Sunday, May 17, 2015

A Nation That Has Said Goodbye to Proactivity

I sense a pattern.  Prior to 9/11, our intelligence agencies didn’t speak to one another.  We needed the deaths of nearly 3,000 to wake us up to the fact that fighting terrorism requires intra-government coordination and all hands on deck.   Prior to a couple of years ago, little national attention was given to the issue of racial discrimination by local police forces.   We needed to hear about fatal shootings in Missouri, Ohio and other locations before that issue could be placed before the national consciousness.   Prior to the past month, a generation of politicians and mainstream media mavens haven’t bothered to concern themselves with poverty in the inner cities.  We needed riots in Baltimore, prompted by the unexplained death of an African-American male who was held in police custody, before poverty was given one tenth the attention on the national stage that had previously been given to the Kardashians.    

The list goes on.  I would have included the fact that prior to some awful school shootings, we could never summon the national will to support moderate gun control measures.  But even after those school shootings, and even after one poll after another demonstrated strong public support for such reforms as requiring background checks at gun shows, our politicians still have refused to enact those reforms.  In the case of gun control, it would appear that no number of tragedies and no number of deaths can cause us to change our libertine policies one iota.  

But that is an anomaly.   The NRA is unusually powerful – it brooks no dissent, and politicians are afraid of any suggestion that they are wavering on the issue of gun control.  In other contexts, when major tragedies happen, we do tend to respond, at least to a degree.  Most recently, we can see what happened in Philadelphia, when the derailing of an Amtrak train left eight people dead and over 200 injured.  It was revealed that the train was traveling at twice the legal speed limit, technology existed to control a train from traveling at such an unsafe speed, and unfortunately that technology was not being used in the area where the accident occurred.  So now that we’ve been alerted to the situation, our government has taken steps to ensure that  in the near future the proper technology will be used going forward.   Problem solved, right?

Not exactly.   I am frankly appalled that in the most widely traveled train route in the nation with the world’s largest GNP, we had to wait for multiple deaths before we implemented state-of-the-art technology.  An article in the New York Times attributed the failure to implement the technology to “budgetary shortfalls, technical hurdles and bureaucratic rules.”  Yet when Speaker of the House John Boehner was asked about the role of the Amtrak funding cuts, he responded that this was a “stupid question.”  Apparently, even after a terrible accident that exposed our transportation infrastructure as abysmal, the leader of the “People’s House” doesn’t think the media has any place snooping into the issue of whether we are properly funding our nation’s railroad system.   Fortunately for Speaker Boehner, whoever asked the question was clearly out of step with the other members of her profession.   During the years leading up to this horrible crash, the media did virtually nothing to expose the safety hazards of the Amtrak system.   The fact that state-of-the-art technology wasn’t used on these incredibly busy trains should have been common knowledge in America, but the truth is that the public was totally taken by surprise.  In other words, while our transportation infrastructure might be awful, our investigative-reporting infrastructure is even worse.

Perhaps this train crash hit me particularly hard because I am a frequent passenger on that very route.  But I think the larger point should hit home for all of us.  We are not equipped as a nation to confront our worst problems unless and until they result in mass casualties or violence.  Even when we do turn our attention to these issues, it remains to be seen whether we have the patience to persevere in finding a solution.  For example, I have no doubt that the interest in fighting poverty has increased since the Baltimore riots, but I also have no doubt that this interest will wane now that the riots have stopped and the powers-that-be recognize that confronting poverty requires intelligence and commitment, not just rhetoric.   

The idea of waiting for people to die before we even open our eyes to our national nightmares is especially devastating in the area of climate change.  We’ve known about this problem for many years and we know that it is likely to be the greatest scourge on our planet by the end of the century.  What’s more, we’ve been told by countless scientists that any further delays in addressing the issue could have disastrous implications regardless of what we do in the future.  And yet, until we can point to large numbers of deaths here in America and the prospects of an even larger number of American deaths in the near future, I strongly doubt we’ll have the will to do anything meaningful about climate change.  The politicians surely won’t have the will all by themselves, but what’s worse is that our media won’t hold their feet to the fires.  As they did with Amtrak, the third estate will effectively be lying in wait for morgues to fill up with American victims of climate change.  Then and only then are we likely to get to work – putting off to the second half of this century reforms that needed to be in place by the second half of this decade.

I know I sound like Chicken Little.  But I don’t really think the sky is falling.  We live in a world with unforeseen tragedies, but also one of resilience, and I don’t wish to ignore the possibility that many lives will be saved based on developments that are unknown to us now but that are inherent in the laws of nature or can be summoned by the ingenuity of humankind.  So there, you see, the glass may not be totally empty, or even half empty.  Predicting the future is never something that can done with certainty.   Still, it’s hard to think about the great minds and noble spirits of the generations that preceded us and then reflect on the low standards to which we hold ourselves today.  We’ve grown fat, lazy, and self-obsessed.  It’s not surprising that we need to see evidence of people dying in large numbers before our leaders will begin to consider lifting a finger to help.   Otherwise, when prophets come to warn us about the dangers we’re creating, the only finger we’ll be willing to lift is the middle one.  

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Happy Mother's Day

For my mother, today was spent getting picked up at her assisted living home, taken to lunch at the restaurant of her choosing, and relaxing at the thought that her home was getting fixed up so that this week, it can finally be put on the market.    

For my wife, Mother’s Day was largely spent reflecting on her good fortune that this summer, both of our daughters will be home.   One of her daughters has been in school in Israel, the other in Minnesota, and there will be no greater (belated) mother’s day present than having them back under our roof for a while.

But perhaps the greatest Mother’s Day present was given to Hillary Clinton … and the benefactor was Jeb Bush.  First, it is leaked that he told a Jewish audience that his primary advisor on the Middle East and Israeli matters will be his brother, W.   Then, he announces that if he had been President back in 2003, he too would have invaded Iraq.  And yet somehow, he expects the American public to believe him when he says that “I love my father and my brother … but I am my own man – and my views are shaped by my own thinking and own experiences.”

It’s Hillary’s world, and we’re all just living in it.   She can screw up all she wants with respect to evading the State Department e-mail server or avoiding the appearance of impropriety with respect to her State Department activities involving entities that donated money to the Clinton Foundation.  But all those screw ups don’t matter.  Because the bottom line is that the GOP does not seem poised to pit her against an experienced, moderate statesman who is viewed by the public as a forward-looking thinker.   This may be one of those few instances in “sports” when the prevent defense actually works, and Hillary can do little of anything for the next year-and-a-half but smile, take positions that are non-controversial with Dems and Independents, and essentially say – “hey, at least I’m experienced, smart and sane, which is more than you can say about THAT guy.”

So yes, it was indeed a happy Mother’s Day for at least three mothers.  Hopefully, it has been a happy Mother’s Day for the mothers in your life as well.   All the best from the Empathic Rationalist.

Saturday, May 02, 2015

Bucket Lists of a New Variety

It has been only one week since the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.  I trust you’ve all heard Obama’s routine by now.  Say what you want about his leadership skills; there is no denying his comedic timing.  And some of his jokes are pretty darned funny.

“[When asked] ‘Do you have a bucket list?' I say, well I have something that rhymes with bucket.  \ Immigration executive action? ‘Bucket!’ Stricter climate rules? ‘Bucket!’”

Yes, America, this is the new Obama.  Now that he doesn’t face any more elections, he is free as a bird.  He’s got nothing to lose, so why not say “Bucket” – or something that rhymes with that – and do what he FEELS like doing, whether it’s impolitic or not.   

That speech was given on Saturday, April 25th.  And since then, it seems, a whole lot has happened.  For one thing, each morning we’ve awoken to news of hundreds upon hundreds more having been killed in the earthquake that struck Nepal on the very day that Obama killed it on stage.   For another thing, we’ve been witnessing scenes from Baltimore that look more like they were right out of a dystopian sci-fi movie.  On Monday night, the scene in Maryland’s biggest city turned into a full-fledged riot, with brick throwing, looting, and arson galore.  Superficially, the cause of the Baltimore riots was the way the city’s police department had dealt with a 25-year-old African-American man named Freddie Gray, who died in police custody on April 19th for reasons that had yet to be disclosed to the public.  But it wouldn’t take Albert Einstein to realize that the deeper cause of the events on Monday night was that the poor, inner-city, African-American youth who led the riots had their own bucket list.

“Tell off the police?  ‘Bucket!’   Break into stores and steal stuff?   ‘Bucket!’   Burn down buildings?  ‘Bucket!’  Never get to go to college?  ‘Bucket!’   Go to prison?   ‘Bucket!’   Come to be known as a piece of trash by the Establishment?  ‘Bucket!’”

The way they look at it, the last few of those items on their bucket list were probably inevitable anyway.   So what the hell?   “Bucket!”

Do you know what else happened this week?   On political talk shows like Morning Joe, pundits were talking about something they have almost never spoken about in recent decades – the plight of the inner city.  Poverty statistics were bandied about – like the massive rate of incarceration or unemployment experienced by black men, or that community’s tiny rate of college graduation.   We also were treated to more exotic ramifications of poverty – like the fact that in eight Baltimore neighborhoods, the life expectancy is lower than it is in Syria.  And why, this week, was poverty finally getting such a spike of national attention?   It was all because a group of “dead enders,” as Donald Rumsfeld might have said, or “thugs” as President Obama and Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake actually did say, put reacting to poverty on their bucket list.  

Am I condoning the acts of the rioters?  Absolutely not.  Do I support prosecuting lawless behavior?  Sure I do.   No criminal would want me on their jury, whether their crimes are of a white collar or blue collar nature.   But the fact is that we have problems in this country that go way beyond the bad acts of poor, desperate people.  And there is no problem greater than that our nation has grown complacent when it comes to addressing the needs of our neediest people, or for that matter, our ever-so-fragile planet.  Those who run our nation’s political and business establishment, not to mention the voters who elect them or the consumers who buy their products, seem to care infinitely more about feathering their own nests than they care about addressing how best to lift the inner city poor out of poverty.   

The irony, here, is that the Baltimore riots are happening in the United States of America in 2015.   We are now into our 240th year as a democracy.   We have fifty separate state governments, and far more city governments.  Plus, we have a national government, a “free press,” and a ton of world renowned institutions of research and higher learning.  You would think that, by now, if we truly cared even a whit about the plight of the poor, our numerous states and cities would have generated valuable lessons and even data as to what approaches work and what approaches don’t.  Then, our national government, our news reporters, and our colleges and universities could gather and analyze this information to ensure that our poverty level is reduced to a trickle.  This is common sense, folks, not utopianism.  

It is the deepest of tragedies that the only way for the poor to get noticed is to behave lawlessly.  We need laws to be honored if we are to remain free and secure.  And yet we also need our citizens to feel like true stakeholders if we are to expect them to obey our laws.  Once enough people put “Risk going to prison” on their own bucket list, we’re all in trouble.   But as crazy as that behavior is, it is equally crazy for us to pretend that their poverty is not our problem … or to wake up to it only after they riot and only as long as they riot.

Fortunately, it appears the violence has largely subsided.  My fear is that our concern for the welfare of places like inner-city Baltimore will subside as well.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

In Support of Political Infighting

Lately, I’ve been noticing some new developments on the national political stage – Republicans are fighting Republicans, Democrats are fighting Democrats, and it’s getting nasty. Thank God.   My hope is that we are seeing just the beginning of elephant-against-elephant and donkey-against-donkey verbal warfare.  

As a Democrat, I’m particularly happy when my own side fights it out.  Some might view that reaction as perverse, but I believe that a healthy political party in a two-party system is one (a) with leaders who care deeply about causes and ideologies, (b) that encompasses a substantial political spectrum (otherwise known as a “big tent”), and (c) whose members aren’t fearful about taking aim at anyone who tries to assert “party orthodoxy.”   Surely, this is a formula for failure in a totalitarian state – or, for that matter, in any military organization.  But I don’t want my party to impose martial law on its members.  I want to see a free, vigorous, internal debate over ideas.   I want to be given a choice among competing visions.  And now that that the Republican Party has moved so far to the right that it has marginalized itself as your great, great grandfather’s party (assuming that “you” are a white Christian), if we’re going to be given the lively debate we deserve, we need to hear that from competing Democrats.

During the past week, the Pacific trade bill has woken up the Democratic populists, and they’re taking square aim at the bill -- and by implication, the policies of the Democratic President who supports it.  When Elizabeth Warren talks about the bill, there’s no avoiding the implication of her message:  one too many times, this Administration has neglected the interests of working class and middle class Americans.  According to Warren, this bill, the details of which are hidden from the American public, figures to put yet another nail in the coffin for the jobs of many blue collar workers, and the President seems to have washed his hands of their fates.  President Obama, for his part, called out Warren for being flat out wrong on trade.  He sees her brand of protectionism as bad for consumers, bad for America’s opportunity to compete on the international stage, and bad for the economy as a whole.  He obviously sees himself as the guy who saved that economy from falling off a cliff in 2009 and is equally proud of measures like the Affordable Care Act that were intended to help the middle class.  But let’s face it: if Elizabeth Warren were President, marginal tax rates would be higher, inequalities would be lower, and MAYBE (and here’s the real issue) the median American standard of living would be higher as well.   It’s that MEDIAN standard of living figure or the poverty rate figures that matters to Warren much more than such figures as the aggregate GNP or the Dow Jones Industrial Average.

So there you have it – distinct policy approaches, competing visions, and enough self-confidence on the part of the combatants to air their grievances.  I call it a healthy debate.
Frankly, prior to the last week or so, I’d grown sick and tired of my Party’s sleepwalking through one potential ideological battle after another.   Where have the Democratic critics been of this Administration?   Have they taken him on regarding Afghanistan?  How about Iraq policy?  Syria policy?  Drone policy?  Government surveillance policy?   Tax policy?  Wall Street reform?  Israel/Palestine policy?  

I’m not saying here that the Administration has been wrong in all these areas; whether I personally agree with Obama or not is missing the point.  The problem is that on the Democratic side, we’ve hardly had a real debate – and I mean that we haven’t had a real debate in AGES.  Even when Hillary Clinton ran against Obama in 2008, their ideological differences were minimal. (Yes, Barack took Hillary on for her vote in support of the Iraq War, but did that reflect a difference in policy or merely that Hillary was a U.S. Senator at the time and Obama could afford to cast his no vote in a much more forgiving forum?) Both of these politicians were center-left pragmatists who rarely took a public stand for any cause that was not favored by a majority of the American public.   

It has been virtually an entire generation since the Democratic Party was up for grabs between two or more largely contrasting visions of governance.   That’s one reason we haven’t seen any young Democrats emerge as visionaries.  The talent on display is mostly old, and their interests seem to be more geared toward how to get elected than how to govern once elected.   Just think about the so-called “young talent” on the Democratic side.   Who comes to mind?   I’m still waiting.   What’s that you say -- the Castro brothers from Texas?  Fine, they’re handsome, they’re well-educated, they speak Spanish.  Now tell me one cause about which you’ve heard them effectively demonstrate their knowledge and passion on a national stage.  I can’t think of one either.

Let’s face it -- my Party has been going on automatic pilot, and it’s time to let some flesh-and-blood statesmen and women take the wheel rather than to cruise through another election cycle by counting on the Republican Party to crash their plane first.

I sorely miss not having a contested Democratic Primary in 2016.  I think it just stinks.  But I’m reconciled to the fact that nobody with a snowball’s chance in hell is willing to take on the Clinton machine.  So instead, all I can do is sit back and hope that there will be more intra-party battles in which the rhetoric gets hotter and hotter. Maybe some other Democrat will show that they actually care enough about some principle or cause that they’re willing to piss off the powers-that-be.   At least we have the one -- Elizabeth Warren.  Her cause is fighting economic inequality, and there is no doubting her commitment to that cause.   The problem is, she’s not running for President and she’s already 65 years old.  

Warren may well become as influential as Ted Kennedy was after Chappaquiddick.  But I’m more interested in the Party developing candidates who are as influential as Kennedy could have been were it not for Chappaquiddick.   The only way we’ll find them is if our politicians become true pugilists who will fight anyone and anything that gets in their way.  Let the hair pulling, ear biting, and kickboxing begin.