November 27, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday!

November 24, 2008

Civic Literacy

The Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) is an educational organization founded in 1953 "to further in successive generations of American college youth a better understanding of the economic, political, and ethical values that sustain a free and humane society." The ISI is ostensibly non-partisan, although it approaches education, history and economics with a conservative bent.

Last week, the ISI released its third annual report on what it terms "civic literacy" - the economic, historical and political knowledge of U.S. citizens. The results were disturbing, if not surprising, given the presidency of George W. Bush (emphasis mine):
More than 2,500 randomly selected Americans took ISI’s basic 33-question test on civic literacy and more than 1,700 people failed, with the average score 49 percent, or an “F.” Elected officials scored even lower than the general public with an average score of 44 percent and only 0.8 percent (or 21) of all surveyed earned an “A.”
If you'd like to see how you'd do on the ISI Civic Literacy test, it can be found here. In my opinion, it is fair, grounded in fact, and unbiased.

November 19, 2008

Arm Yourself

I work in the private sector, I have an MBA, and I believe in the power of the market. I believe that, left to its own devices, it will seek equilibrium naturally over time, and that eventually, all bubbles will burst, all recessions will end, and the most competitive companies will survive and thrive.

I also have an undergraduate degree in Government, I have worked on Capitol Hill and in the not-for-profit sector, and I have been a member of the working poor, albeit with hope of advancement. I have toiled 4o hours a week waiting tables and tending bar - without health insurance or a car or a savings account, or, in one 10-month stretch, a single day off - so I could work another 40 hours a week someplace else, often for free, to get my foot in the door. I believe that the degree to which markets can swing, and the length of time it often takes corrections to occur, are only acceptable if we don't care about the human costs - poverty, unemployment, social upheaval and the like - of that volatilty.

Academically, I have always believed to one degree or another that government has a crucial role in regulating markets, but it is probably my own personal history that has made me sure of it. For me, if regulations mean that every last possible dollar cannot be wrung from a given company or industry or sector, so be it; if - by blunting some of the peaks - we keep the troughs shallow enough to avoid wreaking economic disaster on wide swaths of the population, it is a sacrifice well worth making if we believe we are all in this together. It is with this Keynsian worldview, therefore, that I recently read Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Having finished it last week, I recommend it in the strongest possible terms.

The Shock Doctrine is a groundbreaking and eye-opening account of the manner in which the brand of free-market capitalism we see today - manifested in the housing crisis and the current economic meltdown - has propagated throughout the world. It details extensively that - contrary to popular mythology - laissez-faire doctrine did not spread because it has triumphed fairly in the marketplace of ideas and demonstrated that it is good for the many. Rather, it has too often been imposed through stealth, extortion and exploitation, and more often than not, for the benefit of the few.

Based on extensive historical research and years of firsthand reporting from war and disaster zones, The Shock Doctrine vividly demonstrates that what Ms. Klein terms "disaster capitalism" – the rapid, corporate-backed re-engineering of societies still reeling from massive, systemic shock – traces its roots back more than five decades, to both CIA-sponsored psychological experiments and the economics department at the University of Chicago under Nobel laureate Milton Friedman. These policies were based on the same premise underpinning the mental health treatments of the day - that dysfunctional societies (or those perceived to be), like the mentally ill, could be "wiped clean" and re-started from scratch. When economic or political crises hit, the "Chicago Boys," as they came to be known, were ready to take advantage of societal shock. As Dr. Friedman put it:
Only a crisis, real or perceived, produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.
It was this foundational concept that was behind the exploitation of post-catastrophe disorientation, and which was used to ram through radical free-market policies that would never have been enacted democratically. Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil and Indonesia in the fifties and sixties; Poland and China in the eighties; Russia and South Africa in the nineties; the United States in the wake of 9/11; the Iraq War; the aftermaths of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and the tsunami that devastated Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Thailand in 2004 - all of these bear the mark of the Chicago School ideologues.

The result - in literally every case - has been widespread disenfranchisement, massive increases in poverty and unemployment, the destruction of shared wealth, and the tremendous enrichment of a very few. It is a legacy of shame, coercion and hypocrisy that provides a telling insight into the tension between developed and developing nations, and one with which every American who doesn't understand why the rest of the world doesn't love us unconditionally needs to become intimately familiar.

Today, we see the result of uncompromising free market ideology and corporatism in the housing collapse, the financial sector crisis, the privatization of the war in Iraq, and what appears to be the imminent failure of the American automobile industry . The gap between the wealthiest and the poorest grows ever larger, and even today, as we face the crumbling foundations of our entire economy, that very crisis is being used to provide cover - yet again - for unpopular and dangerous policy changes.

The Shock Doctrine is an important, well-researched book that brings to light a perspective vital to understanding the world we live in today. It exposes a "multifaceted ideological trend that has successfully served the most powerful corporate interests in society for half a century," and it is giving those same interests fits. Critics of Ms. Klein's book were notably silent until recently - apparently hoping she would go away - but they have now resorted to a barrage of straw man arguments and a campaign of blatant dishonesty in an effort to protect the myth that democracy and free markets are inexorably intertwined. It is a credit to Ms. Klein's thoroughness and rigor that those attacks have failed to scratch the armor plate on her highly documented and compellingly cohesive work. If you read only one "serious" book this year, this one should top your list.

November 13, 2008

The Depths of Their Affection, Not the Gender of Their Beloved

California's Proposition 8 - a ballot measure amending the state constitution to define marriage solely as between one man and one woman - passed on November 4th, appearing almost as some sort of horrible karmic balance of societal regression against Barack Obama's landmark election to the presidency. With its core function to actively discriminate against same sex couples, Prop 8 was contentious, and its passage can largely be atttibuted to the enormous amount of money that poured into California from out of state. The Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) and the Roman Catholic Church were both major supporters of the initiative, and the end result was that, while the United States made a significant stride in overcoming longstanding prejudice in its choice of chief executive, its most populous state ended up codifying bigotry against homosexuals.

In the wake of passage, it appears that California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger - formerly indifferent to Proposition 8, but perhaps recognizing the horrible dichotomy in progress between the course of racial equality and gay rights - has voiced his hope that the measure will be overturned in the courts. Meanwhile, large-scale protests against Prop 8 have broken out across California, and although people like the Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council (FRC) have attempted to paint these protests as violent mobs working against the will of the people, they have been anything but.

The Mormons - suddenly under the spotlight in ways they now wish they were not - have faced demonstrations at their places of worship in both California and their home state of Utah, but apparently miss the towering irony in their complaints that intrusion into their personal religious matters is inappropriate. Catholic leadership, meanwhile, has sallied forth with a stomach-churning and transparently false claim that "Proposition 8 is not against any group in our society. Its sole focus is on preserving God's plan for people living upon this earth throughout time."

Such declarations aside, let's be perfectly clear: "will of the people" or not, Proposition 8 specifically - and discrimination against same sex couples who want to marry, in general - is unconstitutional, illogical, and immoral.

It is unconstitutional because the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution states, very clearly and with express intention of preventing descrimination against minorities, that:
All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
Proposition 8 is illogical, because - as detailed in the famous "Open Letter to Doctor Laura" - the religious justification for banning same-sex marriage and persecuting homosexuals cherry picks one portion of the Old Testament and ignores many others. Marriage is also not nearly the immutable institution organizations like the FRC would have the public believe, and the Bible very clearly countenances polygamy as a fact of life. Further, claims that Proposition 8 is rooted in protecting the "sanctity of marriage," are obviously false; on the basis of volume alone, the divorce rate among heterosexuals is a far greater threat to matrimony than homosexual marriage is, or ever will be, and no one is working to ban divorce.

Finally, this measure is immoral, because, as Barry Eisler eloquently explains at The Heart of the Matter:
If you oppose gay marriage, try to imagine that as strongly as you feel, that's just how strongly backers of Jim Crow felt in the 1950's and 1960's. Segregationists, who are now recognized as the racists they were, felt just as strongly about blacks marrying whites as you feel about two men or two women marrying each other. They had their arguments, as you have yours. And yet, looking back, we know they were wrong. When people look back at supporters of Prop 8, they'll recognize that Prop 8 supporters were wrong, too.
Fortunately, the fight against Proposition 8 is not over. Already, seven same-sex couples - legally married in the Golden State prior to Prop 8's passage - have filed suit to overturn the measure. Further, the California Supreme Court has been petitioned to overturn Proposition 8 on the grounds that the ballot initiative process was improperly used in an effort to gut the state constitution's core commitment to equality. And perhaps best of all, businesses and individuals who financially backed Proposition 8 are being held accountable through protests and boycotts.

As big a setback as the passage of California Proposition 8 is, however, I truly believe that - no matter what the short term outcome of court cases and legal challenges - efforts like this one exist on borrowed time. Given that Arizona and Florida also enacted bans on same sex marriage, it may be that my outlook has been affected by optimism associated with Senator Obama's election, but I'm not so sure. Arizona and Florida aren't the bellwether states that California is, and it's worth noting that today, Connecticut began licensing homosexual couples for marriage. Injustice for minorities clearly still exists in the U.S., but the mere existence of a President Obama makes it much more difficult for discrimination to withstand scrutiny.

Unquestionably, Prop 8 is a defeat for those who believe that equality before the law is a fundamental American principle, and it is one that deserves an active and vigorous response. But just as we have elected a president based on the content of his character rather than the color of his skin, we will someday - in the near future - support equal marriage rights for all consenting adults based on the depth of their affection, rather than the gender of their beloved. We owe it to our fellow Americans, who have been made second class citizens by Proposition 8, and we owe it to ourselves.

November 8, 2008

Obama's Game Face

Like many people, I'm still awed by Barack Obama's historic election to the presidency, and having spent the past couple of years venting my spleen over the terrible conduct of the Bush Administration (and how good will it feel to stop writing the words "Bush" and "administration" next to one another?), it's likely that I will take a small breather, posting shorter posts here at Sensen No Sen for a week or two. Nonetheless, here are a few things I thought worth sharing.

The first is the series of photos at left [h/t April Winchell], taken at the Obama post-election rally in Chicago's Grant Park. With the Obama presidency, there will be whole generation of kids - including these two - who will grow up having had a black president, and while that fact will in no way erase the ongoing, institutional racism in America, it is unquestionably a step in the right direction. Suddenly, something that seemed like an insurmountable obstacle - something that just couldn't occur - has happened, and it can't help but change us as a people.

Another thing I found striking during Senator Obama's speech was the contrast between his demeanor and that of the crowd. There were jubilation and tears and joy among the assembled, but aside from a few quick smiles that appeared directed at close friends, the president-elect was deeply serious, perhaps even moreso than he had been during the campaign. In sports parlance, he already had his game face on, and that's something that makes me feel good about my vote.

On a personal level, I would have liked to see the president-elect enjoy the moment of his accomplishment, to see him smile broadly. But the more I reflect on it, the more I have come to appreciate that the next man to occupy the Oval Office clearly understands that the election itself was only step one, and that there are challenges facing this country every bit as historic as his political ascent. The manner in which he has hit the ground running in the days following the election have only confirmed my opinion, and for me, while the election of the first black man to the Presidency of the United States of America is truly amazing, what matters even more is that we have a disciplined, pragmatic leader who is serious about taking on the monumental issues confronting our nation.

Finally, take a glance at this post from Bill Wolfrum. It satirizes beautifully the utter, craven stupidity of the Republican arguments against electing Barack Obama. (Warning: Like a lot of good comedy, it's a little profane.) After you've had a moment to savor it, pause and reflect how wonderful it is that we have marginalized the moronic screwheads, idiot racists and hysterical fear mongers of the hardcore rightwing by our vote on Tuesday. Whatever happens in the next four years, at the very least, the orgy of accusation and self-destruction that the Republican Party has just begun visiting on itself will not only be tremendously enjoyable to watch for anyone who has observed, with knotted stomach, what the GOP has done to our country, but it will also have very little effect on the business of the nation.

And that, is a very good thing, indeed.

November 4, 2008

November 3, 2008

Pre-Election Night Visual Aids

The clock is ticking down to Election Day, and despite the media's strong desire to portray the campaigns of John McCain and Barack Obama as nearly neck and neck, all signs point to not just a strong finish for Senator Obama, but a potential landslide. Senator McCain's desperate attacks on his opponent's "association" with radicals and his substanceless claims of widespread voter fraud - which even they now admit have never materialized - appear to be falling not so much on deaf ears, but on the ears of a public too jaded and fed up with imperial Republican mis-rule to pay them heed.

Nonetheless, it is worth talking briefly about a couple of things: the need to close the deal and ensure that everyone who supports Mr. Obama actually casts a ballot, and the gut-level arguments that may sway the remaining undecideds to put their votes behind the Democratic nominee. With that in mind, I have cobbled together a few (only somewhat tongue-in-cheek) visual aids to keep in mind and share with any friends who may still be sitting on the fence.

First, Sarah Palin is not "just like you and me" and she is woefully unprepared to assume a leadership role in national or world politics:

Second, paying taxes is not socialism, and the active participation of government, in partnership with the private sector, has a very strong track record in the United States:

Third, the modern Republican Party has made its bones by convincing people to vote against their own interests. It is in the economic interest of the vast majority of Americans to vote for Senator Obama:

Fourth, think about where the country was before the ascension of George W. Bush. The Onion was tragically prescient when it satirically reported in 2000 that President-elect Bush had declared, "Our Long National Nightmare Of Peace And Prosperity Is Finally Over". Even the guys from Budweiser's carefree "Wassup" campaign have noticed that the past 8 years haven't gone very well for anybody who isn't at the top of the income heap:

Finally, remember that EVERY vote must count, and make sure that yours does, too. We have come too far and worked too long to let John McCain - or anyone else - steal this election:

I have detailed in previous posts why I am voting for Barack Obama (here, here and here). While he is certainly not perfect, I believe that he is a far superior candidate to John McCain on the issues, and because of where we currently sit within the broad arc of national history. As we reach the finish line of this election - an end to the beginning, if you will - I have also come to believe increasingly that Senator Obama has the potential to be a truly transformative president; one who has a chance to actually attain some of the lofty and difficult aims he has laid out for himself and for the country.

I'm not alone. As corny as it sounds, hope is a powerful force that, well-managed, can bring about wholesale improvements in the lives of everyday people, and transform individuals:

I've learned that this election is about the heart of America. It's about the young people who are losing hope and the old people who have been forgotten. It's about those who have worked all their lives and never fully realized the promise of America, but see that promise for their grandchildren in Barack Obama. The poor see a chance, when they often have few. I saw hope in the eyes and faces in those doorways.

My wife and I went out last weekend to knock on more doors. But this time, not because it was her idea. I don't know what it's going to do for the Obama campaign, but it's doing a lot for me.

It may be that we never reach the goals expressed in Mr. Obama's platform, but it is certain that we will fail if we embrace the status quo of John McCain either directly, or worse, through the apathy of non-participation.

Please vote tomorrow. We're all in this together, and we need your help.