Archive for the ‘Government and public policies’ Category

A Fantasy

Author: Gary Hart

Early in 2011, President Obama proposes town hall forums across the country sponsored by local civic organizations and both political parties.  He asks that these meetings discuss the great goals of the nation in the next 25 years, that resolutions be passed incorporating these goals, and that these resolutions be sent to the White House.

The president then brings together senior statesmen and women to discuss these resolutions and to find common themes.  This national forum will be broadcast and call-in comments invited.  Out of these discussions a national agenda for the next quarter century will be announced.  The president will request leaders of both political parties to endorse this agenda and agree to pursue it through legislation where it is required.

Unlike the partisan agendas of both parties, this national agenda will come from the people.  Though ideologues of both parties will attend and participate in the local forums, community leaders will stress that all proposals be judged by the national interest, not narrow partisan or special interest demands.  This is a difficult and obviously complex process.  But there is an identifiable national interest to be used as a standard.

Among the great issues to be discussed will be these: national security in the 21st century; economic competitiveness and how to restore it; public debt and deficits; health care costs; managing the social safety net (entitlements); a simple and just tax system; restoring a world class education system; climate and environment for future generations; and America’s role in the world.

Democracy and the republican ideal began in the public forums of Athens and Rome.  A mass democracy of 300 million cannot meet in one forum.  But as a function of citizen duty it can meet in many local forums. 

This is a fantasy.  But it is by no means an impossible one.

Power Shifts

Author: Gary Hart

Anyone who believed the Democratic party would retain control of all policy-making branches of government for very long in a period of great economic and political upheaval was not being realistic.  That the political pendulum would swing back after the 2008 election was never in doubt.  That it happened so quickly was the surprise.  Now, anyone in the White House who spends much time grieving is wasting time.  Accept political reality and make the most of it.

After the obligatory gestures of cooperative intentions on both sides, the governing artistry must turn to testing intentions.  If the president and Democratic leaders govern only by veto, they will lose in 2012.  On the other hand, if Republican leaders insist on a roll-back of the Obama agenda of the past two years, they will squander their current advantage and probably not expand their recent gains.

If there is genuine desire on both sides to govern by collaboration, there are arenas in which to operate: liquidating two wars in a responsible way; continuing temporary tax cuts for a reasonable period of time, while laying out the principles for a balanced budget by 2020; creating publicly financed public works, infrastructure projects to create jobs and build the base for economic growth and competitiveness; reforming the military for the conflicts of the future not the past; and the remaining list is obvious. 

In a word, start with the agenda on which both parties can agree, resolve that, then move on to more basic areas of disagreement.  The fear of many Americans, including myself, is that the two basic political philosophies are incompatible.  If so, the country is ungovernable for any period longer than two or four years when one party or the other can control the executive and legislative branches.  Then the deeply divided nation moves the pendulum back the other way.  This is an adolescent approach to politics, to government, and to citizenship.

During a recent exercise, sponsored by Esquire magazine, to demonstrate how government can and should work by putting senior retired figures of both parties together to produce a balanced budget–which we did in three days without the always helpful guidance of the lobbying army of America–the issue was defined.  One of us, former Senator Jack Danforth, said: we have to decide how much government we can afford.  Another, myself, countered with this: we must decide what kind of society we want.  Those are the two view points now bracketing American politics.

Governing by cooperation is complicated but not impossible.  Governing by confrontation is doomed to fail and guarantees stalemate as far into the future as anyone can see.  The Democratic party will waste its time if it engages in self-commiseration.  It must now restate the principles that distinguish it from the Republican party–the belief in national community (Roosevelt), the commitment to shared security (Truman), belief in republican duty (Kennedy), and a commitment to equality and justice (Johnson).  A generation of Americans has never had these principles explained to them.

Differences in principle do distinguish the two parties.  But they must not prevent the possibility of accommodation in the national interest.  For it is the national interest that is greater than either party.

Tomorrow is the next round in democracy’s struggle.  Listening to all the pundits and pollsters, wall-to-wall, it seems foregone that Democrats will lose the House majority and possibly the Senate as well.  At the very least, any thought of major legislation–possibly even minor legislation–initiated by President Obama, must be forsaken.  On the other hand, the perennial Republican effort to privatize Social Security, or for that matter destroy the new health care legislation, will face a presidential veto.  At the very least, the 2012 presidential campaign and the effort to drive President Obama from office will start November the 3ed.
 
More sophisticated political analysts than I (and here I do not include the self-described 23 year old, cable infested, political “strategists”) will reach their own conclusions as to what this all means, especially when it is almost axiomatic that opposition parties gain in off-year elections.
 
The historic question this election raises is this: outside the minimum requirements of the Constitution are there standards of intelligence, knowledge, and mental agility we should expect of our elected officials.  A more crude way of asking this question is: Is ignorance an attribute? 
 
Though relatively young when first elected, I had government and political experience, a law degree, and considerable study of the Constitution.  I didn’t know enough economics, so when considering a candidacy I sought out business and academic economists because I thought I should have at least a minimal understanding of fiscal and monetary policy.  Perhaps today’s crop of candidates are taking the responsibilities of national policy making seriously, but if so it is not apparent. 
 
Instead, a number of candidates for the House and Senate seem to pride themselves on what they do not know.  And a considerable number of voters seem to favor willfully ignorant candidates, as if knowing something is a barrier to service.  It is one thing to mistake ignorance for an attribute.  It is even worse to reward those who actively resent learning, science, intelligence, and education.
 
(I confess to having served in the good old days of better government with one, and only one, Senator whose motto was: not very intelligent people need their representative too.)
 
All those who genuinely love and care for their country and who take the duties and burdens of citizenship seriously must hope this willful ignorance fad will quickly pass, as it has in previous troubled times.  If so, we will quickly return to a more normal time when elected representatives are held to higher standards of thoughtfulness.  This does not mean high IQ.  This means open-mindedness, inquisitiveness, and eagerness to learn and not just spout slogans and talking points.  If not, then we are in for a troubled time for our nation.
 
Jonathan Swift’s Houyhnhnms, Lilliputions, and Yahoos come to mind.  They all represented the anti-Enlightenment thinking of his time.

Home of the Brave

Author: Gary Hart

Among the standards for judging civilized societies is how they care for those who fight their wars. By this standard, the United States falls considerably short.

Despite the fact the we have a Department of Veterans Affairs that generally provides health, housing, and employment support for past veterans, there are still far too many veterans of Vietnam and now Iraq and Afghanistan in serious trouble. Too many Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, young men and women, are coming back to unemployment lines, homelessness, and illness, both physical and mental. A recent television program featured a community-generated effort to provide assistance to recent veterans in San Diego. More than a thousand veterans came. Almost all were homeless, unemployed, and in need of medical care.

Suicides, including at Fort Carson, Colorado, now represent a small epidemic. Statistics also document very high rates of motorcycle and car crashes and other self-destructive behavior among young veterans. A recent war casualty was in his twelfth rotation in and out of Iraq and Afghanistan. Drug use, spousal abuse, and divorce are all way beyond the ordinary for veterans.

In office, it was always a matter of bitter resentment that elected officials most bellicose and eager for confrontation and conflict were almost always the first to forget about the results of those conflicts and the costs in human lives. Every war resolution ought to require a personal pledge on the part of everyone voting for it, including the president, that they will remain responsible and accountable for its costs, even after they have left office. And, at the very least, all those eager for war ought to be required to personally meet all the coffins coming home.

One Way Out

Author: Gary Hart

Most economists and policy experts agree that very large federal deficits are not sustainable.  The continued failure of the political system to provide a road map for reducing these deficits is taken as evidence that “government doesn’t work” and an argument for less government.  This is both a real and a symbolic issue.

Neither political party will offer a list of spending cuts and certainly neither will even discuss additional revenues.  The easiest way to reduce deficits is for the economy to expand and provide personal and corporate revenue increases required to match spending.  Very few people see this economic expansion anytime soon.  In the meantime, interest on the debt is one of the largest deficit contributors.

The problem can be solved.  Both parties could provide a specific list of spending cuts, including in favored programs.  A panel of former political leaders, sworn to forego partisanship and ideology, could negotiate a compromise between these lists.  Necessary military transformation and ideas such as a carbon tax should be on the table.  A proposed balanced budget for a given year, say 2020, could be provided to Congress.  And an up-or-down, no-amendment vote could be taken on this budget.  Those voting no would have to account for which favored program, ear-mark, pork-barrel item they believed more important than eliminating the deficit.

As mentioned before, a process very similar to this was undertaken by Esquire magazine’s Commission to Balance the Federal Budget (November issue).  It worked.  Social Security was preserved for decades to come.  Spending and revenues were stabilized at a sound percentage of gross domestic product.  The military was placed on a restructuring course and wasteful energy use reduced.  You might want to look into it.  It can be done.

There is an impression, widespread and generally accurate, that America is changing.  And that impression creates uncertainty, and uncertainty generates fear.  The issue is whether our fears are justified.

We are becoming more Latin, Asian, and African-American.  White Christians are less dominant.  Increasing ethnic diversity changes culture.  Movies, music, literature, education, all adapt to reflect a changing society.

International corporations increasingly condition and determine our economy.  The U.S. government cannot guarantee American jobs.  Jobs go where the money goes.  Pass a law that prevents companies from making things elsewhere and the companies will simply relocate.  Traditional monetary and fiscal policies don’t work anymore as they used to.

All of us Americans are dramatically affected by all this.  Seeing your country change around you in ways that neither you nor your elected representatives can prevent is frightening, especially if you are older, white, and conservative by nature.  You blame those in power–the “elites”–for not stopping this.  Find a villain.  How about a black president who must be a Muslim born somewhere else.  You are frightened, and frightened people easily and naturally become angry people.  A century ago we called these Americans “populists”.  Now they call themselves the “tea party.” 

Unless you believe these cultural, social, and economic trends can be reversed, that we can somehow magically return to the 1950s of happy days, ways must be found for our nation to absorb these changes and make them “American” as we have during past waves of immigration and cultural diversity.  The magic of America exists in this unique capacity to absorb difference and make it come out American.

In the meantime, older, white, conservative Americans should be listened to with respect and encouraged to overcome their fears.  It is a law of nature that generations must move on.  In a decade or so we will all look back (including me, I hope) on this period as yet another era of transition where the magic of America adjusted to change and made us better.  And less afraid.

Justified Anger

Author: Gary Hart

A lot of Americans are angry these days.  Some have better reasons for their anger than others.  Let’s consider justified and unjustified anger.

The justifiably angry include: the unemployed; the homeless; the hungry; those who’ve lost their homes because of unscrupulous mortgage company inducements; those carrying an unfair tax burden; those who see special interest lobbyists running Washington; young people who cannot afford an education; those with inadequate health care; those whose loved ones have died in Iraq and perhaps Afghanistan; voters who see parties nominating inadequate or unqualified candidates; and so forth.

The unjustifiably angry include: voters whose party or candidates lost the last election; those who hate President Obama or think he is a foreign Muslim; those who refuse to obtain information from other than the Fox network or right wing radio; those who do not vote or participate in public forums; Wall Street; those who do not pay a fair share of taxes; and many others.

For pundits and commentators to discuss endlessly anger in America as if it were all one thing is to overlook the significant distinction between those who have a genuine reason for their anger and those who simply don’t get their way politically or economically.  For investment bankers, whose industry was saved by the national taxpayers, to complain about “hostility” in Washington is absurd, particularly when they complain while taking home their tens of millions a year.  Those who paid for the bailouts have a lot more to be angry about than those who benefited from them.

The next time you hear some cable television wiseguy talk about angry Americans, send them a message about who is justified in their anger and who is not.

Reducing Government

Author: Gary Hart

The best military in the world; domestic law enforcement; cleaner air and water; safer food and drugs; highways, roads, and bridges; Social Security; Medicare and Medicaid; a judicial system; embassies around the world; space exploration; bank insurance; safer vehicles; national laboratories; air traffic control; support for education; health research; assistance to the elderly, the disabled, and poor children; loans to small business; national parks, recreation, and wilderness areas; national forests; disaster relief and recovery; cleanup of industrial waste; support for veterans; a 220 year old democratic system=government.

The anti-government forces, so noisy of late, have yet to state with any specificity which of these functions (all of which they enjoy, including large federal payments to Alaska), they would like to get rid of.  Until they do, their seriousness must be questioned.  It used to be “waste, fraud, and abuse”, that is until we entered a long period of mostly conservative administrations during which the size and cost of government did not go down.

This “debate” about the size and role of government will not get serious until the Tea Party and others tell us exactly what they want to get rid of.

Ink by the Barrel

Author: Gary Hart

According to H.L. Mencken, never pick a fight with a man who buys ink by the barrel.  Though he was correct about the consequences, some of us have refused to be intimidated.  (But that is another discussion.)

Nevertheless, what are thoughtful people to do when the men, and women, who buy ink by the barrel use an unconscionable amount of it–or its electronic equivalent, hours of airtime–to “report” on a hitherto anonymous minister in Florida for the simple reason that he threatened to burn a Koran?  And particularly when the reporting is 24/7, non-stop.  (The quotation marks are used to suggest this really isn’t news in any traditional sense.)

Had this travesty of abuse against the First Amendment to our Constitution not occurred, does anyone seriously believe that this minister would have received a pleading call from the Secretary of Defense of the world’s greatest superpower to cease and desist?  Would the Secretary of State, the Mayor of New York, and even the President of the United States have felt called upon to render opinions and pleas?

It is what it is.  But, at the very least, it is a cause for wonder about who is running the news business these days when audiences for both network and cable “news” are disappearing as fast as candidates who don’t take special interest money.  One has to have some suspicion that the 26 year old producers and editors calling the shots are under the bizarre assumption that some of us poor ignorant readers and viewers actually are interested in or amused by this nonsense.  Apparently their theory is that we are too dumb to absorb real news, so we must be fed irrelevant childishness.

Too bad a few of these overpaid children weren’t required to read the purposes of the First Amendment.  It wasn’t so that they and their publishers and network moguls could make money.  It was because the Founders knew the Republic would be in peril without the public having solid information about its really important business.  And there is a record amount of public business that we are being told precious little about.  These children must find it boring and assume we adults do as well.

It is very much an attribute of human nature to become angry when what we have believed to be true does not turn out to be true forever.  For example: the inevitability of progress; an ever expanding economic pie; opportunity for all; equality of opportunity; having it all; God rewarding the righteous materially; market self-correction; our military superiority; our children doing better than we did; a house for everyone; and so on.

Virtually all of these accepted truths have, in a relatively short time, turned out not to be true after all.  Someone must be to blame.  It has to be those “politicians.”  Or maybe those corporations.  Or maybe the misleading media.  Or maybe a gang of behind-the-scene puppet masters led by Henry Kissinger.  It has to be someone else.  It couldn’t be each of us.

There is nothing wrong with high ambitions, expectations, and dreams.  Americans lead the world in all of these, and for much of our history with good reason.  But almost nothing in this world is guaranteed, including our superiority and inevitable success.  Nations and empires rise and fall.  Leaders come and go.  Sometimes we’re up, and sometimes we are down.  History is a sobering teacher.  About the only thing that is inevitable is human folly.

Are our dreams permanently shattered?  Are we in a sharp decline?  Is our hour over?  No, I don’t think so.  A certain kind of way of life may be coming to an end, one marked by excessive consumption, waste, and inefficiency.  And if you have defined your life or your nation’s life by those standards, it does look gloomy.  But what really is wrong with smaller cars and more efficient homes and deferred gratification and saving for a rainy day?

 This approach toward what might be called a new realism doesn’t assume high unemployment forever, homelessness and hopelessness, or leaving a third of our fellow Americans behind.  It does assume more honest and affordable expectations, investing in the future–even beyond our own lives, and corralling the excessive ambitions of some of our neo-whatevers.

Most of all, it assumes a collective national soul-searching about what really is important in life and what really are the eternal truths.