What You Should Think About Abraham Lincoln

June 2, 2011

“Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.”

–Abraham Lincoln

Unlike most U.S. Presidents, Abraham Lincoln faced economic hardship as a child.  His father had been a prosperous Kentucky landowner, but young Abraham, at the tender age of 7, watched his family lands taken away due to a legal technicality.  Having resettled in Indiana, he was able to study briefly and sporadically under a series of traveling teachers.  Even so, the bulk of his learning was a function of self-education.  Over time, he grew into a strong laborer.  He did not take every job on offer, but he was often quick to trade his services for the loan of books he had not previously read.

When he was 21, his family relocated once more, to the state he would consider his true home — Illinois.  He soon obtained a loan in order to join a partnership running a mill and general store in New Salem.  Contemporary accounts depict him as an able shopkeeper, but the store did not prosper, and he had to leave the business.  When a battle-hardened Native American known as Black Hawk rallied hundreds of warriors to reclaim his ancestral homeland on the eastern bank of the Mississippi, Abraham Lincoln remedied his unemployment by volunteering for the Illinois militia.  He was particularly honored to have been elected captain of his militia company.

Though young Lincoln did not engage in actual combat, he repeatedly arrived in the aftermath of a clash and undertook the duty of burying the dead.  He would learn much about the costs of war even without experiencing the heat of battle.  He would re-enlist several times, accepting the role of an ordinary private, as his units would be mustered out of service.  He was awarded a land grant for his efforts, though perhaps more valuable were the many new friendships that would prove assets during the start of his political career.  His time in the militia spanned less than four months.  A horse theft on the eve of its conclusion would afford him ample time for reflection as he walked much of the distance from northwest Illinois back to his New Salem home.

Soon after, Abraham Lincoln turned the full force of his energies to politics and the law.  His 1834 bid for a place in the Illinois General Assembly would be his second run for political office and his first campaign victory.  He was the second youngest in a particularly young class of legislators.  Here he kept quiet long enough to live up to his own aphorism, “it is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak up and remove all doubt.”  By the time he was ready to do more than observe and vote, he had such a command of the process that many others turned to him for help in crafting and promoting their own legislation.  Though his Whig party was a shrinking minority, Lincoln’s efforts at leadership did much to help move their agenda through the bicameral Assembly.

During this same time, he also sought and obtained a license to practice law in the state of Illinois.  In 1837, both the capital of the state and the man himself relocated to Springfield.  There Abraham Lincoln formed a law partnership with an old acquaintance from his time in the militia.  In his time as a prairie lawyer, Lincoln would participate in over 5,100 cases.  Among his most notable was the defense of an accused murderer, acquitted after a witness who claimed to have seen the crime by moonlight was impeached with an almanac entry indicating the Moon was in an unsuitable position to provide illumination on the night in question.  He also successfully defended a railroad against claims that its bridge over the Mississippi was a hazard to navigation.  This established a precedent that advanced the cause of economic development extending westward.

Of course, modernity knows Abraham Lincoln best as a critic of slavery and a wartime President who restored the United States after our nation’s only great schism.  He had already served one term in the U.S. House of Representatives, but he failed to win election to the U.S. Senate.  After a lifetime of promoting obedience to the law and working with traditional political institutions, Lincoln abruptly embraced challenges to the status quo.  He found the infamous decision in Dred Scott v. Sanford to be deeply offensive.  He recognized that many state governments were unlikely to yield to the moral objections against slavery and abandon that institution in his lifetime.  He lent his intellectual force to an increasingly fiery abolitionist movement.

At the same time, Abraham Lincoln became a prominent figure in the emergent Republican Party.  He asserted that the compromises perpetuating slavery were failures of the Founding Fathers and all subsequent American leadership.  With oratorical skills honed before countless juries then popularized by events like the Lincoln-Douglas debates, he developed a reputation as just the sort of man who could catapult this fledgeling party into a strong position on the national stage.  After winning the Republican nomination for President of the United States, he also emerged victorious in an unusual race that saw the Electoral College of 1860 split four ways.

Before the year was out, secession had begun.  The newborn Confederacy had the benefit of a more skilled body of officers, but its largely agrarian economy would prove an enormous liability.  The great cities of the north, with their industrial capacity, higher standards of education, and technological sophistication would provide a power base that the south could not hope to equal.  The Union Navy acted quickly to inhibit trade, doing much to strangle the Confederate economy that was so dependent on cotton exports.  Quelling the fighting spirit of the rebels was another matter.  President Lincoln went through one senior commander after another, frequently unsatisfied with his generals’ ability and/or willingness to undertake offensive actions.

Ultimately, harsh action was required to restore the nation.  Generals Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman performed the heavy lifting that brought the Confederacy to the point of surrender.  After years of bloody give and take, Grant’s masterful offensives dealt his enemies a string of painful defeats.  Dealing out pain was also a hallmark of Sherman’s actions.  Most remarkably, after securing the city of Atlanta under his control, his forces set fire to all government buildings.  The resulting conflagration was the one of several he would ignite in order to devastate the cities of the south.

Abraham Lincoln himself became no stranger to harsh measures.  His government suspended basic Constitutional rights in order to suppress disloyalty within the Union.  He imprisoned Confederate sympathizers and even some opposition politicians without due process.  He authorized military spending without Congressional approval.  He fully supported the bloody and brutal tactics his most successful generals employed to end the conflict.  Yet he was no barbarian.  As forceful as he was in putting down the rebellion, his intentions were gentle for dealing with the south in the aftermath of the war.

John Wilkes Booth saw to it that history would never learn firsthand of Lincoln’s intentions for the defeated Confederacy.  Formal surrender had occurred just days before the actor-turned-assassin put a bullet in the head of Abraham Lincoln.  Yet Lincoln’s spirit would help to guide his successor in the restoration of the United States as a single coherent nation.  Penalties for war crimes were only imposed on Confederate officers guilty of horrific abuses, like the deliberate starvation of Union captives in the Andersonville prison.  Even the President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, was a free man no longer facing treason charges within four years of his initial arrest.  Both Abraham Lincoln and his successor, Andrew Johnson, understood that healing the nation required viewing even the most ardent rebels as U.S. citizens, entitled to the same levels of fairness and respect due any Yankee.

The consensus among historians is that Abraham Lincoln was one of our greatest Presidents.  Though his time in that office was dominated by the Civil War, his success at restoring the Union was an incredible feat achieved in the face of growing public unrest about the costs of war.  Subsequent leaders have made pretense of facing “an existential threat” to the United States of America, but Lincoln confronted an actual threat that grave.  His willingness to do what had to be done, knowing full well what it was like to arrive on a battlefield littered with corpses, holding in his heart a passionate commitment to due process and the rule of law, is what made him a truly exceptional leader.  A far cry from twenty men with boxcutters, he had to deal with the loss of nearly half of the nation, and deal with it he surely did.


What You Should Think About Balance

October 18, 2008

“The new integrity of the world, in our view, can only be built upon the principles of freedom of choice and balance of interests.”

–Mikhail Gorbachev

It is fair to characterize the Fox News Channel as a partisan house organ and a degenerate propaganda mill.  However, as a full-fledged cable network, it is too complex a phenomenon to be understood from a perspective that lacks all nuance and subtlety.  For example, the “fair and balanced” slogan plays into a method frequently utilized to create the perception of legitimacy.  From segments passed off as hard news to the most unapologetic of opinion programming, simply presenting some sort of clash between pundits of differing views causes many viewers to believe they have seen a balanced presentation.

In some cases, this perception is completely unjustified.  Across the continuum from subtle to blatant, there are many ways to manipulate a debate through framing the issue, limiting responses, manipulating tone, etc.  Yet there are also instances when debate both lively and legitimate occurs on that channel.  Perhaps the most impressive effort to legitimize the entire venture is a program titled Fox News Watch.  More often than not, this program approaches media analysis from a perspective that is thoughtful or even scholarly.

It was in viewing an episode of that show that I first encountered the phrase “distortion of balance.”  It is a term Neil Gabler of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting coined in order to describe the trickery involved in legitimizing a bogus position by presenting it as the equivalent of a legitimate position.  The perception of evenhandedness obscures crucial underlying reality.

Imagine if a televised debate were conducted between one advocate for the position that the Moon is is chiefly composed of minerals while another advocate contended the Moon is an enormous mass of cheese.  The second position is unsupported by anything resembling conclusive evidence, but a sufficiently earnest pundit could well cloud the issues and leave ignorant viewers uncertain about the truth (or convinced of a falsehood.)  From Iraqi weapons programs to global climate change — areas where technical ignorance is entirely understandable among those who are not trained experts — many media outlets legitimize an entirely bogus viewpoint in the name of presenting “balanced” content.

This is not always the result of the desire to push a particular agenda.  For example, fact checking after major political debates has become a widespread practice in the media.  Yet few outlets ever dare to critique a larger number of questionable statements from one candidate than the other.  In pursuit of “balance” that comes from presented equal quantity, readers are given the false impression that an equal number of misleading statements were made by each speaker.  Unless the underlying reality actually involves equality on that plane, the end result is coverage that leaves the audience misinformed.

All this involves issues where opinions fit neatly into two mutually exclusive categories.  Especially when it comes to political issues, covering “both sides of the story” tends to be an especially clumsy oversimplification.  Popular rhetoric often falls back on extremism if for no other reason than that moderation tends to be less inspiring.  Nowhere is this more evident than resistance to economic reforms.  While filled with self-delusions of being reasonable, passionate extremists decry every little push toward moderation as a surefire way to transform the U.S.A. into a new incarnation of the U.S.S.R.

Even if one grants the dubious premise that economic planning is an anethema to civil liberties, those extremists deliberately steer discussion away from positions between capitalist and communist extremes.  Few of them could begin to articulate the technical distinctions between communism and socialism.  With that deficit of knowledge, they are able to remain earnest while spouting falsehoods that characterize socialism as an extreme position.  Being loudly mistaken is not as sinister as being loudly dishonest, but civic duty demands any loudness be preceded by a greater degree of thoughtfulness than can be seen among such extremists.

All of this feeds into the disastrous reality that America’s economic titans enjoy ample reward with no real risk.  The same system forces working families to face real risk without appropriate reward.  The structure of the ongoing bailout makes this abundantly clear, though similar public largess has been a fixture of American political history from our nation’s inception.  One of the few sound observations to emerge from popular punditry related to the economic crisis is that we live in a society that practices a very generous variety of socialism for the rich while leaving everyone else to struggle in a particularly harsh capitalist environment.

Because the wealth of this nation is made to flow uphill through systematic corruption on a scale that would make the most nefarious Politburo power broker blush, honest American citizens playing by the rules must compete for pieces of an economic pie that is already largely devoured before the competition begins.  As horrible as that sounds, its modern manifestation could be anticipated from the theories that prop up the status quo.  Trickle down economics is very much a call for the overwhelming majority of this nation’s workforce to content themselves with the scraps that fall from the tables of tycoons.  Never mind that same workforce gathered the ingredients, composed the menus, set the tables, and prepared the feasts.

Perhaps Versailles toward the end of the French monarchy is a soundcomparison.  Under Louis XVI, at times it seemed that no luxury was too excessive.  Nobles competed with one another in increasingly ostentatious displays of wealth.  Today’s gold-infused cheeseburgers and Hummer limousines showcase impractical concentrations of resources with all the enthusiasm of decadent aristocracies past.  It is true that our government does not bestow hereditary titles conveying special privileges, but the absence of those does little to distinguish our economic realities from the sort of aristocratic exploitation that sparked the American revolution.

Modern militant rabble-rousers are do not condemn the growing concentration of wealth.  Though the original American patriots stirred up trouble to undermine a power structure that took from the many too enrich the few, the undercurrent of anger in today’s political dialogue actually perpetuates blatant plutocracy.  Government conceived “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” has become government of the people, by the rich, for the rich.  Apart from predictable vehement slander against reformers, proposed reforms are denounced by deliberately muddling humanitarian social spending with authoritarian tyranny.

There is no reason the United States of America cannot find a true balance.  Of invisible pink unicorns, an economic middle ground, and Saddam Hussein’s 21st century nuclear weapons program, there is one entity that is no myth.  Giving working families a fair deal, pursuing poverty harm reduction, promoting education, and stimulating scientific innovation are all pursuits that have been proven sustainable by many governments, including our own.  U.S. policy has always been a compromise between civic minimalism and policies promoted by those with other aspirations for our nation.

Perhaps a better tomorrow could also come from a new order that ceased funneling astronomical sums of public money into private hands.  Yet no politician has come forth with a credible proposal for a reform that would actually eliminate corruption in big business subsidy.  For that matter, thirty years of Republican promises to reduce government spending have only produced a record of huge spending increases, none greater than those undertaken with the full support of the sitting President.  Yet it is not too late for our nation to address decades of social neglect with bold action to move toward a healthy economic balance.


What You Should Think About Victory

October 14, 2008

“It is common sense to take a method and try it.  If it fails, admit it frankly and try another; but above all, try something.”

–Franklin D. Roosevelt

In theory, a two party system could provide a sturdy national rudder to guide the ship of state along an optimal path to the future.  Imagine a democratic China where a Red Party promotes traditional values and industrial growth while a Green party promotes modernism and environmental protection.  The Greens could provide support for a wide range of new ideas while the Reds oppose change and strike down the worst of new government institutions.  The end result would be constant improvement without runaway excess.

As wonderful as that sounds, it is merely theory.  Here in the United States, our politics are dominated by one party that emphasizes new ideas and another that favors the status quo.  In theory, while Democrats bring modern values and institutional changes to the table, Republicans obstruct all but the best of those new ideas.  In practice, this simply is not the case.

Many historical Democrats have brought helpful new ideas into the public arena.  Yet the Clinton administration found itself browbeaten by Newt Gingrich’s Republican Revolution.  After backing down in the fight for universal health care, Bill Clinton signed off on a range of institutional changes that were decidedly conservative.  While catering little to traditional values, his bold spending cuts and restraint with new initiatives were a wild departure from the “tax and spend liberal” brand Democrats’ critics so often apply to them.

Yet the historical record of Republicans is even less consistent with the idea of substantive conservatism.  Again and again a rhetorical emphasis on spending restraint gives way to bold new levels of federal spending.  Some Republicans may have stood in firm opposition to the rise of modern values, but their economic practices have ranged from incoherent to downright hypocritical.  As unpleasant as “tax and spend” may sound, surely it is better over the long term than “borrow and spend.”

Even today that side of the aisle offers us nothing new.  Senator John McCain continues to push for lower taxes on business, lower taxes on high personal incomes, increased defense spending, and a more belligerent posture on the world stage.  Even in those moments when he eschews fearmongering and presents himself as an agent of change, almost all the substance of his policy proposals is a call to stay the course.

Yet his opponent actually does rise up to fulfill the role of a liberal reformer.  Senator Barack Obama sometimes draws on ideas crafted in previous decades, but even his oldest proposals have yet to be given due consideration in national political dialogue.  Only a strong sense of unrest coupled with a spectacular failure of trickle down economics sets the stage for mainstream consideration of sweeping change.  The underlying realities are largely as they were years ago, but the signs indicating a need for change have become much harder to ignore.

It is in this context that some Republicans have taken to decrying a lack of jingoism in Senator Obama’s rhetoric.  The Rovian word count game (as in, “he spoke for an entire hour and did not use the word ‘victory once'”) is a sleazy and often misleading trick.  Yet it is true that the Democratic nominee is reluctant to use simplistic language in addressing complex nuanced subjects.  Rather than make unsubstantiated claims about future prosperity, victory, etc. he favors more precise and technical discussion.

Yet this should not be cast as a liability.  Amidst frequent Republican talk of prosperity, today’s announcement of a plan to increase the income tax deduction for dependents is the first proposal by Senator McCain to offer some benefit to working class families that was not inferred as an inevitable byproduct of making the rich even richer.  Though this does represent substantive change, it is both a departure from the rest of the Republican campaign and an oddly belated effort to acknowledge that America’s real economic distress must be addressed through outreach to the families and individuals in the most difficult of circumstances.

The same can be said for foreign affairs.  Republicans often speak in sure tones of victory in Iraq.  Some have tried to link this to declining levels of violence over there, as if partially cleaning up a mess of our own creation constitutes some sort of victory.  Others focus on the idea of a stable democratic regime able to provide for its own security.  Perhaps that would be a real victory, but it has not been advanced by recent military initiatives, nor is there any Republican proposal that speaks to the heart of political challenges facing democracy in Iraq.

In spite of the blood spilled, in spite of the treasure consumed, in spite of the goodwill lost; the McCain-Palin campaign pushes for continuity in U.S.-Iraq policy.  No matter how many times the candidates employ the word “victory,” neither does much to define it, let alone offer up a concrete plan for its achievement.  Rather than work on rallying the nation behind some sort of real solution to the serious problem, the Republican party has chosen to demonize their opponents for nothing worse than the failure to embrace hollow rhetoric.

Yet the absurdity does not end there.  Senator McCain has frequently told the nation that he knows how to capture Osama bin Laden.  What is he holding out for?  Does he fear such an accomplishment would not catapult him into the White House?  Is it an idea the present administration has refused to implement?  Is it an idea he would withhold from a future administration if Barack Obama should happen to serve as its Commander-in-Chief?

Senator Obama is not fast and loose with terms like “victory” only because to do so without coherent and concrete plans to accomplish victories is dishonest.  When we are honest, a discussion of Iraq must recognize tremendous challenges that no amount of military power can resolve.  Our armed forces are second to none, but that acknowledgement does not imbue them with supreme abilities to address diplomatic, political, or economic problems.  Perhaps the federal approach long advocated by Senator Joe Biden has drawbacks as well as advantages, but at least it speaks realistically to the nature of the situation in Iraq.

Should the next President of the United States be John McCain, I believe everyone would expect much talk of “victory.”  Yet does anyone expect him to swiftly neutralize Osama bin Laden?  Does anyone expect him to smoothly resolve the internal conflicts in Iraq?  Does anyone believe that his economic proposals would remedy fundamental economic problems the man himself was among the last to recognize?

If one does not look beyond the two party system for answers, then the choice is clear.  One alternative leads to a future where there is much talk of victory, while meaningful actions only perpetuate economic and foreign policies framed by the present administration.  The other path leads to a future of much more realistic discourse, with meaningful actions that strike a new economic balance and adopt a new tone on the world stage.  If ever our nation is to achieve real victories over the great challenges of our times, it seems to me that the political choice we must make is clear.


What You Should Think About Hope

October 13, 2008

“I steer my bark with Hope in my head, leaving Fear astern.  My hopes, indeed, sometimes fail; but not oftener than the forebodings of the gloomy.”

–Thomas Jefferson

Virtually all Americans desire a peaceful and prosperous future for our nation.  I can say this with confidence because virtually all <insert nationality here> people desire a peaceful and prosperous future for <insert nation here>.  This is universal human nature.  Even in time of war, opposing forces are each mobilized by concern for the security of their homeland.

The most insidious sort of combatants, terrorists, can be distinguished by life-changing experiences in parts of the world devastated by constant violence.  Unable to imagine a secure homeland, their desperation drives them to undermine the security of strangers and neighbors alike.  Yet even they harbor the twisted hope that shocking violence could raise awareness and bring an end to the brutal oppression in which their darkest tendencies were forged.

Away from the insanity of a place like Belfast during the Troubles or the Gaza Strip today, hope and malice are less likely to intersect.  From the yokels responsible for the Oklahoma City bombing to the killers who lash out at abortion clinics, our homegrown terrorists have clearly lost all hope.  Consumed and deranged by a potent blend of fear and hatred, they lash out despite having no coherent vision of a better future to follow from those actions.

Responsible civic discourse is always degraded by appeals to fear and hate.  Yet it can be elevated by appeals to hope.  This nation has made many monumental efforts through the decades.  Some, like marginalizing indigenous tribes or organizing the Confederacy, were the product of fearful and hateful rhetoric.  By contrast, hopeful rhetoric has inspired our greatest achievements, from the Internet to the Apollo Program all the way back to the Constitution itself.

As fuzzy and sentimental as this analysis may seem, its strength is revealed by the rarity and weakness of exceptions to it.  Direct your mind to the past.  Did a President’s angry words ever serve as the birth cry of a great national success?  Did any dark chapter in our history begin with earnest appeals to the better angels of our nature?  If those questions are answered in the negative, a clear relationship between hopeful rhetoric and real success in statecraft has been observed.

The present election provides mixed messages from both sides.  The Republican ticket offers hope that there will be more use of domestic fossil fuels, more tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, and more cold shoulders for foreigners seeking high level diplomacy without preconditions.  Few people seriously believe a surge in fossil fuels can address our economic shortcomings, never mind dealing with serious environmental issues.  Faith in the panacea of tax cuts remains popular, though in the present historical context that can only be characterized as blind faith.

As far as American exceptionalism goes, that point is a blend of hope and fear.  It is all well and good when citizens hope that our nation’s conduct on the world stage is so amazingly wonderful that there are no errors to acknowledge.  It is neither well nor good when citizens hope that our nation’s position in the world is so coercively dominant that there is no need to acknowledge errors as they become apparent.  When the line between patriotism and jingoism is crossed, so too is the line between hope and fear.

By contrast, the Democrats’ chief appeal to fear draws mainly from a reasonable apprehension about continuity in public policy after George W. Bush and Dick Cheney left their mark on world history.  Sure, occasionally there is a low blow about Senator McCain’s aversion to modern information technology (after all, a President should have no shortage of top quality clerical assistance.)  However, the bulk of the attacks go negative on the record and plans of the Republican nominee — not his personality and assorted minor foibles.

With the rest of their enormous media buys and direct communications, Senator Obama’s supporters articulate real hopes.  His health care proposal may not rid the nation of parasitic middlemen, but it does constitute a real effort to address a serious national problem in terms of access to medical goods and services. Few Americans would argue that poor citizens should be allowed to die in the streets due to the costs of treatment.  Yet some legislate and millions vote as if that they hoped for precisely that.  Not since the early 90s has any prominent American leader tried to realign hope with basic human decency in this crucial way.

Elsewhere, Senator Obama’s idealism takes even more noble forms.  His plans for education and science funding would make our workforce more competitive and could bring about a technological renaissance.  Healing damaged international relationships, getting serious about renewable energy sources, providing tax relief for families that have never seen a six figure paycheck — the list of appeals driven by hope and joined by substantive specifics is lengthy.  Heck, the man even hopes to radically transform [warning: PDF link] the national failure that is our policy on broadband infrastructure development.

Perhaps there is no force in the universe that could silence all the fearmongering and hatemongering noise machines in American politics.  Yet that is no reason at all to bend to any particular agenda.  The ultimate tax cut would not address the realities of homelessness, domestic hunger, and preventable loss of human life that occur in our cutthroat economy.  The ultimate drilling initiative would not address the realities of toxic byproducts, industrial emissions, and rising greenhouse gas levels.

Even if political conservatives accomplished goals as stated in this election cycle, unsolved problems growing, some already devastating in scope, would create far more trouble than the most loud-mouthed partisan pundit ever could.  All loyal citizens bear a duty to disregard, dismiss, or dismantle sources of political fear and hate.  Likewise, civic duty calls for heartfelt hopes to be expressed clearly and harmonized with the realities of our times.

Not even a sitting President gets to live in a United States perfectly altered to suit his every whim.  Hope must be tempered with reason if it is ever to bridge the gaps between our noblest dreams and our daily realities.  Fear and hatred repulse reason and hope.  What Machiavelli wrote on the subject has little relevance in an open society with regular peaceful transitions of power.   Perhaps appeals to fear and hatred have a part to play in popularity contests and power struggles.  Yet they can only diminish any civilized leader’s ability to govern effectively over the long term.

Barring one of the greatest surprises in the history of American politics, the contrast will be clear as voters go to the polls on November 4th.  One candidate offers ample thoughtful specifics in a long list of plans to make life better for honest working Americans.  The other adheres to the failed politics of the past while framing precious few appeals without falling back on themes of fear or hatred.  When taking the time to exercise a citizen’s right to vote, think of which future is more desirable — a nation driven forward by hope or a nation frozen in place by fear — then act accordingly.


What You Should Think About Wealth

October 12, 2008

“Sell not virtue to purchase wealth, nor Liberty to purchase power.”

–Benjamin Franklin

A great challenge facing the crop of national leaders to be selected this November will be promoting national unity.  For any office of import, surely an uncontested election is worse than a hotly contested election.  Yet one side effect of heated political contests is a wide range of fried political nerves.  Unscrupulous panderers are sure to cater to outrage about “socialism” in America while continuing to leave millions of citizens worse than misinformed about political realities.

Ultimately, the debate comes down to a clash of opinions about the nature of wealth.  Speaking from the gut, concerned liberals may rightly point out that millions of American households face extreme economic distress, then forget about facts and simply conclude that it is time for “a change.”  Yet concerned conservatives rightly point out that major American businesses also face economic distress, only to forget about facts and simply conclude that more tax cuts will certainly remedy the situation.

Fortunately the same clash can also be framed in cerebral terms.  Few serious thinkers dispute that the economic environment could be much better for both American consumers and American businesses.  The real work to be done on these issues comes from sorting out just what policies and practices will improve those conditions.  National dialog is severely impeded to the extent that handwaving media commentators reinforce popular claptrap about economics being “too complicated” for popular debate.

To the degree that the complexity is not a phantom generated by self-justifying academics, it is largely a matter of delineating the boundary between fact and opinion.  Whether it is “better” to break your leg in Canada, Connecticut, or Cuba is a fuzzy argument.  Yet the populations, budgets, and outcomes in each territory are facts.  Available calculations may not achieve metaphysically perfect precision, but arguments that depend on impeaching basic non-partisan public health data are implausible on their face.

To see progress in related civic discourse, there must be more than answering false narratives with alternative narratives.  Even casual conversations often offer up some opportunity to address reality.  Media professionals should feel shame whenever appeals to fear or anger eclipse rational discussion of substance.  Like never before, it has become possible to subsist on a diet of lies.  This makes it all the more urgent that the veil be cast aside whenever reality has the opportunity to intrude.

Do not let “tax cuts create growth” simple sit unchallenged as if it were the alpha and omega of wisdom about economics.  After all, where has tax cutting been practiced with more consistency and commitment than the United States in the early 21st century?  What sort of growth followed those policy changes?  Can it all be chalked up to the grave threat posed by fanatics with boxcutters?  Can it all be swept under the rug of incompetence and corruption?  Even if we grant that this growth generation strategy requires competence and integrity to implement, how plausible is it that such traits should come to dominate the White House and Congress?

Such trains of reasoning yield only to unreasonable resistance.  No doubt regurgitated talking points and flat out denials of reality are common outcomes of political clash.  Yet each instance where a sane adult falls back on irrational behavior to defend a political belief is one more instance in which the belief itself becomes distasteful.   Often these beliefs are incorporated into self-identity.  Changing them is not like learning the location of a new supermarket or the time change of a favored television program.  Yet the slower and deeper nature of these changes is no reason to deny that they occur . . . or that it is worthwhile to encourage them.

As the American people belatedly turn their backs on the absurd notion that every citizen ought aspire to be some sort of tycoon, we will collectively turn toward something else.  Even the most extreme of conservatives should be much more interested in tying these new ideals to reality than in jabbering on about doom and gloom born purely of political fearmongering.  Even the argument to desist with the mythology and get down to brass tacks is itself rooted in facts, from ongoing capital losses to polls projecting consolidation of legislative power.

One potential, perhaps ideal, casualty of contemporary politics would be this notion of “job creation.”  Short of making actual federal hires, there is nothing a President or Congress can do to create a job.  Still the term is a staple of hollow campaign promises.  Likewise, corporations often argue for a particular policy or subsidy based on theoretical “job creation” that is in no way linked to concrete workforce expansion plans.  Furthermore, new hires that do not actually accomplish some productive purpose create a false prosperity that simply cannot be sustained over time.

Between a natural tendency for leaders to take undue credit for good news and a body of policies oriented toward promoting quantity (and largely ignoring quality) in employment, it was entirely foreseeable that hearty growth achieved in recent years would eventually come undone.  Promoting this sort of unsustainable growth may delay the next downturn in the business cycle, but at the cost of its amplification.

Arguments from the political right are rarely short on hostility toward usefulness of promoting economic equality.  Yet they are rarely answered by questions about the usefulness of perpetuating (or amplifying) economic inequality.  Through a process that begins with facts, it is possible to provide compelling support for a conclusion that condemns some extreme scenario that not even Stalinists would actually have attempted.  Rather than wasting energy on the straw man of hypercommunism, there are two approaches informed commentators can take to provide a positive contribution to the shape of things to come.

The first is simply to point out that the United States could make tremendous moves away from cutthroat competition without getting anywhere near communism, real or imagined.  It is one thing to have difficulty grasping nuance — quite another to simply refuse all discussions that are not confined to absolute extremes.  Moments like that call for the subtlety of pointing out truly childish behavior while stopping well short of a counterproductive level of invective.

Perhaps more importantly, it is worthwhile to take a look at the nature of wealth itself.  What are the existent inequalities?  What is their usefulness, and how would that be diminished if those inequalities were diminished?   Mountains of data from dozens upon dozens of stable national economies demonstrate that prosperous corporations, complete with growing workforces, thrive well enough in a wide range of economic and social environments.  If there were a correlation between concentration of wealth and creation of wealth, then why is the current American economy as (or more) prone to difficulties than any other large modern economy?

As Pollyanna attitudes are put down by harsh realities, we must look inward as well as abroad.  Even allowing for some negative emotional bias at work on capital markets today, it is clear that slashing taxes on investment income and high levels of personal income is no way to build a more prosperous future.  A moment of national lucidity, prompted by crisis and under constant assault from bombastic pundits, provides a rare opporunity to strike a new balance.

Our future, be it more or less prosperous than today, will originate with this moment.  For those of us who care about the wealth of the nation, it is imperative that this new balance facilitate broad, real, and sustainable expansion of human achievement.  It may indeed be difficult and complicated to craft a detailed and comprehensive solution, but by now hopefully all earnest patriots can agree that it should be well within our means to do much better than Reaganomics.


What You Should Think About Confidence

October 11, 2008

“Once you forfeit the confidence of your fellow citizens you can never regain their respect and esteem.”

–Abraham Lincoln

The leading voices in 21st century political misinformation display command of sophisticated techniques.  Yet, from Wall Street to the White House, there has long been a fundamental disregard for basic truths.  By this I do not refer to specific falsehoods in the misinformation. Instead I see the strategy of popularizing ideas through misinformation as deeply unsound.  On one level, policies propped up by bogus argument risk redefinition in terms of those bogus arguments.  On another, misinformation campaigns tend to generate backlash that increases dramatically over time.

Manipulators forget that ideas good in theory may still fail in practice since propping up talking points may sap energy away from potentially real accomplishments.  Manipulators also forget that ideas that are not even good in theory cannot find enduring support in an open society with access to good information.  Spin atop spin may work to motivate frenzied extremists, but it only alienates thinkers anchored in reality.  Yet the more moderate citizens see something screwy in the rhetoric of a national leader, the less confidence they will have in all of that leaders arguments and initiatives.

Contrast Operation Desert Storm with Operation Iraqi Freedom.  The 1991 war was waged in the context of a defensible idea.  George H. W. Bush declared “a new world order” while leading an enormous coalition to drive an invading army from Kuwait.  Even so, legitimate appeals were bolstered by propaganda.  Madison Avenue experts crafted heartwrenching tales of premature Kuwaiti infants wrenched from lifesaving incubators.  Stories of alleged atrocities taking place inside Kuwait passed completely unfiltered from dubious sources to evening newscasts.  Yet over any time frame, the backlash generated by these deceptions was minimal.

This was because the war propaganda of the time never stole center stage from the real story.  The integrity of national borders, the essence of geopolitical stability, was at stake.  Thus there is all the more irony in the fact that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was chiefly justified by an argument for pre-emptive defense. The very stability at the heart of Bush the Elder’s greatest achievement was cast aside in favor of a new paradigm that allowed violent aggression to be justified by nothing more than a fearful state of mind.  Fanatics doing the bidding of Osama bin Laden gave this century an uncertain start. George W. Bush insured it would remain an uncertain time for many years to come.

During the decade that international efforts did so much to contain and extinguish military aggression, times were generally good.  Radicals and fundamentalists engaged in their share of disruptive activities, but cooler heads prevailed anywhere public scrutiny was influential.  World leaders were generally inclined to solve problems and raise confidence.  A culture of responsibility heavily discouraged generating new troubles and raising public fears.  That culture failed the people of the United States so far this century.

The same failure is evident beyond the realm of politics.  For years Wall Street thrived on a potent blend of false narratives.  Loose credit inflated housing prices beyond reason, which in turn justified continuity in the practices associated with the phrase “loose credit.”  Corporations achieved great profits by relocating production abroad, yet years of unconditional support for free trade meant trading those short term gains for sustainable progress a more robust industrial sector could provide.  The house of cards so freshly tumbled has been unsound for a decade or more, yet when is the first time serious critics were given serious public attention?

No serious participants in American public dialog want to see further ruin befall our national economy.  No serious participants in American public dialog want the nation to succumb to foreign invaders.  Yet many very serious, and very vocal, participants in American public dialog prey upon gullibility and fear, demonizing ideas and people alike.  Having clutched so long at wickedly false narratives, they are reduced to arguing that disagreement with their agenda is the equivalent of disloyalty to the nation as a whole.

How did we get here?  Fearmongers and hatemongers have always been a fixture in public life.  Even in the happiest and most peaceful of times, some people will be disaffected and others demented.  Their ravings are more likely to strike a popular chord when fear or anger come to dominate the national mood.  They are also more likely to gain influence when a vacuum is created by a lack of worthwhile ideas serving a large constituency.  The result has a major party’s rank and file lobbing firebombs like “murderer” and “terrorist” at a sitting U.S. Senator lacking anything like a meaningful connection to any violence against Americans.

There is a certain crazy logic to it all.  Amongst the extremist rhetoric is a disturbingly popular notion that, because taxation carries with it the force of law, simply having a publicly funded government is an unbearable imposition of violence.  It is a view that comes from no place in reality.  It is a view that has no place in realistic dialog.  Yet it has a prominent place in the echo chambers of the American political right wing.  In recent months, it is at the place that the most fervent opponents of political liberalism have jumped the rails altogether.  Without sensible arguments and strong leaders to guide them, a web of conservative political movements resort to raw sound and fury.

The tension all this creates is not worse than simply going submitting to cutthroat agenda.  Yet the tension need not have been allowed to fester so in the first place.  If conservative political operatives and Republican partisans had not rejected so many mainstream ideas and institutions, the lines of communications would have been much healthier.  It is hard to overstate the extent of the prices paid for their failure.

Take the example of interest rates.  No doubt in the past seven years there have been some strong arguments for action by the Federal Reserve to lower rates.  Yet the history of rate cuts suggests even the weakest of those arguments was embraced while contrary views simply went unheard.  An inclusive process accommodating differences of opinion would have been much less likely to stray into an extremist rut.  Had rates been cut more slowly (or even raised from time to time) during the past eight years, the present crisis could have been softened (or even averted) by bold cuts in response to the earliest major events related to tightening credit.

This is just one of many truly horrible situations that was shaped in part by a bunker mentality hostile to mainstream ideas.  It may be fair to argue that voices of protest against the latest war in Iraq were outside the mainstream in 2003.  It certainly is fair to note that there was vocal mainstream concern when Saddam Hussein had been captured and American officials refused to consider subsequent demilitarization of U.S.-Iraq policy.  Some good ideas implemented recently were rejected in the past while others (including taking the U.S. Armed Forces out of the lead in facilitating Iraq’s political progress) have yet to receive serious consideration by executive leaders.

From climate change to fiscal restraint to fair trade, a host of critical issues have been addressed (or not) by the whims of individuals deaf to even the most insightful and constructive of their critics.  Entangled with this problem of insular thinking is the problem of public confidence.  Ignoring sound critiques while endlessly echoing a mix of talking points crafted with little regard for verifiable facts will tend to make observers uneasy in direct proportion to how astute those observers are.  This drives off the most honorable supporters of an agenda or organization while leaving the remainder increasingly frustrated and confused.

Over the long term, gains accomplished by campaigns of misinformation give way to growing doubt and distrust among the misinformed.  That lost trust is of immense value in instances when it is desirable that the nation should rally behind a common cause.  Public opinion of a prominent leader has long been a more useful asset than any weapons system or banking institution.  Whatever struggles await the American people in the future, it is true that public confidence may light the way toward better outcomes.  Yet the way toward better public confidence is itself only clear when lit by truthful dialog about those future struggles.


What You Should Think About Being Cool

October 6, 2008

“It is only after time has been given for a cool and deliberate reflection that the real voice of the people can be known.”

–George Washington

On the eve of 2008’s second U.S. Presidential debate, I am inclined to reflect on one of the more interesting statements from the first.  Senator Barack Obama observed, “part of my job, I think, as President, is to make government cool again.”  In that regard, the candidate faces an uphill battle.  For thirty years, whatever efforts were made to get positive results from trickle-down economics have been exceeded by efforts to rally popular support for an ideology that characterizes government itself as “part of the problem.”

Millions of American voters consider themselves informed because of fantasies spun from the hot air of passionate extremism.  Rather than recognize the limited technical parameters within which a tax cut is likely to promote growth, their dogma transmutes any tax cut proposal into a surefire remedy for the economic troubles of the day.  Rather than recognize the legitimately constructive role new programs could play in promoting progress, their dogma demands nothing but venom for any economic act the state may take to promote the general welfare.

There is a legitimate difference of opinion about the effectiveness of campaigns to popularize this anarcho-capitalist ideology.  Dissent persists.  Heretical suggestions of imperfection in free markets are increasingly allowed to escape into mainstream media content.  Sadly, to hoodwinked legions, any media not fully co-opted by the ideology of free market fundamentalism is to be dismissed by charges of bias . . . along whatever pesky facts they might happen to uncover.

This preference for reducing politics to a level approaching infantile, regurgitating the false narratives and avoiding absorption of real information, is grossly irresponsible.  It is only natural that someone of a patriotic mindset would feel animosity toward organizations and individuals promoting and acting on these false narratives.  Yet, like the central theory of trickle-down economics, the idea that it is right to fight fire with fire is nice, neat, simple, and generally wrong.

Having the right idea does not bestow the loudest voice.  Perhaps more crucially, having the loudest voice is no assurance that it will sound out the right ideas.  Americans of all political orientations have contributed energy to noise machines.  Yet in this century, it is unmistakable that the substantive discourse of conservatives like William F. Buckley Jr. and Peggy Noonan has been replaced by the deceitful manipulations of conservatives like Karl Rove and David Frum.  The leadership of the party in power lacks ability or the willingness to distance itself from blatant scoundrels and laughable incompetents.

The tenor of Senator John McCain’s campaign makes this unmistakable.  At a time when both global and national economies are in severe turmoil, that organization opted to let today’s campaign efforts be dominated by personal attacks and sleazy innuendo.  With a little less than their usual levels of restraint and discipline, Senator Obama’s campaign responded in kind.  On the eve of a historic debate, both candidates have positioned themselves in a gutter where slander and trickery marginalize any role underlying realities may play.

A “fight fire with fire” mentality only insures that a clash will be heated.  In the ideal, a fire may also shed some light.  Given the nature of politics, such heated appeals more often wind up obscuring important realities with smoke.  Alas, there is also a perception issue here.  Credible analysis holds that John Kerry’s “above the fray” approach to slander and personal attacks in the 2004 campaign lost him some votes.  A sufficient amount of dirty fighting from one campaign demands a measure of it from the other to avoid a popular perception of weakness (however misguided that perception may be.)

Yet the grave danger exists, as has long been the case with U.S.-Iraq policy, that saving face and perpetuating false narratives will take priority over making changes and popularizing accurate narratives.  Early in his primary bid, Senator Obama called for “a new kind of politics.”  Even granting that this call may have fallen on deaf ears across the Senate aisle, it should not be abandoned.  For cooler heads to prevail, that which is most vulgar and primal about our politics must not be legitimized.

Perhaps nothing truly defines 21st century American politics better than the desperate need for cooler heads to prevail.  Twenty men with boxcutters attacked this nation over seven years ago.  Because of what twenty men with boxcutters did on a single morning, “everything changed.”  In the absence of cool rational thought, that sort of rhetorical absolutism enjoys popular resonance.  In the absence of cool rational thought, extremist policies may steamroll right over otherwise effective checks and balances.

Twenty men with boxcutters were the most effective terrorists in the history of terrorism.  They were provided unwitting yet essential support by the sitting President, his speechwriters, his advisors, and many lesser officials in the executive branch.  The United States of America was under threat by a criminal network with a demonstrated capability to deploy conventional bombs and knife-wielding fanatics.  The group did benefit from private Saudi financial support and sanctuary in the Taliban-controlled portions of Afghanistan.  Yet its single greatest asset was a U.S. Presidency eager to elevate these scum from a ragtag band of misanthropic cave dwellers into an overwhelming threat to the American way of life.

Shocked, saddened, and infuriated by a real national tragedy (and an emotional impact amplified through the manic properties of contemporary media,) our citizenry was in no position to insure that cooler heads would prevail.  Rather than show real leadership by rising to the occasion, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and their associates willfully exploited the situation to advance such barbaric policies as the pre-emptive defense, enhanced interrogation techniques, extraordinary rendition, and the unitary executive.  All cloaked in clinical doublespeak, each one of them does more to undermine American liberty than any British tax act ever did.

It is right that people should be upset by all this.  It is right that people should be upset that there is precious little in the way of substantive discourse emergent from American political conservatives.  Perhaps at some rallies and special events, it is not entirely wrong to allow some of that negative emotion to be vented.  Yet it is certainly wrong to ever let it displace calm cool rationality or cold hard facts.

To the degree that conservatives do express their views with support from earnest analysis and accurate information, that deserves responses supported by earnest analysis and accurate information.  Even when conservatives support their views with only hotheaded bluster and misleading noise, responses should still be solidly supported by earnest analysis and accurate information.  When it comes to political clash, perhaps the best approach to fighting fire is not with fire, but rather with ice (or at least a simple wet blanket.)

If our national leadership ever is to benefit from cooler heads in action, then advocates in possession of rational perspectives must step up with the dignity and poise required to actually be cool.  If Presidential politics is to cease being a venue for mongers of fear and hate, it must become a stage for the projection of confidence and hope.

It is long past time for the demonization of the entire public sector to give way to a rational national debate about the role of government in American life.  Our government is not based on inscribed tablets distributed by a burning bush.  Our government is not shaped by manuals sent here from some higher intelligence.  It is now, and always has been, shaped by the words of American patriots.  In pursuit of the goal to make government cool again, there can be no finer start than to be cool whenever engaging in civic discourse.