Sunday, September 01, 2013

We're probably going to bomb Syria. Need to know the basics?

A lot of people are probably feeling like they know little or nothing about Syria, yet it is pretty darn likely that in the coming weeks we will bomb that country.

So, wish you knew a little bit more about Syria?  There are some good, basic sources of info you might want to check out.  Some have basic background info on Syria.  Others have pros and cons about intervening.

The NY Times and the BBC often have good background info and analysis on important issues and crises.  I've included their links.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Purpose of Government - Moving Toward Sustainable Happiness

As I have been looking for a positive vision of what I would like our country to be like, rather than merely focusing on the negatives of our current situation, I am more and more drawn toward the ideas put forth in Britain and elsewhere about happiness.  In essence, the concept is that government should, in addition to protecting us from threats both foreign and domestic, make it more possible to pursue happiness over the long-term.

While Roger Cohen has an op-ed in today's NYT on this subject, I first came across it through  Nic Marks has a video and a related Kindle Single, The Happiness Manifesto.  Marks' thesis is that governments - and western societies in general - judge our national progress by measuring production, usually GDP, while we should be measuring it by our well-being and our ability to sustain that well-being. In other words, are we happy and are we living in such a way that our children and grandchildren will be able to enjoy the same happiness.  Happiness - or well-being - and the sustainability of it.  Makes sense to me.  I really don't give a crap if our GDP is growing if most of the wealth created ends up in the hands of the few most wealthy Americans and the rest of us struggle to pay our bills, keep our jobs, find a job, keep our homes, send our kids to college, etc.  Most Americans don't need a McMansion or a Mercedes.  We don't need expensive clothes or fancy jewelry. We just need to be able to keep our home, pay the bills, have adequate health care, send our kids to college, and support ourselves in retirement.  Maybe take a vacation every once in a while.  And we need to be able to do that without working two or more jobs or so much overtime that we have neither the time nor the energy to spend time with our families and enjoy our friends.  Oh, and we want to know that our kids will be able to be as happy as we are.  That's not too much to ask, is it?

Sunday, February 13, 2011

We Need Clear Goals for Our Education System and Citizen Activists for Our Country

For a decade now, we've been trying to improve an education system in America that we know falls short in a variety of ways.  But as we "Race to Nowhere" while "Waiting for Superman," we seem to increase the value of standardized testing as a means of evaluating our students, schools and teachers without really knowing what our real goals are.  How will we know when we have created a truly excellent system for the 21st century?  Are we merely looking to teach students how to do well on standardized tests?  Do the tests assess what we truly value?  Or do they often lower the bar, creating minimum standards and then encouraging teachers to teach to the test and abandon what they know is "best practice"?

Are we really looking to just increase graduation rates?  How can that be a meaningful statistic if we don't know what we want kids to know and be able to do if and when they do graduate?

A hundred years ago, our education system was geared toward teaching kids how to be prepared for jobs working in factories, and how to be citizens in a democracy.  Well, we don't have many factory jobs left in the US, and the standardized tests I've seen - and I've seen plenty - don't assess a student's ability to be an effective citizen.

So what do we want kids to know and be able to do?  There has been a lot written and discussed about teaching kids "21st century skills," and I do agree with much of it.  But there hasn't been enough done to help teachers actually teach those skills or figure out how to assess them.  And, meanwhile, the national obsession with standardized testing largely runs counter to that effort.  In the absence of clear goals, however, getting kids to do better on these tests - and to fare better in tests that compare kids in the US with their overseas peers - will drive spending and reform efforts.

I, for one, am increasingly convinced that my job as a social studies teacher is to teach kids how to be effective citizens in the 21st century.  I want them to understand how and why a democracy needs the active participation of its citizens, how individual citizens and groups of concerned Americans have made an enormous difference in our country's past, solving long-term problems and urgent crises.  I want them to have the skills to research issues and problems effectively, to learn the relevant lessons from history, and to weigh the evidence and possible solutions so they can decide for themselves what should be done.  I want them to know how to take that knowledge and put it into action - how to be a citizen activist.  How do you participate in a democracy in the 21st century?  How do you get your fellow citizens to care about an issue and support your cause?  How do you get your government to address the problems you care about and take actions you believe are necessary for the common good?

The people of Tunisia and Egypt showed us this past month how even under repressive regimes people can make a difference and bring about real change.  In a democracy like ours, it should be even easier.  Indeed, throughout our history, average Americans have made an enormous difference, in spite of the control big money has had on our politics since the 1800s.  But we need to teach our kids how to be agents of change, how to take responsibility for their country and government.

If we feel a need to measure our success toward that end, can we?  Well, I'd love to hear some ideas from fellow educators and other concerned Americans, but for starters, we could measure our success by how many 18-30 year olds vote in each election, how many student protests there are a year, how many 18-30 year olds write or visit their member of Congress, etc.  In our classrooms, we can assess the skills and know-how pretty easily.  Kids can write to their member of Congress, propose legislation and constitutional amendments, blog, post on Twitter, write letters or op-eds for their local newspapers, create action plans on important local, national, or global issues.

Please let me hear from you.  What should our other goals be?

"We can do everything!" The Real Lesson of Egypt

As I was watching This Week on ABC this morning, they had a brief clip of a woman in Tahrir Square after Mubarak stepped down.  She said, jubilantly, "We can do everything!"  For me, that may be the biggest lesson from the 18 days of protest that toppled the former autocratic ruler and US ally.

All too often, we are limited by what we believe to be possible.  But those limiting beliefs are self-fulfilling prophesies.  If we believe something is impossible, then it is.  We fail to attempt it or put in a half-hearted effort, convinced that failure is inevitable.  So it is.  Indeed, it becomes our excuse for not even trying.  We find comfort in believing that we saved ourselves from disappointment and wasted effort.  But it is a coward's alibi for inaction and complicity.

My own life is full of wonderful examples of people telling me, over and over again, that something is impossible, only to find out that it is, indeed, possible.  Sometimes, I even found that it was relatively easy.  It seems that once we reach and cross over that tipping point where something that seemed impossible now seems possible, we realize it is actually the status quo that is fragile and impossible to maintain.  Change is inevitable, and the momentum shifts toward the change we now believe in.

People told me I couldn't go to college a year early, after my junior year in high school.  But I did.

People told me I couldn't pass the Foreign Service exam, and certainly not on the first try.  But I did.  (By one point!)

People told us we couldn't get the US House of Representatives to pass legislation lifting the arms embargo on Bosnia.  But we did - a mere six months after forming the American Committee to Save Bosnia and less than five months after starting our advocacy campaign.  And a year later, we passed it in both houses of Congress by veto-proof 2/3 majorities!

I am proud of these achievements, but they pale in comparison to those of countless other people who have truly accomplished the previously unthinkable.

People said when I was growing up that the Iron Curtain would never fall.  But it did.  I was fortunate enough to witness the collapse of Communism first hand from my posting in Moscow.  even got to help tear down the Berlin Wall with my own two hands and was an election monitor in the first free and fair elections ever in the history of the Soviet Union.  I saw the people of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union stand up and demand their freedom.  With the exception of Romania, each revolution was peaceful and relatively swift.

People said we would never elect an African American to be President of the United States - but we did.

And, now, after people said for decades that the Mubarak regime could never be toppled, the people of Egypt took to the streets for less than three weeks and showed, like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., before them, that non-violent protest can achieve the impossible.

So when we talk in this country about how it seems impossible to stop a genocide in Darfur or the Congo, or to fix our inadequate education system, or to take back control of our political system from the big corporations and wealthy Americans who currently dominate it, or to reduce our federal budget deficit or fix Medicare and Social Security, or to solve the climate change crisis, let us remember the people of Egypt and Tunisia.  They accomplished something "impossible" by believing they could and then doing it.

We really can do everything!

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Trying to Understand Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood

Updated 2/27/11

So what is the "Muslim Brotherhood"?  What is its agenda?

For  much of his time in office, Mubarak warned the US and the West that it needed to support him because the alternative was a takeover by the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization he portrayed as a radical Islamist group.  If the MB took over Egypt, he warned, it would be like the Iranian Revolution of 1979.

Some politicians and pundits in the US, particularly on the right, have similarly warned of a pending catastrophe if the MB took over.  At a minimum, it would be like having Hezbollah or Hamas running Egypt, they warn.  Or, at its worst, it would mean the establishment of a Caliphate that would take over the Arab world and present the more dire threat to the US ever.

Glenn Beck and Newt Gingrich's apocalyptic warnings aside, I have been looking for more objective and informed analysis of the MB, its agenda, and its role in the current crisis and Egypt's future.  So I am gathering worthwhile and interesting resources and will compile a list in this post, which I will update as more come across my screen.  I hope others might find this list helpful and informative and that you will send me links to new ones as you find them.  I do not know how accurate or reliable any of these resources are, but I share them in the hope that one or more might prove helpful in getting a clearer, more complete picture of the MB.  Most do seem to paint a portrait of the MB that is more moderate, for now, than I had imagined in the past.

Helpful Links on Understanding the Muslim Brotherhood

New! Harvard University professor Dr. Tarek Masoud, on Fareed Zakaria's GPS
What the Muslim Brothers Want, by Essam El-Errian in the New York Times
Explaining Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, Lawrence Wright on NPR's Fresh Air
Don't Fear Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, by Bruce Riedel at Brookings
Should We Fear the Muslim Brotherhood?, by Shadi Hamid in Slate
The Moderate Muslim Brotherhood, by Robert S. Leiken and Steven Brooke for Foreign Affairs
Understanding Revolutionary Egypt, by various authors (including two of the ones above) for Foreign Policy
The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood: Islamist Participation in a Closing Political Environment, by Amr Hamzawy and Nathan J. Brown for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Egypt Opposition Wary After Talks, from the BBC

Egyptian Turning Points? Or Just More Uncertainty...

We're in some uncharted waters here.  As much as many people in the US, myself included, would like to draw comparisons to past grassroots uprisings - Tehran in '79, Tienanmen Square in '89, Berlin and Eastern Europe also in '89 - what is happening in Cairo is not exactly the same.  Different country, different regime, different history, different culture, different people, different time.  So it is difficult to know which lessons to draw upon from history, which policies to repeat and which to avoid, and where are the key turning points.

Watching some of the Sunday morning talk shows here in the US, it's clear that more and more journalists, pundits and policy makers are similarly uncertain.  I'm certainly no expert on Egypt, though I have been following the events of the last two weeks closely.  Here are some observations and thoughts at what may prove to be a turning point in the revolution in Egypt.  My main theme, I think, is how uncertain everyone involved is.

  • The protesters in Tahrir Square have been remarkably successful at organizing themselves as protesters, but there seems to be a lack of cohesion and organization as an emerging political movement.  As a result, there seems to be no clear agenda beyond toppling Mubarak, and, yet, it seems that the protesters really want something more:  some kind of liberal democracy, at a minimum.  But it appears that they have no shared road map for how to get there, so they don't know what to demand beyond Mubarak stepping down.  But the real issue is that Egypt has been a military dictatorship for almost half a century.  
  • As a result of the limits on political freedoms in Egypt over the decades, there is a lack of political parties and perspectives in the Egyptian political sphere.  So we see the Muslim Brotherhood emerge as a major player, even though it represents at best 20-25% of the Egyptian people.  And we see what may be the beginning of a splintering in the opposition, as certain parties enter into talks with the government while the majority of the protesters appear to be unrepresented and even uncertain as to when, if ever, they would negotiate with the government.
  • Without a clear leadership for the protest movement, US journalists keep interviewing each other, some Egyptian and foreign journalists, a few Egyptian officials, and Mohamed El Baradei, who appears to be a spokesperson for some of the protesters but lacks legitimacy as a true leader for the opposition and also lacks a clear agenda beyond toppling Mubarak.  I have yet to see or hear one interview with a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood or with anyone purporting to be a leader of any other faction of the opposition. 
  • Fareed Zakaria, as usual, has some of the more interesting and compelling analytical points to make, and asks many of the best questions when interviewing people on GPS. Today, he pointed out that, while many in the US and the West are fearful that the current uprising in Egypt will lead to a repeat of the Iranian Revolution in 1979, with a Muslim extremist government taking over, the most likely scenario for that result is that the US is seen as helping the army and the current regime maintain power when Mubarak eventually steps down, angering the protesters and the many Egyptians who want change and feel like they deserve it after all that the protests have accomplished so far.  Resentment toward the regime and the US grows, the population and the opposition, in particular, becomes more radicalized and more religious, and eventually there is another uprising that does bring about a regime more like Tehran's.
  • The Obama Administration, the protesters, and those around the world who support the general aims of many of the protesters - an end to the Mubarak regime and the rise of democracy in Egypt - have a bit of a quandary right now.  How do you get Mubarak to step down and transition to democracy in a country where political freedoms have been limited for so long?  It takes time for a truly free press, freedom of speech, and freedom of assembly to create new political parties and a healthy debate over various visions for Egypt's future and the role of its government in shaping that future.  If elections are held too quickly, the current regime might well find a way to use them to extend its grip on power, with new faces at the top but the army still in control.  Or, one or more factions in the opposition might be able to grab power in a political vacuum left by Mubarak's demise and the absence of real political parties.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

The Lesson of Egypt: A New Paradigm for US Foreign Policy

Some commentators in recent days have highlighted the dilemma for US policy makers in addressing the protests in Egypt:  How can we support calls for democracy and freedom in the Middle East while not rashly abandoning a vital US ally in the region?  Calling for Mubarak's ouster in the early days of the crisis could have sent the "wrong" message to other US allies in the region and around the world.  If you are an autocratic regime and face a popular uprising, the US will drop you like a hot potato.  The last thing the US needs in the Middle East and elsewhere is to have its allies and partners in the war on terror lose faith in our commitments to them.  If we would abandon Mubarak - for three decades, the most important and reliable US ally in the Arab world, in whom we've invested our trust and billions of US tax dollars - who wouldn't we abandon?

There's also the caution that "the devil you know may be better than the devil you don't know."  It's a compelling argument, since it wisely kept us from toppling Saddam Hussein during the 1990s.  Stability is better than a power vacuum, and a friendly dictator is better than a hostile one.  Mubarak played upon this fear, hyping the dangers presented by a possible Islamist takeover in Egypt (beware the Muslim Brotherhood - any group with the word "Muslim" in its name must be bad, right?  And some of al Qaeda's founders used to belong to the MB 30 years ago!).

So, do we have clear policy goals in the region, arguably the most important strategically in the world these days?

Well, some of my students tried to identify US policy goals in the Middle East and elsewhere last semester.  They were looking for clear, achievable and observable goals.  They couldn't find any.  Not for the Middle East.  Not for Afghanistan.  Not for the crisis in Mexico.  Not for combating human trafficking.  None.  I would suggest that part of the reason is that once you have clear goals, you will be judged by whether or not you actually achieved them.  Better to keep things fuzzy, so you can define (and redefine) success whenever you see fit.

But a longer-term view of US foreign policy in the region, and around the world, suggests that, perhaps, another reason is that we view our strategic interests too narrowly (Israel, al Qaeda and oil), overestimate our power and influence (yes, we can prop up autocratic regimes with money and weapons for a time, but not forever - see Iran, Marcos in the Philippines, and, now, Egypt), and emphasize short-term needs over long-term objectives.  As a result, our policy is more ad hoc, more reactive than proactive, and viewed by many as more hypocritical over time.  We support the one true democracy in the Middle East - Israel - consistently, but we are best of friends with some of the worst regimes in the region.  

As a result, much of the Arab world has lost trust in us, views us as part of the problem, or views us as the problem.  We seem forever sucked into the tension and turmoil of the region, in large part because we depend on its oil.  And we seem to need these brutal dictators as much as, if not more than, they need us.  So we cling to them, sending them billions of dollars in military and economic aid, training their armies, and sending them billions more for their oil.  And we send a clear message to their people, especially the poor and middle classes yearning for a better life and more freedom:  we choose stability (for the short- and maybe medium-term) over democracy and freedom.  We choose your oppressors over you, the victims.  We defend democracy and freedom for us and for some of our closest allies, but not for you.  Consider this:  do you think it is more likely that Egypt's citizens become more anti-US and more radicalized by us hedging our bets and standing by Mubarak or by supporting their struggle for democracy?

If we should choose to truly think strategically, perhaps ridding ourselves of our dependence on foreign oil and trying harder to "do no harm" would be a start.  Peter Maass had a short but excellent article in August on the hidden costs of our foreign oil dependence.  The true cost of protecting access to Middle Eastern oil - for us, Europe, Asia, and the world - is staggering.

So let's start with one clear, achievable and observable goal that deals with that challenge.  In 2009, the US imported 4.2 billion barrels of oil, or about 52% of its oil needs.  Let's cut it to half the 2009 level ten years:  2.1 billion barrels in 2021.  If we could go to the moon in eight years (JFK gave us a whole decade and we didn't need it!), why not cut our foreign oil imports by half in ten?  Audacious?  Sure.  But isn't this urgent and important enough to be a little audacious?  Two-thirds of our oil consumption is for transportation, and 2/3 of that is for gasoline.  Let's make the switch to hybrids and plug-in electric vehicles a national priority.  Let's get state, local, and federal vehicles switched over to electric or natural gas.  A combination of tax incentives and higher gas mileage standards could do the trick.  Switch the subsidies for big oil companies over to tax breaks for people and companies buying electric, hybrid, and natural gas vehicles.

Oh, and let's support the people who want to be free.  That's something we can do now.  Try this goal:  Mubarak gone, and replaced by a transitional government of national unity charged with drafting a new Egyptian constitution, by tomorrow.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Some Thoughts on Egypt

As I sit here watching coverage of the protests in Egypt, I am struck by a couple of things:

  • If we had rid ourselves of our addiction to foreign oil, this crisis would seem a lot simpler to us.  While Egypt itself does not export much oil to the US, approximately 3.8 billion barrels of oil per day pass through Egypt, either through the Suez Canal or pipelines.  In addition, if this pro-democracy movement spreads further in the Middle East, it could eventually affect major oil producers, too.  It is easy to imagine oil traders/speculators driving the price of oil up in the coming days and weeks, with gasoline prices in the US reaching $4 or even approaching $5 per gallon this year.
  • Egypt's greatest importance for the US in recent years has been as a key partner in protecting Israel's security.  Egypt has been a key mediator between Israel and the Palestinians.  It has tried to constrain Hamas.  While some have argued that Egypt has not been as effective as a mediator because it benefits from an endlessly drawn-out process, it is unclear how the US could replace Egypt.  Moreover, the instability in Egypt has raised concerned that Mubarak could be replaced by a regime more hostile to US and Israeli interests, possibly even a regime that would nullify the historic peace treaty with Israel.
  • For Israel, things look worse than they did a month ago. Hezbollah is gaining more control over Lebanon to the north.  Now, it's most reliable and long-term partner in the Arab world, Egypt, is in the midst of a political crisis that could lead to a new regime less friendly to Israel.  Other countries in the region, in order to appease their own populations, may take on a more anti-Israeli - and anti-American - stance in the coming weeks.
  • Does the instability in Egypt cause Israel's government to become more open to a peace deal with the Palestinians, or to hunker down and take an even more defensive stance, putting the peace process in a deep freeze for the foreseeable future?  While, logically, Israel should seek to stabilize its relations with the Palestinians as it faces more uncertainties and threats from its neighbors and potentially loses Egypt's contraints on Hamas, the current government in Israel will probably do the opposite.  

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Tackling the Big Oil Subsidies: The Numbers

Some numbers to ponder as we wait to see if President Obama's call to end big oil subsidies by the federal government (borrowed from our kids' future earnings/taxes) has any chance of becoming reality:

So what do all these donations get the oil and gas industry?
Not a bad return on their investment, is it?

Obama: The best we can hope for... and that's not good enough!

President Obama's State of the Union speech the other night was symbolic of how I feel about his presidency in general.  Overall, I liked the speech.  I thought he delivered it well, it hit some broad, positive themes I agree with and care about (infrastructure, education, new energy, etc.).  He even mentioned wanting to end subsidies for oil companies!  [Did you notice how dour Boehner looked as he refused to clap for that line?]

But I also felt like the speech was a good example of how Obama falls short of expectations and the hopes of many of his supporters, including me.  He did not mention campaign finance reform, climate change, or gun control.  His specific goals - a million electric cars by 2015, 80 percent of the country living near high-speed rail within 35 years - are good and important, but not worthy of a "Sputnik" moment.  [By the way, what percentage of Americans could tell you what Sputnik was?  For those who could, to what extent does it still resonate with them?]  How about eliminating our dependence on foreign oil in 10 years?  Increasing the high school graduation rate to 90 percent in 10 years?  [According to one report, it was 75% in 2008, up from 72% in 2001.]  Let's have some audacious goals that, if we really bust our butts and put our best and brightest to work on them, we just might achieve.

Like many people who voted for him in 2008, I have been both proud of and frustrated by President Obama during his first two years in office.  I have come to realize, however, that he is merely the best president we can hope for, given the current realities of our political system.  Given those realities, what he has accomplished is nothing short of miraculous.  But, because of those realities, we can neither expect nor hope for much more, and that is unacceptable.

In two years, Obama has managed to prevent a second Great Depression, seemingly saved a large part of the US auto industry, passed a stimulus bill that saved or created millions of jobs, passed health care reform and the most significant financial reform bill in decades, won ratification of a new arms control treaty with Russia, and secured passage of a bill ending Don't Ask, Don't Tell.  That's the most impressive list of achievements of any president during his first two years in office since LBJ.

Still, he he couldn't get a major energy or climate change bill passed, both health care and financial reform fell short of important goals (reducing health care costs and eliminating the threats presented by moral hazard and "too big to fail" banks in the financial industry).  A second stimulus, which many economists deemed necessary and current unemployment and state budget numbers would seem to demand, was a non-starter.

We are not likely to see Obama tackle some of the greatest and most urgent challenges facing our country today because of the biggest threat to our democracy:  campaign financing.  Let's face it:  Obama
ran for president promising "change we can believe in," but the reality is that he has achieved all that he has by making back-room deals with the big players in health care, on Wall St., and in the GOP.  Cap and trade is off the table.  The Bush tax cuts for the wealthy were extended.  Lobbyists still rule DC.  His Administration seems like it has a revolving door of employment with Wall St.  Moreover, according to the number two Democrat in the Senate, Wall St. "owns" Capitol Hill.  So what hope do we have that Obama - or anyone else - will successfully tackle the growing income inequality in this country?  Or climate change?  Or military spending and the privatization of the military and intelligence services?  Or government subsidies for big oil and the corn industry?

In the end, I like President Obama.  I am proud of my vote for him in 2008.  I will, in all likelihood, vote for him again in 2012.  But I have lowered my expectations for him.

I keep coming back to one thing:  campaign finance reform.  Without it, Obama will do the best he can - better than most.  But that's no longer good enough.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Suburban American's Dilemma

Tell me if this rings true or not...

You feel lucky.  You won the birth lottery:  you were born in America.  You live the American dream. [Cue John Boehner crying...]  You live better than your parents did:  nicer car, bigger house, much bigger TV, you've traveled more, etc.  Sure, you work long hours to afford that lifestyle.  You have a tiring commute and, unlike your parents' or, at least, your grandparents' generation, you and your spouse both have to work just to make ends meet.  You worry about how to pay for daycare, how to save for your kids' college and your retirement, and still make your mortgage payments.  You spend your weekends feeling like a taxi driver, ferrying your kids to soccer practices and play dates, coaching the little league team, buying the groceries and doing the laundry.  It's an exhausting lifestyle.  But, still, you are living proof that we live in a great country - the greatest country - in the world, with the best type of government available.

Sure, the system is flawed and doesn't always work great, but it works.  And, in spite of your exhausting life, you do your civic duty and vote.  Well, maybe not in every election, but in most of the presidential ones and even some of the others.  And in 2008, you even stepped it up a notch:  you donated a little money to a candidate, signed up for his mailing list online, maybe even made a few calls to help get out the vote.  Mission accomplished, right?

Um... no.  Sorry.  Because we didn't actually get "change we can believe in."  We got a really smart, earnest president who has accomplished an amazing amount in just two years, not the least of which was saving us from a possible Great Depression Part 2.  But it seemed like everything he did was done in a way that reminded us just how little Washington has changed, just how dirty the political process seems, and just how beholden to big business our elected representatives - including our president - really are these days.  Because they depend on campaign donations from the wealthiest individuals and corporations in America to get elected and reelected, that's who they really work for.  Not us.  They spend so much time raising money for the next campaign, they have less and less time for actually governing and legislating.

So as much as we'd like to think that we can continue to limit our involvement in our political system to a vote here or there, every two or four or six years, we can't.  Not anymore.  Somehow, in the midst of our busy lives, we need to find a way to do more.  We desperately need to tackle the urgent challenges of our day - education reform, our dependence on oil, climate change, exploding health care costs, potentially crippling federal and state budget deficits, a crumbling and antiquated infrastructure - and we can't do it unless and until we free our government from the grip of big money and free our elected representatives from the need to perpetually fund raise.

For starters, we need to change the way we finance political campaigns, and we need to do it now.  But it won't happen until people like you and me demand that change.  No, we won't have to quit our day jobs.  We won't have to chain ourselves to the White House fence.  But we need to do more than just vote every so often, choosing between two candidates who represent a status quo we can't accept anymore.  For some, it might mean writing letters, sending emails, or attending rallies; for others it might mean making some phone calls or meeting with congressional staffers.  But if we all do something, it will all add up.  If we don't, then we will cede control of our political system to the extremists in both parties and those who use their wealth to buy access, influence and control in Washington.  This isn't just a liberal or conservative issue.  And while I titled this post "The Suburban American's Dilemma," this is truly the dilemma for the working class American living in the city and for the small business owner trying to stay afloat in rural America.  This affects all of us.  We all lose if we don't fix this.

Now, as I write this, I'm beat.  I get up at 5 am every day, and it seems like there's little, if any, downtime most days.  But I've got to find a way to make a difference here and now.  This blog is one small step.  It's my humble call to see if there are kindred spirits who will raise their voices with mine.  What comes next?  I'm not sure, yet.  But as busy and tired as I am, I now have to admit that I have to do something.

This is our country.  It has given many of us wonderful opportunities and great freedoms.  But, as my parents and teachers taught me when I was a kid, those privileges come with responsibilities.  It's time to turn those words into action.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Tipping Points

I found the comment on my last post to be quite thought-provoking.  It is shocking, at times, that we have not reached a tipping point.  But I think most Americans are either too busy struggling to get by or too busy  and tired.

So what will it take for the middle and working classes in America to reach a tipping point and demand action?  Rising oil/gas prices might.  The growing state and local government debt crisis might.  So might a national debt crisis, if and when it comes.  But you would have thought the housing/financial crisis and accompanying Great Recession would have done it.  And there was a backlash, though much of it was ill-informed or misdirected.  Most of the outrage got directed at the government, and the Democrats paid the biggest price.  People seemed more pissed off at the government for "bailing out" Wall Street than for Wall Street screwing over millions of Americans and walking away, in general, richer for it.  People were more pissed off at Obama "bailing out" the auto companies than they were at the auto companies for decades of bad decisions and mismanagement.  And lots of people were pissed off at the stimulus bill - which saved millions of jobs - because they thought it was the part of the bank bailout.  And lots of people did not understand that the bank bailout, the auto bailout and the stimulus bill were necessary to keep us from the Great Depression II, or worse.  Lots of people don't understand that the government will get back much of the money from the bailouts, and may even turn a profit.  Tea partiers and others complain about taxes being too high, but they are taxed less under Obama.

Part of the problem is that the media ain't what it used to be.  People have too many options now for getting their "news," and a lot of it sucks.  TV news is all about ratings and image - and in some cases, about furthering a specific political ideology or agenda.  And people are more distracted - fewer read newspapers, more watch reality TV, surf the web, play Farmville on Facebook, etc.

But part of the problem is that so many Americans have lost faith in their government, especially in Congress.  So what if I think income inequality is a problem?  So what if my standard of living os stagnating or declining?  So what if the earth is warming and the climate is changing?  So what if big business - especially the banking industry - think they own Congress?  All too many Americans don't believe the government can or will fix the problems.

More and more, I think the wedge issue is campaign finance reform.  People across the political spectrum agree that we need to get big money out of politics.  If we did, then that might be an important first step in restoring some faith and confidence in government.  And, in all likelihood, we'd see some politicians courting voters with as much enthusiasm and energy as they currently do their campaign donors.  We might start to see some real legislation passed that would address the core needs and desires of the majority of voters.

This is a tough question.  I'm no longer willing to give in to my cynicism.  There will be a tipping point.  I'd like it to come sooner rather than later.  But I want it to be a catalyst for action that will put us on a healthier, positive path to the future, not a spark for violence or political extremism in American politics and government.  That means that good, smart people who "get it" now need to start working together.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, that may mean some kind of serious campaign on campaign finance reform - maybe for a constitutional amendment - or a third party.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A "Do No Harm" Foreign Policy - a response

I loved the comment to the original post, asking if it was too idealistic to think that we could actually ween our political system off the big money.  Is it idealistic?  Yes.  Guilty, as charged.  But so have been a lot of other reforms in our country's history, until they became necessary or the people demanded them.  Women's suffrage.  Direct election of senators.  The Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Brown v. Board.  Trust-busting.  Social Security.  Medicare.  The repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell.  Heck, even the US intervention in Bosnia (sorry, couldn't resist...).

If we don't fix campaign financing, we're screwed.

But I think it's the kind of issue that real Americans from both sides of the aisle could eventually support.  Everyone's hurt by the status quo, except those funding the campaigns and buying the influence.

I guess my theme lately has been to reject my own jaded, dark view of things and to, once again, believe that anything is possible.  There are lots of people out there who want real change, who thought they were voting for it in 2008.

I also think the addiction to oil is another issue that should appeal to the left and right.  What middle class, conservative American wants his or her gas money funding bin Laden & Co.?

The more I hear something is impossible, the more it makes me want to try!

A "Do No Harm" Foreign Policy

As a former US diplomat and someone who advocated for the US to help stop the genocide in Bosnia, I've been a strong internationalist my whole life.  I have believed that the US should use its role as a superpower to help others, to support human rights and make the world a safer, better place whenever possible.  That didn't mean I thought we should intervene in every conflict or genocide around the world, or that supporting human rights in, say, China, was more important than every other US national interest.  But I thought we should be actively engaged and helping out whenever possible. We did a lot of good during the Cold War promoting human rights in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and those efforts helped support and encourage the people who eventually toppled those regimes two decades ago.

But I am starting to wonder.  Yes, we should care about others.  But I think we pay a lot of lip service these days to "human rights" while ignoring the considerable harm we do, intentionally or not, every day.  And I think we over-promise and overextend ourselves, and we can no longer afford to do so.

So my new foreign policy paradigm is that we should "do no harm" while getting our own house in order.

Getting Our House in Order
First off, we should make sure we complete our military withdrawal from Iraq this year, while fully funding the State Department's expanding operations intended to build on our success to date.  Second, we should withdraw from Afghanistan.  I fear that we will be there forever, but I don't think the investment of blood and treasure is paying off or will pay off.  In terms of long-term, vital US interests, there are better ways to invest our money and use our military than battling the Taliban and trying to turn the Karzai government into a stable government for that country.

I am sick and tired of the Middle East being the most important region in the world, just because we're addicted to oil and have refused for decades to do anything serious about it.  While President Obama has significantly increased government investments in new energy technology, it's not enough.  Let's be audacious and invoke a little bit of JFK's magic:  let's rid ourselves of our oil addiction by 2020.  Don't tell me it's impossible.  We went to the moon in less than a decade - over 40 years ago!  Don't tell me it's not important - how many Americans have died, and how much money has been wasted, just because of this addiction?  How can we go to the pump and pay for gasoline that came from Saudi Arabia, when some of that money will end up financing terrorists trying to kill Americans and other innocent civilians around the world?  Yes, the Middle East will always matter because Israel's security will always matter to us, but let's remove oil as the primary reason.

We also should examine ways to make more cuts in our defense budget.  I've always been a defense hawk, but we can't afford the military budget we have right now, and we're clearly not willing to pay for it.  We are willing to borrow from our kids and grandkids, but if we don't fix the budget deficit soon, our fiscal calamity will force even more draconian cuts later on.  Now, we still need a military that can project power around the world and protect our vital interests, but right now the military-industrial complex is running wild.  We have real and potential threats we need to defend against - North Korea and Iran come to mind - and we need to make sure that every defense dollar is spent actually making us safer.  Sometimes, I think we just look at the hundreds of billions going toward defense each year and assume we must be really safe because we spend so much.  That's a dangerous assumption.

In addition, drawing down in Iraq and Afghanistan hopefully will allow us to drastically reduce our dependence on military contractors, which has cost us untold billions.  We need to make sure that we restructure our military so that contractors like Blackwater are no longer hired as mercenaries to take the place of our professional soldiers.  You want contractors to handle building and staffing the mess hall - fine.  But we should not be using contractors to fight our wars.  We should not be using US tax dollars to finance the creation of private armies.  Period.

Fixing the budget deficit isn't rocket science.  It just requires us to act like responsible adults.  It means agreeing that, except in recessions or extraordinary economic crises (like the last two years), we will all agree to pay for our government and to expect only the government we are willing to pay for.  I have addressed - and will again - this challenge elsewhere on this blog, but suffice it to say that some relatively minor tweaks will fix Social Security, while additional healthcare reforms will be needed to slow the growth of Medicare.  And we will need to raise taxes - primarily on the wealthy and, probably, on consumption, through a value added tax of some kind.

We also need to shift our spending priorities.  Say goodbye to oil and corn subsidies, hello to rebuilding and modernizing our infrastructure.  As mentioned earlier, we need even more investments in new energy.  We need to change how we fund our schools as we try to make them more effective.  We need to rebuild America as we reinvent it for the 21st Century and beyond.

Do No Harm
We talk a lot about other people's human rights.  During the current state visit by China's president, the Obama administration is struggling to defend its record on human rights in China.  Now, I do want people in China to have more freedoms, and I want the people of Tibet to have their rights and autonomy restored.  But while we talk a lot about those issues and accomplish relatively little (other than ticking off the Chinese government), we do a lot of harm collectively and individually every day.

We buy mutual funds that invest in companies doing business in Sudan, effectively funding the genocide in Darfur.  We buy cell phones and computers that use materials mined in eastern Congo, effectively funding the worst crimes against humanity on the planet.  We do little to stem the use of illicit drugs bought in the US by our kids, which buys the guns used by Mexican drug gangs to kill thousands each year in a war that is turning Mexico into a failed state and is threatening our own national security.  We buy clothes manufactured in sweat shops employing children and underpaid laborers, often working in dangerous conditions around the world.  Largely because of our oil addiction, though partly to protect Israel, we spend billions propping up corrupt regimes in the Middle East that deny their own citizens fundamental human rights.  We avoid serious efforts to reduce carbon emissions that are warming the planet and changing the climate to the point that people are dying and millions more are threatened.

If we just decided to do no harm, not expecting to be perfect but striving to be better, every day, we would do more good than all the lip service to human rights seems to be doing.  Sure, if there seems to be a diplomatic solution or path to helping out (like Obama's efforts in southern Sudan of late), that's great.  But, overall, let's focus first on not being part of the problem.  Let's divest from companies doing business in Sudan and anywhere else where the money funds genocide.  Let's insist that electronics be certified "conflict-free."  Let's buy fair trade products whenever possible (that may also help protect US jobs against unfair competition from abroad to some extent).  Let's figure out how to drastically reduce the use of illicit drugs that come from or through Mexico while using a combination of tighter gun control measures and border control checks to reduce the number of guns going from the US to Mexico.  Let's adopt a cap and trade system - or if there's a better way to reduce emissions, let's do that.  And let's make our oil addiction a mistake of the last century, not this one.

These shifts could potentially save thousands or even millions of lives.  That's a much better return on our investment than Afghanistan or Iraq got us.

So my bottom line is that we should focus on rebuilding and reinventing America for the new century while trying to reduce the harm we do elsewhere.  If we could show our kids that these changes are possible, think about the kind of America - and the kind of world - they could help shape during their lifetimes?

I welcome your thoughts and comments - this is a significant shift for me.  If you've got some hard evidence or persuasive arguments that I'm way off course, I'd love to see them.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Join me in becoming less distraught and more empowered

Most of my life, I've been a pretty positive guy.  In fact, in college, friends said I viewed the world through rose-colored glasses.  I have tended to believe that anything is possible.  I tended to get along with everyone, didn't speak badly about other people behind their backs, and saw the good in others.

Recently, however, I feel like I'm stuck in some bad Star Wars remake, being drawn over to the Dark Side.  Now, some of it may just be that I'm a middle-aged guy, with less patience who is more easily frustrated by ignorance, thoughtlessness, and selfishness.  I'm more aware of my own short-comings and feeling more guilty about my lack of involvement in fixing our nation's problems.  Moreover, like many people, I can get caught up in the day-to-day frustrations and disappointments of my life, the petty conflicts, the slights - real and perceived.

And, yet, I am a high school social studies teacher and love my job more than ever.  I am having more fun, find my students more interesting, and enjoy the journey of learning with them more than ever.  That would seem to require plenty of patience and a sense of wonderment.  And, I'd like to think I'm making a difference, at least with some people, some of the time.

While there are, in all likelihood, a multitude of reasons for my darker mood, every day I come back to the same realization:  that a major reason for this shift in attitude is the state of our nation, the direction in which we're headed, and the seemingly intractable problem of having a political system dominated by two political parties addicted to, dependent on, and beholden to big money.  This problem is compounded by the alarmingly rapid growth of inequality in this country, where the top one percent, or less, are amassing wealth at a blistering pace while the middle class shrinks and stagnates.

It is easy to become like Bill Maher, host of HBO's Real Time, whose cynicism often is well-founded and defended.  There are many, many enormous challenges facing our country, and there is plenty of evidence that the political system is broken.  As a teacher, I have felt is was my duty to help my students see the looming threats to their future.  I have felt even more justified, of late, since many of my warnings have become reality in the last few years.

The result, however, has been that all-too-many days my students left class feeling depressed or worried, while I wanted them to feel empowered.  I have become ever more angry and frustrated with our politics and politicians and the lack of real progress in addressing our more urgent problems.  But giving in to the cynicism, frustration, and anger solves nothing.  If there's anything I've learned from my students this semester, and from the discussions since the shooting in Arizona, it's that we need to feel more empowered and less cynical.  We need a positive vision of the future to rally behind, not an endless things to complain about and feel victimized by.

We all can see where things are headed if more and more of us feel like powerless victims.  And there are plenty of people in politics and on radio and TV who stand to make more money and gain more power and influence by leading us down that path.  But that path does not lead us to a future I want for me or my kids.

One of the things that has made America great over the centuries is that, when times got really tough and the challenges seemed enormous and virtually insurmountable, people rallied behind those who sought solutions and had a vision for a better future.  The progressive movement of the late 1800s and early 1900s.  FDR and the New Deal.  Martin Luther King, Jr., and LBJ and the Civil Rights Movement and the Great Society.  They reminded us of our strengths and the many things to feel grateful for while challenging us to become even better and to insure that more Americans had a shot at the American dream.

So my challenge for myself is to look for ways to better appreciate what I have in my life and the many wonderful things our country has achieved while finding ways to become a better citizen in a better country.  To feel less angry and more hopeful.   To find ways to empower myself, my students, and other Americans who want a better future.

That doesn't mean ignoring those who would bring us over to the Dark Side.  Rather, it means holding them accountable for their lies and personal agendas while having real answers to the questions they pretend to answer.  It means insisting on a fact-based, reality-based, forward-looking debate and modeling what that looks like every day.

If we all take on this challenge, if we all do our best every day to forge that positive vision and move us one step along in that direction, we will get there.

For me, the positive vision has to start with a major political reform of some kind to break the stranglehold of big money on our political system.  I'm not sure if that means a third party or a constitutional amendment on campaign financing, but something has to shift.  It also means young Americans - people in their teens and twenties - who have the most to lose if things don't turn around, standing up for their futures and being the agents of change people like them have been in the past (civil rights, Vietnam, the anti-apartheid movement, etc.).

Then, it's about creating the kind of America we will be proud to leave our children and grandchildren.  I've written before in this space about what that vision might look like, and I will doubtlessly write about it more.  And I want to hear from others what they want that vision to look like.  It can't end with a conversation on the internet, but it can start here.

How am I doing so far?  How about you?

Monday, January 10, 2011

Conversation with a young patriot

I've been emailing back and forth with a former student this past week, and I thought I would share some of my end of the conversation in case it is of interest to anyone else:

[in response to an email about the shooting in Arizona...]

I totally understand how you are feeling.  It is a horrific incident and these kinds of things - violence in politics - naturally cause many caring people to question if there is any hope.  Coupled with the multitude of challenges our country faces, and the nature of political discourse these days (to say nothing of the campaign finance fiasco), it's all too easy to become disheartened.

I've felt it, too.  I've been in a funk for over a week, and part of it is feeling so frustrated and even angry about all this stuff - and that was before the shooting!  But, ultimately, we both have a simple choice:

Tune out, stop paying attention, and stop caring.  Live our lives in a bubble and pretend this stuff does not matter and that we can't make a difference.  OR,...

Do something!  Figure out what really matters and find a way to get involved.  Make a difference.  Or, at least, try to fight the good fight.

You are smart, you get it, and you care.  You have some important skills.  If not you, then who?  There are lots of other good people out there who care.  Find them.  The power truly lies in the fact that we are still a democracy, and if people raise their voices, they can make a difference.  Even the Tea Party has made a difference (not necessarily for the better, but a difference nonetheless).

[my reply to questions about how to decide where and how to get involved...]

Ultimately, I think it comes down to trusting your gut - which issue(s) really move you?  You also could look at it in terms of which issue gives you the most leverage to make progress on others. 
Focus on clarifying the big picture for you, then just take a step a day in that direction.  Don't worry about the "how" or whether it seems doable or not.  Find people on campus who share your interest/passion.  Put up flyers and organize a meeting.  Form a club/organization.  Then figure out who else beyond your campus cares and network with them.  That's a start....
So what next?  Here's where my thinking is headed, for what it's worth:
It seems to me that the system is broken.  Neither party is really capable/willing to what's necessary because big money has a stranglehold on the campaign process.  So it's either create a third party (Robert Reich and others are starting to talk about it...) or push for a constitutional amendment to fix campaign financing, since the Supreme Court really screwed that up.
It's either that or... use the deficit/budget debate, which is getting into high gear now, as a wedge to force a debate on short- and long-term priorities. 
Thoughts?  I think you need to do some networking on campus to find some like-minded patriots...

Why can't I be a "supporter of the 2nd amendment," too?

Listening to some of the discussions in the media in the aftermath of the shooting in Arizona this weekend, it is striking how the language of the gun control debate seems to favor the anti-gun control side.

Language matters.  The words we choose often convey bias or judgement - good or bad, right or wrong.  The NRA and its anti-gun control allies seem to have won the battle over language.  Time and time again, I have heard those in who oppose gun control (often of any kind) as "supporters of the 2nd amendment" or "supporters of 2nd amendment rights."  Now, I favor some forms of gun control.  I favor a ban on assault weapons, I favor waiting periods and more serious background checks.  I favor mandatory training and licenses, like you need to drive a car (another potentially deadly weapon).  But I also believe in the Constitution and the 2nd amendment.  I just don't interpret it as broadly as the NRA and most anti-gun control people do.

So why does the media tend to use language that makes me seem like I am against part of the Constitution and against the 2nd amendment?

Here's what the 2nd amendment actually says:

"A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."

Seems pretty clear to me that this protects people's right to own weapons because we need a citizen milita to defend the freedom of the country.  Now, we live in an era where the US military and National Guard protect the freedom of the country, so the intent of the amendment would seem moot.  But I am willing to acknowledge a long-standing tradition of gun ownership in this country under a broad interpretation of this amendment.  But it would seem prudent and constitutional for the government to pass laws limiting or regulating access to weapons if it is in the interest of protecting the general population.

But that does not make me "anti-2nd amendment," as the current language used in the media would suggest.  By suggesting that those against gun control "support" the amendment (and, therefor, the Constitution), it is implied that those for gun control are against the amendment (and the Constitution).  that pretty much stifles the debate.

Friday, January 07, 2011

One more thing on the corn subsidies...

Obviously we're addicted to cheap corn, so we can't just cut the subsidies today.  We need to wean ourselves off of them.  We need a sensible approach toward a more sustainable food policy and system.  Pig factories are dangerous to the local environment and to our society in general.  And we don't want kids and poor people drinking soft drinks and eating cheeseburgers and fries so much.  We want and need less processed foods that are more affordable.

But because of the influence of the farming industry, we can't even begin the conversation politically.  Even Michelle Obama's relatively modest initiatives around healthy eating have come under attack!

We need some real strategic thinking in DC.  On energy, education, food/health, infrastructure.  Concrete, achievable and observable goals for the next 10 years and clear policies for achieving them.  If the current political parties can't do that, then our nation needs another party...

Our insane corn policy

Since the Nixon Administration, we've had a crazy policy of subsidizing corn production.  It's a bonanza for the big agricultural companies like ADM and has become a bit of a political sacred cow - big shock.  Between ADM and other companies exercising their lobbying clout and the Iowa caucuses being so important in the presidential election process, it's become as American as apple pie and baseball.

The consequences are tragic.  Cheap corn made corn syrup a staple in processed foods, making the least healthy food the least expensive.  Corn became the feed of choice for cattle and pigs, enabling the creation of mega cattle and pig factories and the necessity for using antibiotics to keep those cows and pigs "healthy."  Fast food and soft drink sales exploded.  So did childhood and adult obesity.  So did drug-resistant diseases.

In recent years, ethanol became a more popular alternative to or additive to gasoline, as mandated by the government.  That, in term, increased demand for corn and drove the prices up, making food that depends on corn (beef, pork, etc.) more expensive.

NPR has a series on ethanol, and one installment discusses this crazy aspect of our corn subsidies - which need to end.  Decades or centuries from now, historians may well look back on American corn subsidies as one of the stupidest and dangerous government policies of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Like so many other policies that need to change, this one is tough because the status quo serves the interest of big business.  But it's killing us.

Acting like Soviets

When I lived in the Soviet Union during its last years, one of the things that struck me as a critical difference between Soviets and Americans was the attitude when your neighbor had something you did not.

In America, if your neighbor bought a nice, shiny new car, you wanted one.  You tried to figure out how you could get a car just like it - or better.  We called it, "Keeping up with the Joneses."  This mentality helped fuel economic expansion in the 20th century by increasing demand for consumer products and rewarding innovation.  Your neighbor got the new color tv?  Well, you had to get one, too.  Sometimes that meant trying to get a promotion or bonus, or maybe even switch companies so you could earn more money.  When it got out of control, it meant over-borrowing by running up our credit card bills or by borrowing against the equity in our houses.

In the Soviet Union, if your neighbor got that nice, shiny new car (ok, they weren't that nice or shiny...), you thought, "How did they get that?  Must have paid someone off.  I should report them to the authorities so they will take it away!  I can't afford one, and even if I could, I'd have to wait 5-10 years on a waiting list in order to get one.  Ivan shouldn't be able to buy one now!"  People resented any evidence of success or wealth or improvement in the standard of living of their neighbors.

Now I am not a big fan of America's consumption mentality.  I think it is a source of unhappiness and stress and waste.  But it also is a source of innovation and ambition and progress.  It is part of what unites us in the pursuit of the American dream - that we will live better than our parents and that our kids will live better than we do.

The current attacks on public employees and their unions smacks of a Soviet-style attitude of resentment:  "Why should government workers have cheap health insurance or a decent pension when private sector employees increasingly do not?"  Rather than denying public workers affordable health care and a pension, why don't we have a national conversation about how to really make health care affordable for all - beyond what Obamacare might or might not do?  Why not discuss how everyone will live comfortably in old age, especially as life expectancy increases?  Will 401k's and Social Security be enough?  Can Social Security and Medicare be made solvent for the long term without making them ineffective as safety nets?  If most people do have to save for their own retirement now, how can we better educate and empower them to do it wisely and successfully?  After all, most high school students never learn about financial planning and investing, yet most will be responsible for managing their finances, saving for their kids' college educations, and building a pretty big nest egg for retirement.

Let's not make public employees the villains here and try to tear everyone down to a poor lowest common denominator.  Let's figure out what or new vision of the American dream is and then figure out the best way to make it happen!