Saturday, October 26, 2013

Governing On The Precipice

How many times can one walk to the extreme edge of the cliff before finally falling off?  And when one thusly falls, is it an “accident” of unforeseen outcomes or is it a suicide step?  Such are the questions raised about the recent absurd government shutdown and debt ceiling near default on our financial (and moral) obligations.

Mercifully, this craziness did finally come to a protracted end.  But only after the drama and stage characters burned themselves out from their own intensity.  The episode became a farcical comedy whereby the nation with the biggest economy in the world and the most powerful military, who was the creator of modern democracy, managed to look like a foolish 2nd- or 3rd-rate developing country in chaos.  There were a lot of speeches, a lot of maneuvering, a lot of bravado grandstanding.  But in the end, virtually nothing tangible was achieved except our own humiliation.  The losers were bodies piled atop each other all over Washington.  Some examples:

1.     The American Economy: By some estimates, around $24B was pulled out of the economy at the very time when recovery from the 2008 Wall Street debacle was slowly showing good promise.  So much stupidity from the party that has been preaching that business and the economy is supposedly priority #1.

2.     Job Improvement:  We are still hurting badly from the number of people unemployed.  So what did Congress do?  It threw almost a million government employees involuntarily out of work, and companies froze hiring due to the uncertainty of our future economic direction.

3.     Congress: Its approval rating now stands at less than 10%.  Congress’ job is to legislate, but virtually no legislation is being passed.  Which is why 2/3rds of the population now believes ALL Congresspersons should be thrown out of their office – including their own representatives (a first!).

4.     Majority Rules: One of our most basic rules of governance is that a simple majority rules.  The Senate gave away that principle a decade ago when virtually every decision became subject to a filibuster requiring a 60% majority vote.  Now the House has joined into that anti-democratic process with its own rule that nothing can be brought to a vote unless a majority of the controlling party in power approves.  Which means that 115 Republicans (only 27% of the full House) effectively controls the legislative agenda – except that in reality it only took around 50 Tea Partiers (11% of the full House) to intimidate the other 181 Republicans out of fear of losing their next primary campaign to a further-Rightist.

5.     Business Republicans: Long the stalwart backers of the Republican Party, they were sent reeling by this shutdown and threat of insolvency.  Lower government costs (and thereby taxes) equals less income for government contractors.  A debt default would send financial markets and American equity into free-fall.  Not what any business leader wants.  These once old friends of Congressional Republicans are calling for sanity, refusing to return Congressional phone calls, and pulling their financial backing and promising to redirect it to less extreme future candidates.

6.     The American People: Real people were hurt by this shutdown: public/private employees out of work; vacation-goers to national facilities; government employees trying to pay their mortgage; poor people trying to put food on the table; children locked out of Headstart programs; university research scientists whose work stopped; parents trying to protect their families from unhealthy products; small business owners scraping by.  It is a long list of real people who suffered real harm.  All for no necessary reason, certainly not from their own doing.

Yet to whom Lee Terry (R-NE) said when asked  if he would refuse his salary during the shutdown he voted for, “I’ve got a nice house and kid in college, and I’ll tell you we cannot handle it.  Giving away our paycheck …is just not going to fly.”  And Steve Pearce (R-NM) recommended that the newly unemployed just “call your bank and get a short-term loan to tide you through.”  Pearce has been rated as the 46th-richest member of Congress.

7.     International Leadership:  We who serve as the economic backbone and force for stability in the world, have frightened the world by appearing as the least stable of all.  The damage may prove irreparable.

8.     The Tea Party: In the aftermath of this debacle, these extremists on the far Right tried to put on a game face, talking about “sticking to their principles” and “making a statement.”  But the bottom line is that the Tea Party lost everything.  Defunding Obamacare – ostensibly the reason for this financial attack – was neither altered nor defunded in any way.  No government spending was reduced.  No practical gameplan for success or “exist strategy” ever existed.  They managed to make the Speaker of the House look like a non-leader essentially held under “House arrest.”  Ted Cruz will raise big bucks for his campaign committee; but he has eliminated himself from any peer Republican support or future national leadership role.  Even the often unfathomable televangelist Pat Robertson said “The Republicans have got to wave the white flag and say ‘We fought the good fight, now it’s over.’  They cannot shut the government down and then bring about a default ... It would be devastating economically to every human being.”

9.     Principles: Whatever one’s beliefs may be, at least own them, take responsibility for them, and be consistent about them in your public statements and actions.  But this episode was a poster-child for hypocrisy.  Rightists who refused to compromise or negotiate for four months now argued that the shutdown was caused by the President/Senate Democrats not compromising.  Those who shut down the government one day were photo-opting at the World War II Memorial the next day berating park rangers who had appropriately shut down the facility.  What did Congresspersons think was going to happen when they cut off government funding?  In the end these numerous shallow ploys did not fool the American people.  Which is why the majority of Americans blamed the shutdown on Republicans.

The long list of “losers” goes beyond just these.  Some say Obama “won” because he got everything he wanted: a clean funding resolution; a raised debt ceiling; an unchanged Obamacare program.  An incredulous Representative Peter King (R-NY) described the outcome by saying “This Party is going nuts … After shutting down the government for 2½ weeks, laying off 800,000 people, all the damaged we caused, all we would end up doing was taking away health insurance from congressional employees.  That’s it?  That’s what you go to war for?  That’s what we shut down the United States government for?”
But what really won was our Constitution, a reaffirmation of our Founders’ wisdom.  They had feared that this new thing called “democracy” run by “the People” could open the way to anarchy by “the masses.”  Hence all the checks and balances built into that Constitution to prevent momentary mass hysteria and minority demagogues from pushing the government into extremes – just as this shutdown/debt-ceiling hysteria exemplified.  By the refusal to allow the far Right to dictate our future by their deplorable conduct, these protections of the Constitution worked as intended.  That is the only good takeaway from this whole episode.
Three months from now, the same deadlines will reappear; will we repeat this same irrationality?  The Tea-Partiers will likely be unchanged and unrepentant; zealots do not change their views or their tactics given their own self-righteousness along with their arrogance.  The real question is whether moderate, rational Republicans will have the courage to stand up and say “enough” to these zealots, reject their extremism, and return the Republican Party to its responsible, conservative basis.
Representative Charles Boustany (R-LA) observed about his Party and the Tea Partiers, “There are members with a different agenda.  And I am not sure that they are Republicans and I’m not sure they’re conservative.”  Senator Richard Burr (R-NC) said, “The decision to shut down the government has been viewed, rightfully, by the American people as irresponsible governing.”  But then again, that same Richard Burr also said, “I'm not as concerned as the President is on the debt ceiling, because the only people buying our bonds right now is the Federal Reserve.  So it's like scaring ourselves."  All conveniently ignoring the truth that nearly $6 trillion – almost half of outstanding debt held by the public – is owned by foreign governments.
We will have to see where the “Republican” brand goes.  We will have to see if public memories last until November 2014.  So far, I am skeptical and not hopeful.  I hope I am wrong on this one.
“This country is in very hard times, there’s no question about it.  But we’ll dig ourselves out of it once again if we can stop yelling at each other for ½ hour.”  (Garrison Keilor)
© 2013  Randy Bell

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Painting With A Broad Brush

Watching the current chaos in Washington is both maddeningly frustrating yet a captivating observation of our lives in contemporary America.  We see both the good and the bad of our human character on full display.  The blogosphere and social media pages have been filled with people’s commentary about the government shutdown and our impending bankruptcy.  Some of that commentary has been genuine and thoughtful in expressing various beliefs and perceptions, regardless of one’s political positions.  But some has been our worst expressions reflecting our very deeply divided country, serving no other purpose but to just add one more brick to that growing wall that divides us.

A particularly odious recent posting that made me wince was a young writer who chose to complain about the beneficiaries of “entitlement programs,” railing against such citizens as the homeless, Medicaid recipients, and food stamp grocery buyers.  The supposed “solution” to this handout environment that she feels serves as a drag on our culture, economy and government is simply for those people to just “get a job.”  It is an opinion/solution that conveniently ignores the reality of all the jobs that no longer exist due to the structural changes in our economy (decrease in manufacturing; increase in technology and financial services); the jobs shipped overseas; the corporations sitting on their abundant cash and not hiring due to the uncertainty of the chaos in Washington.  There are many reasons why we have almost 8% unemployment.

Nevertheless, I can somewhat personally relate to people who have that attitude and point of view.  40 years ago after my separation from my first wife, I found myself living in downtown Boston in a small 1-room basement apartment with the bathroom located across the hall.  Money was very scarce at that point in time, even though I was still employed (i.e. one of what we now call the “working poor”).  It was all quite a comedown from owning my 3-bedroom ranch house in the outer suburbs.  On one of my monthly grocery shopping expeditions, I found myself behind a person unloading her cart for checkout.  Item after item of fresh fruits and vegetables, orange juice, meats, and yes snacks and deserts, came out of that cart.  All items nowhere to be seen in my cart.  And when it came time to pay, she handed over a package of food stamps along with some cash.  Over the next several days in the retelling of this incident to friends, I was still angry and frustrated by her “entitlement” while I went under-nourished in spite of holding a fulltime job.

It was only later that, with time, patience, maturity and no doubt with God’s good grace and assistance, I was gradually able to understand the real reason for my anger at that unknown shopper.  Making one set of life choices had given me a wonderful family and a “successful” financial and social life in suburban America.  Yet it was in my making another set of life choices that I now found myself in that basement apartment.  I knew my personal story.  But I had no idea what that shopper’s personal story was, why those food stamps were in her purse and not equally in my billfold.  The truth behind my anger was that she had exposed my own vulnerabilities; my anger was at myself.  She had made me confront my own life’s decisions, and laid bare the starkness of my current end result.  As most all religions teach us, no life should be defined by comparisons of what others have or do not have.  The only definition that matters is the one we define for our own self, and the spiritual relationships we bring to it.

Are there cheaters who game the food stamp program (and other such assistance programs) and take “unfair” advantage of it?  Of course.  And they should be identified and prosecuted fully.  There will always be some 5% or more of people in any grouping who will act unethically if not illegally.  Just as there are 5+% of doctors and medical service providers who collude to defraud Medicare by creating false patients or delivering false services.  Or 5+% of businesspersons who stuff inappropriate ingredients into their products.  Or 5+% of charity or religious figures who skim donations into their personal pockets.  Or 5+% of Wall Street financiers who deceived the public through risky investments and bad mortgages, but still walk around in their $1000 suits and live in multi-million dollar homes.  Or 5+% of public servants and politicians who accept bribes and payoffs to give “special favors” and preferential treatment to rich donors.  In truth, there is always “the 5%” in any group looking to defraud others.  And that 5%  knows no boundaries of race, color, gender, religion, economic status, or any other such subgroupings.

When a person (like this young writer) says broadly disparaging things about segments of our community, after 40 years I continue to ask the same question of that person: have you ever personally met a Muslim, Jew or Catholic that you have so universally maligned?  Have you ever spent a day together with a limited-education coal miner in Appalachia?  Have you ever talked directly to an urban-poor African-American mother and learned her personal story and particular circumstances?  Have you ever really LISTENED to a homeless person or a person on unemployment benefits rather than just talking constantly TO them?  Have you ever reached out to find a human face of a homosexual man or woman?  Ultimately, what do you truly know about “those people” you are so resentful or scared of?

It is easy for us to demonize groups of people who we do not personally know, especially when that demonizing comes from ignorance, anger or our own arrogance.  About people whose circumstances we do not understand.  Whose way of being is completely outside our own experience.  It is much harder to do that when we know their names, see their faces, and have a real listening conversation with them.

When we paint people with a wide, inexact brush, we color all people as the same even though they are not.  Even though we know we ourselves are not all the same as others.  Such painting is not only disrespectful of others, but additionally has another bad consequence: the brush also drops paint on us, and thereby also colors us into something more unrecognizable with each stroke.  Colors us as something we might be horrified to see if we looked into a mirror after we finished our painting.  We may think we are just painting a picture of other human beings.  In fact, we are painting a very revealing self-portrait of our own true inner being.  And sometimes that portrait is not a very pretty picture.

“The highest form of ignorance is when you reject something you don’t know anything about.”  (Wayne Dyer)

© 2013   Randy Bell