President Barack Obama won re-election yesterday night. I think both him and Mitt Romney gave good speeches after the fact, especially Mitt, who showed a humble love of his country and a genuine grace in defeat.
Both men spoke of compromise, bi-partisan action, and coming together on all levels. This is a common lip-service that politicians give after an election, but still it’s nice to hear to someone like me who hasn’t yet grown too cynical with the political process. I still believe red and blue can work together to get something done, even if it’s a small fraction of what they promised in the campaign.
I would like to highlight two parts of Obama’s acceptance speech:
In the coming weeks and months, I am looking forward to reaching out and working with leaders of both parties to meet the challenges we can only solve together. Reducing our deficit. Reforming our tax code. Fixing our immigration system. Freeing ourselves from foreign oil.
He then continued with a call to action that had a funny effect of promptly silencing the applause:
We’ve got more work to do. The role of citizens in our Democracy does not end with your vote. America’s never been about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us together through the hard and frustrating, but necessary work of self-government. That’s the principle we were founded on.
These are empty words if they fall on closed ears. It’s a reminder once again that the president is powerless except in the degree to which he can inspire the American people to action. Whatever your views are on the tax code or other issues, you need to ground those views in concrete ideals, and live your life in every way according to those ideals. That’s what I think he means by self-government. Your voice will reverberate only if it’s backed by an exemplary productive life.
Note: The title and topic of this blog post are tongue-in-cheek. I am aware that a government that always “knows what’s best” naturally drifts far away from what actually is best.
I was watching a technical talk on the topic of computational geometry on YouTube and a comment popped up that in one sentence managed to include both a racist and a homophobic slur. This made me wish that I could somehow ban the ability of human beings to do write such comments (just because they are protected by the cover of anonymity). Of course, you couldn’t enforce anything like that, unless…
So I wondered what kind of things I’d love to see a dictatorial government implement. Here are some random ideas that would either benefit me directly or indirectly
- YouTube comments that contain racist or homophobic slurs would be punished by forcing that person to recite the same comment in-person to a group of people against which the comment was made. The group will then have 30 minutes to do with the commenter what they wish.
- Salads would be heavily subsidized. So that a salad will always be cheaper than a burger. (Of course, then, the fast food lobby would convince Congress that a burger is actually a salad because it sometimes has lettuce).
- Every citizen is required to prove on a yearly basis that they have the minimum civics knowledge required of most immigrants seeking citizenship. Questions like “What are the main branches of our government?”, “What is the Bill of Rights?”, “Who is the chief justice of the Supreme Court?”, “What are the rights guaranteed by the first amendment to the constitution?”, etc.
- Every politician would be required to pass a much more stringent civics test. Basically you should be knowledgeable in 20th century international history, political science, law, and the basics of all major scientific disciplines (biology, physics, chemistry, etc).
- Hypocrisy in hateful speech (e.g. homosexuals speaking out against gay marriage) should be punished with some kind of humiliation on Twitter.
- Since the Olympics are going on, my kind of dictatorial government would actually fund the athletes training hard for years to represent their nation in the myriad of Olympics sports that do not provide them with a natural source of income.
On a serious note, while I believe that government (aka the people) can do a lot of good, I also tend to agree with Thomas Jefferson that “I am not a friend to a very energetic government. It is always oppressive.”
Breaking news: Congress is dysfunctional.
Republicans think they’ll win the presidency and Senate next year so they don’t want to agree to anything now, and instead are going to wait a year when they’ll be able to push their plan through with much less resistance.
Democrats found some backbone (fragile though it is) and are not giving up their push for higher revenue (tax increases). So now, they’ll get to run all year on the fact that those evil Republicans held them up from doing anything good for America.
It’s infantile politics at it’s purest, and it makes me ashamed. Sure, partisan bickering has always been a part of our political process, but in this case it seems that the (financial) stakes are higher.
I was listening to CSPAN which luckily does not feel the need to “entertain” and thus provides some of the most objective coverage of how the sausage is made in our government.
Two guests were on, discussing tax reform. One was from a “conservative think tank” and the other from a “progressive organization”. They were making their points clearly and intelligently but going right down the line in terms of the standard boilerplate fiscal arguments associated with their respective party.
It struck me at some point that competition of ideas is exceptionally important to the checks and balances of our government. Moreover, the quality, logic, and reasonableness of the ideas is not what’s important. The most important part is that there is a significant group of people who genuinely stand (almost dogmatically) behind that idea.
In defending and idea, this group of people will search out every little problem about the opposition, and thus keep the opposition as honest as possible.
Sure, creationism might seem like an absurd infringement on the very foundation of science, but in the long-run it will keep evolutionary research honest by limiting the scope of their claims, and sharpening their arguments. That’s an extreme example. Most example are more subtle, like the moral and economic arguments over tax policy.
I’m starting to see a trend in the way our government operates:
Step 1: Do nothing for a few months.
Step 2: Recognize a looming problem. Sell it as a crisis that is the biggest threat to our well-being ever.
Step 3: Rush through legislation which has drastic fundamental consquences on the future of our country without much deliberation, public discussion, debate, or any kind of open forum for ideas.
Step 4: Use the successful or failed (both are claimed to be true) resolution of the “crisis” in the next election to raise money.
Wars (like Iraq and Afghanistan) are an especially clear example of this, however, the current debt ceiling crisis is another tragic example. I don’t yet know the outcome of the private meetings between Obama and the key political figures involved, but I do know that the lives of millions of Americans will be affected by the inevitable cuts in treasured programs and the inevitable tax reform.
These are important and difficult public policy questions, and yet the American people are not involved in any real sense, because the span of time over which options are weighed is weeks (even days), not years.
Clearly, there is money to be made by the media (CNN, MSNBC, Fox, etc) in reporting on public policy debates as if it’s a sporting event. Two teams, one with red jerseys, one with blue, battling it out with radically different strategies… One person runs a racist ad, another sleeps with a prostitute, the next makes a veiled threat of an armed revolution…
Maybe taking the sportscaster view is harmless “fun” during campaign season, but when actual multi-billion dollar decisions are on the line in congress, politics cannot be treated like a game.
The recent growing Republican threat to shut down the government is just another element of the game that the media and the politicians have been playing. Both sides are making accusation and posturing (through sheep-like repetition of talking points) in order to spin, spin, spin whatever the chaos of a substance-free media-driven debate leads to. I have not heard an honest respectful debate about the costs and benefits of various government programs yet.
I do feel that the Democrats are trying to have such a debate, but too easily give into political mud-slinging. I saw a poll that showed 52% of Democrats in America would like to see their party compromise with the other side, while only 18% of Republicans want to see compromise. That’s a big and important difference. Nevertheless, both sides are too weak-spined to ignore the inner-sheep and stand on their own in a careful deliberation of the importance of programs like Medicare and Social Security in the America of the 21st century.
Eminent domain is when a government seizes private property for “public use”. It compensates the original owner of that property with an estimated “fair market value”.
A common example of eminent domain is the state demolition your house and building a railroad, highway, or public utility through the land on which it stood. The “fair market value” in this case is the price you would get if you tried to sell the house under normal conditions.
Of course, the problem is that (especially with people’s homes) the “fair market value” can be a drastically lower number than the real value to the owner.
This is a good example to me of government trampling over individual rights, but is something that is necessary from a practical standpoint. There was an interesting debate on this subject when the Constitution was being written between Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Jefferson was for “allodial ownership“, which means that you own your house no matter what and no one can take it away without your permission. Madison, on the other hand, pushed for the idea that the people transfer their rights partially to the government under specific restrictions. If you property is taken away, you have to be compensated fairly, and it has to be for “public use”. Not for “public interest” or “public good”. Sounds like a distinction without a difference. Not if you are a constitutional lawyer.
What I’m learning more and more these days is that political and social leaders like to be real sticklers for the finer semantics of language from sources such as the Constitution or the Bible. Whatever your viewpoint, you find the language in there to defend it. And with that in mind, it’s especially interesting that there is a debate about a comma or smudge in the Constitution in the crucial sentence describing eminent domain.