Friday, August 31, 2012

Democrats, Why So Shy About Reform?

California, in case you haven’t noticed, has become the national GOP’s newest punching bag.  But as much as they love to hate the state (Mitt Romney thinks it’s so awful that he bought a great big house in La Jolla), they just can’t manage to either correctly identify the source of California’s problems or devise any reasonable solutions.

But it must be said that they’re in good company.  Our Governor, Jerry Brown, who we elected because he supposedly knew state politics like the back of his battle-scarred hand, is of the school of thought characterised by manic optimism rather than considered action: “the breakdown paves the way for a breakthrough” was his brainless refrain while running for office in 2010, accompanied by a no-taxes pledge designed to tie his hands and pass the buck. 

Reform is only the part of the answer, and as our state’s history proves, it can go very, very wrong indeed.  The top-down reformist group California Forward, in the guise of Prop 31, is pushing a disjointed, un-democratic measures designed to further constrain our political process rather than free it up.  What we need is well-considered and comprehensive reform.  For the best account of the problem and the most thorough outlining of solutions, see (yes, I’m predictable) Mark Paul and Joe Mathews’ California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It. 

It’s understandable why the Republican Party refuses to tackle the reform question...they’re actually largely responsible for implementing, as part of a larger conglomerate of irresponsible interests, our dysfunctionality, which empowers their destructive agenda.  But it’s a slightly different story for Democrats.  Sure, if the reform package included a fair voting system which empowered third parties, they’d probably lose legislative seats and have to compete more seriously for people’s votes.  But as things stand, even with their huge legislative majorities, they’re unable to accomplish anything of substance in the state.  In the long-term, Democrats have a real interest in grasping the nettle of reform. 

Nor is it the case that they don’t understand that California’s ills lie in our broken system of governance.  State party chairman, John Burton, went viral after his turn on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, when he described the problem in language more vivid than articulate.  Even given his limited vocabulary, Burton was able to convey the basic truism about California: that there’s a real design flaw in our state government.  But if he is deficient in eloquence, his irony-meter is similarly rusty: he’s leading a party which knows the problem but has been steadfast in refusing to tackle said problem. 

Sure, getting wholesale reform right would be difficult, even for muscle-men and billionaires.  But surely the cost of not tackling the source of our political paralysis is high enough that the Democrats should begin working at the process.  At the moment, Democrats are content to coast in California, taking their large majorities for granted.  In so doing, they forego the opportunity to do some real and lasting good in the state, to free up the political process so that we can have a serious debate about our priorities, and to close our democratic deficit.  They are taking the easy path out: complaining about the very real and very destructive Republican obstructionism, but not doing anything about it.  Maybe I’m wrong, but as someone who has no connection to the state party, I get the impression that Burton’s leading a rather lazy organisation that’s content to rely on California’s currently-favourable demographics to win victories that are out of proportion to the party’s commitment to creating conditions that would allow them to tackle the state’s big issues in a progressive fashion.

Voters in California need to begin pressuring Democrats to explain why they’re so shy about real reform.

We're Special. Marco Rubio Said So.

The best word to characterise the Republican Party’s approach to our nation’s problems during the course of their national convention is probably “denial”.  And not just the climate change variety.  And their favourite word?  It’s “special”.  Applied to themselves, of course.

There was the denial of basic points of logic, perhaps at its most worrying in Paul Ryan’s speech which has been called out for its inaccuracies and misrepresentations by columnists from media sources around the political spectrum.  The Party’s “ideas man” filled his slot with a seemingly never-ending stream of platitudes.  I understand that both parties’ conventions are often devised as emotional exhibitionalism, but Ryan’s performance was particularly abysmal given that he seeks to present himself as a man of “substance”.

We were able to see Clint Eastwood make a fool of himself in a rambling monologue in which he erected a set of straw men in a chair beside him and pretended that they were President Obama.  There was probably a clever and honest way to pull this kind of stunt off, but Eastwood didn’t find it, and came across as more than a bit barmy.

Then we had the pathetic spectre of Condoleeza Rice, who served the most destructive administration in recent history, trying to call out Obama on foreign policy.  The Bush administration launched a knee-jerk attack on Afghanistan, the ramifications of which remain with us today.  Then, under pressure from neoconservative fanatics in his cabinet, President Bush lied to the public in aid of taking us to war against a non-existent threat in Iraq.  The Republican Party browbeat opponents of that war into submission by questioning their patriotism.  The result of these two wars was the widespread alienation of our allies, the exacerbation of the threat from terrorism by creating it where it never existed before, the aggrandisement of executive power and extrajudicial power in the military, the deaths of thousands of U.S. soldiers and tens where not hundreds of thousands of civilians in the countries we invaded, a profound loss of trust in our civic institutions, and the widespread and uncensured use of torture by our military and intelligence services.  Hardly a record to be proud of.

Some suggest that Rice should be given a free pass here, because she was a member of the more “moderate” cadre in the cabinet, but the sad fact remains that if she had any doubts, she hid them well.  If she had second thoughts about the existence of those Weapons of Mass Destructions, or about the long-term benefits—to our country, as opposed to Blackwater and Haliburton, that is—that would accrue to us as a result of launching an immoral, misconceived, bloody war, she swallowed them.  She was clearly a woman torn between her loyalties to the public interest and the nation she was meant to serve and those loyalties to the President who appointed her.  Rice’s decision was a dishonour to her and a discredit to the culture of the Bush Administration.  And like the other members of that administration, she was steadfast in refusing to learn anything from the events which led to 9/11 or the invasion of Iraq.

On the final night of the convention, viewers were addressed by GOP wunderkind, Marco Rubio.  Calling it 15 minutes of fluff would be charitable.  I missed the first five minutes or so, and thought that perhaps all of Rubio’s thoughts were crammed into the first 300 seconds (but let’s face it, this convention confiscates not only your guns, but also your common sense at the door), so I went back and read the thing.  In a convention characterised by self-congratulatory pap, Rubio’s speech was one big pat on the shoulder to every insecure jingoist out there.  The central message was that “we’re special”.  He said this again and again.  It was like a mantra, substituted for thought or action.

Rubio told us that we’re a “blessed people”, that “Almighty God is the source of all we have” and that “faith in our Creator is the most important American value of all”.  So in one thoughtless breath he erased over two hundred years of the labour that built our institutions, or infrastructure, and our values, to say nothing of the work undertaken by mortal men to write a series of foundational documents, and constructed a view of American-ness that excludes anyone who doesn’t ascribe to his religious views.

Rubio continued: we’re “special because we’ve always understood the scriptural admonition that ‘for everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required’”.  Hang on, that sounds like the kind of basic fairness—maybe even a semi-socialistic sentiment—that the Republican Party is decrying.

But if this noxious combination of hypocrisy and wallowing in worthiness wasn’t enough, Rubio then plunged into unadulterated nationalistic garbage.  “We’re special”, he went on (boy, do they love that word), “because dreams that are impossible anywhere else, come true here”.  In a display of mental xenophobia perhaps all the more offensive because of the way in which he trades on his status as a child of migrants, Rubio expressed his fear of “ideas that threaten to make America more like the rest of the world, instead of helping the world become more like America”.  The nominee himself prattled along in the same vein, citing our “uniquely American” optimism, our “special kinship with the future”, and other groundless strands of exceptionalist thought. 

Mitt Romney rambled about “that unique blend of optimism, humility, and the utter confidence that, when the world needs something to do that, you need an American”.  The crowd ate this up, but people around the world laugh at us for this arrogance, this complacence, this sense that the world orbits around our so-called “Heartland” in an era when global dynamics are so obviously in such flux.  We’re seen as so many suckers for lapping up the notion that only Americans have “strength and power and goodness”, that we’re the only country in which people “help each other out in different ways”, and for meeting adversity or criticism with the mindless chant “U.S.A., U.S.A., U.S.A.”, which make our political rallies look like something out of a ‘30s newsreel. 

I know a lot of Europeans who visit the United States to study, in humanistic and social scientific fields, for business and engineering, the natural, applied, and formal sciences.  Most of them don’t want to stay and work here.  Our universities (including those which are publicly funded) are widely recognised as being the best in the world, but that’s where the envy ends.  Europeans are often shocked by the poverty they see here, uncomfortable at the economic inequality which characterises divides both within cities and between suburban and rural areas.  They are appalled by the lack of collective investment in the collective good.  They are surprised by the deteriorating quality of our infrastructure and dismayed both at the poor quality of life here and that people do not demand better.

And people from the rising nations of Asia and Latin America are astonished at how little a country with solid institutions and such incredible resources chooses to do with what it has at its disposal.  They are bewildered at our failure to invest in energy technologies which are seen in the rest of the world as necessities.  The United States is increasingly neither a model for building a humane and democratic society, nor for constructing an innovative and futuristic society.  And it’s no wonder, if our interaction with the “rest of the world” is characterised by a sense that we have nothing to learn, that our achievements stem from divine favour rather than critical thought and determined collective action.  Life is not better here than anywhere else, and we won’t change for the better until we temper our propensity for undeserved self-praise with a greater capacity for self-criticism.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Brown's Tax Coalition

There’s perhaps nothing surprising about it, but Anthony York’s article in the Los Angeles Times about the coalition that California Governor Jerry Brown is assembling behind his push for a much-needed tax increase is a good illustration of how policymaking works when state government is as dysfunctional and incapacitated as here in California.

Rather than devising or backing a revenue plan on its merits, or based on what voters would like to see, it seems that Brown has come up with one designed to meet the approval of special interests.  It’s not unlike blackmail.  Both sides are doing it.  Specific business interests are prepared to support the governor provided he doesn’t ask them to behave in a socially responsible way.  And the governor threatened to hit interests with taxes if they didn’t come out to support getting his tax measure on the ballot.

None of this is a recipe for sensible policy.  It would make both moral and economic sense to tax oil extraction in the state—like they do in Texas and Alaska, those two well-known bastions of socialism.  But not in California.  Republican Party legislators, taking their orders from their party’s ideological enforcers, have foresworn the use of their mental or legislative powers by pledging never to vote for tax increases—no matter the inequity of the current tax burden, and no matter what economic circumstances face our state.

In most states, the government would have an additional significant stream of revenue from property taxes, and could approach such taxes in a differential manner: keeping taxes for homeowners at one level and taxes for businesses of various sizes at other levels.  But not in California.  Prop 13 makes sure of that.

In most states, the Governor and the legislature could have a reasonable discussion about revenue and then make a decision about the state’s revenue needs along majoritarian lines.  Not in California.  Prop 13 makes sure of that.

If the story behind the construction of tax policy is a sordid one, it’s telling on the other hand that interests that normally balk at a tax increase are cautiously lining up behind Brown.  The serial economic uncertainty and real political dysfunctionality which are the twin legacies of Prop 13 are hurting business interests.  Those interests, at the end of the day, are more interested in stability than in taking anti-tax oaths or pledges.   

The sad thing is that however necessary Brown’s tax measure might be in the short term, it’s a predictably pathetic effort at solving California’s crisis of governance from the man who spent two terms in the ‘70s and ‘80s fiddling while the state burned.  Even if Brown’s measure passes—and I for one have my doubts—we’ll be jumping through all the same hoops in a few years when his short-term fix expires.

Voting Republican? You're Nuts. Seriously.

As the Republican Party prepares to launch its national convention, it’s hard to defend, along lines of either reason or morality, a vote for a party that is looking ever more unhinged, dogmatic, and hypocritical. 

Last week, the party shocked the country—and indeed people around the world—when one of its candidates articulated his moral views about something called “legitimate” rape, and his biological ones when describing the fictive ability of a woman’s body to “shut the whole thing down”.  The GOP was quick to slap the candidate for a Missouri senate seat down, but the number two on its ticket is on record arguing that rape is best thought of as a “method of conception” rather than a physical, psychological, and moral assault on a human being.  Those comments and the worldview behind them tell me all that I need to know about the modern Republican Party, but they’re part of a broader strain of hypocritical and downright scary thinking.

The Republican Party prides itself on its disdain for waste and its zeal for efficiency.  Yet this party wants to mutilate our public school system by re-inventing the wheel through a system of vouchers to cater for the wealthy instead of improving those institutions which do their best to serve all children equally well.  Replicating what you already have sounds like waste to me.  This party defends industries and companies which spurn innovation and are steadfast in their use of outdated technologies, polluting shamelessly all the while.  What, at the end of the day, could be more inefficient and wasteful than that? 

They hate “Big Government” and “Government Intervention”, but they use that same government and its machinery to engineer a favourable climate for the very people who plunged us into recession, outsourced jobs, and who continue to exacerbate the economic equality which now characterises socioeconomic life in America.

They say that “Government” is in a constant state of overreaching itself, and then advocate allowing that government to actively monitor and censor its citizens when it’s not waging wars.  These wars, of course, are not to be waged in the interests of citizens, but to expand the profit margins of oil companies, the arms industry, and our Frankensteinian national security apparatus, which has assumed a life of its own, complete with a set of interests that could not be more diametrically opposed to those of our people.

Another centrepiece of the Republican Party’s platform is respect for the Constitution.  Or for their interpretation of the Constitution, characterised by selective reading and a desire to entrap future generations in the web of their own bigotry, economic and religious fundamentalism, and disdain for many of the values that citizens in our country developed during the twentieth century.  And in spite of their rhetorical reverence, Republicans’ entire political strategy over the past four years has been to undermine our institutions of government and the respect that people have for our civic institutions to the point that they can then convince people of the inadequacy of these institutions.

In hamstringing our government, the Republican Party is destroying the one aggregate of institutions capable of addressing big problems and undertaking projects on a national scale in moments of crisis or opportunity.  I feel safe in saying that unless the GOP’s influence wanes, we will never see another big infrastructure project in my lifetime.  The California GOP’s effort to sabotage high speed rail is a perfect example: they starve the state of funds and kill off its capacity to act, and then complain that it’s inefficient.  We will see no nationwide effort at social transformation or economic regeneration.  There will be no attempt to address climate change.  Both Obama and Romney will tell us, as our sycophantic leaders always do, that “we’re Americans and we do Big Things”.  But the truth is, we’re no longer up to doing “Big Things” because with the Republican Party’s spanner in the works, accomplishing anything of significance has become a structural impossibility. 

Not content with undermining the institutions designed to serve us, the Republican Party is perfecting its long-practised method of turning people against one another.  Working Americans are being turned against their own redoubt—the unionised workforce which does disproportionate work in keeping wage levels above subsistence levels and defending and utilising the precious few rights and tools that workers have retained.  Teachers, GOP operatives screech with what I can only call a kind of malicious glee, are lazy, malicious, greedy leeches.  Their psychopathic preoccupations resound in the party media and, unhappily, find an echo chamber in the embittered and hateful comments on virtually any newspaper article relating to education that you find online. 

They claim to have great reverence for law and order.  But in their conduct of politics, they flirt with a kind of social anarchy, they pardoned a President who trashed all semblance of civic order and perverted the course of justice (Nixon), they supported a President who laundered arms and then got himself off the hook by making a virtue of his ignorance and incompetence (Reagan), and they defended a President who unabashedly lied to the public, allowed his Vice-President to use public office for the private gain of cronies in the energy industry, and who happily condoned the use of torture (Bush).  I want no part of the GOP’s “law and order”, particularly when several of its presidential candidates this year equated people peacefully protesting economic inequality in the United States with the likes of al Qaeda. 

They hate immigrants.  They hate Muslims.  They hate socialists.  They hate humanists in America.  They hate gay Americans.  Never, I think, in our country’s history, can the promotion of hatred have played such a prominent role in the aggrandisement of political power, or have come to form such a bedrock of an entire political movement.

Mitt Romney, this Party’s current standard-bearer was once asked if he would accept a budget deal that gave him nine dollars of cuts for every dollar of taxes raised.  This is the sort of fictive scenario which should set Romney and his cronies all a-drooling and a-trembling with excitement at the wreckage they could make of people’s livelihoods, but instead, cleaving to the fanatical views of the fundamentalists who call the shots in his party, he demurred.  As far as I’m concerned, this is not the act or the judgment of a rational human being. 

But it works.

During the first decade of the twenty-first century, our country was systematically looted.  Republican economic policy since the 1970s—in the face of Democratic indifference and acquiescence where not outright participation—has been primarily concerned with wealth redistribution.  By hammering away at the rights of workers, by unshackling the interests that President Roosevelt had restrained and which President Eisenhower warned against in his farewell address, by rolling back those checks on excess which protected our health through trying to keep the very food we eat, the air we breathe and the water we drink safe; through all these means the Republican Party has been seeking to take wealth—and the security and quality of life which accompanies it—from a great many people in our country and transfer it into the pockets of a few actual people and a few more of Mitt Romney’s imaginary friends—corporations, that is. 

The people who support Mitt Romney are pushing what amounts to a hostile takeover, or at least a merger...a merger between monied interest and the state.  A merger which, far from “shrinking” government, would have the effect of turning it into a personal instrument of a handful of people in the financial, energy, real estate, and weapons spheres.  Forget the rhetoric about shrinking government until you can drown it in a bathtub.  “Government” as it is being constructed by the Republican Party would be as “Big” (and size is really a poor metric) as anything that exists now.  The difference is that it will no longer have any interest in helping you or your children or grandchildren to gain an education.  It will not take the time to see that nothing dangerous or poisonous is put into your food or dumped into your water or pumped into your air.  It will make no effort to make that thing we call the “market” free.  It will draw up no rules describing fair conduct in our social and economic lives.

But it will wage war.  It will persecute people who do not conform.  It will actively promote the welfare of the few at the expense of the money.  It will also seek to redefine the parameters of citizenship along religious lines.

I very much believe in the right to worship whatever you wish, which is more than can be said for any of the leaders of today’s Republican Party.  But I disagree very profoundly with the mass indoctrination of children through churches about matters such as morality and reason.  To me, depriving a child of the opportunity to look at the world through fresh, open, uncluttered eyes, denying them the chance to make their own decisions about matters of belief and faith, of right and wrong, about where we come from and where we’re going and how we should live our lives, is tantamount to a violation of that child’s human rights.  Those are big questions, and people should have as much of their lives as they need to think about them. 

Unfortunately, the Republican Party is coming to stand for an ugly strain of religious intolerance.  If this juggernaut is not halted, I can hear the keening of a nasty, exclusionary, un-reasoning fundamentalism in the wind—one which will persecute spiritual deviants and humanists alike.  That’s right.  They will persecute people because of their religious beliefs or because of the philosophy to which they ascribe.  Not simply disagree, but do everything they can to make a belief in their god or their creed a litmus test for not only holding political office, but for participation in civic life. 

“How can I trust you if you don’t pray?” Newt Gingrich once rhetorically asked a fire-breathing audience.  Rick Santorum, a man who, in his own mind, tells us that he manages to find “love” amidst his hatred of the LGTB community, of communists, of atheists, has assailed Obama for his “phony theology”.  He has asserted, with a straight-face, that our rights come from God rather than from the committed albeit mortal men who drew up the Bill of Rights and the Constitution, or the men and women whose actions and demands made the Revolution possible.  Michele Bachmann has similarly set herself up as the interpreter of right and wrong based on her reading of an un-footnoted ancient text, and Newt Gingrich has suggested that we only employ teachers who are Christian.  Bachmann and other assorted wing nuts in Congress repeatedly call for McCarthyite inquisitions, to root out atheists, socialists and Muslims. 

And then there is the racism, sometimes coded, at other times quite open.  The bigotry which is fast coming to characterise the Republican Party comes up for air in Romney’s aide’s remarks about our “Anglo-Saxon heritage” and breaches more spectacularly in Donald Trump’s (and now Mitt Romney’s) not-so-coded birtherist language. “Thinkers” like New Gingrich and “intellectuals” like Dinesh D’Souza engage in gutter speculation about Obama’s ‘foreignness’ that could come straight from the social Darwinists and scientific racists of the nineteenth century.  They turn “anti-colonialism”, the basis for our own nation’s independence, into an epithet, which is fitting given that the high priests of the neoconservatives who have sent thousands of young American men and women to their deaths in imperial wars.

I’ll be honest.  I’m not even sure why we vote for Republican representatives, given that their candidates and caucus are coming to resemble the ranks of some authoritarian party, marching in ideological lockstep, murmuring party dogma to themselves, shepherded and disciplined by their party’s thought police—Rush Limbaugh, Grover Norquist, Howard Jarvis, and Co.  The moment they sign up to serve their party and its corporate paymasters, these people foreswear the use of their grey matter, promise that an independent thought will never flit across their brow, and pledge to never raise taxes come what may.  We may as well substitute for our Senate and House some giant voting machine, with the Koch Brothers at the controls.

The country that Mitt Romney’s party is bent on constructing is light-years away from the dreams that our forbearers harboured when they set out to fashion a new nation in an era characterised by the application of reason and a disdain for policy driven by small-minded superstition.  Our approach to the Israel-Palestine conflict is driven by a combination of denial and a belief in the “end times”, as unholy a combination as ever existed.  Our denial of climate change is based on a total upending of logic and an approach to evidence that hasn’t been seen since the church murdered Giordano Bruno and imprisoned Galileo Galilei in the seventeenth century.  Mitt Romney may peddle a subtler, more corporate and less breathless form of this madness.  But these are his political, philosophical, and institutional fellow-travellers. 

It’s a real dilemma for voters.  I don’t want to support the President, because he’s escalated a misconceived, immoral, dangerous war that is claiming the lives of too many innocent Afghans and too many Americans, including some in the North State.  And I remain convinced that his sole purpose in continuing this irrational fight is for the sake of a few percentage points in the polls.  Nor do I care for his acquiescence to the neoliberal consensus which elevates the desires of financial elites above the needs of our country’s workers.  The claims that Obama is promoting a “socialist” agenda is risible, and anyone who claims as much is either a moron or deliberately deceptive, plain and simple.  From my perspective, the lack of any social democratic agenda being advanced in the U.S. is a problem, but others should at least have the sense to admit that where healthcare, environmental protection, and the conduct of foreign policy is concerned, Obama would have been outflanked on the left by Nixon, Ford and Eisenhower. 

I wish, given the threat that the modern Republican Party poses to our country, that I could end this post with an endorsement of Obama.  But however much I could close my eyes to his half-heartedness on healthcare, his equivocation on financial and political reform, and his cowardice on the question of addressing our planet’s climate crisis and the question of careless growth, his wars continue to define his presidency in my mind.  It feels contradictory to say that even though I won’t vote for Obama I nonetheless hope he wins.  But because the alternative is Mitt Romney’s Republican Party, that’s how I feel. 

And don’t think “they’re all the same” or “they’re equally responsible”.  The Democrats have, in recent years, been best characterised by moral cowardice and a tendency to devise policy with opinion poll studies in one hand, constantly looking back over their shoulders.  But the Republican Party is in a league of its own, defined by behaviour, views, and policies that are best defined as sociopathic.

Forget your fiscal proclivities, and all the rest.  This is a party that is trying to take our country down.  Whether you cast a vote for the President, vote for a small party, or simply leave the boxes on the Presidential ticket un-ticked (very likely my personal approach), don’t vote Republican.