I actually thought some more about our conversation yesterday and there are a couple of things I'd like to say.
Before that, however, I want to acknowledge the difference in format: we had a face to face conversation that was cordial and spirited. I think we both got a sense of the other and his position. That's a bit different from writing back and forth where the immediacy may be lost, on the other hand this format allows time for ordered thought and perhaps even an elegant turn of phrase. If you'd rather not use this form, or if I offend in some way, just let me know and I'll stop.
That said, I was going over our discussion and I saw a theme that I think merits more focus. You spoke of building a formidable (or defensible) border on our southern side and I responded with the obvious end-of-the-fence argument. We also spoke of the current war situations and I ranted a bit about competency and blunders, I thought you took the realistic view that, no matter what the good intentions, things had indeed gone awry.
It seems to me that these are both part of a bigger issue: what's the better way to present the idea of America?
I don't think we do well when we're being proactive (or preemptive) about it. I don't think we can impose democracy from above. And I don't think we're well served when we try to enforce the Pax Americana with force of arms. The situation we're in now pretty much demonstrates that.
Caveat: This doesn't mean we don't defend ourselves, for example: 9/11 demanded a response, we gave the correct response, invaded Afghanistan and wiped out the Taleban. I supported that move, as did just about everyone else on the face of the earth.
A good illustration of my point is to go back to one of your heroes (I presume), Ronald Reagan. As you might guess, I don't hold much brief for Mr. Reagan but the way in which we participated in the well-deserved death of the Soviet Union was not to defeat them by force of arms and invest their territory but to keep raising the bar of competition until they collapsed (OK, it was competition in an arms race but the point is the same).
We do best when we are the "City on the Hill" when people aspire to come here because the streets are paved with gold (don't look behind the curtain). We do best when we really can hold other countries' feet to the fire and say things like: "We won't buy your goods because they are produced by slave labor." We do best when men and women come here to have their babies because an American passport is the greatest gift they can give their children.
What we want is for the rest of the world to envy us and aspire to be us. Let the mullahs keep the Arab world in chains, the smart ones will wriggle out… and they'll come here. Let the tinpot dictators crack down on dissent, the brave ones will look across the waters… and they'll come here. Let the oligarchs repress their labor pool: the ones with fire in their bellies will down tools…and come here.
I shoulda been a speechwriter…
I want to make one more point before I bore you to sleep.
I'm going to presume again that you are a libertarian (not sure whether to capitalize the "L" there) like John. In any event you did seem to be in the anti-government camp (so to speak) so here goes:
There's nothing wrong with government, per se
There's nothing wrong with business, per se
There's nothing wrong with people, per se
But it's a triangle of power and if it's out of balance, we're all in big trouble…
…I think we're in big trouble now.
Partly because of naïve assumptions and partly because of the Law of Unintended Consequences and partly (a tiny part) because of the actions of People Who Are Not Our Friends (and they're not the ones you're thinking of).
1. Given the chance, people will do the right thing
Repeatedly proved false: when unwatched people will always do the thing most likely to benefit them; when watched, they will mouth all the right words… until they get around the corner and then they will do the thing most likely to benefit them.
2. The Trickle Down theory
More recently known as "Supply Side Economics" this hilarious notion has been debunked so often now that no one with any serious credentials pays it any heed, except (no surprise here) the people who have all the money. It's really useful as a propaganda tool which plays to the same wisp of hope that you, too, can win the lottery.
3. Free Markets work
Once again, a lofty ideal that crashes and burns in reality because it depends on everyone playing fair (see Naïve Assumption 1). The sad fact is that everyone cheats, some governments have massive subsidies, some have slave labor, some have staggering tariffs. Some have no protection at all...
These three false assumptions have done us tremendous damage over the last fifty years because we haven't been smart (my favorite hobby horse riding in from the west).
Our society is based on the concept of the 'common weal' (originally the common grazing ground that all the villagers could use to fatten up the cattle). That grazing ground was kept up by all the villagers so that, if bad times befell them, there would be a common resource to see them through.
Our constitution is based on the legal precept of the nation-state. This is basically a territory, defined by borders, in which the denizens are governed by an agreed upon set of laws and are represented by citizens elected to oversee and regulate that government.
Our economics is based on the observations of a 17th century scot modified by a few 18th century enlightenment philosophers.
These three concepts do not always work synergistically, sometimes they are even at odds. The problem we face today is that we have not updated our vision of the world to see what is actually happening rather than what we wish would happen.
The real problem for the 21st century is not Jihadi Islam. The confrontation and conflict between 21st century modernism and 12th century religious ecstaticism was inevitable. Equally inevitable is the result; we will learn how to fight the Jihadis, we will go after them in an effective way, we will force them to retreat and remain behind their walls of sand. It will take 50-100 years, it will cost unbelievable amounts of wasted treasure, anguish and lives. So be it.
That's not what we have to worry about (here's the first time where the Law of Unintended Consequences comes in). We made some big mistakes back in 1790, 1818, and especially 1886 (Santa Clara County v Southern Pacific Railroad Company), we didn't know it then of course. That's when we made corporations into 'persons' in the eyes of the law. Before then a corporation was pretty much limited to the task for which it was formed, after these decisions corporations acquired 'rights' of citizens and the stall door was open… we saw some of the abuses in the Robber Barons of the Gilded Age where vast amounts of wealth was generated and sequestered by an incredibly tiny minority of individuals (so what, you say) who promptly moved to take over…everything (well maybe that isn't a good thing).
This brought in the trustbusters as it became obvious that balance between the people and government and business had gone too far in one direction (remember the triangle?). The balance got restored for a little while because the government (of the people) had the power to rein in the economic giants of the day.
No one said they were dumb. As America woke up to the world in the 20th century, so did they. They looked around and said to themselves "Y'know, there's a whole wide world out there…" and promptly started expanding their operations on a global basis. Then a funny thing happened (the second application of the Law of Unintended Consequences) they discovered that, once they were globalized, they weren't accountable to anyone. Problem in India? (see Union Carbide) move those operations to Namibia (or wherever) and hire some lawyers to tie up the claimants in court for… now going on 30 years. Not making enough profits? (see Enron) create some fictitious Cayman Island corporations and launder a hundred million through them. Need to lower costs? (see Wal-Mart) outsource manufacturing to slave labor factories in China. Etc., etc., etc…
What government is going to go after them? How are they going to do it? Who has the power now?
The real problem we face in the 21st century is how to create a new balance of power between governments of nation-states, trans-national corporations and people (remember them?). Right now it's way, way out of whack and we're in true danger of creating a variation on an, earlier, much more odious model:
Oligarchic fascism, (not your father's fascism). This one isn't where the state determines and directs the corporation, oh no, it's even worse. Here, there is no state except where it exists to further the interests of the corporation. If you want to live in the world of Grover Norquist ("I want to reduce government to the size where it can be drowned in the bathtub."), sit back and relax, we're almost there… if this seems like it just maybe, might impinge the slightest bit on your freedom (OK, OK, I'm being sarcastic here). You need to start paying attention because the social contract has been badly broken and the little people like you and me, are being dealt out.
That leads me to the third, and last, point (phew!). There are a bunch of people around now who call themselves conservatives (they aren't and Barry Goldwater would have reached for his gun). These folks have basically hijacked the Republican Party and are using it to promote a stealthy (or perhaps not so stealthy now) takeover of our country… no I'm not talking about the Christian Right, V. I. Lenin had a phrase for the religious folks: Useful Fools.
These are the People Who Are Not Our Friends. They are uniformly wealthy and therefore consider themselves entitled to determine the course of events. They are smart and committed and they have no one's interest at heart except their own. Normally, (and what does that word mean these days?) this wouldn't be that big a problem, but… did I mention that they're smart?
About 40 years ago (late '60s-early '70s) they took a look around and noticed a few things:
Lobbyists, when properly funded and controlled, can really, really influence legislation, all they need is copious amounts of cash.
This advertising stuff really, really works, all it needs is copious amounts of cash.
Freedom of the press really, really does belong to the guy who owns one, all it needs is…
Politicians are like sock puppets, they'll say or do anything you want, all they need is…
Hmmm..., they said, we've got lots of cash…
You can't even blame these guys, they're just doing what we told 'em about capitalism: go out and do whatever you have to do to win, we don't care whether you lie, cheat or steal. Crush your enemies if you can and run over anyone who gets in your way, so long as you win. That's all that matters.
This sounds like I'm on a 'liberal' rant, not so: capitalism is not immoral, it is amoral. It is nonsense to ask or demand morality from capitalism, it is semantically null.
The problem is that we have conflated capitalism with democracy to the point where we can't tell the difference anymore. They are not the same but we don't know that and that's why we're in big trouble.
We need to re-establish the balance of power between business, government and people so everyone is well served. We can't do it on a nation-state basis any longer, the size and shape of the playing field has changed and it's no longer enough to stay within fortress America, those days are gone.
We have to wake up and be smarter, we have to engage the trans-national corporations at the level where they are playing because they've got their game on and they're ahead on points.
I hope you waded through this all and thanks for reading if you did,
So happy to meet a thinking liberal. You are a truly a rare and endangered breed. Yes, I read with great interest your entire letter. I personally prefer the written word to the in-person-lecture-format because of the reflective nature of composition. I find written source bibliography far easier to research. I find it amusing that you used "The Guardian" as a source with such sense of authority and confidence. When I debated members of campus communist front groups (notice: I don't call them communists) I always had fun debunking their theory and revealing the nature of their sources. My Senior Year book has a caption under my photo. "The Philosopher and Debater of the class, Greg likes nothing better than a good hot debate." I am trying to learn from one of my heroes (in addition to Reagan) to be more gracious and charming rather than merely logical and informed. It is always tempting to destroy the easy target (irrational thought) rather than persuade people to a superior option. This is why we could have an above average dialog with Mr. McEnroe. John and I don't care about winning an argument. We both simply explore difficult political/philosophical/spiritual issues with a sincere love of Truth. I am not a hopeless Romantic/Spiritualist. I no longer enjoy Mensa or Libertarian meetings. We care about achievable goals and the greater good. I care more about Good vs. Evil than Right Vs. Left.
As to your critique of our current age: I respect the effort you expended, however, Even Carl Marx (a small soul), could come up with a sufficiently accurate critique of Liaise Fare Market economics of the world he knew. His counter proposal, however, was deeply flawed, even on a purely theoretical and spiritual level. Superior leaders create superior options for the public to choose from. I am disappointed with all of the political parties. I am not convinced that the Democrats have any better ideas or candidates than any other party. The only way to defeat evil ideas/system is to build better ones and compete for followers. The real question is: Can I see your proposal? If you were as rich as Bill Gates and as Powerful as Alexander the Great, what kind of country would your America look like. Notice that I don't use the "what would President Penna do?" question. The power of the office of President of the United States of America is overrated. America has survived despite:
One Term of LBJ
The Re-election of Richard M. Nixon (the second term by a 49 state landslide)
4 years of Carter
12 years of Reagan/Bush,
8 years of Clinton (and her husband)
6 years of Georg W.
and nearly 60 years of Democratic con troll of Congress.
Our once greater nation used to have a rich cultural life centered on deeply held values that levitated dialog above politics. Virtue, duty, Honor, character, conscience, courage, and patriotism are still of interest to Americans. They were once the platform on which public policy was debated.
In the '60s the "outed" Communists said that everyone is defined by Class (economics) and Politics. Though that may be the desire of those influenced by Marxist-Leninist thought, I disagree. Unfortunately, what our home-grown communists could not accomplish by force they have nearly achieved with the virtual takeover of the "mainstream media" and once great Democratic Party. Most "Old Media" people are liberal Democrats. Are all liberal Democrats communist? No. To be a true Communist requires education, intellect, self-sacrifice and discipline. Most "liberals" lack the attributes of a dedicated Marxist-Leninist. They are perhaps unwitting tools of the ideological enemies of the America that I would like to see built. The real battle is over the meaning/identity or soul America Should we be an amoral pragmatic nation? Should we continue to indulge our baser passions and live in a nation swimming in sins of commission and omission. Example:
Class Hatred/envy Vs. Hedonism...both are evil.
Left vs. Right. seems to have a parallel here.
This is the classic false dilemma. This is why I don't fit neatly into the any political party. I am not a conservative on policy. I can be very "outside of the box". If I agree to choose "the lesser of 2 evils" I am still within the realm of evil...am I not. This is our choice on every election day. I am not in love with any politician. It is the nature of democracy to eventually settle into meritocracy. I believe that the historical benefit of the war of 1776 was the eventual decline of many "Evil King Dynasties" on the global level. History is littered with the corpses cut down by the Logic of power. When will we explore the Logic of Love? The more interesting discussion is: What would King Craig Della Penna Do in 2006?
I welcome the opportunity to converse with you.
An interesting challenge. I can’t say I’m crazy about the Philosopher King model, the Athenians killed Alkibiades for trying it and Dionysios didn’t do so well as Dictator of
Nevertheless, I’ll be pleased to use the opportunity to float some ideas I have about the body politic.
But first, I have to clarify a few points
The last name is Della Penna, two words/one name. For a long time I thought it meant ‘scribe’ (an Anglocentric bias there) turns out it actually means ‘of the sorrows’ a bit dark but it’s actually closer to my personality. A minor point but there it is.
I cited The Guardian not because of its left wing predilictions but because it is internationally respected for its even-handed reporting. I also mentioned it because it is not a
BTW, I also read the WSJ because its reporters are also internationally respected despite its foaming-at-the-mouth right wingnut editorial board.
As to Marx and Engels, it was, as you say, a flawed vision at the very least. Mostly, I think, they were guilty of myopia – they could only see what was in front of them so their solution was seriously short-sighted. 19th century industrialization politics just didn’t translate into the far more sophisticated world of 20th century socio-economics. We could have a world of discussion here but let me just say that I regard communism as I regard any other religion: because it requires an act of faith, it is inherently resistant to analytical thought processes.
The one salient fact that the Marxists did bring up: if the disparity between rich and poor gets to be too great, your society is in trouble.
Lastly, the media. I think it’s way too late in the day for conservatives to yell about the ‘liberal media’ that dog just won’t hunt any longer. The most influential medium of them all, television (we won’t even discuss radio), is totally dominated by right wing political propaganda. The tattered remains of free media consists of about six newspapers, which no one but us pointy-headed ‘intellechuls’ reads. At this point that canard is only used to provoke screaming matches. If you want to know the truth about the media, just follow the money… not too hard as some 95% of the mass media is owned by six companies, all stalwart Republican, conservative organizations whose owners/managers have publicly avowed right wing political agendas.
…and one more Last Thing: the Good Old Days. Yeah, I remember them nostalgically too, they sure seemed better and cleaner, safer and saner….screeeech! BANG! Whoops, my rose-colored glasses just fell off. Remember the ‘Duck and Cover’ drills in case of nuclear attack? Remember ‘Whites Only’ drinking fountains? Remember “Tailgunner” Joe McCarthy?
Plus sa change, plus c’est la même chose, I think.
Nonetheless, you’re right, there is a difference between then and now, the second World War was the last completely justifiable war we have fought. There was, and is, absolutely no question about the moral imperative to fight in that war against truly evil adversaries. No war (or police action) we have engaged in since has had that level of moral authority attached.
I agree that the real battle concerns the meaning, identity and ‘soul’ of
On to the fun stuff: given the chance, what changes would I impose on society? (if I may paraphrase your challenge).
Here are some of my thoughts. I’m going to divide them into three areas:
As you may note, I’m leaving out the spirituality part, for two reasons: first, I don’t feel that I’m qualified to tell any other adult what’s god/not god, right or wrong, evil or good: we’ve got churches for the first, laws for the second and a mirror for the last. Second, religious wackos to the contrary, this country was founded on the simple principle of separation of church and state, for very good reasons. In fact the FFs had very close personal experience with what happens when you don’t have that separation: religions persecuting religions, sects persecuting sects all armed with the power of the state and all in the name of ‘god’. They said, “No thanks.” and wrote it in to our constitution. They were a bunch of very smart fellows, we are wise when we listen to them.
You’ve complained that here isn’t any character anymore, no honor, virtue, conscience, courage or sense of duty. The implication is that this is in apposition to a time when these values were prevalent, given our ages I assume you are talking about the 1940s/50s. These are the only halcyon days we have any direct experience of. These are also the days when we had a common experience of shared sacrifice (the Depression, WWII).
I would propose that we institute National Service. As soon as you graduate high school or reach the age of 18 (whichever comes first) you go into National Service, everyone, without exception. No, you don’t have to pick up a gun, you can pick up a shovel instead, go into the armed services, or plant trees in National Forests, fill potholes, do childcare, build shelters, teach English, etc., etc., for two years (you may have different ideas about how to use the young folks – go ahead, we’ve got plenty). This would get kids out of their parents’ houses and give them a taste of life on their own (at this point they’re sick of their parents and their parents are sick of them as well). And at the end of your service: you get your voting card.
Many countries do this now (
This one idea won’t solve all our problems but it will give folks a stake in the proceedings and something to protect in the outcomes.
This one’s more complicated: we have to find innovative ways to open up the process, reduce the oligarchs’ political power, improve the people’s access to government and control over their money – all without trashing our basic structure of a representative republic…
Right now, we’re a nation of some 300,000,000 people, and still growing (mostly because of immigration). We’ve got 435 people in the House of Representatives, that’s 689,655 constituents per Rep...
no wonder you can’t get your Congressman on the line.
Let’s triple the size of the House to 1,305 Reps (229,885 to one Rep, still quite a bunch but much more manageable and a lot more accessible). More trouble and expense for the lobbyists and more accountability to the voters (best listen to Billy Bob, he’s got a lot of relatives and they could make trouble next year), I say it’s a ‘win-win’.
Forget changing the Senate right now, 100’s a good number and the states are still the states, frankly I think it’s good that Delaware and California have the same amount of Senators – shrinks hat sizes all around, but…
Ditch the Electoral College, long past due, we’re not gentlemen farmers anymore (with apologies to
Last of the strictly political reforms (you’re gonna love this one): what the heck are we going to do about the tsunamis of cash we shovel out the door in political campaigns? Multi-million dollar House and Senate races, billion dollar presidential sweepstakes? A House member has to raise $10K/week from day one if he/she wants to get re-elected. You can’t plug up the inflow; limit direct contributions… it goes into PACs, limit PACs… it goes into 527s…etc., etc.
What about the outflow? 90%+ of campaign funds are spent on television ads (because they work). I spent 20 years in and around the ad business in
Just like we did with liquor and cigarette advertising, bad for your health, it’s out.
Then watch the political hacks run around with their hair on fire, it’ll be fun. Let them try to spend $200 million dollars on… lawn signs and bumper stickers and straw hats. You can do anything you want with the money: buy an hour of prime time from all three networks, plaster the highways with signs from the Red Ball Garage to the Santa Monica Pier, offer $100 per vote (just kidding), you just can’t run TV ads.
You want true campaign reform? This is the only way it’ll happen.
Oh, and BTW. Let’s fix the voting machines. I’m in the software business but even if I weren’t, the claim from Diebold and Sierra, et al, that it’s too hard to provide a paper trail…is transparently pure, Class A bullshit. Your local supermarket provides a paper trail for every transaction, one for you and a copy for the store. I, among many others, wrote to Diebold offering to personally provide the four lines of code necessary to make their software run a check register receipt machine. Until such time as we do this our elections are completely compromised.
Taxes, Tariffs and Trade (oh, my!)
Here’s where the rubber meets the road: the interface between politics and economics. Let’s start with taxes.
Fact: No one understands the tax codes, the book weighs a bazillion pounds, Bob Packwood was able to chase skirts around his desk for 25 years out of the fact that he had actually read the thing in its entirety, everybody (and I mean everybody) hates it – screw it.
First Option (Best One): Dump the income tax and replace it with a flat sales tax. Yeah, I know this is supposed to be liberal anathema, it’s regressive, it unfairly lands on poor people, it lets the rich get away with murder (like they don’t anyway). I don’t care. I want simplicity and clarity here, I want this issue off the table, forever. Plus we get to dissolve the secret police, er, sorry, the IRS.
Second Option: OK, so if the Flat Sales Tax won’t fly, then I recommend the Flat Income Tax (same squeals of outrage from the left… and some from the right as well). Same arguments as above, here’s the twist:
With either option, once a year you get your tax information: with the Sales Tax you get a receipt showing your average contribution that year, with the Income Tax you get your tax form, plus:
You get your ‘Citizen Appropriations Selection Form”. This form shows all of the money that Uncle Sugar collected last year (kinda like an annual report) and what the projections are for this year. Then it shows, in percentage, how much of the federal dollar is already committed to: pensions, ongoing programs, interest payment on the national debt, etc., all the things we have already committed to and can’t get out of. It also shows how much, if any, extra money Congress borrowed above the income line in order to fund things the citizens wouldn’t and who voted for these items. Next, it shows the programs which are up for funding and here…the citizen gets to put down what percentage of his/her tax dollar he/she would like to spend on these programs: you could choose 100% for the Space Program, for instance, or 2% for Medicare (or none) and 98% for the VA, etc., etc. (Purse Power to the People! [raised fist in the air holding handbag]) I hear screams of outrage (from the right this time) What? Let the riffraff get their hands on the money, sacrilege! Actually, this ought to piss off a lot of people, left and right, which means I’ve done good work here.
We’ve got a problem (in
We can adjust this to promote trade with underdeveloped countries (or not) or even to enforce strategic policies, the only problem is that we will have to act fairly as well. (remember the trans-nationals? They won’t like this at all… which means, of course, that we’re doing good work here).
Leading in from the last topic: we’re the largest market in the world, by far. We have clout and we should use it but we’ve got to be smart here. This is one of the main things the trans-nationals fear: the economic power of particular nation-states. That’s why they dreamed up NAFTA and CAFTA and GATT (oh, my!). These treaties are more disturbing the more you look into them, essentially they seek to bind the signatories to perpetual contracts where they lose control over their workforce, their laws and their borders… and it leads to exactly what you’re thinking: World Government, but not by the UN; by Exxon and Wal-Mart and McDonald's. This activity needs to be opposed.
Last Heading: Enlightened Capitalist
This may be a misnomer or perhaps even an oxymoron, but this is where we are going… eventually. We’re in a condition where the second richest man in the world (Warren Buffet) has so little connection to the world around him that the only thing he can think to do with his money is to give it to… the richest man in the world. Gates is such a twit that he had to marry his PR lady to think for him about what to do with all his money… WTF?
What kind of a society do we live in where this is considered acceptable behaviour? And it’s not new (remember the Robber Barons?) we’ve got a deep down problem that’s not going to go away until we start re-examining some fundamentals. And the means trouble with a capital “C” and that means Capitalism. I know you don’t like this, I know it hurts… but you (I/we/us) have to start looking at this and have to start acting smart, because if we don’t we will perish as a society and then as a nation. No, I’m not recommending or advocating any “-ism”, I’m saying we have to do better, because this isn’t working. (See transfer of wealth to the richest 1% over the past 20 years)
Look around and ask yourself which societies really don’t work:
This knocks on the door of your spiritual questions as well: “Virtue, duty, honor, character, conscience, courage, and patriotism” these are all very personal characteristics, individually arrived at, not painted with a broad brush. These qualities you prize are antithetical to the tenets of capitalism: virtue is a fool’s errand, duty is only to yourself, honor is non-existent, character is a façade, conscience is a fairytale told to children, courage is a joke and patriotism is simply outside the basic reference point. What kind of society can you envision where the dog-eat-dog world of lassiez-faire capitalism rules? How can anyone get out? This vision isn’t a Maxfield Parrish painting of halcyon days gone bye, it’s a starkly terrifying look into hell.
We have to do better because we can do better. We can question the paradigm, we can apply another, newer, better yardstick, we can ask more of ourselves and of others. We can refuse to accept the idea that this is as good as we can get.
Craig Della Penna