Maybe Democracy Just Doesn’t Work…

Democratic theory is based upon the premise that voters will respond to evidence of performance–that they will fail to return politicians to office when the policies pursued by those politicians demonstrably fail to work.

Democratic theory also assumes a significant level of voter self-interest; that when the policies of Party A have created an environment inimical to an individual voter’s interests, he/she will vote instead for Party B ( or in some places, party C or D).

And of course, democratic theory assumes that accurate information–aka “facts”– will be available to the general public from media sources that most voters consider trustworthy.

Maybe democratic theory is wrong about all of that.

David Atkins has written a provocative post over at Political Animal.

Something has happened over the last 15 years in the American conservative psyche that most journalists and centrist political observers don’t want to admit. Conservatives are locked in an increasingly hostile defensive crouch against reality and demographic trends. Supply-side economics, once unquestioned in its Reagan ascendancy, has been shown to be a failure on multiple levels. President George W. Bush’s signature war in Iraq turned out to be a bungled disaster. Secularism is on the rise, gays can legally get married, and America is fast becoming a minority-majority nation. Climate change and wealth inequality are the two most obvious public policy problems, neither of which has even the pretense of a credible conservative solution. This, combined with the election of the first African-American president, has had a debilitating effect on the conservative psyche, which now sees itself under assault from all directions.

Conservatives have responded by creating their own alternative reality in which rejection of basic facts and decency in the service of ideology is a badge of merit and tribal loyalty. That has created an environment in which the most popular voices tend to be the most aggressive and outlandish.

Add to that Chris Cillizza’s trenchant observation about the public’s growing distrust of media–the insistence (from right and left alike) that all media is biased– in a recent Washington Post column:

Here’s the thing: If there is no agreed-upon neutral arbiter, there are no facts. And, as I have written before, what is happening in the Republican race is that most of the candidates — save Trump and, at times, Ben Carson — are playing by an established set of rules around what you can say and do. Trump is not only not playing by those rules but there are also no referees to enforce his blatant flouting of them.

And that, children, is why–as Atkins notes–the GOP is Donald Trump’s party now.

What If We Tried Running Government Like a Government?

We’ve all heard it a million times: “why can’t government be run like a business”? I generally want to scream “because government isn’t a business….” but I generally settle for “Don’t you mean we need to run government in a businesslike fashion? You really don’t mean we should run government like a business…”

This notion that government is just like business, only less efficient, is often cited by people as the reason they support candidates for public office who, like Donald Trump or Carly Fiorina, have no government experience (and frequently, only the dimmest idea of what government is and does).

In a recent post–rant, really–Mark Sumner insisted that the recurrent theme that “government should be run more like a business,” is both dangerous and completely counter to the whole idea of democracy.

Government and business are not the same thing. In fact, there are good reasons why, in a democracy at least, any effort to run the government like a business should be seen as a hostile act.

After making the (obvious) point that the business of business is profit,  and the business of government is the common good, he goes on:

Well, those who still want to run government like a business would surely be thrilled at the idea of giving the president a pay raise of 16 percent a year—the average increase for Fortune 500 CEOs last year. In fact, CEO pay has risen 937 percent since the business-friendly 1980s, while presidential pay hasn’t even kept up with inflation. Come to think of it, when you compare average CEO pay to company revenues, it looks like President Obama should have pocketed about $124 billion last year. I think everyone can get behind that aspect of “running it like a business.” Right?

But then, the president would deserve that money, because unlike an actual president, as government CEO he’d have enormous freedom to ignore what anyone else said and run the nation as he wanted. Sell the Grand Canyon! Swap North Dakota for North Sudan! Fire the Congress! Yes, Mr. President.

I suppose that people could mean “run the government like a business” in terms of keeping the books tidily balanced. Only, of course, they don’t. Check out Amazon. Or Twitter. Or… well, just about any of them. Check out all those investment banks that invented more theoretical money than the GDP of the entire world, and then lost it.

I particularly liked his conclusion:

If you want a government that takes as much of your money as it can, delivers as little as possible, gives what it takes to a handful of the powerful, and is intrinsically unstable … Sure. Run it like a business.

And actually, there have been governments run this way. Plenty of them. There’s even a word for it. Starts with an ‘F.’ Just Google Mussolini, Benito. You can take it from there. Though, speaking of Mr. M, a lot of this “run it like a business” stuff seems to grow out of a longing for having one tough-talking leader at the helm. Maybe you should add Mugabe, Robert and Franco, Francisco and Dada, Idi Amin to that search. Like I say, this kind of government isn’t exactly a new idea.

On the other hand, if you’d rather have a government that’s interested in providing the best service to the greatest number of people, in rewarding everyone fairly, in protecting the weak from the powerful, then you have another choice. You need to run it like a government. That’s the only way you can, hmmm, what’s that phrase?

“Establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”

That stuff. There’s no profit in that stuff. That’s why it’s nobody’s business … but should be everybody’s government.

Why I Have Blocked “Gopper”

Regular readers of this blog’s comments sections know that it has attracted a regular troll who calls himself “Gopper.” Gopper’s comments suggest that he is an unhappy and angry individual (with, evidently, a great deal of time on his hands), and although he has frequently crossed the line into invective and incivility, I haven’t previously blocked him, for a couple of reasons: for one thing, I am a big believer in the widest possible exchange of perspectives; for another, it is much too easy in the age of the Internet to limit our interactions to those with whom we agree, and thus fail to recognize the extent to which others hold not just diverse but frequently disturbing and even dangerous beliefs.

In that sense, Gopper’s frequent bizarre rants were instructive (although to the extent others couldn’t resist taking the bait, he managed to derail several otherwise productive conversations).

Yesterday, however, the anti-Semitism that has been visible in previous comments was full-blown; his defense of Nazi atrocities exceeded any tolerance to which he might otherwise be entitled in a civilized society,  however useful he might be as a “case in point.”

In a very real sense, this blog is my virtual home, and those invited in will be expected to adhere to the rules of civilized behavior. Visitors are free–indeed, encouraged–to disagree with me or with anyone posting comments. As arguments heat up, I can tolerate–and I have tolerated–a certain degree of testiness and occasional incivility. But ad hominem attacks, personal nastiness and unrepentant bigotry are not welcome and cannot be tolerated.

Gopper’s presence here has served its purpose; he has demonstrated where the problem lies.

The raw vitriol–unleavened by any respect for evidence or reason or other people’s humanity–is undoubtedly not unique to him. Those of us who are trying to leave this world just a little bit better, a little bit kinder than we found it, need to realize that Americans aren’t just arguing about the best way to achieve the common good, or even about what the common good looks like. All too often, debates that are ostensibly about policy are really about power, fear, privilege, advantage–and deep-seated tribal hatreds.

People in the latter category simply cannot be allowed in polite company.

Forgive the detour; this blog will return to its regular obsessions tomorrow.




Tell Me This Isn’t Really Happening..

According to the New York Times and other media outlets, “The Donald” has proposed a mandatory registry of Muslims in the United States. Trump has also suggested that Muslims in the United States be required to wear special badges identifying their religious beliefs.

Because that worked out so well in Germany…

Trump may be the most visible, but he has lots of company. Responses to the desperate plight of Syrian refugees in the wake of the attacks in Paris have been chilling.

Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz have suggested that we “might” resettle those who can “prove” they are Christians. Ben Carson called Muslims–not just radicalized jihadists– “rabid dogs.” Chris Christie insisted he wouldn’t even accept five-year-old orphans in New Jersey. And 20 plus Republican Governors–including, of course, Indiana’s embarrassing Mike Pence– have announced that, Christmas season be damned, there’s no room in their state inns for any Middle Eastern supplicants.

Pence argues that his “suspension” of resettlement is warranted as a safety measure. Let’s deconstruct that argument.

  • Governors have no legal authority to prevent resettlement. Pence and the others undoubtedly know that; they’re using this as an opportunity to pander to the GOP’s increasingly xenophobic base.
  • All of the terrorists were French citizens, including the three who lived in Belgium. The Syrian passport found near one of them was fake.
  • As Condoleezza Rice and others have noted, shutting out Syrian refugees is exactly what ISIS wants. It helps their recruiting. (The French, who “real Amuricans” like to dismiss as weenies, and who were the victims of the recent attacks, understand that, and immediately reaffirmed their acceptance of 30,000 Syrian refugees.)

What is heartbreaking is that these refugees are fleeing the same terrorists that our politicians say they are trying to “protect us” from, and the very small number (10,000) that the U.S. has agreed to resettle—the vast majority of whom are women, children and people over 60– have been undergoing 18-24 months of very rigorous vetting.

Could any sentient American really believe that the politicians demanding that we turn these people away are relying on an assessment of the risks involved?

Pence and the other “we’re-just-being-prudent” politicians issuing dire warnings about the risks of admitting refugees are, by and large, the very same politicians who adamantly oppose the most cursory background checks for gun purchases, even checks intended to weed out convicted felons and the mentally ill. They are perfectly willing to assume that risk, which–unlike the risk attendant to Syrian refugees– is anything but theoretical; guns kill 32,000 Americans every year.

Since 9/11, hundreds of thousands of Muslim immigrants have been safely woven into the fabric of this country. Furthermore, terrorist attacks in the U.S. are more likely to be perpetrated by homegrown religious extremists and racists than by Islamic radicals. According to the New York Times,

Since Sept. 11, 2001, nearly twice as many people have been killed by white supremacists, antigovernment fanatics and other non-Muslim extremists than by radical Muslims: 48 have been killed by extremists who are not Muslim, including the recent mass killing in Charleston, S.C., compared with 26 by self-proclaimed jihadists, according to a count by New America, a Washington research center.

For that matter, the magnitude of the terrorism risk, both homegrown and jihadist– the risk that has Governor Pence and others so panic-stricken– is minuscule: In 2011, the National Counter-Terrorism Center calculated that Americans are as likely to be “crushed to death by their televisions or furniture each year” as they are to be killed by terrorists.

Let’s be honest. What motivates Mike Pence and those like him isn’t prudence. It’s bigotry. And we’ve been here before.

In 1939, the United States turned away the MS St. Louis, a ship carrying more than 900 Jewish refugees. Nearly half of those sent back to Europe later perished in the ovens.

The officials refusing to allow the ship to dock argued that some of those aboard could be Nazis. The rhetoric was all too similar to what we’re hearing today, as politicians played to, and stoked, popular fear and hatred of “those people.” Then, as now, their rhetoric reflected polls showing that most Americans wanted to keep the “others” out.

As the President has said, it’s unAmerican.

Maybe we should rewrite the inscription on the Statue of Liberty. Stephen Colbert has suggested an amended text: “Give us your tired, your poor, mostly Christians, and maybe one or two Indian guys with engineering degrees.’”

We should be ashamed.


Return on Investment

Although I rarely have time to participate in the conversations (I have what is quaintly called a “day job”), I do read most of the comments posted to this blog. A few days ago, one commenter, in an aside to the point being made, suggested that the US should stop “wasting” money on space exploration.

I disagree, because I think the evidence is overwhelming that money spent on exploration and research is invested, not wasted. And the return on that investment has been impressive, as articles from Investopedia and elsewhere have documented.

Leaving aside the benefits that cannot be monetized– satisfaction of our human urge to explore, to understand, to seek out new life and new civilizations (okay, I’m a Star Trek fan)–here are just some of the very concrete returns on America’s investment in NASA:

  • Aircraft collision-avoidance systems
  • Cordless power tools
  • Corrosion resistant coatings for bridges
  • Digital imaging
  • Ear thermometers
  • GPS (global positioning satellites)
  • Household water filters
  • Hydroponic plant-growing systems
  • Implantable pacemakers
  • Infrared handheld cameras
  • Kidney dialysis machines
  • LASIK corrective eye surgery
  • Memory foam mattresses
  • Scratch-resistant sunglasses
  • Safety grooving on pavement
  • Shoe insoles
  • Virtual reality
  • Weather forecasting
Space exploration has also expanded human knowledge and contributed to research in education, healthcare, pollution control, rain forest protection and transportation. These and many other NASA-inspired advancements have a profound effect on life on Earth by improving health, safety, comfort and convenience. Entire industries have been built on space technology, including personal computers and natural resource mapping. As one of the nation’s strongest industries and an employer of nearly one million Americans, the aeronautics industry uses NASA-developed technology on nearly all aircrafts.

These benefits have been produced by an agency with the smallest budget of any of the major agencies in the federal government. NASA’s share of total U.S. Federal outlay has consistently remained below 1%, and during the past five years, closer to 0.5%.I think we get our money’s worth. We surely get more value per dollar than we get from our extravagant defense spending.

And unlike money spent on weapons, we are enhancing rather than degrading our humanity.