Monday, December 31, 2018

What’s With the Wall?

As a liberal/progressive, I think the wall is a bad idea for a variety of reasons.  It’s also a terrible image that the United States should not be associated with.

But is funding for the wall something that Democrats should shut down the government over?

We all agree, I think, that immigration should happen in an orderly manner, in accordance with the procedures and numbers set forth by Congress.  No one, not even the most fervent progressive, is in favor of illegal immigration.  This is completely separate from the issue of what we should do with the illegal immigrants who are already here and have become part of the fabric of their communities.

As a result, Democrats are in favor of increased security, improving fencing, etc.  But Democrats and the leadership in Congress draw the line at money for the wall.

Why?  I don’t think it’s primarily because of the negative image or it’s being a bad idea.  But it has become a symbol of resistance to Trump’s stand on immigration policy.  He not only wants the wall, but he has vilified illegal immigrants throughout his campaign and time in office.  The wall has been made repulsive because it has been tainted with his offensive language.  

But even given all that, is this something you shut down the government over?  I think that if it wasn’t for the revulsion that most Democrats/liberals/progressives feel towards Trump on a daily basis, the answer would clearly be, no.  The issue of the wall itself does not rise to the level of importance that would lead to a shutdown.

Now of course once could ask, why should the Democrats blink?  Why doesn’t Trump back down?  And that’s a fair question.  But this is not a game of chicken, or at least it shouldn't be.  It’s not even a question of right or wrong.  We are talking about the welfare of our country and the livelihood of millions of Federal employees.

The Democratic leadership should hold their noses and give Trump the initial funding for the wall, making a very strong point as they do so about their commitment to the welfare of the country and a reformed immigration law.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

It’s the Trade War, Stupid!

It was no surprise that Donald Trump is clueless about what’s happening in the stock market, because the blame falls directly on him and he never accepts responsibility for anything.  But recent reports in The Times ("Stocks Extend Their Slide," December 24) indicate that Treasury Secretary Mnuchin is similarly clueless.

Investor unease has nothing to do with the liquidity of banks or the underlying strength of the U.S. economy.  They are both strong and investors know it.  (Although Mnuchin’s reassuring statement about liquidity could make them nervous about something that isn’t an issue.)  It’s true, investors don’t like the Fed’s increase in interest rates, but that’s not the big problem either.  

The big problem is Trump’s self-imposed trade war.  This has created huge uncertainty for investors as to the future strength of not just the U.S. economy but also China’s and the world's.  Secondarily, his erratic behavior on all subjects, including his recent actions in the Mideast, add to the dynamic of uncertainty.  And then, his ego-driven Twitter feeds that routinely undercut any reasonable action his administration takes compounds investor uncertainty.

Given that no one has the ability to sit Trump down and explain the facts of life to him, this does not bode well for the future. Investors will probably shrug off the latest jitters and the market will rebound, but volatility will remain. The market’s only real hope is that his mania for self-preservation will force the conclusion, hopefully soon, that he must end the trade war for the market to regain its strength.

(A shortened version of this post has been published by The New York Times as a Letter to the Editor.)

Friday, December 14, 2018

ATTN: Liberals and Conservatives - What Is the Role of Government?

In these days of enraged people on both sides of the political spectrum, it would be helpful to take a deep breath, step back from the battle, and ask the question, “What is the role of government?”  Specifically, our government.  In answering this question we look to our founding documents.

According to the Constitution the purpose of government is to "establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”  If we look at the Declaration of Independence the role is defined more broadly, which is “to secure” the unalienable rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  I say more broadly because everything stated in the Constitution is necessary if one is to be able to pursue life, liberty, and happiness.

Clearly the role of government is an active one.  Words such as “insure,”  “provide,” “promote,” and “secure” are all verbs denoting an ongoing active responsibility.

There are two aspects of the role as stated in both these documents that deserve focus.  First the Constitution refers to promoting the “general Welfare.”  This is clearly a statement that government must look to the welfare of all its citizens, not just some.  It is the general welfare that is important, not just the welfare of some segments of society.  Taken together with the Declaration’s statement that “all men are created equal” and have “unalienable rights,” our founding documents clearly stand for the value and the rights of each and every citizen, of all segments of society.

The second aspect I will focus on is that both documents state that the role of government is to “secure” what the Constitution broadly characterizes as “the blessings of liberty,” and which the Declaration more particularly describes as the rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

To what extent has our government lived up to its responsibilities as set forth in our founding documents?  

First, let’s get one thing straight … regardless the political party in power or the era, the United States has harbored huge inequality, not just regarding wealth but well-being.  This is true despite all the social welfare programs that were enacted in the 20th century.  While one can talk about the poor being worse off or better off under a particular administration, and one can say that materially the poor are better off in modern times than ever, their state of well-being remains a negative one.  (Perhaps this is why so many of the poor don’t vote; why they say it doesn’t make a difference who is in power, which liberals find maddening.)  

Why is life for the poor degrading?  Widespread discrimination, unequal access to quality education, substandard housing to name perhaps the most important factors.  This negative well-being has in turn spawned an environment of gangs, violence, and drugs which haw made a bad situation that much worse.  Note:  it is not poverty itself that makes life degrading, it is these attendant factors.

This is true regardless whether one is looking at people of color or whites, urban or rural.  And, to counter a widely held perception, while the majority of those living in poverty are people of color, 44% are white.  In 2018, the figures were white - 44%, black - 23%, Hispanic - 28%, and Asian - 5%.  Yes, blacks disproportionately commit more crimes and engage in drug trafficking, but they also suffer disproportionately more discrimination, bad education, and substandard housing.  Many whites blame blacks for inflicting the drugs and violence environment on themselves, but such accusations totally overlook the role of the white-imposed reality of life for blacks in America.

Bottom line.  Government has not promoted the general welfare.

From the foregoing, it is also clear that government has not secured the “blessings of liberty” for a large proportion of Americans (40 million people live poverty, 12.3% of the population).  The charge is not that government hasn’t provided these blessings, because that is not government’s role.  

It’s role is to secure the “right” to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.   What does that mean?  It means that government has the responsibility for insuring that all citizens have an equal opportunity to pursue their right to life, liberty, and happiness.  What an individual makes of that right is his or her responsibility.  

So for example, it is government’s role to insure that the education provided in all schools is of equivalent quality.  That is sadly far from the case.  It is government’s responsibility to insure that there is no discrimination by educating children and adults about equality, passing appropriate laws, and vigorously enforcing them.  It is government’s responsibility to insure that no one lives in substandard housing through building codes, etc. that are vigorously enforced.  Then there is the right to vote.  Before the Voting Rights Act of 1964, Blacks were routinely denied the vote in much of the South.  In recent years, Republican forces have been attacking this right in a deceitful way which primarily impacts poor people of color in order to reduce Democratic voter turnout.

While government has certainly made advances in addressing these issues, most have been half-hearted.  None have come even close to fundamentally changing the status quo.

The one area where government’s effort to secure a right has been to a large extent successful has been in the area of access to health care.  Through Medicaid, the vast majority of people living in poverty have health insurance.  There are still problems of health care access, especially in rural areas, but this nevertheless has largely been a successful effort.  And it has been made even more so with the passage of Obamacare and its expansion of Medicaid.

So what do we do with the basic fact that our government is not truly fulfilling its role.  It’s doing many things it should be doing, and probably very little of what it does is unnecessary, outside the area of defense.  But when it comes to promoting the general welfare and securing the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all its citizens, it has barely scratched the surface.

Why not?  It isn’t for lack of resources.  But it is a matter of priorities.  What I’m referring to is not really even on the list of priorities.  And that is for two very different reasons.  

For conservatives, they just don’t see the role of government as being more than providing for our defense, insuring domestic tranquility (i.e. order), and letting business and people be free to do pretty much what they want to do without government “interference” (that’s their definition of the blessings of liberty).  They are comfortable with government subsidizing business and farmers (a subset of business) in many ways; it’s individuals that they don’t think deserve government support.

For liberals, while they see the role of government very differently, as a source of help for those who need it, changing the fundamental status quo is not on their radar.  Whether that’s because they don’t see it as a viable option, or because it’s not something that has even entered their thought process, it’s just not there.  They are mentally and spiritually limited by the world as they know it.  They are not visionaries.  And what this country needs is visionaries.

How do we develop visionaries in the population and in our politicians?  It starts by not accepting the status quo, by understanding that there is something basically wrong with the way things are and have always been.  That what is going on is contrary to the basic tenets of our founding documents.  It means going back to the content of our education system as it pertains to civics.

But that is not going to happen.  And one reason why is that, as noted, you have such diametrically opposed intellectual approaches to our founding documents.  For example, on the one hand you have the thoughts expressed in my book, We Still Hold These Truths, published in 2004, which present our founding documents as primarily liberal in spirit.  On the other hand, you have Mathew Spaulding’s book of the same title, published in 2009, which argues for a conservative reading of those same documents.  And he castigates progressives for perverting those documents.

I don't think there is anything one can do to convince a Spaulding or any of his followers that the liberal interpretation of our founding documents is correct.  However, one can focus liberals/progressives on the fact that their position is supported by these documents.  And one can educate independents.  

I find it amazing not only that the Democratic Party has never taken my book to its heart and used it productively, they’ve never really taken notice of it, but that they haven’t come up with anything to counter Spaulding’s argument.  They have walked away from our liberal birthright and left this elemental source of strength to the conservatives.

This is what must change if there is to be any hope of bringing the force of our founding documents to bear on this central issue of social justice.  Only then will we have a chance to end discrimination, provide equal access to education, end the blight of substandard housing for the poor, insure voting rights for all, and correct many other wrongs.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Watching the Train Wreck, Helpless

These have been years that try men’s souls.  Dysfunction and inhumanity have always been abroad to a greater or lesser extent.  But these last two years under President Trump have been especially difficult.  Yes, come January the Democrats will be in control of the House.  But while that portends some policy changes that will be welcomed, real change is the underlying status quo in politics and our society is not in the offing.

In many of my posts, I have noted with sadness the destruction that man continues to wreak on himself and the environment.  Whether the issue is politics, social injustice, domestic strife, human interactions, the state of international relations, or at the core how man relates to himself, while there is a clear path forward out of the morass that man has created, the forward energy of this train of destruction cannot I fear be stopped.  Indeed, the train is speeding up.  

Most of the world’s leaders and many of its inhabitants, certainly those with a voice, are unwitting advocates of the forces that propel the train forward to its dark destiny.  They have from birth sucked from the nipple of our culture the seven deadly sins … lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, anger, envy, and pride.  These sins flow from the font of insecurity that is formed almost at birth and hides man’s divinity from himself.  It is a rare man, certainly in Western cultures, that truly loves himself.  

It is the ultimate punishment for man eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and being thrust out of the Garden of Eden, separated from his own divine state.  (See my post, “Our Culture is the Serpent in the Garden of Eden.”)  The way back, to return to the God/Buddha-essence he was born with, lies in renouncing man’s ego-mind, his mind’s judgment of all things, including good and evil.  And that is simply beyond the ken, the imagination, of most men.  (As I’ve written often, this does not mean that man would not discern the problems and dysfunction in the world; he would be very aware, but he would not label or react with emotion.)

In the Bible, when man was lost, God knew that the only way out of the morass was to wipe mankind out.  And so he sent the flood.  But God, or rather the creators of the myth, made the mistake of not wiping man out totally.  Through attachment to His creation, He allowed Noah and his family to survive.  And so all the failings of man were perpetuated into the future.

The evolution of man has turned out to be a most destructive force.  Man has added much that has benefitted and enriched the lives of man, but on balance he has done far more harm than good, both to himself as well as his co-inhabitants of Earth.  As I have written previously, this harm is not as most would say a product of man’s nature, but rather his nurture.  It is a monstrous self-inflicted wound.  

The force that has driven and is driving man to inflict this wound, to create the cancer that consumes him, to act in a way that is not in his self-interest, to separate him from his divine self, is the combined force of our culture (at least Western culture) and our religions (see my post, “The Shame of Religion”).  Even in the East, it is painful to witness the hatred towards the Muslim Rohingya that springs forth from the mouths of Buddhist monks and is condoned by leaders such as Aung San Suu Kyi.

There is no doubt in my mind that the only hope for planet Earth lies in the total destruction of man.  The Biblical Day of Judgment could not come soon enough.  If man were wiped out, nature would slowly restore itself.  It has that power.  After millennia, the world would once again be as verdant and alive as it was before the advent of man.  

The fact that I am a Buddhist makes this an especially painful statement to make.  I know and have absolute faith that every person is born with the God/Buddha-essence inside them, as the mystical traditions of the three Abrahamic faiths and Buddhism teach.  I know the process of life experience through which man loses contact with that essence and instead is subject to the emotions, judgments, cravings, and attachments of his ego-mind, and the suffering and frustration that flows from that.  And I know and have faith in the spiritual process that can free man from the control of his ego-mind and restore him to his true self, his heart, his God/Buddha-essence.

But the overwhelming majority of human beings are not aware of these teachings, and even if they were, probably would not subscribe to them.  Because they go against everything we are taught by our culture, everything we believe about ourselves; these teachings are radical.  Even those who do follow the path typically have difficulties because of the constant challenges thrown in their path by the ego-mind’s reactions to life experiences and by our culture.  As we’ve seen, even Buddhist monks can become lost in the grip of ethnic hatred

We just have not been raised to have the necessary fortitude for the spiritual path.  And irony of ironies, true spirituality often does not come with orthodox religious belief; the ultra-orthodox are often intolerant of others and abusive of themselves and their loved ones.  There is no aura of divinity in their actions; just the facade of ritual. 

The evolution of man is an experiment gone awry.  The sooner it ends, the better for man and for our planet.

In the meantime, I live in the present.  I will continue to raise my voice, to work with others to make life better in whatever small way I can.  After all, the present is our only reality; all conjecture as to what the future will bring is just that … conjecture, thought.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Trump’s Tariff Talk - Lies, Lies, Lies

As Trump has been selling his use of tariffs to punish those, especially China, who he feels, with some justification, do not play fair in the trading game, he makes two statements.  First, he says that he is punishing them so that they will come around and give the U.S. a better trade deal.  Second, he talks about the billions of dollars that China is paying into the U.S. Treasury’s coffers because of the tariffs.

As to the first argument, tariffs have been used traditionally to protect local industry from foreign competition.  Since the external goods weren’t needed, making them more expensive, by imposing tariffs, made them less competitive and reduced their sales.  

In the current situation as pertains to China, Trump is trying to improve the balance of trade by reducing U.S. purchases of Chinese goods.  The difference now is that Chinese product is needed; there isn’t a domestic replacement.  Whether it’s product that U.S. industry needs or that consumers purchase, there really isn’t an alternative.  The impact of globalization has destroyed that.  Therefore, industry pays more for the product making their end product correspondingly more expensive and less competitive.  Or the U.S. consumer pays more for the Chinese product or perhaps goes without if it can’t be afforded.  

In both cases, the parties who are made to suffer by the tariffs are Americans … industry and consumers … not the Chinese.

It must be said that this method was more effective in dealing with the E.U. because the European countries on the one hand need us more and on the other we need them less.  We both are in a similar globalization status; we produce similar goods. 

As to the second argument, China isn’t paying anything into the U.S. Treasury.  That’s because tariffs are imposed when a product comes into the U.S. and they are paid by the importer.  The importer is never China.  It is a U.S. or other company that is importing the product and is therefore paying the tariff.  Again, it is American business that is suffering, not China.

And then there’s the suffering China’s retaliatory tariffs and actions are causing American exporters, particularly farmers.  For example, China has stopped purchasing American soybeans.  And so the government is spending billions in subsidies to protect farmers from what would otherwise be catastrophic losses.

That Trump has been able to control the message on this, as with many other issues, is beyond frustrating.  Yes, there have been many articles in newspapers, and I assume on the news and internet, regarding how American companies, farmers, and consumers are paying the price of this trade war.  But there is no personage, no presence, to effectively counter Trump’s bluster and lies.

Some august group of personages from both the Republican and Democratic parties must come together to issue statements as needed that put the truth before the American public.  A bi-partisan Truth Commission must be formed to keep the public informed.  Nothing will change Trump’s method, but the public can be protected with an appropriate countervailing force.