Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Status Quo and Santorum

The Status Quo
P. Schultz
April 26, 2012

            So, now isn’t this interesting? In the midst of what must be one of the most uncivil times in our history, with almost everyone pissed off at our politicians and even at our political institutions, who are the candidates for the presidency? That’s right: Barack Obama and Mitt Romney! If Obama weren’t black – although he isn’t actually “black” – we could call this election between two “Mr. White Breads.” And as shown on the Daily Show last night, Romney gave a speech which can only be described as vacuous and Obama appears at Chapel Hill with Jimmy Fallon to, apparently, appeal to “the youth vote” swaying to the tunes of Al Green! Oh yes, this is certainly going to be an exciting campaign. Of course the media will do all it can to convince us that these two white bread, wealthy, ambitious Americans are actually different politically. But at bottom we all know better.

            It is enough to make me wish Rick Santorum were going to be the Republican nominee or, better for me, Ron Paul. I don’t agree with much that Santorum supports but at least the man knows that the status quo is last thing we need to preserve.  And what’s so bad about a man who home schools his children? I mean that has to be better than No Child Left Behind or, what’s even worse, The Race to the Top! If only Rick would apply his pro-life stance across the board, that is, apply to foreign policy and crime policy as well as to medical policy. Then, for me, it would be easy to support him, even if he is slightly off center. Besides, who am I to criticize someone for being “slightly off center?”

            And as a friend pointed out, Santorum was played by the establishment Republicans. That is, he was encouraged to run, given no support [look at the money Romney raised compared to Santorum], while the establishment Republicans waited for him to “self-destruct” in order to pass “the torch” on to Romney. And it would seem that Santorum now knows he was played, which is why he has refused so far to support Romney. Of course, this is made to serve the interests of the establishment Republicans because they can say, “See, Santorum doesn’t understand politics. He isn’t stable.” Well, he might not understand politics but he does understand being stabbed in the back!

            And I watched a video of Ralph Nader being interviewed by Russian TV [Wow!] in which he asserted that Obama was actually worse than Shrub because, and this is persuasive to me, while Shrub invaded Iraq and Afghanistan, he could not legitimize his wars. But Obama has done that! So now these wars have been legitimized and with them presidential actions, like torture, that some consider war crimes. And now with a race between Romney and Obama about to unfold, so much of what has happened in the past 10 to 12 years is being legitimized. But then that’s the point, isn’t it? To legitimize the oligarchs’ seizure of power and their undermining of our republic even while they destroy the economy and whatever social safety net still exists. Ah yes, “what a country!” These are best characterized as “political crimes” being committed while hidden in plain view. It is difficult not to get discouraged.

             Here are a few further, discouraging thoughts. Now that any possibility of a successful insurgency has been laid to rest because, as we all know or should know, both candidates of the major parties are anti-insurgent, other changes can and probably will take place. For example, it is now possible for the Supreme Court, on the flimsiest of grounds, to gut important parts of Obamacare. Just as Obama could walk away from a public option early in his term, so too now the Court can walk away, without fear of any protest taking root, from the very modest "reforms" that Obama did secure. Also, it was reported in the NY Times the other day that the justices seemed to respond favorably to Arizona's immigration law that basically allows for racial profiling. What is to prevent the Court from upholding this and similar laws now that any possible insurgency has been controlled?  Not a thing. You can probably think of other policies that now can be endorsed or continued. But here is one that I find particularly ironic: Despite or perhaps because of the election of a black president, what has been called "the new Jim Crow" can continue. After all, it cannot really be "Jim Crow" - even though massive numbers of blacks are imprisoned and then disempowered - if we have a black president, can it?

              Not only it is difficult not to get discouraged; it is even difficult not to get disgusted.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Respectability and Passion

Respectability and Passion
P. Schultz
April 21, 2012

Here is an exchange I had with a friend on Facebook relating to the comments of a former student who expressed support for the mass murderer in Norway, which of course created a scandal at Assumption College.

Peter Schultz: Hey, I finally figured out Kevin Forts' problem: He hasn't learned yet how to dress up his rage in academic or professional clothes. You know: Write a book entitled "The Clash of Civilizations," or one entitled "The West and the Rest", or disguise your death and destruction as "a war on terror" fought with the latest technology [like drones] that kill the innocent in far away places and then compensate the victims when the killings are discovered - along with calling the deaths "collateral damage." You could even disguise your policies as "game theory," as was done in Nam - and then get a Ph.D. using such a theory to justify the slaughter.

Friend: “Really, Peter? Reading books like "The Clash of Civilizations" or "The West and the Rest" inevitable leads students to support the killing of 77 innocent lives? Really?”

(a) Did I say "inevitably?" Of course not because I don't think that. The argument was a more subtle one: Academics and experts/professionals are able to disguise their rage/anger behind a curtain of respectability; and, in some cases, they may not even be aware themselves of their underlying passions and how those passions influence their arguments. Aristotle wrote: "Thought moves nothing." He didn't say that about the passions. (b) I am not interested in "scoring points" against the likes of Mahoney/Dobski and the books they assign. What is interesting to me is that when an event happens like Forts' interview, we talk about it as if it arose all on its own, "out of the blue". Hence, Forts is characterized as "crazy." [He isn't or at least wasn't when he was in my classes. He made all the "right" arguments, the politically correct arguments from a neo-con. viewpoint and little else.] But to me these events occur in a particular context. Everyone seems to want to run away from that context, to ignore it and, hence, demonize Kevin. It is all-too-common and self-serving, but it has important political/social consequences. To me, it is unrealistic and blinds us to our situation.

And as far as taking the lives of the innocent, think of how easy it is to do that when it is conceived as an act of "counterinsurgency," which is a "theory" of warfare experts have developed that justifies death and destruction. Also, when taking the lives of innocent people is called "collateral damage," it is easier to accept these deaths and not see the passions underlying these acts. Or, more in line with your thinking, think how much easier it is to "terminate a pregnancy" than to commit infanticide.

Friday, April 13, 2012

The Politics of Failure, Part 4

The Politics of Failure, Part 4
P. Schultz
April 13, 2012

I am sitting here thinking or something and I came up with this question: Is our "problem" a budget problem? Or can what is ailing us be cured by means of budgeting, ala' the thought of Paul Ryan and many others? If we think it can, then we immediately turn to economic considerations, e.g., should taxes be raised, should taxes be lowered, how much should spending be cut, etc., etc., etc. So, we have turned our "problems" into economic problems and think that the proper "economic expertise" - which of course Paul Ryan is suppose to be very good at - will solve our problems.

But (a) is this correct? One interesting implication of Paul Ryan's references to his Catholicism suggests or could suggest - although he does not seem to see it this way - that our "problems" are not economic at all. He, of course, uses his Catholicism to justify his budget recommendations, that is, turns Catholicism into a primer on economics. But one could argue that from the perspective of Catholicism our problems are not economic but rather "moral" or as we say today "cultural." Greed runs capitalist economies, "free market" economies, and it this "culture" that needs changing. No budget can accomplish such cultural change. In fact, budgeting is mere tinkering.

And (b) by turning or treating our problems as economic, aren't we just reinforcing the status quo? Think of it this way: During the Vietnam War it was the common thought that our problems there were "military problems," and so the correct application of "military expertise" and "military prowess" and "military hardware" could solve them. But this way of thinking merely served to reinforce the status quo and amounted to little more than tinkering. Most interestingly, the "non-experts" saw this and, hence, concluded that it was time to end our involvement in that war because it was futile. The "experts," that is, those who are rewarded precisely because they are tinkerers, could not see this.

Expertise has certain advantages to be sure. But it has disadvantages as well, one of which is that the experts fail to see the degree to which they are tinkerers. As I said to someone once who was arguing for the necessity for bureaucracy: "OK, I will grant you this much. If you are up shit's creek it is better to have bureaucracy [expertise] than not because at least you have a paddle. But even with that paddle you will still be up shit's creek." 

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Status Quo

The Status Quo
P. Schultz
April 12, 2012

            We or rather the political system is perfectly safe now as the election for president will be between Romney and Obama. There is no danger at all that the status quo will be threatened or changed in any way now. We are basically back to 2000 when, as I liked to say then, Gush ran against Bore! Most people fail to understand the degree to which those in power are more interested in preserving the status quo than in dealing with our “problems.”

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Journalism and the Status Quo

Journalism and the Status Quo
P. Schultz
April 10, 2012

            Here is a phenomenon that I have wondered about at times: Despite a kind of journalism that focuses on scandals, Americans still manage to think and say with some regularity that our country is the greatest nation on earth and that its government is the best government on earth. How can this be? Well, I think I have finally figured it out.

            Last week, in class, I showed a segment from the Daily Show where Jon Stewart joined a chorus of “news” shows featuring a convention that was held in Las Vegas by the Government Services Administration that carried a bill of about $832,000. Of course, this bill was ridiculously expensive and the GSA is one part of the government that is responsible for ensuring that money is not wasted. It made for easy pickings for the news media and, of course, Stewart had a blast with the story.

            Now in discussion with my classes, I asked what they got from the story and they got pretty much what the media wanted them to get from it. They said the GSA’s behavior was scandalous and ridiculous. Then I asked them what the story “left out.” Here they were not able to give me any answers. But there are things left out and they are or could be important.

            First, insofar as the GSA’s behavior is characterized as scandalous, it appears to be extraordinary or “out of the ordinary.” But what if this isn’t the case? That is, what if such behavior is not the exception but the rule among government agencies when it comes to holding conventions? Well, then the shock and dismay we felt when confronted with this story would be moderated to say the least.

            But, second, imagine if this is not just less than uncommon but also an example of bureaucratic behavior. That is, there is something about bureaucracies that justifies such behavior in the minds of those embedded in the particular bureaucracy. Thus, what we are witnessing is, from the point of view of bureaucrats, not scandalous behavior at all but normal, even justifiable behavior. [This would help explain why bureaucrats are likely to treat such behavior as a public relations problems when revealed and/or why they are willing to try to “cover up” such behavior.]

            Of course, this latter possibility is not even hinted at by the story as told by the news media. Moreover, this possibility is suppressed by way the media handled the story. As a result, we leave the story with the idea that while there was something wrong with particular bureaucrats, there is nothing wrong with the bureaucracy per se. And, willy nilly, this way of presenting the story preserves the status quo insofar as it does nothing to make us question our reliance on bureaucracy as a means of controlling government itself.
            Therefore, there is built into journalism that focuses on scandals a prejudice or bias in favor of the status quo. A focus on scandals turns events into “one and done events,” into isolated events that do not have any connection to the “system” within which they take place. It might be said that such journalism “decontextualizes” events and leads us to think that such events can be avoided without concerning ourselves with changing the system within which they take place. In the story cited above, even Jon Stewart suggested that the solution was for the head of the GSA to resign.

            Let me give another illustration of this phenomenon. For a long time now, there has been considerable focus on drinking by college students, a focus that tells us that that drinking is out of control. Something about this story has bothered me for some time but now I think I know what it is.

            First, this story is constructed in such a way that the focus is on this generation of college students, which decontextualizes the phenomenon. That is, how do we know that the current behavior is all that different from behavior in the past? We do know that drinking among college students is probably more moderate than among their age cohorts who are not attending college. But few seem to care.

            As a result of this focus, today’s college students are engaging in scandalous behavior and, necessarily, the question becomes: How do we control this behavior which is, it is implied, unique to this generation? What gets lost in this story? Well, at least a couple of things.

            First, no notice is taken of the differences in sheer numbers of those attending college today from the numbers attending college in the past. That is, the college population today is far more extensive than it was, say, 50 years ago. Does this make a difference? Maybe or maybe not. But the point here is that as the story is told today it cannot make a difference because it is not even considered relevant. Such is the result of turning this behavior into scandalous behavior.

            Second, the way the story is told the focus is on the behavior of the students, abstracting from the context of colleges themselves. That is, by focusing on the behavior, the allegedly scandalous behavior of the students, no notice is taken of the environment created by those with the power at the colleges. To what extent has the character of the “college experience” changed today from what it was 50 years ago? We do know, for example, that today college bureaucracies are far more extensive and far more intrusive than in the past. How does this affect the behavior of students? It might or might not. But, again, from the perspective of alleging scandalous behavior it never even appears on the radar screen. Hence, no one ever entertains the idea that it isn’t the behavior of students that needs changing; rather, it is the behavior of college bureaucracies that needs changing! Such a perspective, even while emphasizing what should be an alarming degree of scandalous behavior, favors and even reinforces the status quo.

Friday, April 6, 2012

The Politics of Failure, Part III

The Politics of Failure, Part III
P. Schultz
April 6, 2012

            This quotation is taken from the NY Times, April 6, 2012, from an article that is analyzing the Ryan budget plan from the perspective of a starting point for what is called “budget reform.” Although the take on what is happening is not in accord with the argument made here, it does lend support for that argument. First, here is the quote:

“As the swift demise of the LaTourette-Cooper budget proposal suggests, nothing constructive is likely to happen this election year. But come November, someone is going to have to compromise or the Bush-era tax cuts and Mr. Obama’s payroll tax cuts will expire and $1.2 trillion in spending will be automatically slashed — an outcome that both parties say they oppose. While no one wants to admit it, within the Ryan budget proposal is the outline of a grand compromise not all that different from the one President Obama and the House majority leader, John Boehner, reportedly came close to reaching last summer: long-term deficit reduction through tax reform, higher tax revenue and spending cuts.”

            I would call attention to the following: “within the Ryan budget proposal is the outline of a grand compromise not all that different from the one President Obama and the House majority leader, John Boehner, reportedly came close to reaching last summer: long-term deficit reduction through tax reform, higher tax revenue and spending cuts.”

            Ah yes, “a grand compromise” is forthcoming which is not unlike that reached or seemingly reached by Obama and Boehner “last summer.” Two things strike me: (1) So we are now going to end up with what was available last summer. Interesting, no? So what has been going on since then and what was its purpose? It certainly does seem to have been to change the basics of that “almost grand compromise.” The purpose must have been something other than a budget agreement. Could it be that the party regulars were solidifying their control of their respective parties? (2) A “grand compromise” from Boehner and Obama! And you are expecting something that will actually deal with our deep-seated “problems?” My money is on an agreement that will solidify the power of the party regulars like Boehner and Obama. At least that seems to be where this is headed if the Times analyst is correct.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Politics of Failure, Part II

A discussion with a student about the last blog posting. His response is first, followed by two of mine, written at slightly different times.

On Tue, Apr 3, 2012 at 3:58 PM:
Dear Professor Schultz,
I hope that this e-mail finds you doing well.  I am writing this afternoon with question about your 3 April blog post: If The Path To Prosperity Budget is intended to fail, then how you do you explain Democratic Senator Wyden working with Republican House of Representative Ryan?  (Senator Wyden provides his reasons in the following piece: 

And will Senator Wyden's work with Ryan rescue the plan? Will anything rescue the budget proposed by Ryan? If not, then my question recurs: Why would a politician who is allegedly interested in results, that is, in proposing legislation that stands a chance of becoming law, why would such a politician propose what is so obviously a loser? 

I mean if you want to argue that politicians qua legislators are just posturers, those who do symbolic things [as George Carlin use to say, which appeal to the "symbol minded"], then you may do so. But I thought politicians are or should be interested in results, even if the result s are incremental. And I thought politicians who are legislators who would want to make laws, not just strike poses they take to be pleasing. Making laws requires passing laws. Passing laws requires compromise and negotiations, always and forever. 

My answers to my question may not be correct, but I am sure the question is correct, viz., that Ryan's behavior requires an explanation and, I think,  a better explanation than those commonly provided, such as, well, he is playing to his base or he is preparing for the future. And it is a quite simple question: How does Ryan benefit from proposing legislation that he knows will fail? 

A further thought, perhaps, on your question: If Senator Wyden works with Ryan on his budget proposal and it fails - as I argue is Ryan's intention - then does that make the argument that "extreme" measures necessarily fail stronger or weaker? It seems to me that it makes that argument stronger: "Hey, look, even with the help of a senator, and a senator of the other party, my budget failed. What lesson should we draw from this failure? That any extreme measures, such as those favored by Tea Party types or by Ron Paul types, are bound to fail. The only 'realistic' option is to perpetuate the status quo and those who would upset the status quo cannot be trusted with power."

The goal is to isolate and undermine anyone who would change the status quo and, thereby, undermine those, like Ryan and Wyden, who support the status quo.

Another "thought": Obama's criticism of the Ryan budget, which criticism is labeled by the NY Times as particularly harsh, does not get in the way of Ryan's purpose. In fact, it helps advance that purpose insofar as it underscores the arguments that (a) the Ryan budget is radical and that (b) radical measures are to be rejected and will be rejected as irresponsible. Of course, "radical" here encompasses any changes that undermine the status quo. Thus, without even having to plan it, Obama and Ryan are colluding to maintain the status quo. In this project, they are, as it were, allies.

More and more, I think the goal of both the regular Republicans and Democrats is to preserve the status quo and, therewith, their power. This is why it not only seems like "nothing ever changes" but also why real change seems almost impossible. We are told that our problems are "intractable" and politicians are relatively powerless to affect real change. And, of course, we need to trust those who know these things, not those who would propose "radical" change. ["Time to coalesce around Romney now, boys, as Santorum threatens to do "radical" things. We have already taken care of Ron Paul."]

Finally, why should this line of argument seem so surprising? After all, as we know that politicians love power, pursue power, and will do quite a bit to preserve the power they have, why should it be surprising that they would become defenders of the status quo in order to keep their power? This seems to me one of the most common political phenomenon visible to us throughout history. Are our politicians immune from such self-interested actions? And this in a republic that rests on and was intended to rest on self-interest, ala' Madison in Federalist 10 and 51? Or perhaps we just don't appreciate, as say Aristotle did, how fluid the political arena actually is; that is, how the democrats and the oligarchs are constantly vying for power and control.

The Politics of Failure

The Politics of Failure
P. Schultz
April 3, 2012

            As some of you reading this blog know, it is interesting for me to ask, Why do politicians propose things that cannot possibly succeed? The latest example of this phenomenon is Paul Ryan and his budget, which he proposed despite the fact that he knew it was DOA, “Dead On Arrival.” So, the simple question is: Why did he propose it?

            Before proceeding, it is important to recognize that politicians often support what they know to be losing causes. FDR’s “court packing plan” comes to mind, as does JFK’s support for the Bay of Pigs invasion early in his presidency. Often, it is argued that these proposals and policies were just mistakes made by otherwise shrewd and capable politicians. But suppose they weren’t mistakes; suppose they were proposed and undertaken despite the fact that the politicians in question knew they would fail. Then the question becomes: Why didn’t the losers care about “losing?” How did “losing” benefit these politicians? And the general answer is: Because “losing” helped to preserve their power.

            So, back to Paul Ryan and his budget. Why did he propose what he had to know would be a losing budget? Let me count the ways.

            First, by proposing the budget he proposed, Ryan can impress the more extreme elements of his party. “Hey, look at me: Look at what I am willing to propose. I am as principled as you.” And Ryan can do this with no fear of succeeding and actually having to live with his principled budget. Ryan lives in the best of both worlds, satisfying the more extreme members of his party while knowing that he will not have to live with the results of such extremism.

            Second, the failure is not his fault. It is “the system” that is to blame because “the system” does not allow for extremists to succeed. So by failing, i.e., by assuring his own failure, Ryan actually “educates” and even restrains the extremists he seems to want to please. “Hey, guys, look: We tried the extreme and it would not work, could not work. And now we have to be more moderate, adopt a “pragmatic” [read “business pretty much as usual”] approach.”

            Third, Ryan reinforces the story line that our political system is torn by two diametrically opposed groups – “liberals” and “conservatives” – and so almost nothing significant will or can get done. No large changes are possible given the dysfunctional character of our political system as in the phrase so popular these days, “Washington is broken. Our system does not work.” So, once again, we are stuck with the status quo and those who have given us the status quo, politicians like Paul Ryan. As we are stuck with the status quo, then Paul Ryan – and other party regulars – should keep power or be kept in power.

            Fourth, the regulars in the Democratic Party vociferously oppose Ryan and appear to refuse to compromise for the same reason, to preserve their power. They decry Ryan and his allies as “radicals,” as dangerous “insurgents” and themselves as those who are fighting for “real change,” which of course cannot succeed given the fact that “Washington is broken.” The result is little more than a politics that aims at preserving and fortifying the status quo and, therewith, their own power.

            So, one result is that while both factions sound like advocates for change, by proposing changes that cannot succeed, our “two” parties are actually supporters of the status quo. And by supporting the status quo as the only “realistic” option, they each preserve their power even while the well being of the nation deteriorates. This is what I mean by saying that our political system is today “corrupt.”

            So, Paul Ryan’s budget not only failed, it was intended to fail. Ryan’s agenda is to preserve his power and the power of the regulars of the Republican Party and the failure of his budget helps secure those results. A politics of failure also serves to fortify in the people a feeling of impotence, as well as a conviction that politics is almost always a futile endeavor. Our system is “broken,” our problems are “intractable,” and we the people must listen to those who hold the levers of power as they are “as good as it gets.”

            And this latter lesson is perhaps the most important part of Ryan’s agenda because he and his cohorts are playing a dangerous game. That is, it is a game he and his cohorts will lose should the people get angry enough to realize that the status quo is not their only option, that change, real change, is not only desirable but possible. This is one way of understanding what happened in the 60s, when the people rejected LBJ’s politics of failure in Vietnam, rose up and tried to take control. And it might be added that this is why the 60s are so often presented as a dangerous time for the republic, a time of dangerous unrest and rebellion. It was such a time, and especially for the ruling class. In republics and those places that still aspire to be republics, such rebellions take place periodically and as Jefferson knew, “a little revolution” every so often in the political world is as healthy as storms are in the natural world. Ah, for a “political Katrina.”