolved through time.

President Jackson

Robert W. Merry in  Where They Stand offers Democrat Andrew Jackson as being the proto-small government president, whose ideals are much more aligned with modern conservative thinking:

“This is correct and immensely significant. Jackson’s populism, by contrast, was fundamentally a faith in ordinary citizens to conduct their own lives, unimpeded by government or elites aligned with government, and a faith in the citizens at large to manage the national economy.”  (Robert W. Merry,  Where They Stand,  Kindle Loc. 731-34)

President Lincoln

Merry claims it was Kentucky’s Henry Clay, a Whig, who promoted government growth to meet the needs of a growing country.   President Lincoln who became a Republican when the Whig party disintegrated claimed in his presidential campaign to be the true successor to Clay.

“Kentucky’s Henry Clay, who wanted the power of federal Washington brought to bear boldly in behalf of domestic prosperity. Clay crafted a philosophy of governmental activism and devised a collection of federal programs and policies he considered essential to American prosperity—construction of roads, canals, and bridges; creation of a national university; high tariffs; sale of federal land at high prices to plenish government coffers and fund federal programs. Clay called it the American System, and it would become the bedrock of his Whig Party, which played a major role in American politics for more than two decades and galvanized the political sentiment of many leading politicians, including the young Abraham Lincoln. Jackson, on the other hand, abhorred any degree of concentrated power in Washington, which he believed would lead inevitably to corruption and invidious governmental actions favoring the connected and powerful at the expense of ordinary citizens. He wanted political power to remain diffuse and as close to the people as possible. The catchphrases of his political ethos became limited government, strict construction of the Constitution, low tariffs, fiscal discipline, hard money, and westward expansion.   (Kindle Loc. 623-32)

Thus by Merry’s read of the presidents Democrat Andrew Jackson’s tradition is inherited not be FDR but by Ronald Reagan.  Rather FDR carries on the thinking of Henry Clay who was claimed as a hero by the first Republicans.

“The progenitor of Franklin Roosevelt is not Jackson; it is Henry Clay. Jackson represents a separate political tradition, best exemplified in the twentieth century by Ronald Reagan. The Jackson-Clay rivalry represents an inevitable and ongoing tension in American politics—the tension between those who wish to consolidate more power in the federal government in order to strengthen the American democracy; and those who believe such power consolidations weaken the ties of democracy. This tension has ebbed and flowed in the country’s civic life since the beginning and seems to be at a particular state of intensity in today’s political environment. It should be viewed as a healthy political agitation that helps define the American experience and also sometimes determines the national direction.”  (Robert W. Merry,  Where They Stand,  Kindle Loc. 740-46)

Andrew J. Polsky commented that one of the problems that plagued war President FDR was the economy.  At least in a claim that was amazing to me, Polsky says of FDR:

“Meanwhile, economic recovery stalled and reversed, due in part to the president’s ongoing fixation on balanced budgets.”   (Elusive Victories:The American Presidency at War, Kindle Loc. 2428-29)

I’m not sure how many think of FDR has a budget balancer, but that is Polsky’s claim.  Then in words that sound all too familiar to our 2012 problems, Polsky says:

“Unemployment had remained stubbornly high throughout the 1930s, despite many New Deal initiatives. Increased government spending on relief and public works had not sufficed to offset the loss of aggregate spending power.”   (Elusive Victories:The American Presidency at War, Kindle Loc. 2723-25)

History has a way of repeating itself.

I also read Robert A. Caro’s The Passage of Power (The Years of Lyndon Johnson) and found this passage about the struggle the Democrats in congress faced in the early 1960’s:

“They believed the $11 billion tax cut would, by putting more money into people’s pockets, stimulate the economy and thereby increase tax revenues, and the money the government would have available for these programs. Conservatives, uneasy about an expansion in government’s role and about the proposed new programs, were opposed to the deficits that would be produced by the higher spending, and believed the deficits would be increased by the tax cuts.”   (Kindle Loc. 9726-29)

I also found the following quote from Democrat LBJ to be interesting because today some might think it a conservative ideal as it reflects a notion that the government can’t solve every problem through creating programs but can create an atmosphere in which people are enabled to work for their own dignity:

“Civil rights are a matter of human dignity,” he said. “It is outrageous that all people do not have the dignity to which they are entitled. But we can’t legislate human dignity—we can legislate to give a man a vote and a voice in his own government. Then with his vote and his voice he is equipped with a very potent weapon to guarantee his own dignity.”   (Robert A. Caro, The Passage of Power (The Years of Lyndon Johnson), Kindle Loc. 2202-4)

Lastly, a somewhat critical note about modern presidents and the tendency to think the military is our only or best foreign policy tool.  Andrew J. Polsky in his book evaluating the war presidents of our country offered this:

“We should note, too, a disturbing trend: even as the United States increases its military advantages over all other nations, effective presidential wartime leadership has been declining. This is due to the mismatch between the tools of war at a president’s command and the kinds of wars the United States fights. If nothing else, this decline should feed healthy and justified popular doubt about the necessity of force and the viability of visionary goals.”   (Elusive Victories:The American Presidency at War, Kindle Loc. 6442-45)

Political Campaigns: The American Way

Since today in the USA is Labor Day  (a national holiday) and we’re in a presidential election year, I’ll offer a political blog today.

Some claim that the way democracy is to work ideally is that there is a spirited debate on an issue and then a vote is taken with the side with the best arguments carrying the day.   Whatever that ideal may be, it does seem to me that our modern elections do not much resemble the ideals of democracy for now all that happens is there is an exchange of accusations and name calling with little reasoned discussion.  Maybe that occurs because  voters aren’t reasonable anyway!

The older I get the less I like the way political campaigns are conducted.  Freedom of speech comes to mean negative campaign ads, robo-calls, Super Pacs, lies, distortions, name calling and the like.  Additionally, this has been carried on for more than a year which for me is totally wearisome.  Even the media turns the campaigns’ babble and rabble into “news” which they report on every hour which seems to perpetuate the process.  There were at the beginning of the process a lot of candidates to enliven the mix – on the Republican side at least.  This year the President was the obvious candidate for the Democrats so not much drama there.

Some however actually think the presidential selection process is actually working quite well.  Gil Troy writing in the Wilson Quarterly  SUMMER 2012, The Campaign Triumphant, is much more positive about the elections and campaigns and what they say about American democracy.

“A look back at the evolution of the presidential campaign since the early days of the Republic highlights the remarkable democratic achievements of the last two centuries. America’s presidential campaign process works. It sifts through candidates, facilitates a continent-wide conversation, and, most important, bestows legitimacy on the winner. Presidential campaigns are intense, long, and costly because they are popular, consequential, and continental in scope. Most aspects of the campaigns that Americans hate reflect the democracy we love.”

Troy continues:

“The evolution of the campaign has been a process of endlessly revisiting questions about the nature of American democracy that have been with us since the nation’s founding. Since George Washington coolly retreated to Mount Vernon to await his inevitable selection by a handful of elite presidential electors in 1789, America’s center of political gravity has shifted from the self-chosen few to the democratic masses. The elite maneuverings of the early Republic gave way beginning in the 1830s to nominating convention intrigues, which were replaced a half-century ago by today’s familiar primary-caucus hijinks. American politics evolved from elite based to boss based to people based, from nominating individuals who had mastered America’s politics of privilege to selecting those who could master party politics, to anointing today’s masters of media messaging.”

He concludes:

“In today’s extraordinary and extended quadrennial democratic conversations, a country of more than 300 million peacefully chooses a leader who arrives in office with unquestioned legitimacy. As Reagan said during his costly, nasty, lengthy—but successful—1984 reelection campaign, ‘It’s a good idea—and it’s the American way.’”

Reagan always managed to find a way to be upbeat about things American.

I read a couple of books with political themes early this summer while I was recuperating from surgery.  Since I use this blog to report on things I’ve read and/or thought about, I want to offer a few bits of political wisdom or trivia I picked up. These are not thematically related nor in any particular order.   First from Robert W. Merry’s book on presidential rating games,  Where They Stand:

“It’s difficult for us today, with 225 years of constitutional history at our backs, to conceive what a remarkably innovative and novel idea the presidency was. The great kings of the world are long gone now, but in the eighteenth century, at the time of our nation’s birth, they were in their heyday, and it wasn’t clear a mere president could rival the world’s royalty in dignity and gravitas. But Americans, having been handed the gift of the presidency, never doubted it. That’s because the president is a product of themselves in a way no king or potentate—or even prime minister—could ever be. That is one reason why the American presidency stirs so much interest, respect, and affection from the broad populace …”   (Kindle Loc. 245-50)

Merry offers a striking metaphor for a successful presidency:

“…. historian Henry Adams, who wrote that the American president resembles a ship commander at sea: ‘He must have a helm to grasp, a course to steer, a port to seek.’”  (Where They Stand,  Kindle Loc. 2677-78)

Maybe that’s why we are adrift today.

The president has to lead the country somewhere and he has to offer a vision of what that destination is.  Andrew J. Polsky who wrote about American war presidents in Elusive Victories: The American Presidency at War says however that vision alone is not enough to achieve success.  A president has to be aware of the difficulties the nation currently faces:

“… vision without awareness of obstacles does a leader no credit.”  (Kindle Loc. 2139-40)

A last thought comes from Robert A. Caro’s The Passage of Power (The Years of Lyndon Johnson).   The approval ratings for Congress have dropped to all time lows, way below presidential approval ratings.  But Caro offers a quote for the evaluation of congress almost 50 years which seems strikingly contemporary.  Writing about in 1963, Walter Lippmann penned these words:

“This Congress has gone further than any other within memory to replace debate and decision by delay and stultification.”  (Kindle Loc. 11179-80)

In American politics few things are new under the sun, it’s just a new generation’s turn to experience the frustrations of the democracy and a republican form of government.

Next:  Of Democrats and Republicans

American Ingenuity and Re-inventing our Government

This blog offers some concluding thoughts to my previous blog, Redistributing Wealth.

In analyzing the political partisanship and implacable ideologues Fareed Zakaria  writing in the 15 August 2011 issue of TIME offers some thoughts about why the American system of government is not able to solve our current fiscal problems:

“American parties now function like European parliamentary ones, ideologically pure and with tight discipline. But we don’t have a European system. In parliamentary systems, power is united so that when, for example, the British Prime Minister’s coalition takes office, it controls the legislative branch as well as the executive. The Prime Minister is, in effect, chief legislator as well as chief executive. The ruling party gets a chance to implement its agenda, and then the public can either re-elect it or throw the bums out. The U.S. system is one of shared and overlapping powers. No one person or party is fully in control; everyone is checked and balanced. People have to cooperate for anything to get done. That is why the Tea Party’s insistence on holding the debt ceiling hostage in order to force its policies on the country–the first time the debt ceiling has been used this way–was so deeply un-American.

The strength of the Tea Party is part of a broader phenomenon: the rise of small, intensely motivated groups that have been able to capture American politics. The causes are by now familiar. The redistricting of Congress creates safe seats, so the incentive is to pander to the extremes to fend off primary challenges, rather than to work toward the center. Narrowcast media amplify strong voices at the ends of the spectrum and make politicians pay a price for any deviation from dogma. A more open and transparent Congress has meant a Congress more easily pressured by small interest groups and lobbyists. Ironically, during this period, more and more Americans identify as independents. Registered independents are at an all-time high. But that doesn’t matter. The system in Congress reflects not rule by the majority but rule by the minority–fanatical, organized minorities.

These dysfunctions have reached crisis levels at the very time the U.S. faces intense pressures from an aging population, technological change and globalization. We need smart policies in every field. We need to pare spending in areas like health care and pensions but invest in others like research and development, infrastructure and education in order to grow. In an age of budgetary limits, money needs to be spent wisely and only on projects that are effective. But in area after area–energy, immigration, infrastructure–government policy is suboptimal, a sad mixture of political payoffs and ideological positioning. Countries from Canada to Australia to Singapore implement smart policies and copy best practices from around the world. We bicker and remain paralyzed.

Some of those best practices used to be American. The world once looked at America with awe as we built the interstate highway system, created the best public education in the world, put a man on the moon and invested in the frontiers of knowledge. That is not how the world sees America today. People watched what happened over the past month and could not comprehend it. We have taken something that the world never doubted–the credibility of the U.S.–and put it into question. From now on, every time the debt ceiling has to be debated, the world will wonder, Will America honor its commitments? Will it keep its word? Will the system break down? We have taken our most precious resource, the trust of the world, and gambled with it. If, as a result of these congressional antics, interest rates on America’s debt rise by 1% –in other words, if the world asks for just a little bit more interest to lend us money–the budget deficit will rise by $1.3 trillion over 10 years. That would more than wipe out the entire 10 years of cuts proposed in the debt deal. That’s the American system at work these days.

Old Senate Chamber

Maybe we can rethink what we are doing.  American ingenuity both invented and grew out of the changing political world of the 18th Century.  That same ingenuity if it is allowed to thrive rather than be throttled by ideologues can re-invent the government which helped make America great.

If it is the case that our political system is becoming polarized to the point of being paralyzed, a former congressman offered his opinion about how we got to this point.

Congressman Jim Cooper (D-TN) first elected to congress  in 1982 made observations about a big change that occurred in congress that contributed to the polarization in congress and inability to work together.   Cooper writing in BOSTON REVIEW (May-June 2011) as reported in the Summer 2011 WILSON QUARTERLY commented to the effect:

“Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.) saw himself as leader of the entire House, not just the Democratic caucus.  O’Neill’s was a House intent on making policy, not partisan mischief,’  Cooper recalls.”

There even was a time when “a group of elite staffers known as the Democratic Study Group provided authoritative memos before each important vote listing the pros and cons of the bill.  The quality of these reports was so high that even some Republicanss subscribed.”

Cooper says the system changed a great deal  “under the leadership of Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.)”.  “Gingrich centralized power in the office of the Speaker and politicized the position.   Committee chairs, powerful under O’Neill, were ’emasculated, their authority redirected to the Speaker.”  It was in this time the Democratic Study Group mentioned above ceased to exist.

It is possible that Gingrich made these changes to correct what were perceived as problems of congressional dysfunction in his day.  Don’t know that story, but I’m just following Cooper’s line of thinking.

The changes that Cooper claims occurred are still in effect to this day, and it has not mattered whether Republicans or Democrats have been in power, they now follow the precedent set by Gingrich.   Cooper notes, “The truth is that the [Gingrich] model works … if you are only interested in partisan control of Congress.”

This of course gets back to Fareed Zakariah’s point above that the U.S. political system is not a European parliamentary system.   So those who are demanding that we return to the Constitution in determing how government is to operate, maybe we have to demand that we abandon the polarizing parliamentary European system and return to our democratic system where disagreeing politicians are forced to sit down together and work out a compromise that solves our problems.

Cooper’s “solution” is that our congressmen get “merit” pay based on their ability to co-operate to make the system work – including merit pay for those who eliminate obsolete laws  and who work to cut spending.  Not sure how that idea would work.

I want to also acknowledge that some think the rancorous process which we witnessed in dealing with the debt ceiling problem is nothing but democracy at work.  Charles Krauthammer (Washington Post, 12 August 2011) thinks the system is working fine and we should quit complaining.  He notes what is an obvious truth of American politics, voters do react against both ideas and politicians they don’t like.  Thus we see swings in voters moving left and right whenever they think politicians have gone too far.  He feels confident the system is doing what it is supposed to do and the results in the debt ceiling debate did what they could do.  He wrote: “It was a triumph of democratic politics – a powerful shift in popular will finding concrete political expression.”

There is no doubt since the time of the election of 1800 in which Thomas Jefferson using dirty tricks defeated incumbent President John Adams.  It was a rancorous campaign that caused Adams and Jefferson, two of the heroes of the revolution and founding fathers of our country,  to have a complete falling out and become bitter political rivals.    There have been major issues at stake that endangered the American political system soon after its birth.   It exploded in the election of 1860 when Lincoln became President and American became a divided nation at war.

Enjoying the Quiet of the Library

And though this is nothing new, I personally don’t find the process to be to my liking at all.   But there is little doubt that the pitfalls of a bickering democracy are preferable to the dictatorship of a one party system.   I silence the negative campaign cacophony by living TV and commercial radio free.  I noticed that even a couple of my sons have basically quit watching TV and don’t have cable subscriptions.   There is hope for America!

It seems to me that since both political parties seem to think they have to play to the extremes of their constituencies in a circus media driven political culture,  most of what we receive from the partisan leadership is all heat and no light.  Maybe that is the only way politicians can get anything done public accusations but behind the scenes some effort to reach a solution.   But I know I would prefer hearing reasoned proposals rather than partisan rhetoric.

At one time some of the leaders of the two parties did agree that $4 Trillion in debt reduction was the goal.  That was a huge step forward.  But the resulting agreement was only about half that, which means we are going to have to listen to the rancor twice, and probably twice as much before they will come up with a package that will convince the world that the US is a safe place to invest your money because it is backed by the full faith and credit of the US government.

Next:  The Redistribution of Income Revisited

The Redistribution of Wealth

[My note – there is a discrepancy in facts between an article I mention, and some facts that are quoted in the comments from Brian attached to this blog.   The discrepancy as explained in the comment from Dn. Marty appears to be that the original article refers to income, not wealth, while the charts Brian refers to are talking about wealth not income.   The difference is significant and certainly which statistics one is looking at changes the conclusion one can make.  I have edited my original comments to better reflect the facts being offered in the original article.  Probably need to retitle this blog to “The Redistribution of Income.”   Thanks to Brian and Dn. Marty for their comments.]

In the ears of a number of Americans, “the redistribution of wealth” is an idea which is associated with notions of socialism, or the political left or the tax and spend folk of Washington, D.C.   These fears seems also to feed the anti-tax political movements in America.

Apparently the thinking is that if only the tax rates would go down, more Americans would be or become wealthier.   Statistics analyzed in the book PRESIMETRICS claim however from the time of Presidents Eisenhower to GW Bush that there is no statistical evidence to show “that lower taxes result in higher incomes” and amazingly enough “it is pretty evident” in that same time period that “higher taxes were not hurting people’s pocketbooks” as measured in real median income or net disposable income.   Lower taxes did not yield the higher economic growth some predict and lower taxes “at least by themselves– are not the way to increase economic growth.”   (You can analyze their statistics, pp 116-130 of the book:  Some say numbers don’t lie, others that statistics can be interpreted to mean anything.)

What is perhaps more notable economically, is an article by A. Atkinson, T. Piketty, and E. Saez in the March 2011 issue of JOURNAL OF ECONOMIC LITERATURE  (as reported in the Summer 2011 WILSON QUARTERLY).   According to this article, in the United States, “The top one percent of earners more than doubled their share of income between 1976 and 2007, from nine to 24 percent.”   [The discrepancy is in that the statistics in the comments below show in the increase in wealth going from 19% to 24%,  while the article is claiming “their share of income” increased from 9-24%.  That certainly changes the basis of my comments.]   This means that in this time period the 1% wealthiest Americans  in 30 years had their share of the nation’s income increase from  9%  to 24%.   The top 1% of the wealthiest now own almost 1/4 of  the income generated in America.  This is a redistribution of wealth not engineered by socialism, but certainly the direct result of American economic policies and capitalism as we practice it.

The article goes on to say,  “For the top 0.1 percent of earners, the concentration was even more extreme: They quadrupled their share, from three to 12 percent.”

The rich have been getting richer faster!   America, claimed to be the richest nation on earth, has an ever growing portion of its wealth controlled by one percent of its population.

So a redistribution of wealth actually does take place in America, one that is not the result of leftest policies or of increasing taxes: wealth is moving toward and pooling in the bank accounts of the wealthiest Americans.   Some may say that is just the nature of things, but this doesn’t happen “naturally”, it is purely manmade:  it happens as a result of the intentional economic policies to which we choose to adhere.  It is, I suppose, a form of economic Darwinism:  the strong not only survive, they thrive in the economic world they create and control.   It is a human-made selection that favors those who have created the conditions which determine who thrives.

Now to be fair to the entire picture, in that same time period, the 99% of Americans not in that wealthiest 1% saw their income rise 18% as well. (By comparison, in that same 99% of French citizens, their income rose 26% in that same time period).   So there was an overall income increase in America across the board, but an even faster growth in the income of the wealthiest American 1%.  (The statistics show worldwide the rate of concentration of wealth in the wealthiest few occurred much more in America than in Europe or Japan).

I have not been convinced that the US can reduce its deficit and debt by spending cuts alon; rather I think we actually will need tax revenue increases to pay down the debt.  It seems that also was the concern of S & P in lowering the credit rating of the U.S.:  budget cuts alone are not going to be able to get the U.S. to balance its budget and eliminate its massive debt.  Thus maybe the next impasse is going to be between the Tea Party adherents verse the Credit rating agencies and Wall Street.

I have read before that the U.S. and world economies have tended to fall into the hardest times when a disproportional amount of wealth gets concentrated in the few.  The economy works far better when wealth is widely distributed over a greater number of people.  So the current redistribution of the wealth toward the wealthiest few does not bode well for future economics in the U.S.   Fareed Zakaria  writing in the 15 August 2011 issue of TIME, said:

So far, the national debate has been built around the fantasy that we do not have to choose between big government and low taxes–that we can get both by cutting waste, fraud and abuse. But the money is in the big middle-class items, from Medicare to the mortgage-interest deduction. With federal taxes at 15% of GDP, a historic low, and spending at 24% of GDP, there is really no conceivable way to close the gap without increasing taxes–either raising rates or eliminating deductions and loopholes. And Republicans might find to their dismay that when forced to choose, Americans will decide that they like their government programs after all. Polls show that the public would rather raise taxes than, for example, cut Medicare. (In fact, we would have to do both.) The public may hate government in theory, but it has warm feelings about most individual government programs, from the space shuttle to Head Start to Pell Grants.

Whatever agreement our politicians cobbled together to increase the debt ceiling, they still neither solved the deficit and debt crisis facing the U.S., nor did they show enough good old American ingenuity in how to bring people together to solve a problem.   They were not able enough or bold enough to take on the size of the problem facing us.

Americans often were viewed in the past by the rest of the world with amusement and admiration for their can-do attitudes toward problem solving and our belief in the power of negotiation to create compromise solutions that bring some benefits to all parties.   Time will tell whether we still have that American spirit to solve our problems today.

Next:  American Ingenuity and Re-Inventing our Government

Representing Public Opinion or the Public?

Rutgers University Professor David Greenberg wrote an article about President Teddy Roosevelt, “Beyond the Bully Pulpit”, in the Summer 2011 issue of THE WILSON QUARTERLY.  Greenberg credits (or blames!) TR with being the president who made “spin” “a fundamental part of the American presidency.”   The article is a worthy read.

In our current political crisis of dealing with the US budget deficit and the growing national debt and the need to raise the debt ceiling, we can watch our politicians spinning the events every which way as part of the blame game.   They more often seem to have their eyes on the next election and what is good for their political party (what appeals to their party’s base) rather than on what is needed for America.  Greenberg writes about President T Roosevelt:

“Unlike most of his predecessors, Roosevelt saw himself as an instrument not of the party that elected him or of the coalition of blocs, but of the will of the people at large.  Deriving his power from the general public, however, did not mean slavishly following mass sentiment; TR, like Wilson after him, wanted to discern with his own judgment which policies would truly serve the electorate as a whole.  ‘I do not represent public opinion,’ he wrote to the journalist Ray Stannard Baker.  ‘I represent the public.  There is a wide difference between the two, between the real interests of the public and the public’s opinion of these interests.’  He spoke of the common good as if such a unitary thing were not hard to identify, at least for him.

Modern politicians are finely tuned to public opinion.   This certainly makes it seem that they place their own re-elections and the interests of their political parties ahead of what is needed and good and right for the country as a whole.  They too narrowly focus on things that have an immediate impact because that can help (or hurt) in the upcoming election, whereas long term solutions may be of no immediate help to their immediate re-election needs nor to their party’s gaining power now.  No doubt that is why we have the national debt problems we have – short term popular decisions are made with no regard to their long term consequences to the nation.

Our current debt crisis demands long term solutions, some of which may not benefit either major political party now and in fact might be so unpopular as to hurt both or either party now.  Voters want as many entitlements as they can get (and this includes wealthier voters who get all kinds of tax break entitlements and other benefits) and want all kinds of government benefits without having to pay for them or to bear the burden of the cost of them.  (Founding Father James Madison, for example, argued that the cost of all wars should be born by the generation that called for the war and these costs should not be postponed and then laid on future generations).   As a result of these wishes, public opinion often demands more from the government while simultaneously expecting less taxes.  The end result is politicians finely attuned to public opinion who find it easy to approve more government programs while simultaneously reducing the tax burden (This certainly was the formula followed by GW Bush and continued to this present day).

I’m still hoping to see our elected officials do the hard thing – adopt a 4 trillion dollar budget, deficit and debt reducing plan that has long term implications rather than a short term “fix”.  

To our congressman I say:  Serve the public interest not the fickleness of public opinion.  Be willing to sacrifice your re-election by making the hard decisions that must be made today for the US to have a stronger financial tomorrow.