Facts, Factoids and Flinders: Questions to Ponder

P1000025Does Voter Turnout Measure the Strength of a Democracy?

Seventy-seven percent of eligible voters went to the polls in New Zealand’s recent nationwide parliamentary election. Australia (where voting is mandatory) had a 93% turnout for their last two elections. Sixty-five percent voted in the United Kingdom’s 2010 general election. The United States’ voter turnout in the 2012 presidential election was 58%, and for the 2010 off-year congressional election it was 41%. Are we really the world’s best example of a vibrant democracy?

Ideology or Science?

Does political ideology rather than science drive America’s response to climate change? Alan Leshner thinks so. Leshner, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, told The New York Times, “Ideology and intuition sometimes appear to be trumping science. I fear that the pace at which the public understands that the climate is changing–––and puts pressure on the political system––– will be too slow.”

A poll conducted on behalf of The NYT and CBS supports Leshner’s concern. Only 46% of those polled (and 26% of Republicans) believe that global warming is causing a serious impact. The Republican number is important when thinking about potential responses to climate change because they have a good chance of controlling both houses of Congress in 2015-16. Any remedial legislation would have to pass through those who do not believe that a remedy is necessary.

Marxist or Saint?

Helder Camara, the late Archbishop of Brazil, said “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”

Pope Francis said, “Inequality eventually engenders a violence which recourse to arms cannot and never will be able to resolve. It serves only to offer false hopes to those clamoring for heightened security, even though nowadays we know that weapons and violence, rather than providing solutions, create new and more serious conflicts.” Rush Limbaugh called the Pope a Marxist.

Are Poor People or Poverty the Problem?

John Boehner of Ohio, Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, told the American Enterprise Institute, “People have the idea, ‘I really don’t have to work…I really don’t want to do this…I think I’d rather sit around.’” This sounds like the reincarnation of the 47% theory espoused by Mitt Romney during the 2012 presidential campaign.

Say it again, Mr. Secretary

Secretary of State John Kerry told participants at the January 2014 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, “After a decade defined first and foremost by force, we are entering an era of American diplomatic engagement that is as broad and as deep as any time in history.” Kerry said that the United States’ foreign policy would henceforth be assertive, but non-militarily focused, global engagement. Then the world turned, and we are back to the diplomatic era that emphasized on bombs and missiles.

“Informed” by Fox?

The Farleigh Dickinson Public Mind poll reported “Sunday morning news shows do the most to help people learn about current events, while some outlets, especially Fox News, lead people to be even less informed than those who say they don’t watch any news at all.”

Dictator or Strong Leader?

Opposition voices from the American political right label President Obama a dictator when he uses executive orders to implement policies. The same voices proclaim that Vladimir Putin is a strong and forceful leader.

Why Do Democrats Oppose the President’s Nominee for Surgeon General?

Democrats in the Senate held up confirmation for Vivek Murthy as Surgeon General. Why? Not because he is a bad doctor, but because he advocated tougher gun laws, including licensing gun owners and banning assault weapons. In 2012 he tweeted, “Tired of politicians playing politics w/ guns, putting lives at risk b/c they’re scared of NRA. Guns are a health care issue.” The NRA went on the attack and Democratic senators trembled.

Truth or Heresy?

What makes us think we can–––or even should––– impose Jeffersonian democracy on nations that have no governing history other than strong-man dictators; and, in which vast numbers of the electorate are poorly educated and ill-informed? Wouldn’t it be better to assist nations in developing their capacity for inclusive educational opportunities, modern governing practices and economic development; and, to strengthen infrastructure, such as electricity, roads and running water? Such endeavors would take a generation of hard work before true democracy takes root, but it would have a chance to grow and prosper.

Cocksure or Doubt?

“The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt. Even those of the intelligent who believe that they have a nostrum are too individualistic to combine with other intelligent men from whom they differ on minor points. This was not always the case. ” Bertrand Russell wrote this in 1933 under the title The Triumph of Stupidity. It still applies today.


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.

Political Patronage Trumps Military Advice

Members of Congress continually harp at the president about following the advice of uniformed leaders when making decisions about the military. They, however, do not practice what they preach. The Pentagon opposes continued use of the A-10 “Warthog”, a close-air support jet. The Air Force wants to retire the “Warthog” by 2019 because it lacks the versatility of other aircraft. This would save $4.3 billion that could be used for higher priorities.

Did Members of Congress follow the advice they gave the president and support the wisdom of the military? No. An amendment was tacked on the defense funding bill that forbids the Pentagon from allocating any funds to “divest, retire, transfer or place in storage, or prepare to divest, retire, transfer or place in storage any A-10 aircraft.” It also prohibits the Pentagon from closing any unit that flies or is associated with the A-10. Congressman Ron Barber (D-Tucson, Arizona) led the effort.

Did Barber (who was a former colleague of mine in the Arizona Department of Economic Security) take this action based on his high level of experience and expertise in military affairs? No, he is trying to protect jobs at Tucson’s Davis-Monthan Air Force Base and, not coincidently, trying to protect his own office in a tough election. Barber’s proposal passed the House 300-114 and now goes to the Senate, where Senator John McCain (R-AZ) awaits.

McCain is among the loudest (and often the most incoherent) of those who blast away at the president about following military advice in regard to military affairs. He is also one of the biggest supporters of the A-10.


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?