Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Abraham Lincoln is the New President!

Three weeks ago tomorrow was Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. When Jeralynne asked me what I was giving up for Lent, I quickly answered "political media". It is something I spend a lot of time with and obsess over so I figured that going without would be a good act of discipline. After three weeks, I have realized that it wasn't a big deal. In fact, I don't feel deprived at all. Maybe I'll have to think of something else.

But it's more than that -- it's just not that I'm not deprived. I"M BETTER OFF.

I'm still reading the morning paper, scanning headlines and digging deeper if the story grabs me. And the opinion writers for the NY Times and Washington Post are folks I admire, so I keep up with what they're saying.

I've been pondering that a longer view of the news helps create a better sense of perspective. The incessant updates, concerns, opinions, and propagandas of the 24 hour news cycle seem to destroy perspective. Yesterday the story was that the rebels in Libya were rapidly advancing Westward. Today the story is that Kadahfi's forces have repelled the rebels. Yesterday, there was radioactive water in Japan and reports of 10 million times the normal level. By late in the day, that had been corrected to 1,000 miliverts per hour -- still high but nowhere near the original claim. The US budget impasse is going to cause a government shutdown one day. The next another Continuing Resolution has passed.

Add to that the problem of pundits, who feel obliged to share their views on everything whether informed or previously disproven. Katrina vanden Huevel, liberal editor of The Nation, wrote today about conservative pundits who trot out old ideas to inform current events. I'm certain the same claim can be made about liberal punditry.

So this is what I've been missing (not so much).

My attempt to take a "longer view" got me thinking about how news traveled before the modern era. Sure, we had telegraph lines to major cities, but sometime news simply took a long time. In looking into this reality yesterday, I came across an interesting piece of history from Port Townsend, Washington. Port Townsend is located at the Northwest tip of the Olympic peninsula and is on the Western shore of Puget Sound.

A Google search on news of Lincoln's election in 1860 turned up this wonderful little story in Wikipedia about a steamship, the PS Eliza Anderson, that operated out of Port Townsend in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Here's the entry about Lincoln:

In the early 1860s, there was no telegraph in Puget Sound, and mail carried by steamboat was the fastest way of transmitting news. Thus, on November 27, 1860, the Anderson brought to Port Townsend news that Abraham Lincoln had been elected president of the United States on November 4, 1860, even though the news had reached Olympia on November 22.

So Lincoln had been president for over Three Weeks when the residents of Port Townsend learned of his election. What did this delay change? Lincoln was still president. PT residents could cheer or jeer, as would be their preference, when they got the news. And their news wouldn't be colored by all the opinion leaders who were telling them what Lincoln's election might or might not mean for folks living in the Northwest.

I'm not willing to go to a three week rule as of yet, but taking the long view of still-developing stories has made me calmer and more circumspect. That's a good thing in any season of the year.

Maybe next year for Lent, I'll find something that really costs me. I know it's supposed to be coffee but my discipline isn't that strong yet!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

2011 -- The End of American Nationo-centrism?

While I was distracted with trying to figure out what college classes might benefit our civil discourse and public policy, the world was experiencing tremendous figurative and literal shockwaves. Consistent with what I've been arguing here and elsewhere, we really haven't worked out the narrative for this new world.

Remember November of 2010? It was only four months ago according to the calendar but in other ways it feels like one of those alternative universe timelines they so enjoyed on Star Trek. No, the new year has been far more significant than simply hanging up a new calendar.

We've seen peaceful revolts in Tunisia and Egypt. We've seen peaceful revolts met with governmental and mercenary force in Libya and Bahrain. We've seen storms, earthquakes and flooding in Queensland and New Zealand. And, shockingly this week we saw earthquakes, tsunamis, and radiation leaks in Japan.

Pundits have felt free to challenge the administration on how quickly they responded to Egypt and how we want a government that is pro-western. The challenge in Libya is that we 1) are faced with human rights abuses that 2) are disrupting the normal flow of oil. What should we do to protect our way of life? What should our response be to Japan? When the Japanese auto industry shuts down due to power outages, how will that impact employees here in the states? When Japanese tourism falls off in Hawaii, how can we aborb the loss of revenue?

There was a time in American history when the oceans truly separated us from the rest of the world. For periods of time prior to the World Wars, we thought it best to stay on the sidelines. But global economics, governmental interconnectedness, ease of travel, and rapid technology have changed all that. We can no longer manage isolationist sentiment (in spite of what Ron Paul says).

But it is also true that we can't make things happen. We can't make Kadafi behave appropriately toward his people. We can't stop nuclear development programs by fiat. We can't guarantee a stable supply of oil to fuel our cars.

Take oil as an example. With the disruptions in the middle east, gas prices started to rise. And right away, folks were arguing for more drilling in ANWAR, more fracking in the Midwest, or plans for dipping into the Strategic Oil Reserve. Why? Because gas prices were hitting $4.00 per gallon! Now, whatever you believe about a depleting oil supply (it really is) or oil company profits (they're too high), everyone has to agree that supply and demand is a key factor in the price of oil. So a disruption, or even a state of uncertainty, will raise the prices. But without a disruption, prices are still going up because demand is increasing exponentially. The rapidly developing economies of China, India, and South Africa want the increased standard of living we've been promoting to them for decades. As they buy cars, improve highway infrastructure, and then buy more cars, the demand for oil will increase. It's not simply that we buy oil from countries that don't like us, as conservatives like to say. It's that other people are buying their oil as well. No amount of domestic drilling or despoiling of natural lands will change that fundamental equation. We will have to move to other fuel sources. But we will do that to compete with other nations (like China) who are already moving forward on that front. We'll try to catch up, if we can generate the political will to make that happen. But it's not up to us. We can't make things happen to meet our preferences (maybe we never could, but I'm suggesting that this combination of events will make that reality clear).

Oh, there are still those living in that alternative universe that was November 2010. This week Glenn Beck suggested that bad things were happening around the world because we aren't paying attention to the Ten Commandments. His call was for us to reflect on what we've done wrong as a society. But why would the Japanese have to suffer death, destruction, and radiation poisoning because of social currents? Not only is it really, really bad theology, it makes no sense to argue that the world suffers because of America's ills.

It's not about us. And we can't really do much to change things. We'll always be invited to sit at the table, but we just don't get the big chair anymore. The sooner we get our heads around this, the better off we'll be.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Wisconsin and Bureaucrats

One of the sites I have been following was begun by Wayne Baker, a professor at the University of Michigan. Called "Our Values", it is an attempt to model civil discourse by asking folks to reflect on what's important to us. Today's was about the situation in Wisconsin that has drawn our focus over the last several weeks. I put a comment on their website similar to what I wrote in the "civics" piece last week. I've copied their intro and my comment here:

Is Wisconsin's budget crisis just a 'Balloon Boy'?

Yesterday, Wisconsin Republicans figured out a way to end the collective bargaining rights of the state’s public unions. They stripped this element out of the budget bill—and voted to approve it even though all Democratic representatives still are out of the state. So, did ending collective bargaining rights really have to do with reining in a budget deficit?
No. It turns out that Wisconsin was never really in deep economic trouble, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, a nonpartisan service agency for the Wisconsin legislature. In a recent memo to the Badger State’s legislators, the Bureau projects a budget surplus by the end of the 2010–2011 budget biennium. An editorial in The Cap Times says:  “To the extent that there is an imbalance — Walker claims there is a $137 million deficit — it is not because of a drop in revenues or increases in the cost of state employee contracts, benefits or pensions. It is because Walker and his allies pushed through $140 million in new spending for special-interest groups in January.”
Gov. Walker claims that Wisconsin will soon have a $3.6 billion deficit. But, Wisconsin state legislator Mark Pocan, a Democrat, says this is just like the Balloon Boy: the hoax where two parents in Colorado released a large balloon in the air and said their young son was on it. “We found out yesterday after our briefing with non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau,” says Pocan in his blog, “the $3.6 billion deficit in the next budget that Governor Walker and the media has been repeating is a MANUFACTURED CRISIS. The number is based on $3.9 billion in new spending requests by agencies, a 6.2% increase. I don’t think there is a member in the legislature that would vote for that. In fact, I asked Director Lang when was the last time we gave agencies exactly what they requested and was told he couldn’t think of one and he’s been here decades.”

What do you make of all this?

Is union busting the real goal of Wisconsin’s Republicans?

Tell us what you think about the Wisconsin crisis—or similar disputes in other states right now.
Please, take a moment and click to Comment below.

(Originally published at www.OurValues.org, an online experiment in civil dialogue on American values.)

Reader Comments (1)

I see the budget conversations in Wisconsin, most other states, and in Washington to be more symptomatic than causal. It's not the issue about specific spending or pensions or NPR. These are simply the places where the larger disease takes root (forgive the cancer imagery, but i think it's appropriate).

The underlying disease is a breakdown in our civic understanding of the common good. We are increasingly privileging short term political position over the long term interests of the society. Budgets are in "crisis" because of 1) an economy that went south, 2) conservatives who have taken revenue off the table, 3) a pernicious scapegoating of segments of the society (with a strange "hands off" counterpart on others), and 4) a refusal to look beyond the next election cycle.

E.J. Dionne has long argued that the real issue is that governmental units are given "temporary majorities" and believe that is a mandate to act.. Here's what he wrote last month about Wisconsin: "This is an effort by a temporary majority -- I use the term because in a democracy, all majorities are, in principle, temporary -- to rush a bill through the legislature designed to alter the balance of political power in the state." http://voices.washingtonpost.com/postpartisan/2011/02/gov_walkers_overreach.html

We fail to realize that budgets are long-term operating plans that reflect priorities. Public employees have pensions that are high because previous administrations negotiated them (arguably in exchange for lower wages). It's clear that some abuses have taken place but the solution is to address those, not break collective bargaining. Governmental regulations were put in place to deal with REAL abuses, not to stifle business. Granted, these need regular review and modification (which we aren't good at) but the wholesale changes espoused by temporary majorities ignore reality.

These temporary majorities are accompanied by rhetorical flourishes of "elections have consequences" and "the American people have spoken". But governments are not sports cars -- they can't change direction every two or four years as the temporary majority flips other side. What a temporary majority can do is to make changes they've always wanted SIMPLY BECAUSE THEY CAN. This is what happened last night in Madison.

As I've reflected on this notion of temporary majority, I've begun to think that even the Affordable Care Act (which I fully support) moved too quickly. Politically I can understand why that was done, but in light of the long term efficacy of government it may have been too much.

So temporary majorities do create budget crises. Not because the state's fiscal situation changed since the last election, but because the time window for solving in the manner preferred by the incumbents is very short. It's a CRISIS because two years from now, Wisconsin's legislature could have a Democratic majority.

I've explored more of these thoughts on Civics in America in a recent post on my blog: http://theninthcommandment.blogspot.com/2011/02/required-classes-for-civil-discourse_28.html
March 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Hawthorne  
The only thing I'd add to these comments is something that Jeralynne and I were discussing this morning. A large part of the conservative critique of modern government involves "bureaucrats". We don't want bureaucrats between us and our doctor, we don't want bureaucrats telling us what kind of light bulbs we have to buy, we don't want bureaucrats telling us to eat healthy food and banning cookies to the third grade birthday party. (We never hear critiques about the bureaucracy of the military, except in reference to really expensive hammers, and it's the most effective large-scale government force we have.)
Here are two things that I find most striking about these criticisms. First, they aren't true. No federal bureaucrat will be telling you whether to have a particular medical procedure (to say nothing of the ridiculous notion that they'd decide you were too old to bother with -- death panels). The federal law called for better standards on light bulbs (and at the time incandescents didn't meet it; now they do). Notions of "food police" empowered by Michelle Obama knocking on Rush Limbaugh's door is just too silly for comment.
Here's the second thing. When I consider my interaction with real bureaucrats, I'm not talking to government officials! I'm talking to Kaiser Permanente (and I like them). I'm talking to a bank about a credit card charge. I'm exploring options with a loan manager at another bank. We rarely hear critics talking about those inconveniences. Just stupid stories about the DMV or wanting to know why the USPS lost your letter.

Bureaucracy is a fact of modern life. As much as our "small business" rhetoric makes us feel good, the reality is that "big box" stores continue to proliferate the countryside. Our banking is done with international conglomerates. Our insurance agent may be down the street, but the company is in Delaware and the service people are in Mumbai. Sociologist George Ritzer has been exploring this phenomenon for the past couple of decades as a process he calls McDonaldization. It's what happens when bureaucratic principles get applied to more and more sectors of life, just as Max Weber suggested. We can look back on some earlier small-town, small-business, society (which didn't exist then, either) but bureaucracy is here to stay.

What we want are competent and compassionate bureaucrats. And I'd argue that most of them fit that bill. We just love to focus on the rare case because it make a better story (which is why we all need statistics!).

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Required Classes for Civil Discourse: Fourth Course -- Personal Finance

A central talking point of the recent dialogues about the size of government, the nature of our financial situation, and what it means to be conservative revolves around certain images of the budget. Much has been made of the analogy of "belt tightening" like "American households have to do." Now, there are real reasons to question this analogy, as the New York Times pointed out last week.

It's amazing how much our rhetoric runs away with us. Let's explore some ideas related to the budget debates.

First, the notion that American households manage their budgets has largely been a myth. For two decades we have been debt dependent. We're a nation addicted to instant gratification. The best evidence on household finance is that spending has been down because the recession caused folks to pay down their high levels of debt. Where did that debt come from? It came from buying big-screen HD Plasma TVs as we were encouraged through constant manipulation of the airwaves. It came because furniture stores gave us "no interest until 2013 deals". It came because we had to have the new Cadillac that leases for only $529 per month! (I've argued for 25 years that it would be a great paper to estimate the percentage of the viewing public that can actually afford the cars advertised during football games.)

Second, when and if families DO tighten their belts, they take a hard look at their options. The first question to consider is whether this is a short-term problem or a long-term situation that disrupts their entire financial situation. If it's a long-term thing like losing a job, then downsizing in some significant ways makes sense. In those situations, family members help out, you drop the cable, and you get help where you can. There are always stories of folks who fail to adjust their lifestyle, as an amazing financial assistance story in the LA Times demonstrated a few weeks ago. But if it's a short-term hit, it may make sense to simply draw down savings for a little while.

So what kind of financial situation do we have as a country? Many economists like Paul Krugman have argued that we our economic situation is directly related to the slowdown in revenues since the Great Recession. This argument suggests that we should do what is necessary, including deficit spending, until the economy recovers and the existing tax rates create the revenue streams they have in the past.

Third, it's important to keep the long-run in focus. It may be tempting to imagine that you should stop paying your auto insurance, but should something happen you're at great risk. It's one thing to stop going out to eat and another to decide to feed your children nothing but Top Ramen two meals a day. You may be willing to do without cable but giving up your phone may make it difficult to find the next job.

What is currently going on in Washington (and in states across the country) is that we are cutting spending on precisely the things that will cost us in the long run. Less money for heating assistance or head start will result in catastrophic health care costs and prison populations over the long run. Too many of the proposed cuts by either party have been aimed at stuff they didn't like in the first place. Not that these cuts amount to much impact, but they help demonstrate to political supporters that they acted. The analogy here would be the family who thought that the newspaper had been late too many mornings so they canceled their paper. That small amount doesn't dent the family budget and runs the risk of not having want ads or cost saving coupons available.

Fourth, budgets need to plan for the future. If the kids are going to college, it's necessary to set some aside (or rely on the home equity line on grandma's house). Scrimp on that and you don't have a future (which makes it hard to "win the future"). And we really ought to be concerned about the college expenses of all the kids, not just the oldest.

Consider how hopeless our conversations are about social security. We know we need to do something about the needs of future generations (the youngest child heading for college) but we are focused on not doing anything to disadvantage the oldest child. Now obviously it would have been better to have planned for all the kids at once, but we didn't anticipate the future demands. But to suggest that we create voucher systems so that the kids can do their own planning is to create a new system that breaks faith with what we've promised in the past.

What this all means is that budgets are long-term projects, they get modified over time, and we adjust accordingly. But when we engage in tropes like "it's our money" and "no new taxes", it's just not a realistic approach to budgets. Imagine if the employers of the family members simply said "no more raises because the stockholders need their benefits". Okay, that's a bad example but you get my point.

I could continue this series with more classes. There's much that would benefit folks from knowing Shakespeare, from knowing Science, from knowing Anthropology (talking to you Rep. Peter King!). The most important thing is that we stop pretending that we don't have choices. It's what sociologist Peter Berger called Bad Faith and it's got no place in civil discourse.