A Sad State of Affairs

A Sad State of Affairs

The President of the United States decides to address the country’s students, urging them to study hard and stay in school. The raw-meat eaters on the Republican side then accuse the President of trying to indoctrinate our children with “socialist ideology”. Their spokespersons on talk radio and cable television suggest that the President is Hugo Chavez, Saddam Hussein and a banana dictator all wrapped into one.

It must be frustrating for these self-proclaimed paragons of the right to go through their political lives unable to seriously reflect on difficult issues without declaring that the apocalypse is upon us. Theirs’ is politics through mugging, hate and fear; policy making through lies, distortions, and innuendos. It is a destructive brand of politics that should be beneath our contempt. The future of our country is in danger when many of the nation’s leaders refuse to seriously discuss solutions to difficult problems, preferring instead to follow the lead of hate mongers who stir the base passions of scared and angry people.

Back in my day of working in state-government politics, those of us on the left and those on the right would argue opposite sides of tough issues… and, we would keep at it until we found a consensus. We didn’t demagogue or vilify each other, we didn’t launch personal attacks, but we did present our often-differing views with passion.

As a case in point, I remember a time when the State of Arizona was facing a crisis that threatened to shut down the state’s Medicaid program. I was the point man for the Democratic Governor, and was engaged in a day-long negotiation with the Republican Majority Leader of the House. We went at it vigorously, but at 5p.m. we rode together to the softball field where I coached our two daughters in the final game of the season. We later reached an agreement while sitting at a Burger King during an after-game party. The two of us genuinely liked and respected one another, and we shared the same goal: find a solution that worked for the state and the people we were called to serve. We were not looking for a political win for our party, but a win for Arizona.

Contrast that to the rhetoric of today around the issue of health care: The President is called a socialist, a communist and a traitor because he believes that health care is a moral right and should be accessible to all citizens of this country.  A cable television hate-monger states that the President is leading us to “Nazi-style” socialism” because he seeks to have a public option to compete with the insurance companies.

Others distort the proposals, suggesting that Democrats want to form death panels to decide who lives and who dies; or that the plans being considered will permit federal funds for abortions; or that Obama wants the government to choose providers and ration the care a person receives; or that the Democrats are secretly plotting to eliminate Medicare. It is too polite to label these and other outrageous claims coming from the right as “distortions”. They are flat out lies.

Any attempt at rational, reasoned discussion is feared by the right, so they have adopted a strategy of disruption. People show up at “town hall meetings” with posters of the President doctored to look like Adolph Hitler, and they shout down those who disagree with them, refusing to permit any civil substantive conversation. Folks come to meetings where the President is speaking bearing guns. A man in Phoenix Arizona hears a sermon where the pastor suggests that God should strike down President Obama and send him to hell, then after church the man attends an Obama rally with an assault riffle.

Is this a thoughtful way to find a solution to our nation’s health care crisis? I wonder what the 900,000 U.S. families that face medical bankruptcy each year think about this right-wing anti-Obama show put on by people who have yet to offer a constructive idea to the debate. I wonder what they think when they read that the same people who supported tax cuts that took trillions out of our economy, now argue that a $900 billion price tag is too much for the nation to pay to ensure comprehensive, reliable and quality health care for all Americans.

Tell that to the father who lost his family’s medical insurance when he was laid off from his job and can’t afford the premium for the COBRA policy. Tell that to the mother who is battling cancer and cannot afford her co-pay for drugs, or to the parents who can’t get insurance because they have a child with a “preexisting condition”. Tell that to the family whose soaring medical insurance premiums are destroying their standard of living.

I agree with the words of Bob Herbert in his September 8 op-ed piece in the New York Times: “The entire Republican Party has decided that it is in favor of absolutely nothing…There is nothing that you can come up with that the G.O.P. is for…The serious wackos, the obsessive compulsive abusrdists, may be beyond therapy. But the rest of us could use some serious adult counseling. We’ve forgotten many of the fundamentals: how to live within our means, the benefits of shared sacrifice, the responsibilities that go with citizenship, and the importance of a well-rounded education, and tolerance.” Amen!

Postcard from London and Cambridge

Kennon and I just returned from a grand weekend in London. We stayed at a hotel in Westminster, a short walk from the Thames, the Parliament buildings and Westminster Cathedral. We spent Saturday exploring, starting with a visit to the British Museum. The featured exhibit was a series of colorful, mystical and sensual paintings depicting the lives and loves of India’s Maharajahs. The pilgrimage through a warren of gallery rooms was a journey into ancient times, shrouded in symbolism and mystery. I also visited the museum’s Egyptian rooms, following the development of their culture from the early days of the Pharaohs through the coming of Coptic Christianity.

On the way home we walked along the bank of the Thames, and crossed over the Lambeth Bridge to our hotel. Last night we saw an amazing play: War Horse. It is based on a book by the same title and tells the story of World War I through the eyes of a British Army cavalry horse and the farm boy who loved him. The horses (and other farm animals) were elaborately constructed, larger than life-size puppets. The story was poignant, the acting extraordinary, and the skill of the puppeteers (two of whom were inside and one outside each horse) brought the horses to life. It was brilliant!

Kennon has been exploring Cambridge all day, every day… then after class she escorts me back through the sights and areas she particularly enjoyed, concluding with a beer at a riverfront pub. It is a wonderful town, rich with history and marked by the beauty of parks, gardens and flower-filled window baskets. There is a clear contrast between the vastness and busyness of London, and the more laid-back atmosphere of this university town.

I have one more week of class, and then we leave Cambridge on Friday and fly home on Saturday. It has been a grand experience, but we will both be happy to be home. Peace to you all, Bill

A Learning Experience III

Our professor last week was Amelia Hadfield, a brilliant young scholar and teacher extraordinaire from the University of Kent. She began each of her 12 sessions with a scene-setting lecture, and then put us into teams to discuss, argue and debate. For instance, on the day we examined the Israel-Palestine issue we role-played a summit meeting, with three-person delegations representing Palestine, Israel, the United States, the European Union and Jordan.  I served as moderator for the summit, and another geriatric American was the arbitration judge.

I also represented the US in a discussion about how foreign policy affects business. By the time she left us on Thursday we had role-played such issues as hard vs. soft power, seeking international partnerships vs. unilateralism, and the international politics of energy and the political economy. This has been an invigorating week of learning and challenge. It helped me understand that the process and the results of domestic US politics is intertwined with our interests internationally, both in terms of how we are perceived by others and the credibility we have to shape the conversation on crucial interests.

All of this was juxtaposed in my mind with the debates in Congress about health care and energy, which I follow each morning on the Internet. Both issues involve powerful forces with vested interests, including politicians, providers and consumers. What has become clear to me during my time at Cambridge is the extent to which we in the United States view solutions to crucial socioeconomic issues through lenses of vested interest rather than considering a perspective that includes all stakeholders.

For instance, think about the US utility business and the energy bill before Congress. The industry’s primary stakeholders are shareholders who expect a return on investment; and, the commercial and residential customers who need reliable electricity, and whose monthly bill payments provide revenue. But there are many others who have a stake in how the business is managed, ranging from environmentalists to economic developers.  And, the issue is not limited to the utility industry, but includes all businesses that use energy-producing fuels.  This raises an overriding national security concern about the extent of our reliance on fossil fuels, much of which comes from countries that are not fond of our values or our way of life.

 In looking at federal energy legislation, how do we balance the immediate business priorities of shareholder return and customer price, with the long-term issues of national security, economic development and environmental sustainability?

At present, we don’t. We can’t seem to think beyond the immediate interest of our various constituencies. Politicians in power want to stay there and those out of power want to return, common good be damned; the primary concern of business is shareholder return and customer price; consumers seek to maintain and improve their existing standard of living. The first is subjected to powerful lobbying from the second, and the third targeted with partisan campaigns of fear, obfuscation and manipulation by the other two.

The long-term interest in energy policy should include but go beyond all of the above. This interest also includes national security, economic issues that stretch across national boundaries, balancing energy resources between developing and developed nations, and the world-threatening issue of environmental sustainability.

It seems clear to me that the United States is becoming more and more vulnerable as we increase our dependency on energy imports, thus becoming less able to deal effectively with threats from the Middle East. We are in danger of falling into energy insecurity, and of being mired in constant conflict with unstable and badly governed states.  

This is where my current studies in international relations and my passion for domestic politics come together. We have an urgent need to begin a conversation about new political and economic strategies, conversations that must recognize the true cost of our energy consumption. This true cost (according to Energy Security: Toward a New Foreign Policy Status by Jan Kalicki and David Goldwyn) includes the cost of maintaining a military presence in the Gulf states, the healthcare costs caused by carbon emissions and other pollutants, the cost of maintaining our transportation infrastructure, and the economic costs “that volatile energy prices impose on the competitiveness of US manufacturing.”

Kalicki and Goldwyn argue that “the disconnect between what Americans pay for energy and what it really costs them has lead to political deadlock… The failure to achieve basic changes has plagued Democratic and Republicans alike, both of which have feared antagonizing domestic producers and manufacturers or risking consumer retaliation at even the mention of” increasing taxes. They argue, therefore, that the legislative consequence is weak, and is limited to “shortsighted discussions of industry subsidies, or continuation of the war between producers and environmentalists.”

Even though their book was written in 2005, this is a very accurate description of the current legislative process in Washington. At least the Democrats in the House had the courage to pass out a bill, but Democratic Senators are so mired in self-interest that they can’t see beyond the next election.

Somewhere, somehow there must be a coming together of leaders who will engage the conversation as statespersons rather than partisans, seeking a balance that preserves the interest of the nation, ensures long-term environmental sustainability, national security and economic prosperity… and earns the US a mantle of world leadership on an issue that affects every corner of the globe.

It can be said that this is just a pipe dream that it can never happen. But if we don’t seriously engage our energy policy we are endangering the freedom and security of our grandchildren’s children. A similar argument can be made about the health proposals currently before Congress, but I shan’t burden you with more words. Suffice it to say that I am disgusted with my party’s lack of leadership and courage in Congress, and it all makes me wonder why we fought so hard to get a huge Democratic majority. They seem to be more concerned about appeasing their colleagues on the right than serving the needs of the American people.

This next week we move on to the re-emergence of Russia as a power in international relations, the nature and significance of terrorism in global politics, and the function and purposes of diplomacy in international relations. Our closing seminar is “The United States and International Organizations: An Obstruction or a Facilitator.” I’ll see you all soon, Bill

A Learning Experience II

Class Highlights from the Week of July 13

We started the week with a day-long focus on climate change, looking at risks, scenarios for the future, and the roles and responsibilities (personal, government, business) for engaging those scenarios.

 The rest of the week was spent in the Middle East, beginning with a seminar on “An Islamic Challenge to the West”. We then got more specific with seminars on “The Gulf: Oil and Islam”, “Iraq An Unnatural State?” and “Iran: A Rogue State?”  The week concluded with three seminars on China’s emergence as a world power: “The Political Economy of China’s Economic Development”, “China’s Role in Globalization and Multilateral Trade”, and “China’s Geopolitical trajectory: Conflict or Cooperation?” Continue reading “A Learning Experience II”

A Postcard from Cambridge

Cambridge is a delightful city, spiced by the international flavor of students from across the globe. This summer there are students from 35 nations enrolled in several different graduate-level disciplines in the International Summer School, and high-school age students studying language in the various schools and colleges.

The University of Cambridge is made up of 31 colleges and more than 150 departments. Each college is independent, recruiting its own students and faculty, but college faculty members teach in the various departments (physics, languages, etc.) and students take courses from any of the departments.

The River Cam runs through the city and there are great walks (as well as punting trips— using long poles to propel a boat) along the river. I am staying at Westcott House, the seminary, in a one-bedroom flat. My class day starts at 9a.m. and ends at 3:30, and most evenings I have been going back to the flat, fixing dinner and preparing for the next day’s lesson. The faculty is terrific, and the 23 students from 13 countries in this international relations course are energizing. It is fascinating to get the many different perspectives on international events, ranging from the Middle East to China. Perhaps the most spirited discussion centered on the controversial cartoons printed in Danish newspapers that were considered anti-Islam by Muslims across the world. The students from Denmark and the Netherlands were passionate in challenging the professor on the issue of freedom of speech. Kennon arrives on Monday and I will do a little more exploring of the area with her.