Saturday, November 18, 2017

Don't Get Distracted

If you want to talk about Roy Moore, have a conversation with yourself in your morning shower.  Then be done with Roy for the day.

If you feel the need to get a laugh at the expense of funnyman Al Franken, tell yourself a joke.  One joke.  Then move on to another topic.

If you want to gasp at the thought that anyone would seriously consider allowing elephant hunters to bring their bounty back to the good ol’ US of A, be my guest, gasp about it.  Be shocked and appalled.  For five minutes. 

I am not here to belittle the importance of respecting women, stopping sexual assault, or treating animals ethically.  I’m a vegan who has been married for 29 years and has two daughters.  Those topics are all extremely important to me.   But right now, all these topics, and every other topic except for one, are distractions.

Let’s keep our collective eyes on the ball, shall we?

This past week, the “People’s House,” as they used to call the U.S. House of Representatives, voted out a tax bill that ought to be known as the “Mega Donor Giveaway Act of 2017.”    The Republicans in the Senate are proposing a similar but not identical bill that would merit the same title.  All the talk about fiscal conservatism that the bills’ proponents had been yapping about from’09-‘16 would be thrown out the window.  Apparently, the new policy is, “Deficit be damned!  Trickle down will have its day!”

But does trickle-down economics really work?  Or more specifically, what is its track record?   Let’s analyze that question carefully.  Let’s bring before Congress the neutral, respectable economists who study that field as a science rather than use it as an opportunity to promote an agenda.  Let’s engage our best journalists to summarize the reports that these respectable economists have written about the topic to date so that we the people can intelligently consider the issues for ourselves.  And please, let’s not just sit back and shut up as the Congress tries to ram through a comprehensive tax bill without an opportunity for public consideration. 

So far, the polls I’ve seen indicate that the American public opposes the Republican tax bills by a two-one margin.   Shouldn’t we be asking the question why?  Don’t the bills’ proponents need to appear before their constituents in town hall meetings and discuss with them why it is so important that we cut some people’s taxes dramatically while other, less affluent people can expect a tax hike?
And here’s the real question:  if these tax bills seem poised to fundamentally reshape the wealth patterns in America, why isn’t this issue captivating our attention?  Must we always devote the majority of our public policy focus to the sex and violence scandals du jour?

Perhaps the only way to get the media to stay focused on these Republican tax plans is to present them as scandalous.  But that shouldn’t have to be the case.  Sometimes, we as a society need to be smart enough to recognize when Congress is flirting with enacting a law that can change our nation for a generation or more.  Reagan’s trickle-down efforts reshaped America to the point where the nation I grew up in during the ’60s and ‘70s hasn’t returned.  Back then, we thought that our affluent people were doing just fine.  But little did we know that the Gipper was about to present them with a boost that would substantially redistribute wealth ... and in their favor.  Now, we are faced with the prospect of another law that could have equally dramatic effects in the same direction.  

Is that really what we want?  And do we want to let it happen without engaging in a serious national conversation about it?  

I realize that tax policy isn’t sexy.  But if we need sex to hold our interest, we’re no better than those predators we’ve all been obsessing about.  

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Taking Democracy Seriously

What does it mean to “believe in democracy”?  Clearly, it requires you to want the rulers of government to be chosen by a vote held among the citizens at large.   But the real controversial question is, does it require you to care that the percentage of citizens who ACTUALLY vote be as high as possible, or is it enough that a vote was held and no portion of the citizenry was precluded from voting?

In other words, to be an authentic democracy, must we go out of our way actively to encourage voting by all races, colors, creeds, and socio-economic classes?  Or is it our view that voting is a privilege, not a right, and citizens who don’t prioritize taking advantage of this privilege don’t deserve our encouragement to participate in elections? 

These questions tend to be on the back burner in America today.  Instead, our chattering class would rather talk about more “substantive” issues like immigration, tax, or health care policy, rather than such “procedural” topics as whether election days should be federal holidays to encourage voting.   Perhaps pundits may be unmoved by the need to enact election reforms because we’ve already come such a long way in achieving a level playing field at the voting booth.   No more is suffrage denied to particular races or genders.   No more do we have literacy tests or poll taxes.  Now, at least in theory, anyone who really wants to vote can do so.  So, shouldn’t we devote our attention exclusively to more pressing matters?

Hardly.   I would argue that election reform should be at or near the top of our national agenda.  Indeed, I would say that America’s claim to being a democracy turns precisely on whether we take seriously the questions raised at the beginning of this post.

Consider me in the group that believes that legitimate democracies exist for the betterment of all the citizens, not just some of them, and that the higher the percentage of voters, the more secure, just, and prosperous a society becomes.  We stopped allowing literacy taxes because the health of our society requires that our leaders serve all the people, and not only the best educated.  Otherwise, why not just confine suffrage to Phi Beta Kappans and National Merit Scholars?   We stopped allowing poll taxes because the health of our society requires that our leaders serve all the people, and not only the most affluent.  Otherwise, why not just confine suffrage to country club members and families who stand to benefit if the estate tax is eliminated?

Plenty of people I know would like to see Election Day become a national holiday (or, in the case of odd-year elections, a state holiday in the relevant states).   Nevertheless, in election after election, this reform fails to get enacted, and nobody even wastes much ink on the topic.  Why is that?   Would we not agree that this one concrete change of law would effect a material change in the percentage of voters?  Would we not agree that a society as affluent as ours could easily afford to allow an extra day off from work every couple of years?  Then what explains the failure to make this change? 

Months ago, I detailed the United States’ horrid voting stats compared to other economically advanced nations.  Our problems in this area were on display again this past week.  The Democrats of the state of Virginia are falling all over themselves raving about the tremendous increase in voting in that state over previous elections.  But the fact is that the majority of registered voters in all parts of the state continued to stay away from the gubernatorial race.  And in New Jersey, only 37% of registered voters showed up to vote for governor.  That’s 37% of REGISTERED voters, not eligible voters.  Stated simply, with everything that happened this past year to spark our national attention to the political process, we’re still a nation of non-voters.  Some democracy.

Sadly, I suspect that our unwillingness to show up and be counted is exactly what many American leaders are counting on.  I’m talking the “voting is a privilege, not a right” set.  If pushed to tell the truth, they may privately acknowledge that voting is difficult for wage earners who live from paycheck to paycheck and can hardly afford to miss several hours of work.  But they also would point out that working class people could, if sufficiently motivated, show up at their local precinct and any loss of income in the process would presumably be a modest one.  More to the point, these “don’t get out the vote” types presumably also realize that if the voter rolls were expanded, the new wage earners, especially if they live in the inner cities, would not be likely to vote the same way as the truly privileged set.  They may not, for example, vote for politicians who wish to see the benefits of income tax reform go primarily to the people who pay the most taxes and earn the most income, which is obviously the direction that tax reform is taking.  So why, the argument concludes, are we obliged to make it any easier for the working class to vote?  Isn’t it their responsibility to show up and unseat the politicians that currently represent affluent Americans in Washington and in state houses throughout the land?

This past week, Dan Rather and Elliott Kirschner came out with a book entitled “What Unites Us.”  It’s kind of an intriguing title, don’t you think?  The authors set out to discuss what they call the “great experiment in democracy” and the values that over the years have helped this experiment succeed.  But I have to ask, in light of the fact that more Americans miss the opportunity to vote than seek it, and that we won’t even encourage our working class to take Election Day off from work, can we identify the belief in democracy as one of our unifying values any more?  Can we really say that we stack up in this regard to countries in Europe or Australia where voting percentages dwarf our own?

For decades, Dan Rather’s voice has been far more uplifting than mine.  That’s one reason I like him; he offers plenty of hope without sounding clueless.   But this is the Empathic Rationalist blog where there are even more important values than being hopeful, such as being brutally honest.  For me, it is not enough to say that America stands for democracy.  We must first answer the questions raised at the beginning of this post. 

Do we or don’t we believe that a democracy is a place where most eligible voters vote, and if they don’t, where the powers-that-be find ways to encourage them to do so?   For me, there is no other type of full-throated democracy.  The alternative, the half-hearted model, is dragging down our democracy, our republic, and our potential.    

Sunday, November 05, 2017

Evil Thoughts on a Sunday Morning

"For many are accustomed to arguing in this way: ‘If all things have followed from the necessity of God’s most perfect nature, why are there so many imperfections in nature?  Why are things corrupt to the point where they stink?  So ugly that they produce nausea?  Why is there confusion, evil, and sin?’  As I have just said, those who argue in this way are easily answered.  For the perfection of things is to be judged solely from their nature and power; things are not more or less perfect because they please or offend men’s senses, or because they are of use to, or are incompatible with, human nature.  But to those who ask ‘Why God did not create all men so that they would be governed by the command of reason?’ I answer only ‘Because he did not lack material to create all things, from the highest degree of perfection to the lowest:’ or, to speak more properly, ‘Because the laws of his nature have been so ample that they sufficed for producing all things which can be conceived by an infinite intellect.’”

Such was the statement by my favorite philosopher (Spinoza) regarding perhaps my favorite philosophical question.  It can be framed as, “How can we reconcile the existence of God with the existence of evil?”

Evil has been on the mind of most of us lately.  Just think back to this past Tuesday, when a man shouting “Allahu Akbar” drove a truck into a well-traveled cycleway in lower Manhattan.  Or think back a month to when a gambler in a Las Vegas hotel shot hundreds of people who were attending a country music concert.  Every time one of these mass killings occurs, we become a nation of criminal investigators.  Why, we ask, did this happen?  Have we found co-conspirators?  Plans of additional attacks?   Clues as to how the killer was radicalized?  A history of mental illness?  

In short, we become obsessed.  And we bring this same singular focus to stories about plane crashes or such natural disasters as hurricanes.  Whenever, in fact, large numbers of people lose their lives, limbs or even property in a manner that flies in the face of our sense of fairness, we are shocked to the core.  We experience similar emotions when hearing about individuals who are struck down prematurely by cancer, crib death, or some other seemingly unjust cause.   Our hearts, you see, are wired to expect happiness to accompany virtue and tragedy to accompany vice.   Otherwise, what’s the point of behaving ourselves?   What’s the point of “living right”? 

It should be obvious by now that the word “evil” when used in the context of the initial theological question I raised in this blog post is not confined to so-called “moral” evil, such as the type exhibited in Manhattan or Vegas.  Philosophers also use the term “natural” evil in reference to hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis and other “acts of God” that can’t simply be blamed on human misconduct.   Arguably, these latter acts are even more of a challenge to theology than is human-induced suffering. 

It was the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 that allowed Voltaire to lampoon the Abrahamic apologists to such a devastating degree that the Lord’s reputation on earth has never fully recovered.   How could any omnipotent, omnibenevolent force seize the lives of tens of thousands of seemingly innocent people, often in the most excruciatingly painful manner imaginable?   Many have attempted to satisfactorily answer that question, but in my opinion, nobody has yet succeeded, not even Spinoza.  What’s more, to reflect on the events of two centuries after Lisbon -- where Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot butchered tens of millions – is to realize that our planet faces one disaster of Biblical proportion after another, after another, after another.  And these disasters are not interrupted by manna flowing down from the heavens, or by prophets walking through seas that have been parted. Indeed, for me, whether I’m reflecting on Lisbon or Auschwitz, I get the sense that the ultimate power broker is one and the same.  And if I can’t blame Hitler for Lisbon, how then can we blame anyone but God for Auschwitz?  By the same token, if can blame God for Auschwitz, then what room is there in my world for the Devil?

These are the kinds of questions that make me want to get up in the morning.  These are kinds of questions that make me feel lucky to have been born to human parents.  The beauty of the human condition is that we can ask them.   Other species can’t. 

Some might tell you that grappling with such questions is a waste of time.  We should concern ourselves only with “practical” matters – questions that can be answered, and answered “profitably.”  Oh, how “rich” is that word, “profitably”? 

Well, for my money, the most practical questions imaginable are precisely the ultimate questions of philosophy, none of which can be conclusively answered by any of us or contribute much to anyone’s bank book.  The questions are as easily asked as they are impossible to resolve.  There is nothing practical in merely framing the questions and then, just as quickly, moving on to something else.  But when we seriously grapple with them – when we struggle with what our common sense tells us, or with what happens when we follow the logic of each of the leading schools of thought, or with how our previously held notions stand up in light of rigorous questioning – that’s when the magic happens.  That’s when we find ourselves changing our lives on the basis of our philosophies.

Do you want a really practical suggestion?  The next time you hear about a mass murder or a natural tragedy, don’t spend the next week reading press reports on the who, what, when, where and why of this latest act of “evil.”  Instead, pick up a copy of Susan Neiman’s award-winning classic, “Evil in Modern Thought.”  It won’t shed any light on whether some lunatic acted alone.  But it will help you figure out what to make of this concept known impersonally as “divinity” or personally as “God.”      

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Why All This Complacency, Democrats?

My mother was born in 1921.  Since then, seven men have been elected President of the United States as Democrats.   Their median age at the time of their first election was 50.  In my lifetime, which began in 1960, there have been five Democratic Presidents.  Their median age at the time of their first election was 47.   Just look at the ages of the following political icons at the time of their first Presidential victory:  JFK – 43, Bill Clinton – 46, Barack Obama -- 47, FDR – 50.  Apparently, when it comes to electing Democrats, America likes ‘em young.  

Now, take a look at the Democratic leadership today.   In the House of Representatives, you have Nancy Pelosi (who will be 80 by the time of the 2020 election) and Steny Hoyer (who will be 81).  In the Senate, Chuck Schumer (who will be 70) and Dick Durbin (who will be 75).   In terms of the de facto leaders of the Party, you have Bernie Sanders (who will be 79), Joe Biden (who will be 77, Hillary Clinton (who will be 73), and Elizabeth Warren (who will be a mere 71).    Recently, Dianne Feinstein decided that she should seek re-election for her job as Senior Senator from the nation’s largest state.  She will be 87 by the time of the 2020 election.  That would make her old even in comparison to the other prominent Democratic politicians.  It would appear that if you want to lead this party, you should be in your 70s, not your 80s.

Sobering stuff if, like me, you are a Democrat.  But I gather from the pundits on TV that many of the other members of my Party aren’t nearly so sobered.  They’re getting drunk with joy from all the reported Republican in-fighting that’s been going on lately, especially the statements against the current President by Senators Jeff Flake and Bob Corker.   My fellow Democrats ignore the fact that Messrs. Flake and Corker consistently vote with the Administration on all major issues of the day, including those awful health care bills, and that when they do leave the Senate they will quite likely be replaced in their Republican-leaning states by other Republicans.  My fellow Democrats similarly ignore the fact that their Party controls only 15 Governor’s mansions, even fewer state houses, and are dominated in all branches of the federal government.  And yet, despite those stubborn facts, my fellow Democrats not only expect to excel in the mid-terms of 2018 but also count on regaining the White House in 2020, just as they counted on keeping it in 2016.

Why all this optimism?  Or perhaps the better question is, why all this complacency?

From where I’m sitting, this is a rudderless, leaderless Party which is currently kept together entirely by the ability to oppose the current Administration.   Yes, the “just say no” approach to serving in the minority worked for the GOP when Obama was President and its use by the Dems may indeed preclude many a Republican initiative advanced by Trump and Pence.   But it is not, by itself, an election strategy, as evidenced by the fact that the mainstream Republican candidates who ran in 2016 got trounced by a political outsider who did stand FOR something (call it the “America First” strategy) and enunciated his views in extremely plain-spoken terms.

Do the Democrats have a leader who is going to stand FOR something and who will make that case in extremely plain-spoken terms?   And if so, will he or she seem youthful, vibrant and relateable enough to appeal to those swing districts that elected a Bill Clinton or a Barack Obama?

Until those questions can be answered in the affirmative, the Democrats might want to think twice before donning their party hats every time the GOP stubs its toe.  From where I’m sitting, the Republicans aren’t the only ones who have problems these days.  They’re just the only ones who have power.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Embracing Regulations ... Up to a Point

My first job after law school was at the Federal Communications Commission in the Common Carrier Bureau.  I worked on rulemaking proceedings designed to deregulate the telecommunications industry.  At that time, many of my fellow progressives were concerned that such deregulation would hurt the poor.   For years, they had argued that monopolization in that industry was needed to ensure the universal availability of cheap phone service.  According to this argument, deregulation would unleash the uncaring forces of a competitive market.  This could benefit affluent consumers, but the poor would be out of luck, as businesses could hardly expect to profit from subsidizing their phone services.   

Being that I was a young man who lacked either a crystal ball or a sophisticated understanding of telecommunications, I simply did my job and watched to see what happened.  Soon enough, the picture became clear; I witnessed a deregulation-driven revolution in telecommunications that has clearly benefited everyone, rich and poor alike.  

That didn’t stop me from being a progressive.  But it did stop me from being an ideologue.
For example, I developed a fear of monopolization and a love for accountability, market-driven or otherwise.  Years after I left the FCC, got married and began raising two daughters, my family took a trip to California.  We were staying for a few days with a friend in San Francisco and I needed to get a parking sticker for my car.  We easily spent two hours waiting in line at a government office to get that stupid little sticker, and I used half of that time to lecture my daughters about the inherent inefficiencies of government as a provider of goods and services.    Just think about the last time you visited the Department of Motor Vehicles in your town.  Those needlessly long lines didn’t just happen overnight; they emerged from decades of complacency and perverse incentives.     

In short, I didn’t want my children to grow up as “progressives” and not appreciate the limitations of government.  I didn’t want them worshiping at the altar of regulation.  But I also didn’t want them worshiping Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” either.  There are times when the free market simply malfunctions.  Upstream companies pollute and downstream neighbors pay the price.  Executives commit larceny by trick and then hire a bevy of lawyers to cover up the problem.  Consumers fall in love with dangerous products and suppliers inevitably arise to satisfy that demand – while innocent third parties are left to pick up the pieces.   We see these patterns as well.   That is, if we’re willing to look with unbiased eyes.

In the last couple of days, I’ve seen a number of articles that serve as clear reminders of why we need strong government regulations despite the inherent potential for overreach.  Yesterday’s Washington Post contained back-to-back articles reporting the results of pro-regulation studies that shouldn’t surprise anyone.  One article was entitled “Study ties loose conceal-carry laws to higher gun death rates.”  In other words, if you allow every Tom, Dick and Harry to secretly pack heat, folks are going to get pissed off from time and time and shoot somebody.   Makes sense, don’t you think?   Another article was entitled “Study links fewer recurrent concussions in young athletes to new state laws.”   In other words, if you require high school football players to stop playing when they’ve “just had their bell rung,” maybe – just maybe – they won’t have their bell rung so often in the future (and they might not ring your bell as often after they retire from football).     

To me, regulating the use of concealed-carry weapons or the ability of football players to continue playing with concussions is so obviously needed that it seems almost silly to have to argue the point.  And yet there are plenty of folks who oppose these types of laws because the government would be responsible for making the laws and enforcing them. 

Wednesday’s New York Times had an article about Moran, Texas, a small town that survives largely because of a plant that manufactures bump stocks, the gizmos that are widely viewed as being responsible for many deaths in the recent Las Vegas massacre.  You might not be surprised that in Moran, bump stocks, which serve to convert semi-automatic into automatic weapons, remain insanely popular.  According to one resident, “Guns don’t kill people. [Bump] ... stocks don’t kill people.  It could have been just as lethal, if not more so, with a good scope.”   

Blah, blah, blah.  Spare me the rationalizations.  To me, the problem is inherent in a capitalist economy.  You show me a person with an itch to buy something crazy and a wallet big enough to pay for it, and I’ll show you a second person with a willingness to scratch that itch and a hundred explanations of why they’ve done nothing wrong.    Sometimes, regulation is all that stands in the way of matching up those two people and ruining innocent lives in the process. 

We live during a time when America is divided into multiple sub-cultures.  In one, government is so despised that even sensible regulations are viewed with suspicion.  In another, the one with which I associate myself, government isn’t seen as a “necessary evil” at all – just a limited good.  Folks like me recognize that it’s not government’s job to dominate an economy, for nine times out of ten, the marketplace truly knows best.  But we also realize that if we let the marketplace decide ten times out of ten, the results can get very ugly, very dangerous, and very tragic.  

When it’s time to go to the ballot box next year, please listen closely to the way candidates talk about the value of government.  Are they respectful?  Or do they like to treat government regulation and government workers like piƱatas?   Just as the Czars of Russia used to blame everything on the Jews, some politicians like to blame all of society’s woes on the public sector.  As a 32-year veteran of public service and a 57-year old Jew, you’ll forgive me if I’m sensitive about either type of demagoguery.