Old Wine for a New Wineskin?

cover-150x150In his 1941 State of the Union address President Franklin D. Roosevelt sought to lift Congress and the American people to a new level of social vision and responsibility. Roosevelt’s words remain as powerful and appropriate today as they were when he spoke them more than seven decades ago.

The following is an excerpt of what became know as the “Four Freedoms Speech.” The entire address can be found here.

“The basic things expected by our people of their political and economic systems are simple. They are:

“Equality of opportunity for youth and for others.

Jobs for those who can work.

Security for those who need it.

The ending of special privilege for the few.

The preservation of civil liberties for all.

The enjoyment — The enjoyment of the fruits of scientific progress in a wider and constantly rising standard of living.

“These are the simple, the basic things that must never be lost sight of in the turmoil and unbelievable complexity of our modern world. The inner and abiding strength of our economic and political systems is dependent upon the degree to which they fulfill these expectations.

“Many subjects connected with our social economy call for immediate improvement. As examples: We should bring more citizens under the coverage of old-age pensions and unemployment insurance. We should widen the opportunities for adequate medical care.

We should plan a better system by which persons deserving or needing gainful employment may obtain it.

“I have called for personal sacrifice, and I am assured of the willingness of almost all Americans to respond to that call. A part of the sacrifice means the payment of more money in taxes. In my budget message I will recommend that a greater portion of this great defense program be paid for from taxation than we are paying for today.

“No person should try, or be allowed to get rich out of the program, and the principle of tax payments in accordance with ability to pay should be constantly before our eyes to guide our legislation.

“If the Congress maintains these principles the voters, putting patriotism ahead pocketbooks, will give you their applause.

“In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.

“The first is freedom of speech and expression — everywhere in the world. The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way — everywhere in the world.

“The third is freedom from want, which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants — everywhere in the world. The fourth is freedom from fear, which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor — anywhere in the world.

“That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation. That kind of world is the very antithesis of the so-called ‘new order’ of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb.”

 

2014 Election: A “Fie on Both of You” Mandate

IMG_0127The 2014 midterm elections produced a mandate, but not for the victorious Republicans or for a particular policy agenda. The mandate (by a 64% majority) was an electoral repudiation of American politics. The women and men elected to the 114th Congress received a slim majority of a minority of eligible voters, and that does not constitute a governing coalition.

Americans are generally disgusted with both parties: President Barack Obama’s approval rating is around 40%; the Congress sits at 14%; the Republican Party has a 42% approval and the Democrats are at an all time low of 36%. It is clearly an opprobrious “fie on both of you” mandate.

The 2014 Republican candidates promised a simple agenda: repeal anything supported by Obama, cut corporate taxes, abolish what they term “job killing” environmental and safety regulations, repeal laws that regulate business, and rip apart the safety net. The Democrats, on the other hand, did not offer an agenda.

No Vision, No Courage

As a liberal Democrat I am disgusted with my party’s lack of vision and courage. Our candidates gave the non-voting 64% nothing to be excited about and they ran away from the accomplishments of the last six years. They allowed their opponents to define the election as the trial of a “failed president.”

Failed president? Since Obama took office the economy has reversed course. The Dow Jones Industrial Average has sored from 7,949 to an all-time high of over 17,000; unemployment has decreased from 7.8% to less than 5.8%; GDP growth has climbed from a minus 5.4% to a plus 3.5%; the deficit as a percent of GDP has decreased from 9.8% when Obama took office to 2.8% today; and consumer confidence has risen from under 40% to above 90%.

The United States is adding 200,000 new jobs a month, inflation and interest rates are low, and America is fast becoming energy self-sufficient. Health care is now a realistic opportunity for millions of Americans, laws are in place to protect the nation from another financial meltdown, and the looming threats of climate change are getting serious executive attention.

According to The Economist, “American firms dominate rankings of the world’s most valuable companies for the first time in a decade and a half…Profits are at their highest level relative to national income since the 1960s…The pay of an S&P 500 chief is up 43% since 2009 and non-financial firms made $885 billion of profits

Unbalanced Progress

America is making progress–––making progress despite brutal headwinds blowing from the right side of the political spectrum. But the progress is lopsided: while those at the top of the pyramid are prospering, the stagnation of wages and the decline of good jobs for many middleclass Americans persists. According to the Federal Reserve, the earnings of the bottom 90% of Americans actually fell between 2010 and 2013 when adjusted for inflation.

Republicans beat back every attempt to address growing income disparity in America by ignoring the issue and chanting the mantra “class warfare” every time it was raised. Democrats seemed afraid of the issue, and during the campaign they avoided anything that could be associated with Obama, such as raising the federal minimum wage.

That makes no sense to me. I don’t believe President Obama is perfect. He hasn’t done a good job of defining his agenda in a way that relates to the American people. He hasn’t cultivated trusting relationships with Washington’s social and political elite. I applaud his deliberate process for making decisions about committing American forces abroad, but I do not agree with some of his conclusions.

I dismiss the argument that he should work harder to massage the egos of congressional leaders. No matter what he does or says, he is not going to move the Republicans toward his position. They have a single-minded agenda: Make sure the presidency of Barack Obama is perceived as a failure. Block anything–––no matter the benefit to the American people–––that might give him some credit.

Playing Prevent Defense

Republicans do not see him not as a president who commanded decisive majorities in two elections, but as an imposter who is a threat to their ideology. Obama did a poor job of defending himself against their attacks, often appearing aloof and above the fray.

To borrow a football analogy, Democrats played “prevent defense” in 2014 instead of aggressive offense and it cost the party and the country dearly. Those who will run again in 2016 ought to check out the playbook of one Democratic senator who took the opposite tack, Al Franken.

Senator Franken was elected in 2008, winning by 312 votes. This year he didn’t join the herd of Democrats who were running away from Obama and away from a progressive agenda; rather, he embraced them and ran on the firm foundation of six years of progress— and he won by 10 percentage points. There is a lesson here that Democrats running in 2016 ought to heed, or they will begin to lose loyalists like me.

 

Politics-by-Dysfunction is Failing our Grandchildren

P1000465Early this summer my grandson Smith and I took a three-week campervan trip to ballparks in San Diego, San Jose, San Francisco, Reno, Denver and St. Louis. Along the way we ran a 5-K in Coronado and visited the USS Midway in San Diego; took a ferryboat ride across the San Francisco Bay; visited the Great Salt Lake and Temple Square in Utah; and explored the Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.

As we drove between destinations we alternately talked and listened to the radio: ESPN for Smith and (when he was napping) POTUS–––SiriusXM’s non-partisan political channel––– for me.

POTUS broadcasts political speeches, clips from congressional hearings, some of the daily White House press briefings, and interviews with journalists and advocates from across the political spectrum.

After several days of driving and listening I reached an understanding about our increasingly dysfunctional national government: There is not a common vision of America’s future that unites our political leaders, nor is there a commitment among members of congress to come together in search of solutions to the nation’s problems.

Rather, they quibble and quarrel and let problems fester, thus ensuring plenty of hot-button issues to rant about in their next campaign. A strict adherence to right or left wing purity trumps a quest for sound public policies.

As a case in point, when we were midway between the Rockies and St Louis, Smith was dozing while I listened to a congressional hearing about health programs for veterans. The bombastic rhetoric, absence of civility and dearth of substantive discussion by committee members was awful.

Instead of seeking information about possible solutions for some very serious problems, Republican members attacked newly-confirmed Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald with sarcasm, insults and hostility. They were more focused on making points with well-rehearsed sound bites than on improving access to healthcare for veterans.

I glanced at my sleeping grandson and wondered if this is the way our leaders will continue to approach the growing and increasingly complex issues facing America and the world. Such nonsense will not lead to building the kind of country I want him and his three siblings to inherit from my generation.

When I returned home I shared my frustration with an old political friend. “You” he said, “are being naïve if you think members of congress care about solutions to national problems. Their entire focus is on feathering their own nest. That’s just politics in today’s America. Relax and accept it.” Well, if it is, it shouldn’t be­­­–––and, no, I will not relax and I will not accept it.

Politics should be about the art of governing, about reaching a consensus on what constitutes the common good, and seeking the compromises needed to reach that result. It should be about dealing with today’s problems with the goal of forming a better and more peaceful world for our grandchildren.

And so, as we approach the 2014 midterm election, I ask myself: What do I seek in a candidate for public office? I look for a person who has a passion for serving, a person who sees power as a tool for improving the lives of her constituents rather than as a lever for personal gain.

I want people in office who have an understanding of the increasingly complex and interdependent local, national and worldwide community within which we live; people for whom peace, equality of opportunity and a sustainable environment are at the center of their work.

The candidates I vote for should have the courage to: address hard issues directly, even when doing so could cause them political damage; take bold action when needed, even in the face of fierce opposition; build coalitions across ideological divides; and maintain the integrity to do all of this openly and honestly.

Common good rather than ideological purity–––substantive policy rather than pithy sound bites–––should be the goal of those elected to serve us. And their view of the future should stretch beyond the next election, at least as far out as my grandchildren’s grandchildren. They might consider adopting the Iroquois’ standard that all decisions be evaluated in terms of how people–––and the earth–––seven generations from now will be affected.

Naïve? Perhaps, but if people of my generation truly care about the world our grandchildren will inherit it is time we put aside blind allegiances to single issues and rigid ideology. Today’s world has moved far beyond the world we grew up in, and a new kind of politics is needed to lead it.

We should seek out and support political candidates who have the vision, courage and integrity to guide our nation into the future–––a future that enhances opportunities for Smith and his counterparts across the globe to live in peace and security.

Our elected leaders will quit talking and acting like fools only when we quit listening to and tolerating their foolishness. It is up to us.

How do we do it? We come together as a generation of grandparents–––both here and abroad­­­––– ally ourselves with the millennial generation and form the largest, broadest and most powerful political coalition in history. Difficult? Yes. Naïve? Perhaps. Possible? It is a long shot, but one worth taking as our clock winds down.

 

Income Inequality Should Not Be Ignored

IMG_0091Nobel Memorial prizewinner Joseph Stiglitz wrote, “The simple story of America is this: the rich are getting richer, the richest of the rich are getting still richer, the poor are becoming poorer and more numerous and the middle class is being hollowed out.”

In The Idea of America I called income inequality a national disgrace, and posed and answered this question: “Why should we care about that today? We should care as a matter of human decency and because a growing inequality — an extremely unequal distribution of wealth — destabilizes a society, and weakens the institutions that support economic growth…People at both ends of the wealth scale lose a sense of connection with one another, a sense that we are united as a nation in a common cause.”

It has been suggested that I (and others who raise issues of inequality) are fostering class warfare, and that we are socialists fighting against the capitalist system.

I, however, believe we are trying to rescue America from an increasingly dangerous division, from a culture so polarized that political functioning becomes impossible and the propensity toward violence becomes hardened. Inequality cascades through our social, educational, health and economic systems with particularly cruel outcomes for children.

Despite books and articles by prize-winning economists, and studies by organizations such as the CIA , some politicians and conservative journals argue that inequality is not a problem. Rather, they say, it is a catchphrase invented by liberals to increase government intervention into the lives of every-day Americans.

Why, after addressing it in the book and writing an article for this blog last summer, do I raise it again? Because of a report issued this week by the Federal Reserve in which Fed Chair Janet Yellen said inequality remains “one of the most disturbing trends facing the nation.”

The Fed report showed that from 2010 to 2013 the pre-tax income of the wealthiest 10% of Americans roses by 10%, while the bottom 40% lost ground during that period. The average wealth of the top 10% increased to over $3 million, while that of the bottom 20% fell to $65,000.

The lack of financial stability in nearly half of our nation’s people damages our economy and destroys the fabric of our communities. Yet rhetoric from the right of the political spectrum continues to shout out distortions and untruths about policy changes such as increasing the minimum wage.

The right’s claim is that increasing the minimum wage will destroy jobs and damage the economy. The left quickly counters that studies such as the one in Oregon highlighted above indicate that a minimum wage increase would not reduce jobs, and the increase in money earned would quickly cycle back into the economy, thus boosting overall economic growth.

Lost in the claims and counter claims is a very important conversation that we as a nation should be engaging around the subject of economic policy. Upholding a particular ideology or interest group should not take precedence over seeking the common good. We can and must do better, engaging both data and empathy in our search for a more just society.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gratitude-Empathy Deficiency: Hardened Heart, Sclerotic Mind

DSC_0490My 70th year has been a time of introspection and reflection, of looking back and looking forward. How, I’ve wondered, did I get where I am today, and what should I do today with the lessons learned over an adulthood of parenting, working and community involvement? Most importantly, what kind of world do I want to leave for my daughters, my grandchildren, and the generations that follow?

How did I get where I am today?

It is tempting to say that the personal and vocational successes I’ve enjoyed in my life flowed directly from my hard work and relatively sound mind. But that would be utter hubris.

I did work hard throughout my career, but so do millions of other people who do not share the advantages I have. I do have a good mind, but so do millions of other people who did not have my educational opportunities and are struggling through difficult circumstances.

An honest assessment of how success has come my way is that I was born to middle class, educated parents, and was reared in the secure embrace of encouraging family and friends. I was given—didn’t earn, but was given— every advantage: a home filled with love and books; world travel; a safe and nourishing environment; excellent health and dental care; prep school and college educations; and the confidence that anything I set my sights on could be accomplished.

At almost every step along my path I had a mentor who taught and guided me, from faculty members Eugene Salisbury and Otto Dietrich in high school; Professors Phillip Mangelsdorf and Sherm Miller at the University of Arizona; Captains John Woodall and Arthur Hawkins during my Navy years; Jim Parham, Jack Watson and Bennett Sims in my early career; Joe Heistand, Wes Frensdorf, and Jack Pfister in Phoenix; and friends and colleagues who offered support and kept me accountable at every stop along the way.

What happened to gratitude and empathy?

With notable exceptions, most successful people I’ve met (like me) started ahead of the curve, and many of them truly believe they achieved their status in life solely through their own rugged individual brilliance and hard-core diligence. Delusional hubris propels them through a life too often void of gratitude for the helping hands, or empathy for those who were not born with their advantages.

Gratitude-empathy deficiency is a curable disease that left untreated hardens the heart and mind of the afflicted. One result is the belief that people who do not enjoy the benefits of wealth and power–––often because of the financial, social, and/or racial circumstances of their parents––– have only themselves to blame.

The disease, particularly the lack of empathy, has a corrupting influence on the politics of social policy. It leads to stratified communities in which the only interaction between people who are rich and powerful and those who are poor and powerless is as the served and the server. As a result, resentment and distrust multiply like a communicable disease.

But a cure is possible. Mine came as a result of working in the social justice arenas of government, politics and Christian ministry. I regularly came face to face with people who struggled every day to obtain things that I took for granted––– a comfortable house in a safe neighborhood, reliable transportation, quality education, healthy nutrition and good healthcare. I saw firsthand how hard many of them worked and how desperately they yearned for a better life for their children, but they had neither the means nor the contacts to help them achieve it.

I also learned that a strong government safety net is crucial, but is only a piece of the solution. The other piece is held by those of us who do have voice and access to power. We must stand tall and speak clearly: hunger, unequal education, violent neighborhoods, lack of mobility, gross financial inequality, racial and gender discrimination, limited access to health care, and the general oppression of poverty are unacceptable ingredients in the societal fabric of this nation.

We need to rethink our theories of social and economic justice and work to ensure that the educational opportunities for children born to economically poor parents are equal to those children who are born into wealth.

And this leads to the last question in my first paragraph: What kind of world do I hope to leave to my daughters and my grandchildren? It is a question that reaches beyond the confines of our communities and our nation and I will offer my views in a later post.