Friday, August 29, 2008

What is Government's Role? Progressive Liberty and Barack Obama

Much of my professional work in teaching and writing about Constitutional Law and Constitutional Theory focuses on what is government's role in America. Indeed, as I've discussed here before, the title of this blog, Progressive Liberty, relates to this issue.

First, "Liberty": America was founded, first and foremost, to preserve individual freedom from oppressive government - government must tolerate any personal idea, action or attribute that does no harm to another. America's founding documents - the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution - make this point clear: government must leave us alone. And when it does not, the judicial branch is there to correct the situation and preserve our freedom from overreaching government.

Second, "Progressive": This part IS negotiable - in a democratic republic, it is the will of the people what sort of society they will have. So long as the government is not infringing on individual freedom, it can set widely varying policy - anything from a minimalist caretaker state to a more progressive social welfare model of the sort seen in Western Europe (or indeed, something more different still than either of these). I happen to favor the latter - hence, the word "progressive." I believe it's the government's duty to enact humane policy that looks out for people who can't help themselves, and that provides equal opportunity to all - and I'll do what I can to try to influence the political process so that enough like-minded people will vote for representatives who will enact such policies. But if I'm unsuccessful, and we instead get politicians like George W. Bush and Dick Cheney - well, our democracy has only ourselves to blame.

In his acceptance speech earlier tonight at the Democratic Convention, Barack Obama hit the nail on the head for what it is I'm talking about with "progressive liberty." He said:

"Ours is a promise that says government cannot solve all our problems. But what it should do, is that which we cannot do for ourselves: protect us from harm; and provide every child with a decent education. Keep our water clean and our toys safe. Invest in new schools, and in roads, and in science, and technology.

"Our government should work for us, not against us. It should help us, not hurt us. It should ensure opportunity, not just for those with the most money and influence, but for every American who is willing to work. That's the promise of America. That we are responsible for ourselves, but that we also rise or fall as one nation. The fundamental belief that I am my brother's keeper. I am my sister's keeper.

"That's the promise we need to keep. That's the change we need right now."

This is the president America needs.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Evolution & Republicans' Assault on Reason

A long time ago in a career far far away, I taught high school science - which leads me to especially appreciate a column in today's New York Times by Olivia Judson entitled "Optimism in Evolution."

There's a true wonder to science -to trying to understand and to reason why things work, grow or develop the way they do. As Judson says, "the most important thing about studying evolution is something less tangible. It’s that the endeavor contains a profound optimism. It means that when we encounter something in nature that is complicated or mysterious, such as the flagellum of a bacteria or the light made by a firefly, we don’t have to shrug our shoulders in bewilderment.

"Instead, we can ask how it got to be that way. And if at first it seems so complicated that the evolutionary steps are hard to work out, we have an invitation to imagine, to play, to experiment and explore. To my mind, this only enhances the wonder."

Nicely stated. Not all are so curious, though, as Judson also points out in explaining another more philosophical reason for teaching evolution: "It concerns the development of an attitude toward evidence. In his book, 'The Republican War on Science,' the journalist Chris Mooney argues persuasively that a contempt for scientific evidence — or indeed, evidence of any kind — has permeated the Bush administration’s policies, from climate change to sex education, from drilling for oil to the war in Iraq. A dismissal of evolution is an integral part of this general attitude.

"Moreover, since the science classroom is where a contempt for evidence is often first encountered, it is also arguably where it first begins to be cultivated. A society where ideology is a substitute for evidence can go badly awry. (This is not to suggest that science is never distorted by the ideological left; it sometimes is, and the results are no better.)"

Dismissal of reason among groups of Americans is nothing new - back in the mid-1800s, for example, there was a nativist political group that gained traction for several years known as the "Know Nothings," whose philosophy is remembered by Paul Krugman as "the insistence that there are simple, brute-force, instant-gratification answers to every problem, and that there’s something effeminate and weak about anyone who suggests otherwise, ... [and whose slogan might have been]: "Real men don’t think things through." By and large, to America's great credit, in that case and throughout American history, the Enlightenment principles of reason and science have eventually prevailed against such movements.

The current Republican anti-intellectualist War on Science is no different - it must be fought and repelled by Reason.

Monday, August 11, 2008

American Energy Shortsightedness

Lest there were any doubt about the shortsightedness of America's "energy policy" over the past 35 years since the original Arab oil embargo, see Thomas Friedman's NY Times column yesterday, "Flush with Energy":

"Ditlev Engel, the president of Vestas — Denmark’s and the world’s biggest wind turbine company told me that he simply can’t understand how the U.S. Congress could have just failed to extend the production tax credits for wind development in America....

"'We’ve had 35 new competitors coming out of China in the last 18 months,' said Engel, 'and not one out of the U.S.'”

Say what? Thirty-five out of China and NONE out of the U.S.?! How can this be? Obviously it's not that Americans are unentrepreneurial or lack the technological know-how, so the reason must rest on misguided government policy.

What a pathetic set of policymakers we have in Congress and the White House who cannot see their way past their inane myopic partisan squabbles - even now, with $4.00/gallon gas and the knowledge that America accounts for 20% of the world's demand for oil while possessing just (something like) 5% of the world's oil reserves - to enact progressive legislation to put the country on an energy independent course. In contrast to American policymakers' ineptness, look at what Denmark has done in the past 35 years:

"Danes imposed on themselves a set of gasoline taxes, CO2 taxes and building-and-appliance efficiency standards that allowed them to grow their economy — while barely growing their energy consumption — and gave birth to a Danish clean-power industry that is one of the most competitive in the world today. Denmark today gets nearly 20 percent of its electricity from wind. America? About 1 percent.

"And did Danes suffer from their government shaping the market with energy taxes to stimulate innovations in clean power? In one word, said Connie Hedegaard, Denmark’s minister of climate and energy: 'No.' It just forced them to innovate more — like the way Danes recycle waste heat from their coal-fired power plants and use it for home heating and hot water, or the way they incinerate their trash in central stations to provide home heating. (There are virtually no landfills here.)

"There is little whining here about Denmark having $10-a-gallon gasoline because of high energy taxes. The shaping of the market with high energy standards and taxes on fossil fuels by the Danish government has actually had 'a positive impact on job creation,' added Hedegaard. 'For example, the wind industry — it was nothing in the 1970s. Today, one-third of all terrestrial wind turbines in the world come from Denmark.' ...

"In 1973, said Hedegaard, 'we got 99 percent of our energy from the Middle East. Today it is zero.'

"Frankly, when you compare how America has responded to the 1973 oil shock and how Denmark has responded, we look pathetic.

“'I have observed that in all other countries, including in America, people are complaining about how prices of [gasoline] are going up,' Denmark’s prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, told me. 'The cure is not to reduce the price, but, on the contrary, to raise it even higher to break our addiction to oil. We are going to introduce a new tax reform in the direction of even higher taxation on energy and the revenue generated on that will be used to cut taxes on personal income — so we will improve incentives to work and improve incentives to save energy and develop renewable energy.'"

In a democratic Republic, it is up to the people to enact policy through their representatives - which means, in the end, that the people get the policy they deserve. Based on our leaders' recent performance, apparently we don't deserve much in America.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Equanimity In a Fast-Paced World

Some words of wisdom from Shaila Catherine for thriving in unpredictable conditions:

"Every situation becomes an opportunity to abandon judgment and opinions and to simply give complete attention to what is. Situations of inconvenience are terrific areas to discover, test, or develop equanimity. How gracefully can you compromise in a negotiation? Does your mind remain balanced when you have to drive around the block three times to find a parking space? Are you at ease waiting for a flight that is six hours delayed? These inconveniences are opportunities to develop equanimity. Rather than shift the blame onto an institution, system, or person, one can develop the capacity to opt to rest within the experience."