Intolerance Masked as Patriotism

Facebook exposes you to the most interesting memes, some of which make me think that people don’t take the time to read them before clicking “like” or sharing them with friends and family. Case in point, this “patriotic” post asking people to support the saying of the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools.

At first glance, who could be against the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in schools? It was the standard when I was a student and, other than the “under God” phrase (added in 1954 during the Cold War) which some could construe as state promotion of religion, it seems relatively harmless. In fact, when I was in high school, my drafting teacher, a devout Catholic and believer in separation of church and state, told students that they could omit the words “under God” if they chose to.

My real concern with this internet meme is the way it stifles freedom of speech. Notice that if you like the idea of saying the Pledge in school each day, you simply click the “like” button. But if you leave any comment (even a comment of support), that is tantamount to saying you don’t support the recitation of the Pledge in classrooms.

This mindset, that there is no room for discussion or dissent (even though such dissent is Constitutionally protected), is anathema to the concept of democratic freedoms. Think of the authoritarian regimes around the world – China, Iran, North Korea, and plenty of others – where those who speak out against the government are imprisoned, tortured, or even executed. The freedoms and values the United States flag represents include protecting those who choose to speak up against the government and those very same freedoms and values!

It strikes me as very unpatriotic to demand unquestioning obedience and very dangerous as well. The founders of the nation recognized the dangers of blind obedience. We should, too.

 

Is America’s Fiscal Future Safe in These Hands?

As part of the Budget Control Act passed this month, a twelve-member Join Committee on Deficit Reduction has been charged with recommending at least $1.5 trillion in additional deficit reduction over the next decade.  They have until November 23 to make their recommendations.

The committee’s recommendations will then be put to a simple up-or-down vote by Congress, with no amendments, filibusters, etc. allowed.  The recommendations have to be passed by December 23 otherwise a $1.2 trillion package of automatic spending cuts would come into effect.

Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction

The Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction.  Top row are members of the House of Representatives: Co-chair Jeb Hensarling (R-TX), Dave Camp (R-MI), Fred Upton (R-MI), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Jim Clyburn (D-SC), Xavier Becerra (D-CA).  Bottom row are members of the Senate: Co-chair Patty Murray (D-WA), John Kerry (D-MA), Max Baucus (D-GA), Jon Kyl (R-AZ), Pat Toomey (R-PA), Rob Portman (R-OH).

First question on my mind: Do these twelve congresspeople sufficiently represent America?  They are overwhelmingly white (83% vs. about 66% in the general population) and male (92% vs. 50% in the general population).  Now, I realize that a committee of twelve national politicians will not necessary mirror the United States population, nor do they need to.  But it seems that when we talk about “sacrifices” in the budget, these sacrifices are disproportionately borne by women, children, and people of color. 

The public schools in the wealthy suburbs seem to face fewer cutbacks than the inner city schools.  The unemployed factory worker seems to run out of resources long before the unemployed hedge fund manager.  And considering that you have to be at least 25 years old to run for the House of Representatives, is anyone looking out for the interests of the infants and children who will end up inheriting the results of any deficit reduction legislation?

Second question on my mind: With the committee evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, what is the likelihood that they will actually reach a compromise?  The six members of the House of Representatives are up for election in just over a year, so they will be careful not to rile their base. 

Of the six Senators, one of the Republicans (Kyl) has announced he will retire at the end of his term.  The other two Republicans were just elected in 2010 so they have time to repair any damage with their base that comes from compromising or, from a Tea Partier’s view, selling out.  Among the Democrats, Murray was just elected in 2010 and the other two Democrats do not face re-election until 2014.

Is there some hope that at least one Senator will cross over the line on the “no new revenues” position so that a balanced approach of spending cuts and revenue increases can be found?  While I’d like to hope that the Senators can rise above partisanship and make some sound decisions, nothing I’ve seen recently gives me any reason for optimism.

Additional Reading: OpenCongress.org article about key budget, spending, and tax votes of the committee members.

 

Blinders On and Heading Off a Cliff

Economist

This cartoon from this week’s Economist magazine summarizes how I feel about the debt limit debacle going on in Washington right now.  While I think there is blame to be shared by all sides, the obstinacy of the Tea Party Republicans to not accept any revenue increases, even if they are only in the form of closing tax loopholes, shows a fiscal illiteracy that is reckless.  The deficit cannot be tackled through spending cuts alone.

I was discussing this over lunch this afternoon with a mixed crowd of Thais, Australians, and a Canadian.  They all would like to know why American politicians are behaving like this.  I’d like to know, too.

 

About Fat Cats and Corporations

In the July 9 issue of The Economist magazine, I read this interesting article about why it is so difficult to stir up public sentiment in the United States against the wealthy.  For example, why do so many people get riled up about the idea of eliminating the tax cuts for the wealthiest people, when we’re talking about 2% of the population who are radically better off than the other 98% of the population?

One paragraph in particular caught my attention:

“The point here is only that Americans do not seem to mind about the widening inequality of income and wealth as much as you might expect them to in current circumstances. By and large, they have preferred opportunity to leveling; equality of opportunity rather than equality of outcome.  The trouble with this is that America is a long way from providing equal opportunity.”

I continue to wonder why it is that when you talk to people individually, they are very much in favor of creating truly equal opportunity.  Somehow, though, en masse, they become reverse Robin Hoods who support the taking from the poor and giving to the rich.  Even more confusing when it is against their own best interest to do so.

Senators Call for Bipartisan Budget Decisions

I read an interesting NY Times article yesterday about the efforts by Senators Mark Warner of Virginia and Saxy Chambliss of Georgia to create a bipartisan conversation about the nation’s budget deficit.  This as Congress makes a grand show of nipping at the budget’s heels by cutting things like Head Start early education for children.

budget-deficit-us

While I may be a cock-eyed optimist and a tad naive, I think most Americans can handle straight talk.  They are willing to make sacrifices if things are explained to them clearly and without a lot of added fright.  I’d like my Senators to join in this bipartisan approach, so took the time to send them the following email:

Dear Senator:

I’d like to encourage you to join with Senators Chambliss and Warner in their effort to hold an honest, bipartisan dialogue about our national deficit. 

The current talk in Congress focuses on cutting discretionary spending, which only makes up 12% of our budget.  Much of it goes to important programs, but even if we cut it all, we still would have a long way to go to fix the deficit.

I’d like you to be a part of an honest discussion that acknowledges that cuts in spending will have to include defense, healthcare, and social security costs.  I’d also like you to acknowledge that revenue increases will also be a necessary part of the solution.

Please stop playing politics with our nation’s future.  Join Senators Chambliss and Warner and others who will rise above politics and find a bipartisan solution to repair our nation’s finances.

Thank you.

That’s the action I’m taking.  What action will you take?  How do you think the deficit should be approached? 

In other news, I’m heading out this morning on an overnight border run to Singapore (previous entry).  Figured that the flight is the same price if I stay overnight, I’ll have time for dinner with friends, and I don’t have to get up so early to catch my flight.  Except that I went to bed early and managed to have the garbage collectors wake me up at 4:30 as they rattled the bins on the street.  Thankfully, this trip will include lunch at Din Tai Fung with two other Xangans.

 

American Exceptionalism

While waiting in a hotel lobby to meet a friend for lunch, I read a front-page article from USA Today: “Obama and America’s Place in the World.”  The article talks about the way President Obama addresses questions of American exceptionalism and Republican attempts to capitalize on this in order to paint the President as un-American, without having to use those words.

American exceptionalism, for those unfamiliar with the term, is a belief that the country is unique and exceptional in comparison to other countries.  Historically, it did not mean that America was better than other countries, but in the past few years the term has been coopted by those who would like to give that meaning to the phrase. 

British writer G.K. Chesterton noted in a 1922 essay, “America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed. That creed is set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence…”  The Declaration’s introduction defines this ideology as liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissez-faire.

The ammunition used by those who believe that President Obama is un-American doesn’t believe in American exceptionalism, is his response in April 2009 (his opponents have to go back twenty months to dig up dirt on him, it seems) to a question by a British journalist about whether America is uniquely qualified to lead the world:

I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”

This strikes me, a passport-holding American who has traveled widely and has spent more than five years living overseas, as a tremendously reasonable, level-headed statement.

What also strikes me, as an American who has seen the way many countries in the world are rapidly moving from “developing nation” to “developed nation” status, is that no amount of arguing how exceptional we are or aren’t is going to help us compete in the 21st century.

Discussing the growth of China with a friend who recently spent two years working in Shanghai, he noted that in just the past few years, China has built the world’s largest high-speed rail network (already some 4,600 miles), and they are on track to have as much as 16,000 miles built by 2020.  Compare this to America’s infrastructure, which the American Society of Civil Engineers currently grades as a “D” and will require more than $2 trillion to repair.

Is America exceptional?  No doubt it is.  But the issue isn’t whether we are exceptional or not, it’s whether we are willing to do the work necessary to remain exceptional in the century to come. 

I think all of our mothers taught us that it is immodest to brag.  We may well be the smartest kid in class (or at least want to think we are), but announcing it to our peers rather than spending our time studying for the next test is the surest way to become the schoolyard dummy.  That’s a form of exceptionalism, too, but not one that I suspect any of us want to bequeath to our future generations.

What say you?

Related to this: do you remember the bruhaha surrounding a photo of President Obama reading a copy of the very insightful book “The Post-American World?”  Blog entry from September 2009 about it.

Inform Yourself and Rock the Vote

rock-the-vote-18x24rev On Tuesday, November 2, Americans will head to the polls in an important mid-term election. The outcomes of elections have a real impact on us from the national level to the local level. The best electorate is an informed, involved one. Whatever your political leanings, I encourage you to take a look at the following tools to make sure you have the best possible information with which to make your voting decisions.  These links come from OpenCongress, a non-profit and non-partisan public resource, independent from Congress and any political party.

To find who your current senators and representative are, use their zipcode look-up tool.

RaceTracker – See who the candidates are, learn about their positions, and get a snapshot of the fundraising race.  This is a collaborative wiki project, so if you have information about a particular candidate, this is a great place to add your knowledge and share it on a fully-referenced, free and open-source platform.

AdTracker – In the wake of the Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” decision allowing outside groups to spend unlimited money on campaign ads, it’s more important than ever that we have transparency in how these ads are affecting the election and exactly how they’re funded.  AdTracker is a wiki project for tracking and watching all the ads in congressional races across the country and providing background info who’s sponsoring them.  It provides a unique view into the advocacy work of low-profile independent political groups.

Voting Records – We typically find out about candidates’ voting records when they are being spun by their competitors, but on OpenCongress it is possible (and easy) to look at the actual vote data yourself.  From your senators’ and representative’s profile pages, click the “Votes” tab and search for any topics you’re interested in.  Looking at the actual data gives you a more accurate picture of how your lawmakers really voted on the issues that matter to you.  To find more votes, check out our one-of-a-kind listing of Hot Bills by Issue Area.

Compare Votes – In this election more than in most, independence from party leadership is considered an especially important trait.  Our head-to-head vote comparison tool gives you a view of party loyalty that you can’t get elsewhere.  Compare the voting records of any two senators or representatives to see how often they vote with their colleagues and on what votes in particular they agree or disagree.

Bill sponsorship – In addition to vote records, it’s important to look at the bills your incumbent candidate has proposed.  From senator and representative profile pages, click the “bills” tab to browse or search all sponsored and co-sponsored bills.  Even more than votes, the bills lawmakers support are indicative of their overall vision and ideology.

Money – Last but not least, take a second to look at your candidates’ campaign funding sources.  Time and again it’s been show that campaign finances are directly related to how members of Congress vote.  Click the “Money Trail” tab on your senators’ and representative’s profile pages to see which industries and special-interest groups have donated to them.  This is who they’ll likely owe favors to if elected to Congress in the next session.

open-congress

If you need help finding out where to vote on Nov. 2nd, try this simple tool from Google and the New Organizing Institute. I sincerely hope the resources in this email help you make a satisfying decision at the voting booth.

Source of most of this content: OpenCongress.org