Monday, November 10, 2014

Are you listening, Mr Boehner?

Americans have entrusted Republicans with control of both the House and Senate. We are humbled by this opportunity to help struggling middle-class Americans who are clearly frustrated by an increasing lack of opportunity, the stagnation of wages, and a government that seems incapable of performing even basic tasks. — John Boehner and Mitch McConnell

Speaker of the House John Boehner and current Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell often state the importance of listening to the American people. When they emphasize the importance of listening, I am assuming they are stressing the importance of carefully considering all the many points of view expressed by Americans, and not only the opinions of those who make substantial contributions to the triumphant political party and those who can be counted on to vote for candidates who have been captured in the gravitational field of Messrs. Boehner and McConnell. Taking them at their word that they listen to American people, I am taking the liberty of writing this as an American person. I shall express my perspective on the state of our nation by offering a commentary to an opinion piece published in the November 5, 2014 Wall Street Journal by Mr. Boehner (R., Ohio) and Mr. McConnell (R., Kentucky).

Looking ahead to the next Congress, we will honor the voters’ trust by focusing, first, on jobs and the economy. Among other things, that means a renewed effort to debate and vote on the many bills that passed the Republican-led House in recent years with bipartisan support, but were never even brought to a vote by the Democratic Senate majority. It also means renewing our commitment to repeal ObamaCare, which is hurting the job market along with Americans’ health care.

First, it may be worth taking into consideration that many Americans find other issues every bit as pressing as the economy, especially given that when politicians talk about the economy, they are nearly always talking about that aspect of the economy that is measured in returns for investors in the stock market. A broader view of the economy also takes into account the level of wages for people who must sell their labor to make a living, the kinds of employment benefits available to workers, and the environmental sustainability of producing goods and services. It is disappointing, therefore, to see Messrs. Boehner and McConnell draw attention to their commitment to repealing the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (which they choose to call ObamaCare). This is a matter on which the American people do not speak univocally. Many have been able to afford health insurance for the first time in their lives, thanks to that Act; those people may like to see the Act strengthened in various ways rather than repealed. Not everyone is in favor of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, and those who are not contented with it are troubled by it for very different reasons. Some of us were hoping for a single-payer government-managed health insurance plan similar to what the citizens of Quebec enjoy; others would prefer to take their chances on remaining uninsured. Surely, when American opinion is so diversified, a more cautious promise to the American people would be to examine the PPACA carefully, rather than to repeal it altogether.

Secondly, it is worth mentioning that there were many factors involved in the undeniable dysfunction of the Senate. No small factor in the paralysis of the Congress was the tactic, repeatedly used by Republicans, of using filibuster to make debate impossible. The lack of a cooperative spirit in the Congress has by no means been one-sided. It takes at least two parties to participate in the condition commonly called gridlock. A common perception among American people of all political persuasions is that hardly anyone in the Congress is willing to put partisanship and ideological posturing aside. It is fundamentally dishonest for anyone in Congress to lay all the blame on those who sit on the opposite side of the aisle from themselves. It is the childish name-calling and sloganeering that many of the American people find distasteful about Congress. It is encouraging to hear a promise to remedy that infantile behavior, but the promise is unlikely to be fulfilled if all the newly empowered members of Congress can say are such things as “For years, the House did its job and produced a steady stream of bills that would remove barriers to job creation and lower energy costs for families. Many passed with bipartisan support—only to gather dust in a Democratic-controlled Senate that kept them from ever reaching the president’s desk.” The American people deserve better political analysis than that sort of one-sided finger-pointing.

We’ll also consider legislation to help protect and expand America’s emerging energy boom and to support innovative charter schools around the country.These bills include measures authorizing the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, which will mean lower energy costs for families and more jobs for American workers…

Given that estimates for the number of permanent jobs that the Keystone XL pipeline will create vary between 35 and 50, it may be worth giving priority to developing solar and wind power. The pipeline is designed to transport crude from the oil sands of Canada, an operation that has had devastating consequences for the environment in Canada. Moreover, importing fossil fuels only encourages continuing their use at a time when climate scientists around the world are warning that irreversible damage is likely to ensue if alternatives to fossil fuels are not developed around the word immediately. The continued use of coal, natural gas and petroleum for energy production may have very short-term advantages, but their use is an example of ways in which the current generation is living at the expense of our children and grandchildren and further generations to come. The Republican caucus has repeatedly shown sensitivity to the moral bankruptcy involved in this generation’s prospering at the expense of generations to come; the call for a review of entitlement programs demonstrates Republican concern for generations to come. While a review of entitlements is indeed overdue and will no doubt require making difficult and unpopular decisions, it is to be hoped that concern for the future will not be limited to that issue but will also include environmental issues.

More good ideas aimed at helping the American middle class will follow. And as we work to persuade others of their merit, we won’t repeat the mistakes made when a different majority ran Congress in the first years of Barack Obama’s presidency, attempting to reshape large chunks of the nation’s economy with massive bills that few Americans have read and fewer understand.

Helping the American middle class is an excellent idea. During recent decades, wealth and opportunities have been diminishing for the middle class, and even more so for those at the bottom of the economic ladder, while the wealthiest have been prospering at unprecedented levels. The playing field of the American dream has been dramatically tilted in favor of the millionaires and billionaires, and everyone else is suffering. Changing that situation is urgently required. It is encouraging to know that the new Congress will make reform of the plutocratic system that has evolved in America since the Reagan years a priority.

Also encouraging is the promise—if it is kept—to design shorter bills that deal with only one issue and that Members of Congress can read and understand (for it is far more important for the lawmakers to be able to read and understand bills than it is for the general public). The practice of attaching irrelevant amendments and earmarks to bills as a tactic may be politically advantageous in the short term, but the long-term economic and political consequences can be catastrophic. The time for refraining from such practices and returning to more streamlined, straightforward and honest legislation is long overdue.

Messrs. Boehner and McConnell list several other priorities, some of which deserve careful consideration.

  • The insanely complex tax code that is driving American jobs overseas;

Presidential candidates have been promising since at least the mid-1970s to simplify the tax code. Attempts to do so have been constantly thwarted, largely by successful lobbying campaigns aimed at preserving provisions that individuals and corporations with vested interests find to their advantage. One can only wish the newly elected Congress luck in reducing the insane complexity of the code. It may also be worth exploring what other factors are driving international corporations to base their operations overseas rather than in America. Laying all the blame on the current tax code smacks of oversimplification.

Simplifying the tax code may be one of those tasks best accomplished not by trying to please the American people but by laying aside ideology and working in a bipartisan way. What is needed is for the Congress to figure out what is necessary and what is possible, to draft legislation and then, with the help of the Executive branch of government, to explain the solution to the American people and explain why the solution reached is to everyone’s long-term advantage.

  • Health costs that continue to rise under a hopelessly flawed law that Americans have never supported;

Health costs are bound to rise in a for-profit system. Opportunistic pharmaceutical companies, manufacturers of medical appliances, clinics and other healthcare providers have learned that people who are desperately in need of care are willing to pay handsomely to have their health restored. Rather than viewing healthcare as a potentially profitable business, it is time to view it as it is viewed in most other industrialized nations—a government-provided service that should be universally available to all legal residents of a country.

It is false to say without qualification that Americans have never supported the current law known as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Many Americans did, and still do, support it. Many of those who did not support it were disappointed that it did not include a single-payer option. Public opinion on this matter has been truly divided, and that must be acknowledged if any progress is to be made. Simply claiming that Americans are united in their opposition to the current law is a misrepresentation of the facts and does not manifest the kind of bipartisanship and integrity that everyone hopes will characterize the newly elected Congress.

  • A savage global terrorist threat that seeks to wage war on every American;

This is an issue that must be examined honestly and in some depth. It must be asked why some people are so displeased with America that they are prepared to visit violence on Americans and on people from countries that cooperate with America. Simply characterizing other people as savage is not a good beginning at finding a way to bring their anger to an end.

The United States of America is the largest military presence on the planet, and the leaders of the United States have not always used military power well. US military operations in foreign countries have not always been altruistic, and have not always been welcome. It is not at all surprising that the US is perceived as a colonial power and as a bully. Our collective response to threats has nearly always been to use force, and the constant use of force is a significant factor in alienating people in other countries. It is not that the United States has enemies so much as that the United States has policies that turn friends into enemies. Bringing an end to the global terrorist threat can only begin by honest and careful reflection on what kinds of policies have turned other people hostile and made them resort to measures that terrify us. No enemy can ever be pacified until we have collectively made an attempt to understood what we have done to make them hostile towards us.

  • An education system that denies choice to parents and denies a good education to too many children;

This is so vague as to be nearly meaningless. While it always seems pleasant and benign to offer people choices, it must be asked what kinds of choices are being talked about here. Are we talking about giving people a choice to have their children taught in Spanish or Arabic instead of English? Are we talking about giving people a choice to have their children taught a particular religious mythology instead of the findings of science? Are we talking about giving parents the option to have their children taught the speculations of conspiracy theorists instead of the historical perspectives of mainstream society?

It may well be that it is not so much a lack of choice in curriculum that is depriving children of a good education, but other facts such as poverty and its attendant problems of malnutrition and homelessness. There are more children living below the poverty level in the United States than in any other industrialized country. For far too many children in this country, poverty stands as an insurmountable obstacle to getting any kind of education other than what they learn on the streets. For them, offering choices in curriculum and pedagogical style is meaningless, since all choices are equally out of reach to too many citizens and legal residents of the United States.

  • Excessive regulations and frivolous lawsuits that are driving up costs for families and preventing the economy from growing;

This is another example of an oversimplification. Surely there is far more to rising costs than excessive regulations and lawsuits, and surely regulations and lawsuits have consequences other than simply driving up costs. Some costs go up because of a scarcity of resources; others go up because of greed and opportunism on the part of those who provide goods and services; others go up because of the lack of real competition in the marketplace. Most of the regulations that exist nowadays were designed to prevent abuses to consumers, abuses of workers, and abuses to the environment. While it is no doubt true that many regulations fail to offer the full protections they were originally designed to produce, the remedy to a poorly designed regulation is to replace it with a better-designed regulation, not simply to jettison regulation altogether.

As for lawsuits, it is really the Judicial branch of government that has the task of deciding which lawsuits are frivolous and which are legitimate. That sort of thing is not for Congress to decide. Just as it is not in anyone’s interest to have judges legislating from the bench, it is also not in anyone’s interest to have legislators passing judgment on matters of law. Lawsuits are, and should be, legal. Leave it to the courts to decide when a legal lawsuit has merit and when it does not. That is the Judicial branch’s job.

  • A national debt that has Americans stealing from their children and grandchildren, robbing them of benefits that they will never see and leaving them with burdens that will be nearly impossible to repay.

Early Americans such as Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine stated that government is for the living and not for the dead, by which they meant that no generation has a right to live in such a way that subsequent generations will not be able to live at approximately the same level of flourishing. Very few people today would argue against the claim that the decisions that the current generation of Americans are making will saddle the future generations with almost unbearable burdens. The impact of our collective lifestyle on the environment has already been mentioned. Current fiscal behavior is also in urgent need of addressing carefully and honestly.

By far the greatest amount of wasteful expenditure in the world today, and especially in the United States of America, is money put into the military. Finding a way to trim the swollen budgets of the military is the most urgent economic task before the nation today. Finding a way to bring the military budget down to a more modest and reasonable size would reduce the debt and make money available for education, healthcare, providing shelter for the homeless and taking care of the physically and mentally disabled. Spending money for those constructive endeavors instead of for the essentially destructive endeavor of preparing for military campaigns on foreign soil may well be the single best way to improve the American economy.

In closing, let me point out that the turnout in the 2014 election was only 36.4% of all eligible voters, which is the lowest voter turnout since 1942. Those who voted in 2014 have collectively expressed their preferences in local elections, but an aggressive attempt should be made to research what the priorities are of the 63.6% of eligible American voters who chose not to cast votes in the 2014 elections. It may be worth trying to learn why nearly two-thirds of voters chose not to make their voices heard. It is no doubt true that the American political system has become dysfunctional in many ways, and one of the manifestations of the malaise is the apparent indifference, and perhaps even despair, of the American people. Many of them seem to have given up hope. It is time to give all Americans, and not just those who write large checks to support their favorite political party, a truly good reason to hope. A first step in offering that reason to hope is for those in power to listen.