Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Blinding Micro and the Macro of Kindness

Just when I think I have nothing more to say, I'm compelled to say something, probably with no effect but I'll say it anyway. I've just returned from a two week visit to my roots, Owensville, IN, my favorite little town and the best place in the world, at a time when the country is torn between a factious Right-Wing Republican uprising and, in my opinion, common sense. We all watched a divided congress and entrenched factions fight to the bitter end over the debt ceiling and deficit spending. And, through it all I continued to search for a reason that some people follow the extreme right and vote Republican. It made no sense to me that a small faction, claimed by some congressmen to be the Tea Party, would jeopardize our national economy for the sake of their own political beliefs, such as adamantly voting against any hint of the rich or corporations paying more taxes even if the United States defaulted. The Bill they passed promised cuts in services, a trigger for the Bush tax cuts to expire if a super committee didn't find more cuts, and more cuts. I wonder.

Why adamantly hold to ideological beliefs when such devastating results hang in the balance? And, even more perplexing is that some I talked to actually wanted America to default, a sort of "that'll teach 'em" attitude. It seemed to me that they are like drug addicts, that they won't realize how wrong they are until they hit absolute bottom, when unemployment and poverty levels have doubled and we have fallen back into recession, and only then admit that they were wrong. But, after talking and listening, I doubt that they will ever admit to mistaken beliefs. They will never see the connection between their vote and bad policy. They will never see that they bear a great deal of responsibility for the condition the country is in. A Republican vote is a vote for a philosophy that leads to failure. How did that happen?

My answer is that there is a deliberate effort to confuse and mislead us and to hide the forest from us with trees, the trees of those micro details that make us angry, the micro minutia that consumes media attention 24/7 and the horde of opinionated talking heads arguing simply for higher television ratings. Most of the so-called issues, the minutia, are generated by political ads designed to curry our favor for the sole purpose to gain power and nothing else. The ultra-right wing is more successful, so far, in framing and leading the discussion, and it is winning. We are inundated with its misleading political ads and media hype over small issues and it is those small details we argue over instead of standing back and taking a look at the larger picture. We've lost the ability to judge what's good for us; the overall good. Why?

We've forgotten our grounding philosophy, or at least it doesn't come to the surface of our conscious mind from its deeply buried subconscious place. It is buried in our subconscious beneath layers and layers, tons and tons, of minutia; the micro details inundating us every day. If there is a word that describes the founding principle of our nation and constitution, I would say that word is "kindness." It seems to me that that word is at the bottom of the thoughts and ideas of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John Jay, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and all of the others who participated in the first days of the United States. It seems a coincidence that I'm reading at the moment, "Examined Lives," by Jim Miller, that examines the lives of philosophers from Socrates to Nietzsche. I haven't finished the book, but one small sentence hit me like a brick from the start. Miller says that all of them actively searched for a "philosophy to live by." To live by! If there is one thing I would like to have been told in my youth, it would have been to have heard Dad say to me, "David, find yourself a philosophy to live by." The fact is that if he had said it, and if I had listened, I would have known immediately what that philosophy would have been: Kindness. It was ingrained in my upbringing by him and my family, from the church I attended, from the town I lived in and from the friends I had. I couldn't have escaped it. I think this is true of everyone I know. But, people don't think out loud about the philosophy they live by and they don't evaluate what they are voting for to any great depth; they jump on the first band wagon because their friends did, or vote for a candidate's minor promise and overlook the candidate's philosophy, or agree with a political commentator without a great deal of thought, jumping to conclusions because it sounds right.

Back in the days of President Johnson, a movement against the "Great Society" grew primarily under Irving Kristol's leadership. From all accounts that I've read, Kristol saw a way to gain power by following an idea suggested by Leo Strauss, a philosopher and professor at the University of Chicago. Strauss suggested that it is critical, for those who want to stay in power or to gain power, to perpetually deceive the people; to lie to them. Strauss suggested that it is "strong leadership" to tell the people what's good for them, whether it is or not and even if it's a lie, to get their support. Strauss said that the objective is to gain power by any means. Strauss was not a liberal democrat, nor for liberal democracy. He appears to have been a socialist, more inclined to Leninism and Communism. But, it was the movement against Johnson's Great Society that gave the Republicans, the neo-conservatives, their way back to power. They were effective under Reagan, Bush I and more so under Bush II. And along the way, they gave welfare a bad name. Republicans are against welfare.

Welfare is a good example of our (the royal "our" for all of us) inability to evaluate a kindness; the overall good of a program. I heard a spin on welfare that I hadn't heard before while visiting Owensville. The argument was that when the Republicans are in power, we give it away to the rich, and when the Democrats are in power, we give it away to the poor. Where did the idea that we "give it away" to the poor come from? I had never thought of welfare in those terms, a give away, a waste. It was a new spin on welfare to me. Helping the poor was part of my upbringing and I've never thought differently. In fact, I've always considered it a duty.

The main argument is that welfare creates a dependency that becomes a trap that welfare recipients refuse to escape from. They like the free money, so they become complacent, they say, and suck on the welfare teat their entire life. I don't believe that. I believe that that particular perspective is a micro view of welfare and based on a few cases of someone abusing the system or, like President Reagan's non-existent welfare mom, falsely claimed by political ads. I've never met a person abusing the welfare system. I've never spoken to a single person who likes welfare, including welfare recipients. I've never seen a proven, factual case of a welfare mom scamming the system. As far as I know, those exist only in rumor and innuendo. The micro doesn't appear to agree with the macro. I see, instead, a despondent, dejected, dispirited and depressed people with the worst luck, a chronically unemployed people, unable to find work and who seem to lose at every juncture. I don't see a dependent people; I see a depressed people. And they are depressed by the very policies that we vote for. Welfare was changed in the early 1990s by a Newt Gingrich lead Republican Congress and signed by President Clinton who found himself in a similar situation as President Obama is in; forced to accept a Republican Congress' demands or accept nothing at all.

The welfare change was to a so-called welfare-to-work program. The idea was to limit welfare to a definite period during which parents, either husband or wife or both, would receive job training to eventually move off the welfare rolls. Nearly every state has a different plan, with different goals for the program. Usually, if both the husband and wife didn't find a job by the end of the period, say five years, welfare was terminated for the family adults but continued for the sake of the children in the family. There was no other criteria used for terminating the welfare, such as mental ability or disability or local job market. This report suggests that liberal, generous and kind plans with the objective of getting the welfare recipient back on their feet, being a more productive member of society and contributing to the national economy is more successful than a more miserly and chintzy plan where the only objective is to reduce government spending. The report suggests that the so-called dependency argument doesn't hold water, then, and this is a clear distinction between political parties. A Republican's philosophy favors the miserly, chintzy welfare program because they believe that a person should live by their own work, or die, and a Democrat usually favors the more liberal and kind plan because they believe that sometimes other factors force people into welfare situations, such as job availability or economic conditions.

The dependency argument only works at the micro level when you assume that the same person who received welfare this year is the same person who receives welfare next year, that he/she did nothing but sit lazily on the couch, either did not try or did not find work, and was not retrained. But, that's not the case. The welfare rolls stay the same or increase not because those on welfare wanted it, but because the job market failed them or other reasons that we hide our eyes from. In the more successful, liberal plans, the individuals on welfare change constantly, however. On one year but off the next. We can't say that they are dependent on welfare even when the total welfare counts don't seem to change or get lower. Someone very smart said, "there will always be poor." You know who I mean. He also said to always help them. I wonder why we don't believe him?

So, which is good? Which is a kindness? The macro kindness is clearly better. It is clearly a kindness to be more generous and less of a cheapskate in regards to welfare. It is not a "give-away" nor is it a waste. It is a duty. Nor should we care or go into a hyperventilated spasm about how, specifically, a welfare recipient spends what they receive. I've heard some people say with outrage, "they spend it at MacDonalds!" or, "they buy toilet paper with it!" or some other nonsense about what welfare recipients spend the money on. The fact is that once we've done our duty, we should not interfere with how another person manages their lives. They, just like us, must be free to do what they deem best with what they have, even if we don't like it or we question their wisdom, as long as it is legal.

Not only is it a kindness to the recipient of a generous welfare program that favors the recipient first, over government budget cuts, it is also a kindness to tax paying citizens. We tax payers reap the benefit of a person moving off the rolls by their own initiative, becoming a better citizen, of contributing to the national economy, helping the country grow and of becoming a tax payer themselves. The more tax payers there are, the less all of us pay.

If we evaluated policies that cause welfare on the basis of kindness, we would have prevented several policies that create it. NAFTA, for example. NAFTA allowed corporations to move manufacturing and production outside of the United States so that products created by U.S. companies were then imported free of charge under a Free Trade agreement. The Free Trade philosophy is one aspect of the Free Market, Laissez-faire philosophy. This gives corporations full reign to ride roughshod over consumers. NAFTA was the culmination of two or three decades of trying to compete with foreign companies, or so we were told, when "Made in America" became too expensive and "Made in China" meant cheap products (and cheap quality). Outsourcing caught on. The welfare rolls increased. More Americans who could not move to the jobs worked for Walmart and MacDonalds than at skilled labor.

The free trade and free market philosophy was, we were told, the great equalizer, bringing world-wide labor wages in line and eventually letting the rest of the world catch up with developed countries. The market would "self regulate," Libertarians and Conservatives said, and prices would be affordable and products would improve. US companies could compete better, company CEOs and Republicans said. In Republican Administrations, regulations were overlooked or repealed by Republican congresses. Regulators turned their heads on their small, microcosm of influence or sent an occasional "advisory" letter to companies under their purview. It was, in effect, a great give-away to corporations and foreign countries. In effect, those behind the philosophy, Republicans, threw the baby out with the bath water. Some of it was good change, but the part that went wrong was devastating; the part that should have been regulated.

In fact, NAFTA was probably the precedent toward a larger objective; domination of global markets by global companies. A "Globalist's" vision. It is a macro vision, but not an American vision. It's a world with free unencumbered trade and global reach of corporations where there are no borders. Immigration law and policies mean nothing to Globalists. They see no borders. We've already seen cases when global corporations don't like national laws, they simply move their headquarters to countries that they like better. They evade the law and taxes in that manner. This global vision is not kind, nor can it be. At that level, where global profits mean that a smaller number of individuals will be able to own so much, you and I, American middle-class, give or take, don't matter much, if we are noticed at all. Usually, globalist don't know we exist.

How little we matter to a globalist reminds me of another story told in "Examined Lives" about the philosopher Diogenes, who was particularly obstinate and somewhat degenerate, but thought to be mediocre and not worthy of notice by other philosophers. When Alexander the Great saw that he was not among the philosophers, including Plato and Aristotle, who came to pay him homage and to congratulate him on his new kingship:

     A messenger from Alexander [the Great] invited Diogenes to come see the king, but the philosopher refused, instructing the messenger to tell the king, "That which prevents you from coming to us is that which prevents us from coming to you."
    The messenger imagined the king's response: "So what prevents me and what prevents you?" he asked.
    "You are too powerful to need me - and I am too self-sufficient to need you."

Diogenes was apparently an indigent, owning only the clothes on his back, and he wanted it that way and he therefore did not need anything from Alexander and certainly Alexander didn't need anything from Diogenes. I don't think we want to be indigent, however, to be free of the ruling class. I believe that most people simply want a good and comfortable life; not a life of constant worry about the next policy that might ruin them financially or force them from one job to another simply to satisfy corporate mergers or global schemes. A vote for Republicans, regardless of what they promise in a campaign, is a vote for globalists, not you and me nor America.

We now know that NAFTA, at a macro level, was a disaster for job stability and creation in America, yet those that still support it are voted into office. Ron Paul, a free-market Libertarian, for example, said "the market will decide" when he was asked why he didn't buy "Made in America" t-shirts for his presidential campaign instead of "Made in Honduras" t-shirts through Fruit of the Loom, located in Bowling Green, KY and owned by Berkshire Hathaway. He is either a globalist or doesn't get it or he looks at the market from a micro perspective, concerned only with the limited scope he comes in contact with. So, no, the market didn't decide. If we evaluate the t-shirt production process, from the factory to the market, step by step, from the perspective of kindness, we can see that the market for a t-shirt is decided at the point of sale, i.e., on the retail shelf. A Fruit of the Looms t-shirt is not significantly cheaper on Macy's shelf than any other t-shirt on the same shelf and, in fact, profits from a t-shirt made in Honduras are outrageously high because of slave-labor wages paid to women and children who make the t-shirts in Honduras, labor that violates US child labor laws. We know that for a fact. That is the truth behind Ron Paul's "the market will decide." Violating child labor laws is acceptable under the Laissez-faire philosophy, a "let it be" philosophy. So, is it a kindness to buy from a company who exploits child labor in Honduras? Is it a kindness to allow corporations with global designs, such as Fruit of the Loom, to achieve market domination by using illegal child labor? Even if that company provides a wage to very impoverished children earning the wage? I would say no. It would be a kindness to force the company to comply with child labor laws and to pay a living wage to its factory workers wherever they are located. In fact, Fruit of the Loom is practicing non-competitive methods by undercutting their competitors through the unfair and illegal practice of using child labor. It cannot be a so-called "free market" if some of the competitors are subverting good or fair business practices. It is, in fact, a subsidized market.

Gibson County may be a microcosm to Walmart, but to a citizen living in Gibson County it is a macrocosm. Walmart has had a devastating effect on the county. I suspect that when the big box stores, Walmart, K-Mart, Rural King and Menards Home Improvement came to Princeton, everyone thought it was great. There would be jobs for everyone, they likely said. But, the fact is that every town in the county was devastated. Small grocery stores, hardware stores, pharmacies and novelty stores closed their doors. Two, three or four local jobs were lost for every job Walmart created. It was a net loss to every town in the county. Citizens of Owensville and Fort Branch must now travel to Princeton or Evansville for most of their daily needs. The choices are fewer and fewer. The elderly in Owensville depend more and more on the Dollar Store, the only store in town that carries a small number of grocery items. If it wasn't for a few churches, they would suffer more in spite of having money to buy what they need but are not able to travel to Princeton, only eleven miles away. Owensville seems to be a dying town, primarily because there will come a time when no businesses exists there. I think it is a sad day coming. It could have been different. A vote for Republicans is a vote for the business killing and jobs killing Walmarts in less populated areas.

What would have happened if those who were in political office in Gibson County back when Walmart and the others began the permit process to build their stores in Gibson County? What if they had evaluated the impact of Walmart on the local businesses from the perspective of kindness? Would they have chosen Walmart over the demise of local businesses or the added burden of traveling to Walmart? I doubt it. I think they would have seen a kindness in maintaining all of the smaller groceries and hardware stores over the larger big box stores, even if the smaller store priced things slightly higher. The big stores may have a cheaper price on the shelf, but that doesn't tell us how much effort or gas or car use or time away from family we have to spend to go get the item we need. Perhaps some families could have gotten by with one car instead of two simply because they didn't need to go to Princeton or Evansville so frequently. Would a macro-view of Walmart's impact on the county, on personal lives and on the total family cost of shopping there change things? I wish it would. Gibson County isn't populated enough for big box stores. They should run Walmart and the others out and restore business health to the county and towns.

I heard several other problems caused by "big government," some I agree with. I heard a lot of anger at the EPA, suggesting that the entire EPA should be dismantled. Regulating dust created by farming, for example, stirred up animosity at the entire EPA. I have no idea how regulating dust can be done. I suppose the farmer could buy a giant vacuum to follow the combine, but that's a ridiculous idea and a ridiculous regulation. But, it is still no reason to throw out the baby, the entire EPA, simply because a few bureaucrats got carried away. Nor can it be blamed on Obama. Instead, we should insist that Congress use its oversight authority to put a kibosh on that and any other "government creep" or "spending creep" that invariably grows from any organization. Overall, I believe government, and the EPA, is doing a credible job in most programs, better than a privatized program managed by a corporation can do. A vote for a Republican will privatize most government programs, including Medicare, Social Security, more of Defense than already is, Education, Energy and Housing. After that, corporations will dictate policy behind closed doors. It may be profitable for the company, since tax payers will pay the bill, but it won't be kind.

This line of thinking was prompted by a friend's comments during my Owensville visit. He said that our generation, my generation, probably had it best, and I would add for the past one hundred years, including the generation that lived through the Great Depression. He said we had good role models with good work ethics to follow in Owensville. He said that our children and grandchildren will not fare so well. I have to agree, we had it best and, like him, it breaks my heart that my children and grandchildren will not have the opportunity I had. In fact, I'm outraged about it. He also said that our education that we received in the first twelve grades in the 1950s and 60s was probably better than any time since. There have been any number of arguments and claims about our failing education and about improving it, with recent emphasis on charter schools, a Republican school privatization objective, but the education we received in public schools way back then was a good, well rounded education, taught by dedicated teachers. It was better than any generation has received since, including charter schools and home-taught children. Those days will never return, unfortunately, unless Republicans are voted out of office for as long as they insist that public education should be dismantled and privatized.

I see a number of politicians who appear to be honest and dedicated public servants. I also see those that are dishonest, greedy and self-aggrandizing. There are several characteristics of the latter dishonest ones that can be identified for easy recognition. A politician with a gift for gab, for example, is probably one who can come up with an answer whether he knows a good answer or not and who will more than likely bullshit us as not. A person who promises too much is another one who likely won't, or can't deliver. So, choosing who to vote for should be relatively easy if you can identify the general philosophy rather than anything a politicians says or promises. When the choice is not clear, we can count on the person we vote for following the caucus they belong to when they get to Washington. So, if you have to hold your nose to vote because all candidates stink to high heaven, vote for the most kind caucus. At the moment, the Republican caucus leads to trickle-down failure and more recession. They haven't changed their philosophy that got us in this mess.

I see a day coming when local and state politicians become more important to us than national politicians. Perhaps they were more important all along. It is the local and state governments who need to be strong enough to protect the citizens from corporate driven agendas and community killing policies and to save in good times and spend in bad times. Make sure you vote for kindness. A mean politician stuck in ideology will only break hearts, maybe your heart. Make your voice heard and speak for those who can't.



Mike Y said...

First of all you've got way too much time to kill. You need to find a hobby, may I reccommend knitting! Having lived in Owensville with you (I might add I always considered you a best friend)I think your recent visit back there has distorted your political thinking. I find it interesting you blame the Republicans for everything: Walmart (can you say best prices in town for the consumer); Welfare (can you say "take a drug test?")

I like your new catch word "minutia" ie:minor detail. Wow did you ramble on! I've decided you must have been in line for one of Obama's Stimulus deals since you can find nothing wrong with his practices or should I say Democrate Practices!

As you are aware I constantly flood your emails with Obama "Puns" and after reading your blog i've got lots of work to do. Love Ya.


Dan said...

You tend to 'make me think' Dave. I disagree with some things you say, agree with some things you say, and don't know what the heck you are saying with some things you say.

But overall, I appreciate your perspective. You put a spin on things that I hadn't considered, or had forgotten.

Your heart is good.

Thanks for posting.