An American Editor

October 20, 2010

The Strangeness of Politics

In a recent New York Times article, “Stand Against Earmarks Grows Lonely as Home State Sees a Need,” it was noted that South Carolinians are upset with their conservative senator, Jim DeMint, because he isn’t supporting a request for $400,000 of federal taxpayer money to conduct a feasibility study on the dredging of the Port of Charleston, which if feasible, would lead to a further request for federal taxpayer funds of up to $250 million to actually do the work. It seems that South Carolinians are willing to accept federal money when they are willing to accept federal money. Seems to me that South Carolinians want it both ways, which, of course, the rest of us would like as well, but which seems to me to negate the idea of the United States being a single nation.

Although I am what DeMint would characterize as a liberal, which is anyone a smidgen or more to the left of Jim DeMint, I have to applaud him for taking a principled stand — he is against earmarks, period! — something many of his coconservatives are not when it comes to getting handouts. Usually they want the handouts but without any strings attached. (And this is not to say that liberals are any less desirous of either handouts or restriction-free handouts — they aren’t! You can take the politics out of the money, but you can’t take the money out of the politics.)

South Carolina is opposed — adamantly — to federal bailouts and handouts, especially to items like mandatory health insurance that could benefit all U.S. citizens — except when they are not, which is hard to predict when that will be. I think South Carolinians should lead the way and simply refuse any and all federal money. This would tell the rest of us that they truly do mean what they say.

But with the recent revelations about the problems with the mortgage foreclosure documents, I wonder how quickly conservative and Tea Party tunes will change should there be a sudden raft of major bank failures that affect their pocketbooks? Bank of America, for example, has dealings with nearly half of Americans. Should it collapse, a lot of currently wealthy people would find themselves wealth-less. And retirees, who are a large portion of the Tea Party movement, would be in trouble as the ripple of such a colossal failure spread. Relying on having an FDIC insured account is problematic because the FDIC doesn’t have enough capital to cover that size failure without further government borrowing, which, of course, we just know Jim DeMint and the Tea Partyers would vehemently oppose, preferring to have all of their wealth disappear in the collapse.

Some economists, including conservative ones, say that the latest banking fiasco could result in a bigger financial crisis for the banks than the subprime bubble burst. Which makes me wonder —

Should we see a bank like Bank of America start to topple as a result of this latest crisis, will the conservatives and the Tea Partyers stick to their principles and filibuster any proposed bailout of the banks? I admit I’m not an economist or much of a financial expert, but even I can see that if banks like JP Morgan Chase and Bank of America are allowed to fail, there are going to be a lot of formerly rich Republicans and Tea Partyers wondering what happened.

Of course, it would be an appropriate payback to all those corporations who are donating nondisclosed millions to the rollback-the-regulation candidates should their supporters let them fail. Isn’t it strange that the big Wall Street firms who were shored up by Democrat officeholders are now spending millions to kick the Democrats out. Grateful the bankers aren’t!

If the Congress swings to the right as expected, here are a few bits of legislation that the new right-wing majority should introduce: legislation to

  1. eliminate all Congressional pay raises until the budget has been balanced for at least 5 consecutive years and the national debt has been fully retired;
  2. do away with all taxpayer-funded medical and retirement benefits for all members of Congress and their spouses and families;
  3. return America to the days of the founding fathers by eliminating the filibuster — it isn’t in the Constitution — and bringing back majority rule.

There is nothing more impressive than seeing our leaders truly lead. And the cry to follow the intent of our founding fathers should be honored in the practice by recreating their work conditions. After all, they couldn’t have foreseen air conditioning, so certainly wouldn’t have considered spending taxpayer money on it to be constitutional — I see no air conditioning clause in the Constitution or even in the Federalist Papers. Perhaps if Congress had to work in the swelter of Washington without air conditioning, there would be less pompousness and more getting the people’s work done.

I grant that this seems silly, but it seems no sillier to me than the idea that we should revert to what the founders thought, especially when the founders weren’t of one voice on any topic, but were of hundreds of voices on every topic. The only single voice the founders had was that of compromise — they realized, which the “party of no” doesn’t seem to grasp, that the art of nation building is really the art of compromise. To their chagrin, the founders learned that confederation (remember the Articles of Confederation?) really doesn’t work and so compromised a different approach, the Constitution, which has worked — so far.

Compromise is the one lesson that Congress and the Supreme Court are in desperate need of learning, as are the South Carolinians who put out their hand to take but not to give. This disease — the lack of compromise — breeds the strangeness of modern American politics, which would even have been strange to the founding fathers as much as it is to the average citizen today. We all compromise everyday as part of our daily lives — unless we are politicians who can reap taxpayer largess while not accomplishing anything.

And if compromise really galls the Tea Partyers and the Jim DeMints of the American political scene, then I offer this bromide: Lead us to salvation by voluntarily giving up your Medicare, your Social Security, your exorbitant congressional pay and benefits. Be austere in your own lives first; go without medical insurance and demonstrate how the free market will take care of all your needs without government intervention. I, for one, am willing to be convinced that you are right; I just want to see you lead by example rather than by decree and platitude.

July 29, 2010

November’s Around the Corner, Yet Here We Go Again

The campaign season has gotten into gear. Here in New York State, we are still in budget crisis yet our politicians want us to reelect them. The irony is that most of them will be reelected even though most voters think the politicians should be kicked out.

What really gripes me is that yesterday the state legislators were called into special session, costing us taxpayers $100,000, and what did they do? They pledged their allegiance to the U.S. flag, had the call into special session read to them, and then adjourned. Nothing was discussed, nothing debated, but we taxpayers owe them another $100,000.

To top that off, I was annoyed last evening with a “research” telephone call regarding the state senate race in my district. The caller identified themselves as a pollster and asked if I would participate. So far, so good. Then the questions came. Only an idiot wouldn’t have seen through the smokescreen. It wasn’t really a poll; it was a fake poll designed to boost the incumbent and deflate his challenger. The questions were so biased toward the incumbent, I finally asked for the pollster’s complete contact information, at which point the polling stopped and the pollster hung up.

Politics has always been a dirty game. When I read about the election contests at the birth of our nation, it is clear they were as riddled with fabrications as today’s campaigns, and equally as dirty. Subsequent campaigns were no better.

The fault is that of the voter, so I stand up and accept my share of the blame. First, we allowed politics to become a permanent occupation. Why should any officeholder be allowed to be elected to an office more than a couple of times? We talk about the Kennedy seat, the Rangel seat, the XYZ seat, but never about the people’s seat. Was Ted Kennedy entitled to the seat? Or how about Robert Byrd? Charlie Rangel’s ethical problems are a result of his character and his district’s constantly reelecting him without question.

Second, we always believe that the politicians are doing us dirty as citizens — not necessarily a wrong belief — but then reelect our politicians. It is always someone else’s politician who is doing us dirty. It’s pretty hard to thrown stones when you live in a glass house yourself. It was recently reported that 70% of Americans think Congress is doing a horrendous job and all those up for reelection this November should be voted out of office. Then they were asked whether they intended to vote for their current incumbent, and slightly more than half said yes. What it means is that 434 Representatives and 98 Senators are ruining America but our 3 aren’t. Mr. Smith went to Washington in fantasyland, not in real America!

Third, we have created a culture in which our politicians believe they are entitled to everything they can get. How many of us have health insurance plans that equal or surpass that of our Congressperson, both in coverage and in cost? How about our retirements? And no need to go that far — what about our incomes. If it is true that fewer than 5% of American households have incomes greater than $250,000, why is it that so many congressional households are in that plateau? Perhaps if Mitch McConnell had to stand in an unemployment line he would understand the need to extend unemployment benefits. Perhaps if congresspersons had no health insurance coverage at taxpayer expense, they would better understand the need to do something about the problem; maybe they would recognize that it is a problem.

Which brings me to my last frustration with politicians (well, the last for this article; I’ve got a whole list more): Why is it we can afford billions upon billions of dollars for foreign wars, unusable/unwanted weapons systems, aid to foreign countries, pork-barrel projects, and tax cuts and special tax legislation that do not demonstrably bring jobs to Americans, but we cannot afford better healthcare, better education, and to feed, clothe, and shelter every American reasonably? I’m not suggesting, for example, that our military doesn’t deserve a lot of its budget or that a congressperson’s pork for a local children’s museum isn’t a good thing; rather, I want to understand the underlying thinking that rarely ever addresses budgetary deficit resolution with these things in mind. Yet, we voters tolerate that thinking, if not outright endorse it.

Which brings me to my voter frustration. We voters tend to focus on a specific, narrow issue when deciding for whom to cast our vote. A neighbor who is significantly underemployed and has had to put his house up for sale is solely focused on the candidates’ Second Amendment positions. He will vote for the candidate who he thinks will best promote his right to own and use guns without restrictions. I don’t dispute that to him it is an important issue, but THE issue? He doesn’t care about any other issue, just that one issue. It is more important to him than issues about funding schools for his children to attend, supporting the food pantry where he occasionally goes to supplement his larder, healthcare in light of his loss of coverage because of his sporadic work in this economy, and matters of his retirement, which isn’t many years away, and future employment prospects.

I guess politicians are simply a reflection of the voters — neither seem to be able to look at the big picture and act on it for the benefit of all. I get so tired of hearing a politician say it is good for her constituents even if it is a disaster for all the rest of the country so she is supporting it. I’m not sure America isn’t more divided today than it was in 1861; I am sure that politicians and voters haven’t evolved any since then.

June 3, 2010

None of the Below: An Election Blessing

I live in the most politically dysfunctional state in America — New York. In my state, there is really only one truism: if it is good for the citizens, the legislature will not enact it; if it is good for the politicians, they will.

As the November elections get closer, I become more irate with the political process. With a lot of hoopla and expectations, Andrew Cuomo has been nominated for governor. So far, he has had exactly one good, solid idea — call a constitutional convention and rewrite New York’s anti-citizen constitution. Now if Rick Lazio, the Republican gubernatorial candidate, would join this call, there might be hope.

Of course, this was tried in the 1960s and failed — the politicians and special interests convinced the citizens to vote no on the proposed reforms, and like good sheep, we did. Perhaps this time would be different — assuming the politicians muster the courage to call for a convention and the delegates are ordinary citizens not politicians.

There is one major reform I would like to see: the “none-of-the-below” ballot option. I am tired of professional politicians, people whose only interest is in preserving their own jobs regardless of the cost to those whom they purportedly represent. I’m even more tired of New York’s faux part-time legislature that receives more than full-time pay. Consequently, I propose a new election system.

My proposal would begin, as is done today, with each political party nominating its candidate for a political office. The ballot would list each party-nominated candidate and affiliation but at the very top of the ballot would be the option — in extralarge letters — NONE OF THE BELOW.

Now here’s where it gets good — at least good for the citizens. If “None of the Below” gets the most votes — even if it is just a plurality — “None of the Below” wins. The consequence is that none of the party-named candidates who were on the ballot can be on the ballot again in this election cycle.

How do we get new candidates? If the election is for a county-level office or lower, anyone, regardless of political affiliation or independent status can be self-nominated by a petition signed by 3% of the county’s population (if it is a city, town, or village office, it would be by 3% of the city, town, or village’s population). A candidate for an office at a level higher than the county level, would need signatures equalling 1% of the population that the particular office covered; for example, if it is a statewide office like governor, 1% of the state’s population would have to endorse the candidate. If it was a congressional district, it would be 1% of the population of that district.

A petition-nominated candidate would have to declare any party affiliation (if the candidate is a party member) or list him- or herself as independent (nonaffiliated). The political parties would not be permitted to run a party-nominated or party-endorsed candidate — the parties had their exclusive run and lost to “None of the Below.”

To move things along, a special website would be created where potential candidates could list themselves and where people willing to “sign” their petition would go to sign it. There would be no door-to-door or street corner petitions to sign; it would all be done electronically and petition signers would be permitted to sign only one petition for a particular office. The nomination process would be open for 7 days.

Once the nomination process closed, an electronic ballot would be created within 3 days and the first-round vote held online within 30 days after that. Candidates would have 30 days to campaign. Unless a single candidate received at least 50.1% of the votes cast in the first round, all candidates would be removed from the ballot except the top 2 candidates who would face each other in a runoff. Again, the balloting would occur 30 days from the first-round balloting, thus limiting the final 2 candidates to 30 days of campaigning.

The winner of this second-round vote would be elected to office.

The advantage to this system is that it would empower the citizens and decrease the power of special interest groups, including self-serving politicians. The established parties and the special interest groups would have the first crack at electing a candidate, but if they fail, the general citizenry takes over. With the uncertainty as to who would make it to the final round, and the limited campaign time, it would be difficult for the special interests to muster their forces behind a particular candidate — not impossible, just difficult. Consequently, their influence would be reduced.

More importantly, it would also give independents and disaffected party members an opportunity to nominate candidates who don’t owe their success to the political parties — candidates who, hopefully, would be more responsive to constituent needs than to special interest needs. And it would make it easier for unhappy citizens to remove office holders. Now it is almost impossible when one party renominates the incumbent and the other party has difficulty finding a good party member to run against the incumbent.

This plan also has the bonus that once a candidate is rejected, the candidate doesn’t get an immediate second chance. The citizens rejected the candidate once, which should be sufficient. It is this feature that I particularly like, because it will mean that an incumbent who wants to be reelected will need to pay less attention to special interest groups and more to constituents to strengthen his or her chances of getting elected on the first ballot.

It seems to me that this would be a good way to flush the dysfunction and special interests out of New York’s politics and reempower the citizens. Perhaps New York would become a good place to live. I know the plan has its problems and needs refinement, but even if enacted as outlined here, it has to be better than what New Yorkers currently suffer with.

May 19, 2010

On Words: Politics, Political, and Their Progeny

Okay, I know this is dangerous territory, but I heard a speech by Robert Reich recently in which he amused his audience by defining the origins of politics. Professor Reich noted that poli is from the Greek polis and polites, or city and citizen, respectively, and that tics are blood-sucking insects. Although I found his definition amusing, and perhaps a bit accurate in our current state of political partisanship, I began to think about politics, political, and their various progeny. So here goes a look at the words and a political rant.

One source says politic is a late Middle English word derived from the Old French politique, via Latin from the Greek politikos. A different source traces its roots to a borrowing in 1427 from the Middle French politique. In the end, the birth is the same — from the Latin politicus and the Greek politikos.

But deviant forms also appeared. Politician appears to have been coined in 1588 and meant a shrewd person (and today we might mean a shrew person). One year later the meaning had morphed to a person skilled in politics. And today, when we say someone is a political animal, we can thank Aristotle and a translation from the Greek of his words politikon zoon, whose literal meaning was “an animal intended to live in a city.” Interestingly, polecat, a possible term of endearment for a politician, doesn’t have the same roots as politics.

Politics as the science and art of government dates from the 16th century. Political science first appeared in 1779 in the writings of David Hume. Political appeared in 1551 and was the English formation, believed to have its roots, again, in the Latin politicus with the addition of the English al. Politics is one of those few words that is both singular and plural, depending on context and usage.

In American English, politician originally was a noun that referred to the white-eyed vireo (Vireo griseus). In Wilson’s American Ornithology (v. II, p. 166) published 1804, the vireo was described as: “This bird builds a very neat little nest…of…bits of rotten wood,…pieces of paper, commonly newspapers,…so that some of my friends have given it the name of the Politician.” Could this have been the first linking of rotten and politician? (Okay, perhaps a bit harsh.) In 1844, Natural History repeated Wilson’s association. And it was repeated again in 1917 in Birds of America.

In 1914 the Cyclopedia of American Government defined political bargain as “an agreement, usually corrupt, between contending political factions or individuals….” Seems like nothing has changed in 100 years.

Today, politician and political are simply synonyms for stalemate, for corruption, and for abuse. Alright, that’s cynical, but I’m tired of politics and politicians as usual because that is what it generally amounts to — the grinding to a halt of the country’s business to satisfy the egos of those who wield the political power and those who can buy it — especially now that the U.S. Supreme Court has given license to unlimited corporate spending in political campaigns. I can see it now: Goldman Sachs will spend $500 million — probably 1 day’s profits — to buy the next Congress, against which my paltry $500 contribution will be like a single grain of sand thrown at the Rock of Gibraltar as my attempt to influence the crumbling of the Rock.

America is quickly becoming the land of the extremes, a place where centrists, which is what most of us are, wield little to no influence, and a land where doublespeak is the language of the day. (I’m still waiting for my Tea Party neighbors who rail against socialized medicine to give up their Medicare [can I suggest a Burn Your Medicare Card rally?]. The day I see that happen will be the first day I really believe that the Tea Party is a semi-honest political movement. Until then it looks like a “me first and only” movement.)

Group greed is what seems to move America today. In my local school budget vote, my city’s school budget was soundly defeated by a 3:1 margin. I admit that for the first time in my life I voted against a school budget — and that’s a lot of votes cast over many years. The final straw was when the teachers refused to make any sacrifice whatsoever, claiming that they needed their raises and continued free benefits because their living costs have been rising. Are they so naive as to think no one else’s living costs have also been rising, that they are unique?

I know that in reality nothing has changed. Today’s group greed is the same as yesterday’s, only the groups have changed. But somewhere someone besides me must recognize the lack of equilibrium between lower taxes and maintaining or increasing government services. Something has to give. It’s like the demand for electricity to power our summer air conditioners — we want more without brownouts but we don’t want to build the infrastructure to provide more; we want less reliance on foreign oil but we want ever larger and powerful automobiles; we want our children to breathe clean air but we oppose cap-and-trade legislation.

Makes me wonder who the children really are!

May 17, 2010

On Books: The Most Important Novel in Your Life

As I was reading yet another book — seems as if that is all I ever do — a stray thought occurred to me: What was the most important novel I had ever read? By important, I mean that changed my perspective and influenced future decisions I made.

I started thinking about the thousands of books I have read; some I misremembered as fiction when they were really nonfiction. Who knows how many I have completely forgotten, which, I suppose, means they weren’t all that important to me. And my list began to grow.

First, there were all the Tom Swift (made me think I wanted to be an scientist) and the Hardy Boys (nothing cooler than being a detective, or so a 10-year-old once thought) books. Then came the standard books that most of us read or tried to read, such as Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises, and hundreds more. It rapidly became a mountain of a task, when I originally thought it would be just a molehill. I can’t tell you how relieved I was when I realized that I had at least limited the question to novels. I’d be in great distress if I had included nonfiction, although perhaps I’ll ask that question in the not-so-distant future.

Well, it was quite a struggle. I had to pass through many doors, and even had to double-check a couple; for example, I remembered Black Like Me by John Griffin as a novel when it is a true story. I shut the door on 1984, Animal Farm, Grapes of Wrath, Catcher in the Rye, Catch-22, Portnoy’s Complaint, and myriad other novels. I eventually narrowed it down to 4:

  • Farenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  • It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis
  • Rumpole of the Bailey by John Mortimer

Now I was stymied. I just couldn’t decide (and really can’t decide) which among the 4 was the most important or influential. Each influenced me in a different era of my life, and each had major consequences for me.

Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury’s story of a future America when books were burned and critical thinking was discouraged, made me question my schooling. I began challenging teachers; I was taught in an era when memorization was key, not critical thinking. There were a few teachers — the good teachers whom I still remember 50+ years later — who encouraged critical thinking, encouraged discussion, encouraged debate, but who, alas, were so few and far between and often forced to leave the school system, as to turn me away from becoming an educator. I simply could not picture myself being a typical, uncritical, nonthinking teacher. I also had difficulty with the publish-or-perish aspects of education that predominated in those days.

Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird made me aware of the racial tensions in my surroundings. I grew up in a small city along the Hudson River in New York. My playmates were of all creeds and color; I had never given a second thought to the issue of race. But after reading To Kill a Mockingbird, I began to look around me. I realized that prejudices of all kinds existed even in my little world. I began to see that my friend and coworker, who was black, never was allowed to wait on customers in the store in which we worked. I began to recognize the subtle covert segregation and discrimination — even in school. And so I joined my first protest movements in support of civil rights — and I never looked back. Harper Lee awakened me to the real world of race relations around me.

Outside of the civil rights movement, I wasn’t involved in political matters. Yes, I did protest the Vietnam War, as did many of us in our teens and early twenties in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but I wasn’t politically involved. Whether it was Hubert Humphrey or Richard Nixon who was elected president didn’t really matter to me. Then I came across It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis, originally published in 1935.

It Can’t Happen Here is the story of a U.S. senator’s bid to duplicate in America what had happened in Nazi Germany and how he began by creating a private military force that through fear and violence began suppressing voices opposed to his coup. This book started me thinking and suddenly Watergate and the Pentagon Papers were in the headlines, and I realized that it can happen here if we aren’t diligent about keeping our political processes and (especially) our politicians honest. The confluence of reading Lewis’ book and the political events brought about by Nixon’s paranoia made me change from apolitical to political. Whereas before newspapers were mainly for sports and comics, they now became important for keeping me abreast of current affairs. (Perhaps it is worth noting that Lewis’ “hero” is a newspaper reporter.) This is why I worry about what will happen to high-quality news reporting in the Internet Age (see, e.g., Judging Quality in the Internet Age, Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free, and Is Rupert Right? Newspapers & the Paywall) and the age of sound-bite reporting that is seen too often on programs like Fox News..

The final book, Rumpole of the Bailey by John Mortimer, changed my career path. The book appeared a year after I had graduated law school. Throughout law school and in the beginning of my career, I had wanted to be a commercial lawyer. I thought I loved the dull, dry world of commerce. But Rumpole opened my eyes to the world of the underprivileged, the downtrodden, the criminal, and I began to take on fewer commercial cases and more “human” cases. I found that the lawyer I wanted to be was the lawyer that Rumpole was. If you have never read the Rumpole books or seen the television series (available on DVD), you should. Rumpole is, at least in my estimation, what every lawyer should be and few are.

Rumpole of the Bailey was a game changer for me; unfortunately, my career as a lawyer was short-lived as personal circumstances lead me to yet a new career and one that I have enjoyed for more than 25 years, that of publishing and editing.

So, although I asked the question and asked for the single most important novel in your life, I couldn’t/can’t answer the question myself. The best I could do is narrow it down to 4. But it does prove, at least to me, one thing: great authors can have a great impact on our lives, whether we consciously know it or not.

What was/is the most important novel(s) in your life?

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