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.

A Rudderless Bunch of Idiots

IMG_3893Richard Martinez was living a normal life as 60 year-old defense attorney in Los Osos, California. Then, on May 23, 2014 a man with a gun shot and killed his son Christopher and five other University of California, Santa Barbara students in the beach town of Isla Vista.

Richard Martinez mourned, but he didn’t mope. He, instead, went on the offense against what he called “a rudderless bunch of idiots in government.” He said that his son died because of Congress’s failure to pass gun control legislation, despite an epidemic of mass shootings.

“Have we learned nothing?” Martinez asked on HLN. “My kid died because nobody responded to what occurred at Sandy Hook. These things are going to continue until somebody does something, so where in the hell is the leadership?”

And continue it does: since his son was murdered, a college student was shot to death in Seattle, Washington; a sheriff’s deputy was shot outside a courthouse in Georgia; a young man and woman went on a killing rampage that took the lives of two police officers and a civilian in Las Vegas, Nevada; a teenager with a rifle killed a fellow student in a Portland, Oregon school.

Martinez spoke with anger and eloquence at a news conference, and he allocated responsibility for his son’s death to “craven, irresponsible politicians and the NRA. When will enough people say ‘Stop this madness; we don’t have to live like this.’ Too many have died. We should say to ourselves: ‘Not one more.’”

The New York Times zeroed in on the leadership issue in a May 28 editorial titled As Congress Sleeps, More People Die:

“In being bullied by the gun industry into rejecting one of the most effective ways of limiting the proliferation of guns–––the universal background checks–––members of Congress have become complicit in shootings by anyone who should not be allowed to own a gun because of a criminal or mental health record. It is not just the mass shootings like the one in California that the nation needs to focus on, but also the more than 11,000 individual deaths from gun violence every year.”

Mr. Martinez asked, “Where the hell is the leadership?”

I submit it will not come from what he correctly termed “craven, irresponsible politicians and the NRA.” Leadership for social change will be effective only if it rises up from among the people.

As Abraham Lincoln said in 1858 when debating slavery, “Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed. Consequently he who molds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions. He makes statutes and decisions possible or impossible to be executed.”

Leadership in this realm is coming from people such as Richard Martinez, Gabby Gifford and Mark Kelly. Are we bold enough to follow?

Should America Go to War In Iraq—Again?

IMG_2177Where have all the soldiers gone? Long time passing…

Where have all the soldiers gone? Long time ago…

Where have all the soldiers gone? Gone to graveyards everyone…

When will they ever learn? When will they ever learn?  (Pete Seeger, 1961)

Much of the world paused on June 6 to honor the 70th anniversary of D-Day. The eulogies offered by national leaders, soldiers and common people touched my heart but troubled my mind. While that day in June 1944 was a prelude to a great victory for the Allied Forces in World War II––and those who fought there deserve our gratitude––celebrating war as a solution to global strife is certain to lead to more war.

Today’s news tells of continuing warfare across the globe, despite the proven futility of trying to bring peace through bombs and guns. Iraq is proving to be the prime example. The United States invested around two trillion dollars and the lives of 4,400 Americans and more than 100,000 Iraqis in a war that was supposed to bring peace to the Middle East. Yet the war rages on as Sunni militias attack Shiite strongholds. All of the money spent and all of the lives given have gone to the same graveyards that hold war dead from across the centuries.

The political response is to seek blame for failure, with the president’s decision to wind down the Iraq war being attacked as the cause for today’s violence in that country. But the failure is not in losing the war; it is in the belief that war is a solution. British commentator and author H.G. Wells thought that it was a solution when he wrote World War I would be “the war to end war.” It wasn’t.

The renewed cry for the United States to reenter the conflict in Iraq took my mind back to the Tyne Cot Cemetery in Flanders, the final resting place for the tens of thousands of men who were killed in the battle of Passchendaele in 1917. I visited this sight during my 2010 international trip and posted the following reflection to peoplesvisionusa.com.

This World War I battle raged between the British and the Germans for 100 days, and when it ended British soldiers had moved forward less than five miles… all of which was later reclaimed by the Germans. Between the two sides, 500,000 soldiers lay dead or injured. More than 140,000 Allied soldiers were killed, reflecting a gain of mere inches for each life lost.

I learned a lot during my travels around the world, and one lesson is burned indelibly into my consciousness: war is senseless. It was senseless in 1914 when the world stumbled into combat after the Serbian Kingdom’s assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. It is senseless today.

 It is relatively easy to whip up war fever among the populace— as they did in Austria, Russia, France, England, and Germany in 1914— playing on both fear and false patriotism. It is much more difficult to put national pride and politics aside in the interest of peace and seek common ground with those whose world view is different from ours.

But that is what we must do: respect cultural differences and seek common ground rather than trying to turn every adversary into a little America. As I walked among the 12,000 graves at Tyne Cot Cemetery I felt a solemn awe, and wondered at the absurdity of thinking that long-term peace can come from killing and being killed. There are 35,000 names inscribed on Tyne Cot’s Memorial to the Missing. I don’t want my grandchildren, or anybody’s children and grandchildren to be names on a memorial wall.

The world is too small for violence, and it is time for this generation to say: “No more!”

It is time to take the risk of being peacemakers rather than warmongers. It is time to recognize that military might does not guarantee peace. If it did, America would not have been at war off and on during my entire life… from World War II through Korea, Viet Nam, Iraq, Iraq again, Afghanistan, and assorted other skirmishes across the globe.

As Albert Einstein said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Perhaps, Benjamin Franklin was more to the point: “The definition of insanity is doing over and over again things that can kill you.”