Saturday, September 29, 2018

A Nation Divided

A friend said to me recently, in response to an e-mail from me, that she was “on a news blackout”. Instead of listening to NPR while preparing dinner, she was listening to a piece by Liszt. And I thought, hmmm, a news blackout. Maybe we should all do a news blackout for part of the day every day.

And we listen to NPR, not Fox News. We get our news from NPR and from our e-mail sources: the BBC, the A(Australian)BC, the C(Canadian)BC, The Guardian, the NY Times (until they cut me off each month because we no longer subscribe), The Conversation, and then a long list of either political (MoveON) or science (LiveScience) sources.  We no longer watch TV news of any kind, and have never watched, except as a joke, Fox News, the Faux News network.  Actually, we do technically watch pieces of Fox News, as they appear regularly on the late night comedy shows. They are surely a joke as a news service, but the joke may be on us, as they are slowly destroying the comity that is vital to a civilized, if pluralistic society.

We are not one people under God, or under anyone or anything. We are collections of folks who live in isolated communities bound together loosely by what we have come to think of as common rules of civilized societies.  Although we may differ politically, socially, and in our relative belief in the God thing, we have, until recently, been bound together by our belief in our Nation State.  That belief fell apart during the 1860s when the South rebelled and attacked that Nation State, in an attempt to become free of the nation State, so as to better pursue their belief in the superiority of the White Man, and their need to hold Black people under a system of slavery.

Happily, that effort failed and the Southern rebels were subdued, leading to the elimination of the formal system of slavery.

But despite that loss, the underlying belief in the superiority of the White Man, over any/all “Colored” people never disappeared. Racism, per se, perhaps went into our collective closets.  It has remained as the dominant separation belief. Oddly (at least for me), organized religion has never been successful at eliminating, or even moderating this corrosive belief system. But racism is not the only divide in our nation.

Surely the God thing more divides than binds our people, and that divide grows almost daily. The Catholic Church surely didn’t help to unite us when they knowingly ignored evidence of ghastly priestly behavior towards the common folk-mainly through raping children.  But many of the other churches strive to divide through their rhetoric—it’s “My Way or the Highway” as their main message. They hate Gays, Women surely, and sex (for their opposition to birth control and abortion is simply their way of exercising their opposition to sex, when it isn’t aimed at child production). But they don’t really argue to convince. They argue to subdue.   So churches everywhere have become engines of national division.

Oddly, at least to me, we have a serious element of division related to health care, one which I have trouble fathoming. Why would any group of Americans oppose universal health care? We are virtually the only industrialized nation on earth without universal health care. The former head of the UN—Ban Ki-Moon – recently decided that the US health care system is immoral –In an interview with the Guardian, Ban called the U.S. government’s failure to provide health coverage to its citizens “unethical” and “politically wrong, morally wrong.”. I assume our failure to do so is all about the money. The insurance and drug companies make more money with the current system than they would under a universal health care system, regulated by our government. And when money matters, money talks, very loudly. And when money talks, the republic party listens.

There is another element dividing us, and it relates partly to the health care issue. Folks in this country are divided by the idea of government regulation. Well, perhaps it is government itself that divides us, but it is the ability of government to regulate our behavior that seems to matter.  And why are ordinary folks opposed to government, or to government regulation?  Well, mainly because groups such as Fox News tells them that government in general and government regulation in particular is bad for us—all of us. People listen to Fox News decry government and regulations and they believe the lies that Fox tells on a regular basis. And why does Fox lie? Well, because that’s what they are paid to do.  Fox is really an arm of the corporate world, or of the monied world. And we know that money talks and talks seriously.  I often become really angry at the Fox talk people—like Hannity and the blond bimbo set, et al.  But I also need to talk myself down from that position. Hannity, et al, are simply paid actors, mouthing the lines written for them by Fox writers, and dictated by Fox owners who are themselves really just fascists. So, it is the Fox owners and upper level managers we should decry. Getting angry at the idiots on stage is akin to watching a movie and getting angry at the bad guys in the film.  So, just calm down Richard. The real bad guys are not on screen. It’s the ones behind the screen who are truly bad.  Yeah, I know that Hannity is an idiot, but then so is our president. We apparently prefer idiots to intelligent beings directing us. And of course, I should, I suppose, have greater patience with our idiot president, since he is really just an actor (all due apologies to actual actors everywhere) who needs someone to write his lines. When he writes his own, his idiocy shouts at us.

The really interesting issue about the “we hate government” folks—the right wing MAGA-heads—is that they have been convinced by the Fox News people and by the republicans in general, that, since government is bad, the best approach is to elect really stupid people into government. Their theory here is that a government filled with smart people is bad for them because they would be effective at their job.  And a government filled with stupid people will simply bumble around harmlessly.
The problem with that theory is that it is 100% wrong.  We have actually experimented with that theory---think Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and now Donald Trump.  Reagan and Bush were not smart. We all knew that. Reagan did a bunch a stuff demonstrating that he was not smart:
1.       He seemed actually to believe in the so-called “Laffer Curve”, that economic theory that said, if you keep reducing the tax rates, the amount of revenue generated will keep rising, because the lower tax rates will stimulate the economy. In fact, what happened when Reagan tried to demonstrate that theory is that he created the largest deficit in the history of our nation.  Turns out, as you lower tax rates, you also reduce the tax revenues. Who knew, right??
2.    Reagan did stimulate somethings—mainly racism. With his talk about “welfare queens” arriving in their big cars to buy food with their food stamps, he opened the closet doors where we had been storing our nation’s racists. Reagan made it ok again to be a racist.
3.    Perhaps his greatest triumph, though, was selling arms to the new Iranian terrorist regime in order to get them to release their hostages. He then used the resulting money to fund Nicaraguan Contras, thereby creating havoc in that country.  From Wikipedia:
“Also referred to as IrangateContragate or the Iran–Contra scandal, was a political scandal in the United States that occurred during the second term of the Reagan Administration. Senior administration officials secretly facilitated the sale of arms to Iran, which was the subject of an arms embargo. They hoped, thereby, to fund the Contras in Nicaragua while at the same time negotiating the release of several U.S. hostages. Under the Boland Amendment, further funding of the Contras by the government had been prohibited by Congress.
Several investigations ensued, including by the U.S. Congress and the three-person, Reagan-appointed Tower Commission. Neither found any evidence that President Reagan himself knew of the extent of the multiple programs. Ultimately the sale of weapons to Iran was not deemed a criminal offense but charges were brought against five individuals for their support of the Contras. Those charges, however, were later dropped because the administration refused to declassify certain documents. The indicted conspirators faced various lesser charges instead. In the end, fourteen administration officials were indicted, including then- Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger. Eleven convictions resulted, some of which were vacated on appeal. The rest of those indicted or convicted were all pardoned in the final days of the presidency of George H. W. Bush, who had been Vice President at the time of the affair. The Iran–Contra affair and the ensuing deception to protect senior administration officials including President Reagan has been cast as an example of post-truth politics.”
And George W. Bush (aka Shrub)?  I guess 911 defines his presidency, but his actions and their results go well beyond 911. From The Intelligencer:
If you want to look kindly on Bush’s presidency, you can fairly say that, while he deserves significant blame for ignoring warnings of an Al Qaeda strike and the housing bubble, the disasters of his tenure were not entirely his fault. But what did he do? His economic policies exacerbated income inequality without producing prosperity. His massive increase of the structural budget deficit, which ballooned to over a trillion dollars before President Obama took office, left the United States less fiscally equipped to respond to the economic crisis he also left his predecessor. He initiated a costly war on the basis of both mistaken and deliberately cooked intelligence, and failed to plan for the postwar period. His policies not only ignored the crises of climate change and a costly and cruel health insurance system, but made both much harder to solve.
The failures of Bush’s governing method — the staffing of hacks and cronies, the disdain for evidence — was perfectly reflected in the outcomes. The Bush presidency was a full disaster at home and abroad, and whatever small accomplishments that can be salvaged barely rate any mention in comparison with the failures. The general reckoning of Bush is not too harsh. It is too kind.” (THE NATIONAL INTEREST APR. 25, 2013 --  Yes, George W. Bush Was a Terrible President, and No, He Wasn’t Smart” By Jonathan Chait.

And then, finally, we have President Stupidhead. He seems not to understand almost anything, mainly, we think, because he can’t or won’t read anything.  His policies are increasingly defined by opposition to the central purpose of whatever agency is at issue. Education? He appoints Betsy DeVos who seems to hate public education, and herself has no experience with it. She prefers private schools, although her favorites, charter schools, show no performance improvement over their public counterparts.  The environment? He appoints Scott Pruitt who hates the very idea of government regulation. With their deregulatory zeal, they promise to return us to the good old days of smoggy days every day.  His tax policies are designed to produce huge deficits. His warlike approach to global economic development (tariffs are good by definition) promises to reduce the world to a confrontational economic system. Cooperation is to be avoided at all costs.
But Trump almost defies one’s ability to describe his inanities. He redefines all previous standards of stupidity in government. Trump actually promises to reduce our government to a global joke, but a joke that may well reduce the world to rubble. The jokester, remember, has nuclear weapons at his disposal.  And he seems desperately to want to become a wartime president.
So, I at least conclude that appointing (or electing) stupid people into our government is more likely to produce damage than positive results.   What we need, I conclude, is that we elect people who understand that government is a necessary element in any human system.  I return to something I wrote a while ago to President Obama. I call it “Balance is Good”: I end with that thought.
1.                In economic matters, extremes do not work. Under Bush, we shifted dangerously in the direction of a fascist state—that is, a state in which private owners of businesses dictate government policies. The inevitable result is Enron, et al, as well as the collapsed financial system. We have been drifting in that direction for quite some time now, even under Clinton. Everyone has been so concerned with government regulation that they failed to notice that unregulated business is as dangerous as unchecked government. One gives you fascism; the other socialism. Private business interests must always be checked to assure that the public is protected. So too must government overseers. Balance in everything is the answer. But balance requires mental agility. The public has little patience—they want the world to operate on autopilot. They need to be convinced that a world in which competing interests are balanced is both an efficient world, and a world that is worthy.
2.                We need to pay for what we need. The Republican Party has been, almost as a matter of policy, fiscally irresponsible. They practice “charge and spend” politics. We will now have to pay for their profligacy. The public—the thinking public—needs to understand that we cannot continue on the course they charted and followed. Mainly the rest of the world will not allow us to continue on this course. They will simply stop buying our debt and then it will end, badly. Taxes are the way we pay for our policies.  Taxes are neithergood nor bad, in the abstract. They represent the price of operating our country, or, perhaps, the glue of a civilized society.
3.                We must pursue policies that are aimed at preserving the Earth. We need to conserve. We need to pursue alternative energy policies. We need to use economic forces to create a demand for energy-efficiency and energy independence. Under Bush and Cheney, we have pursued policies promoting wasteful energy consumption, mainly because he and his advisers represent the extractive industries. We need to tax wasteful energy consumption, so as to encourage wiser use of Earth’s limited resources.
4.            We must pursue a policy of economic independence for all our citizens. During my career, I worked for seven organizations over a 45 year career. For 20 of those years, I worked for several large and small companies that contributed nothing beyond Social Security for my retirement. Bush and his republican allies have attempted on numerous occasions to threaten that reserve. If indeed we wish to get rid of Social Security, we do not need to “privatize” it. We need to pass legislation that forces every economic entity in the country to pay into a portable retirement system. TIAA-CREF comes to mind—the system used by most universities and non-profits. If the private sector would begin to live up to its responsibilities by a mandatory contribution system, we would not need Social Security. Take the system used by universities and non-profits and replicate it throughout the whole of the private sector. Do not allow companies to wriggle out by use of part-time workers. If they employ part-time workers, they still pay full retirement benefits. Otherwise, leave Social security alone.
5.                Republicans, continue in their zeal to scuttle public education. We need to begin working with the states to repair the currently deplorable state of public education. In our area of North Carolina, they seem comfortable with a dropout rate of 35%.  Think of that. We can do better. Indeed, we are losing ground to the rest of the world, and we are at risk of becoming a country of stupid people. Charter schools, especially for-profit charter schools, and worse, fake private schools that are on-line, are not an answer.
6.              We must examine carefully the structure of government. The creation of the Department of Homeland Security was an absurd idea—a solution in search of a problem. Think of it. The CIA and the FBI wouldn’t communicate and were demonstrably inept, so we forced the Coast Guard, FEMA, and the rest to become one entity. An idea only a truly stupid person could embrace.  Structure is not the answer when the problem is an absence of thoughtful consideration of available evidence. 
There were a few other points that need not be repeated here. What we continue to need is watchful citizens—citizens who are willing to question both private commercial interests and public government interests. We all need to stand up and be counted. And that means we need to vote, regardless of the efforts by the GOP to prevent folks from voting.  If you don’t vote, you will get the government you deserve.