Change Can Be Painful

I have been mulling over the concerning level of distress that now seems to infect so many of our personal and national conversations. Donald Trump is, to be certain, at the root of some of this because he refuses—or is simply unable—to finesse much of anything. President Trump finds the rawest possible nerve to rub at the most inopportune possible time—and keeps right on rubbing it no matter how loud the howls. I will agree with those who argue that he is an irritant; this is not much of a mystery.

It is, however, just as true that a great many problems we have tried desperately to ignore for decades are now impossible to avoid—and Donald Trump is many times simply the blunt instrument for our reckoning with unpleasant realities.

We are enslaved by public and private debt, the cost of medical care is outrageous, our public schools are failing many children, higher education is amazingly costly and often captive to ideological battles, homelessness and hunger haunt many, families and communities are fragmented, and there is a fairly pervasive sense that our governmental structures have devolved into self-serving parasites that pay little attention to the needs of those whom they claim to serve. All of this frustration and rage erupted last November, and our nation opted for chemotherapy over continued palliative care—hence at least some of the pain we are today experiencing. Aggressive treatment of our maladies is a shock to a system long accustomed to soothing platitudes and bland reassurance.

Now we have steep tax cuts and pointed discussions about reducing our expansive—and expensive—government structures. Tough questions are being asked about how to remake our healthcare and health insurance systems to reduce cost. Charter schools and school choice plans are corroding the public education monopoly. Higher education is suddenly having to justify both its mission and its stupendous cost. Public aid programs of all types are asking for much more responsibility from recipients. Zoning and tax policies that artificially inflate housing costs are under attack. People are pushing back against experts and policy makers who promote punitive and half-baked ideas regarding what is best for us.

As for government and government officials, they are disliked, distrusted, and disrespected by the vast majority of Americans—many of whom are now approaching a state approximating open rebellion. This is not surprising because our long national experiment with expanding government to provide endless freebies fueled by reckless borrowing has now crashed into the inevitable arithmetic of profligacy—eventually you run out of money. Avoiding real-life financial decisions by charging the spiraling costs of government programs rife with waste and inefficiency to future generations of taxpayers—who are now stuck with the tab—was loads of fun for elected officials who could keep handing out goodies without the political inconvenience of raising taxes to pay for them, but the incredibly large check for that stupendous party has now been dropped in our laps. Tough and divisive discussions are certainly ahead.

There is, in addition, a certain degree of anger generated by the very act of finally facing up to our problems. I find a good many of our recent hot-button debates concerning education, immigration, economic policy, and national defense seem animated by intense frustration over being forced to make hard decisions rather than being allowed to obliviously cling to questionable narratives and notions—heedless of cost or consequence.

After decade upon decade of waiting for improvements in hidebound public schools, parents are now demanding alternatives for their children. After abdicating control of our borders and endlessly extending the stays of those offered “temporary” refuge in America, enacting reasonable and long overdue immigration policy changes is a shock for a great many. Shrinking government and unshackling businesses from inane regulations seems very frightening to those who have grown comfortable with stultifying statist ideologies. Pushing back against terrorist groups and rogue states has terrified those who have forever counseled appeasement. At every turn, definitive and firm action has raised the hackles of those invested in bureaucratic inertia and willful ignorance.

It is clearly painful for some to have to abandon the familiar failures and pursue a new path. However, watching new charter schools succeed where others had failed, immigration laws and procedures being thoroughly debated and—President Trump’s alleged comments about “sh*thole countries” notwithstanding—vastly improved, business activity rising and unemployment shrinking while the stock market booms, and ISIS crushed at the same time North Korea is finally being forced to the bargaining table, it is increasingly difficult not to recognize that the time for a clean break with the failed ideologies of the past is right now. Bewailing successes that conflict with stale orthodoxy seems sillier by the day, and if we can stop imagining crises and instead work cooperatively to implement yet more fresh creative thinking regarding the issues facing our nation, we can likely achieve wonders.

Abandoning shibboleths is scary, adopting unfamiliar ideas is stressful, and accepting the necessity for change is upsetting. Nonetheless, we need to step out of our comfort zones and recognize that which is familiar may not be either helpful or good, and all the protests and complaints will not diminish the need for a thorough re-evaluation of ideas and philosophies that many have held dear for a very long time. We might not always be pleased—or even comfortable—with the decisions that are made as a result, but many times we—as a nation—will be better off.

Advertisements

Let Our People Tweet!

In a recent interview, Barack Obama made the following observation regarding the promise—and pitfalls—associated with the rapid growth of the use of social media in our hyper-politicized age: “The question has to do with how do we harness this technology in a way that allows a multiplicity of voices, allows a diversity of views, but doesn’t lead to a Balkanization of society and allows ways of finding common ground.” This is a good question, but it may miss the mark just slightly—as many perfectly reasonable questions sometimes do.

The ever-expanding range of social media—everything from Facebook to Twitter to Snapchat and beyond—has fundamentally changed our political, personal, and social discourse in ways we are still struggling to understand. Who, for example, had heard of “hashtag activism” a scant few years ago or would have foreseen the manner in which a political neophyte could leverage his love of “tweeting” into the highest elected office in our nation?

Politicians, reporters, businesspeople, celebrities, athletes, and others now race to provide their instantaneous reactions—we cannot possibly call it analysis—regarding every twitch in the fabric of our world. No event or statement—no matter how momentous or mundane—seems beyond comment, and YouTube personalities now rake in six and seven figure incomes for sharing (or perhaps oversharing) every aspect of their daily lives. Our planet’s population has become a global network of symbiotic exhibitionists and voyeurs, each dependent upon the other for the peculiar gratifications of either posing or peering. It is sometimes a wonder that anyone finds the time to brush their teeth between checking online, posting, and anxiously waiting for the “likes” to appear.

As a result, privacy is now nearly synonymous with invisibility, which has both individual and cultural consequences we can only begin to today fathom. We should, however, by now recognize the drawbacks inherent in engaging with social media in a manner that slices and dices individuals into ever-smaller subgroups based upon identities, interests, and political leanings. Although shared community can certainly result from, for example, finding Facebook “friends” who are just like you—and actively “unfriending” those who are not—this can easily slip into the Balkanization that concerns Mr. Obama. The myopic view of the world that results from communing exclusively with those who agree with everything you say produces the mental flabbiness and smug certitude that has helped to poison so many of our national conversations. Speaking only to those like ourselves surely separates us from one another—and impedes honest discussion.

However, this being acknowledged, I believe that Mr. Obama neglected to emphasize perhaps the greatest benefit of social media: the removal of mediators and filters that decide how information is transmitted—or whether it is transmitted at all. I am old enough to remember when a mere handful of major networks and newspapers were able to impose a virtual information hegemony upon our nation, which turned them into arbiters, gatekeepers, and kingmakers—and drastically narrowed the range of information and opinions available. Perhaps the most startling—or, for some, terrifying—aspect of last year’s Presidential election was that Donald Trump won without a single endorsement from a major news outlet and slogged on to victory while thumbing his nose at their repeated disparagements. This was, no matter how it might otherwise be spun, a stunning populist victory that would most certainly have been stopped in its tracks by the mainstream media in years past. It will be up to historians to determine the merits of Donald Trump’s presidency, but his success at the ballot box would have been impossible before the advent of social media.

Of course, right now a Trump opponent is rolling his or her eyes at his use—some would say manipulation—of his Twitter account, but it should be remembered that there would be no #MeToo moment or #BlackLivesMatter tidal wave revealing decades of pain and abuse were it not for the enormous power and reach of social media. In both of these instances, the entrenched establishment lost control of the narrative because millions of voices were suddenly able to speak and be heard. This is what most terrifies those in positions of previously unassailable power and influence: The average person can now wield a mighty sword to cut them down to size with just the tip of their finger tapping on a screen.

The nascent effort to combat “fake news” by empowering corporations and government agencies to ferret out information they deem unreliable—or perhaps embarrassing—seems to me to be nothing but a thinly veiled attempt by the establishment to reassert their control over what information is available in order to maintain their crumbling authority. Rumors, gossip, and pettiness have been baked into humanity since the dawn of civilization, but the official lies that have driven disastrous misadventures (we never did find those “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq, did we?) are too numerous to enumerate and have caused vastly more damage to our nation and its people.

We are likely much better off with a wild and uncontrollable social media environment that asks uncomfortable questions and attacks complacent assumptions. If people are sometimes insulted and misinformation is occasionally spread, this is a small price to pay for the incredibly free and open discussion that is now possible, and we would be fools indeed to have this wrested away from us because some are more comfortable with the hollow silence that would soon follow.

The common ground we find after free-wheeling debate is a firmer foundation than the shaky consensus forced upon us by stilling voices of dissent. We must, of course, learn how to avoid ad hominem attacks and cruel invective as we discuss difficult and divisive issues, but the Balkanization that so concerns Mr. Obama also might be characterized as the messy and maddening freedom to speak truth to power and challenge a status quo that many find unacceptable. It is normal and healthy for citizens in a democracy to disagree, and those who yearn for the good old days when those who owned the television broadcast licenses or printing presses decided what we would be allowed to hear or say are simply hoping that taking away the voices of the many will protect the power of the few.

No matter how many times experts and insiders assure us that strict social media censorship will produce peace, harmony, or security, don’t believe it for a second. We are much better off with the sloppy cacophony of voices and viewpoints that we have right now, and those who are pushing for more curated conformity and crass control deserve nothing other than a good kick in the pants—on social media.

Do You Feel Safe Yet?

One aspect of our world today that is not commented upon enough amid all the noise of the news cycle is the 24/7 monitoring of our daily activities. A great deal of the ever-present peering into our personal lives is tied to our commercial and financial activities; some of this surveillance is protecting us from fraud, but a much larger portion is designed to better understand our spending habits in order to sell us more junk we don’t really need with money we don’t actually have. However, the more worrisome monitoring of our lives is that which supposedly protects us from international criminals and terrorists—and which has turned us all into germs parked under a very big microscope.

I suppose it is a perverse tribute to the power of the algorithms embedded into the very fabric of our lives today, but we are continually made aware of needs we did not know we even had thanks to the pop up ads on our browsers. Even the helpful viewing suggestions on Netflix are busily compiling a list of our dreams and desires drawn from our viewing profiles, which will immediately be used by businesses to prod us into even more spending and track our purchases down to the very last stick of chewing gum. Although I appreciate it when my credit card company calls to check whether I just purchased lawn furniture in a store five states away from where I actually live, I twitch a bit when I am called about an item I’ve bought that was flagged simply because it fell outside my “purchasing profile”. I realize I’ve probably fallen into a blandly predictable pattern in my life, but need I be reminded by MasterCard just how boring I have become?

Even within my four thin walls, my electronic footprint of daily activities, helpfully logged by my devices and Internet service provider, are keeping a fine record of my life, activities, and thoughts. Sometimes, just to be a rebel, I will pull a physical book off a shelf or search for information on Google that does not interest me in the least—simply to screw with the system. This is my mild and ineffectual revolt against Big Brother. Of course, fifty years from now we might all be grousing about the government-mandated technology embedded in our refrigerators that chastises us when we don’t eat enough leafy green vegetables, so perhaps I shouldn’t complain so much about the tyranny of our technology today.

However, the oddest aspect of our conversations when we talk about the constant spying into everything we do is just how much of it is justified by the need to keep us secure in a seemingly ever more insecure world. Having entertained myself this morning by counting all the cameras that recorded by daily bus commute to work—and will today monitor my movements on my college campus throughout the day—I cannot help but contemplate how little privacy I have once I step outside the walls of my home. How sad is that?

However, all of the snooping that swirls around our daily lives and spending pales in comparison with the broad and disturbing reach of the national security state’s ceaseless sifting of our activities.

We are, of course, regularly reassured that international drug lords and bloodthirsty terrorists are being foiled by the alphabet soup of federal and state government agencies vacuuming up every facet of our lives with little concern for our confidentiality. However, since the passage of the Post-9/11 Patriot Act, we also have seen an explosion in the number of private corporations that work under government contract and spy on every aspect of our existences and the world around us. According to an article in The Nation last year, the “intelligence-contracting industry… is worth about $50 billion.” Just to give that huge but amorphous number some context, this means that private companies engaged in all manner of surveillance are today an economic behemoth with roughly the same revenues and reach as FedEx.

This translates into the political punch necessary—via campaign contributions, consulting fees, and promises to locate jobs in key legislative districts—to perpetuate their power and further expand their mandates. Therefore, we can be reasonably certain that no one with any actual ability to influence contracting or legislation will ever, ever suggest that our national security apparatus needs to be trimmed—there is simply too much money sloshing around the system for it to be otherwise. All those wonderful taxpayer-subsidized paychecks have rendered this sprawling and largely unaccountable system impervious to change or reform, which is exactly what often happens when our government decides it is time to “protect” us—the functional outcome is that the livelihoods of many others are forever protected at our expense.

I am certain that all manner of fanatics and dead-enders have been stopped by a suspicious phone call, bank withdrawal, or illegal left turn that was identified and flagged in a database somewhere. However, this might not be as comforting as we might like to believe. The recent horrific sniper attacks in Las Vegas, which left at least 59 dead and 527 people injured, should give us pause for reasons that go beyond the terrible facts of the crime. The shooter apparently smuggled both a veritable arsenal and an unbelievable amount of ammunition into a major downtown hotel in a city that might have more cameras per square foot than almost any other in the United States. As frightening as the actions of this madman where, the perhaps even more scary fact is that none of the surveillance technology nor the people tasked with operating it had a clue about what was going to happen—until it did.

The inevitable response to this incident and so many like it has, of course, been a call for yet more monitoring, restrictions, and expanded governmental powers to protect us. No one who hopes to win an election is ever going to say that they are simply incapable of protecting everyone from the random horrors of life. This would to call into question the broad purpose of government as it has come to be defined over the past century, an increasing powerful and intrusive set of overlapping entities that claim to be able to keep us safe and happy if we fork over enough tax money.

As the regulatory and police powers of the state have increased and sought to save us from the anxieties generated by foods with insufficient fiber, people who might disagree with us, and sharp scissors, the obvious failures mount up—and the only ones who seem surprised are those who still somehow believe that the solution to every problem is to give government (wait for it!) yet more regulatory and police powers. This is, ultimately, a circular and self-defeating fool’s errand. Even if we put a camera inside every home, a cop on every corner, and a microchip in every individual, we will still not be safe from life because life is an inherently unsafe and potentially upsetting endeavor. Even the best choices sometimes have bad outcomes, and random weirdness and cruelty will never be eliminated from our world no matter how many forms we are required to fill out.

Frankly, I am perfectly willing to forgo the illusory security provided by living my life under the camera’s unblinking eye. Perhaps something bad will happen to me or someone whom I love as a result, but such is life. In fact, it might be much more of a life—exciting, risky, and completely ours to navigate—than the silly and scolding simulacrum we now have. Just as G-o-d is unable to prevent all of the pain that is part of life, so can we be certain that G-o-v cannot insulate us from every potentially dangerous situation, object, or person. This might seem awful to some, but perhaps we simply have to live our lives, deal with the consequences—and whine a little less about the uncertainty of it all.

 

The Hangover

The question at the heart of the movie from which I am taking the title of this commentary—“What the hell happened last night?”—is perhaps an apt description of the state of the Democratic Party today. It seems to me that a lot of energy is still being expended trying to figure out “what happened” last year to derail the dream of a liberal utopia where the party would never end. Watching Hillary Clinton now wander the country like Marley’s ghost, rattling her chains and bewailing her fate, one has to wonder when those who are still stunned by the election of Donald Trump—and the many sharp policy turns his ascendancy represents—are going to snap out of their stupor and fully engage with the many changes now afoot.

To say that the political and social Left in America is in an exceedingly surly mood is putting it mildly. Having convinced themselves in 2008 that the election of Barack Obama signaled the beginning of an inevitable electoral wave that would permanently put their policies in place, most were stunned when the tide receded and Democrats suddenly found themselves with the lowest percentage of state and federal elected officeholders since the 1920’s. As much as those who voted for Hillary Clinton like to comfort themselves with the fact that she received more popular votes, the basic problem still remains that Secretary Clinton was running for President of the United States—not Empress of New York or Queen of California. Watching the middle of the nation turn bright red on Election Night, leaving only isolated blue redoubts on the coasts and Chicago, liberals were left to curse the grim math of the Electoral College and cling to the hope of still elusive proof of Russian collusion, neither of which has yet yielded much beyond cranky sound bites on CNN and MSNBC.

And so the hangover began.

To say that the Democratic Party has a long road to recovery on a national level is like saying someone who has been run over by a truck—and is now sporting a body cast—is a little under the weather right now. Locked out of power in D.C. and many states, Democrats have resorted to erecting the moral equivalent of a spite fence by continually castigating Republicans for their hateful ignorance while reassuring themselves that today is all nothing but a bad dream that will pass when they awaken to find Trump is finally indicted and removed from office.

This might not be the wisest course of action. If the Democratic Party is going to rebound sooner rather than never, it seems three specific actions would get them off to a good start:

Elevate the next generation of leadership—immediately.  It is time to finally admit that the folks who lead you down the road to ruination need to be replaced. The “Chuck and Nancy” show in the Senate and the House has clearly run its course, and the next tier of loyal Capitol Hill lieutenants who have also helped to propel today’s electoral meltdown are little better. The time for a shake-up is right now. The longer the Democrats wait and keep fresh talent on the shelf, the longer it will take to turn around their national fortunes.

Prioritize. The Democratic agenda that has developed over the past few decades boils down to the following: “Everybody should be given everything they want (unless it is a bottle of pop or a Nativity scene) by the government for free every time they ask for it—and no one need suffer from an opinion contrary to our own regarding the need for this.” As a result, our nation has ended up with a tottering and financially unsustainable big government monster that has turned the Democratic Party and its supporters into an easily caricatured herd of pettifogging bureaucrats who seem to have their noses in everybody’s business—all while gleefully belittling those whom they don’t like. It is little wonder that so many voters are ditching them. It’s time for a thorough discussion to distinguish what is important from what is tangential. After this is done, Democrats can pick a few signature issues and rebuild their tattered brand. However, if they plan to continue to be all things to all people (except for, of course, those people whose opinions and values they don’t like), the Democratic Party can expect a long stretch in the wilderness.

Talk less and listen more. One of my father’s favorite sayings was this: “You’ve got two ears and only one mouth—that should tell you something.” The unfortunate Democratic propensity for telling everyone (very loudly) why they are wrong has not won a lot of votes recently. It might be better to put down the mocha lattes and spend some time around voters who don’t live in New York, San Francisco, or a college town. Someone who disagrees with a core Democratic tenet is not necessarily a disagreeable individual; it is simply a fact that their beliefs are being informed by different life experiences, values, and judgments. Most people are fairly reasonable and are willing to have a sensible discussion on a variety of issues; if, however, your conversational style tends to leap into sneering condescension directed toward those whose beliefs differ from your own, you’re going to have a hard time convincing anyone. Moreover, sometimes you just have to adjust to the possibility that—incredible as it might seem—you are just plain wrong. That’s a bitter pill for some to swallow, but that might be just what is necessary to prompt a Democratic renewal.

Will any of this happen? I hope so. Thoughtfully planned and executed government policies play a major role in improving our daily lives and ensuring a bright future for our nation, and we need cooperative and respectful dialogue to create a better tomorrow for our citizens and our country. Most importantly, given the broad range of challenges ahead, we need voices from across the political spectrum involved. It is not healthy for our country to have the electoral math so skewed in one direction, and a reinvigorated and resurgent Democratic Party could play a significant role in promoting programs that would ensure a more broad-based prosperity.

However, to be honest, I don’t yet see this happening. The Democratic finger-pointing and purity tests seem still to have to run their calamitous course. However, I humbly offer this blueprint for a path forward. If my suggestions turn out to be wrong, so be it. I offer them for whomever might care to listen—from one concerned citizen to another.

The DACA Dilemma

President Trump’s decision to end the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program, which had prevented most deportations of those brought here as children by parents who entered the country illegally, ignited a firestorm of condemnation this past week. One would certainly have to be hard hearted to not sympathize with the plight of those who are “American” in every way except their citizenship, and most Americans seem to be in favor of federal legislation that will offer a path to citizenship for those who meet certain criteria. The very fact of the DACA program, penciled into existence as an executive order by President Obama in 2012 after Congress failed—yet again—to pass comprehensive immigration legislation, speaks to both the complexities and contradictions that bedevil any resolution to this issue.

The most obvious complexity surrounding those children, adolescents, and (now) adults who were temporarily protected from deportation by DACA is that many in Congress fear granting special status or even outright citizenship to them is essentially a reward to the parents who smuggled them into the United States—and may encourage other foreigners to do exactly the same to secure U.S. citizenship for their children.

I am old enough to remember the “one-time-only” amnesty during the 1980’s Reagan administration that was supposed to fix this problem—once and for all. The crux of the problem is that rewarding people for any bad behavior will—even if you wag your finger forebodingly—only encourage more of the same. Providing an express route to citizenship for those who were protected by DACA will likely serve as an irresistible temptation for yet more undocumented parents to smuggle their equally undocumented children over the borders in the years ahead—count on it.

Any legal solution is guaranteed to anger advocates on either side of this issue. If we grant a loophole in established immigration law, parents with children will continue to have a huge incentive to sneak into the country. If we establish an arbitrary cut off—for example, if we provide permanent residency or citizenship only for those who arrived before DACA was first established—we can expect protests from both those who arrived afterward and were led to believe they would be protected from deportation indefinitely and those states that are most impacted by illegal immigration and expected President Trump to honor his campaign pledge to end the DACA program soon after he was elected. If we move to immediately enforce the law and simply deport all those who are residing here illegally now that their DACA protections are gone, it would obviously be wrong to ask those individuals to suffer due to the lack of permanent fix to a supposedly compassionate temporary policy that has now left them without both home and country.

Of course, whatever the outcome of this debate, we must remember that DACA was not a law—it was an administrative bandage put into place by President Obama that was of questionable legality and completely ignored actual Federal law. One of the reasons President Trump has ended the DACA program now is that his administration was about to be sued by states that wanted it ended immediately—and very likely would have prevailed in court. The six month delay in enforcement that he has insisted upon will at least provide a window for Congress to finally craft a permanent legal solution to this issue that will combine compassion and common sense.

Cue the contradictions.

As is the case with most thorny issues, this one is made yet more difficult by both politics and money. Those on both sides of the debate on this matter are often compromised by self-interests that lie just beneath the surfaces of their sanctimonious rhetoric. If this were merely a matter of providing a reasonable solution that balances practicality and the eternal American promise of fair play, it would likely have been resolved long ago.

Up until recently, organized labor and their supporters in the Democratic Party were totally adverse to the idea of an illegal immigrant amnesty because it was presumed the net effect would be to take away jobs from Americans and depress wages. However, now that Democrats are anxious to firm up the electoral firewall that so spectacularly failed Hillary Clinton last year, support for immigration—both legal and illegal—has become a litmus test for the Party and it members, who presume this issue will work to their advantage with a fast-growing Hispanic population and animate their core of liberal voters. Not surprisingly, Republicans are allergic to creating more potential Democratic voters in states like California, Texas, Illinois, New York, and Florida that are both heavy on electoral votes and packed with individuals affected by a DACA repeal. Whatever else is said by politicians on both sides of this issue, any solution to the problems posed by DACA and its repeal is affected by cold calculations regarding electoral loss and gain.

The monetary component of the problems regarding DACA—and most other immigration issues—is that many major employers in localities and states across the nation are heavily dependent on foreign workers. Tech companies in California and elsewhere—Apple, Google, Amazon, and Facebook among others—are anxious to keep open their pipeline to computer programming and software design talent from abroad, and they are terrified of any effort to restrict immigration or ramp up enforcement of existing laws because it might impact their ability to move new products and services to market and decrease their amazing profitability. On the flip side, industries that need a steady stream of compliant and near-invisible employees to perform dirty and often dangerous jobs—seafood and meat processors, hotels, restaurants, and un-automated factories being the most visible examples—worry that the loss of illegal immigrant labor will lead to wage pressures that will erode their sometimes marginal profitability. Our high-flown rhetoric is often contradicted by our base economic needs.

The political and economic factors that warp any discussion about immigration—legal or otherwise—have always been with us, and passing laws that are both practicable and humane will always involve compromises that will leave few happy and many dissatisfied. However, compromise we must. For either side in this debate to continue to press for pointless ideological purity is to condemn us all to partisan and damaging arguments that could leave us no further along to reaching a resolution that will allow those who grew up feeling like “Americans” to become Americans in fact—under a Federal law that will, we hope, be both fair and Constitutional.