Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Conserving Resources as Progressive Governance

It says something about the state of American politics when taking care of what we have - supposedly a "conservative" concept - is actually a progressive idea. But that's exactly the case in 2008, after 40 years of government - Republican and Democratic alike - rushing headlong into feeding the military-industrial complex while at the same time neglecting our aging infrastructure.

In his column in today's Times, Bob Herbert discusses America's failure to keep up with maintaining its infrastructure:

"The idea that the nation had all but stopped investing in its infrastructure, and that officials in Washington have ignored the crucial role of job creation as the cornerstone of a thriving economy is beyond mind-boggling. It’s impossible to understand.

"Impossible, that is, until you realize that bandits don’t waste time repairing a building that they’re looting.
"One of the reasons the U.S. is in such deep trouble is that it has stopped being smart — turning its back on excellence, sophistication and long-term planning — in its public policies and corporate behavior. We’ve seen it in Iraq, in New Orleans, in the fiscal policies of the Bush administration, in the scandalous neglect of public education, in the financial sector meltdown, the auto industry and on and on. We’ve lionized dimwits. And now we’re paying the price.

"The U.S. is moving from a period in which leaders spent money on wars and on lavish tax cuts for the rich, but not on investments in the nation’s future. That era of breathtaking irresponsibility must come to an end. Which means that now, with so much federal money soon to be available for infrastructure projects, it’s crucially important to spend the money as wisely as possible."

As Senator Christopher Dodd says, "Our major economic competitors in the 21st century are spending seven, eight, nine percent of their gross domestic product on infrastructure. We’re spending almost nothing at all.”

Felix Rohatyn and Everett Ehrlich comment, “Ultimately, we face a future of mass transit strained beyond capacity, planes sitting on tarmacs, slow traffic and wasteful sprawl, ports that lack the capacity to operate efficiently, and increasing numbers of bridges and dams that are obsolescent and dangerous to the public’s health and safety.”

So what to do? "The question now," Herbert suggests, is whether the nation, in the midst of a full-blown economic emergency, can keep its cool and be smart as it marshals billions of public dollars for a new infrastructure initiative. It won’t be helpful to have sparkling new bridges to nowhere being built from coast to coast."

Thankfully, we've elected a smart, thoughtful person to be our next president - if anyone can lead America out of the this mess, perhaps it can be Barack Obama. As he announced in a radio address last Saturday, “[My plan] will be a two-year, nationwide effort to jump-start job creation in America and lay the foundation for a strong and growing economy.

“We’ll put people back to work rebuilding our crumbling roads and bridges, modernizing schools that are failing our children and building wind farms and solar panels, fuel-efficient cars and the alternative energy technologies that can free us from our dependence on foreign oil and keep our economy competitive in the years ahead.”

As Herbert notes, "The message is many years overdue. The hope is that it hasn’t come too late."

Friday, November 21, 2008

Dharma - Nonviolence in Every Action

We all find our own ways of navigating day to day. I find some aspects of Buddhist practice helpful, so I humbly share an occasional dharma thought:

"Nonviolence belongs to a continuum from the personal to the global, and from the global to the personal.... [Applying] this ideal to daily life, nonviolence is not some exalted regimen that can be practiced only by a monk or a master; it also pertains to the way one interacts with a child, vacuums a carpet, or waits in line.

"Besides the more obvious forms of violence, whenever we separate ourselves from a given situation (for example, through inattentiveness, negative judgments, or impatience), we 'kill' something valuable. However subtle it may be, such violence actually leaves victims in its wake: people, things, one's own composure, the moment itself.

"According to the Buddhist reckoning, these small-scale incidences of violence accumulate relentlessly, are multiplied on a social level, and become a source of the large-scale violence that can sweep down upon us so suddenly. . . . One need not wait until war is declared and bullets are flying to work for peace. A more constant and equally urgent battle must be waged each day against the forces of one's own anger, carelessness, and self-absorption."

-from Keneth Kraft, Inner Peace, World Peace (Nonviolence)

Monday, November 10, 2008

Taking Private Morality Out of Government - Cal Thomas

Here's a first (and probably last): a column from the ultra-conservative syndicated columnist Cal Thomas that has something useful to say to the progressive libertarian.

In his column today, "Evangelicals, Stop Worship of the State," Thomas urges evangelicals not to use government to try to impose their beliefs and morals on others. Rather, he says, "If results are what conservative evangelicals want, they already have a model. It is contained in the life and commands of Jesus. Suppose they followed the admonition of Jesus to 'love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit those in prison and care for widows and orphans,' not as ends, ... but as a means of demonstrating God's love for the whole person in order that people might seek Him?"

Let's be clear - one should not think for a moment that Thomas has suddenly gained new insights into the freedom-mandating nature of the American Constitution. There's little doubt Thomas would probably approve of government-imposed morality IF government were effective in changing people's beliefs. Since government is not effective, however, he suggests leading by example, rather than coercion.

As for what has been effective and ineffective for evangelicals over time, Thomas points out that "Social movements that relied mainly on political power to enforce a conservative moral code weren't anywhere near as successful as those that focused on changing hearts. The four religious revivals, from the First Great Awakening in the 1730s and 1740s to the Fourth Great Awakening in the late 1960s and early '70s ... are testimony to that."

The point is, people and groups have a right to proselytize as they will, and others have a right to ignore them or listen; but it's never okay for government to get into the act.

Stated another way, with respect to the requirements of the U.S. Constitution, Thomas is exactly right in his conclusion (regardless of how he comes to it) that evangelicals should look to methods outside of government. The very basis for the founding of the United States was to take away from government the power to try to impose morality on the people. The Declaration of Independence claims freedom for the people; and the Constitution provides the guarantee.

Thomas concludes, "Evangelicals are at a junction. They can take the path that will lead them to more futility and ineffective attempts to reform culture through government, or they can embrace the far more powerful methods outlined by the One they claim to follow." The Constitution mandates the latter.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Obama Election - A Rare Moment

Even in the midst of some of the predictable silliness following Barack Obama's election (such as the young woman proclaiming "Obama is Jesus" overheard by my son during a college street celebration), there's something pure about what happened on Nov. 4, 2008 where even the cynic can get a bit misty.

We're not talking if's and when's or "I have a dream" here, but rather that it DID actually happen that a black man was elected president of the country whose Constitution formally endorsed slavery and perpetuated separate-but-equal for nearly another hundred years after slavery was formally abolished. That our constitutional system can allow that to happen (not to mention repudiate the practices of the worst one or two presidencies in our history) is awesome. As Thomas Friedman said in noting that Virginia, the former capitol of the slave-holding South, went for Obama, "The Civil War is over. Let Reconstruction begin."

Even for the cynic the world changed Tuesday - as a white man, I can only imagine what it feels like to be a black person today. I canvassed for Obama on election day in Lansing with a young black woman from Detroit, and her excitement and pride was something to see; and then the day after I was in a meeting with a black colleague (who was also canvassing on election day), and he was just bursting. He said his frail 87 year old mother in Chicago is insisting that he take her to the inauguration in DC on Jan.20.

For those of us who've been eaten up by government malfeasance/tyranny, this, what feels like vindication of sorts, is worth a tear or two. Probably because things have been so bad under Bush (the presidential elections of 2000 and 2004, with all the ill that they portended for American government, hit me hard), I didn't know if America had it in it to make such a statement - and it turns out it does. Amazing Grace.

True, there's bound to be disappointment - what comes next is going to be interesting, and there is sure to be plenty of criticism and disillusionment. But there's a difference between disillusionment borne of bad faith (see Bush/Rove/Cheney), and disappointment for good faith efforts that may nonetheless sometimes fall short (Obama, I think). Even if what comes next is just politics as usual (which I doubt), Tuesday alone will always stand as a momentous day for the sheer outpouring of hope and joy that millions (maybe billions) of people around the world experienced. Nothing can ever change that - not even over-the-top people who've drunk the Kool-aid like the "Obama is Jesus" person.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Obama's Victory - What it Means

Reflections the morning after Barack Obama's historic victory - in what amounts to nothing less than a national catharsis.

What's most moving to me is to think of what this means to all of those within and outside of the United States who have long felt disenfranchised or oppressed by government tyranny. The United States was founded 232 years ago and the Constitution framed 219 years ago as a slave-holding country - and now a son of the formerly-enslaved peoples will be president of the United States. Amazing, ... and incredible. It redeems one's hope that America is not destined to go the way charted for it by George W. Bush and Richard Cheney for the past eight years, where torture is authorized and individual liberty stolen by overzealous government.

And what about overseas? It's deeply moving to see the images of celebration around the world in response to Obama's victory. America has long been a beacon of hope for people around the world, and its image has been severely tarnished in recent years. But the fact that the American people can elect an African American, a son of a Muslim, goes a long way to beginning to restore a bit of America's luster. It is possible for reason, and tolerance, to prevail; instead of arbitrary, meaningless judgments based on skin color, religion or the like.

The New York Times reports from Gaza this morning, in "For Many Abroad, An Ideal Renewed":

"From far away, this is how it looks: There is a country out there where tens of millions of white Christians, voting freely, select as their leader a black man of modest origin, the son of a Muslim. There is a place on Earth — call it America — where such a thing happens.

"Even where the United States is held in special contempt, like here in this benighted Palestinian coastal strip, the “glorious epic of Barack Obama,” as the leftist French editor Jean Daniel calls it, makes America — the idea as much as the actual place — stand again, perhaps only fleetingly, for limitless possibility.

“It allows us all to dream a little,” said Oswaldo Calvo, 58, a Venezuelan political activist in Caracas, in a comment echoed to correspondents of The New York Times on four continents in the days leading up to the election.

"Tristram Hunt, a British historian, put it this way: Mr. Obama “brings the narrative that everyone wants to return to — that America is the land of extraordinary opportunity and possibility, where miracles happen.”

"But wonder is almost overwhelmed by relief. Mr. Obama’s election offers most non-Americans a sense that the imperial power capable of doing such good and such harm — a country that, they complain, preached justice but tortured its captives, launched a disastrous war in Iraq, turned its back on the environment and greedily dragged the world into economic chaos — saw the errors of its ways over the past eight years and shifted course.

"They say the country that weakened democratic forces abroad through a tireless but often ineffective campaign for democracy — dismissing results it found unsavory, cutting deals with dictators it needed as allies in its other battles — was now shining a transformative beacon with its own democratic exercise.

"It would be hard to overstate how fervently vast stretches of the globe wanted the election to turn out as it did to repudiate the Bush administration and its policies. Poll after poll in country after country showed only a few — Israel, Georgia, the Philippines — favoring a victory for Senator John McCain.

"“Since Bush came to power it’s all bam, bam, bam on the Arabs,” asserted Fathi Abdel Hamid, 40, as he sat in a Cairo coffee house.

"The world’s view of an Obama presidency presents a paradox. His election embodies what many consider unique about the United States — yet America’s sense of its own specialness, of its destiny and mission, has driven it astray, they say. They want Mr. Obama, the beneficiary and exemplar of American exceptionalism, to act like everyone else, only better, to shift American policy and somehow to project both humility and leadership.
"Such contradictory demands and expectations may reflect, in part, the unusual makeup of a man of mixed race and origin whose life and upbringing have touched several continents.

"“People feel he is a part of them because he has this multiracial, multiethnic and multinational dimension,” said Philippe Sands, a British international lawyer and author who travels frequently, adding that people find some thread of their own hopes and ideals in Mr. Obama. “He represents, for people in so many different communities and cultures, a personal connection. There is an immigrant component and a minority component.”

"Francis Nyamnjoh, a Cameroonian novelist and social scientist, said he saw Mr. Obama less as a black man than “as a successful negotiator of identity margins.”

"His ability to inhabit so many categories mirrors the African experience. Mr. Nyamnjoh said that for America to choose as its citizen in chief such a skillful straddler of global identities could not help but transform the nation’s image, making it once again the screen upon which the hopes and ambitions of the world are projected.

"Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at the People’s University of China, said Mr. Obama’s background, particularly his upbringing in Indonesia, made him suited to understanding the problems facing the world’s poorer nations.

"He and others say they hope the next American president will see their place more firmly within the community of nations, engaging in what Jairam Ramesh, junior commerce minister in the Indian government, called “genuine multilateralism and not in muscular unilateralism.”
Assuming Mr. Obama does play by international rules more fully, as he has promised, can his government live up to all the expectations?

"“We have so many hopes and wishes that he will never be able to fulfill them,” said Susanne Grieshaber, 40, an art adviser in Berlin who was one of 200,000 Germans to attend a speech by Mr. Obama there in July. She cited action to protect the environment, reducing the use of force and helping the less fortunate. In essence, she wants Mr. Obama to make his country more like hers. But she is sober. “I’m preparing myself for the fact that peace and happiness are not going to suddenly break out,” she said.
"“Definitely, this will improve America’s image in Russia,” said Sergey M. Rogov, director of the Institute for U.S.A. and Canada Studies in Moscow. “There was this perception before of widespread racism in America, deeply rooted racism.”
"So foreigners are watching closely, hoping that despite what they consider the hypocrisies and inconsistencies, the nation they once imagined would stand as a model for the future will, with greater sensitivity and less force, help solve the world’s problems."

It is indeed a new, more hopeful, day in America - and in the world - today.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Bush Worst President - 79 Days Left

Nicholas Kristof reports in today's New York Times that "[a]n unscientific poll of 109 professional historians this year found that 61 percent rated President Bush as the worst president in American history. A couple of others judged him second-worst, after James Buchanan, whose incompetence set the stage for the Civil War. More than 98 percent of the historians in the poll, conducted through the History News Network, viewed Mr. Bush’s presidency as a failure."

Only 79 days left in the Bush/Cheney American nightmare. Either one of the presidential candidates will be a vast improvement (as would one of the vice-presidential candidates, Joe Biden; whereas Sarah Palin is not up to the task); but what specifically will the new president do to start to restore America to its past honor and greatness? Kristof suggests America must rejoin the world:

"[Bush] turned a superpower into a rogue country. Instead of isolating North Korea and Iran, he isolated us — and undermined his own ability to achieve his aims.

"So here’s the top priority for President Barack Obama or President John McCain: We must rejoin the world. There are three general ways in which we can signal a new beginning and “refriend” our allies:

"• We should not only close the Guantánamo prison but also turn it into an international center for research on tropical diseases that afflict poor countries. It could thus become an example of multilateral humanitarianism.

"The new president should also start a Truth Commission to investigate torture and other abuses during the “war on terror.” This should not be a bipartisan panel but a nonpartisan one, dominated by retired generals and intelligence figures like Brent Scowcroft or Colin Powell.
Such a panel would be respected as fair and authoritative in a way that one composed of bickering Democrats and Republicans would not, and it would underscore that we are eager to return to the norms of the civilized world.

"• The new president also should signal that we will no longer confront problems just by blowing them up. The military toolbox is essential, but it shouldn’t be the first option for 21st-century challenges. You can’t bomb climate change.
A new approach means a vigorous effort for peace in the Middle East. We also need to commit to negotiating with odious countries. President Clinton’s engagement policy toward North Korea was a constant headache, for Kim Jong Il was brutally repressive and tried to start a secret uranium program. But North Korea didn’t produce nuclear materials for a single weapon during Mr. Clinton’s years in office; under Mr. Bush, it has produced enough for a half dozen.
So here’s the score: Clinton diplomacy, 0 weapons; Bush fulmination, 6 weapons.

"• We must cooperate with other countries on humanitarian efforts, including family planning. One of the Bush follies that has bewildered and antagonized our allies has been the vacuous refusal to support family planning through the United Nations Population Fund.
The upshot of the failure to support contraception has been millions of unwanted pregnancies and abortions. It’s difficult to think of any person alive today whose policies have led to more unnecessary abortions worldwide than Mr. Bush.
"Look, a friendlier, more multilateral policy will not solve the world’s problems. Iran isn’t going to give up its nuclear program because it likes us, and brawn is necessary to back up brains.
But without global political capital, we don’t have the leverage to organize more muscular persuasion. Without diplomatic heavy lifting, we can’t credibly threaten military heavy smashing.

"In the aftermath of World War II, the United States led the international effort to construct global institutions to promote peace and prosperity. These included the United Nations, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and they served our interests. Now, in the aftermath of the cold war, we need to rethink and refurbish this architecture for the next half century or more.

"The United States needs to be a part of the International Criminal Court and should lead the push for a new climate change treaty, for example. The new president should be an architect of this emerging order, rather than AWOL as the Bush administration has been.

"For eight years, the United States has been in self-imposed exile, and that is one reason Mr. Bush’s presidency has failed on so many levels. After Tuesday, let’s rejoin the world."