Category: Politics and Government

In a Nutshell: Ted Cruz is a Liberal (What’s liberalism?)

Posted by – July 9, 2014

Part of a new series, “In a Nutshell,” in which I try to explain an idea in 500 words or less.

What is a liberal?

I think of liberalism as beginning with the belief that the citizen is sovereign and has certain inalienable rights, inalienable meaning they are indestructible and unconditional, not contingent on kings, feudal lords, etc., and not coming from the divine right of kings or your social rank or wealth but INBORN.  You have human rights that are immovable, including individual liberty, life, the right to pursue your happiness, and that we all have the same rights (radical equality of rights) is the core of liberalism.  A law that, for example, strictly bans religious hair-coverings is the opposite of liberal.  It’s illiberal, especially if it is singling out Muslim women/the hijab and ignoring similar Jewish and Christian Orthodox hair-covering so only Muslima have fewer rights.

My painted caricature of Thomas Jefferson, from my Cartooning the Presidents series

Quintessentially liberal laws include the Bill of Rights and Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.  In the late 1800s and throughout the 20th century, liberalism increasingly added positive liberty-ish things more about your freedom to pursue happiness and thrive to the list, like the freedom from fear included in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms, broader interventions for equal opportunity like the Civil Rights Act and so forth.  It’s these interventions that separate 20th century American liberalism from classical liberalism.

No true liberals forget the primacy of negative liberties, what the state CAN’T DO to you, though (the Bill of Rights, your constitutional protections).  20th century Conservatism mostly opposed the interventions to affect outcomes while putting “law and order” ahead of your right to be left alone (Nixon, George Wallace, for example).

To the extent that the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations have disregarded negative liberties and

Ted Cruz’s official 113th Congress portrait (public domain)

stomped freedom from violence, force, coercion, intrusions, etc., they’re ILLIBERAL!

Insofar as Ted Cruz fights unchecked drone surveillance, NSA web spying and warrantless wiretapping, Ted Cruz is a liberal, at least on civil liberties and “classical liberalism,” and the opposite of neo-cons like Dick Cheney!

Of course the Tea Party types are like a 21st century mutation of the Barry Goldwater libertarian-ish far-right, so we disagree on how expansive freedom from corporate feudalism and economic violence should be, and on fundamental principles like positive rights and the role of gov’t.  But, since “libertarians” are a weird mutation of classical liberalism, there’s more of the Right agreeing with (the few remnants of) the ACLU Left on civil liberties than during the ’80s, for example.

We’d do well to turn off the hate radio and open a dictionary, and untangle what’s liberal and what ain’t.

420ish words

Nick

 

Recommended resourcethis episode of PBS’ documentary mini-series Constitution USA about the Bill of Rights.  At the beginning of the episode Peter Sagal talks to the Arizona Leathernecks Motorcycle Club, a group of retired Marines, and they talk about the gov’t getting out of your hair.  While you may peg them as Tea Partiers, gun rights nutbars, etc., and you’re not necessarily wrong, what they’re saying about motorcycle helmets and your own business to risk it really epitomizes my idea of liberalism, as there’s no liberalism without civil liberties.

George Washington’s Ideas about Technology and Transportation Infrastructure Offer Lessons for Today’s U.S.

Posted by – July 8, 2014

An Independence Day post (belated) – bloggery for the Founders

We would do well to mark the 4th not with the flag-waving militarism and “fighting for freedom” boo-yahs that typify so many public Independence Day events, and focus on the thing that Independence Day was really commemorating: the Declaration of Independence (adopted prior to large-scale war), our separation and unique vision for our republic. It should be a day of reading the Declaration of Independence and Constitution first and foremost, and yes, as John Adams wrote, “It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other…”
And in addition to a day of remembering the actual founding documents and principles, which include freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures of your files, we should have a day of loudly reading, painting, sequential art explainer-drawing, studying, and debating the ideas of the founding brothers and sisters (their actual ideas, which are really diverse and disagree with each other). We can glean relevant lessons for today from all our founding people.

Today I’m talking about George Washington’s ideas. Exalted as the first General of the first-ever separate American army and victor of the War for Independence, his actual words and ideas get lost.
John Adams objected to this oversimplified exaltation of the revolutionary generation more than anyone else. Adams was always writing letters lamenting the editing out of the Revolution’s complexities, that the Revolution was a process not an event and its processes were as diverse as the 13 colonies that fought, and that the gruesome War for Independence was waged at great cost of life and limb and nothing to boo-yah about! He hated

Parson Weems’ Fable,” is a 1939 Grant Wood painting depicting Parson Weems telling his famous “Cherry Tree” fable. It’s unique for kind of breaking the fourth wall, acknowledging that Weems narrated this myth.

the prospect of the Independence struggle being dumbed down so badly that kids think “Washington chopped down a cherry tree,” the redcoats ran, and everything was copacetic. In the years prior to John Adams’ death, the leading figures of the revolutionary generation were increasingly remembered in low-information hagiographies, a trend that was yet to peak. Throughout the 1800s, the founding fathers were so ridiculized and mythologized, you end up with craziness like Constantino Brumidi’s 1865 fresco The Apotheosis of Washington on the oculus of the capitol dome ceiling to this day, depicting Washington ascending to the heavens and becoming a god, AKA apotheosis,

detail shot of the George Washington part of the enormous, epic mural The Apotheosis of Washington by Constantino Brumidi. These painted figures are as big as 15 ft tall! (photo by Michael Edward McNeil)

surrounded by figures from classical mythology, the goddess Victoria (draped in green, using a horn) to his left and the goddess Liberty to his right (seriously).

But George Washington wasn’t a deity like Zeus.  George Washington was a person, and as much as he preferred to stay atop his white horse looking majestic and being “above the fray,” he was often forced into the fray. He had opinions, and if you think of late 18th century American politics as a spectrum—Jeffersonians with states’ rights positions and a vision of the United States as an almost E.U.-like confederation with a tiny low-tax federal gov’t that’s big enough to do foreign policy and raise armies (kinda) in the event of national emergencies but little else on one end of the spectrum, and the Hamiltonians who advocated a strong national gov’t with united goals, federally funded “internal improvements,” more spending for a federal military, and the taxes to pay for such a robust federal gov’t. on the other end of the spectrum—Washington was more of a Hamiltonian, through this vastly oversimplifies Washington.  George Washington adopted Alexander Hamilton as a political right-hand-man of sorts, and though that relationship got very fraught and cranky and “good day to YOU, sir!” even breaking up sometimes—read Ron Chernow’s excellent biography Alexander Hamilton for the details—Hamilton’s influence on the old dude was unmistakable, especially when it comes to things like Washington’s famous Farewell Address, where Hamilton’s ideas are particularly prominent.

But Hamilton and Washington were very different men.  Being roughly a generation older, and a pious Virginia landowner, George Washington always saw the world through a distinctly “landed Virginia gentry”-type of lens, and definitely held a vision for the United States of a republic of white yeoman farmers independent of corrupt cities, similar to the vision of fellow Virginia bros Jefferson and Madison, though better on the question of slavery.  Washington was definitely way better than Jefferson at freeing the slaves on his estate; Jefferson only freed five slaves in his will, all males of the Hemings family. two of whom have DNA-tested positive as his sons.

With George Washington, after his presidency and time teamed with Hamilton, you get a man applying the federal “internal improvements” concept, a robust program of road-building and canal-ing, to his goal of a nation of republican landowners.  You get Washington: rural technocrat. This is super interesting in light of today’s infrastructure problems, rural America being in its death throes and so on. But there isn’t much written about “Washington the technocrat,” aside from chapter five of Paul Johnson’s George Washington: The Founding Father, available as a stand-alone book, or as part of the Eminent Lives presidents collection as an ebook or audio conglomeration.

An excerpt:

Back in Mount Vernon, Washington, now fifty-two, took stock of his personal state… Not for the first time he reflected that America’s first problem was the tyranny of distance. It was vast, and growing each year, and communications were not keeping up. … He saw America increasingly in unitary terms and this vision was strengthened by further travels… His diaries show what chiefly interested him: the impact of distance on the economy, social life, and opportunity. Any steps to speed up travel were central to the country’s future. He noted that stagecoaches ran three times a week from Norfolk, Virginia, up to Portsmouth, New Hampshire. But just to get from Richmond to Boston by stage might take twelve days. There was one good wagon road into the interior, but south of Virginia, roads, stages, and tracks were so bad that people preferred to travel by sea, a sure sign of a primitive transport economy.

…Washington was the pioneer. He realized early that the tyranny of distance could be reduced by intelligent use of her tremendous rivers, having canoed some of the fiercest himself. As early as 1769 he tried to promote the use of lock canals to improve natural waterways like the Potomac and Ohio. The canal (linked to improved post roads) was the dynamic of the revolution in transport of the eighteenth century, just as steam was for the nineteenth, and the internal combustion engine, in cars and aircraft, was for the twentieth. Washington’s diaries show that as soon as the war was over he turned again and again to canals. In September 1784 he traveled across the Alleghenies partly to inspect his western lands but also to plan canal routes (and roads) to link Ohio tributaries to the Potomac. …In May he became president of the Potomac Navigation Company, empowered with a joint charter from Maryland and Virginia to improve roads and build canals throughout the area. As always, Washington pushed for the rapid development of the area, emphasizing that improved transport to the whole Ohio valley was the surest way to bind the settlements there to the states, and encourage new ones.

It’s not much of a stretch to imagine Washington enthusiastically advocating and

George Washington’s head in the Head Museum, New New York City in the year 2999

planning high-speed rail lines today if his head were preserved Futurama-style, or planning for freight trains for the underserved Southern states during the 19th century rail revolution he didn’t live to see.  He was also big on Ag innovations and new technology to improve livelihoods for American farmers.

Most of Virginia’s representatives today are skittish at best about any sort of centralized infrastructure planning, but George Washington wasn’t. When reading the aforementioned chapter, it comes through clearly: Washington expected people to get behind things like the Potomac Plan.  Building infrastructure so your country can function is simply leadership, and he was disgusted by the federal Congress’ inability to deal with the desperate need for transportation infrastructure.  The system now is even more unable to do things; we’ve got corruption in Congress and federal agencies rivaling only the capital’s “Gilded Age” machinations.
But I think we would do well to internalize ol’ GW’s ideas about internal improvements.

Nick

Law and Order: When Is It Wrong To Follow The Law?

Posted by – June 19, 2014

When law-breaking is moral and obedience is immoral

Philosophical contradictions (cognitive dissonance)

There have always been contradictions in the predominant (deeply right-wing) currents of political/moral thought in the state I call home, Alabama, that I have never made sense of.
For example, one moment a conservative is the most believingest true believer of American ingenuity and entrepreneurship to do anything, saying that all we need is government to remove itself and bootstraps individualism will solve every problem, then the same dude switches from rose-colored glasses to dystopian lenses, and suddenly Americans have no entrepreneurial spirit at all and only want to mooch off state aid. In this mode of thinking, conservatives presume Americans’ ambitions stop at being a hundredaire!

Similarly, the same conservatives that rail against the “nanny state” demand everyone on gov’t assistance be drug tested, the most intrusive, nanny statest program yet! Florida lost more money drug testing welfare recipients than anyone thought; source: No Savings Are Found From Welfare Drug Tests – New York Times. The program was pitched as massively culling the welfare rolls of druggies and saving untold millions, but very few people tested positive for narcotics, and the only thing that it did was waste money and punish and humiliate people. Hard black market drugs are far less affordable and available to the very poor than is assumed in the unreal fantasy world of the conservative echo chamber. Still, “fiscal conservatives” want this money-squandering testing, though the judicial branch increasingly blocks such testing as unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment, there being no probable cause for everyone, just because they’re on state aid, to be urine-searched and intruded upon.

And of course during the Republican primary debates in ’08 and ’12 you have the contradiction of “free markets! Boo-yah!” and the position on the Mexico-U.S. border: seal it, wall it, snipers and barbed-wire electro-shock fences, and the more like the Berlin Wall it sounded and the more violent the language, the more carnal howls of bloodthirsty approval rang out from the debate audience. And no one noticed that the brutal approach to the border, blocking commerce and movement, is the opposite of free markets. One day the far-right may get their laser-turret dystopia on the Mexican border, but there’s no “freedom” about it.

OBEY ALL laws?

But today the main contradiction I’m exploring is this: law and order… why does the conservative insistence on OBEYING cover some things but not others? There is leniency for the powerful; we shelter the corrupt bankster, but tell the wayfaring immigrant and his pregnant wife “sorry, there’s no room at the inn.”

Why isn’t Cliven Bundy following the law? I don’t think he should if the law means his own destruction. …the law saying that Mexicans have to starve and be unable to afford to compete with subsidized U.S. corn and basically die rather than work in U.S., that is an evil law.

I believe in inalienable rights, a sort of natural law, inalienable and unmovable principles that are constant whether you’re Mexican or not, and regardless of disability, gender, outward appearance, age, etc., and one of those rights is the “right to resist” and non-violently civil disobedience-style defy laws that obviously lead to self destruction.

I want to have a morally consistent view. Of course Bundy’s grazing herds and non-paying of taxes is less bad than some of the legal bribe activities politicians do on a regular basis, the president ordering grandmas blown up by Predator missiles in Pakistan, etc., so it’s obvious to me that, while the law matters and shouldn’t be ignored willy-nilly, what is legal and what is right don’t enjoy 1:1 correlation.

“The British put a tax on salt, and said that Indians could not make their own salt. Gandhi walked with his followers 200 miles to the sea to break the law by gathering salt. Soon the jails were overflowing with Indians—and the British did away with the Salt Act.” – comic book panel from Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story, a December 1957 educational comic book about the Montgomery Bus Boycott and non-violent civil disobedience.

And immigrants are even less offensive to my view of right and wrong. I’m an immigrant, all of us are, except for indigenous tribes.  In the mindset of the Tea Party type person, Cliven Bundy’s defiance of federal law is good, whereas the immigrant with no choice but to “illegally” cross because legal immigration is impossible for Mexicans (given the antiquated “quotas” being full) is hated and wrong. I don’t understand this, especially when immigrant laborers put food in your markets, meaning a direct relationship of sorts, and Bundy doesn’t.

We have a problem because natural law (and common-sense) increasingly conflicts with the growing reams of rules. We probably break 20 federal, state, local rules and regulations before lunch…

Gandhi was right to break the law forbidding indigenous salt gathering, as laws that are enacted solely to protect an evil corporate monopoly are inherently unjust and illegitimate.  Similarly, the real Tea Party, the Boston Tea Party, was also about defying the laws set up to benefit the royalist colonial trade monopoly.  Both were backlashes to the merging of corporation and state.

To be a truly moral actor you have to be willing to disobey the authority figure if you’re being ordered to do bad things. These moral dilemmas come to the fore surprisingly often in hospitals, with nurses and other hands-on staff having to make pivotal choices, like whether they should follow the nonsensical bureaucratic rule and potentially harm the patient, or disobey and potentially get fired or harassed by authority figures.

I’ll end on the definitive answer, from Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail:

One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”

Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an “I it” relationship for an “I thou” relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful. Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong.

Letter from Birmingham Jail – April 16th, 1963

 

Nick

 

For more of my writing on disobeying the evil power structures of modern life, see my series When Life and Death Are “A Matter of Policy” 

VP Biden Accidentally Suggests U.S.-Asia Influence Waning

Posted by – December 27, 2013

December 5th, 2013, Vice President of the U.S. (VOTUS) Joseph R. Biden, speaking to a conference room-full of PRC diplomats and dignitaries after meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing, made an accidentally revealing comment:

The United States has a profound stake in what happens here, because we needwe are, and will remain—a Pacific power, diplomatically, economically, and military [sic].”

Judge for yourself, but this comment, calculated to reassure allies and make the top echelons of the Beijing regime think twice about aggressive moves in the region, kind of rang hollow or, at least rang… awkward.

To me, the “we need, we are, and will remain a Pacific power” had the ring of uneasiness, the sound of an aging boxer trying to talk tough and he can hardly convince himself.
Let me know if you think differently, but I thought it revealed something akin to the male peacock who is strutting to impress but no longer pulling it off (the female peacocks are rolling their eyes) or the schoolyard bully power-posing in front of the doors to get kids’ lunch money, but it’s more pathetic than intimidating, because the bully has repeatedly shown himself unable to back it up, even a little girl on crutches backed him down.
During Biden’s visit to East Asia, he repeated various versions of the “we really are a resident Pacific power” message, and it did more to confirm we really aren’t than anything.
Someone who is actually powerful doesn’t have to keep trying to convince people.

VP Biden went on an emergency tour of East Asia to address the recent controversy over the PRC imposing an “Air Defense Identification Zone” (ADIZ) over a huge swath of airspace of the East China Sea, including, most provocatively, the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands (referred to as the “Diaoyu Islands” in mainland China).  To set up such an expansive ADIZ over disputed territory, nearly half of it overlapping the pre-existing Japanese ADIZ, particularly claiming the airspace of islands controlled by your primary rival country, has, as Biden said, “caused significant apprehension in the region.”  ADIZs have been around since the post-WWII years, so they’re not new, but they never have overlapped like this before over others’ territory.

No one else wrote about how odd Biden sounded in Beijing, so I did… unearthing the unexpected and unnoticed, that’s a big part of what blogging is for, I think.

Nick

New news items related to my blog posts, November 2013

Posted by – December 1, 2013

Updates on stories I’ve presented

As we say goodbye to November, here is a summary of November news items that add to, echo, or relate to, past posts from my blog.

1. Tea Partier fears about being in China’s debt

On November 11th, I published an essay on the blog: Beijing’s Marshall Plan for the U.S., about the weird China-U.S. economic relationship and the domestic uneasiness, tension, even rage, it’s causing, and how it’s driving Tea Party activism on the debt and deficit.

That day, video came out from Sarah Palin’s Nov. 9 speech at the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, and her “this isn’t racist, but…it’ll be like slavery when that note is due. We are going to beholden to the foreign master [China]” comment got lots of attention in the news cycle. Unfortunately, the “this isn’t racist, but” quip was like a flashing, neon sign “ATTACK RACISM HERE” and media took the bait: it was deliberate, jiujitsu messaging, suddenly the media is delivering a message about Palin and about the left to her specific audience without even knowing they’re doing it… diabolically clever. She is constantly doing backhanded ways of delivering red meat to her base via outrage-peddling news media, in this case Palin’s delivering the message “I hate the racism police too, I’m like you” with media doing the delivering for her. So, with the journalism guard dog pointlessly chasing a car, debating whether the word slavery is inappropriate (I’d say it is very inappropriate when being used for publicity-baiting but the concept of “debt slavery” merits legitimate discussion) and batting about different ahistorical viewpoints, the China part of the comment was lost in most media accounts.

This is the meat of the comment:

“Our free stuff today is being paid for by taking money from our children and borrowing from China… when that money comes due – and this isn’t racist, but it’ll be like slavery when that note is due. We are going to beholden to the foreign master.”

Here’s a video of the comment in context:

You can also watch/hear the video of Palin’s speech in its entirety.

This underlines the points I made about the anxiety around potential “debt peonage” to the PRC. The structural long-term debt isn’t the only issue, which liberals need to understand. Right now the left talks past the right and visa versa, ships passing in the night, liberals and liberal-ish budget wonks are saying that the deficit is on track to be a historically low 2% of GDP, when, for the Tea Partier grassroots, the real crux of the matter is being “beholden to the foreign master,” and whether we are beholden by $200 billion or $200 million is immaterial or, at least, the numerical specifics of the debt are not as important to many on the right as WHO we’re in debt to. The dependence on (economic and military rival) China raises very legit problems for “American exceptionalism.” It makes a paradigm shift that topples the U.S.-led unipolar economic and military order a real possibility for this generation of U.S. leaders down the road a decade or two, not just anxieties for the great-great-grandchildren.
An effective liberalism would address the fears of debt-slavery under a foreign jackboot head-on. I hope actual dialogue can happen instead of the continuous talking past each other, engaging on completely separate issues.

The 11 cultural “nations” of the United States: diversity (and devolution?)

The new book describing the 11 nations or socio-political cultures that rub up against each other in North America (Mobile should be categorized with “New France”) being frequently blogged about in November, brought to mind an essay I blogged in May 2010, one of my more vitriolic posts after the Affordable Care Act passed several months previously and the Tea Partier groundswell was peaking, a post chock-full of ranty disillusionment: Nick’s Essay on America’s Decline, with Big Solutions.
Given our system’s seeming inability to seriously address national problems, with the tepid, insurer-friendly ACA nearly impossible to pass as “too socialist,” I offered three “big solutions,” 1. strictly banning bribing candidates with “contributions” 2. Proportional Representation via STV (“Instant Runoff Voting”) 3. if all else fails, let states group themselves into federated republics with near-complete autonomy on domestic policies like super provinces (still within the United States) for each regional political culture. My concept is similar to devolution as done in Spain (Catalonia, to name one such region, is given broad powers to govern itself). Federal Republic of Central America should be noted as an example of what not to do.

Click to enlarge the map!! In this vision of the future, South Carolina even secedes from the Southern Republic, because, hey, let her finally satiate the 200+ years of secession-hunger.


My map, instead of the 11 cultural nations, has seven federated republics and South Carolina. If nothing else, the essay takes on the serious difficulties with our federalist system directly, difficulties that too often get swept under the rug.

Note: I’m different from the Nick that wrote the “Big Solutions” essay almost three years ago. My views aren’t necessarily less vehement, I still dislike the ACA for what it doesn’t do, and I still think root-and-stem reforms and big constitutional questions should be foreground issues, I’m just more interested in understanding and dialogue than before, more keen to write things that further understanding of ideological opponents than to write diatribes like the one above. Though I still want to cry out against injustices, I feel an urge to love (and grok) thy enemy, and get a grayer, less absolute picture of reality. With that shift, I look back on the South (and Mobile in particular) with increasing fondness as I reflect on the good things that came with the bad.

Religious Literacy and Understanding

In the first weeks of November, The Atlantic‘s post Study Theology, Even If You Don’t Believe in God by Tara Isabella Burton was widely shared and blogged about, and I highly recommend it. Burton’s piece is the most powerful and succinct defense of studying theology I’ve seen to date, an excellent refutation of recent calls (from Richard Dawkins, et al) to deep-six theology departments in UK universities as he doubts theology offers “any real content at all, or that it has any place whatsoever in today’s university culture.” Burton nails it with the assertion that theology offers a unique “opportunity to get inside the heads of those whose beliefs and choices shaped so much of our history, and who—in the world outside the ivory tower—still shape plenty of the world today.” This piece really re-enforces what I was saying in my 2010 essay Religious Literacy and Understanding, For Our Own Sake,
where I argued:

You can’t really form productive relationships with many every day folk in the U.S. (nor Mexico, South America and Africa) if you’re completely ignorant of Christianity, and, increasingly, its more charismatic groups, which are seeing explosive growth. Unless you can get where people are “coming from,” you won’t understand them, and the spiritual is a huge part of that. The spiritual will always become more a focus when material things fail, and they are failing on a massive scale unseen since the ’30s.

As the U.S. falls, others prosper. You can’t understand what is going on in China right now (their return to their once-familiar role as #1 global superpower) if you have no clue what Confucianism is, and the role it is playing in Chinese policy and politics.

You can’t understand how cultures across the globe are responding to the rapid changes happening, a revolution in technology and society and the economy unprecedented since the Industrial Revolution, without religious literacy.

click here to read the rest of the essay

In a world that is roughly 80% religious in some form, religious illiteracy isolates you. Burton’s article goes even deeper; if you only have time to read one link from this post, read her essay, especially if you’re in an academic field.

50th Anniversary of JFK’s assassination

November 22nd marked 50 years since President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. My 2008 blog post about Lee Harvey Oswald speaking at Spring Hill College in Mobile mere months before the assassination, explaining Soviet life to Jesuit scholastics gathered in the rotunda, may give you some new insights into this surreal story. I’ve added a recently published study of Oswald’s time in the USSR to give the post better backing.

Hello December,

Nick

The Accursed 113th Congress: Are Our Democratic Institutions Broken?

Posted by – November 18, 2013

ac·cursed
1: being under or as if under a curse
2: damnable

Source: Merriam-Webster’s dictionary – accursed

I am probably one of the few bloggers who would notice our worst. Congress. ever. is also the 113th Congress, and feel a gut feeling that the correlation isn’t really… entirely coincidental.  Too many horrendous events have happened to me and those I know on the 13th day, especially Friday the 13th, and though I know on the intellectual level that correlation doesn’t imply causation—a number can’t damage you, and dates on the calendar are more subjective…or more Wibbly Wobbly Timey Wimey than you might initially realize, for example the Jewish calendar may tell you it’s the 5th of Tishrei instead of September 13th—nonetheless I have some mild triskaidekaphobia, fear of the number 13… or at least some discomfort and anxiety around thirteen.   Or, as Alejandra said in another context, not meaning 13-itself, “numbers are bad enough… odd numbers are shady mtherfkers.” 

Prior Congresses (Congrii?) have been notably awful: there’s the last session—the 112th Congress—which brought us to the brink of a sovereign default crisis in 2011 which led to Standard & Poor’s downgrading the credit rating of the United States government for the first time, and we lost international credibility big time, and so on.  Of course there was the infamous 80th Congress, which President Truman ran against as “the Do Nothing Congress,” though it was a marathon of productivity compared to the 112th and 113th Congress.  We would much prefer “the Do Nothing Congress” to the current situation.  All the available polling data bears that out. And the 113th Congress is even worse than the 112th by every available yardstick.

Confidence in Congress has never been lower.

Put another way, when Public Policy Polling did a survey during the shameful government shutdown last month, asking registered voters questions like “what do you have a higher opinion of: Congress or hemorrhoids?” hemorrhoids won 53% to 31%… people have a higher opinion of dog poop than Congress 47% to 40% and when asked about zombies vs. Congress, people have a higher opinion of zombies 43% to 37%… at least you know where zombies stand…well, shamble.  [Public Policy Polling full results PDF]

The 113th Congress is also on track to be the least productive in history, demonstrating a shocking inability to pass legislation, even ceremonial laws like congratulating the winner of the World Series and the like…

Ceremonial vs. Substantive legislation in recent Congrii. Source: Washington Post’s “The Fix”

The inability to pass legislation has become so bad during the 113th Congress, the federal government is unable to fund itself, meaning funding only getting done in half-hearted three month CRs (Continuing Resolution), creating dysfunction in everything from scientific research to military procurement.  We’re on a three month CR right now; the weeks of government shutdown lowered expectations so much, it’s seen as a success.  The legislative machinery of our republic is going grinda-grinda-grinda, grinding nearly to a halt, and the dysfunction is mostly due to choices made by the House leadership.

Now, to the real thrust of this post: the decay of our democratic institutions and the weakening of American constitutional values occurring at present.  For example, the mechanism, or underpinning, enabling law that made the government shutdown possible was House Resolution 368, which banned anyone bringing legislation to the floor to re-open the government except the House Majority Leader or his designate, a new, innovative abuse of parliamentary rules and certainly extra-constitutional—not in the constitution, as the parties are not mentioned in the constitution, nevermind a party’s “Majority Leader”—and against the spirit of constitutional law if not its letter.
H. Res. 368 was snuck-in at 1am as the government shutdown began October 1st. Maryland’s Chris Van Hollen, whose DC suburb-district is made-up heavily of federal employees and was disproportionately harmed by the government shutdown, proposed that the House vote on the Senate bill to re-open the government in order to force the Speaker-designate to block him under H. Res. 368, so he could question H. Res. 368 in public; the video clip of Van Hollen’s effort became the first “parliamentary inquiry” to go viral on Facebook and Twitter.  Ironically, the Majority Leader given the sole power to re-open the federal government, and kept it shut down for over two weeks, was Eric Cantor, whose DC-suburb district has broad swaths of its working population depending on federal contracts and paychecks, and was nearly as disproportionately harmed as Van Hollen’s district.

Underpinning all that, how we find ourselves with appropriations stalled and shutdowns possible in the first place, is the Hastert rule.  The Hastert rule, which really should be called the Gingrich rule, as it was first added under Newt Gingrich’s speakership, requires majority support among the Republicans before the speaker will bring legislation to the House floor for a vote.  As the constitution envisions legislation passing the House with simple majorities, the Hastert rule to require legislation either passes with majority-Republican votes or never gets considered, is unconstitutional.  Similar to the situation in the Senate, where the constitution requires supermajorities in cases of ratifying treaties, expelling a Senator, removing a president, not for routine legislation like the 60-vote supermajority needed for passage of most everything, since most everything is now held up by filibusters, this Hastert rule violates the spirit if not the letter of the constitution,  The filibuster certainly isn’t mentioned in the constitution, and the routine blocking of run-of-the-mill legislation and nominations is an innovation not seen until recently.

In the House of Representatives, the Hastert rule has meant nothing gets voted on until the Speaker and/or Majority Leader “have the votes” of the majority of the Republican caucus.  This has meant a vocal minority of the Republicans can grind the legislative

Male elephants tusk-jousting for dominance. Photo by EPA/DAI KUROKAWA

machinery to a halt; the elephant factions have to battle it out and come to a resolution before anything can happen.  This explains the historically low number of bills voted on and passed, the inability to appropriate funds for federal departments, etc. And because of the rapidly changing dynamics within the GOP, which, in my recent post discussing the shifts in conservatism I describe as “revolutionary flux,” the Hastert rule is freshly problematic, not only because of its inevitable enabling of an extremist minority shutting down the government, but because of Republican unity on positions so radical they risk extinction in future presidential elections if the Speaker had held fast on the Hastert rule.  For example, an extension of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) had the majority of the Republicans united in opposition, but the national GOP didn’t want to head into the next elections having removed assistance for battered wives, so Speaker Boehner allowed a vote; VAWA passed with only 38% of the Republicans in the House voting yes.  Similarly a “danger zone” for national disgrace, Speaker Boehner had to bring the Hurricane Sandy disaster relief bill to the floor despite harsh opposition, even drawing no votes from Republicans representing damaged New Jersey districts; it passed with a healthy majority of 241 votes, but only 49 Republican votes, a mere 21% of the majority.

I don’t usually quote others at great length like this, but the blog Gravitas: A Voice for Civics has an excellent explainer on the unconstitutionality of the Hastert rule, explaining it much better than I can:

For example, right now there is an initial impetus to oppose the death penalty between what we call liberal or progressive politicians and libertarians. Usually, these two groups of politicians are known for their antagonism toward each others’ positions, but here is one area in which they agree. Now, I don’t know whether there are enough liberals and libertarians to form a majority, but there is the possibility that if not today, maybe eventually. This potential is exactly what the Founding Fathers foresaw and I believe hoped for. But the Hastert Rule makes such an eventuality almost impossible.

Why? The Hastert Rule calls for limiting the bills that come before the House for a vote to those that are supported by a “majority of the majority.” Let me explain. The Constitution calls on each chamber of Congress to form its own rules. The formal rules of the House state that the Speaker has the role of placing on the voting agenda those bills he or she feels should be considered by the membership. So, if the Speaker is against a bill, it will not come up for a vote unless 218 members sign a “discharge” petition – a very unlikely development. In effect, this role gives the Speaker a great deal of power. An informal rule – one not voted on by the membership – states that the Speaker will not call up a bill that is not supported by a majority of the members who make up the majority party in the House – presently, the Republican members. This, in effect, can give as little as one quarter of the members veto power over any considered policy option – a far cry from the rule of the many. That is what the Hastert Rule allows. The Democrats have never implemented the Hastert Rule when they held the majority, but Republicans have, although there have been a few occasions when the present Speaker has brought up a very limited number of bills that didn’t have a majority of the majority’s support. The Hastert Rule is named after a former Speaker, Dennis Hastert, but it was in effect under a previous Speaker to Hastert, Newt Gingrich.

Whatever its origins, the rule counters a constitutionally conceived quality: the possibility and, hopefully, the likelihood that Congress, particularly in the House, would have rolling coalitions that form over particular issues and policy considerations. These coalitions would form over one area, dissolve, and then other coalitions would form over other considerations. In each, there would be a different collection of members. This reflects a more congregational atmosphere in our Congress and would give meaning to its name: a congress, not a parliament. The Hastert Rule belies this entire conception and, as such, it is un-constitutional with a small “c.”

Read the post in its entirety: AN UN(c)ONSTITUTIONAL RULE

Perhaps we need a new word for things that violate the intended system, instead of “against the spirit of the constitution,” or “un-constitutional with a small ‘c,'” we could call it counter-constitutional, meaning it runs counter to the framers’ intent for our constitutional system of government.

People have a tendency to chuckle at the EPIC FAIL of our

from an early Bob Dylan music video, in which he captions the song with signs that he flips through for every word of the lyrics

from an early Bob Dylan music video, in which he captions the song with signs that he flips through for every word of the lyrics

system: you know, “LOL Congress is less popular than dog poo,” or “haha, we make Europe’s coalition parliaments that collapse every year look functional.”  But I’ve written so much about the dysfunction and the erosion of constitutional values in hopes people will notice the problems.  I want blogging to save us.

The weakening of constitutional values seems to be worsening not only in our legislative branch but in disregard and non-enforcement of the Fourth Amendment leading to a case of the police unnecessarily forcing a colonoscopy on a guy they thought was hiding drugs in his butt (he wasn’t).  The president suspending sections of the Affordable Care Act by executive fiat isn’t exactly a sign of constitutional health either: the law blog The Volokh Conspiracy points out the order’s lack of constitutionality.
Our country desperately needs its legislative branch, the broken branch, fixed.  We badly need to get the budgetary and lawmaking machinery running at normal speeds again, break the cycle of budgeting by emergency CRs; we need an end to austerity and a return to normalcy.  There’s such a yearning for a return to normalcy, you even heard the House GOP calling for a return to “regular order” in legislative procedure and budgeting in the first half of 2013 (though that rhetoric seemed long-forgotten by gov’t shutdown zero-hour October 1st).
I wouldn’t be surprised if, in the 2014 midterm elections to seat the 114th Congress and in the presidential primaries in late 2015 and early 2016, candidates on all sides run on variations of the “return to normalcy” theme.   I expect to see at least one presidential campaign reminiscent of Warren G. Harding‘s strategy in his 1920 run; Harding’s main campaign slogan was a “return to normalcy,” tapping into the American public’s weariness of the economic upheaval (and unimaginable carnage) of Woodrow Wilson’s presidencies and World War I.  Harding won in a landslide.

For Congress, normalcy would look like a string of routine appropriations bills passing and fully funding federal departments and programs.  Appropriation bills have become more “rarity” than “routine,” a situation that desperately needs reversing.
The accursed 113th Congress has visited upon us so many evils, the most obvious being the government shutdown, but an even longer-lasting evil is the distortion of expectations to the point that the vicious cycle of three-month budgets via emergency CRs is seen as regular, and anything resembling a healthy appropriations process is seen as remote, a distant thing on the horizon, at the verge of impossibility.  The 113th Congress’ dysfunction feels even more egregious because more voters voted Democratic party for Congress in the 2012 Congressional elections than voted Republican, yet redistricting allowed the GOP to keep a healthy majority in the House; unlike the awful 113th, the 112th Congress had a definite democratical mandate for obstruction and/or reversal of the incumbent’s policies behind a sizable GOP victory.
Hopefully the departure of the unluckiest 113th Congress following the 2014 midterm elections, a year hence, will mean a breath of fresh air and full funding for federal obligations for a full fiscal year.

If you don’t remember anything else from this post, please absorb this: for better or worse, the House and Senate are our democratic institutions, meaning the democratically-elected, collaborative, “people’s house(s),” and when democratic institutions are weak, the authoritarian parts of our system—the increasingly “unitary” executive, an enforcement branch run amuck without Congressional oversight, etc.—inevitably become stronger.  Despite the absence of a savvy demagogue-executive who could strip Congress of power, it seems the Congress and “the suicide caucus” could still self-destruct, de facto leaving the U.S. with a unitary executive by process of elimination (only the executive still functioning). We have to have healthy, functioning democratic institutions lest “separation of powers” whittle away, and a much more unitary/much less representative system emerges as a fait accompli, justified as a necessity in the face of a Congress that isn’t able to even keep the lights on.  Our democratic institutions MUST regain credibility.

Keep bloggering on.

Nick

That Time Mobile, AL Made The Front Page of the New York Times

Posted by – November 13, 2013

And how The Times missed the story

It’s not exactly surprising that the New York Times missed the story: their writers too often cling to conventional wisdom like a drunk grabbing a lamppost, not for illumination as much as desperately-needed support.  Don’t get me wrong, the Times sometimes has great coverage and is valuable as one of the few newspapers doing fact-checked, traditional journalism, and one of the last old-guard newspapers still standing, but their coverage of the American South is consistently abysmal. It’s nearly as clueless as their coverage of disability issues.  When it comes to the South, the NYT writers are like most New Yorkers, they hear “Alabama” and can picture only the cornfield backdrop on that show Hee-haw!  The problem is, despite the reality being more crawdad than cornfield, more riveria than rural, you can get through this front page report on Alabama’s First Congressional district primary run-off with the image of the rural cornfields unperturbed.

The front page story, well, it was actually a prominent front page blurb in Wednesday, November 6th—print, web, and app—New York editions then continued inside (or on page A17) with the headline: Byrne Wins Republican Runoff in Alabama House Race, was seen nearly 100% through the DC pundits’ lens:

… But the race to replace Mr. Bonner became a national proxy fight between the ideological wings of the Republican Party after Mr. Byrne and Mr. Young emerged atop a nine-candidate field in a September primary.

Dean Young, the Tea Party challenger, did see the race as an epic struggle: his defiant election night “concession speech” ominously referred to his loss as “the first warning shot that goes out across the nation,” and the beginning of his national movement. Byrne, to his credit, tried to explain to the media.that the race was actually about representing Mobile Bay area interests in the House.  This is why he won. (I’d say Jo Bonner won too, abruptly retiring a few weeks before the tsunami of filth from the shameful government shutdown hit)

City of Mobile’s stunning waterfront, backed by blood oranges and cinnamon-sunset. Tip of the hat to Ronald Cook for sharing this beautiful cityscape, originally captured by photographer Tim Ard.

The New York Times missed the story because they missed Mobile.  After the dateline, MOBILE, Ala—pronounced MoBEAL, my hometown—they don’t mention the city again and don’t interview anyone in the city, though Mobilians are the bulk of the voters in the First district, and thus decide the election.  At minimum, The Times has deprived readers of the context that explains why Bryne won: Mobile.

Bradley Byrne didn’t win because voters sided with the “Republican establishment” vs. the Tea Party, as The Times suggested.  Byrne won because he’s more like his predecessors, Jo Bonner and Sonny Callahan, who were laser-focused on getting federal earmarks, grants, and infrastructure projects for the city and the area economy, and made “bringing home the bacon,” not ideological warfare, job 1.  Dean Young might have won in a purely rural district with his pledges to “be just like Ted Cruz,” but far-right crusaders will never get much traction in districts like the First, where an urban population center supplies much of the vote… in this case, Mobile is also a port city trying to compete with similarly-sized ports (like Charleston) and needs the pipe of infrastructure funding open and flowing in order to have a chance.

You see, the true story of Mobile and the Mobile Bay area is infinitely more layered, diverse, and beautiful than the stereotypes or The Times’ one line descriptor “the deeply conservative district.”  The city of Mobile is over 300 years old: it’s called “the city under six flags” because of its rich history

Seal of the city of Mobile

of being under France, Spain, Britain, Republic of West Florida (nominally), United States, and the Confederacy. These flags are on the city seal, including the bonnie blue flag of the Republic of West Florida, a 90 day secession in 1810…  though Mobile remained de facto under Spanish colonial rule, this Republic also included Pensacola and Baton Rouge.  The secession was crushed and all the territory therein forcibly incorporated into the U.S. by Andrew Jackson’s troops during the Madison administration.

Mobilians’ historical and socio-economic background, the collective subconscious, draws more on the statist-war economy under the Confederacy and the mercantilism of the French, Spanish, and British periods—I’ll write a post on Mobile and mercantilism—than the free market American image.  European colonies like Mobile and New Orleans didn’t really ever have the “wild west capitalism” or “free enterprise system” that politicians often say that they want to get back to, it never happened.  Whether you are Republican or Democrat in Mobile—and the word “Democrat” means something different in the Alabama context where the history includes George Wallace-style Democrats—you’re not automatically against state intervention, especially when it means some “bacon” for the local economy.

With the Democratic win in the recent Virginia gubernatorial election November 5th, some have said that Virginia’s election must’ve been rigged or unfair somehow because Cuccinelli won more counties, and the electoral-result map shows Virginia as a sea of red with a few islands of blue.  Dave Weigel blogged about this, renewing discussion of islands of blue where the urban population centers—and decisive voting blocs—are, and electoral maps.  Since, the blogosphere has lit up with discussions of the best electoral maps and cartograms.  Political science professor John Sides posted an excellent compilation of some of the best cartograms that have been created in recent days on his blog The Monkey Cage: the map that most accurately reflects Mobile and American voters as a whole is this one by Chris Howard, which corrects for population using relative darkness/lightness of the blue and red and purple.  In it, Mobile county is purple.

It’s unfortunate that The Times substituted the canned, pre-determined “Republican establishment vs. the Tea Party” narrative for the truth that it’s a purple district where the more moderate, bacon-bringing candidate has a natural advantage, and all politics are local.  They mangle the story, not from falsehoods, but from missing the point.  I understand the limited space in newspapers, but a few lines of context would have made all the difference.

Mobile city was part of New France… in the discussion of the 11 nations or political cultures that rub up against each other in North America being frequently blogged about too recently, Mobile should be categorized with “New France.”  The real Mobile is lost in the shuffle, kind of how the redistricting loses the city…

Alabama’s First Congressional district, the two coastal counties and four inland, rural counties

As you see in the map of the First Congressional district, they’ve included the hinterland counties to create a balance of rural and urban voters. Balanced districts like these are rare. And maybe they shouldn’t exist: so many rural areas are included here, the Mobilians are nearly canceled out.  Back when the Democrats held Montgomery—in the late ’90s and mid ’00s—there was discussion of drawing a new Mobile-only Congressional district.  This could have meant real representation for Mobile and Mobilians’ urban interests, a constituency that is 51% black and heavily Catholic, a very different person sent to Congress, and some misconceptions about coastal Alabama shattered in Washington.  We should remember this when discussing redistricting.

The one time my hometown makes The New York Times, and not for hurricane destruction, they gotta mangle it.  Dang it….

Nick

Turning Around America’s “Food Deserts”

Posted by – November 8, 2013

Tackling the problem: two videos about creative solutions

The last time I wrote about food and food policy, it was in the context of the invisible fist… commenting on one of the most Orwellian stories to date, the brutal closure of raw food sellers by SWAT teams enforcing draconian regulations against non-corporate unpasteurized milk and cheese.

As I try to understand the rapidly changing political landscape and evolving socio-economic ecosystem, it’s becoming more and more obvious that food and food policy is a prominent part of the emerging policy struggle.

In the past few decades, we—or rather the emerging uber-aggressive corporatism we’ve been helpless to change—has created food deserts, after grocery store chains have consolidated into mega-corporations that have trans-regional, or even national, reach, and have increasingly abandoned poor communities, shuttered stores, and only opened up new stores in perceived “affluent areas” to maximize profitability.  These changes, plus the big box super chains pushing-out small, family grocers that had local stores, have created serious access problems.  Food deserts are areas where there is low or limited or NO access to real food, either because of long distances from an open grocery store or lack of transportation thereto.  It’s hard to believe it’s gotten to this point, but the economic changes have been so bad and long-lasting we’re now in a situation where broad swaths of the United States have access to nothing but junk: processed fast food that’s intended as a “sometimes food” relied-on on a near-daily basis.

Recently, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the agency that funds SNAP, food inspectors, and the complex network of farm subsidies, has begun tracking and mapping food deserts.

A map from USDA data:

Areas with no or low car-access and no groceries available within a mile

The food desert situation is serious, and needs our attention.  It should change our attitudes around obesity as well: this map ^ probably correlates strongly, perhaps exactly, with a map of severe obesity.  We should see obesity as symptomatic of the malnutrition that comes from food deserts.  Americans consume, consume, consume, but don’t get the needed nutrients in (a metaphor for the U.S. economy too).

People are trying different, creative solutions to this problem.  The raw dairy people in California who got shut down are examples of approaches to providing more access to healthier food.  Even though the raw food markets in question operate within American capitalism, trading cheese for set prices, something about them offended the corporatist system of big agribusiness, who obviously want to limit competition if regulations provide a pretense.  Yesterday the stock market hit a record high, the Dow is up 120% since the Obama administration came in, in January 2009, thanks to the bailouts the big fish are super-happy and reaping a great bonanza, and there’s every incentive to maintain the status quo at all costs.  This problem, the invisible fist of Orwellian unfreedom utilized to protect the corporatist system, will likely crop up again as more alternatives to big agribusiness become prominent.

But there’s hope: a lot of exciting projects to develop food solutions are emerging now.  I’ll list two: First there’s Archi’s Acres, a project by Colin and Karen Archiplay. Marine Sgt. Colin Archiplay was highly decorated in Iraq and Afghanistan but found himself directionless, disconnected from his fellow marines, until he and his wife Karen innovated an ultra-low water method of sustainable, soilless, zero-pesticide, high-yield, organic hydroponic agriculture in sealed greenhouses on their small farm near San Diego, and created the Veterans Sustainable Agriculture Training (VSAT) program to train veterans to grow healthy food, desperately needed healthy food the U.S. market will always pay well to get.

They tell their story in the below TED Talk, explicitly mentioning spreading the greenhouses as solutions to U.S. food deserts, and a future project to deploy mobile greenhouses of this type to “conflict zones” in the Mideast, which are actual deserts, AND, increasingly, food deserts as well.

 

Second, not-for-profit grocery stores are cropping up to turn around the food deserts.

Chester, Pennsylvania had no grocery stores at all until the not-for-profit project described in this Moyers – PBS report opened. 

Corporate capitalism has its own internal logic, and the results in places like Chester, PA have been ugly, removing food access from whole communities, or, in the language of economists, “create negative externalities.”

Here’s a map of the food deserts around Philadelphia and, down-river, Chester is improving—I made this map with the USDA Food Access Atlas.

USDA Food Desert Map: the urban areas lining the Delaware River have serious food access issues.

USDA Food Desert Map: the urban areas lining the Delaware River have serious food access issues.

 

One of the gifts of a Jesuit education I was lucky to receive was the ability to question things, and to turn around America’s food deserts we will need to question and go beyond the internal logic of corporatism that so often binds us.  I don’t think capitalism is the problem.  I think our super-aggressive form of hyper-cut-throat corporate capitalism is the problem, the tyranny of earnings per share being the only goal.  As the manager of the non-profit grocer explained in the above video, being not-for-profit removed the constraints of quarterly profits and the like and made this possible, and they’ve been able to get farmers to give them lower prices and for companies to donate refrigerator equipment, etc.

We need to support these new food solutions, while overturning the cuts in food stamps (SNAP) and other austerity measures that are making food deserts worse.  The best interview I’ve read on the recent SNAP cuts is this Wonkblog interview with Joel Berg, the executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger.  He said: “…the average is about $1.50 per meal, and it’s going to $1.40 per meal after these cuts. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) estimates that it’s equivalent to something like losing 21, 22 meals a month. Many people report to us and food pantries that even before the cuts, it only lasts two-three weeks.”  What isn’t noted is how this will put organic, healthy foods even more out of reach, and how people will double-down on the processed high-calorie foods to extend their calories per dollar, meaning more processed food-only meals to stretch that food stamp another week.

What do you think of food deserts? 

Nick

Beijing’s Marshall Plan for the United States

Posted by – November 3, 2013

So, I’ve been considering the real causes of “red state” radicalism, and wrote an entire post on my attempts to grok the rapidly changing political landscape.

I learned a great deal from my investigation, which you can read here.  But I want to go deeper on the economic roots of the situation, so I’m writing this post.  Aside from the “gender damage”¹ that’s occurring when, for example, men grow up with cultural expectations to be provider and protector but find themselves never able to meet those gender expectations, which I think is the source of so many of our societal and political problems at present, there are even deeper dysfunctions.  The deeper issues are all tied to an economic system that’s fundamentally skewed to serve the big fish at the very top of the food chain while laying off a huge chunk of the pyramid of smaller fish the big guys used to depend on.  And if you’re among the rural and suburban whites typical of Tea Partier demographics, you’re seeing an economic system stacked against you so badly, rage and radicalism is almost inevitable.

The pacemaker sustaining the heart of our unfair economic system is Beijing’s “Marshall Plan” for the United States… meaning they loan us cash that is really meant to buy their exports.

The Marshall Plan of 1948-1951 (also known as the European Recovery Program) was a humanitarian project to ratchet down the desperation in post-war Europe, prime the pump of international trade, and bring back broad-based prosperity to rescue free-market economies in Western Europe (the subtext being that the whole continent would “go red” unless the economies of the war-torn Allied nations started to work for the average European again).  The Marshall Plan was a great success, as evidenced by the relative stability and unity of Europe since its implementation, instead of poverty, radicalism and war.  But in addition to its humanitarian aims, Marshall‘s plan had a major impact “priming” the American economy.

As the Library of Congress’ “Fiftieth Anniversary of the Marshall Plan” online exhibit explains, “…increasing prosperity in the U.S. was one goal of the Marshall Plan. As a way of boosting exports, the plan had wide appeal to American business people, bankers, workers, and farmers. … During the years of the Marshall Plan, when much of the money European participants received was spent on U.S.-produced food and manufactured goods, the American economy flourished.”  In many cases, Marshall Plan loan money quickly found its way to Maxwell House coffee or U.S. Steel to export out to Hamburg, Paris, Liverpool and the like.  In rarer cases, instead of fronting Europeans the money, goods were granted outright, so Bethlehem Steel or the Iowa grain elevator guys or whoever got paid, direct from the federal government, to create and send their stuff out.  There are a lot of interesting details about the Marshall Plan.  If you’re nerdy like me, the Library of Congress exhibit has an excellent contemporary source, from Kiplinger Magazine, their guide for American businessmen on the Marshall Plan, how it works and how to participate in it, to get “your product on the list” [to be exported]. This magazine is also an interesting example of the bubbly, happy sort of graphical style—Will Eisner epitomized this—that dominated ’40s design, even in trade journals like Kiplinger’s, evidently.

Beijing’s loaning policies, and by “Beijing” I mean the PRC regime headquartered in Beijing, are similar to the Marshall Plan mainly in that we’re being fronted cash that’ll boomerang back to buy their exports.  Beijing’s seemingly endless ability to buy U.S. debt, buy U.S. debt, buy U.S. debt, keeps the government and the American economy from collapsing, keeps the unhealthy trade deficit² going, which acts as a stimulus program for China’s economy as cheap clothes, toys, games and electronics dominate our markets (but undermine our economy).  Unlike the Marshall Plan though, there’s no humanitarian intent; it’s done out of self-interest full stop, and even, arguably, part and parcel of the aggressively capitalistic culture that has gripped China from the back alley tinkerers to the backroom dealers.  And while this capitalist transformation of China has lifted hundreds and hundreds of millions of Chinese out of poverty, it certainly has a dark side, often enabling the worst types of crony capitalism, and the exploitation of Chinese laborers, infamously

Renminbi, “people’s currency.” Since 1999, all banknotes in all denominations have Chairman Mao on front

symbolized by so many workers trying to commit suicide off the Foxconn iPhone factory roof when denied pay, they put up “suicide nets.” [January 16, 2012 Daily Show segment on Foxconn and the “jumper nets”]

There are so many complexities to U.S.-China trade and weird economic relationship, including the undervaluation of the renminbi, and the issues have filled so many books, and will continue to…

In terms of the political implications, the bottom line is: this economic system of heavy reliance on Chinese consumer goods and large-scale Chinese-financed U.S. debt never was voted on, never was approved by the American people, and is now deeply despised throughout the U.S.

The lack of democracy in our financial decision-making, our complete powerlessness to change the most fundamental economics undergirding American life, is driving both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street to push for change.  Both hate what I refer to as “the invisible fist,” the government force that punishes smaller competitors and favors cronies; unlike the invisible hand, supposedly the mechanism of free markets, the invisible fist is the overtly violent mechanism behind Orwellian unfreedom.  You might even see the invisible fist at work in the ways trade rules are rigged to favor Chinese consumer goods flooding U.S. markets.  Both Occupy and the Tea Party are angry that the majority is left with fewer and fewer economic opportunities, and both want the trade imbalance with China to stop and our debt-selling to Beijing to dramatically change.  Occupy wants a return to the income tax brackets we had when major federal projects—like the Apollo Program, the interstate highway system, etc.—were possible, more financial independence, more paying-down the national debt, through more revenue.  Occupy understands that we need a real Marshall Plan for the American economy, to upgrade our infrastructure into something befitting a world leader and bring back the kind of broad-based prosperity stimulated by the 1948 Marshall Plan, along with more human rights and environmental conditions on foreign trade to ratchet down our trade deficit and weird co-dependent relationship with China.

Tea Partiers would have us stop borrowing from China entirely, even if it meant shutting down most federal departments, and would steer us into a default that would force a total from-scratch-rebuild of an American economy that would be self-sufficient instead of interdependent.  So many out there in right-wing talk radio land are saying “default is patriotic” or things along those lines, that it’s best to “get the pain over with sooner rather than later” and so on, so a ground-up rebuilding, without the federal government in its current form or size, or without the federal government at all, can begin.  It’s a much more radical vision than Occupy’s, and completely unmoored from anything that could be called “conservative.”  Since they believe that a central government will always be tyrannical and inherently parasitic, their call for renewal makes “slaying the government hydra” almost a prerequisite for rebirth; and I’m not sure how much the anti-federalist fervor will dissipate with the rise of a Republican president this time.  There’s this spirit of goddess of destruction and rebirth, alongside some straight up nihilism, shut it down, burn it down, shut it down. 

Redstate.com editor Erick Erickson put it this way:

…the real fight within the Republican Party now is between those who believe we actually are at the moment of crisis — existential or otherwise — and thereby must fight as we’ve never fought before and those who think the GOP can bide its time and make things right.

Washington Post‘s Ezra Klein says Republicans have lost their “raison d’etre” since the deficit has fallen with historic rapidity—the newest data shows a record 37 percent reduction in the deficit for FY 2013 ending September 30th— and that the deficit is on track to “[stabilize] in the (totally manageable) two-to-three percent range through the next decade.”  As is often the case, Ezra Klein missed the bus, because pretty much zero Tea Partiers care that the deficit is headed to 2-3% of GDP.  These are not the Wall Street Republicans that follow budget numbers, nor are they like the evangelical Christian right of the ’80s and ’90s talking about social issues; the Tea Party is first and foremost a rebellion on economic issues.  Tea Partiers want no more borrowing and no more spending beyond annual revenues.  They have a deep philosophical beef with the current size and scope of the federal government, which they see as a failed, unconstitutional project that has already brought us to the “moment of crisis” economically, existentially, etc.   The consensus is that the current economic system is so disastrous for them, the entire system needs radical restructuring if not outright demolition.

The government shutdown and playing drag race chicken with sovereign default was meant to force a rethink of borrowing from China, in fact I think that scaring-off Chinese creditors was meant as a feature not a bug of the “strategy.”

I vehemently oppose the repeal of a century of social programs being pushed for at present; these programs keep me and so many going despite the hate-filled political climate.  I also am in favor of paying our debts, of being a responsible country.  That default has even entered the discussion is indicative that many in the demos see their home-country of the United States as less like a superpower and more like post-war recovery zones in need of a Marshall Plan.  We’ve gotta WAKE UP!  Looking at urban disaster areas like Camden and Detroit, portions of Los Angeles, Stockton, etc., it seems there really was a war lost, somehow.

Whether you are a Tea Partier, support Occupy like me, or don’t want any of it, I think most Americans have a nascent, not-articulated, inchoate sense that the New World being in debt to the Old World is fundamentally not right.  The urge for perceived self-reliance is powerful.  Very few Americans would vote to continue this weird economic relationship unchanged if our financial system was democratic and major economic choices were on the ballot.  If for no other reason, China’s very Old World values about right to life, about women’s rights, human rights, rights for labor…that are very different from our own values in ways that create unease, to say the least, about the co-dependent relationship.

Our weird economic relationship with Beijing will continue to matter, continue to be up-front in the context of the ongoing debate over trade, budget deficits, government shutdowns, and so forth, though the news media is fairly terrible at bringing you that underpinning context.  So keep reading Nick’s Crusade blog.

 

I’ll end on an internet meme, a really old one, pre-2000, maybe one of the first such memes; it’s about goofin’ on Chairman Mao

 

 

Nick

 

Footnotes

1. this concept of “gender damage” was developed not by me but by Mary Louise Roberts, historian and French studies expert at UW-Madison, to describe what happened to French men following their devastating defeat in World War II, in her book What Soldiers Do: Sex and the American GI in World War II France.  I’ll elaborate on this more in a future post.

2. “The U.S. trade deficit with China topped $30 billion for the first time [breaking the record in July 2013]” – China drives uptick in U.S. trade deficit – Eric Bradner – POLITICO.com

Tech guy on House Committee Hearing on Healthcare.gov: “it’s like watching my 1-year-old argue with my cat”

Posted by – October 31, 2013

Two Deeper Issues to Consider

So, I’m a little behind the curve on this one, as it happened in the late morning of October 24th and has been blogged and tumbl’d and tweeted about a bajillion times and now is a week old and largely forgotten… but that’s all right, since my blogging is all about providing long-view context and a unique perspective, not about news.

If you missed it last Thursday (10/24/2013) the House Energy and Commerce Committee held a hearing on the healthcare.gov glitches so

This political cartoon by The Hill‘s Chris Weyant sums up GOP complaints about healthcare.gov and Obamacare so well!

they could grandstand, bloviate on issues they don’t understand and mug for the cameras.  Congressman Frank Pallone (D – New Jersey’s 6th Congressional district) did some counter-trolling to the GOP trolling over the web site and privacy, saying “No, I will not yield to this monkey court or whatever this thing is,” which quickly went viral and was clipped on every news site and inspired a flood of tweets with the hashtag #monkeycourt.  Trolling against your opponents’ trolling…it’s pretty much the most we can expect from our Congress right now.  That’s the surface of the story, though I admit I found committee chairman Joe Barton’s hasty response “this is not a monkey court”—in a tone not entirely convinced himself—to be hiiiilarious (judge for yourself) but…

what’s the deeper context most news media isn’t giving you?

1) The content of this House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing consisted of questions not grounded in facts about web sites and internet tech, followed by answers just as unmoored from web reality.  This spectacle of a hearing/monkeycourt was every bit as indicative of Congress’ tech ignorance as then-Senator Ted Stevens’ infamous the internet is “a series of tubes remark, and it ought to be seen in that light.

Web entrepreneur Clay Johnson—@cjoh—provided some real substance on the oft-ignored web dev issues at the heart of the healthcare.gov problems when he was interviewed by Democracy Now! the day following the hearing.  Johnson pointed out that a core problem is Congress’ cluelessness around the subject matter at issue:

…so, you have these bizarre exchanges where, you know, a member of Congress is asking the vice president of CGI Federal about code inside of the website that isn’t even being displayed and isn’t even relevant to the user, and CG—and the VP of CGI Federal not even recognizing that it’s not displayed and not even relevant to the user. It was this really baffling set of exchanges. It’s like watching my one-year-old argue with my cat.

He also revealed that “Congress lobotomized itself” on technological issues when—under the direction of Speaker Gingrich—it canceled the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), zeroing it out in the FY 1996 budget, so it had to close September 29th, 1995; significantly, this “defunding” was part of the dramatic budget cuts that triggered the battle over spending and government shutdown of 1995-96.  Because of the OTA’s absence, Johnson explains, Congress doesn’t have the kind of consistent advice it needs to understand the myriad of technology needs and requirements that crop up in the legislation that’s voted on each session.  Clearly, our members of Congress are left to rely on the advice of their staffers, which obviously can be uneven and/or skewed.  Read or listen to the rambling “series of tubes” remarks, spoken by the late Ted Stevens—then-Senate president pro-tem—and it’s apparent he was clumsily repeating parts of the party line on net neutrality, but interpreting it through his own very unique imagery, “…again, the Internet is not something that you just dump something on. It’s not a big truck. It’s a series of tubes. And if you don’t understand, those tubes can be filled….” etc., and lots of the substance is getting “lost in translation.” See and/or hear the comments Clay Johnson gave to Democracy Now! in full below:

 

2) the power, sweeping purview and deep-seated corruption of these House committees deserves coverage.  The House Energy and Commerce Committee oversees the health care industry along with Medicaid and Medicare and the implementation of the ACA, the energy sector—oil, coal, natural gas, etc., plus renewables—and other, enormously important, broad swaths of our socio-economic existence, including trade policy and the numerous ways that federal law regulates markets.  Run by the GOP Majority via committee chairman Joe Barton (representing mostly rural parts of Texas with more cows than voters) this committee has been accumulating power since 1795.  In 1885, Woodrow Wilson wrote about the out-of-control power and corruption of these long-standing House committees:

[the House of Representatives]…divided up, as it were, into forty-seven seignories, in each of which a Standing Committee is the court-baron and its chairman lord-proprietor. These petty barons, some of them not a little powerful, but none of them within reach [of] the full powers of rule, may at will exercise an almost despotic sway within their own shires, and may sometimes threaten to convulse even the realm itself.

—Woodrow Wilson, Congressional Government, p. 76

Congressional Government (1885), Woodrow Wilson’s John Hopkins University doctoral dissertation, became popular in the study of U.S. government and politics and has been published in many different editions.  Wilson’s scholarship aimed to Having long-since lapsed into the public domain, Congressional Government is available in full online: wikisource hosts its 15th (1900) edition

Obviously many aspects of Wilson’s presidency were problematic to say the least, but that doesn’t zero-out the insights from Wilson’s writings and scholarly works.  On his study of the federal government and its flaws, he aimed to be descriptive not prescriptive: “I am pointing out facts—diagnosing, not prescribing remedies.” His diagnosis of the House committee system was that its “barons” are out of control, exercising enormous power nationally without any national or in-House accountability, without checks and balances at all aside from the dude’s constituents’ power to reelect, and without competitive pressure as the chair is given on the basis of seniority not merit. This empowers said dukes and duchesses to act in the shadows, wield power in so corrupt a fashion it’d even make Lucifer blush, all because of the absence of mechanisms to impose repercussions.

The structural defects Wilson described in 1885 continue today, only more so, as the committees’ respective scopes of operations has continually expanded, including more and more of the economy (and more industries to shake down for campaign contributions). Joe Barton himself is the epitome of the corrupt committee chairman, just turn over the log and ewwww….

The questions need to be asked, loudly and repeatedly: should the committee system stay as-is in the 21st century? Should their fiefdoms include like half the economy? and if they are to have such a vast, national scope, can we—the people—vote for the chairs nationally on a quadrennial basis like the presidents?  or at least subject the chairs to a competitive vote of the Congressmen like the way that the Speaker of the House is elected?  Unlike the role of Speaker of the House, however, the committees are not in the U.S. Constitution, just look in Article One.  That makes reforming the committees more like the ongoing debate over filibuster reform, it’s about modernizing arcane rules and traditions that are increasingly prone to abuse.

We desperately need to address the flaws in the underpinning governing structure of our system.  Unfortunately the two parties don’t typically invite discussion of root and branch reforms that may remove some of the ill-gotten gains from the top of the heap they trade off controlling.

I’ll conclude on another quote from Wilson: “We know that the machines of both parties are subsidised by the same persons, and therefore it is useless to turn in either direction.” -from p. 27 of Wilson’s The New Freedom (1912) full text available online.

 

Nick