Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Ronald Reagan: The Man and the Myth

Here is a new book recommendation: "Tear Down This Myth: How the Reagan Legacy Has Distorted Our Politics and Haunts Our Future," by Will Bunch. Just a couple of passages now:
"A more factual synopsis of the Reagan presidency might read like this: That Reagan was a transformative figure in American history, but his real revolution was one of public-relations-meets-politics and not one of policy. He combined his small-town heartland upbringing with a skill for storytelling that was honed on the back lots of Hollywood into a personal narrative that resonated with a majority of voters, but only after it tapped into something darker, which was white middle-class resentment of 1960s unrest....His 1981 tax cut was followed quickly by tax hikes that you rarely hear about, and Reagan's real lasting achievement on that front was slashing marginal rates for the wealthy - even as rising payroll taxes socked the working class. His promise to shrink government was uttered so often that many acolytes believe it really happened, but in fact Reagan expanded the federal payroll, added a new cabinet post, and created a huge debt that ultimately did in his handpicked successor, George H.W.Bush. What he did shrink was government regulation and oversight, which critics have linked to a series of unfortunate events from the savings and loan crisis of the late 1980s to the subprime mortgage crisis of the late 200s....[p. 17]"
"'The Cult of Personality is what happens when a political ideology becomes exhausted, when they have nothing to sell the voters and they recourse to a cult of personality for somebody's who's dead,' said Rick Perlstein, the author of Nixonland.'That's a canary in a coal mine for the movement. It's what the Democrats did in the 70s and 80s with John F. Kennedy, when every year a younger and more charismatic candidate was going to lead the Democrats out of the wilderness.'" [p.19]

Interesting stuff. More to follow, I think.

Friday, June 18, 2010

More on government

The following was written in response to the question: How do we get BP to stop cutting corners? Thought you might like to read this.

Paul: Jail can work wonders in changing behavior. Much underrated just as regulation is, for me, overrated. Even huge escrow accounts would work. Or: simply ban offshore drilling. It is really that simple. Why doesn't it happen? For two reasons that George mentions: (1) Capitalism and our desire to produce wealth endlessly. "Wealth is good and more wealth is better," we think, despite all the evidence to the contrary. (2) We think we can go on living as we do now - with regard to "energy" - and the government will "save" us. [The Progressive delusions: government can regulate "things" in a way that what George calls "the [necessary] turmoil in the economy" can be controlled as well as thinking that genuine popular rule can be preserved in the face of huge concentrations of wealth.] The way we are living might be untenable [I think it is]. And I agree with George that we think too often: "what can the government give you." But I think this of Republicans and Democrats. If the Republicans were really against government, it would be smaller and, e.g., corporations would not be considered "individuals" with the protections afforded to human beings [and more in fact] as individuals. I also agree with George that this won't happen. For me this is because of greed and the desire to live in a great nation, to be #1 as it is so often put. [And by-the-by, this was all argued about in 1787 and 1788 and greatness and greed won out over goodness and non-greed. Both choices have their "limitations," and we are living with our choice such as it is.]

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Government and Nationalism

In response to a question from a friend about government and nationalism, I came up with this and thought I would post it here. Hope you find it useful.

I haven't given a lot of thought to nationalism but I will venture the idea that nationalism supplements government because it is a means, maybe even the means, of tying the people to the government - which is, by itself, hard to become and stay attached to. After all, government is essentially a bureaucratic phenomenon as I see it and it is not easy for human beings, that is, beings who have retained their humanity, to feel attached to a bureaucracy. [At Assumption College, the bureaucrats deal with this by talking about AC as a "family," which is of course pure, unadulterated bullshit!] So, in order to create an attachment, the government peddles nationalism to make the people think that they are devoted not to some calculating, rational institutional arrangement but to, say, a "homeland," as if a bureaucratic arrangement could ever be or provide a "home." By doing this, the government can then speak of "loyalty" as one of or even the characteristic that is expected of people, which transforms them from "citizens" into "patriots" or at least tries to. But the emphasis on "loyalty" to a "homeland" is foreign even to the pledge of allegiance in which we pledge our loyalty not to "the homeland" but to the flag and to "the republic for which it stands." So, if that republic ceases to exist, then our loyalty is no longer required and can no longer be demanded. And note too that we do not pledge our allegiance to a "nation" but to a form of government which is taken to be a form of self-government and, hence, not simply or essentially bureaucratic. Maybe this helps, maybe it doesn't. I think it makes some sense though.

And another dimension that just occurred to me: What is the connection between nationalism and racism? That is, does nationalism blend into racism at some point or a kind of racism? This is "our homeland" and therefore we who live here and deserve to live here - not the illegals of course - are special or unique, a "race" apart from other "races." Just thinking out loud, as it were.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Government Again - Secrecy

Below is a link to a New York Times article on the Obama Administration and its decision to go after those who leak government information to the press and perhaps others even if this information does not threaten national security and even if the leaks were motivated by a desire to reveal government ineptness or corruption.

Now this might strike some as surprising but it should not. After all, government and secrecy go together even better than love and marriage or a horse and a wagon. Although it is too little recognized, secrecy is an intimate and indispensable characteristic of government. It is not, as it is so often spoken about, a disease or virus that infects government. Why is this the case?

It is the case because, most importantly, government is an institution that is geared for action. Government is not, as we too often think, an institution that is geared to or for debate. Of course, debates occur within the institution but they are always less than welcome because those in the government want to act and they want to act "with energy and dispatch," as Alexander Hamilton pointed out in the Federalist Papers. Because government is all about power and of course its exercise, it and those in it want to act. It and they want action. Secrecy serves this purpose because with secrecy, debate can be short circuited or avoided. Secrecy is convenient.

Secondly, governments are required to do things that are, strictly speaking, indefensible. That is, some government actions, a lot of government actions, cannot be adequately defended and, hence, must be kept secret. Otherwise, the legitimacy of government, of any government would be undermined. And without legitimacy, any government is bound to fail. If government operated "transparently," as we say today, it would lose its legitimacy and it would fail. Necessarily and inevitably. We know this whenever we see into the workings of government, especially when we see what the government does not want us to see. There is an old expression: "If you saw how sausage was made, you would not eat it again." This expression has been applied to the making of laws as well and, I would argue, that it can be applied government itself. A transparent government would fail.

This phenomenon helps explain why, among other items, why good people, decent people, most often want no part of governing and why good people, decent people, when they do govern are judged failures. On the other hand, people with insufficiently developed consciences, for want of better words, often do very well as governors, as participants in the process of government. Think of it like a meat processing plant: If you are appalled by the slaughter of animals, which is of course indispensable for making sausages or even steaks, then you will not fare well in a meat processing plant. Similarly, if you are a queasy type, one who does not take pleasure in doing things that are indefensible, then you will not fare well in the government.

This might sound terrible and, of course, it is. But I would argue "it is what it is,"
as we like to say too much today. Government accomplishes quite a bit, or so it would seem. But these accomplishments come at a price. As another old expression has it: "There is no such thing as a free lunch."

The link:

Thursday, June 10, 2010

More on Government

More musings on "government": government is a success. That is, government is a success in that we the people now think that government is and has been successful and so we turn to government for "solutions" to our "problems." But what is striking here is how often government is not successful, at least not successful in "solving" our "problems." Other times, "the government" claims or is credited with success when in fact other variables were more or just as important in "solving" our problems.

Now, I am not saying that government never solves any problems, for the simple reason that it does. The issue for me is: Which or what kind of problems can the government solve? Obviously, or so it seems to me, the government cannot solve the "drug problem" or if it can it has not done so so far. I am assuming that this is because the government cannot solve this problem. I don't know why yet but I am fairly confident that this is the case, that this phenomenon points to the limits of government. What is interesting here is that some communities have, apparently, solved the drug problem because members of those communities don't do drugs. The Mormons come to mind here, as well as the Amish. [Another distinction to be explored herein is the one between "government" and "community." I am of the opinion presently that government cannot create community, that this too is a phenomenon that illustrates the limits of "government." And in fact I am of the opinion that government was created to render community unnecessary because, among other reasons, communities are fragile, far more fragile than bureaucratically run groups of human beings.]

So then why is it that "we the people" - or at least a lot of us - turn to government when we perceive a problem we think needs solving? That is a good question and one that I don't have a particularly good answer for. But the fact that this is a good question illustrates the success of government, that is, its success in making us think that it is the problem solver par excellence. This is evidence of a peculiar, particular, and controversial mindset and it is this which needs to be explored.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Some ruminations

First, I want to say that I have hit on a new project, which I am calling "An Introduction to Government." Note well that this is not and should be distinguished from an introduction to politics. Aristotle wrote a book which is called "The Politics" and, of course, it is about politics. No surprise there. But what might surprise us is that it is not about government. A book about government will be much different than a book about politics because, to put it simply, government was created as a replacement for politics. That is, it was the hope of those who invented government, Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Locke [among others] that this new institution, "government," would render politics unnecessary.

For example, one of the biggest topics of Aristotle's Politics is justice, what constitutes justice and, more especially, the different conceptions of justice that animate human beings and political conflict. There are different conceptions, e.g., the democratic version and the oligarchic version, which for Aristotle were the two most common forms of justice that human beings argue and even fight about. Now, it seems to me, that the the creators of "government" were animated by what is in one sense a very simple idea: What if we could get human beings to stop arguing and fighting over "justice?" Wouldn't that make human life much more peaceful and orderly, much more prosperous and much more free than it had been up to that point? You know, this is something like the argument made on behalf of religious toleration: If we could just get human beings to stop arguing and fighting over religions, if we could just get them to say and think that each religion is legitimate, then the world would be a much more peaceful and orderly place, a much more commodious place to live. "Justice" is one of those concepts that human beings seem to take seriously, so seriously that they even go to war, even civil war, over it. So if we could just redirect the attention of human beings away from justice to something else, like institutions, well, that would certainly promote peace. And then the world would be a better place to live.

So that is a new project which I will work on every so often. We will see what, if anything, comes of it.

The second thing, which might be related to the above but might not be also, is to suggest that we have come to the end of our "run." That is, the project that we Americans have been working on for over two hundred years has reached the end of the line and we need to seek an alternative or alternatives. I mean such a judgment is not necessarily insane because, after all, the project that constituted the Soviet Union came to an end and they, the Russians and others, had to find a different way or ways to be in the world. And the Soviet Union "broke up."

So, perhaps, this is what needs to happen here. Perhaps it is time to break up the American union, to create several unions, each smaller but more manageable than the current United States of America. And perhaps this was a result that was in the cards since the founding of the United States of America. Perhaps it was, this union was from the very outset headed toward dissolution because it could not maintain itself and at the same time be satisfying, be able to maintain itself while at the same time securing the rights and liberties of its inhabitants.

Well, just a couple of ruminations for you to think about, if anyone is actually reading this blog and willing to think. This is not a judgment at all; rather, it is just a recognition of the limitations of this blog and of our situation in general. But we always seem to be looking for alternatives to our current way of being in the world and maybe we need to consider some possibilities that are rarely considered.

Peace and fun.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Other True Believers

Following from my last post, I need to say something about those on the "other side" of the equation, that is, those who while disparaging government glorify the "private sector." These types, most of them anyway, are really not all that different than those who hold out hope that government will be our salvation, in that they think that certain concentrations of power in the "private sector" will be our salvation. That is, they often argue, if we just get out of the way of "business," while turning almost everything into a business, including government, we will find the promised land. It is a rosy scenario, as rosy as that held by "pro-government" types about government. And, of course, if I raise the question, given history or our experience with government, why do some people continue to think that it, government, can be our salvation, it is also necessary to raise the question why, given our history with corporations and other large concentrations of wealth and, hence, power, some people think that what is euphemistically called "the free market" will be our salvation.

For a long time, even longer than most people know, questions have been raised about the impact of large corporations on human beings, as well as on society. Of course, most of these questions have been forgotten now, but no less a proponent of the "market" than Adam Smith thought that such a market would have deleterious consequences for human beings. Smith was a proponent of, among other things, unions but not unions that were solely concerned with working conditions. Rather, he saw unions as a means of offsetting the narrowness of the life of those called "laborers."

Of course, the disaster in the Gulf reminds us or should remind us of the limitations of a corporate or corporatized world. And what do we do as a result? Well, surprise, surprise, we turn to government....Oh, if only the government had done a better job of regulating the market place, the Gulf of Mexico would be clean today - which assumes of course that government could do "better" than it did. This assumption may be correct but it has to be addressed as a question first.

Not to burst the bubble too badly, but there are numerous cases of disasters happening even though everyone in government did her or his job. One of my favorites is of a baby who was placed in the care of the Department of Child Services [or some agency like that] in Illinois, physically in their custody, and it died. An investigation, an honest investigation at that, showed that everyone connected with this child - this "case" - did her or his job! And you might think that is amazing and probably untrue but it isn't either one. It too often goes unnoticed that governments, like corporations, fail when they do what they are suppose to do, when they do the best they can do. There is even a book with the intriguing title: "The Irony of Vietnam: The System Worked." That is, the system worked as it was intended to work and the result was a disaster of immense proportions.

I would put this differently: Not only did the system work, it even brought us into Vietnam so to speak. That is, it would have taken someone who understood "government," its characteristics, its tendencies, to avoid this disaster and even then this person would have had to act in a way perceived as "irrational" in order to avoid this disastrous war. Here is a rather benign example. During WWII, the Navy constructed some buildings on the Mall in Washington, D.C. that were supposed to be temporary. Of course, as so often happens, they became permanent and were still there when Richard Nixon became president in 1968. Nixon thought them ugly and he instructed an aide to contact the Navy Department and have them taken down. So the aide called a meeting with some Navy personnel who knew the agenda. These Navy people came armed with books and charts demonstrating why it would be pretty near impossible and certainly unwise to take these buildings down. The aide was convinced and reported back to Nixon. Nixon said, essentially, "I don't care what the Navy said, order them to take those buildings down. End of discussion." And the buildings came down. But note that Nixon was acting "irrationally" from the point of view of the Navy and I would say government. He literally did not care what the evidence was offered; he wanted those buildings taken down.

Here is one of my hunches: Everything that BP did in the Gulf was, strictly speaking, rational. That is, based on their evidence, their course of action made sense and it would have taken a person thinking and behaving in an apparently "irrational" way to stand against that course of action. And, of course, unless that person had a lot of power, like Nixon had as president, her opposition would fail. People too often make the mistake of thinking that corporations have to buy the government's approval for their actions when, I suspect, they don't because they can defend their actions as "rational" and those in government buy into this rationality because, well, because it is their job to do so. It is how they are suppose to think and behave and so they do so.

Just a thought or two.....

Friday, June 4, 2010

Henry the Eighth and Us

I am watching this TV show, "The Tudors," which is basically about Henry the 8th and his reign and his many, many wives - even more wives than I've had. And here is what stuck me recently: How the people fawned over Henry as King despite his many and obvious deficiencies as a ruler. Why is that? Then I thought: We do the same thing, not only about presidents - despite repeated failures we still hope for a "savior," or as we say a "leader" who will lead us out of the wilderness into the promised land - but also about government. I mean, despite repeated and often large scale "missteps" we put our faith in government, especially a national government, again and again. It is a puzzle to me why we do this but I imagine it is related to the phenomenon in England when Henry was King. Perhaps it is as simple as needing something to believe in.....they chose the monarchy and we choose our monarchy - disguised but still a monarchy - and government.