Monday, November 26, 2012

Bonanza Column 260 - Collaboration and Compromise

Occasionally, to make a point, a pundit or Internet troll will pompously assert that the United States “is a republic, not a democracy.” The occasion for this sophistry is usually when something that the majority of people favor goes against what the writer wants. Well, the statement is true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go quite far enough – a democracy, you’ll recall, is based on majority rule, period, and as such is prey to what John Adams called “the tyranny of the majority,” wherein the needs/rights/concerns of the minority are ignored or trampled.
A republic, on the other hand, is a form of government that is established by a charter that lays out the broad outlines of governance and that is administered by representatives of those who are being governed, with a head of state whose powers are derived from the charter and whose office is not hereditary.
The United States was the first country to institute a hybrid of these two, called a “democratic republic.” In this form, most fully elaborated by Madison in Federalist Paper number 10, the source of the power of the government is the citizenry and is exercised through representatives who are accountable to the citizens by means of frequent re-election (or not) and such safeguards as initiative, referendum, and recall. The Constitution, the charter of this democratic republic has, over the years, become increasingly sensitive to the danger of the tyranny of the majority, and so the rights of minorities – minority voting blocs, minority races, genders, sexual preferences, religions, etc., have come under greater and greater protection.
In government over the past four years the notion of “majority” has been stretched to its thinnest. The Executive Branch has been held by the Democrats, with the Legislative Branch split. Even in the Judiciary, the Supreme Court has often split 5-4 on important issues. The popular vote in the presidential election was won by about 2.2 million votes out of a total of approximately 125 million cast, or 3.3%. In 2004 George W Bush won by 2.4% and claimed a mandate of “political capital,” so some have claimed an even “greater” mandate for President Obama, but as I said in this column a couple of weeks ago, “mandate” is in the eye of the beholder.
What does seem clear is that governing in this climate must be based on collaboration and compromise. Either party has the power to stop the wheels of government by itself, but neither has the ability to govern alone. The country cannot afford the gridlock we have seen for the past four years – there are important matters that must be dealt with – health care, the deficit, climate change, jobs. The litany is as familiar as it is daunting, but without action things can only get worse, and action is only possible if both sides are willing to work together.
President Obama has shown a certain willingness to compromise. On the other hand he was elected to lead and govern and his platform was clear, so in all integrity and good conscience there are places where he will and must stand. He has already said as much on the issue of extending the Bush tax cuts for the very wealthy, and it seems reasonable to expect similar stands on health care and some other areas. Members of the GOP have shown encouraging signs of flexibility –repudiation of the “Grover Norquist pledge” has begun and will hopefully grow. John McCain’s rants notwithstanding, it seems reasonable to hope that if the President nominates Susan Rice for Secretary of State in his second term, that nomination will be considered on its merits and not on the specious grounds of a statement made during the Benghazi tragedy. Whatever their public rhetoric, all but the most rigidly doctrinaire right-wingers in the Republican Party must recognize that the most extreme elements of their platform were rejected in the election.
I’m not suggesting that this means the GOP should just roll over or that the Democrats should try to roll over them – on the contrary, if we are to be true to what the Founders intended in establishing the world’s first democratic republic, both sides should recognize that there is support for both views and that only compromise and collaboration will allow for effective action against the very real problems we are facing. Woody Allen said, “More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness, the other to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.” In this case the correct choice is neither, but a new path forged by reason and the triumph of concern for the general welfare over narrow partisan interests.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Bonanza Column 259 - The Attitude of Gratitude

As Thanksgiving, 2012 approaches we in America find ourselves in an interesting situation. While the result of the recent election was clear, the campaign reflected a nation that is arguably more divided than it has been at any time since the Civil War era. We are engaged in conflicts that are being fought by 1% of Americans and all but ignored by the other 99%, and the Middle East looks on the verge of escalating into a war from which there may be no turning back.
So it might seem odd to consider the question of gratitude, or it might be argued that there is no better time, no greater need than now.
We are accustomed to thinking about gratitude or giving thanks as transactional – we are grateful FOR something or some things, we are thankful FOR specifics. But gratitude is more like a state of mind. The word “gratitude’ comes from the same root as “grace,” and one definition of grace is “the unmerited (or unearned) love of God for humankind.” If we consider gratitude in relation to this derivation, then “transactional gratitude” makes it too small. It puts us in the position of being grateful for the “good” things in our lives and less grateful or not grateful at all for the “bad” things. But who has not had the experience of something that appeared to be a negative turning out to be a blessing in disguise?
I had the experience not long ago of seeing an off-Broadway play called “Falling,” about a family with a severely autistic grown child. The play was extremely well written and acted, and pulled no punches about the challenges of living with this situation, while at the same time portraying how for all the difficulties, the parents, sister, and grandmother of the boy grew in compassion, love, and understanding from the experience. Probably none of us would have an ill or disabled family member if we had a choice, but all of us can relate to the situation of having that situation occur, and finding the blessings inherent in learning to live with and continue to love the person.
There is an aphorism dating from the 17th Century that says, in German, “Denken ist Danken” – to think is to thank. The 20th Century philosopher Martin Heidegger expanded on this idea to say that genuine thinking, by which he meant contemplating the meaning of being human, inherently leads to gratitude. The 13th Century theologian Meister Eckhart said “If the only prayer you say in your life is ‘thank you,’ it would be enough.” The Dalai Lama suggests that even encounters with those who irritate or annoy us are opportunities for gratitude: “…there are many, many people in the world, but relatively few with whom we interact, and even fewer who cause us problems. So, when you come across such a chance for practicing patience and tolerance, you should treat it with gratitude. It is rare.”
So let’s try, on this one day of the year that is dedicated to gratitude, to put our differences aside and to adopt, for 24 hours at least, an attitude of gratitude. To be thankful not just for our well-being and comfort but also for the opportunities life gives us to practice patience and tolerance, to aid the needy, to comfort the afflicted. Every religious teacher and every religion’s teaching tell us that the meaning of life is not material things and comforts, but to heal the sick, to feed the hungry, to comfort those in pain, and to rejoice in others’ joys. This week, this Thanksgiving Day, let’s remember that and practice the gratitude that is there in a kind word, a thoughtful gesture, and in reaching out, even to those we don’t like or agree with.
Have a happy Thanksgiving and a wonderful holiday season.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Bonanza Column 258: Mandate or No, the Voters Have Spoken

As you would expect last week’s election results have led to an enormous amount of opining from both sides on what it all means. There is debate on whether a margin of 2.5% in the popular vote constitutes a mandate or not, and in my view you can argue either way – “mandate” is not a fact, the truth of which can be argued and proven, but an interpretation of the data and no interpretation is ever right or provable.
So let’s let the facts speak for themselves:
·        As of Noon on Friday, with nearly all votes in, Obama led Romney in the popular vote by a count of 61,173,739 or 50.5% to 58,167,260 or 48.0%.
·        Obama won the electoral vote by a greater margin than Kennedy, Nixon, Carter, or Bush.
·        Obama is the fourth president to win two terms by 50% or more, joining Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and Reagan.
·        The Democrats gained two seats in the (already Democrat-controlled) Senate, and while they did not gain a majority in the House, narrowed the margin of difference.
·        Far-right Republicans lost races they were expected to win (e.g.,Mourdock, Akins, McMahon) lost or won by much closer margins than expected (Bachman, Heller).
·        Tax reforms, particularly increasing the tax share of the wealthy was an explicit platform difference between the two parties, and the voters elected the guy who favored that increase.
·        Marriage rights, a hot-button issues for the right wing, was approved in four states by margins of 3 to 6%.
I’m not going to argue whether these results constitute a mandate for President Obama and the Democrats or not. I am suggesting that they, along with a great deal of post-election polling, reflect a trend among centrist and undecided voters away from the Tea Party/Evangelical Right’s positions and a growing disgust with the obstructionism by the Republicans in Congress that was fueled by their pandering to the extreme Right. The results for Mourdock, Akins, and McMahon in particular, along with the defeat of Scott Brown by Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts and George Allen by Tim Kaine in Virginia should cause Mssrs. McConnell and Boehner to step back and reevaluate their tactics. McConnell proclaimed four years ago that the main task before the GOP was to make sure Obama was a one-term president – the main task – not the economy, not the endless wars, not poverty or health care. And they failed decisively at that task. Einstein said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over expecting different results, so we could see the change of tactics (or not) as a test of the GOP’s sanity.
A decisive majority of the voters have shown how they felt about all the issues the GOP bet their campaign on – tax reform, and Obamacare in particular. Post-election polling indicates that a vast majority of the electorate were disgusted by the campaign – its length, and particularly its mendacity. There was lying on both sides, but fact checkers across the spectrum agree that the dishonesty on the Romney/Ryan side was greater than on the Obama/Biden side by a large multiple. Personally, as I’ve said in this space, I have no use for lying on either side, and that includes lies of omission and lies by telling half-truths, and the American people seem to be showing that they feel the same.
It’s time now for both parties to get back to the business of governing. Liberal/Progressive as I am, I like the two-party system. It should serve to keep all parties honest and to ensure that the best aspects of both the liberal and conservative views are incorporated into policy. I like the parliamentary system of multiple parties better for the same reason, but third parties have never gained much traction here and when it operates effectively the two-party system should accomplish the same thing. It can’t, however, when either party decides that its survival and reelection is more important than what it was elected for and is willing to effectively stop the process of governing for four years in order to unseat a duly elected President.
Boehner has expressed some willingness to collaborate; McConnell still sounds intransigent. The future of the country may very well depend on their willingness to lead their party rather in cooperating to govern rather than maintaining their “my way or the highway” approach. Let’s hope that underneath the bombast, the results of the election are speaking to them and their colleagues and that the next four years are more productive than the last.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Bonanza Column 257: Climate Change is not an Opinion

For at least 400 years, “science” has been defined as knowledge gained through study or learning acquired through the scientific method. Initially, this definition made scientific knowledge the property of a very small number of people who had access to universities and libraries or who could establish private laboratories. With the invention of the printing press and increasing literacy and available public education, scientific knowledge became more and more accessible, but adherence to the scientific method remained a constant.
The scientific method is based on the use of measurable data obtained through observation or experimentation. The Oxford English Dictionary says that the scientific method is: "a method or procedure that has characterized natural science since the 17th century, consisting in systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses." The chief characteristic that distinguishes the scientific method from other methods of acquiring knowledge is that scientists seek to let reality speak for itself, supporting a theory when a theory's predictions are confirmed and challenging a theory when its predictions prove false.
In other words, no piece of scientific knowledge is ever considered the last word on the subject, no matter how many times it has been confirmed, though certain highly consistent bits of information are considered so reliable that they are termed “laws.” The next level of certainty is theory, and then hypothesis.
Sometime in the past 25 or so years, however, scientific knowledge has become conflated with political and religious agendas, and these bedrock principles have been ignored – not by scientists, but by the general public. So, for example, the term “theory” in “Darwin’s Theory of Evolution,” instead of being properly taken as denoting a highly reliable set of principles to describe the development of living species over time has been termed “just a theory” (i.e., up for argument) and posed against the so-called “theory” of creationism which has no scientific basis at all.
Similarly an overwhelming majority of relevant scientists (only laws such as gravity have virtually 100% agreement among scientists) accept the theory that the Earth’s climate is changing in the direction of global warming. Notwithstanding that, climate change has become an issue that somehow divides politically along ideological lines, the way evolution divides along religious lines. Neither opinion is valid or relevant scientifically, and last week’s superstorm on the East Coast flooded, destroyed property, and killed without regard to the political positions of its victims.
Climate change is real, period, and it is reaching dangerous proportions. New York City demonstrates that urban design and engineering built to meet 19th Century challenges are inadequate to 21st Century challenges. After the blizzard of 1888 choked off the life of the City because all transport and power were above ground, New York built the subways and put power lines underground. Great idea if your biggest problem is heavy snow. With catastrophic rain, wind, and their consequences, not so much.
I’m talking here about the undeniable facts of climate change – scientists are not nearly as unanimous about what causes climate change, though a considerable majority of scientists hold the view that human activities contribute significantly to it, with the discussion tending much more to how much, not whether. Particularly since the development of quantum theory, scientists tend to be skeptical about the notion of “cause,” taking the view that any observed phenomenon is the result of a complex of causes. Still, if human activity is a contributor to climate change, and climate change is a threat to human life and welfare, it doesn’t seem logical to say that if it’s not the whole thing, we shouldn’t do anything about it and alleviate at least that contribution.
The debate over climate change (if you can call a bunch of lay people arguing against scientists as if their respective opinions deserved equal standing) has significantly impeded our ability to get out ahead of it, and New York is a case study in what happens when your response to natural disaster is reactive and insufficiently proactive. We didn’t learn from Katrina, and whether we can learn productively from Sandy remains to be seen – as long as we accept that it is valid to deal with climate change as a matter of opinion and a political issue, it seems unlikely we will learn.