Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Reality and Political Reality

Someone in the G.W. Bush administration once said "We make our own reality". While this revealed the source of many of the problems encountered and created during 2000 - 2008, yet there is a sense in which it is true. As when Nixon took the dollar off the gold standard and said that it was "a problem for the rest of the world", there are times when a situation makes no sense legally or on its merits, but makes total "sense" if you understand political power. Of course with the Nixon and Bush examples and others of this kind, a tension is created that at some point must be resolved, sometimes sooner, sometimes later. I'm saying that you always end up paying for ignoring actual reality.

But political reality is a powerful force, strong enough to affect actual reality. Early computer crackers used to do "social engineering" which was pretending to be a support tech and calling someone on the phone and asking them for their password. Investor and currency speculator George Soros talks about "reflexivity", how expectation can change the market, making it an imperfect measure of value. He also used this to his advantage, most famously in breaking the British pound. President Obama will have a hard time getting anything done the rest of his term because of the angry and popular protests of the "Tea Party".

I mention all this because lately I have been thinking about David Brooks' idea of a different, winning approach President Obama might have taken. Brooks suggests that Obama should have skipped health care, given up on any short-term fix for the economy, and instead taken a long view by starting to make structural changes in the country that would help our economy prosper ten, twenty, and thirty years down the road. He says that Obama should have explained his plan clearly and told the people that it was going to be difficult for a while. Knowing Brooks as a decent and reasonable man, I assume that assurances of help for the unemployed would have also been given.

I immediately like Brooks' focus on long-term structural change; he seems to be the only one talking about this. With an economy based 70 percent on retail do I need to say any more to convince you that we need to rethink and redesign our society?

For the rest of the idea, it would clearly have political appeal since with no 700 billion dollar stimulus and no big health care bill you would have no Tea Party. And it is possible that there would have been some bipartisan support for the structural change. Brooks sees the importance of this political value of good will and much less opposition.

But I remind you that if Obama had done this we would have had at least 15 percent unemployment (in my opinion) and no health care bill (which I see as a long term very good thing). But if he had prepared people for the high unemployment and promised support for the unemployed (and I think you would have to promise a freeze on home foreclosures as well), and if Republicans had given significant support to this and to his structural legislation, and if the climate in Congress was one of problem solving rather than open war, I would take it.

David, if it is true as you say that half the Republicans would have gone along with something like this, you have convinced me.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Paradox of an Enlightened Society

The United States of America has some very dark times in its past. In the last century we saw Japanese Americans imprisoned in concentration camps, the runaway destructive fear of the McCarthy era, several leaders assassinated in the 1960's, and a costly, seemingly endless and pointless war in Vietnam. Not to mention the frequent murder of our black citizens by lynch mobs.

So we should take heart that today there is an absolute consensus against these evils. Politicians, leaders, and the general populace would condemn such things, regardless of party association or ideology. We have truly come a long way and have the benefit of a much more enlightened society.

So why is it that I feel our country has lost something vital, something that it used to possess, even in its more troubled youth? The root of our problem is that we no longer have a functioning democracy.

It is true that in the past the electorate was greatly manipulated, as it will always be. Real issues were ignored in favor of red-meat red herrings, as we see currently. But I believe there was much more substance there in the past, along with the usual political BS. Whatever your position on President Obama's health care bill, can you honestly say that we had any kind of useful debate over it? How come we have been in two wars since 2002 without any Congressional declaration of war? Why is it that Congress without question continues to approve funding for these (at a cost of something like 300 billion dollars a year if I remember correctly)? This is not democracy.

We face terrible economic peril but no political candidate is held accountable for half-baked plans that clearly would either accomplish nothing or would make the situation worse. Those that say we have to let it get worse and recover by itself are not required to explain how they would take care of the unemployed, nor are those who promise to cut back government expenditures.

There is bi-partisan consensus that we should not be dependent on oil from other countries, yet nothing is done about this, even by our progressive President with majorities in both branches of congress.

There is not a chance in hell that anything will be done about global warming - excuse my language but this is an epochal problem that transcends every other issue. The rest of the world is poised to take action but without U.S. leadership it can't happen. Therefore my children and their children will see this planet with a temperature 3 or 4 degrees warmer than it is now, when it will be a very dangerous place, more like something from a science fiction movie, with a large percentage of the population dying off.

A democracy has the advantage of the pooled knowledge, experience, wisdom, and judgement of all its citizens. Obviously they will disagree, but that is what debate is for. We will still arrive at something better collectively than what any one of us could have come up with individually. We have given that up. Instead we have a system that guarantees that a few large corporations will decide everything for us.