Archive for the ‘Government and public policies’ Category

One Thing At a Time

Author: Gary Hart

Did you ever wish you could manage your life one problem at a time?  It might make the many tough decisions we all face actually managable.  But, you say, life doesn’t work that way.

Well, if it doesn’t work that way for you and me, why in the world would we think it worked for the president of the United States?  But, apparantly that is how the supposedly sophisticated pundits and most of the president’s critics think he should manage the business of the nation.  “He should deal with jobs first,” they chatter, “then he can do health care,” they opine, “then he can do energy, then education, and then….” on and on and on.

This displays woeful ignorance of both the way life and the presidency work.  The recovery and financial crisis projects he inherited from the previous administration had to be carried forward.  One emergency measure to create jobs was passed and another is on the way.  Deficits have no hope of reduction without controlling health care costs, a primary reason for urgency on health care reform. 

Indeed, virtually all the major problems we face are interrelated.  They don’t operate separately.  The economy (jobs) is related to trade which is related to international finance which is related to energy which is related to military operations which is related to foreign policy, and on and on.

President Obama inherited two wars, his critics must be reminded.  They required, and received, considerable presidential attention.  Few presidents in recent memory have entered office with so much unfinished business: the worst financial crisis in 75 years and two wars.

The largest, most complex, most widely-dispersed nation in human history doesn’t exactly run itself.  It requires multi-tasking management on a scale few humans can contemplate.  To President Obama’s media and opposition critics it must be said: Grow up and understand what being president of the United States means at this stage in our history.  Quit making ridiculous and childish demands for the president to do one thing at a time. 

Life doesn’t work that way and intelligent, mature, and thoughtful people know that.  And be grateful we have a president who can do more than one thing at a time.

Draw a Line

Author: Gary Hart

Some years ago, when the United States Senate was a better institution than it is today, a great Senator, the late Mike Mansfield, offered some advice that proved impossible to forget: “Draw a line,” he said, “and don’t cross it.”

You had to intuit what he meant, but it was pretty clear: Decide what is more important than being in the Senate and do not compromise that value in order to stay there.  He wasn’t referring to loyalty to a political party or an ideology, a movement or a passing fad.  He was talking about principle, that which defines both who we are and how large and serious a human being we may become.

Senator Mansfield knew that every political instinct is for survival and position.  There are few jobs in this life, and that may include the presidency, that rival being a Senator.  That being the case, especially for a young lawyer from Colorado, there were enormous temptations to weigh every vote, every speech, every position for how it might play back home, whether it would help or hurt politically when the next election came.

That temptation for office security, particularly security in a highly desirable office, produces caution bordering on timidity.  It puts a moistened finger in the wind for even the slightest breeze on every occasion.  It seeks a hiding place in a murky, difficult to attack, “center”, presuming that that there is a way to split the difference on every issue and thus make everyone happy, or at least take away a matter that the other side might make a political issue.

Moderation and compromise make a democracy work.  No side, left or right, can win all the time, every time.  Failure of compromise is part of the reason our government has ground to a halt.  For those who believe government if inherently evil, this is not a bad thing.  For those who believe democratic government is the only effective way to manage the public’s business, it is disastrous.

But the Mansfield principle was less about whether effective government is necessary or evil and more about individual integrity.  It was surprising, while in office, to encounter so many people, mostly young people, who thought politics must require a “profile in courage,” a decision on a matter of principle, virtually daily.

Though rarely, those matters do arise.  How an elected official deals with them, balancing what may be popular with constituents against what that politician knows or believes to be right, starkly defines character and integrity.  It is what voters claim to want, though more often than not they penalize rather than reward it.  Most if not all of those in John Kennedy’s “Profiles in Courage” were turned out of office. 

There are only three options that offer themselves.  One is to serve a “safe” State or district which provides the official with latitude and political capital.  It is easier for this official to occasionally stand on principle and yet survive politically.  But we have divided the nation into “safe” red or blue States and districts, and it has produced very little courage or principled behavior.  Another is to sacrifice principle for security, trimming votes and decisions in order to survive and perpetuate a political career.

The third is to draw a line and not cross it.

Liberal is….Evil

Author: Gary Hart

liberal_sm“War is peace.  Freedom is slavery.  Ignorance is strength.”  Once again we turn to George Orwell to understand the perverse need of some among us to reverse the meaning of words.  As the author of Nineteen Eighty-Four knew, totalitarianism begins with the perversion of language.

Thus, it is not accidental that the rise of the new right began with demonization of perfectly sound words like liberal.  Hence, Roget gives these synonyms for liberal: magnanimous; benevolent; open-minded; generous; and unselfish. 

We describe our form of government as liberal democracy.  It embodies principles of freedom, liberty, equality, and justice.  Its princples were set forth by John Locke and embodied in our Bill of Rights.  We engage in wars to bring this same government to others.

Most recently, a highly intelligent writer, Timothy Ferris, known primarily for his clear elucidation of science, has written a piece entitled: “Conservative is Not Opposite Liberal: That’s Totalitarianism.”  To be illiberal, he writes, is not to be conservative; it is, as Orwell had it, to be totalitarian.  Ferris correctly says: “Liberalism is an independent political philosophy, with no inherent connection to either the Left or the Right.”

It is understandable that the far right fulminators begin by perverting language.  They are profoundly illiberal in every sense of the word.  The values of magnanimity, benevolence, open-mindedness, generosity, and unselfishness are anathema to them.  Nor is it coincidence that the age of anti-liberalism is one decidedly anti-scientific, whether having to do with our evolution, changing climate, or stem cell research.  Totalitarianism has always wanted to control science for its own purposes.

If we restore the true meaning of important words like liberal, perhaps at least a few politicians will not be afraid to use them.  As a free man, and a liberal man, I know I am not.

SavingBudget accountability requires a profound sense of the national interest.  Achieving it does not require a magic formula or exotic economic calculation.  It requires political will.  And it requires much more public education by political leaders.

My perspective on this issue is heavily influenced by twelve years’ experience on the Senate Budget Committee.  The principal difference between then (the 1970s and 80s) and now is the number of zeroes.  Then we thought a hundred billion dollars, or even a billion, was a huge amount of money.  Now we are dealing in trillions.  Otherwise, the issues are pretty much the same.

The way any budget is balanced, whether private, corporate, or public, is to match spending with revenues.  If imbalance occurs, reduce spending and raise revenues.  Since Republicans will never vote to raise revenues, and indeed persist in cutting taxes, and many if not most Democrats are too politically traumatized to do so, even when they know it to be necessary, this leaves only cutting government services to achieve fiscal balance.

The problem with “cutting spending”, as everyone knows (including those for whom this is chanted like a mindless mantra), is that to make a real dent in a massive current deficit requires abandoning critical government agencies, including those required for national security such as the FBI and CIA, not to say also virtually all human relief programs, the highway programs, aid to all levels of education, slashing Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, and the list goes endlessly on.  It certainly also requires ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan today.

Unless one is prepared to tell the American people the truth about this, those who claim the budget can be balanced by “cutting spending” ought to list exactly and publicly the programs they will vote to eliminate, including particularly those benefiting their own States and districts, or they should shut up.

As demonstrated in the 1990s, the national budget can only be balanced during times of economic growth when existing individual and corporate tax structures generate sufficient revenues to pay the nation’s bills–all those programs we benefit from and demand.  I don’t know of a time in modern memory, or perhaps in history, when the U.S. had a balanced budget in time of war or economic recession.

So, the first steps toward fiscal integrity and accountability is to recognize the need for new revenues that can be raised without suppressing recovery, deferred spending (including the infamous “earmarks”–the new polite political word for old fashioned pork) that also is not critical to stimulate economic recovery, and getting jobless people back to work repairing our infrastructure and rebuilding our nation.

There is every reason not to expect honesty from those who use political slogans to avoid making hard choices and little reason to expect genuine statesmanship from those who continue to preach that we can have lower taxes, special interest earmarks, and budget accountability.  These politicians should at least have the good grace not to claim concern for the national interest and national security.

Civility Asleep

Author: Gary Hart

RespectTo declare the death of civility is, at least at this point, too dramatic and apocalyptic.  The time might come, however, in which its death in the American political arena could happen.  Thus, President Obama’s plea at last weeks prayer breakfast for those who believe in prayer to also believe in treating each other in the political arena with at least a degree of civility, respect, and decency.

It is fair to say that, at this moment, civility is asleep.  How else can we explain over-the-top allegations that the President is a socialist, or worse, when nothing he has done has even the taint of socialism.  His economic steps are either a continuation of Bush policies or investments to stimulate job creation and recovery.  How does calling this socialism advance any healthy agenda.

Some conservatives claim that ridiculous charges against Obama are no worse than liberal or left charges against Bush.  There is a small measure of truth in that.  As much as I disagreed with cutting taxes of the wealthy, especially in war time, the invasion of Iraq, deregulation of environmental safety, and letting Wall Street loose to create its own ruin, I don’t remember questioning President Bush’s patriotism or good intentions.  Others in my party did, however, and carried on ridicule of his military service well after it made any point.

But at its worst, I don’t recall any respectable figures on the progressive side suggesting he was a fascist, the rough equivalent of Obama’s alleged socialism.  There will always be those on both extremes who substitute ridicule and attack for constructive criticism.  And perhaps human nature is always thus.  Historians remind us of other bitter times in American political history when similar or worse behavior went on.

It, nevertheless, is a matter for hope that leaders of both sides and both parties will call out the extremists in their own ranks and disavow their conduct.  Probably won’t happen, because too many politicians think they need this radical energy bordering on hatred at election time.  But miracles do happen and men and women of good will, reaching across the aisle, even occasionally applauding presidential state of the nation speeches out of respect and civility, could reawaken it.  Or at the very least, they could create an example of civil leadership for us all.

Backbone, mind, and heart

Author: Gary Hart

career_paths_smThough the last thing President Obama needs right now is more advice from more people, all of it differing, concerned Americans find it difficult not to try to find a key to governing in this new age–not for his sake, but for ours.  Metaphors are great tools for teaching and stimulating thinking.  And one of the metaphors for America right now is the human body.

It is fashionable in the political realm to talk about “investing in America’s future.”  That is the key to our nation’s progress and our children’s hope.  But as individuals we rarely talk about investing in ourselves.  For our physical ailments we use health terms.  Think of present day America in those terms.  We need to heal our backbone, our mind, and our heart.

Our backbone, the spine of the nation, is our transportation system, our energy systems, our financial systems, and our communications systems.  They represent our critical infrastructure and all need to be transformed. Some of that is underway.  But much more repair needs to be made on railroads and highways.  Energy has to be made greener and more sustainable.  Finance has to be brought back under fair rules.  High speed communications have to spread throughout every part of the nation.

Our nation’s mind includes its education systems, K-through life, our laboratories, our libraries, and every facility, private and public, that helps people to learn.  Jefferson said we couldn’t separate democracy from education and, of course, he was right.  A strong national backbone won’t help much unless the nation’s mind is working creatively.

The nation’s heart is the physical and mental health of its people.  Regardless of party, we simply have to create a health system that is inclusive, affordable, and accessible.  We all know that preventive health, exercise, diet, and check ups, saves enormous amount of money and human resources and makes us all more productive.

But our heart is also our spirit.  Repair, maintain, and constantly modernize our backbone structures.  Expand the human mind in every way we can.  Build up healthy Americans.  But somehow, Mr. President, we pray that you will find a way to heal our national spirit, to help us live together better, to lift up the spirit of our national community once again.  Help us recapture the better angels of our nature.

The End of Big Government

Author: Gary Hart

Financial CrisisThe U.S. auto industry is gone.  Small parts of Ford survive, but pieces of G.M. and Chrysler are being picked over by people speaking German, Japanese, and Korean.  The vast parts supplier network is also gone and with it hundreds of thousands of jobs.  AIG collapsed many months ago, shortly after the inaugural, and then J.P. Morgan, Citicorp, and Chase.  Wall Street has gone dim, almost dark.  Don’t mention Broadway.  It is dark.  And New York City’s appeal for financial support has been rejected by the U.S. Government.  Congress has cut Fanny Mae and Freddie Mac adrift to the glee of the Tea Party.  Foreclosures are sky-rocketing nationwide and tent cities have sprung up across the country.  The unemployment rate is officially fifteen percent, but the real number is over twenty.  Bank failures nationwide are in the thousands.

President Obama’s first state of the union address is a celebration of free markets and the end of big government.  “The people have spoken,” is his theme.  “We cannot govern if American citizens do not want us to govern,” he continues.  Quoting his predecessor, Bill Clinton, Obama continues, “the era of big government is totally over.”  President Obama states that the economic rescue programs begun under the George W. Bush administration went much too far, and he is proud to take credit for ending them. 

Though he does not say so in his speech, plans are being made to severely cut Social Security and Medicare (Medicaid is already gone; that was for poor people), because high unemployment has reduced revenues so drastically they cannot be afforded.  He also will not announce the planned cuts in the FBI, federal aid to education, the highway program, and school lunches.  Those funds are being transferred, under public pressure, to continue the build up in Afghanistan.

The initially huge Tea Party rallies across the country have become drastically smaller.  Its supporters cannot afford gasoline and their private health insurance coverage has either ended or skyrocketed in costs.  Meanwhile, private clubs in New York are full of happy bankers and CEOs, who crawled from the wreckage with tens of billions of dollars.  They are raising their glasses nightly to the final defeat of the New Deal, government regulation of markets, the return of the government of Herbert Hoover, and to hell with climate change.

All the scoundrels in Congress (never mind that they had all been elected by the voters of their States and districts) have been replaced by hard-headed, unsentimental anti-government members.  They meet one day a week, soon one a month, to vote against everything.  It doesn’t take long, because nothing is being offered.  “The markets know what’s best,” they speechify.  “We have finally given the people what they have wanted.”

The remaining few people without guns have hocked household goods to buy them.  Crime has also skyrocketed.  And local and State police forces have been sharply reduced.  No taxes.  No money to pay them.

Those who claim to love their country the most, but who hate its government, have finally got the country they want.

The Imperial Presidency

Author: Gary Hart
We the PeopleRecent statements by the Obama administration that the president may be considering his own policy of picking and choosing among provisions of laws passed by Congress, similar in principle to the previous Bush administration, is disturbing.  Having spent a lifetime studying the U.S. Constitution, I can find no provision in it that grants the chief executive this power.
Article I, section 1, clearly gives to Congress the sole authority to enact legislation (“All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States…”).  Section 7 of the same Article gives the president the power to approve or veto laws passed by Congress.  But nowhere in the Constitution is the president given the authority to decide which laws to execute and which not to.
As Congress cannot intrude on the president’s executive authority, except to disapprove it by law, so the president cannot legislate selectively.  Partisan Constitutional scholars may write learned memoranda pointing out instances, usually in time of war, where presidents have acted without authority or have by-passed or side-stepped legislative mandates.  But might does not make right.  And repetition of unconstitutional actions does not make them more Constitutional.
If President Obama proceeds down this path, out of his own sense of expediency or the urging of frustrated or power-hungry advisors, he will be adding precedent for his successors to follow, successors who may not be as scrupulous as he.  The late Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., wrote “The Imperial Presidency” in 1974, at the close of the Nixon administration.  He wrote: “When the constitutional balance [between Congress and President] is upset in favor of presidential power and at the expense of presidential accountability, the presidency can be said to become imperial.”
Partisans repeatedly wish to make exceptions to strict Constitutional construction in favor of their own favored president.  But the Constitution is not a document meant for expediency.  It survives only so long as its terms are honored and obeyed regardless of president, party, or circumstances.

The Shrinking State

Author: Gary Hart

KnowledgeFor 350 years the basic political building-block has been the nation-state.  The nation-state evolved in the mid-17th century from a bargain between the people (the nation) and governments (the state) that, in return for their loyalty, the state would protect the nation.  To ensure its side of the bargain, the state or the government had to possess a monopoly on violence.  No other individual or group could make war or conduct violent actions.  Otherwise, the state could not keep its side of the bargain.

In the late 20th century this historic bargain began to break down and governments could no longer guarantee the safety of their citizens.  As symbolized by the 9.11 terrorist attacks, even the most militarily powerful government in history could not protect its citizens.  Though there are many reasons for this, the most basic is that the nature of warfare and conflict is changing.  Nation-states rarely go to war against each other anymore, for territory or power, but non-uniformed, often suicidal stateless nations (“non-state actors”) are now the new warrior/criminals.  Significant parts of the world, including in places such as Mexico, are now “governed” by tribes, clans, and gangs.  That also includes major urban areas.

All this leads to profound implications.  If governments cannot guarantee the security of their people, the people will stockpile their own weapons and possibly create their own militias or private security forces.  All the while, they are losing confidence in, and often mistrusting, their own government.  This also means that, in fragile nation-states like Pakistan and many others, the army increasingly withdraws to protection of the nation’s capital, its government, and its elites.  Thus the government loses further credibility in the countryside and whole segments of countries begin to seek their own sub-governments.  This, of course, produces failed and failing states.

Those of us seriously concerned with ominous trends and tides in recent years will find this trend one of most ominous.  Too many of the so-called foreign policy experts still pontificate as if the traditional political building-blocks, the nation-states, will last forever.  They better begin to think again.

What Do We Owe Our Children?

Author: Gary Hart

On more than one occasion, I’ve raised the question whether the Constitution’s preamble, setting out our national purposes for “ourselves and our posterity,” creates a binding obligation on each generation to govern not only for itself but also for future generations.  The concept is a revolutionary one even for a new revolutionary nation.  The Constitutional, legal, and most of all moral implications of this mandate are staggering.

Professor Burns Weston and his colleagues at the University of Vermont Law School have done more scholarly work on this idea than any others I’m aware of.  Their publications are on the cutting edge of legal and political thinking concerning intergenerational accountability.  Every elected and appointed official, federal, State, and local, should be required to read what they have produced.

No current issue confronts this question more starkly than the climate legislation now pending in the U.S. Senate and the debate underway in Copenhagen.  If your political philosophy is everyman-for-himself-and-devil-take-the-hindmost, and especially if you are above a certain age, you can join the deniers and say: What the hell.  If, however, you possess any kind of moral sense (including those who make the loudest religious claims) and if you take the Constitutional obligation to “our posterity” seriously, you must consider the kind of destabilized world we are leaving for future generations.

And for those in between who will not take the trouble to learn, Dante offers the lesson: There is a special place in hell for those who, in times of moral crisis, preserve their neutrality.

Some issues transcend ideology and politics: poverty; nuclear arms races; war and peace; child nutrition; homelessness.  The future climate is one of these.  Presumably, those operating businesses that produce greenhouse gasses have children.  They may leave their children private legacies of wealth.  But they also are leaving them a public legacy of destruction that is possibly irreversible.

When one’s life is weighed on the scale of eternity, what is more important: money or a healthy climate?