Archive for the ‘Government and public policies’ Category

The greatest honor we can pay to those who have given their lives in service to our country’s defense is to limit the number of those who might be required to join them. We can do that by looking over the horizon, anticipating danger, and taking steps necessary to reduce it.

This process is called strategy. And the Obama administration has just provided its first annual National Security Strategy. At least as much as the federal budget, this document defines who we are and the role we are determined to play in the world. If this document misunderstands the times, misinterprets threats, applies the wrong resources, or defies our principles, the ranks of the fallen grow and we become weaker.

The first Obama National Security Strategy will be analyzed for its differences from the Bush strategies. In this regard it differs sharply in at least three major ways: it places great emphasis on the economic and human basis for security; it places diplomacy on an equal footing with the military; and it envisions a global commons of shared responsibilities for the common security.

The economic foundation for our security is formed by education and knowledge, clean energy and energy independence, science and technology investments, and a healthy work force. Innovation, new, more effective ways of doing things, is the source of power. And power translates into security.

Diplomacy, or engagement, is necessary to “mobilize collective action”, create new partnerships, organize a new international order (though the “new” is mentioned only once, possibly out of nervousness caused by the first Bush’s “new world order, respect for “universal rights” (a phrase distinct from Carter’s emphasis on human rights), “greater interconnectedness”, modernization of international institutions, and, possibly most important, the need for the United States to “live its values.”

The U.S. security concerns include: nuclear non-proliferation and nuclear security, new biological and cyber threats, al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, a two-state settlement in the Middle East and engagement with the Muslim world, and developing economic cooperation among the G-20 nations (replacing the traditional G-8). Emphasis is placed on common interests, including climate threats, and collective, not U.S. unilateral, responses.

The Obama strategy’s description of the “strategic environment” encompasses terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, space and cyberspace, fossil fuel dependence, climate and pandemics, failing states, and criminal networks. Militarily this requires conventional “superiority” (however that can be measured), response to asymmetrical threats, a civilian expeditionary capability (sounds like nation-building), and the integration of domestic (homeland) and international security. Our defenses also involve counterterrorism, counterinsurgency, stability operations (preventing failed states), and improvements in “resiience” (the ability to absorb and overcome a systemic failure, whose author is Dr. Steve Flynn).

Key strategic concepts include: the ability to “shape change”, moral leadership, the power of example, living the principles of democracy, and remaining true to our Constitutional ideals and principles. Here is the qualitative departure from the second Bush’s preoccupation with unilateralism, preemption, and expedient suspension of Constitutional principles.

For the author of The Fourth Power: a Grand Strategy for the U.S. in the 21st Century (2004), The Shield and the Cloak: The Security of the Commons (2006), and Under the Eagle’s Wing (2008), all of which urged a national strategy based on shared international responsibility for a global commons, threat anticipation and reduction, and security policy based on Constitutional principles, this national security strategy is a very welcome return to the mainstream of America’s role in the world and, at the same time, a realization that the new realities of the 21st century cannot be addressed by military means alone, nor can they be solved by one nation alone.

It is personally gratifying to see so many ideas totally neglected in the past administration now incorporated in our national strategy in a new administration.

A more intelligent strategic approach to security in the next few years will guarantee that fewer crosses will be added at Arlington and fewer young men and women will have the bell toll for them.

It is universally acknowledged that the United States is a capitalist economic system embedded in a democratic republic political system. When both system function smoothly, few question this arrangement.

But when one system or the other malfunctions, fingers are pointed and blamed is shifted…all according to one’s ideological beliefs. Take the British Petroleum/Gulf of Mexico oil spill for instance. The people of Louisiana and the vehicle drivers of the nation were happy to have the oil the offshore facilities produced. Jobs were created in Louisiana and the rest of us had gas for our cars. Both assumed the operator, British Petroleum, knew what it was doing and that the appropriate agencies of the U.S. government were regulating its behavior.

Problems arose, however, when BP’s “fail safe” system failed. Turns out it didn’t know what it was doing. And regulators in both the Bush and Obama administrations weren’t paying enough attention. Now the “free market” disciples are blaming the government, and the critics of corporate excess are blaming BP. The purpose here is not to join one side or the other (though both entities and both systems failed), but rather to encourage both warring sides to consider a new model.

Anyone who takes the trouble to read American history knows that, left to their own devices, corporate interest more often that not put profits ahead of the public interest. (Consider not only British Petroleum but also the operators of the West Virginia coal mine.) Likewise, the same history tells us that, when government relaxes its protection of the public interest and the common good, whether out of lassitude or belief that government should not reign in excessive corporate excess, bad things happen.

A mature society, one that understood both history and human nature, would reach a thoughtful balance that permits private corporate interests to drive economic growth, and make a reasonable profit, under conditions where the public interest, the common good, and the interests of future generations and nature were represented by well-trained, alert, dedicated, disinterested (that is to say, not regulators drawn from the industries they are sworn to regulate), and knowledgeable government officials made fail safe systems work.

This is not an impossible dream. It is how reasonable people behave. It is how a mature nation, which the United States of America should be by now, acts. It is the very least the people of the United States should expect from both corporate interests and their own government.

Duty and Honor

Author: Gary Hart

Of the many reasons for public discontent with government generally and Congress particularly, none is more obvious than the wholesale movement of former members of both Houses of Congress into the lobbying business.  The massive lobbying industry is quick to remind us that lobbying is perfectly legal, or perhaps it is better to say not illegal, and that it has been going on from the beginning of parliaments.  That may be technically true, but it neglects the critical point that, when conducted by former members of Congress, and now increasingly their wives and children, lobbying is a sophisticated way of trading titles provided by voters for substantial personal gain.

No one truly believes that John Doe is as valuable to his lobbying firm and its corporate clients as former Senator John Doe is.  Senator John Doe adds prestige to the firm.  More importantly, he can open doors in the offices of his former colleagues.  In the lobbying business, that is pure gold.  The core and centerpiece of the lobbying business is ACCESS.  It is possible to count on the fingers of one hand the number of members of Congress who refuse to see a former colleague.

My relatively few years in elective office spanned a critical transition time.  Very few of my Senate colleagues from the 1970s became lobbyists.  For most of the great ones it was a matter of self-respect and personal honor.  By the time I retired from office in the later 1980s, not only former Senators but also their wives and sons and daughters were joining or forming lobbying firms and making a very great deal of money.  It would take more than blog space permits to analyze the reasons for this transformation.  But much of it had to do with the triumph of money over that earlier sense of personal honor.  No American has the right to trade an office and a title bestowed upon him or her by the people for personal gain.

Senators Michael Bennet and Jon Tester are sponsoring legislation to bar Senators from lobbying for life.  I would find it amazing if there were even committee hearings on this proposal, let alone a vote on the floor of the Senate.  But such a measure would do more to demonstrate that the current Senate is serious about recapturing its dignity, its respect, and its sense of honor than any other single step I can think of.  And perhaps most of all, it would go a very long way to restoring the confidence of the people in their government.

Nature On Its Own

Author: Gary Hart

One of the perennial questions we ask ourselves is whether all of nature is there for us to use and then discard or whether mankind owes a debt to nature.  Many humans do have an instinct to personalize the natural world in the form of Mother Nature and to see the planet as a complex living thing…the so-called Gaia outlook.  Questions like this are usually raised when a man-made disaster, such as the current Gulf of Mexico oil catastrophe, occurs.

When we, and much of the world, were agrarians, we took better care of our natural surroundings.  We needed the land and water for nourishment and the air for breath itself…and we still do.  But we continue to pay a heavy price for a century and a half of industrialization, much of it pursued as if the land, water, and air were free goods that would have to somehow heal themselves or that we would leave to our children to clean up.  The industries that poisoned the waterways, soil, and air were almost never around to pay for the damage.

As there are born liberals and born conservatives, I’ve come to believe that some of us have an instinct to protect nature and some do not.  Barring some magical transformation of human nature, that will probably always be so.  But, as mankind makes war on nature as we are now doing in the Gulf, little is heard from the “drill, baby, drill”  crowd, so willing to take risks at nature’s expense recently.  And the president, himself recently converted to off-shore drilling, is now having second thoughts.

As, in a more perfect world, it would be civilized and mature to hold public discourse without the screams and finger-pointing of the day, so it would be helpful if to no one else but future generations and Nature herself to take into account the damage we so casually do in order to drive inefficient vehicles and burn lights in empty rooms.

For a time, as after Exxon Valdez, we will look with sorrow at the oil-coated birds and beaches and sympathize with the out-of-work fishermen.  “How’s that drilly, oily stuff workin’ for ya’ these days,” no politician will cutely ask.  But, not long thereafter, “drill, baby, drill” will return, and with it the scorn for those who think we all might owe Nature a little more respect.

Students of American history find it remarkable how struggles of the founding days continue to repeat themselves down through the decades and centuries.  That is because so many of the founding disputes were based on differing views of human nature, and human nature seems to change very little.

Currently, we are locked yet again in one of our recurring half-century battles over the size of banks.  In this case, size matters because size equals power.  Here again we see Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton head-to-head.  Hamilton wanted a very large and powerful national bank, and banking system, to foster large-scale investment, economic expansion, and competition with older European systems.  Jefferson opposed this scheme because he anticipated the inordinate political power such concentrated wealth would have within the democratic process.

Jefferson saw a handful of bankers controlling vast economic power, encouraging speculation, manipulating investments and currency values, and warping the political process to its own ends.  He knew that money equaled power and that it distorted political systems, including republican ones, throughout history.  What a surprise!

Yet, here we are now, two and a quarter centuries later, and, though Jefferson was clearly right, Hamilton has won…yet again.  Now the few giant banks, combinations of traditional banking and rampant, largely unregulated speculation, not only too big to fail–and thus guaranteed against collapse by everyday taxpayers–but also too big to be brought under public regulation.  An army of lobbyists, upwards of 1,500 or more, many former members of Congress and their families, swarming the halls of the peoples’ Congress, warning of apocalypse if they are required to be transparent, even with public money, protecting astronomical bonuses (distributed as a nose-thumbing thank you to those of us who bailed them out), and trading campaign contributions for influence.

Expecting the predictable tut-tutting about how I’ve traded my chance for statesmanship for populist ranting, my response is: Jefferson, once again, was right, and I’m proud to be on his side.

Our Own Facts

Author: Gary Hart

The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan was fond of the well-known quote: We are all entitled to our own opinions, but not to our own facts.  This comes to mind in trying to figure out the kind of government economic policies that might stabilize the financial system, create jobs, encourage investment, and reduce deficits.

Right now we have federal loans to prevent domino-like collapses of large investment banks, job-creation pump-priming, and rising deficits.  Significant numbers of people object to the bail-out of the banks, but do not seem to care if the complex financial structure collapses.  Too bad for the greed-guys.  They should get what’s coming to them.  What about a financial collapse that causes a long-term deep depression?  The protesters seem to think that will not happen.  Every economic expert we have heard from disagrees.  The facts are that these policies were adopted well before the last election.

“Do something about jobs,” the protesters say, “but don’t increase the federal deficit.”  No one has offered facts or theories on how to do that.  Corporations are unwilling to invest their own money in creating new jobs.  They are waiting for the economy to improve, that is for people to go back to work and buy things.  So, as in past recessions and depressions, the government pays construction companies to build bridges and necessary public works and those companies hire people.  Those people buy things with their wages and other people get hired.  But, guess what, the deficit goes up.  This is an unavoidable fact.

“Balance the budget; cut spending”, many demand.  Even those of us who are not economists accept the principle that cutting spending and balancing the budget in times of recession is guaranteed to make things worse.  The facts are that we cannot balance the budget, let the banks collapse, refuse to invest in job creation, and have a healthy economy.  If these facts are wrong, where are the facts that disprove them?  No one in either political party has produced a comprehensive alternative economic plan and the facts to back it up.

Simply waving signs accusing the president of being a socialist, or clamoring for dismantling the national government, or claiming our present predicament began after the last election neglects common sense, history, standard economic policies long pursued by both parties, and the facts.

The real question is whether we will all learn enough from this avoidable experience to adopt polices to prevent it from happening again, particularly sane financial regulatory policies to prevent fraud and abuse in the private financial sector.  These facts we should all agree on.

Learning on the Job

Author: Gary Hart

Thomas Jefferson said that to expect a man [today he would say person] to hold the same views throughout life, while life changed all around him, was like expecting a man to attempt to wear the same clothes he wore as a boy.

That observation came to mind in reading one commentary on the judicial life of retiring Justice John Paul Stevens.  It was observed that he was not asked one question about his views on abortion during his confirmation hearings and that as a Republican nominee he was unanimously confirmed by a Democratic Senate (of which I was a member).  During his lengthy service on the Court he changed his views on a number of key issues, not least on the death penalty.

This is obviously surprising, if not stunning, in two regards: the Court has become an ideological tug-of-war principally in the past three decades, and politics has become inhabited by people who cannot or will not change their minds on virtually anything as life changes around them.

This has to do in part with the theme of this blog: principles should not be changed, but what Jefferson called “style” can be.  Certainly for some people, on both sides, matters such as abortion, the death penalty, and related social issues are matters of principle.  But, in the case of the death penalty, Justice Stevens view on the matter changed because he came to see how poorly and unjustly it was being administered.  The lesson has to do with the gap between principle and practice: in an ideal world, only mad-dog killers are executed; in practice, in the real world of fallible (or ideologically motivated) human beings, too many innocent people are executed.  Experiencing this difference can cause thoughtful people to change their views, while still holding onto principle.

Like most of the ruminations on this blogsite, this is a matter for lengthy discussions well into the night.  What some might draw from it, however, is to hope for judges and policy-makers who are open to changing circumstances, mind-changing experiences, the evolution of human events, new evidence and information, and a temperment that is willing to question old assumptions. 

Many, but certainly not all, of the large figures I was honored to serve with in the 1970s, when a Supreme Court justice could be unanimously confirmed and before the ideological wars began in America, were people perfectly capable of learning, thinking, adapting to new evidence, and, in a word, growing.  Thereafter, things began to change.  

Our nation will not resume its mainstream course forward until we learn to put leaders who are capable of learning on the job, and who possess a judicial temperment,  back on the judicial bench and in the Congress.

Who Owns Anger?

Author: Gary Hart

Tell me the complaint, says the doctor, and I can prescribe the remedy.  For those who are not tea-partiers, it is difficult to understand clearly the nature of the complaint.

This may be in part due to the diverse nature of the party.  Looking on from the outside, anger seems to be the glue holding together anarchists, libertarians, conservatives of various kinds, and groups harboring complex grievances.

It is necessary to tread lightly in commenting on the tea party phenomenon, as I’ve learned, to avoid being considered part of some mysterious elite that, as one angry man wrote to me, “talks down to people.”  My interest in trying to understand the tea party lies in the hope of some kind of communication.  But it is hard to hold a conversation with someone who insists on shouting or who seems to want to get rid of a duly-elected president in the middle of his term or who is mad at the  Congress, every member of which was elected by a majority of voters in his or her district or state.

One thing needs to be made clear.  If anger is the admission dues for membership, then I qualify.  I’m as angry as any tea-partier.  So tea-partiers have to get over the notion that only they have a right to be angry.  A lot of Americans are angry who don’t necessarily therefore want to impeach Barack Obama, or spit on Congressmen, or scream at town hall meetings, or bring down the government of the United States.  No one, including the tea party, has a corner on anger.

For myself, I’m mad as hell about the corrupt lobbying system in Washington.  I’m mad as hell about former members of Congress, and their families, who make millions trading on a title the voters gave them.  I’m mad as hell at people who like government when their side occupies it but think they have a right to bring it down when their side loses.  I’m mad as hell at a government that wiretaps my phone or throws me in jail without a warrant.  I’m mad as hell at people who claim to revere the Constitution and hate the institutions it created and the elected officials who inhabit them.  No one in the tea party, including former governor Palin, is more angry than I am at Wall Street bankers.  They are the greediest bunch of human beings I’ve ever seen. 

Let’s get one thing straight: the president and members of Congress are elected by the people of the United States.  If you don’t like that, there are lots of other countries where this is not the case.  If you are angry at Barack Obama, or any member of Congress, you are angry at your fellow citizens who voted for them.  There is a name for this process: we call it democracy.

Simply losing an election is not sufficient grounds to advocate overthrow of the government.

If tea party anger is more complicated than losing an election, then what is it?  Is it losing a job, losing a house, having medical bills, living on food stamps, or all the above?  If so, damn straight.  I’d be angry too.  The university where I work could fire me any day, without notice.  It hasn’t happened yet, but it could.  Would I be angry if it did.  You bet.  But if this anger is something else, let’s say bitterness at a black couple in the White House, or women being more equal, or medical care for poor children, or efforts to create a more decent and humane society, then there is little we can talk about.

If the tea party draws up a manifesto to clean up the air and water, to outlaw former elected officials from lobbying, to get rid of nuclear weapons, to take care of sick children and have Wall Street bankers pay for it, to provide decent care for wounded soldiers, to lock up drug dealers and clean up ghettos, to create jobs for working people, and to enforce the Fourth Amendment, I’ll be the first to sign it.

The Missing Statesmen

Author: Gary Hart

Where are the statesmen?, we often hear asked.  Questions such as this usually arise in troubled times.  And most of us would agree these times qualify as troubled.

One theory is that statesmen [and here the word is used to include both genders] appear only in times of crisis–world wars and great depressions.  The theory is worth exploring if for no other reason than for what it might reveal about us as a nation.  In other words, do leaders have to exhibit extraordinary powers to become statesmen, and is our system designed to grant individuals extraordinary powers only in times of desperate needs?

There is certainly Constitutional support for this theory, with our checks and balances system purposely designed to prevent concentration of power in a single individual.  But one can be a statesman without being president.  There have been some very large figures in both the Senate and the House throughout our history.  Some military leaders have been considered statesmen.  George Marshall, for example.  Occasionally, diplomats, say George Kennan, have assumed the role of statesman.

For purposes of this discussion, let’s consider the usual characteristics of statesmanship: a sense of history; distinguished achievements; ability to see farther ahead; perception and insight; a keen understanding of human nature; quiet self-assurance; unselfishness; large character; and, perhaps most of all, a sense of the national interest that rises above partisan politics.

Does anyone on the current scene come to mind?  Among current leaders, of course, it is too soon to say.  Because history alone can judge one’s achievements.  But current circumstances discourage statesmanship.  Those circumstances would include especially the intense, constant, and insistent attention of the media, focused much more on flaws and shortcomings than on accomplishment.  Few citizens of stature care to put themselves through what is casually called “scrutiny”.

It should not require a crisis to create a statesman.  Figures exhibiting the qualities I’ve suggested, and other you may suggest, can arise.  It is worth wondering why they have not and why they do not.  Perhaps in the answer to this question may lie some revealing shortcomings not only in our leaders but also in ourselves.

Restore the Republic

Author: Gary Hart

After a lifetime, or what seems like two, of listening to the big government/small government “debate,” it may be time to redefine the issue. As much as anything, that is because neither party produces a smaller government. One side supports a stronger national safety net. The other supports a bigger military. Either way, the results in terms of budget size and government employees remains about the same. Both sides want reductions in the other side’s agenda. And both sides are reluctant to tell voters they have to pay for what they want.

Here is a modest suggestion. Let’s shift administration of domestic programs as much as possible to local communities, what Thomas Jefferson called elementary republics. And, since the 50 States have become targets since 9/11, let’s make the National Guard, local citizen-soldiers, the backbone of homeland security.

This suggestion is less radical in the 21st century than it might have been in the 20th, but things have changed. Americans clearly want more control over their lives than in decades past. And the nature of defense and security has changed as well.

Rather late in life, Jefferson came to believe that the nation’s founding neglected to explicitly create a venue for individual citizen participation, what republicans throughout history have called civic virtue. Founding a republic, it was necessary for citizens to exercise their duties as well as protect their rights. When citizens want to avoid jury duty, taxes, and as much as possible, uniformed service, we are no longer a republic.

Education is still primarily a matter for local school boards. Health care is delivered by local doctors, nurses, and hospitals. But local communities, “elementary republics,” could assume much more of the responsibility for administering national programs for social services, environmental protection, local security, and a host of other government programs. Federal resources can be allocated, as customary, according to per capita and need formulas, taking into account the particular circumstances of local communities.

So long as we are one nation and one national community, we will have a national government, governed by elected officials. But, if local citizens are willing to take the trouble to participate in local decisions, there is no reason in the world why they cannot administer national programs according to their own local needs.

At the very least, it might help us move on from a stale big government/small government quarrel which is getting us nowhere. What all of us want is effective government…and citizens who care.