Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The War On ––– Anything

Most Americans would likely agree with the statement that we are a peace-loving people, not a militaristic one.  It is also likely that people of many other nations would disagree with our self-assessment based upon their own experience with us.  Often those two differing views come from two different perceptions and two different interpretations of the same event as seen through two different sets of eyes perceiving two very different motivations for our actions.

It is certainly true that Americans seem continually attracted to being in a state of war, whether a physical or rhetorical one.  In our post-World War II era, we have sent our troops into harm’s way under every president except Eisenhower, Kennedy and Carter, so our willingness to use military power in a “hot” conflict is a bipartisan one.  We have used those troops all over the world, so our willingness is also generally unlimited by geography.  When hot wars were insufficient, a 40-year “cold war” kept us in a quasi-state of perpetual conflict, leading to building missile armaments sufficient to wipe out the planet in mere minutes.  It kept us in a constant state of fear that emphasized war as the primary instrument to overcome those who caused our fear.

Politically and socially, we have needed a similar state of warfare to frame our internal discussions and mass movements.  We declare a war on various social ills in order to give it sufficient gravitas and priority so as to marshal commitment, resources and popular enthusiasm to that cause.  We had Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty.”  Judging by all of the poverty still around us, one might conclude this to have been a lost war.  Yet judging by the changes in circumstances brought to many of the disadvantaged over the years, perhaps some individual battlefront victories were won.

We had Ronald Reagan’s “War on Drugs.”  Clearly not enough people “just said no” to drugs as his wife Nancy asked of us.  That war has accomplished seemingly little over the long haul given the billions of dollars invested.

Fox News generated an accusation of a “War on Christmas” a few years ago.  It came about because people felt they had a right (if not an obligation) to wish everyone in sight a “Merry Christmas” whether they were Christians (or Christmas observers) or not.  Somehow, wishing everyone a “Happy Holiday” in keeping with each person’s individual faith was seen as a bad thing to do.  Yet once upon a time we just called that common courtesy.

Similarly comes the “War on Religion.”  This war is generally espoused by the religious right and Catholic church leaders.  It reflects supposed limits being placed upon their ability to say and do anything anywhere they wish in the name of exercising their religious rights; or to compete and service the public (in schools, hospitals, publishing, etc.) but with special non-competition rules or exemptions applied to them.  It is a religious exercise increasingly occurring in the public arena and the legislative halls.  Yet in the perverse inverse logic that today passes for public and political discussion in America, the very people who claim to be the victims of this war are in fact the very aggressors themselves.  It is their personal and legal attacks against the beliefs of other faiths, and their attempted religious domination over other citizens, that fuels this conflict.  These rightist elements have met their enemy, and the face of that enemy is in their mirrors.

Ditto the “War on Marriage” and the “War on Family.”  I know of no gay or lesbian marriage that has thereby prevented a man and a woman from having a traditional marriage ceremony.  I know of no same-sex marriage that has thereby forced a male/female marriage to be dissolved.  I know of no woman choosing an abortion that has thereby prevented another woman from having her own baby.  I know of no prayers not said in our public schools that were thereby prevented from being said in the home at the dinner table or in the halls of our churches, synagogues or mosques.  What others may say or do does not stop nor define who I am.

Most recently, we now have “The War on Women.”  Women are being attacked by: trivializing their legitimate concerns; minimizing the meaningfulness of the job of motherhood; continuing to dispute the reality of unequal pay for equal work; and equating birth control to “slut-hood.”  These comments – echoing debates thought long settled way back in the 1970s – come from all ends of the political spectrum.  It is hard to tell aggressor from victim because everyone accuses everyone else of starting this war.  Soccer moms yield to momma grizzlies who yield to …?  In the end, all women get marginalized and patronized by political opportunism.

War is not a pretty thing, but it is a very serious thing.  After thousands of years of civilization’s advances, we should be rid of it by now.  But we are not.  It remains a fact and necessity of life, though best used very sparingly.  We have fought some wars with a very worthwhile purpose, and others not so worthwhile.  We have had many American men and women in uniform who have performed incredible acts of wisdom, courage, inventiveness, and sacrifice.  People whose names we know, and many more we have never known, identified in public anonymity only to family and close friends.  They are people who have witnessed unspeakable horrors and cruelty beyond what humans should be subject to.  This is what “war” truly means.

When we play at war, or convert a cause or ambition or crusade into a “War on …” in order to dream up support and energy, we thereby trivialize and disrespect those who fight our real wars.  Such casual use of “war” as a political slogan also makes us far too casual about committing young men and women into attacks from real bullets rather than just listening to words hurled back and forth.

There are serious needs to address in this country, and we are certainly highly divided about what these needs are and how to resolve them.  But as bitterly as we may continue to yell at each other, we are not in a real war with each other.  At least not yet, even though it too often feels like we could descend into that state with each senseless shooting that occurs.  But let us not hurry such a descent any more or sooner than necessary.  If we keep declaring war too easily on every thing we disagree with, we may wake up some morning to find that we have gotten exactly what we asked for.  And our then-confused military will not know who to defend.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

End Corporate Welfare

When debates about cutting government spending come around, today’s discussions focus most quickly on cutting social programs – education, medical care, safety, regulatory agencies, unemployment assistance, food and nutrition assistance, etc.  They are the programs designed to primarily assist those with lower incomes and less opportunities for advancement.  The rationale for cutting these programs is usually that “we cannot afford to be so generous.”  When a government program is proposed to create jobs, even temporarily to ease an economic crisis, the response is that “government should not be in the business of creating jobs, that is the job of business.”  Assistance programs and projects are cast as various forms of welfare, and welfare – “living on the public dole” – has never been popular with the general public.  Primarily because many people erroneously feel that they are 1-way programs for other people for which the taxpayer gets nothing back in return, or that we are “rewarding” people for not taking adequate responsibility for their own circumstances.

But the businesspeople who say that jobs are the province of business, not government, are not hiring.  A lack of jobs is not feeding a significant portion of Americans, not providing them with medical care and other necessities.  Many of the jobs that are provided do not pay enough – especially after commuting and day care expenses – to then afford these necessities.  Even though better wages would create better purchasing power leading to even greater business revenue, the cry against “social welfare” continues to be heard, while America continues to stagnate.

But welfare is in the eye of the beholder.  Many businesspeople who decry social welfare programs for individuals unhesitantly try to leap to the front of the line seeking government dole-outs for their businesses.  Not just the notorious big bailouts of recent memory to the megabanks and the auto industry.  Even more significant are the smaller, everyday payouts that have become part of the regular fabric and everyday routine of American business.

The federal government spends trillions of dollars each year.  A significant portion of those trillions goes into the hands of “vendors” – businesses competing to receive those dollars, often seeking to increase government spending even more.  The hypocritical song of many of these businesspeople goes like this:
·       they decry the level of government spending
·       they decry the taxes and debt required to pay for that spending
·       they decry creating government-funded jobs to move us out of this Great Recession
·       they then decry attempts to reduce government purchasing levels, terminate a building program, or close a facility
·       they base their objections on such reductions as causing “job losses,” never quite mentioning their drop in revenue (and profitability) as their real objection

So to “protect jobs” (i.e. keep businesses growing and profitable) we buy military hardware and naval vessels we do not need.  We fund dubious university research or new buildings for duplicate educational programs.  We build bridges and roads that carry little traffic.  We keep more military bases than needed for our defense in order to support local economies.  Communities seek government grants to pay for local facility and infrastructure projects, with their local businesspeople lined up to develop those projects, and then those same people complain that our government spends too much or excessively interferes in our lives.

The Boeing and General Electric corporations both learned many years ago the secret to business success: make sure you scatter your subassembly plants and divisional affiliates all across the country.  When the government tries to scale back its purchases or you need political support to underwrite your revenue, you are in the backyards of Congresspersons from across the nation.  These Congresspersons will be there when needed to protect their district’s constituents, the company will keep its revenue by “saving jobs,” and government spending will go on unreduced.  Many other national companies have learned the same game.  We should remember that the bailout of the automotive manufacturers (which has proven to be a smart bailout, actually) was only partially about the auto manufacturers and their several hundred employees.  It was also rationalized by the several million workers in the related businesses of auto parts, raw material suppliers, distribution, and local car dealers that loomed equally vulnerable in a bankruptcy.  “Detroit” is in fact located all across automotive America.

If we are wanting to say that, as a collective government, we cannot afford to help individual Americans, then let us be honest enough to also say we cannot afford to help business America.  A dole is a dole is a dole.  An unneeded government purchase at an inflated price is no less wasteful a handout than an assistance payment to an individual.  Propping up a business is no more or less noble than propping up an individual citizen.  Bluntly speaking, if we are told that the key to ending this Great Recession is increased consumer spending, the fastest and most effective way to do that is to give the government’s money directly to our citizens with instructions to “go spend it.”  Giving that same money to companies first as their welfare money just diffuses and delays the impact, as we saw when we gave the banks a trillion dollars to rejuvenate lending and they chose to just sit on it.

In the long run, people need jobs to meet their needs in a sustained way and to optimize their contributions to our society.  And to be consistent with the American character that prizes work, self-responsibility, and the dignity that comes from taking care of one’s self.  Charity, a noble and important feature of America and its people, works best as a short-term transition, an enabler of one’s future.  When it becomes a standard way of living, it creates dependency, which is inherently unhealthy for the soul and for proper human growth and development.  Businesses are no different; business dependency is just as bad as individual dependency.  (The collapse of Russia’s economy twenty years ago illustrated the negatives of state protection of unproductive businesses.)

Henceforth, let all businesspeople (and their politician partners) who proclaim fealty to the capitalistic economy stand on their own, without leaning on the government’s – i.e. the people’s – dole.  If many of us look into the mirror, we will see a public welfare recipient in our reflection.  The check just comes to us in many varied forms – directly in our mailbox, or through our employer’s paycheck.  There certainly may be many things wrong with our system of public assistance in America, but so also is the more invisible form of business public assistance.  Integrity and consistency in our beliefs and actions, versus hypocrisy, should still count for something.