Sep 30 2013

You’re Evil, No You Are!

This is Showdown Week in Congress, with the House Republicans attempting to repeal or at the very least delay the start of the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare. Various congressmen and women have railed against the health care bill in the most vitriolic terms. According to what I’ve read, the House, with its GOP majority, has voted to repeal ACA nearly 50 times. And they’re still trying, this time potentially at the cost of shutting down the government, and possibly pushing the United States into default on its debt.

Unlike many others who’ve bloviated to me about how bad Obamacare will be, I truly cannot say whether it will improve health care in the United States. But at least some of its provisions are vital and so far, I have not read about any serious proposal to replace ACA and preserve these guarantees. The ability to get coverage for pre-existing conditions, for example, is a godsend for many families. And coverage for millions of uninsured Americans seems just as vital, particularly when it’s likely we pay these costs anyway via emergency room visits that financially stress hospitals and inflate costs generally. I and most of my friends only hope that ACA will help begin the process of making health care in the United States not only more affordable and more available, but also to help stop the run away costs that plague the sector.

But during Showdown Week, my own attention is on the ridiculous behavior of politicians. I’ve said before that what should be serious discussions about what is good for all Americans seems quickly to degrade into childlike playground fights over who is more popular. Whether one will stand a chance of getting re-elected should rely more on the substance of what one creates, rather than how loudly one can shout.

I’m not hopeful this will end. On the contrary, I think it will get worse and worse during my lifetime. Americans on the fringes—whether it’s the Tea Party or the liberal equivalent—simply do not have the whole country in mind when they votes their interests. I saw this small with highly-political friends voting single issues in the 1990s, and I see this now writ-large in the punitive stance of the Tea Party loyalists. When there are 300 million people to take into account, congressmen need to think about what is right for the middle, not for the edges.

Aug 6 2012

Joe Citizen

Local politics is something I know virtually nothing about, but provides some interesting food for thought. Who you know matters here perhaps more than anywhere, both in determining who you will actually vote for (largely because you’ve heard of them) and who you might volunteer for.

In the case of the first matter, most local candidates are unknown outside of certain circles. Whether the candidate is part of the two-party apparatus, or a advocate-turned-activist, a club leader or school volunteer, or in these modern times a contributor and commenter in local online news web sites, the circles are very probably quite small. In my community, perhaps 100,000 people have the opportunity to vote for city council, and even those relatively high-profile citizens are largely unknown. Fairly large amounts of money are required to do the printing and mailing that will change pure ignorance into hazy awareness. For offices that have no ballot statement, the obstacles are even higher, since these candidates are very likely running on shoe string budgets without any real means of engaging voters easily. There is a significant burden of work on both the candidate and the voter: the candidate to spread the word and pound the pavement, and the voter to learn what a candidate truly stands for and whether they deserve a vote.

When it comes to working on a candidate’s behalf, the local question can become one of “which friend do I support?” Since those willing or able or motivated to lend a hand are likely people who spend time in many civic groups, it’s reasonable to expect that one might know and work with competitors. I recently learned that endorsements in local campaigns are difficult to come by, and I feel certain this is at least part of that calculus. How do I endorse Steve without offending Mary? Should I contribute to both? If Steve supports this issue, will those who oppose the issue then oppose Steve and others I endorse? Or perhaps me, if I someday choose to run for an office? Apparently, some local groups will actually endorse all candidates, which seems patently silly. Many—especially individuals—endorse none. I find this reasonable, but peculiar. Since most local candidates have true goals to achieve or build of fix, it seems bizarre that anyone might worry about such political machinations. I would posit that this is tantamount to the cronyism that most Americans oppose, and yet it is undoubtedly human nature.

So the question is how can Joe be a truly good citizen? To me, the answer is about rising above rivalries and loyalties to ideas and communication. Those in local politics must be brave enough to advance their ideas on the merits of those ideas, and to trust that others in the community will see, understand, and respect issues and candidates on the merits. We must also be particularly aware of the organizations that want to manipulate us—corporations, unions, and political parties, especially. These folks have savvy and resources, and perhaps even more importantly, the loyalty of their followers. Taking a stand is a significant challenge for the local politician, and thus voters need to be especially thoughtful and questioning about what and who can make a real positive difference for the community.

May 6 2011

Arm Chair Diplomacy

Or perhaps this should be “Arm Chair Intelligence Analysts” or “Arm Chair Conspiracy Theorists.” In the wake of the Bin Laden killing, the speculation about the relationship between the United State and Pakistan is practically laughable. Not only are the opinions of most media pundits useless, but the thoughts of so many commenting in blogs and on newspaper sites, too. We seem to have a very Hollywood view of how international politics works. Super agents, corruption within intelligence circles, conspiracies of governments, and so on. But if you watch some of the deeper interviews of actual diplomats on C-SPAN, Charlie Rose, and so on, it’s pretty clear that the real world of diplomacy is nothing at all like Hollywood.

First off, diplomacy tends to be very slow. The groundwork for an American assault in Abbottabad was laid over the past five or more years. To think that the Pakistanis were totally ignorant of the United State’s intentions with regard to surgical strikes inside Pakistan borders on idiocy. Certainly they are cooperating with the U.S. But they must put on a good political face for their own people, so they will rattle sabres about retaliation, but they won’t walk away from $3 billion in aid. No way. It is arguably far more important for Pakistan to have a political alliance with the United States than not, if only because of the political value this has in relation to India.

Second, the baroque theories about Pakistan’s knowledge of Bin Laden — that Pakistani officials knew about Bin Laden’s location simply because he was close to the Kakul military base, that Bin Laden was actually under house arrest by the ISI, that the CIA had set up Bin Laden’s house as a trap for other al Qaeda officials — show a tacit misunderstanding of intelligence trade craft. Additionally, the proposition that the CIA didn’t have better confirmation of Bin Laden’s presence is possibly just as ridiculous. Yes, Bin Laden didn’t have a phone or Internet connection. But the indirect methods of data collection have been around so long that how they work is even in popular media. I’d venture a guess that a device to snoop on Bin Laden from a nearby hillside could be built from commercially available electronics, and so the counter-intelligence measures Bin Laden would need would be far greater than he certainly had (other than sealing himself inside, which is pretty nearly what he appears to have done.) It was reported today that the CIA was operating nearby. And while that may simply be a political or intelligence ruse, it does likely mean that agents were keeping an eye out and possibly getting the confirmation photos and audio we may not see for decades. (I personally think the President would not have mounted this operation without a much higher level of certainty than is being reported in the press. What would have been the result if this operation had been undertaken against Pakistani civilians with no connection to terrorism?)

Third, to go back to the idea of a ruse: The theories running amok through the body politic are creative, to say the least. But they seem to ignore the fact that deceit is one of the primary activities within intelligence operations. The CIA is very good at creating stories, slights of hand if you will, that distract from the actual facts. This is their job. They are good at it. So I’m personally extremely skeptical of any story sourced from CIA officials and believe that everyone else should be as well. My skepticism isn’t dismissive or judgmental. What I mean instead is that I’m ignorant and naive when it comes to understand intelligence operations; I’ll leave that to intelligence professionals, and rely on journalists to ferret out the true stories after the fact.

Wild speculation is fun, certainly, but I rather see Americans focusing their attention on real, substantive progress on international, domestic, and cultural issues. We can get our thrilling stories of secret agent derring-do in the plush seats of a movie theater.

Mar 24 2010

Action vs. Vitriol

The Health Care bill is in the process of being passed and athough I believe the process still has a ways to go, the GOP has launched a campain to fire Nancy Pelosi, which includes a lot of bluster, built in assumptions (say, that all Republicans want to fire her), and some jarring imagery.

It is fair, I think, that the opposition want to oust Pelosi. She has been a thorn in their side for several years. But with the nature of discussion, I take strong issue.

How are we to make progress toward a safer, smarter, and more prosperous society if our political leaders are engaged in playground antics? As of today, the Democratic Party’s web site is all about action and accomplishment. The GOP site, in contrast, is primarily sarcasm, accusation, and vitriol. Sure, like Oakland Raiders fans, I can comprehend being a fan of the individualist, the underdog, the outsider. But the GOP represents roughly 50% of all Americans. Aren’t they interested in building something better, rather than just negative attacks on the current administration? Are election cycles so long that congressmen can never show collaboration, but rather must begin working toward the next election as soon as their power has been usurped?

And what about improving one’s resume? If I were Mitch McConnell, I’d be working on creating a kick-ass alternative to the ideas being brought forth by the Democrats. I’d make those ideas very public. I’d push them through social networks. I’d keep the conversation positive — something like “Democrats are in power now and they’ve got some ideas. But look at this. Don’t you want a better future? We can deliver it, and here’s how.”

The absence of this kind of discussion from most discussions I hear or read is probably the most frightening thing about the current state of politics in the United States.

If the conversation is about how is yelling the loudest, or whether the press is biased, or insinuations of corruption (either without facts or by assocation and still without facts), then how can we expect things in our country to improve?

Jan 22 2009

Right vs Left

Born to a Republican family, I was virulently conservative during high school. But it was, ultimately, just an image. Progressive influences were nearby and played a significant part in my break from the image — a Democrat uncle, a liberally minded friend, and others. I’ve voted along liberal lines for most of my adult life, yet I’m still conservative in many ways. I personally think that “Right” and “Left”, “Conservative” and “Liberal” are useless labels that might help define one’s image, but rarely define one’s self.

The damage that is done to our society by virtue of this needless distinction is significant. It is the politics of exclusion. One side must lose. Citizens will often choose the “lesser of two evils.” Ideas are reduced to ideologies. Black and white. Opposites, with no middle ground.

I learned via my own path that issues are never so clear. For example, I “believe” in the rule of law. But our prisons are choked with career criminals; they are a training ground for recidivism. Once in the system, it’s very hard to get out. And ex-cons return to the same environment they came from. Poverty, parenting, community, responsibility, vision — they all play a part in the solution to a serious problem. No black or white solution exists. But until the problems are addressed as part of the larger system in which they exist, progress will be elusive.

America’s politics needs a shift to sensibility, a suppression of individuality and a greater appreciation of community. Greed, intolerance — these are things we cannot abide. Our challenge has been met by past generations, so it can be met again. And if we can truly change, then perhaps we can make the change permanent so that future generations are not so mired in arbitrary difference and instead consider their values and make policies in the necessary broader contexts that all difficult issues require.