Jun 16, 2011

If the Fitzwalkerstans were truly conservative

In the not-too-distant past, self-proclaimed conservatives frequently referenced with admiration Russell Kirk's 1953 opus, The Conservative Mind. The book is widely regarded as helping to spawn the modern American conservative movement.

In the book, Kirk honored 18th-century English Tory Edmund Burke as the hero of conservative thought. Burke argued — most famously in his political tract Reflections on the Revolution in France — that the customs of a people were more trustworthy than the abstract ideals of a person or a group of persons. Ideals become ideologies when conceived entirely in a person's mind, unrelated to a society's experiences and habits. Burke predicted accurately that the French Revolution, rooted entirely in abstract reason and sweeping away generations of custom, would end in violence and dictatorship.

Bringing Burke into the 20th century, Kirk proclaimed in The Conservative Mind that ideology is the enemy of conservatism. Ideology imposes; conservatism conserves. Reform works best when it's connected to a society's customs. Disconnected from those customs, reform is radical, revolutionary and bound to fail.

Walker and the Fitzgerald brothers call themselves conservative. Nonsense. They're as radical as they can be. They believe the abstract ideals of a few think tanks — Heritage Foundation, Club for Growth, ALEC — are more trustworthy than the long-practiced customs of Wisconsin's people.

If the Fitzwalkerstans were truly conservative, they would never have swept away by legislative fiat more than a half-century tradition of strong public unions and respect for public workers.

If the Fitzwalkerstans were truly conservative, they would never have proposed slashing more than $800 million from K-12 schools plus $250 million from the UW system in a state with Wisconsin's tradition of support for public education.

If the Fitzwalkerstans were truly conservative, they would never have proposed balancing the budget by requiring "shared sacrifice" only among the poor and middle class in a state with Wisconsin's history of robust public goods and services.

If the Fitzwalkerstans were truly conservative, they would never have proposed killing a host of environmental protections and policies in a state with Wisconsin's long tradition of conservation.

Nobody expects Walker and the Fitzgeralds to be Democrats. But if they were truly conservative, they would fight hard for an agenda that applies their values in a way that respects Wisconsin's customs. Instead, they seek to impose upon Wisconsin abstract ideologies advanced by ultra-right think tanks funded by ultra-right donors.

The result? Huge protests, recall elections, feuds and bad blood all around. And it all could have been avoided, if only the Fitzwalkerstans were truly conservative.

Rings true to me. And you?

May 22, 2011

A more reasonable faith

We don't have a tax problem; we have a spending problem.
—Paul Ryan, John Boehner, Eric Cantor et al

Today's ultra-conservative Republicans believe taxes are of the devil. This is an article of faith, undoubted and unchallenged. It was not always thus.

During the post-WWII consensus, Republicans as well as Democrats regarded taxes as the price for civilization — and progressive taxation as the best way to pay for the civilization the public wanted.

For seven of Eisenhower's eight years in the White House, the top marginal tax rate was 91% on income over $3 million in today's money (the first year, 92%). When Nixon took office, the top rate was 77% on income over $1.2 million. The last year of Ford's term, it was 70% on income over $750,000.

But by 1980, the post-WWII consensus was out of gas. Stagflation, the Iran hostage crisis, the oil crisis and Carter's apparent ineptitude to solve any of these big problems contributed to a public bad mood. Enter the Reagan Revolution.

With clarity, relevance and evangelistic fervor, Reagan and his acolytes preached a popularized supply-side economics to a public thirsty for a new faith. Focus on those who produce, not "welfare queens" who merely consume. Cut taxes and remove regulations from businesses. The supply of goods and services will explode, lowering prices. The ensuing economic activity will create jobs and increase federal tax revenues. All gain, no pain.

Fast forward 30 years. Like the post-WWII consensus before it, supply-side doctrine is out of gas. It can no longer explain on its own terms its real-world effects: massive deficits, crushing federal debt and business malfeasance that pumps oil into the Gulf of Mexico, nearly destroys an entire world's economy and kills 29 miners.

But received dogmas die hard. Those reared in the Reaganite supply-side faith are loathe to express doubt even in the face of devastating counter-evidence. Thus the truly nonsensical and oft-heard sermon that federal deficits and debt stem merely from over-spending and not also from under-taxing.

Yes, we have a spending problem. And yes, we have a tax problem. If we are to fix our problems, we'll have to reject supply-side dogma for a more reasonable faith: one that balances free enterprise, fair play and fiscal realism. One that pays for the civilization we want and envisions a civilization we can pay for.

Rings true to me. And you?

May 3, 2011

Why do we celebrate a killing?

I will mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

I live in Madison, WI, where the center of gravitas is very progressive. This is new for me. Though I grew up in the Midwest, I spent most of my adult life in the South, Madison's political mirror image.

I'd wager a body part that most of my friends in Atlanta and Orlando were pleased with the news of Osama Bin Laden's killing. Some might have groused minimally over who gave the order; they would have preferred Bush. But I doubt very much that any spent a nano-second hand-wringing over America sending in soldiers to shoot the man dead. This was a government program they heartily supported.

And my Madison friends? A very different story. Many posted on Facebook or tweeted an abbreviated version of the above quotation, mistakenly attributed to Martin Luther King but reflecting his nonviolent ideals.

Along with the ersatz quote, people posted their sentiments. They were uncomfortable with the reaction that spontaneously erupted across the country. Celebrating a killing just seemed, well, unseemly.

I understand this sentiment. It flows from a love of fair play for all people that I share, making me more comfortable politically in my adopted home than in the South. But I think my progressive friends have missed something crucial in this event — something that makes me OK with the whooping, hollering, and high-fiving.

Americans aren't celebrating a killing; they're celebrating justice.

Some wrongs are so wrong that they cry out in our hearts to be made right. Mass murder — especially massive mass murder — is one of these wrongs. If this were 1943 and a team of GIs had successfully assassinated Hitler, our celebration would have been similar — and similarly fitting.

Does this solve all the problems? Of course not. Justice is like beauty. All people long for it. But its content is fuzzy, person-relative, and culturally communicated. What's just to us is part of the story that is ours, rooted in our experience, forming our beliefs, spawning our actions.

But that doesn't make it nothing. That just makes it human.

Can a celebration of justice turn to bloodlust? Sure. Granted, the line between them is impossible to draw with certainty. But that doesn't mean there is no line.

Can one argue that our idea of justice is no better than Bin Laden's? Sure, though I'm unembarrassed proclaiming that the mass murder of innocents is universally unjust.

But quibbling over what constitutes justice is beside the point. Whether you think Bin Laden's killing was just or not, that's what Americans spontaneously celebrated. Justice. Not the killing itself, which was incidental.

I for one can't fault people's natural, deep desire for justice — and their explosion of joy when they believed it was served.

Rings true to me. And you?

Apr 27, 2011

It's 'cause he's black.

There's no longer any doubt. The reason people oppose Obama on such unreasonable grounds is his race. He's black, and people just can't wrap their minds around a black man being the president of the United States.

Those screams you hear are my Facebook friends from the South, where I spent most of my adult life. They aren't reading this sentence, as they just switched to Facebook to defriend me. Whatev. For those of you willing to read on, here's what makes me certain:

When I was earning a master's degree in communication, I had to write a paper about framing, priming and schema. These are topics in mass comm studies about the relationship between media presentation of stories and our interpretation of them.

While doing research for the paper, I ran across a 2008 study in the journal Political Psychology by Dr. Kimberly Gross of George Washington University on the effects of media framing on emotion and public opinion (you can read it here if you wish).

The study conducted an experiment. One group of students received a packet of materials about mandatory minimum sentencing that included an initial 550-word article about a "single, white mother in her 20s" sentenced to a 25-year, no-parole, mandatory minimum sentence for conspiring to assist her abusive, drug-dealing boyfriend in his cocaine trade.

A second group received a packet identical to the first with one exception: The initial article described the woman in the story as a "single, black mother in her 20s."

One word out of thousands. Only the initial article in each packet referred to race and only in the one sentence.

The result?

Students in the first group felt sympathy for the white woman. Because her circumstances were so harsh, they felt she was treated unjustly. So much so that their opposition to mandatory minimum sentencing significantly increased.

Students in the second group felt no sympathy for the black woman. She was responsible for her circumstances, so justice was served. Their views on mandatory minimum sentencing remained unchanged.

Wow. This study was published in 2008, not 1958. And these were college students — hardly a group of ultra-right crypto-racists. Clearly, some storyline way, way deep in our mental "schema" — to use the positivist parlance of quantitative communication studies — tells us that blacks get what they deserve. And they don't deserve a break.

Enter the birthers. Obama doesn't deserve one jot or tittle of trust. Born in Hawaii? Prove it. Released your birth certificate? Probably a fake. Your social security number? It's a problem. You went to Harvard? You didn't deserve it. You get no break from us, buster. You're black.

Rings true to me, unfortunately. And you?

Apr 26, 2011

Taxpayers vs. public workers — a bogus conflict.

Sometimes a storyline is communicated by a single word. Like taxpayers — a word that Governor Walker and other Republicans seem especially fond of lately.

"[Protesters'] voices cannot drown out the voices of the countless taxpayers who want us to balance our budgets," wrote Gov. Walker in the Wall Street Journal (emphasis mine, here and throughout).

"The system is broken. It costs taxpayers serious money," he said in his Feb. 22 TV address — the so-called fireside chat.

Also from that address: "As more and more protesters come in from Nevada, Chicago and elsewhere, I am not going to allow their voices to overwhelm the voices of the millions of taxpayers from across the state who think we're doing the right thing."

Embedded in Walker's remarks is a narrative of sector conflict. Private and public sectors are against each other, and the private needs protection.

The private sector produces, this story goes. It's made up of heroic entrepreneurs, who create jobs and drive the economy forward. It's independent from the public sector. It's the real world, the sphere where free people freely take the risks that advance progress and enhance the quality of life. It comes first.

In contrast, the public sector doesn't produce. It doesn't create a single job. It exists solely to serve the private sector and is therefore secondary, even subservient.

But public-sector unions have thrown the relationship out of whack, the story continues. Through collective bargaining, they've wielded power not befitting their position, securing bloated benefits and inordinate job security for public workers. So now it's time to protect taxpayers and put public servants back in their rightful place.

Ugh. Though frequently referenced by today's Republican leaders, this sector-conflict storyline is totally bogus. The truth is that the two sectors are equally essential, mutually dependent and beautifully complementary when allowed to be so.

The public sector provides the context enabling private action to take place. Without the public sector, there would be no consumers sufficiently educated to read about or pay for the private sectors' goods and services. No courts to adjudicate contract disputes. No laws or law enforcers to ensure commercial transport by land, sea, or air. No firefighters to save commercial buildings and equipment. No environmental protections to ensure safe drinking water and clean air. No military force to protect our borders and way of life from invaders.

Without those things, the private sector as we know it would not, could not exist. The impulse to succeed, to compete, to win would be unchecked by rules ensuring fairness and mitigating against harm.

Such a world exists. And not just in the fantasies of Ayn Rand and her current influential followers. You can watch it nightly on NatGeo. It's the world of the animal kingdom, where only the strongest and luckiest win, and it's winner take all. The jungle, the Serengeti and the deep blue sea are free from bureaucrats and their pesky rules.

I prefer civilization. And that's what the public sector provides. Public workers depend on taxpayers as much as taxpayers depend on public workers. No more, no less.

Away with this bogus conflict! We in both sectors are in this drama together, playing different but equal roles in the struggle to create the best world and live the best lives we can.

Rings true to me. And you?