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On Chick-fil-A and Democratizing Capitalism

July 30, 2012 2 comments

I think I should start by making clear that I absolutely love Chick-fil-A’s food. I love their original sandwich and nuggets so much that it took a concerted effort for me to even try their chargrilled chicken sandwich, which I then also loved. And I could never bring myself to order their spicy chicken sandwich which I would probably also love, but can’t justify passing up the known entities of the three already-mentioned, delicious menu items. When I lived in Georgia I went out of my way at least twice to visit/eat at the original Chick-fil-A called the Dwarf House: a quirky building housing a diner-style Chick-fil-A eating experience. I had a friend snap a picture of me in front of it. On my weekend road trips away from the University of Georgia, I always returned on a Sunday evening, and hated having to pass a Chick-fil-A on my way home knowing that it was closed for business and would not provide me with the post road trip chicken I so craved. I’m telling you, I love Chick-fil-A.

So when I first heard that Chick-fil-A had made some anti-gay donations and supported an anti-gay, “pro family” group, I felt similar to how the Ninja Turtles might feel if they learned that profits from pizza sales go to support Shredder (Can I still get away with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle references?). I initially gave up eating Chick-fil-A a few years ago at the first mention of it, only to then do a little research, found the anti-gay reports to have been overblown, and resumed eating. Chick-fil-A has since ramped up their anti-gay position culminating in their president, Dan Cathy, formally making a statement about Chick-fil-A’s beliefs on gay marriage, and alas, I again will be bypassing the chain–all the more difficult due to its location in the university food court.

I wasn’t initially planning on writing about the Chick-fil-A controversy for a couple of reasons. Partly, because I viewed this as old news since it spans back a couple of years. Mostly though, the issue really seemed like it would peak and then die while I was on vacation and cease being topical by the time that I returned last night.

However, I am still routinely hearing about Chick-fil-A, reading about Chick-fil-A and seeing people post on social media about Chick-fil-A. It even scrolled across the bottom of my local Fox affiliate today for some reason. And with the upcoming Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day followed shortly after by the Chick-fil-A Same-Sex Kiss Day, it doesn’t look as though this story is going to be any less pervasive this week than it was last week. What I found somewhat more in need of a response was that there has been a bit of a backlash developing, particularly against the “boycott culture.” An openly gay internet video “star” issued a video saying it was okay to eat at Chick-fil-A. An openly gay writer penned a piece on Huffington Post trying to explain that the debate is about more than chicken, but again, included in his conclusion “eat all the chicken sandwiches you want.”

But the article that most inspired this post was one that I saw all over facebook from the Atlantic: In Defense of Eating at Chick-fil-A. The article focuses on highlighting some of the good and the limited scope of the bad when it comes to Chick-fil-A’s donations. It also speaks out against boycott culture, and to some extent, I agree. Calling for boycotts gets old and it gets annoying. It often comes across as whiny. I would prefer that if you are offended or upset by the company’s practices that you do what you can to put that information out there, make a personal choice as to whether or not you give that company your business, and let others make that personal choice, as well.

But two quotations stood out to me in this piece that merit a strong and lengthy response. One poses what I find to be the quintessential question in issues such as these: “Do we really want our commercial lives and our political lives to be so wholly intermeshed?” The second quotation that stands out shines the light on, in my view, a core problem with American capitalism: “Boycotts rarely cause actual pocketbook–rather than PR–damage. Most consumers don’t care enough to drive an extra mile to get the same product from someone else.”

I believe this will be the first public use of a statement that will (hopefully) be found in numerous campaign commercials and fliers in my future campaigns, whenever they may be. We need more democracy in capitalism and less capitalism in democracy. This post will apply only to the first half of the statement: more democracy in capitalism. What I mean by this is that every dollar you spend is a vote for the receiving business. That transaction is the end that justifies their means. If sales are moving, then it serves as a de facto approval of whatever business practices that company utilizes that led to you buying that product. When the bottom line talks, the company will listen.

Make no mistake, if Chick-fil-A sees a jump in their business after publicly wading into these political waters, not only will they increase their donations and activism, but other like-minded business owners, presidents, and CEOs will likely make similar donations. On the contrary, if Chick-fil-A sees a drop in business, it sends the message to other companies that it makes good business sense to avoid controversial donations or statements on divisive social issues. Money talks. Consumers decide what it says.

Naturally, we don’t have the time or energy to know exactly how every producer or vendor runs their operations. But in this information age, we do have a lot of information presented to us or at least readily available. And we should all be using that information to use our financial votes judiciously in regards to whatever issues are important to us. If gay marriage rights are an issue that is important to you, then it is within your self-interest not to eat at Chick-fil-A. If the quality of your meat is important to you, then it is in your best interest not to patronize the company with a large enough market share to dictate the terms of meat production (McDonalds).

The Atlantic article accepts the current reality that consumers don’t care enough to make such distinctions and decisions. I, however, refuse to simply accept things as they are in that regard. I believe that with the wealth of information available and the increased use of social networks and other means to spread that information (hopefully accurate information), we could easily see an economy in which enough consumers care about how they spend their money that political missteps or poor business practices are, indeed, felt in the bottom line and not just in terms of PR.

I previously wrote a post about the need for self-interest to exist within the knowledge of something bigger, a society, in order for capitalism to function as it should. This is a furthering of that sentiment. Alan Greenspan, among others, has said that in free market capitalism, the good practices should push out the bad. When Adam Smith used the term “Invisible Hand” in his book, “The Wealth of Nations,” he was referring to British capitalists having a self-interested preference to invest in British companies (job security, strong domestic economy) and that self-interest would better British businesses and society as a side effect. Capitalism, as it is intended to function, relies on consumers and investors to make judgments about good and bad that go beyond prices and profits. If we aspire as a nation to be the greatest example of capitalism’s success moving forward, it’s time that we start applying those judgments to our day-to-day transactions.

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On Joe Paterno’s Statue and White-Washing History

July 24, 2012 1 comment

As you probably know, Penn State has decided to remove the statue of Joe Paterno in the wake of the results of the investigation into his role in the Jerry Sandusky child molestation scandal. It had been concluded by former FBI director Louis Freeh that Paterno “could have stopped the abuse if he so wished,” and concealed information and may have talked administrators out of reporting a 2001 incident. Obviously, I am not here to defend Joe Paterno’s negligence in this case. More than enough has been written about the trial, the abuse, the football program, and the legacy of Joe Paterno, and I don’t feel the need to add to the chorus of outrage, though I feel it. I do, however, want to address the removal of the statue: specifically, that I think it is a mistake.

I could easily write about the great things Joe Paterno did to merit having a statue erected. I could argue that even horrible deeds cannot and do not undo his career. I could argue that Paterno had a reputation for doing things the right way at least in large part because he did so for most of his 60 years at Penn State. The merits or opinions of such arguments could be debated all day, and most seem likely to be trumped by “but he didn’t stop a child molester.”

But the removal of the statue is part of a larger trend to remove from history that which we find unpleasant or disagreeable. Like it or not, Joe Paterno is a major part of Penn State’s history, and I strongly doubt that he is the only memorialized figure who has later been discovered to have some nasty skeletons in his closet. We didn’t take down memorials to Thomas Jefferson when it was learned that he had an affair and second family with one of his slaves. Richard Nixon still has a presidential library. Numerous early settlers are thought to be heroes despite their slaughtering of native populations.

We still learn about these men in history books. We still can visit memorials to the men–to their good and to their bad. A statue of Joe Paterno is not an approval of his life and his deeds, but an acknowledgement of his significant role in the history of the university–and not just their football program. Penn State is looking to erase this stain from their history, as is the NCAA by vacating wins from 1998 on, in essence pretending those games didn’t really happen and weren’t really played.

To me, the statue would stand as a memorial toward caution: caution about idolizing public figures; caution about ceding too much power to a football coach; maybe even caution about enshrining the career of a man before his career has been completed. But regardless of what it stands for to those who choose to visit or view it, it stands for an accurate representation of history; a history that cannot be unwritten or re-written simply because facts have emerged that we wish weren’t true.

On Afghanistan

July 21, 2012 1 comment

This may not seem particularly current or relevant right now, as there haven’t been too many big stories coming out of our nation’s remaining war, lately. However, today (yesterday by the time I push “publish”) marks the one year anniversary of my return home from my Afghanistan deployment, and so for me personally it’s a topic that’s on my mind. First, I’ll mention that I spent about seven months in Afghanistan. My first three months were spent in an office on a major base. In that time I studied and analyzed trends from all around the country in terms of the amount of violence, the impact of our forces, and the attitudes of the local populations. I was fortunate to have such a job both because it was relatively safe and because it allowed me to maintain a big-picture perspective on the war. The next three months I spent in the district of Sangin in Hellmand Province. There I had some interaction with local Afghans and went out on several missions, and again was lucky to experience rural Afghanistan first hand and gain an added perspective, all with minimal direct exposure to enemy actions. I’m also incredibly fortunate in that to my knowledge, I don’t personally know anyone who has lost his or her life in this conflict.

With all of that said, I would say strongly that the war in Afghanistan needs to end. I have written in the past about the detrimental effects of poor decisions by some select individuals involved in the conflict and some of the challenges created by those actions, but I want to address the military effort as a whole. These are my opinions and should not be mistaken for a well-researched military strategy outline, but they are at least opinions from someone with experience and broad perspectives.

I’ll start at the very beginning (a very good place to start). Many people refer to the two George W. Bush wars in terms of the “right war” and the “wrong war,” of course referring to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. I, however, think that both were the wrong wars, and not out of a peace-loving hippie mentality (but I do like and appreciate peace). Just after 9/11, I held the belief that an outright war was not the correct response. No government or sovereign nation attacked ours, and thus the response should be targeted against those responsible, not against a related government.

My ideal response would have been heavy on intelligence gathering and heavy on covert, special operations units. Naturally, some of this is true only because we have full scale operations going on in that nation, but you wouldn’t believe the high level of intelligence we have in Afghanistan. I’m pretty sure I can disclose this so long as I don’t mention a single detail, but every single day that I was there, I read at least one report that had me wondering “how on Earth do we know that?” If we could have gathered the right intelligence, and used covert operations and operatives to piece by piece dismantle Al Qaeda, I think that a strong message could have been delivered to the international community and some semblance of justice achieved without committing as much money or human capital to the cause. Just imagine if no one knew what was going on, but every so often there was a leak to an international news agency that a high-ranking Al Qaeda official had been found dead. Psychologically speaking, I can assure you that the feeling of being watched and hunted by unknown operatives is more damaging to the psyche and effectiveness of an organization than goading a nation into a war. And to be perfectly honest, I have no way of knowing whether or not George W. Bush was utilizing this strategy for the first two years prior to committing to major military operations. The whole point is that we would not know.

Absent that option, though, if we were going to enter into major military operations in Afghanistan in response to 9/11, I think that the entire strategy (especially being divided between Afghanistan and Iraq) made little sense. The fact is that in a counter-insurgency environment, a great portion of the military operations will mimic the duties and responsibilities of a police force, rather than that of an invading military. That much can be shown simply by the fact that one of the primary jobs of the U.S. forces is training the Afghan Local Police forces in addition to the Afghanistan National Army troops. It makes sense that police responsibilities take center stage with some of the goals there being to instill order, protect civilians, and provide enough security to improve services and infrastructure in order to eventually bring the civilian population around to our side in opposing roving bands of gun-toting, oppressive terrorists. It’s also true that in some regions, particularly in the northwest Afghanistan, there are as many problems with criminals exploiting the turmoil for personal gain as there are with any organized affiliation with the Taliban.

This reality of counter-insurgency brings me to a couple strategic issues. The first is numbers. It was not until 2009 that the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan surpassed the number of policemen in Texas. Afghanistan is estimated to be about the size of Texas, but it also has a population about 10 million higher than Texas, has rougher terrain, less infrastructure, is a war zone and is in need of having an entire corps of replacement officers trained within a few years. When considering that police duties and responsibilities are far from the only thing that troops are doing in Afghanistan, you could imagine that the job of counter-insurgency would require significantly more people than would the job of policing Texas. I am not in favor of war in most scenarios, but when a war is to be conducted, it should be staffed beyond the required amount, if possible. The United States failed to provide the number of troops for which there could be any hope of maintaining order and security after the fall of the Taliban government in Afghanistan.

The second issue I have with the need for policing in counter-insurgency initiatives is that the U.S. military is not structured or designed to carry out such responsibilities on a large scale. Yes, there are military police. However, nowhere within the U.S. military is there a force whose primary purpose is that of policing foreign nations with the numbers sufficient enough to actually carry out such a task. Converting infantry units to security and police forces and relying on these individuals to provide adequate training through which Afghanistan could police themselves in due time is a mistake; and it is a structural mistake that requires a structural answer.

The military has undergone numerous structure changes as it adapts to the challenges of a changing world. However, very little has been done to adapt our forces to the reality that there is just as great (if not greater) a threat from loosely-tied together terrorist organizations and networks as there is from sovereign nations. It is my opinion that the bulk of our military engagements in the near future (think Libya, Syria and the like) will involve either the instilling of order after the fall of an oppressive regime or pacifying an insurgency or violent uprising. Due to that fact, I think that some sort of new force structure needs to be implemented that will account for and prepare for these responsibilities as an international police force. If we’re going to get criticized for policing the world, we should at least be capable of doing the job. I would not see this as a massive expansion of the military force, but instead a shift away from some of the traditional warfare forces into this new role, while remaining prepared for the less likely traditional warfare through an expanded reserve force. There are of course many details to be worked out, but I definitely think that the structure of the military is due to be completely revamped.

Of course, then there is the issue of the massive amounts of rare metals discovered in Afghanistan during the war. In 2007, a report indicated the potential for untapped resources such as lithium and rare earth metals, and then in 2010, those reports were more specifically confirmed and made national news. It was my hope that this discovery could be a game changer for the conflict. Most knowledgeable people would agree that one of the major paths to peace comes through economic development. However, others would point out that the exploitation of natural resources is often worse for the population of a country–especially a poor, conflict-torn country. What I would have liked to see happen would be a partnership between the United States and Afghanistan in dividing the mineral rights, royalties and security obligations among themselves. The agreement could go something along the lines of this:

Afghanistan would give U.S. companies the first option for mining rights. In return, the U.S. would agree to hire and train local Afghans at non-exploitative wages, in positions that include management (or management training) positions. The United States would also assist in providing security. This would increase economic standing and activity for the Afghan people spurring domestic economic growth in addition to expanding government income through the Ministry of Mining’s sale of the mineral extraction rights. In exchange for these agreements, the Government of Afghanistan would pay the United States a small royalty percentage in order to repay the costs of the military and infrastructure investments that our government has been making. In the long-term, there could even be a path to eventually hand over control to Afghan offshoots of the mining companies if the locals gained enough experience and training on the job with American companies to form their own. Yes, in the short term, there would be much dismay among the Afghan population that America was here to “rape their land,” having strong-armed their way into the priority mining rights position. However, once those Afghans were given jobs and had their incomes and lives improve, progress could and likely would begin in earnest. Of course, providing that security to the mining companies would be much easier with that police force structure I was talking about.

What actually happened is that the mining rights were pretty much opened up to the normal bidding process. China and India got major contracts, Japan was promised priority in the bidding process, and while the increased income to Afghanistan should help the government achieve credibility and sustainability, the overall picture on the conflict and the Afghan economy has not been drastically altered. An opportunity missed, in large part because the military effort in Afghanistan is so concerned about short-term perceptions and attitudes that they seem unwilling or unable to enact the sorts of change and reform that would move the long-term perceptions and attitudes in our direction.

The reality is that the military has not undergone these drastic structural changes, the troop numbers are not and will not be sufficient to properly safeguard the Afghan populace, and the mining rights have not been changed, so I should comment on this reality rather than re-wage a war through some combination of hindsight and unrealized wishes. As I said, I got a pretty full picture of the goings on around the country during my time in the office. I can certainly attest to the fact that there are places where progress has been outstanding, where attitudes have improved, and where the Taliban aren’t tolerated by the locals. However, there are just as many places (if not more) in which the hearts and minds of the populace are completely outside of our reach.

I have a favorite analogy for the conflict in parts of Afghanistan, but in a public setting it requires some disclaimers. First, I am in NO WAY comparing the American groups used in this analogy to the Taliban. I am simply trying to paint the picture in such a way Americans can understand. Secondly, the fictional military faction in this analogy does not exist and I am not suggesting that it will exist. The ideologies could easily be switched for this analogy, but this is the way I’ve told it and it works for me. Again, the Tea Party is not the Taliban and I am not suggesting that it is. Ok, so here goes:

Imagine that some Tea Party members got tired of the Congressional deadlock and formed a military faction in a rural area of a southern state. Let’s just say rural South Carolina for fun. This military group was fairly small in numbers, but it was able to intimidate or eliminate many moderate or Democratic challengers for seats in Congress and local government. The general population of South Carolina does not approve of these violent, strong-armed tactics and wishes to be rid of the fear and oppression that this militant faction has created. To deal with this problem, the President sends in the Massachusetts, Vermont and New York National Guard units to put down the violent uprising. The citizens of South Carolina now are torn. They, of course, want the violent oppressors to be gone and to have a better life. However, they fear that by siding with the National Guard units, victory would lead to a victory for New England liberalism in the south. Ideologically, they are much more closely-aligned with the violent faction, and as much as they want those people gone, they certainly don’t want it at the expense of turning over their government to New England liberals. And no amount of help or support will ever lead to them empowering those liberals.

It’s not a perfect analogy, to be sure. But it certainly sheds some light on the issue. The people of Afghanistan are rural, conservative Muslims. They may not approve of the Taliban or its tactics, but they agree with it on several of the most important issues. They want a conservative, religious life. When western forces bring western ideologies in to put down the Taliban, Afghan people may support the end to violence, but not if it means letting such strong western influence into their country and their lives. And having walked down this road for ten years now, given where we are, there is little else that can be done.

By all means, finish up some training. And this is not at all a concession of defeat. The U.S. military eviscerated the Taliban government, they helped install a new regime, they have driven the organized Taliban out of many areas of the country, and they have provided and secured many infrastructure advancements. The relatively recent plan to embed military members in villages to establish rapport and have a more consistent presence (somewhat like a police force mixed with a development team?) has had some positive impacts. Leaving is not a defeat. But at this point, the military has been left attempting to help those who do not want our help, protect those who do not want our protection, and train those who do not want our training. The dangerous downside to that last part is that we are arming those who down the road we may not wish to have arms. The point is that, from my perspective, the war in Afghanistan has been mismanaged from the start, and has run its course on the track that it actually took. Our work there is done, and it is time to end the fight.

On Tragedy, Blame and Politics

July 20, 2012 1 comment

When you write a blog dealing with current events and politics, to ignore a major news story would seem odd. That is really the only reason I’m writing this short post today, as I would prefer not to enter the dialogue of how this tragedy can affirm my beliefs. All around the web and on tv, there are responses to the shooting in Aurora, CO similar to those that followed the shootings at Virginia Tech, and at the grocery store in Arizona, and at Columbine, and the like. Gun control fights are being waged on both sides of the issue. People are anxious to find out if the theater could have done more, if the shooter obtained his weapons legally or illegally, or what his motives were… people are anxious to find someone to blame. Some utilize the events as a grounds for sermons and a religious movement. I wish that we wouldn’t do any of that. When a tragedy occurs, we all deal with it in our own ways, and I would be remiss to say that any one way is better than another. That said, I’m fairly certain that grasping onto the tragedy to advance your own cause is among the worst ways.

Categories: Uncategorized

On the Word “Fair,” and Speaking the Right Language

July 19, 2012 1 comment

We often hear people talk all the time about “bringing people together” or working “across the aisle,” but it rarely seems to come to fruition. I’m sure that part of the reason why this talk has failed is because many of the people who say such things don’t actually mean it. But I think a significant reason for the failure of such rhetoric is because of the rhetoric itself. Specifically, I think that most people spend so much time in their own ideological boxes that they fail to understand how to talk to their opponents in ways that will resonate or at the least be listened to and understood.

To illustrate this point, I can use the example of “common sense.” Prior to reading Mike Huckabee’s “A Simple Government” and Frederick M. Hess’s “Common Sense School Reform,” I didn’t know that “common sense” was a sort of code word for “conservative.” I should have, though. Having watched a fair amount of Bill O’Reilly, I often marveled at his ability, usually through his “talking points,” to make any point of view sound a lot like common sense. I mean this as no slight whatsoever, but conservatives have a way of boiling down their policy ideas to simple talking points and sound bites. This does not necessarily indicate a simpler policy, but merely a different way of communicating those policies to the public. It’s actually quite an impressive skill. As Mark Twain once said, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”

Another failure to speak the same language occurred when there was a push (especially on social media) for policies to drug test welfare recipients. Many conservatives were in favor of this, while many liberals opposed it. While many liberal complaints talked about morality, racial biases, drug legalization, false positives, and other similar arguments, I felt there was a great opportunity being missed to speak in the same language about this policy proposal.

When I spoke to conservatives about this issue, I talked about the need it created to expand the welfare bureaucracy, expand government powers and controls, and most importantly the fact that it has been shown to be economically inefficient. If there’s anything conservatives hate, it’s government-expanding, wasteful spending that does not accomplish its idealistic goal, right? If the debate had been waged on these terms, perhaps Florida would not have passed the law and eventually lost money, as expected.

However, by far the biggest communication disconnect between the contrasting American ideologies takes place over the word “fair,” especially when in reference to taxes. Here are some definitions of the word fair:

1. free from bias, dishonesty, or injustice: a fair decision.

2. legitimately sought, pursued, done, given, etc.; proper under the rules

It sounds simple enough, but in practice creating a system that is fair–that is free of bias and injustice–is a very subjective exercise. For instance, if you ask a liberal what a fair system of taxation should be, they might say that the rich should pay more; their “fair share,” as it’s often said. If you ask a conservative what a fair system of taxation should be, you might hear that every dollar should be taxed equally under a flat income tax rate or they could mention the consumption-based, aptly titled “fair tax.” And yet, from both the left and the right, you continue to hear calls for a more fair tax system, echoed by calls that “fairness” isn’t a realistic goal.

I think we should all decide here and now to stop with that charade. Let’s all stop discussing taxes and other policies in terms of fairness. Fairness is a construct–it is shaped by the environment and ideology of the person using the word. And when a word has different meanings to each person, that word ceases to have a useful meaning. If liberals or conservatives ever hope to change the minds of people that oppose or are skeptical of their views, appealing to a sense of fairness will never gain that new support. So ditch the useless buzz words and learn to see things from an opposing point of view. Only then can anyone ever truly work across the aisle or bring people together. Of course, doing so would require listening to an opposing viewpoint closely enough to understand the language that they use and the priorities that they espouse. I guess I’m asking for too much.

On Celebrity Scientologists and Wealthy Republicans

July 17, 2012 2 comments

There is a common phenomenon among those who have experienced a near-death experience during which others have lost their lives. At some point, the survivor begins to ask themselves, “Why me? Why was I chosen to survive? How did I get so lucky?” Many survivors blame themselves, constantly harping on what they could have done to save another, or wondering if that other life would have been put to better use than their own life. This can manifest as a self-loathing feeling of being unworthy of the gifts that are given to you. To avoid that feeling, some people convince themselves that they survived thanks to their own skills, reaction, and instincts. Others may feel the need to justify their existence in this world, and use it as motivation to better themselves. The reactions of survivors could go a number of ways, but these are certainly common reactions to tragedies. So what does this have to do with celebrity Scientologists and wealthy Republicans? Everything.

A while back, when I was living in Los Angeles, my roommate’s best friend decided to join Scientology. As she went through the early stages and tried to inform/recruit us to join along with her, I learned several things about the religion. The first is that early on, Scientology is a practical guide to assist people in learning how to get their life in order, be happier, and help themselves. It’s only a little bit ironic that Scientology’s most visible face, Tom Cruise, spoke the quotable line, “Help me help you” in the 1996 film Jerry Maguire, because that is what Scientology is all about at the lower levels, as Scientologists describe in this video from the official Scientology website.

As odd as it may seem that an organization helps people by teaching them that they don’t need help, that is the basic premise. You may remember Tom Cruise questioning the entire psychiatric industry as well as any and all psychiatric drugs on the Today Show. The message here is that drugs are unnecessary because there are ways to heal yourself. The primary practices of Scientology are based in “dianetics,” which is defined on the website as “what your soul does to your body through your mind.” It’s basically an extension of “mind over matter,” which adds on “soul over mind.” There’s actually a lot on the earliest levels of Scientology with which perfectly rational people would agree. And just like the fact that Ron Paul sometimes sounds like the only guy who makes any sense on one issue can mask the fact that he isn’t completely sold on the Constitutionality of the Interstate Highway System or the Civil Rights Act of 1964; practical, self-help advice and practices can mask a belief in aliens such as Thetans and Xenu that sort of sounds like the midi-chlorians from Star Wars.

I’ve probably gone into too much detail here about Scientology, but I want readers to know that I’m giving it a fair shot and also to understand why a vulnerable person in search of answers might be drawn to such a belief system. If you were stretched thin and someone said “The solution to all your problems lies within you and within your control. For a small fee, I’ll tell you how,” you might consider it. But the follow-up question is why would so many people who aren’t vulnerable–who in fact are powerful and famous and rich–be drawn to such crazy ideas when the practical benefits aren’t necessary? And the answer brings us back to the opening paragraph.

When a celebrity looks outside of his or her bubble and sees how people live in the normal world juxtaposed against how he or she gets to live, one might ask, “Why me? How did I get so lucky?” Some might even begin self-loathing; feeling as though they are unworthy of such a life, such success, such riches. Others, however, might need to feel like they are successful because they did something special; that anyone could be successful if they knew the secrets to getting there. Some might want to become members of an organization that preaches that the key to success and to happiness is from within you, that everything you can and do achieve is thanks to your ability to overcome obstacles from within: some may become Scientologists.

 

And that brings us to this:

If you own a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.

– President Barack Obama

 

I think we can all agree that we’d like that statement better if it read, “You didn’t build that alone. Somebody else helped make that happen.” In the context of his speech, that would probably be a better fit with the intent of that line. It was a small statement that came as part of a long rant of sorts about the fact that people who have achieved success have done so through a system, a government, and a community that has created the environment in which that success can be achieved. Here’s the whole quote:

 

There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me because they want to give something back. They know they didn’t — if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. You didn’t get there on your own. I am always struck by people who think, “It must be because I was just so smart.” There are a lot of smart people out there. “It must be because I worked harder than everybody else.” Let me tell you something: There are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there. If you are successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business, you did not build that–somebody else made that happen. The Internet did not get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off of the Internet. The point is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.

 

It’s not altogether unlike the quote from Elizabeth Warren, which went viral as an image not so long ago, seen below:

These quotes represent a fairly common viewpoint: the idea that success is not attained within a vacuum; that success comes from a system and a community and that you need help or maybe even luck to get to the top. And I’m sure that you could find thousands of anecdotes about the guy whose public education failed him, he dropped out, he worked hard, had a great idea and achieved success with as little help as is humanly possible, but most of us would recognize this to be more the exception than the rule.

However, this is a viewpoint that Republicans–especially the wealthy ones and the ones that control the talking points–cannot accept. Here are some reactions:

Rush Limbaugh:

This is a bunch of people with miserable, meaningless lives, lying to themselves, trying to tell themselves that they matter. I think it can now be said, without equivocation, without equivocation, this man hates this country. He is trying, Barack Obama, is trying to dismantle brick-by-brick the American dream.

 

Mitt Romney:

I’m convinced he wants Americans to be ashamed of success. I want Americans to welcome and to celebrate success… I don’t want government to take credit for what the individuals of America accomplish.

 

The National Federation of Independent Businesses:

[The president’s] unfortunate remarks over the weekend show an utter lack of understanding and appreciation for the people who take a huge personal risk and work endless hours to start a business and create jobs. I’m sure every small-business owner who took a second mortgage on their home, maxed out their credit cards or borrowed money from their own retirement savings to start their business disagrees strongly with President Obama’s claim. They know that hard work does matter.

 

The Heritage Foundation:

That sound you hear is silence—as millions of small business owners and entrepreneurs were left speechless this weekend from President Obama’s latest insult.

 

Perhaps all of this is simply playing politics. Perhaps these people saw an opportunity to jump on Obama’s statements and swing or strengthen support within a target demographic. Or, perhaps some of these wealthy Republicans got a glimpse outside of their bubble and saw how people were living in the normal world juxtaposed against the life that they get to live. They thought to themselves for a minute, “Why me? How did I get so lucky?” And rather than risk the exposure to the possibility of self-loathing, they quickly answered, “I got here on my own. I got here because I worked harder. I got here because I am smarter and better than those people who want government help. Nobody helped me get here, and so nobody else should need help.” And so they joined an organization that espouses those beliefs: The Republican Party.

On Why I Don’t Like Democrats

July 16, 2012 Leave a comment

A while back, I was on the mailing list of both the Republican and Democratic national parties, as well as both parties’ Governors’ Associations. As you could imagine, that led to a great deal of e-mail. Eventually, I decided that I couldn’t stand reading the Republican rhetoric, and I unsubscribed from their lists. I decided to stay on some of the Democratic lists, though, because I couldn’t stand their rhetoric, either. Confused?

The thing is that even as a proud and outspoken independent, sometimes it’s difficult for me to remember why it is that I don’t like Democrats (as a party, not individually). They are in favor of gay rights; I am in favor of gay rights. They are pro choice; I am pro choice. They think taxes need to be raised in a progressive fashion; I think taxes need to be raised in a progressive fashion. They blame President George W. Bush for overseeing the country from peace and surplus to a country in economic turmoil, two wars and increased debt; I blame President George W. Bush for those things, as well.

So with all of that agreement, sometimes it’s nice to have a little note pop up in your inbox that serves as a reminder that out-of-context, ugly, dialogue-twisting messages to serve their own political purpose come from both sides. Distortions and occasional lies are just status quo for both parties. That has again been made clear recently with the Obama campaign dropping the word “felony” into its anti-Bain rhetoric, when all sources privy to the goings-on at Bain during the time in question seem to agree that Romney was not in the wrong for the time in question. The factcheck.org entry on this issue is pretty thorough, if you’re curious.

So the Democrats are all part of the same, faulty system. But there’s something else that bothers me that’s far less quantifiable but also far more important. It seems to me like Democrats have a difficult time making tough choices. It’s actually what Congress is paid to do: come up with solutions to tough problems by making tough choices.

This shortcoming is most evident in terms of budgetary issues. Back when the Democrats controlled the House and the Senate (and the presidency), no budget was passed. The reason given in the article was to wait on the bipartisan debt reduction plan to be published, though once it was, those recommendations were not heeded, anyway. More of note from the article was the following quote:

House Democrats will not pass a budget blueprint in 2010, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) will confirm in a speech on Tuesday. But Hoyer will vow to crack down on government spending, saying Democrats will enforce spending limits that are lower than what President Barack Obama has called for.

You may notice that Rep. Hoyer mentioned the need to cut spending and enact new spending limits, but failed to produce the document that decided what should be cut and by how much. A similar failure recently took place in my home state of Maryland. The problem is that while it is easy to attack Republican cuts (easy because cuts are unpopular and because they are making some really bad choices about what to cut), it’s much harder to come up with a workable, realistic blueprint that makes the necessary cuts.

Among the most important things that need to be addressed when meting out fiscal policy is entitlement reform. Any knowledgeable, objective person could tell you that. Many Democrats may have even admitted it at some point during their careers. However, because the Republicans have a plan for reform that the Democrats and the American people probably wouldn’t like too much, the Democratic talking point has been more about preserving Social Security and Medicare than fixing them. This is likely setting themselves up for predictable counter-arguments if they ever come up with a solid reform plan on their own (what goes around, comes around).

I could go on about specific policies or examples of times that I’ve disagreed with Democratic talking points, but there should never be an expectation of 100% agreement. I think the most important issues I have with the party are as stated: they are an active participant in a flawed party system and when push comes to shove, they fail to make the tough choice. When Republicans rail against the ACA (Obamacare), a common retort is “where’s the alternative plan?” When Democrats rail against the Paul Ryan budget, I would ask the same thing to them.