November 2013 Archives

  Yesterday's vote by Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid and 51 other Senators to modestly amend the Senate's arcane and profoundly anti-democratic rules that permit 40 Senators to prevent any legislation or presidential nominees from ever receiving an up or down vote has been hysterically described by the media and GOP legislators as the "nuclear option." Senator Lamar Alexander (R -TN) was even quoted as having said, "This is the most important and dangerous restructuring of Senate Rules since Thomas Jefferson wrote them at the beginning of our country."



     Senator Alexander's fidelity to 18th century rules of procedure, however, needs to be viewed in historical context.  As discussed in previous posts, the concept of a Senate-- whose members before the adoption of the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913 were appointed by the state legislatures -- was created by the framers of the Constitution as a body that would serve as a check to control the popularly-elected House of Representatives. Article 1, ยง 3 of the U.S. Constitution guarantees each state two senators, irrespective of population. This peculiar and patently undemocratic provision was originally included in the Constitution as a compromise to protect the interests of property-owners in the original slave-holding colonies and to persuade them to accept the Constitution.

     Over the course of past 220 years since the Connecticut Compromise was negotiated at the Constitutional Convention, the composition of the Senate has become increasingly less representative. At present voters in rural America and in the less urbanized areas of the country exercise disproportionate political influence over this country's policies and priorities. For example, the rural and almost uniformly white state of Wyoming, with some 530,000 citizens, has the same number of U.S. Senators as the ethnically and economically diverse state of California which, as of 2012, had a population of about 38,000,000 citizens. The Senate's rules regarding filibusters have made that body even less representative as a result.

      Senator Alexander's lament raises a more fundamental question. Is the purpose of government to protect the interests of the few or to promote the public interest?  Since American politics and its political institutions have largely been constructed upon a foundation that is based upon individualism and the protection of individual rights, a concept of the whole--the public interest, what we owe to one another as citizens--is largely missing from American public discourse. Whether the issue is universal medical coverage, poverty, antiquated labor laws that harm workers and benefit employers, access to education, the need to rebuild our economy and to address decaying infrastructure, or the need to re-establish collegial ties with our European allies, the impediments remain: parochialism, special interests, and, all too often, an inability to see beyond the refrain of "What's in it for me?"

     In contemporary American society, the  individualism that is the essence and the legacy of the political philosophy of the Founding Fathers has been given free reign, unencumbered by the restraints, modifications and caveats to which it was subjected in England and in other European political systems. There the ties of the traditional society and medieval ideas that place an emphasis upon cooperation and extol communitarianism have not unraveled and continue to inform and bind the political discourse. As a consequence, in Europe, classical liberalism--John Locke's individualism -- was given nuance and context; whereas in America, in the context of the political tabula rasa of the New World, the self has become the avatar.

     The ancients insisted that there is not supposed to be anything personal or private about the political process or the policies which emerge from that process. Transparency, democracy and the concern about the public interest are intertwined. The word "politics" is derived from the Greek polis; by definition then politics is intended to be public and participatory. The root of the word citizenship is derived from the Roman concept of the civitas--the community, from which the word civilization is also derived. The word republic is also derived from the Latin res publica--the public thing.

     A willingness to recognize that the self is a social being is central to the concept of citizenship that has been an abiding part of the tradition of conservatism since the time of the ancients. In turn, that recognition carries with it an understanding that each of us, as members of a political community, enjoys rights that depend for their exercise and protection upon the existence of the polis, and upon an acceptance that we have concomitant responsibilities to one another and to the community.

     The recognition of this duality of citizenship becomes an essential predicate to the idea of a public interest--one which is separate and distinct from the definition of society propounded by Locke, Bentham, and Mill. Because of their nominalist bias, proponents of classical liberalism continue to insist that society is a mere aggregation of social atoms and personal interests; and they have thus been unable to posit or to entertain the possibility of the existence of any universal or collective entities which are more than the sums of their parts.


    The absence of a concept of citizenship and of the public interest are two of the core deficiencies of contemporary American political culture. John Dewey was persuaded that, in a consumerist, capitalist culture, "The political elements in the constitution of the human being, those having to do with citizenship, are crowded to one side." It has contributed to the emergence of the anomic man depicted by Emile Durkheim and chronicled by David Riesman.

     Indeed, the myth of the "omnipotent individual," which Walter Lippmann criticized as one the legacies of liberal individualism, blinds us as Americans to the need to devise and insist upon a political system which aspires, as its primary aim, to effect the public, as opposed to the private, good. That need, Lippmann suggests, requires that we embrace what he described as the tradition of civility, to recover the Roman sense of the civitas: "The public philosophy is addressed to the government of our appetites and passions by reason of a second, civilized, and, therefore, acquired nature....The warrant of the public philosophy is that while the regime it imposes is hard, the results of rational and disciplined government will be good."

     Lippmann, consistent with other critics, conceded that the rediscovery of the public interest, and its engrafting onto a liberal political culture predicated upon nominalism and sensory-derived epistemology that is also, therefore, quintessentially materialistic, would not be an easy task: "But beyond it lies the capacity and willingness of modern men to receive this kind of public philosophy. The concepts and principles of the public philosophy have their being in the realm of immaterial entities. They cannot be experienced by sense organs or, even strictly speaking, imagined in visual and tangible terms. Yet these essences, these abstractions, which are out of sight and out of touch, are to have and hold men's highest loyalties."

     Perhaps one place to look for wisdom and guidance on how to meld the private and the public interests in a liberal culture is to be found in communitarianism of T.H. Green, his students, L.T. Hobhouse and Bernard Bosanquet, and, later, A.D. Lindsay. By reaching back into the conservative political theory of antiquity, Green was able to reformulate classical liberal doctrine. Although his effort to modernize liberalism remained, at its core, firmly supportive of individual rights, Green sought to restore the recognition that rights and obligations were reciprocal and he argued that they were based upon mutuality and societal recognition. Green also reminds us that each of us derives meaning as citizens, and not as solitary beings. For that reason, too, freedom becomes not a "freedom from," which enables individuals to erect walls and barricades around themselves, but rather a positive power or capacity to do something worth doing in concert with others.

     "The self," Green insisted, "is a social self," and, for that reason, government, as the agent of society, should be viewed as positive instrument for the public good. As Hobhouse succinctly put it, "Democracy is not founded merely on the right or the private interest of the individual. This is only one side of the shield. It is founded equally on the function of the individual as a member of the community. It founds the common good upon the common will, in forming which it bids every grown-up, intelligent person to take a part."

      Today marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. His legacy to us as a vigorous proponent of an activist, compassionate government should serve as a reminder that, in a robust and functioning democracy, those strident voices who seek to perpetuate the rule of the few, the special and the privileged should not be allowed to control the political discourse to the detriment of ordinary citizens.


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The Price of Inequality

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     The emergence and the accelerating growth of economic inequality in the United States is a profound core defect that gives the lie to this country's pretensions to be a liberal democracy. America's emphasis upon the fulfillment of the self through the acquisition of property is one of the legacies of John Locke's politics, as understood and encouraged by the Founding Fathers. That emphasis has provided the systemic rationale for modern capitalism and the market economy.

      At its inception, the liberal construct was profoundly egalitarian: each man, limited only by his own ambitions and the vast, unclaimed wilderness of North America could obtain security for himself and his family; the English common law legal system would, by virtue of its elaboration of the law of property, guarantee and protect his rights of ownership. Inevitably, over the past three centuries, however, as the Lockean project has unfolded, increasing inequality has become pronounced. Those who have succeeded have understandably sought to augment and to perpetuate their advantages.

     At the economic level, the current evidence shows increasing consolidation and the emergence of oligopoly as a smaller number of corporations have become ever larger and more dominant, and as they have worked to insulate themselves against further competition. This disturbing trend has accelerated, in large part, because of unwillingness of successive presidential administrations and unsympathetic federal courts to enforce the anti-trust laws which were enacted at the zenith of the Progressive Era in response to the excesses of the first Gilded Age.

     America today has thus become a society which in which the wealthy extol the blessings of free enterprise but enjoy the benefits of socialism, while the theory and practice of free enterprise remain de rigueur for everyone else. Any deviation from the orthodoxy of Locke's classical liberalism and the economic doctrines of his disciples Smith, Ricardo, Bentham, and Mills, is promptly condemned by the self-appointed keepers of the faith, the media surrogates for the corporate agenda, and right-wing Republican advocates, which in this culture perform a role not unlike that of the Saudi Arabian Muttuwa.

     At the personal level, although the myth of Horatio Alger persists, most wealth is still inherited in the United States. "Them that has, gets" as corporate welfare, whether in the form of direct and indirect subsidies, tax breaks, or government-sponsored bail-outs such as that advocated to address the sub- prime mortgage meltdown and the needs of the reeling financial markets demonstrate. In addition, laws in favor of eliminating all inheritance taxes, as advocated by an increasing drumbeat from reactionaries about the need to abolish the "death tax" and to make permanent tax cuts for the already affluent, are widely endorsed by the political class and the commentariat.

     As the historic record and current economic data reveal, over time a political culture which bases its raison d'etre upon the apotheosis of anti-social individualism and the unlimited acquisition of property invariably produces a society in which, with the passing of each generation, individuals become less equal. Each generation's winners of the competitive, capitalist model which the institutionalization of liberal ideology has created ,understandably seek to maximize, entrench, and pass on all of the advantages, economic, political and legal, which have accrued to them to their heirs in the next generation.

   Because of the historic antipathy of classical liberalism to public regulation and to taxes, coupled with Locke's insistence that the primary duty of government is to protect property, the political authority to fund important public goods such as education and to make decisions about entitlements has been intentionally dispersed, horizontally and vertically, through a myriad of governmental units. As such, the children of each generation's winners are inevitably rewarded as their parents' advantages of wealth and education enable them to exercise disproportionate influence in the feudal-like political landscape in which who one knows is often more important than what one knows.

     In a recent article, New York Times economics correspondent Eduardo Porter ("In Public Education Edge Still Goes to the Rich, November 6, 2013") describes how inequality replicates itself even in American public education, the effect of which is to shatter all of the platitudes about education as the great equalizer. Porter reports that the United States is one of few advanced nations where schools that serve better-off children usually have more educational resources than those that serve poor students, as described in recent research by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Porter notes that, " Among the 34 O.E.C.D. nations, only in the United States, Israel and Turkey do disadvantaged schools have lower teacher/student ratios than in those serving more privileged students."

     Porter quotes Andreas Schleicher, who heads the O.E.C.D.'s international educational assessments, "The bottom line is that the vast majority of O.E.C.D. countries either invest equally into every student or disproportionately more into disadvantaged students. The U.S. is one of the few countries doing the opposite." In point of fact, as Porter observes, the inequity of education finance in the United States is a feature of the system, not a bug, stemming from its great degree of decentralization and its reliance on local property taxes.

     The O.E.C.D research shows that social and economic deprivation has a particularly strong impact on student performance in the United States. Differences in socio-economic status account for 17 percent of the variation in test scores, according to O.E.C.D. researchers, compared to 9 percent in Canada or Japan.

     Subsequently, the advantages that their parents enjoy are quickly codified into law, whether in the form of tax cuts, de-regulation and exemptions from inheritance taxes, or other inter-generational transfers of wealth. In the absence of strict inheritance laws and carefully crafted, enforceable regulations which break up the enormous concentrations of wealth, the myth of Horatio Alger ineluctably dissolves into the refrain of the Napoleon the pig in George Orwell's Animal Farm: "Four legs good; two legs better."

     Unless this trend toward increasing inequality--which almost all of this country's social and governmental institutions have sanctioned if not endorsed--is reversed, and the playing field leveled, the prognosis is ominous. The increasing evidence of this country's class stratification--a calcification of the social and economic system--will, if not addressed, become worse than that which Charles Dickens decried in Victorian England.

     In a profound essay in the November/December, 2011 edition of Foreign Affairs ("The Broken Contract: Inequality and American Decline"), George Packer concluded , "Inequality makes it harder to imagine the lives of others - which is one reason why the fate of 14 million more or less permanently unemployed Americans merits so little attention in the country's political and media capitals. Inequality corrodes trust among fellow citizens, making it seem as if the game is rigged. Inequality provokes a generalized anger that finds targets where it can- immigrants, foreign countries, American elites, government in all forms - and it rewards demagogues while discrediting reformers. Inequality saps the will to conceive of ambitious solutions to large collective problems, because those problems no longer seem very collective. Inequality undermines democracy."


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The Consequences of Political Gridlock

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                                                         (Part 3 of a 3 part series).

John Locke's political philosophy continues to define the parameters of what passes for acceptable political discourse in the United States. In large part, as previously discussed,  Locke's legacy has contributed to the dysfunction and gridlock that characterize American politics today, but the influence of his ideas have also had a number of broader, more far-reaching social and cultural consequences.  

     Crime and violence are among the starkest manifestations of anti-social behavior in America. Today, the United States is among the most violent and crime-ridden countries in the developed world. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, during the period between January and December 2006, more than 75 million crimes were reported to police and law enforcement officials at all levels of government. Given a U.S. population which consisted of an estimated 303,824,646 inhabitants as of July 2008, this statistic is quite startling Further, the number of violent crimes, including murder, robbery and burglary increased approximately 1.3 percent.
    Of the total of reported crimes in 2006, almost 22 million occurred in non-metropolitan areas.  In addition, as of 2006, the number of adult and juvenile prisoners in federal and state correctional institutions numbered 2,050,205, of whom 1,853,386 were men and 196, 820 were women.  By 2008, the United States had the dubious distinction of having, by far, the highest rate of incarceration in the entire world: 2.3 million Americans were imprisoned, which amounted to one in 100 adults, one in fifteen black men between the ages of twenty and thirty-four, and one out of every thirty-six Hispanic males.    

     By contrast, during the Colonial Era, potential offenders had fewer opportunities to act out. The behavior of the village criminal was restrained by the presence of his neighbors who could identify him and by the existence of a long list of swift and sure punishments for anti-social behavior. Over the past 250 years, however, these residual communitarian restraints, a legacy of the English village life that emerged during the later part of the Middle Ages, have dissipated as the influence of liberal individualism upon American culture and political thought has become more pronounced and entrenched.
    Easy access to firearms has also contributed to the epidemic of violence which has gripped U.S. culture.  According to the Violence Policy Center, more than one million Americans have died in firearm-related suicides, homicides, and unintentional injuries since 1960.  In the years between  2001 and 2011, more than 330,000 people in the United States died from gun violence, whetherby accident or intent. 

     Sadly, the inability of government to prevent gun deaths by reducing the availability of these weapons is often excused based upon a misreading of the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution. Until recently, that amendment had universally been construed to grant to the people--and not to individuals--the right to keep and bear arms as members of a well-regulated militia (today's National Guard) as previously confirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court.

    However, the Supreme Court's 2008 decision in District of Columbia, et al v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008), illustrated once again the intellectual stranglehold that the political philosophy of anti-social individualism exerts upon current federal jurisprudence. Justice Scalia's tortured constitutional analysis and his inability to comprehend the grammatical interconnection between a subordinate clause in a sentence --"A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State..."--and the main clause--"... the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed" --are a unfortunate consequence of the eighteenth-century ideological bias in which his legal analysis remains mired. Lamentably, Scalia's bias--his commitment to the tenets of anti-social individualism--is so complete that he ignores the primary duty of a government --to protect its own citizens.

    In the name of an abstract right of the individual and his putative right to own a gun, Scalia denies the right of concrete human beings--who have died and will continue to die because of handgun violence--to be safe from harm: "We are aware of the problem of handgun violence in this country," Scalia piously intoned, "but the enshrinement of constitutional rights necessarily takes certain policy choices off the table."  

    The often unconscious but pervasive imprint of this one, narrow interpretation of John Locke's political philosophy upon American political discourse may, in large part, explain the inability of many Americans to grasp the semantic and political distinctions between persons qua individuals and a collectivity called "the people." Unfortunately, because of that continuing inability and the enormous success of powerful lobbyists such as the National Rifle Association--whose incantations are often echoed by equally reactionary federal judges and legislators who compound that confusion--incidents of gun violence, including massacres such as Columbine and Virginia Tech, and Aurora, Colorado and Newtown, Connecticut will inevitably increase.

    Illegal immigration is another indication of the collapse of the rule of law in contemporary America. Depending upon whose statistics one wishes to accept, before the financial meltdown that began in 2008, there were anywhere from 12 million to 20 million illegal immigrants present in the United States. Although these individuals violated American immigration law, their crimes were compounded by the thousands upon thousands of American employers who illegally employed and exploited them while feigning ignorance of their status as ineligible employees. Current federal laws require that prospective employees present proof of citizenship or show that they are lawful alien residents.

    Once again, the fear of government control along with purported concerns about privacy and individual rights have stymied the adoption of a very simple mechanism to ascertain citizenship status and to control immigration--a national identification card, which virtually all policy analysts concede would be effective.

    By contrast, European social democracies--even Spain, which, as of 2010 still had a Socialist government--have embraced the use of national ID cards with little difficulty or divisive political debate. In the United States, however, the debate focuses almost entirely upon concerns about alleged government intrusion and threats to privacy and individual liberty. Ironically, by contrast, the enormous and intrusive amount of personal financial information and data that Equifax, Transamerica and Experian--three unelected, private, for-profit credit reporting agencies--currently compile and maintain on almost every American citizen barely elicits a critical comment.

    One explanation for these differences may be found in the differing political traditions. European democracies, in contrast to the individualism of American liberal democracy, are communitarian cultures. Even those European countries which experienced the Protestant Reformation in some form--such as England, the north of Germany, or those in Scandinavia--were able to retain a cultural reservoir of traditional Catholic conservative values--the ancien regime. To the present, those residual cultural values emphasize the importance of family and community and support the notion that there exists something called the public interest, or, to use Rousseau's phrase, "the general will," which is separate and distinct from the interests of individuals. Consequently, a number of these European democracies have successfully made the political transition to social democracies with broad safety nets. Canada has accomplished the same.

    In the United States, by contrast, the persistence of the traditional consensus constrains the ability of citizens and policymakers alike to imagine, or to advocate, policies which promote a social or public good, as opposed to the policies which are calculated to benefit only individuals or special interests.  

    The ideological constraints imposed by Locke's political philosophy have also contributed to the conviction that crime is a personal rather than a social phenomenon, and that it may largely be explained by character defects and bad morals. Consequently, state legislatures and the U.S. Congress, and, through them, citizens, have responded, in part, to the perception of increasing violence by adopting punitive laws that increase the penalties for many crimes. As discussed above, as of 2008, the United States had the highest rate of incarceration in the entire world: 2.3 million Americans were imprisoned, which amounted to one in 100 adults.  Four decades earlier, in 1970, there were fewer than 200 thousand inmates in state and federal prisons.  

    Another response to concerns about crime and violence has been for citizens to move, often in search of what are perceived to be better, safer communities with more economic opportunities. In fact, the data shows that, prior to 2008, one in five Americans moved each year.  Many of the communities into which these people moved lack basic public services. This phenomenon has inspired a host of "privatized" services, many of which were historically provided by local governments through taxpayer funds.

    Naomi Klein of The Nation magazine ("Rapture 911: Disaster Response For The Chosen," November 19,2007)  has reported that the American International Insurance Group (AIG)--which in September of 2008 was the recipient of an $85 billion dollar bailout by the U.S. Treasury, courtesy of the American taxpayers--provided a special service to the company's Private Client Group known as Firebreak Spray Systems: these wealthy clients, many of whom lived in Southern California, paid an average of $19,000 to have their homes sprayed with fire retardant; during the wildfire season, "mobile units"--in imitation red fire trucks--race around hot spots to extinguish only the fires which threaten to engulf their clients' homes. All others are on their own.  

    The constant movement of population has also contributed to an ever-increasing suburban sprawl and, since the 1980s, to the emergence of walled, gated communities. In purpose if not appearance, these gated communities are reminiscent of the response of the European population to the collapse of the Roman Empire--castles, moats and walled cities. By 1997, it was estimated that there were "as many as twenty thousand gated communities, with more than three million units."

    Mobility and gated communities compound, rather than solve, the problems of social isolation and lawlessness. As Harvard University political scientist Robert Putnam has documented in his book Bowling Alone, individuals who move frequently have lower rates of participation in the communities in which they reside.  Further, the acceptance of increased mobility as a virtue has, not surprisingly, spawned its own antithesis: anonymous mobility enables criminals and sociopaths to troll the interstate highway system in search of victims and prey.
    Crime and mobility, because each represents acts of individual behavior which carry with them attendant anti-social consequences, represent two sides of the same coin. So long as the primacy of the individual is extolled and glamorized, Locke's political philosophy will continue to hold Americans in its vice-like grip, while the ability of America's political system to devise rational, public solutions to the issues of crime, violence, suburban sprawl and ecological disaster becomes increasingly problematic.

    In his now-famous essay, The Tragedy of the Commons, the ecologist Garrett Hardin commented upon the deleterious effects which the pursuit of unbridled self-interest has upon the public interest.  To Hardin, the Commons was a metaphor for the Earth and its environment, which belongs to all, and for which each of us has a special, collective obligation to protect; and he warned that it cannot withstand the incremental effects of individual anti-social acts.

     Pollution, as one example, is often caused by individuals who, based upon purely personal, self-serving calculations, seek to maximize their individual opportunities, irrespective of the consequences. Thus, over time, the public effects of pollution are gradual and diffuse. Therefore, the harm--the disutility--is slower to manifest itself. However, the utility to the polluter who disposes of  pollutants by releasing them onto the Common is immediate and positive.

    Hardin's prophetic essay underscores the difficulties of overcoming personal predilections and self-interest, even where important public concerns are at stake. The prognosis for a political culture such as the United States in which citizens have been acculturated to think only in terms of "me, myself, and I" suggests the dangers about which Hardin warned will only worsen unless the mindset of the population changes and begins to think in terms of the first person plural, "We."

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