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Thursday, October 28, 2010

To Readers about posting comments

Ssome readers have contacted me about their problems posting "comments".  I recently changed certain settings, which may make doing so easier. Also, if you do want something posted and are still having problems, send me the comment via email   ( to: ), and I'll post it, unless I am overwhelmed by a flood of posts (which I doubt will occur).  I cannot promise to post everything, but it will have to be pretty generally (not just to me) offensive and/or obscene for me to not post it.  The one thing I will promise is not to edit anyone else's comments.  I may respond with my own comment, but yours will either appear in the exact and full language in which it is sent or not at all.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

There may not be any "Good Guys" in a given situation/current politics

I grew up with television and books.  My siblings also had radio.  What we all had in common was exposure to stories of conflict in which there were identifiable "Good Guys" and "Bad Guys".  In some books, the authors might try to fake us out - by getting us and/or other characters in the books to misidentify the motives of certain heroes or villians - and there may have been minor characters who were in-between or who changed sides, but, basically, there were Good Guys (for whom one rooted) and Bad Guys.

This has led to an impulse to misunderstand how the world actually works, particularly in a political sense.  It's often easy to identify Bad Guys.  Nazis were Bad Guys.  Communists were Bad Guys.  To me, Hamas is definitely a bunch of Bad Guys.  The problem is that we, both individually and as groups, have a strong impulse to want to believe that anyone who opposes the Bad Guys is a Good Guy.  However, as Gershwin wrote, "It ain't necessarily so."

I will pass over the Nazi-Soviet Pact and our subsequent alliance with the Soviet Union against the Nazis.  While I suspect those events to have been the cause of many instances of "political brain whiplash", they are really before my time.  I came of age during the Vietnam War and other Cold War alliances with groups primarily because they were anti-communist.

Of course, I started out knowing both that "we" were the Good Guys and the the Vietnamese Communists were the Bad Guys.  While I was in college, however, I learned that our own troops did not always act in an exemplary fashion, and that our allies - in Vietnam and elsewhere - could be corrupt and oppressive.  I also came to understand that some of the Bad Guys at least thought that they were the Good Guys.  Indeed, because our news media had more access and freedom in regard to investigating and reporting what we and our allies did,  we were perhaps more exposed to our own side's faults. (It may just seem that way to me in hindsight.  Viet Cong atrocities may not have gotten as much attention because they were, after all, the Bad Guys, and having them commit atrocities was not "news".) Be that as it may, large numbers of members of my generation turned against the war.  That (at least in my mind) was probably justified.  A second result was the rise in suspicion about the actions of our Government in foreign policy matters.  That was understandable, and probably good, but only up to a point.  After all, comparatively speaking, (I believe) we were and are actually the Good Guys.  Most unfortunate, however, was almost automatic assumption that those who opposed us (particularly the North Vietnamese) somehow became magically transformed into the Good Guys because we or our allies were the Bad Guys.  THAT IS A CONCLUSION WITHOUT ANY LOGICAL FOUNDATION,  AND IS STILL A COMMON MISCONCEPTION.  Nature does not require Good Guys (or Bad Guys for that matter).  The North Vietnamese and their Communist allies did a lot of bad stuff, both during and after the war [Pol Pot, anyone?].  That does not mean that we did not have to deal with them, but they were no heroes, at least of mine.

OK, on to today.  We still have that tendency to believe there must be Good Guys,  Our Government still tends to back those whose chief virtue is that they oppose our enemies (a little old, but remember who helped the Moslem Fundamentalists in Afghanistan rise up again the Godless Soviet Union?).  Saudia Arabia may be somewhat of a current example (we also need its cooperation on oil).  The best current examples are Iraq and Afghanistan.  The current Iraqi Government at least looks to be intent on creating a State dominated by the Sh'ite majority at the expense of the Sunnis and the Kurds (not quite what we had in mind, is it?).  The Afghan Government is obviously hideously corrupt and also admits to taking large sums from Iran.  Fortunately (?), the Taliban is so obviously not Good Guys that  I don't think any of us are tempted to suck up to them, although we are encouraging the Afghan Government to do so.  The emotional temptation is to wash our hands of them all, except for problems like terrorist training camps and our own national security.  We (or at least I) have a problem in dealing with situations where there are no Good Guys, and our choice is whether and how we deal with competing sets of obvious villians.

However, what really worries me about this tendency is how it affects our domestic politics.  A lot of people are unhappy with the Democrats, who theoretically (only) control the Government.  Maybe our current problems are the Democrats' fault; maybe not.  Maybe they are the Republicans' fault.  Maybe not. [My own opinion is that Obama has done ok (but, hey, I'm a liberal and a Democrat), but the actions of both parties in the 90's and before 2008 leave plenty of blame for virtually everyone in a position of power in our Government] But whichever party or faction that you may believe to be the Bad Guys, it does not mean that the other group is the Good Guys. 

When we cast our votes next week, we will put a check mark or whatever besides the name of the person we are voting for, not a "they are an idiot" mark against his or her opponent.  Whoever wins will get to make decisions that potentially affect all of us; the losers will face nothing more than embarrassment and having to go on book or lecture tours or return to probably good jobs or retire.  For good or bad, we don't just shoot the incumbents who screwed up [perhaps the South Americans were on to something].   We are, in fact, electing people, not really effectively "punishing"  them.  Put another way, we may be not letting them go to a movie or taking away their favorite toy; we are not spanking them. [Modification- I wrote this Post yesterday - it occurs to me now that I did not pay enough attention to the concept of "punishment" of incumbents.  I think punishment is an important concept both because: 1)booting the guys out of office will really hurt them, or at least their ambitions and egos, and 2) we voters have a strong psychological need to simply punish those we perceive as wrongdoers.  One of my former Law Professors, Donald H.J. Hermann, published a paper or two in the 1970's on the need to "punish"in connection with the purposes of criminal law.  I suspect there's other stuff out there as well.]

The phrase "cutting off our nose to spite our face" comes to mind.  Punishing someone else, in and of itself, doesn't do us any good.

I tend to think that the Republican party  (and to a much lesser extent, the Democrats) have basically sold out to the monied interests, banks and larger corporations, and that., if given more power, they will screw up the economy even worse in order to line the pockets of their benefactors.  You may well disagree.  You may even be right.  If you believe that the Republicans have better answers and solutions, you should absolutely vote for them.  However,  the fact that the Democrats have not, for whatever reason, been able to restore the economy does not automatically mean that the Republicans will.  Remember, just because one side is the Bad Guys does not make the other side the Good Guys.  Or because one side is stupid or inept, the other side does not automatically become smart or competent.  Both sides, perhaps because they are locked in to certain policies or constituancies, may take us down the tubes  [flushing noise here]

To me, the really scary thought is that, while one party may have better ideas than the other, it may be that it is simply no longer within the power of the United States Government to substantially improve the economy, at least right now, and that things are going to get worse before they get better.  That's a possibility no one want to even think about, much less say aloud. Enough

Friday, October 22, 2010

The fundamental weakness of ideological purity

This Post is not  about the need to compromise and work together to accomplish common goals.  Although I believe that there is such a need in most cases, I can make an opposing argument.  More significantly, I believe ideological purity has a more fundamental weakness.

An "ideology" is basically a collection of ideas (created by a person or persons) with some unifying theme or themes.  The word is most often used in the context of political ideas.  Individuals and groups have political ideologies as an attempt to explain how human interactions have operated, do operate and either will and/or should operate in order to maximize the chances of reaching certain goals the individual or group deems desirable.

No problems with that .  Ideas are good.  Unifying themes are necessary in order to make sense of the ideas and to explain how the world works.  Unfortunately, the "unifying themes" often become "gods".  As such, they become objects of faith rather than reason, and demand sacrifices in the form of ignoring evidence which might contradict the belief system. [This Post is about politics, not religion, although I will probably write something about religion in this context in the future].

Some examples of ideologies are: communism, nazism, fascism, socialism, capitalism (primarily a system rather than an ideology, but it has certainly become the latter, and, in some ways, an object of "worship"), Marxism, liberalism, conservatism, libertarianism, and anarchism. 

It must be stressed that these are all systems of ideas, created by human beings, designed in large measure to describe both how the world works and how we should act politically to achieve goals, whatever they are.  They are not goals (or bogeymen) in and of themselves.  They are labels, describing a set of beliefs.  We all like some of these ideologies and despise others, but our feelings are tied to what we believe the adoption of these ideologies have led to or will lead to if followed.

For me, the easiest example of an ideology as a "god" is Communism.  Communism is based on Marx's ideas about the inevitability of certain historical forces and results.  Freedom was defined as working in concert with those inevitable forces to help them progress more quickly to a higher and more desirable state.  This led to a way of thinking along the lines of :  "We must do X because it is inevitable that it will work".  Of course, sometimes it did not.  Generally, the reaction of the Communists (at least those in charge of the Soviet Union), was not to say that there was a flaw in the idea, but to either 1)claim that it failed only due to some treachery, or 2)claim that it worked.  New evidence that would cast doubt on the truth of the basic ideology (or on the wisdom of the Government) was essentially ignored.

Maintaining the "purity" of the ideology and of the group of believers also becomes an end in itself.  That may make religious sense, but does not make political sense.  Politics is supposed to be a means to an end or ends.  I could babble on about this for some time, but I will restrain myself.  On this subject, I  recommend reading "Homage to Catalonia", by George Orwell.  In it, Orwell (one of my major heroes) describes fighting in the Spanish Civil War, on the Republican side, but after having enlisted through the "wrong" socialist group. Those running the war were more concerned with purging their own ranks than with beating Franco.  Maybe Franco would have won anyway, but focusing on ideological purity certainly did not help the Republicans. The experience was central in turning Orwell from a Communist sypathizer to its implacable foe.

The main weakness of all ideologies is that they are sets of ideas with a unifying theme, while the actual  world is more complicated than any unified set of ideas we mortals can come up with, particularly because it changes.

When I was a grad student in History, our professors stressed the idea that "history" was not the same thing as "the past".  The past actually happened.  It included the thoughts and actions of millions of people.  History is merely what people write (or otherwise communicate) about the past.  Even what a historian would view as a "primary" source had biases (conscious or unconscious) about what he or she reported, and also almost always had limited knowledge.  Even if we had a time machine, it would only expose us to a small slice of the past.  A simpler way of putting this is that "the map is not the territory".

Politics is based partly on predictions:  If we do X, Y will result.  Maybe; maybe not.  However, when we take a set of ideas, which we tend to "freeze", as to how the world works, we will, like the Communists, tend to try to cram new evidence into the "box" of our beloved ideological structure, whether the evidence really fits into the box itself.  We become more attached to the "box" - the ideology - than we are to our own powers of objective observation and analysis.

How many times have you read the phrase "The economists would not have predicted..(whatever occurred)"?  Lots, I bet.  The world is a big, complicted and changing place.  New evidence comes in all the time.  Our political theorists are not Gods; their predictive powers are limited by evidence currently available (which is often messy and fuzzy).  However, assuming God does exist, He or She gave us brains and powers of observation.  Ideologies are a good starting point, but they are no excuse for intellectual laziness or dishonesty.  Demanding ideological purity means following false gods, or, rather, their false prophets, whose power may even be based on successfully "selling" the ideology.  Enough.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Every Group Should Control Its Own Crazies

Every group of people - at least political and religious groups - has its crazies.  I use "crazies" for lack of a better term; "extrements" doesn't adequately describe them.  By "crazies", I mean people who either do or say things that are deliberately harmful to others (an inadequate description, but. . .  ), or who exhibit behavior based on perceptions not grounded in what could reasonably be considered "reality".  Some examples of "crazies":  1)Islamic extremists who seek to kill American civilians just because they are Americans; 2)Left Wingers who think George W. Bush is comparable to Hitler or Dick Cheney to the AntiChrist (although I think my friend was kidding about that one); 3)Right Wingers who claim that Obama is a Communist or a Moslem;  4) Virtually anyone who believes in long running secret historical conspiracies such as the Illuminati, 5) Anyone who believes that the commandments of their religion or God or political beliefs should automatically be accepted as true by those who do not share those beliefs.  There are many other potential examples, and I realize that we all have our own classifications.

Anyway, one hears a lot from the conservative press about the alleged failure of the Islamic Community to disown its crazies (much less control them).  I think the conservatives have a point here, but not much of one.  What I have heard from the Islamic Community in the United States is that terrorists who attack the United States are the bad guys. In other words, our own Islamic Community has disowned these guys, as they certainly should. There is some dithering about Hamas, the PLO, and the situation in the middle east, but, as far as I know, Hamas, while certainly a terrorist organization, has not directly attacked the United States.  Elements of the IRA were certainly terrorists who attacked our allies, and I do not remember any of our politicians demanding that the Irish-American Community speak out against the IRA. 

The international Islamic Community is neither adequately disowning or controlling their crazies.  Frankly, I do not think the more responsible elements of that community have the power to do so.  Indeed, I suspect most of the harm done by Islamic crazies is to other Moslems.  This is not surprising; fundamentalists always hate Heretics more than mere Unbelievers.  Where the "moderates" seem to be in control (Indonesia?), there are certainly not a lot of terrorist training camps, but not necessarily a lot of condemnation either.  While regrettable, I would suggest that this is entirely understandable.

Any group with a shared system of belief is hesitant to turn against its own members at the behest of outsiders.  This is particularly true if the group in question sees itself as being either historically or currently oppressed or in danger of being oppressed.  The general thinking is that "you either have to be for us or against us, maybe because we are in "danger" or, to put it another way, "we will either hang together or hang separately".  In the case of the Moslems, some may also fear being killed if they speak out against the terrorists.

For example, take my fellow Jews [as Henny Youngman would say, "Please"].  I support the existence of the State of Israel, but if and when the Israeli Government  takes what I believe to be an ill-advised action or fails to restrain its own crazies [and there are a lot of them, although they generally seem to avoid civilian massacres], I will tell those few who may ask what I think that I disapprove.  However, if I made my disapproval  public [this Blog does not count as "public"], I would risk being branded by other Jews and/or other organizations as anti-semetic or anti-Israeli.  Even Presidents George H.W. Bush and Barack Obama were and are often accused of being anti-Israeli if they voice any criticism of the actions of the Israeli Government.   Why should we expect the Moslems, or the members of the Tea Party - who certainly see themselves as marginalized, ignored  and even oppressed by their own government - to behave any differently? [Aha.  Didn't expect the Tea Party there, did you?  In the words of Monty Python, "No one expects the Tea Party!"]

It seems that groups psychologically secure in their position are less inclined to "circle the wagons" when one of their own is attacked.  The most recent example of this is the crazy Minister at the Dove Church in Florida who was going to burn as many Qurans as he could obtain.  It seemed to me like most main line Church leaders in the U.S. were very public in their negative reaction, although it might be partly because of an identification with organized religions and their sacred texts as part of their own "group".

Standing up for one's group is natural, but it may also be a luxury that we cannot afford.  The phrase that comes to my mind, at least when it comes to Israel, is "friends don't let friends drive drunk"  (although we Americans do not and should not have the power to "let" the Israelis do anything.  It's their county, and their survival. But that should not stop me from telling my "friend" when I think he's being really stupid). When members or our "family" take actions which we believe to be destructive to the interests of the group as a whole, and possibly to themselves as well, we owe it to ourselves and to them to call them on it.  Privately, if practical; publically, if necessary.

Some will see this as naive.  It may be.  After all, what if I criticize my own crazies [for example, certain Israeli groups  and certain liberal politicians], but the other groups stand by theirs [for example, Hamas and Rush Limbaugh]?  Not likely to lead to a good or "fair" outcome, is it?  Perhaps one needs to fight fire with fire. 

However, when I see a political commercial from a liberal politician filled with misleading statements about his opponent  - who has himself been running similarly misleading commercials about the liberal for weeks, my first reaction is not to think of the "payback" as fair; it is sadness and disgust.  My attachment to what I perceive to be truth - or at least the absence of silly lies - is probably irrational, but it's there.  I think those who claim to be the leaders of our groups - both political and religious -  need to speak out, and , in the words of my 22 year old Son, "Call Bullshit" when they see it, and the rest of us have to disown rather than reward ideological purity for its own sake [more on that in a later Post, I hope].  I saw John McCain tell the truth when a questioner at a rally in 2008 claimed that Obama was a Muslim.  McCain said, in essence. "no, he's not."  McCain did not weasel. The contrast between that and the Republican leadership in 2010 is pretty disgusting. 

Just remember, if our leaders tolerate "big lies" on the grounds of political expediency [and they will if it works], and if we let them do so, that's when we may wind up with someone who really does resemble Hitler [dramatic hyperbole, but I couldn't resist it]. Enough.

What is meant by a "Jewish" State?

My apologies for the delay since the last Post.  My "real" life sometimes becomes busy.

Recently, the Israeli Government voted to require new non-Jewish applicants for Israeli citizenship to take a loyalty Oath acknowledging that Israel was a Jewish State.  As might be imagined, this has generated considerable controversy and debate.  It appears to me that while both "sides" have valid concerns, one key point is being overlooked - what "Jewish"  may mean in this context.

As a Jew, I share in a desire to have, somewhere in the world, a State where: 1) the right of Jews to be Jews, to freely practice our religion, and to not be legally discriminated against because of our ancestry or religion is guaranteed; and 2)to which Jews are guaranteed to have a right to immigrate.  History suggests that we have needed (and will need) such a place.

Whether it was "fair" to put that State into what was the Palestine Mandate or it is "fair" to require only non-Jewish immigrants to take the Oath [I don't understand that at all] are other questions, and are beyond the scope of this Post.  I'm just glad the State of Israel exists as, among other things, a place of safety for Jews, and hope that it continues to do so.

However, there are certainly citizens and politicians in Israel (and in the international Jewish Community) who have other ideas of  what a "Jewish" State is, or should be.  They want  a State controlled by - or at least one which legally institutionalizes- large parts of (what they perceive to be )Jewish religious law.  They want to make Jewish law, as determined by State approved Rabbis, into a large part of what controls both citizens' behavior and the actions of the State. 

As readers of this Blog will guess, I do not like this idea.  It seems to be an attempt to make Israel into the Jewish equivalent of the current governmental structure in Iran.   I do not believe that a Theocracy is compatible with a democratic form of government, be it in Iran, Israel or elsewhere.

This is not to say that Israel is a Theocracy.  Right now, it seems to be primarily a democracy which gives some power and deference to those who would like it to be a Theocracy.  Can this remain a stable situation?  Maybe.  But if I were a non-Jew, swearing loyalty to what might become Jewish Theocracy would make me very unhappy.  Heck, I wouldn't want to do it, and I'm Jewish.  Enough.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Basics of tax policy/ "Explain it to me like I'm a 3rd grader"

     In the movie "Philadelphia", the lawyer character played by Denzel Washington had great success asking opposing witnesses to "explain it to me like I'm a third grader".  Needless to say, they really couldn't, and the tactic was very effective.  I've found that it is frequently very helpful to go back to simple, basic issues when trying to analyze what to do in a situation.  It may not give you the answer; the answer may not be simple.  However, it often really does help define what the questions are.

So, let's start with (and beat to death) a third grade analogy which may be useful in analyzing tax policy:  The Goose (in this case Geese) Who Laid the Golden Egg(s).

In our example, the Geese are the citizens and businesses of the United States (The analogy can be used with any level of government, but let's just use the Federal Government here).  The Farmer (or Geese Herder or whatever) is our Government.  The Geese are all capable of laying Golden Eggs (creating wealth).  Some lay more Golden Eggs; some less; some bigger eggs; some smaller.  Individual output of particular Geese may change over time and some Geese (old, sickly or "other") may not lay any Golden Eggs at all.

The Farmer's primary goal is to take care of the Geese and to make sure they thrive and prosper as a group.  To do this, the Farmer has to take some of the Golden Eggs to pay for certain expenses;  some of these expenses may be for guard dogs to protect the Goose House from predators, for repairs to the Goose House, for feed, and for veterinary bills. (The analogy stretches here because these particular Geese can, at least in theory, take their own Golden Eggs and go out and buy stuff for themselves) The Farmer, of course, also has to take enough Golden Eggs to provide shelter for himself and his family.

Now, at least with our citizens (as opposed to real geese), there is a great deal of debate about what the Farmer should pay for himself and for the Geese and what the Geese should be responsible for paying for themselves.  However, everyone appears to agree that there are some things that should be paid for by the Farmer (Government).  We disagree as to how much and for what, but I have yet to hear a serious politician call for a total abolition of the Federal Government.

OK, so we are agreed that the farmer needs income to pay for whatever common expenses we determine to be appropriate.  In our example, the Farmer's only source of income is the Golden Eggs.  So, for a long time, the Farmer has taken a share of the Golden Eggs.   How much the Farmer has taken and from which Goose or Geese has changed over time, as has the type and nature of the "common expenses" the Farmer pays for.  There has been, still is, and always will be differences of opinion among the Geese themselves (who by the way, elect the Farmer) and the Farmer as to how much should be collected, from whom, and how it should be spent.  But to emphasize, all the Geese agree that the Farmer has to get some share of the Golden Eggs. 

Oh, and in our example, the Farmer (and therefore the Geese) has gone into serious debt.  He has put expenses (be they for Guard Dogs, feed, whatever) on the Farm's credit cards, and the Farm must pay interest.  Everyone agrees that too much debt is a bad thing and that the Farm cannot continue to increase its debt (as a percentage of its total output), at least over the long haul.

[See, we actually agree on some basic stuff]

In theory, at least, we can also agree on the Farmer's primary theoretical goals.  He likes his Geese.  He wants them to be happy.(either he's principled or wants to be reelected or both)  And one major factor in their happiness is usually tied to how many Golden Eggs a particular Goose has at the end of the day  - to get whatever other "stuff" it wants.  The Geese have lots of motivations (generally, they'd like to see the other Geese do well for various reasons), but a big motivator is to have more Golden Eggs. [Yet another thing on which I think we can all agree]

Ok, let's start getting to Tax Policy.  Most of the Geese also agree that the Farmer probably needs to take in more Golden Eggs, at least in the short to medium term,whether to buy more birdseed, get new and better Guard Dogs, or just to pay down those big credit card balances. (Some of the Geese believe that the Farmer can pay down the credit card bills without taking in more Golden Eggs in the short or medium term;  I think that those Geese are too "into" fairy tales)

The obvious solution is for the Farmer just to take a bigger percentage of the Golden Eggs.  How much and from which Geese can be debated, but taking a bigger share of the Golden Eggs will increase the income taken in by the Farmer, but only if doing so does not reduce the total output of Golden Eggs.

Remember , individual Geese are motivted by the prospect of more Golden Eggs for themselves, and to use an extreme example, if the Farmer takes all of the Golden Eggs, the Geese may completely stop laying Golden Eggs and both they and the Farmer will have nothing.

So one goal here is to get more Golden Eggs to the Farmer (at least for now), but to do so in a manner which will not reduce the motivation of the Geese.  That's easy, you say;  do something to motivate the Geese to lay more Golden Eggs!  Well another thing we can all agree on is that this would be a great thing!  The Geese would like more Eggs; the Farmer would like to keep the Geese happy.  If there are more Golden Eggs, everyone, probably even the Farmer, will have more.

So we all all share two goals:  1)get more money to the Farmer, at least in the short or medium term, either for "programs" or to pay down the credit card bills, and 2)increase the output of Golden Eggs in the long as well as short term.

Furthermore, I think that most of agree that the really important goal is the second one - we can fight about how to divide up the Golden Eggs, but only if they exist.  [Why capitalism seems to work better than anything else we've come up with so far].

This, unfortuately, is where we leave the Fairy Tale of mutual agreement and get into the realm of real disagreements aboout how to accomplish these goals through tax policy.  Even more unfortunately, this is where we seem to have wound up in a Land of Competing Fairy Tales, or at least very wishful thinking. The conservatives want to cut taxes; the liberals want to not cut services.  Unfortunately neither we nor the Farmer has the money to do both (or maybe either).   

The First, and, in my view, most dangerous, Fairy Tale is called the Laffer Curve.  It assumes that if we reduce the percentage of Golden Eggs we take from Geese, particularly the rich ones,  the Geese, now able to keep more of their Golden Eggs, will increase their production of Eggs to such an extent that, even given a lower percentage of the total output, the Farmer will get more Golden Eggs.  What a wonderful idea!  Gain, but with no pain!  Everyone gets richer. ["And, if elected, I'll make sure that there are two chickens in every pot!"] Unfortunately, attempts to increase production this way don't really seem to work well, for a variety of complex reasons.  It is almost certain that various targeted tax cuts or breaks may increase output, but an across the board income tax cut,  sorry Charlie, but that's not how the historical data looks to me. [Modification/correction:  At the suggestion of a reader, I looked again at the Laffer Curve, and realized that I misspoke.  I conflated the concept of the Curve itself with the idea of it being used as a justification for lowering tax rates as a means of increasing tax revenue.  The Laffer Curve is based on what seem like intuitively obvious assumptions.  While it still appears overly simplistic, the concept that taking a higher percentage of income as taxes will reduce motivation of taxpayers to create income is sound.  The problem is that the existence of this principle is used a a justification to cut taxes and somehow decrease the deficit.  The truth of that assertion would depend on the specific marginal tax rate which would represent the "tipping point" of the curve.  Most economists today believe that that "tipping point" is somewhere between 60% and 70%.  Current and proposed top marginal tax rates are between 30% and 40%.  Thus, reducing taxes will almost certainly increase the deficit, unless that reduction significantly and quickly gives the economy a big boost.  Therein lies the fairy tale.]  Moreover, if implementation of this Fairy Tale does not increase production, what it absolutely will do is cut the revenue of the Farmer (Government).  He will get a lower precentage of the same or lesser total of Golden Eggs.  This is exactly what has occurred recently.  Please compare the growth rates in the slightly higher tax rate Clinton years with those of the Bush years.  Compare them both with the growth and top income tax rates of 1946-55.  So the Laffer Curve is disasterous for Goal 1), while simply not helping Goal 2).

The Second Fairy Tale [sorry, fellow liberals] is that increased Government spending, as a general rule, while ignoring the increasing deficit ,will "kick start" Golden Egg Production by all of us private sector Geese.  Frankly, I am less sure about my negative reaction about this one.  Certainly, there is a lot of historical evidence for Keynsian economics as a whole.  I do think that there is certain Government spending that will help the economy.  I think that the measures that have been taken, such TARP and the Stimulus, while seriously flawed, have essentially kept the economy from disintigrating.  However, I also think that the deficit is a real and immediate problem, and that for reasons of public confidence if nothing else, we have to start taking a serious run at reducing it.  This would mean cutting programs, some good, some not-so-good, which do not have a fairly direct and positive impact on the overall economy.  I do not buy the argument that just "putting money in people's pockets" necessarily has a good effect on the economy, any more than I buy the conservative "keeping money in people's pockets by reducing taxes" has a good effect on the economy.  Both seem to be excuses for us to simply continue living beyond our means;  generally the conservatives want to make sure the richer people keep their  money, and the liberals want to make sure the less-well-off  have "enough" money or services.  I don't think we can really afford either one. [I am well aware that there are social policies/arguments on all sides of both of these questions;  but this Post deals with what I believe are economic realities, and both sides are trying to pretend that their social goals are somehow automatically going to have good economic results.]  Like I said, Fairy Tales.

Essentially, we have to put our collective money where it will do the most good in terms of attempting to increase Golden Egg production.  Lowering income tax rates across the board is, frankly, insane, given the desirability of both some targeted stimulus and of holding the deficit in check.  Even if one does not want any stimulus spendng, lowering taxes is almost guaranteed to increase the deficit, not reduce it.  I think we actually probably need to raise taxes.  Spending, without worrying about the deficit, also strikes me as an unrealistic way to say that we can avoid pain, at least now.  We are going to have to make cuts in some  programs - maybe unemployment or Head Start or even- Social Security or Medicaire [gasp]

Bad news, guys (and girls).  Times are bad, for lots of reasons.  And, as much as the politicians would like to make sure that their particular constituences are not hurt, if we do it right it's going to involve some pain for all of us. We can no longer afford the simplistic and, well, stupid, thinking that either Government spending or taxes are, as a general matter, "good" or "bad" for the economy.   No one wants to raise taxes.  No one really [even the Republicans] wants to cut the big ticket Government programs.  Fairy Tales are nice, but too many of us are still acting like children, and greedy children at that.  Enough.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Fairness(good), Anger(inevitable) and Hate(bad)

This political season, everyone, at least here in America, seems unusually angry.  I include myself.  As I read my prior Posts, I realize that as I write them, I become more angry and start "frothing" more openly.  This has led me to think about why everyone is angry in a political context.  I have tried to follow my own advice - to really listen and try to understand people who seem to be acting crazy, and to see if I could understand where they were coming from.  I actually think I may havedone so, at least to some degree [Hubris, anyone?]


It seems to me that we get most angry when we believe that someone or some thing is not treating us in a "fair" manner. [Think of arguing with a small child].  Now, "fair" is a tremendously subjective word.  Is a progressive income tax fair?  Is an estate tax fair?  Is the fact that rich people send their kids to better schools fair?  Is the fact that they can afford better lawyers fair?  Is the fact that we have to pay for poor people accused of a crime to obtain lawyers fair?  Is any form of "redistribution of income" fair?  Different people will answer each of those questions based on their own political, legal and moral ideas about the nature of our collective responsibilities to those of our less economically well off citizens.

Nonetheless, I can think of three things that almost all of us would agree are essentially unfair: 1) being treated unequally in the absence of a good reason, 2) changing the rules in the middle of the game, and 3) rewarding people for "bad" behavior, particularly at others' expense.

Now, let's look at the really angry people in American politics;  the easiest example is, as usual here, those who call themselves the Tea Party.  They are angry for a number of reasons (and they each have his or her own), but I think that some of it relates to the three things I list above.

1) being treated unequally in the absence of a good reason

a.  Being asked to be tolerant and deferential to other groups (often minorities) and their beliefs and practices, when they apparently refuse to be at all tolerant of mineMoslems (certainly some international elements-no need to go into details here), Hispanic immigrants (they won't learn english like we all did; they expect bilingual education and signage; they "insist on seaking their native language and "acting" foreign; and they expect us to be tolerant of illegal immigration),  African Americans (claiming there is no such thing as "Black Racism", publically labelling whites as "evil"  (with no universal condemnation by their "leaders"), and insiting on disparate treatment (affirmative action, busing)),  the banks, big companies and (sometimes) the unions - no one bails out my company when it goes under, no one guarantees me a really fat pension,  Our government leaders (we'd get fired if we collectively did our jobs as poorly), homosexuals - not only do they flaunt what I [well, not "I", but I'm trying to understand others here] believe to be immoral conduct, they file lawsuits when my voluntary organizations seek to restrict membership to those who believe as we do, and they insist on the right to trample on my religion/emotional attachment to things like the word "marriage", liberals (they want me to respect their views when they make fun of me, and call me and others like me dumb stupid crazy hicks). Atheists and secularists [yes, I know these are not the same thing.  I'm a secularist but not an Atheist]  you want me to be tolerant, but you won't let my kids pray or have Christmas pageants in public schools - you insist on secularizing all public and communal life, but I'm supposed to respect you.

There's a lot of anger out there against women too, be that's more complicated and not as strictly "political", so I won't touch it here.] 

b.  Being asked to pay my money for other people's mistakes, stupidity, laziness or whatever. Poor people (I have to work hard for my money - why should they get a free ride at my expense?),  the Banks and big companies again.  (the phrase "bailout" really resonates here).  People who overleveraged or bought houses they could not afford.   Accused criminals who get free lawyers. (I'm too rich to get a free lawyer and much too poor to actually pay for one.).  Uninsured people who chose not to buy insurance or "good enough" insurance.  You want me to pay for your abortion ?(could also easily fit in category a. above).

c.  Having the Government and courts so solicitous of the rights of minorities just because they are minorities.  (this one is absoluty accurate - there may be good reasons for this - I certainly think so - but it is in some sense fundamentally unfair)

 2) changing the rules in the middle of the game,

a.  First rule.  "Capitalism has winners and losers.  Be smart or lucky and you win; be dumb or unlucky and you lose."   Again, the bailout -  big banks and big companies have been rescued;  why haven't all their shareholders and bondholders been wiped out?    Wall street types - your trades lost money, so should you.

b.  Second rule.  "Majority Rules."  We all grew up with this.  We still really believe it.  When did this change to protect all of these minorities, in political religious and cultural matters?  This is not how it uses to be.

c.  Third rule.  Really psychological in nature and somewhat contradictory to the first  rule.  I grew up in  society that strongly inculcated one with the idea that "if you studied, worked, were a good person and kept your nose clean you would succeed in America."  You might not climb as high as you wanted, but you'd be ok.  You could have a job, a family, a house-the American dream.  Your employer would be loyal to you if you were loyal to it.  Just do your job, and do it reasonably well.  To the extent this was ever true, it's certainly not now.  The Rule has changed.

d.  Fourth rule.  Strictly psychological.  "The world and its values will remain the same as it used to be".   And for many of us, "used to", even when not idealized, was better.

3) rewarding people for "bad" behavior, particularly at others' expense.

This Post originally also included something about "rewarding good behavior", but I took it out.  I think the negative really strikes us as more unfair.  We know better than to think that good behavior will always be rewarded.  But rewarding bad behavior?  That is what makes our blood boil.  This one is interesting; it ties into 1) being treated unequally in the absence of a good reason - but it is distinct.   It also reasonates in both a "traditional" and "new" sense.  The traditional sense leads to the resentment of poor people who get some sort of public benefits.  The new sense goes to bankers, et al who basically cause others to loose millions, almost cause the fall of western civilization, due to their unbridled greed (if not actual criminality), and walk away (laughing all the way to the bank), counting their millions in bonuses, while we pay for the results.

If I sound sympathetic, I am.  All of this stuff is basically unfair, and it makes ME really angry to even write about it.  


To the extent I am less angry than your average Tea Party person (and I may be just as angry, but at different people), it is because:

1.  I am more resigned to the fact that life may not be fair, and that sometimes one may have to do what is "necessary" instead of what is "fair" or even "right".  The big example here is the bailout.

2. Some of the bad stuff (liberal contempt and economic disaster) is either not directed at me or has had less effect on me, at least so far

3.  I identify myself as a minority (Jewish), and am really nervous about "majority rules", and am very solicitous of the need to protect minorities

4.  I am a liberal, politically and socially.  Paying taxes to help poor people does not bother me.  Neither does cultural change (well not philosphically anyway), which I view as inevitable.

But, Anger is a pretty much inevitable reaction to perceptions of unfairness, and people have been treated unfairly (as I describe it above), and they have a perfect right to be Angry

Who they should be angry with is something I would disagree with most conservatives about, but I have no quarrel with the Anger itelf.


I'll be brief.  Anger often leads to Hate.  It does in me, but I actively try to fight it, with what I hope is generally a good success rate. Hate is usually very bad.  I don't like it morally, but my biggest point is that it is drastically counterproductive as a means of achieving one's actual, rational political goals, particularly when one is operating within a political group. We are a political collective in this country, even if we can't stand each other.  We are really stuck with each other.  Hate begets Hate.  Fanaticism begats fanaticism.  Not a good recipe for trying to solve what are problems that affect all of us.  Enough.

Some interesting articles/ links


I recently read four articles which relate to things I have been Posting.  Here they are.  I note that with two of them, I could not figure out how to copy the link itself.  On those, what you can do is left-click on the title of the Article and a link to the URL will appear.

Yes, I confess that most of what I actually read tends to come from "Liberal" sources.


Jewish Terrorism: Readers Respond
By William Saletan




Thursday, October 7, 2010

Reducing the deficit/ you want specifics?

I have recently criticized (verbally) Congressional Republicans for promising to reduce the deficit while refusing to provide specifics, except as to what they won't touch (the larger programs),  A couple of my Republican friends have said (freely translated), "OK, Liberal Assh**e, tell us exactly how you would lower the deficit, if you're so smart."

A fair question.  So here goes. Here are some of my main ideas.

First, some assumptions which may not or may not be correct:

1,  We need to focus on cutting the deficit right now.
2.  The Federal and other governments involved can constitutionally and legally do whatever they like.

Second, some assumptions  I think are correct

1.  While the Government is not a business, general business models can provide some guidance on how to operate.
2. You (yes, You) won't like my ideas. (I view them as a package.  Everyone will like some of them, but I will not let you pick and choose.  No saving your own sacred cows.  You may , however, add ideas that will further act to cut the deficit)
3. Every politician will like my ideas even less than you do.

Spending to be Reduced (and I specifically will not talk about reducing waste, inefficiency and fraud.  Everyone agrees on that as a general principle, at least until it bites them)

General thoughts.  The Federal Government  should focus on its "core" operations.  In this case, it means eliminating redundancy - eliminating Federal programs that cost money and do what the States can or should be doing.  I will not eliminate stuff that has a clear effect on interstate commerce, like the FAA, food inspection, and/or on interstate "environments", like the EPA, the Army Corps of Engineers.

Most of the programs I am going to "kill" are valuable and good programs.  They are desirable.  Their employees are the good guys.  But, there's no reason (except stupidity, greed, corruption, lack of money, and other political concerns) that the States cannot do this stuff, and we (the U.S.A.) do not have "extra" money to spend on duplicative services.

Programs to be eliminated (non-defense or foreign relations):(if you want to discuss specifics on 4 and 5 below, let me know)

1.  The Department of Education
2.   The DEA and ATF (if smuggling, leave it to the Coast Guard and the Border Patrol, which may need to be beefed up)
3.   All Federal Drug laws
4.   Most agricultural subsidies
5.  Most tax breaks for specific industries
6.  The National Endowment for the Arts (not a lot of money, but a luxury)


1.  Start passing laws and throwing people in jail for anything resembling war profiteering
2.   Consider starting the withdrawal from Afghanistan now.  Tricky, and I don't like this one, but I think we have to put our egos aside if the light at the end of the tunnel is an onrushing train. It seems that way to me, but I do not have the information available to our military leaders and Government, and would tend to defer to them.  Obviously, we would still need some workable strategy to squash terroist havens and training gounds in that part of the world, but this is a big and continuing cost in money and in lives.  Remember, our main purpose here is not to bring Democracy or civilation to Afghanistan or to protect Afghan women (and those are GOOD purposes), it is to defend the safety of the United States and its citizens.  We do not have the resources (or even the power) to make the whole world a better place.
3.  Implement Secretary Gates' proposed reorganization of the military now.
4.  Require the U.S. Military to purchase all of its supplies (including things like clothing) from U.S. sources that employe U.S. workers.  This one may not reduce the deficit, but it's something my Wife feels strongly about, and I think she is right.

Foreign Affairs (not just those cutting programs or expenses)

1.  Push the Chinese and others harder on currency valuations and other unfair trade issues - now.
2   Look hard at the idea that we may have to adopt part of the "State Capitalism" model of the Chinese in order to compete in the real world, particularly in the context of actually manufacturing stuff.
3.  Look hard at foreign aid programs (including military ones and humanitarian ones), and eliminate most of them

The Big and Hard Stuff/Social Security and Medicaire

1.  These are certainly a political "third rail", but necessary to look at realistically (and the stuff below is really pretty modest)
2.  Raise, or even eliminate, the cap on income which limits how much workers and employers have to pay into the Social Security Fund (There is already no cap on Medicaire contributions)
3.   Make Medicaire deductibles rise with the income level of recipients (this WILL HURT ME, along with a lot of the proposals I'm advancing here)
4.  Create a "lockbox" for Social Security and Medicaire.  Don't let the politicians keep playing with this money.

If One is Running a Business, One Wants to Increase Income (Well, duh!)  (I can argue each of the points below at length, but will not do so here.  If anyone wants to argue more specifically, let me know)

1.  Drastically increase the size of the IRS.  I am not advocating (at least in this paragraph) any substantive change in the tax laws.  However, I bet (and there may even be studies) that the investigations and audits the IRS does make money (for us!) (in a net sense, after subtracting the IRS'overhead), both in terms of collecting from the taxpayers in question, and, even more so, in terms of a deterrent effect on the general taxpaying population.  The Republicans often say they want Government run  more like a business.  Well, the IRS is our main profit center!   Treat it as such.  Tax evasion is not a "right", even if it's something more availble to those with more money and political clout.  (It is hard to cheat on your taxes if you are filing a 1040-EZ with a W-2 attached). (Republicans, I would remind you here about your comments about how we should not "condone" or "reward " illegal acts, at least if they involve poor people and immigration)

2.  Let the Bush income tax cuts expire for everyone.

3.  Pass an Estate Tax Proposal which is reasonable - maybe a higher threshold and a lower starting percentage, but there absolutely should be some estate tax.

Defined Benefit Pension Plans (my own particular hot button)

Outlaw or otherwise eliminate these types of pension plans, to whatever extent possible, at least for new hires.  Particularly for public employees (including Congress and other lawmakers), but also for everyone else.  These are, by their very nature, an actuarial time bomb, and those who negotiate them for government or management have very little incentive to take a hard line on thes issues; they know they will be long gone when the bomb explodes.  Give everyone a combination of 1)a self-directed defined contribution plan and/or a 401(k) plan and or/ a higher limit IRA, and 2)Social Security.  Then, an  individual can take what risks they want with the first plan, while retaining the conservative "safety net" of the Social Security.

While you are at it, overhaul the generally accepted accounting standards on pension plans so they are less of a joke.

Structural Governmental Changes

1.  Ban earmarks.  Does anyone even pretend to defend these?

2.  Pick an "effective date" a  few years down the road, so we do not know which party might immediately benefit, and change the Senate Rules, So that: 1).  Filibusters will require the signatures of 40 (or even only 35) Senators, but will last a maximum of two weeks.  After that, vote it up or down.  2) Senatorial "Holds" cannot be secret, and will last a maximum of one week, with no piggybacking.  Vote it up or down.

3.   Think about a line item veto for authorizations of spending.  I'm nervous about giving the Executive that much power, but it would almost certainly reduce spending.

4.    I really don't like unfunded Federal mandates.  I'm not sure if they can really be eliminated, but. . .

5.   Eliminate (yes, I know there are a lot of Constitutions that would have to be amended) the "upper" house of every bicameral state legislature.  I understand the nature of the US Congress, and its historical roots and purpose, but, as far as I know, both houses in 49 state legislatures (Nebraska has done quite well with a Unicameral Legislature for a long time) are elected on the basis of population, just like the US House of Representatives.  Why do we each need two separate State "representatives" of this type?  Well, we really don't, do we?  A pipe dream, yes, but it would save the states substantial money - not just the legislatures, but their staffs, overhead, and so on, would go.

Well, are you really serious about cutting the deficit?  Or only if it doesn't involve raising taxes or enforcing tax laws or touching Medicaire or Social Security?  Hello?  I'm waiting? Any politicians out there?  I thought not.  Enough.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

One size does not fit all/dealing with the forces of darkness and evil

          I am six feet tall and have been fighting a weight problem for most of my adult life.  I learned early that the phrase “one size fits all” was generally not true.  It is also not true in a political sense.  A frequent mistake we all seem to make could be called "overgeneralization", - a form of stereotyping.  It consists of assigning a particular motive, purpose, thought pattern, or goal to a group of people.  The group of people may be liberals, Republicans, African -Americans, Jews, Moslems, members of the Tea Party or whomever.  
           As people, we form groups, political and otherwise.  The truth, however, is that these groups are made up of individuals.  There may or may not be a group leadership, but there is no group "brain".  Individuals may and do share common thoughts, goals, and/or backgrounds, which  may or may not be based on economic status, race, religion, or so on.   Indeed, many overgeneralizations are based on a kernal of truth.  As one example, most African Americans - and most Jews - probably are more liberal politically than the nationwide norm.  But that does not mean that they all are or that they all should be.  Karl Marx wrote that people would always act in accordance with the interests of their own class.  While there seems to be an element of truth in his observation, that is all it is – an element.  We are all individuals.  We all have our own brains, our own thoughts, our own opinions.   
        Moreover, our thoughts and opinions change over time.  Some of my own opinions – on significant issues –  seem to alter (Usually not from "yes" to "no") weekly.  We all tend to learn things as we are exposed to new factors, events and ideas.  At least I certainly hope so.  
          OK, what are some of my complaints about overgeneralization.  The first is that we have a tendency to use it as a club to cajole, shame, marginalize and/or dismiss those of our own group who think differently.  I have heard some African Americans complain that Justice Clarence Thomas is not really "black".  (But he is "black", [or at least a really dark brown].)  Some Jews label others are not as supportive of Israel as they as "self-hating".  Rush Limbaugh accused Colin Powell of not being a "Republican".  (Powell's reply included a comment that he did not know that Mr. Limbaugh was on the membership committee.)
        My second complaint (which ties in more with my later comments about the forces of "Darkness and Evil") is our habit, sometimes with malice aforethought, to brand every member of a group we don't like with the opinions or characteristics of some of its members.  There are members of what is called the Tea Party who are racist.  There are Mexican Immigrants who are illegals.  There are Moslems who are Terrorists.  There are poor African- Americans who are bilking our systems of Government aid.  There are Jews who are greedy, New Yorkers who are pushy, French who are snooty, and so on.   And if we don't like the group, we will point at the worst offenders and say (or at least imply) either "they are all like that", or, more usually and more subtly, "the [insert disliked group name here] is [bad characteristic here]"  This is objectionable not just because it's inaccurate, sloppy and often offensive, but also because it's counterproductive as a means of dealing with those with whom we disagree..
    Let's look at some examples:  1) Moslems, and 2)those who call themselves Social Conservatives [I could use the Tea Party here, but I'll let them off the hook on this one].  Both groups contain elements of what I would seriously define as "forces of Darkness and Evil", by which I mean those who would seek to incite hatred and anger, and to impose (by force if necessary) their view of how other people should act. These "forces of Darkness and Evil" are my enemy.  I really don't like them.  The question is: how do I (or we) deal with what we perceive to be our own those forces of Darkness and Evil.
     Well, that's somewhat obvious. We must start out with the goal of defeating them by either destroying them or making them powerless to harm us [Ha.  Not as much of a liberal wimp as you thought, am I?]   To do so is usually a matter of raising and bringing to bear and sufficiently sustaining adequate political and/or physical force to do the job.  Ok so far?  This, depending on the circumstances, involves hearts, minds and/or guns  and maybe money.   Let's start with the Moslems.  There are 1.2 Billion of them, and they control a lot of resources.  Can we win a real and outright war with them in the long runDoubtful, and certainly to be avoided if possible.  Thus, if all of the Moslems are the enemy, we have a very big problem.  But wait.  The enemy isn't necessarily all Moslems, but a subgroup or groups of Moslems. 
         Here, we come back to my earlier two points: groups are comprised of individuals, and individuals can change their minds.  Now wait, the reader says, you can't compromise with Al Queida.  Nope, probably not.  But if I want to be able to destroy the enemy group, I would like to make it as small and weak as possible.  My view, based on my experience as a parent, a lawyer and everything else, is that the most effective way of getting what you want in an adversarial situation is to use both a "carrot" and a "stick", even if one or both is not spoken of aloud.  
      In other words, it would be a good idea to convince as many Moslems as possible: 1) that we are not their enemy, and that living and working and coexisting with us is to their moral and/or economic benefit (carrot), and  2) that if they join the terrorists we will feed their pulverized bones (and those of their families ) to our pet Guinea Pigs (stick).  [See, wouldn't you find that combination at least somewhat motivating?]  Will this convince suicide bombers?  Probably not, but that is why we have to actually be prepared to use the stick.  But the carrot requires that we be open and willing to engage in discussions with the Islamic world (and its individual members) on issues of common interest if we want to reduce the numbers of terrorists and terrorist sympathizers.  That does not mean agreeing with anyone or giving in on any thing.  We may actually wind up being convinced that a Holy War is inevitable; but I doubt it.  It means talking, listening, and (seriously) trying to understand where the other side is coming from.  In this context, I would recommend "Getting to Yes", a well-known classic about negotiating, and, particularly, its comments about "interest" rather than "positional" analysis.
       Now, exactly how we effectively execute this "carrot and stick" approach can be and is a subject of real debate.  But some of my wingnut conservative friends [Hi, Michael] seem to think that we should not care about how many terrorists we create, because Islam is "warlike" anyway.   OK, maybe if there were only like 8 Moslems in the world, and if Islam were really warlike, but it does not seem like a wise starting point.
        I would add that there may even become a point where we decide it is in our best interests to negotiate with what is now our Enemy. Terrorists?  Yep.  Could happen.  See the IRA and the PLO as examples.  However,  it seems that most terrorists will not come to the negotiating table unless and until they are convinced that it is in their best interests to do so - that they will, otherwise "lose" in some major sense.  And such negotiations would only happen in the event that our own opinions change as well.
        No, I do not see going after the Social Conservatives with unmanned drones-at least in the foreseeable future.  Here, though, I want start with a quote that explains my emnity - from the man who is becoming my favorite source of quotes, Barry Goldwater:
"On religious issues there can be little or no compromise. There is no position on which people are so immovable as their religious beliefs. There is no more powerful ally one can claim in a debate than Jesus Christ, or God, or Allah, or whatever one calls this supreme being. But like any powerful weapon, the use of God's name on one's behalf should be used sparingly. The religious factions that are growing throughout our land are not using their religious clout with wisdom. They are trying to force government leaders into following their position 100 percent. If you disagree with these religious groups on a particular moral issue, they complain, they threaten you with a loss of money or votes or both.
I'm frankly sick and tired of the political preachers across this country telling me as a citizen that if I want to be a moral person, I must believe in "A," "B," "C" and "D." Just who do they think they are? And from where do they presume to claim the right to dictate their moral beliefs to me?And I am even more angry as a legislator who must endure the threats of every religious group who thinks it has some God-granted right to control my vote on every roll call in the Senate. I am warning them today: I will fight them every step of the way if they try to dictate their moral convictions to all Americans in the name of "conservatism." Speech in the US Senate (16 September 1981).
        I actually understand that people are concerned with moral and ethical  behavior and with what they perceive to be the country's gradually becoming more immoral and even decadent.  I actually kind of agree with them, although what I perceive as a loss of moral standards is often (but not always) far different from that of the Social Conservatives.  Where we most strongly differ is that, as I talked about in an earlier Post, I think people should be able to make their own choices and live their own lives.  The Government should not tell them what to do unless necessary.  The Government should even sometimes protect them from their neighbors' trying to enforce certain behavior. 
       Finally, like Barry, I have a real distaste for any justification of a moral position primarily on openly religious grounds.  While it may be true that modern ethics and morals have a largely religious basis, anyone who tells me that I must act a certain way because God or his agent or agents tells me so tempts me to bring out the unmanned drones.
        Wait, you say.  What about the carrot and stick?  Well, I would love to sit down with Social Conservatives and explore possible common ground (and it exists!) on how, as a civil society, we should encourage allegedly responsible people to behave.  Maybe even pass a few laws to create appropriate incentives and disincentives, and eliminate some other laws.  But only if they at least try to leave God (theirs, yours and/or mine or ours) out of the discussion.  The "stick" in this case is political.  I will, and call upon others to, politically oppose and repudiate these people.  If they won't come halfway, I sure won't either.  I may even take some delight in supporting their enemies.  I will do my best to marginalize them as a political force.  In the unfortunate and unlikely event they ever come after me with guns, I'll (assuming I buy a gun myself by then) shoot them.  [My new motto: "Liberals have Second Amendment Rights, too"]
      [As an aside, I do not like what is called "Political Correctness".  I think that, absent coercion, bullying of young people, assault, and legal discrimination in some cases, people have an absolute God-given (I'll let God into this one) right to be stupid and bigoted, even publicly.   My daughter, amused by this view, once pointed out that my own actions and words were usually very "Politically Correct".  Probably true, but it's a different ball game when the Government starts to enforce standards of "decency"- anyone's standards of decency - even mine.]
         One of the interesting things of this political season is that many of those who consider themselves "Social Conservatives" appear to be allying themselves with the idea that Islam - a well established religion which shares certain roots with Judaism and Christianity - is evil.   By doing so, they expose themselves for what they really are.  Like the Terrorists, they are eager to make this (and, apparently, a lot of things) into a religious war.  They stand for hatred and war, not friendship and peace.  My son has a nice view of this.  He says, when faced with a political question concerning Islam, he asks: "What would Osama Bin Laden want me to do?"  Then, my son does the opposite.  Every time some American political or religious figure attacks the proposed Islamic Cultural Center in Manhatten, Osama laughs.
         Sure, destroy the Enemy or at least make him powerless to hurt you, but make sure you know who or what he is.  Enough.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

A Stew of ideas about inclusion, exclusion, nativism and assimilation

   This Post is likely to be less strident than some of my others.  Also, a fair warning here, it will be longer.

In the Title, I reference a "Stew", so it's appropriate to begin by discussing ingredients in some detail

1.  The "Melting Pot"

    I learned about this when I went to grade school.  The idea was that America was a Nation of immigrants, and that each new group of immigrants was introduced into the Melting Pot of American society and culture, where they were gradually absorbed into that culture.  A sometimes overlooked aspect of this concept is that when each new group was absorbed, it would add its own flavor, customs, whatever, to the pot and, by doing so, change the overall "flavor" of American society.  In short, the melting process would change and absorb the new groups while they themselves changed the flavor and texture of American society.  This is wildly different from other countries' views of group absorbtion.  The one that comes to mind is the French, which seems to be that the outside groups will adapt themselves and fit into some pre-existing basic rubric of French culture and society without themselves changing that basic rubric.  Obviously, this difference arises at least in part because we are, self-consciously, a nation of immigrants.  Except for Native Americans,there was no real uniform (and theirs wasn't that uniform), pre-existing culture.  While the colonists were largely of a simlar ethnic background, each colony had a different origin, and often a different religious focus.

     Now, as I became an adult, I realized that this "easy" absorbtion story line was part myth.  The absorbtion was never quick and easy (see the discussion of Nativism below, and, certainly, when I was a child, African Americans and Asians were still excluded.)  (this Post will not discuss women, the disabled,  homosexuals and (pick your group), because the Melting Pot image was really about ethnic and religious groups).

2. Hypenated Americans and the "Salad Bowl".

   In the 60's, a Black Power movement began to emerge, that, at least in part, rejected the myth(?) of the Melting Pot.  The idea seemed to be that a group had, to stand up for itself, take an agressive pride in its own distinct identity, and reject the idea that it somehow had to "fit in".   As might be expected, once one large racial or ethnic group bought into this idea ( I am not implying that it was either a good or bad idea), others began to do the same, in part from a perception of "self-defense", as if the African Americans were asking for specific protections and economic favoritism as a group, other groups would essentially see a pie being divided up, and want to make sure that their own rights were not adversely affected.  This is not to say that people were not very conscious of being Jews or Greeks or Catholics or Chinese prior to the 60's (quite the opposite), but my recollection (and I was just a kid) is that it had relatively little to do with how we identified ourselves as Americans or how we expected the Government to treat us.

    This has gradually led to the idea of the "Salad Bowl" as a new ideal, supplanting the idea of the "Melting Pot".  In the Salad Bowl, while everything mixes together to create the salad, each item retains its own distinct shape, flavor and identity.  The tomatoes remain tomatoes (and proud of it!), and so on.  I, personally, do not like the idea of the Salad Bowl, because it impliedly rejects the idea that there is some basic shared identiy into which we are all absorbed and which, in itself, is distict from the individual ingredients.  Be that as it may. . .

   This, in turn, led to a very negative reaction to "hypenated Americans" (or that idea) in general.  Part of the negative reaction is due to an increasing perception of the existence of minority groups and a feeling that they must be (or are already overly)protected by the Government.   Sometimes the negative reaction is just visceral (we may not like the protected group).  Sometimes it may be based on economic reality (If preference is given to minorities in entering the Police Academy or College, it means fewer places for someone more "theoretically" qualified who is not a minority).  Sometimes it is based on a belief that the Government should not be able to tell me what I must do - who I must serve at my restaurant, or hire, or rent my apartment to. Sometimes it is based on a psychological feeling that the mnorities are rejecting the Melting Pot" and what is perceived as "real" American values, or the primacy of identifying one as an "American" first. And sometimes I probably couldn't even begin to guess . . .

     It may be that this negative reaction and resentment is felt most by the white, Anglo-Saxon(?) Christians that view themsleves as "just plain Americans".  However, it is not exclusive to them.  I can tell you it is shared by many of my fellow Jews, at least sometimes.

3.  Pluralism

As readers of my previous posts will know, I am a great believer in pluralism - the right of individuals and groups to act and believe differently.  Now seems like another good time to quote Barry Goldwater:

“Equality, rightly understood as our founding fathers understood it, leads to liberty and to the emancipation of creative differences; wrongly understood, as it has been so tragically in our time, it leads first to conformity and then to despotism.”

And, just for the Heck of it (Barry was not a "social" conservative), here are a couple more, which also relate to pluralism,

“It’s time America realized that there is no gay exemption in the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in the Declaration of Independence.”

"You don't need to be straight to fight and die for your country. You just need to shoot straight"

["emaniciaption of creative differences".  I'm going to come back to that line.]

4.  Nativism

   Americans have not always felt kindly about the prospects of new and different Americans.  We have a long tradition of not liking people and/or groups who are different.  Some examples: 

First, from Benjamin Franklin in 1751 [I would add here that I am a big fan of Mr. Franklin.  He was, however, like all of us, a product of his own time]

"Why shouldsssshhShoulsh
sh s     the Palatine Boors [ Germans from the Palatine region of Germany] be suffered to swarm into our Settlements, and by herding together establish their Language and Manners to the Exclusion of ours? Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexionn as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion.
WHY should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion.
That the Number of purely white People in the World is proportionably very small. All Africa is black or tawny. Asia chiefly tawny. America (exclusive of the new Comers) wholly so. And in Europe, the Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians and Swedes, are generally of what we call a swarthy Complexion; as are the Germans also, the Saxons only excepted, who with the English, make the principal Body of White People on the Face of the Earth. I could wish their Numbers were increased. And while we are, as I may call it, Scouring our Planet, by clearing America of Woods, and so making this Side of our Globe reflect a brighter Light to the Eyes of Inhabitants in Mars or Venus, why should we in the Sight of Superior Beings, darken its People? why increase the Sons of Africa, by Planting them in America, where we have so fair an Opportunity, by excluding all Blacks and Tawneys, of increasing the lovely White and Red? But perhaps I am partial to the Compexion of my Country, for such Kind of Partiality is natural to Mankind.

Second, from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
The Know-Nothing movement was a nativist American political movement of the 1840s and 1850s. It was empowered by popular fears that the country was being overwhelmed by German and Irish Catholic immigrants, who were often regarded as hostile to Anglo-Saxon values and controlled by the Pope in Rome. Mainly active from 1854 to 1856, it strove to curb immigration and naturalization, though its efforts met with little success. Membership was limited to Protestant males of British lineage over the age of twenty-one. There were few prominent leaders, and the largely middle-class and entirely Protestant membership fragmented over the issue of slavery. Most ended up joining the Republican Party by the time of the 1860 presidential election.[1][2]
The movement originated in New York in 1843 as the American Republican Party. It spread to other states as the Native American Party and became a national party in 1845. In 1855 it renamed itself the American Party.[3] The origin of the "Know Nothing" term was in the semi-secret organization of the party.

Third, an article about anti-Chinese sentiment in the late 19th and early 20th Century

Critics blamed recent immigrants for causing crime, being "un-American" in their language, religion, and family lives, and for concentrating in cities where their votes were controlled by machines--a circumstance unavoidable for many immigrants who faced residential segregation and dire poverty. In the mainstream press, socialism, communism, and anarchism were widely depicted as "alien" political beliefs brought over from foreign soil. Labor organizers argued that large influxes of new workers undermined wages; indeed, industrialists and railroad magnates (such as Collis Huntington and Jay Gould) sought to import workers to de-stabilize unions and provide a large labor pool.

Fourth, also from Wikipedia, [and my apologies if I seem focused on anti-semitism.  It's because I am]

Antisemitism in America reached its peak during the interwar period.[citation needed] The rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, the antisemitic works of Henry Ford, and the radio speeches of Father Coughlin in the late 1930s indicated the strength of attacks on the Jewish community.
One element in American antisemitism during the 1920s was the identification of Jews with Bolshevism where the concept of Bolshevism was used pejoratively in the country. (see article on "Jewish Bolshevism").
Immigration legislation enacted in the United States in 1921 and 1924 was interpreted widely as being at least partly anti-Jewish in intent because it strictly limited the immigration quotas of eastern European nations with large Jewish populations, nations from which approximately 3 million Jews had immigrated to the United States by 1920.

[In 1922, educational discrimination became a national issue when Harvard announced it was considering a quota system for Jewish students. Although it was eventually dropped, the quota was enforced in many colleges through underhanded techniques (as late as 1945 Dartmouth College openly admitted and defended a quota system against Jewish students). To limit the growing number of Jewish students, a number of private liberal arts universities and medical and dental schools instituted a quota system referred to as Numerus clausus. These included Harvard University, Columbia University, Cornell University, and Boston University[citation needed]. In 1925 Yale University, which already had such admissions preferences as "character", "solidity", and "physical characteristics" added a program of legacy preference admission spots for children of Yale alumni, in an explicit attempt to put the brakes on the rising percentage of Jews in the student body. This was soon copied by other Ivy League and other schools[citation needed], and admissions of Jews were kept down to 10% through the 1950s. Such policies were for the most part discarded during the early 1960s although the last vestiges were not eliminated at Yale University until 1970.

Jews encountered resistance when they tried to move into white-collar and professional positions. Banking, insurance, public utilities, medical schools, hospitals, large law firms and faculty positions, restricted the entrance of Jews. This era of “polite” Judeophobia through social discrimination, underwent an ideological escalation in the 1930s.

During the 1930s and 1940s, right-wing demagogues linked the Depression of the 1930s, the New Deal, President Franklin Roosevelt, and the threat of war in Europe to the machinations of an imagined international Jewish conspiracy that was both communist and capitalist. A new ideology appeared which accused “the Jews” of dominating Franklin Roosevelt’s administration, of causing the Great Depression, and of dragging the US into WW2 against a new Germany which deserved but admiration. Father Charles Coughlin, a radio preacher, as well as many other prominent public figures, condemned "the Jews," and Henry Ford reprinted The Protocols of the Elders of Zion in his newspaper.[3] Gerald L.K. Smith, a Disciples of Christ minister, was the founder (1937) of the Committee of One Million and publisher (beginning in 1942) of The Cross and the Flag, a magazine that declared that "Christian character is the basis of all real Americanism." Other anti-Semitic agitators included Fritz Kuhn of the German-American Bund, William Dudley Pelley, and the Rev. Gerald Winrod.

In one 1938 poll, 41 percent of respondents agreed that Jews had "too much power in the United States," and this figure rose to 58 percent by 1945. In 1939 a Roper poll found that only thirty-nine percent of Americans felt that Jews should be treated like other people. Fifty-three percent believed that "Jews are different and should be restricted" and ten percent believed that Jews should be deported.[4] Several surveys taken from 1940 to 1946 found that Jews were seen as a greater threat to the welfare of the United States than any other national, religious, or racial group.[5]

Fifth, from 2010

Buchanan: "[A] Western nation that opens its doors to mass migration from the Islamic world is taking a grave risk with its unity and identity." In an August 24 column, Pat Buchanan defended prejudice against Muslims by stating that while there are millions of "decent, peace-loving Muslims," "one would have to be obtuse not to understand that a Western nation that opens its doors to mass migration from the Islamic world is taking a grave risk with its unity and identity." Buchanan further stated:
This is not an argument for war with Islam, but for recognition that "East is East and West is West" and America cannot absorb and assimilate all the creeds of mankind without ceasing to be who we are.
Prejudice is prejudgment. And if prejudgment is rooted in the history and traditions of a people, and what life has taught us, it is a shield that protects. Only a fool would reject the inherited wisdom of his kind because it fails to comport with the ideology of the moment.

[I am deliberately not touching the question of anti-Mexican sentiment here, because it is so tangled up with the general question of border protection and illegal immigrants, which opens up more issues than I want to talk about here]

4. "Integration" v. "Assimilation" and the view from inside the smaller group

    I was recently reading an article about controversy in Germany concerning a politician's criticisms of  the Moslem community there.  One of the Moslem leaders was quoted as saying something like;  "He's wrong.  We do want to integrate into German society; we just don't want to assimilate" .  Wow.  Very interesting distinction, and it goes directly to the distinction between the "Melting Pot" and "Salad Bowl" models

    My ancestors were (as am I) Jewish.  They came to this country from Eastern Europe between 1905 and 1910.  They wanted to be part of America: to fit in.  My Mother, born in 1911, sometimes bemoaned the fact that her Yiddish was spotty because her parents forbade her from speaking anything but English at home.  My particular forebears focused on assimilation rather than mere integration, in part because I do not think that the idea/possibility of limited integration occured to them as a practical means towards becoming "real" Americans.  They were similar to the protagonist in "The Education of Hyman Kaplan", and really, really wanted to be accepted as Americans, perhaps because they had never been accepted as "true" Russians or Poles or whatever.  Some other Jews, particularly those who were more focused on traditional observance, may have viewed the situation differently.  Certainly, no one was interested in going back to Russia or Poland. [Israel was (eventually) a whole other question, which I may or may not talk about, also eventually].

   Today, however, there is a clear divide in the Jewish community, as well as in other ethnic communities.  Orthodox Jews clearly want to integrate but not "assimilate".  They want to absolutely retain their separate identity, individually and collectively, as Jews.  It is probably their highest moral, political and social priority.  Not me.  I'm Jewish. I'm proud of being Jewish.  I hope my kids will remain Jewish, as will their kids,  but what I really believe in, in an almost religious sense, is what I view as central American ideals.  My parents may not have felt comfortable if forced to say  whether they were American or Jews "first".  I don't know; they never siad and I never thought to ask.  I am willing to say.  I am an American, who happens to be Jewish. When I pledged allegiance to the Flag, and so on, in grade school, I really internalized it.  Unfortunately(?), however, assimilation is a slippery slope.  It is less likely that my grandchildren will be Jewish than my children are.  They are clearly going to date and marry whomever they like (as did I).  They are less connected to a generation or generations whose primary identity was Jewish and who lived through real oppression and discrimination.  (My Grandmother Ida spoke about hiding in the woods from the Cossacks; she was certainly Jewish first).

   So, my own attachment to the "Melting Pot" model, America and assimilation is likely to result in the eventual "melting away" of my particular segment of my own ethnic group into the pot.  I have very mixed feelings.  On one hand, I believe in assimilation and "mongrelatiztion".  I think it makes for a stronger, "better" and more dynamic society.  It also allows for my children and their children to have more liberty to run their own lives and make their own decisions.   On the other hand, I am aware that my beliefs are based on my perception of the compatibity of my own "American" and "Jewish" values.  As Mordecai Kaplan pointed out in "Judaism as a Civiization", what happens when secular values change and my descendants no longer have the "rock" or a religious foundation to simply be carried away with the wind is a troubling question.n

   My personal dilemma, and that of my religious group, is not unique.  It may have been stated well by the German Moslem who spoke of "integration" rather than "assimilation".  Indeed, I suspect the "elders" of every religious group are not comfortable with assimilation into a culture in which they are not the majority.  Certainly, many leaders of the American Jewish community, Greek community, Chinese community, and others are very focused on continuing the traditions, culture and/or religious practices of their own groups.

    This is even more true overseas.  The French occasionally make a conscious effort to purge english words from daily use in France.  More fundamentalist Moslem countries try to heavily restrict their people's exposure to TV, miniskirts, blue jeans, rock and roll, women's skin in any form or other "western" depravities.  The Communists (!!)were (and maybe still are) not totally dissimilar, trying to eliminate exposure to decadent and materialistic influences.  And this gets me to another slippery slope.  The more extreme groups seem to believe that if they are to maintain their integrity, they must restrict or limit exposure of their members (particularly their young) to "bad" or "foreign" influences that might cause them to stray. [How're Going to Keep Them Down on the Farm, After They've Seen Paree? (Hopefully, many of you are old enough to be aware of the song I'm talking about)]

  Well, in my view, this is one big difference between us and the Taliban.  We (I hope) believe in the free marketplace of ideas, pluralism and the right of individuals to follow their own paths.  I have heard a lot of American parents worry about their children being overly preoccupied  with video games.  I have not heard any Americans complain about the fact that many of these video games were and are very Japanese.  We're simply big enough, tolerant enough, and maybe arrogant enough to not care a whole lot about "foreign" influences, at least in a cultural context .  [There was an hysterical South Park episode a few years ago based upon the premise that Pokemon were really a covert attempt by the Japanese to achieve both revenge for WW II and world domination, but I don't count that]

   However, the main point I am trying to make here is that the desire to keep a group separate and not part of the Melting Pot often comes from within the group itself as well as from the external, larger society of Americans.  This often leads to resentment directed towards  those who consider themselves "hyphenated Americans".  The majority may ask "How can [insert your disliked group here] demand to be treated like the rest of us when you have divided loyalties? 

 [In my lifetime, the most frequent suspicions of this have been directed at American Catholics, from John F. Kennedy to the present day.  I read a so called liberal commentator recently bitch about how the Supreme Court could not be fair because six of its members were Catholic, and would, impliedly, do whatever their religion compelled  I really think anti-Catholicism may be the last form of "socially acceptable" religious bigotry, at least among liberals]

So where does this leave us, or, at least, me/ What's the recipe?/How do we prepare the dish?

   Well, after that long list of ingredients, I guess it's time for me to try to create a coherent "stew" of some sort.  For those who fell asleep some time ago, here are the ingredients:

1.  The "Melting Pot"

2. Hypenated Americans and the "Salad Bowl".

3.  Pluralism,  and

4. "Integration" v. "Assimilation" and the view from inside the smaller group

    The key to the stew is that it is a stew, and not uniform or even smooth or pretty.  If there is some wonderful recipe to tell us how we should combine these ingredients to get the best taste, I do not know what it is.  I will, however, go back to Barry,  again:

“Equality, rightly understood as our founding fathers understood it, leads to liberty and to the emancipation of creative differences; wrongly understood, as it has been so tragically in our time, it leads first to conformity and then to despotism.”

I would focus more on "liberty" than "equality", at least in how I understand the terms - but, as you read those lines, you can see that Goldwater is referring to not just "1984" (which he had read), but also to the Taliban, which did not yet exist.

When viewed in this light, one can argue that even the Nativism I despise [I have been known to lump together Newt Gingrich and the Taliban in this context] may serve a valuable function.  ("creative differences") The tendency of the larger group to insist upon primary allegiance and at least some degree of assimilation as a condition for acceptance provides a valuable and critical balance against the tendency of the "new" group (or at least its leaders) to resist change and assimilation. We tend to feel on some level that if you want to be considered one of us, you have to act or speak or even (in some senses, like a belief in freedom of religion) believe like us.  "Sure, you can keep some of your customs; most of us do.  But on some basic levels, we have to think of you as "in" or "out"." 

  I'm a wimpy liberal, so I accept a lot of people as "in".   Yet I strongly prefer the Melting Pot to the Salad Bowl.  Contradictory impules?  Absolutely.  Perhaps I should to view this as a gradual, natural sociological process, taking care to always allow for and even encourage joining into the Melting Pot.  Even as some of us may say to a group, "you're not there yet"; we have to allow both ourselves and the "foreign" group to believe that its members will or at least can be part of "America."  Some groups will do this with a greater degree of assimilation; some with less; some may not at all.  The texture of the Melting Pot will change.  It may even become a Salad Bowl, but I hope not. But, it's really not that simple and/or consistent.

Our country, God (assuming He or She exists) Bless it (and yes, I'm serious about that), is based on both Democracy and change.  Both processes, are, at least when done properly, inherently messy.  Enough

Thanks for reading.