Archive for November, 2012

Synchronicity

synchronicity

From Wikipedia:  “Synchronicity is the experience of two or more events that are apparently causally unrelated or unlikely to occur together by chance, yet are experienced as occurring together in a meaningful manner. The concept of synchronicity was first described in this terminology by Carl Gustav Jung, a Swiss psychologist, in the 1920s.”

One can look at synchronicity in terms of deep non-material causation, or as an interpretation of events that are not causally connected but to which humans give meaning.    If someone’s car breaks down outside a diner, and then he goes in and meets his future wife waiting tables inside, he might conclude that the car trouble was meant to be, designed to connect him to his soul mate.   It could,  however, have been mere coincidence.

I’m a believer in the first kind of synchronicity, that there are forces at work beneath the material that bring things together and create important opportunities and life experiences.    On its face that seems a strange belief, so why do I hold it?

1.  The inherent question of meaning.    Why is there something rather than nothing?   This question is unanswerable in any objective sense.   We can’t know.    This world is space-time, a realm in which you can’t get something from nothing, and where time progresses from start to finish.   Our space-time world cannot simply be, because that would contradict its own laws.   It had to come into existence at some point.   Why?  How?   The big bang 15 billion years ago may answer “how,” but that just pushes us to ask why the big bang occurred.

2.  The inherent limits of materialism.    Our thinking is materialist and rational.   We focus on measurable “stuff” in the world and try to generalize how that stuff acts and interacts.   Up until the 20th Century that seemed good enough.   Thanks to Isaac Newton people knew this was a clockwork universe and theoretically if one knew the speed, position and attributes of all that existed one could calculate both the complete past and the future yet to come.    By knowing the laws of physics, each moment had within it information yielding complete knowledge of the past and the future.

Modern physics blew that world to smithereens.   Now reality is relative to ones’ frame of reference, space and time are unified, and thanks to quantum physics, knowledge of the present only yields probabilistic knowledge of the past and future — and there is uncertainty even in that.    Matter, the “stuff” of universe, breaks down into ever small subatomic particles, which themselves are not so much particles as ‘ripples in fields.’    Things that we see are mostly illusion: Atoms are 99.99999999% empty space, meaning all matter we experience from our bodies to buildings and even the planet is almost completely empty.   A few interacting ripples in fields create the reality that our sensory organs interpret as the world we believe we inhabit.

In that light, the idea that material reality itself may be subject to non-material causal forces is quite plausible.   Especially since the act of observing is what solidifies a probable quantum reality into an actual one, material causality may itself be a misguided interpretation of our reality.

Physicists increasingly believe that our space-time universe is only part of a larger "multiverse"

Physicists increasingly believe that our space-time universe is only part of a larger “multiverse”

3.  The limits of rational thought and reason.    Reason is a tool; our assumptions about the world determine where reason leads.   Alter the assumptions, and reason yields a different answer.   Rational thinking and reason can’t determine meaning or truth, they only can help us figure out what works in the world.   Material causation may be an interpretation of reality that seems to work in the world, but there is no inherent reason it should be seen as superior to synchronicity or the idea that there are non-material deeper, “spiritual” forces at play.

4.  Intuition and Sentiment.   Intuition is often wrong.   Remember how the Republicans “felt” Romney would win, while the hard statistics analyzed by Nate Silver predicted the result we got.   We learn not to trust intuition.    Yet there are two kinds of intuition.   I may intuit something about the goings on of the material world (e.g., “I feel the Vikings are going to win this week.”) or I may intuit something about life itself – its meaning and my purpose.

Since reason cannot determine purpose or meaning in life, it makes sense to follow ones sentiment and intuition about those higher issues.   Intuition may be stronger there than in guessing particular material phenomena.

Synchronicity is also a superb album by the Police

Synchronicity is also a superb album by the Police

I am absolutely convinced that we are, to draw on another Police allusion, “spirits in a material world.”   What really matters are the connections and interactions with others, not the material stuff that surrounds us.   Synchronicity operates at that level.

Looking at life that way I have to change focus from the pursuit of goals defined in terms of material success towards what I learn from my life circumstances, and how I connect with and help/teach/learn from others.   That’s true reality, the material stuff is stage scenery.   It creates the story lines in which we live our lives.   But the story is not the purpose, the story is the vehicle in which we pursue our purpose.

bach

So when I go through the day I notice chance encounters, events that happen seemingly out of the blue but which connect to my thoughts, actions or personal dilemmas.   I try to see meaning in everything and everyone.  I see people and situations that push me away, realizing those dramas and situations are not for me.   Others draw me in.

Life lived this way becomes magical and meaningful.   There is a purpose, there is something profound in living day to day.   To get lost in the material pursuit of success and gain is akin to falling into a dream or trance; we need to wake up and experience the present and the meaningful.

And life lived magically, with an eye to meaning rather than stuff, goals or plans, has a reward:  one recognizes that happiness is available to everyone.    That’s because happiness cannot come from other people, stuff, success in the world or even family.   Happiness comes from inside, achieved by being open to the magic, focused on meaning and purpose.    That banishes fear and despair.  And once happiness is claimed one can turn to family, the world, stuff and other people with a renewed sense of confidence and clarity.

Don’t believe me?   Practice living that way.   Look for meaning, look for coincidence, look for signs and signals in the daily routine.  Look for magic.   Pay less attention to worldly pursuits and more towards whether or not you’re living a life that provides joy and meaning.    Just try it and see if it works!

Advertisements

12 Comments

Going Over the Cliff!

Going over the fiscal cliff?

Warnings are everywhere that we must avoid the fiscal cliff or else face recession.    The fiscal cliff is a series of tax hikes and spending cuts resulting from an inability to achieve targets on deficit reduction set in 2011.   The spending cuts hit 1000 government programs, touching ones dear to both Republicans (military spending) and Democrats (Medicare).

Most of the cliff involves repeal of the payroll tax cut (which expires in December) and the Bush tax cuts (which expire January 1).   The argument is that the mix of tax increases and spending cuts will seriously damage the economy and cause growth rates to plummet into recessionary territory.

The impact of the “cliff”

All this is set up by the negotiations around the debt ceiling back in 2011.   The Republicans refused to raise the debt ceiling unless budget cuts were made to halt the increase in the deficit.    President Obama entered into negotiations with House Speaker John Boehner to try to reach a grand bargain to do just that.   The talks failed.  The “grand bargain” that the Republicans walked away from would have been about 85% spending cuts and 15% tax increases.

Republicans rejected any tax increase, making a deal all but impossible to reach.   236 of the 242 House Republicans, and 40 of the 47 Republican Senators have signed a pledge to Grover Norquist’s “Americans for Tax Reform” organization promising not to raise taxes ever.    Many Republicans figured that if they held out they could take the Presidency and Senate in 2012  and then craft their own measure with no need to compromise or raise taxes.

At the time people thought the Republicans had bested the President.   He was ridiculed by progressives as having been naive, willing to bargain with Republicans when their goal was to do whatever they could to defeat him in 2012.   He was called spineless for not invoking the 14th amendment to circumvent Congress and raise the debt ceiling unilaterally.  Obama’s lowest ratings were in the wake of the breakdown of those talks.   In retrospect Obama looks like a strategic genius – the Democrats have set up a situation where they hold the best cards, thanks to the sequestration deal and the automatic expiration of the Bush tax cuts.

So will the fiscal cliff cause a recession?   Perhaps, but the damage will be limited.  A couple charts:

Note how quickly the economy recovers after the sharp dip

And:

Note that the damage is mostly in Q1 2013, cliff or no cliff the prognoses for the rest of 2013 are similar

Beyond that, growth after 2013 is robust, even if we go over the cliff:

By 2014, things could be improving dramatically

Going over the cliff could enforce a kind of restraint that would yield long term benefits.  At the very least it would unclog the gridlock preventing real solutions to the budgetary and economic crises.   Letting the Bush tax cuts expire would render the pledge to Norquist meaningless — taxes would go up automatically and any agreement to cut taxes to the middle class would be a tax cut, not a tax increase.

So why all the alarm?

Besides the fact that the slow down in 2013 would be real, there is concern about the cuts themselves.   Many important government programs will be cut, angering the left.   Defense spending will be cut, angering the right.   Good!  This will force them into meaningful negotiations.

The Republicans essentially demanded no tax increases or defense cuts, but steep cuts to entitlements, social welfare programs, education and programs Republicans disliked (such as PBS).   In the heady days after the 2010 election that might have seemed feasible, especially if they were going to win back the Presidency and Senate.   Now it’s a pipe dream.

President Obama was re-elected, the Democrats remarkably gained two Senate seats and even though the Republicans still hold the House, the majority is smaller and overall Democratic candidates for the House received more votes than did the Republicans.    The Democrats have every incentive to make a deal now, while the Republicans would prefer to come up with a piecemeal deal to push the issue down the road to when political conditions are more favorable.   The farther they can get from the 2012 election the better it will be for them.

If we go off the fiscal cliff, the GOP will be forced to deal quickly.  To prevent tax increases on the middle class there may be a will to increase capital gains taxes – something that could raise significant money.   Those low tax rates are why Warren Buffet pays a lower rate than his Secretary and why Governor Romney  thought it more harmful to release his tax returns than to keep them secret.

Nothing should be off the table.    Each side could recover from political hits by the 2014 election, better to act sooner rather than later.   Going over the cliff will make both sides eager to reach a deal.

Expected tax increases should we go off “the fiscal cliff”

The danger in that is that the Democrats could make the mistake the Republicans did and overplay their hand.    In 2014 it is unlikely the Democrats will gain the House, and if this deal goes bad due to Democratic intransigence the Republicans could have another big off year election.    The Republicans blew it by not making a deal when they were in a position of strength, the Democrats can’t afford to make the same mistake.

It could be that the cliff is the only thing that will force both sides to actually make structural reforms that can lead to a sustainable budget.     It’s not just about the money.   The Democrats can “give” on issues like taxes and defense in part in exchange for tougher regulations on Wall Street and less resistance on appointments to agencies like the FHFA (Federal Housing Finance Agency).

Perhaps the Monster has a good heart?

Ultimately we all lose if there isn’t bold action as quickly as possible to get the government to a sustainable budget with a modicum of bipartisan support.    Fear of the cliff stands in the way of making bold choices and creates the danger of kicking the can down the road to deal with at a later date.   Go off the cliff.   Face reality.   A sharp down turn will be short and followed by growth.   The pain will be limited, and it just might force the politicians to make difficult choices.

6 Comments

European Union as a Model

For three years I have been running in place in terms of my research.   It’s not that I haven’t worked.  I’ve delved into new literature and even did some writing.    I’ve blogged about it here and here.   Yet somehow, despite lots of notes, books read and false starts, I’m left where I started – lots of ideas and ambitions, but no clear research strategy.

How do I restart my research?   My last publication was in 2009, when I shifted to this “new project.”   The final draft of my last major work, German Foreign Policy: Navigating a New Era, was sent to the publisher on April 3, 2003, the day my first son was born.     With young kids I purposefully cut back on research, but now I have a desire to write and produce but progress is elusive.

The problem is that I lacked a clear center.   The themes have been shifting- the changing nature of sovereignty, the impact of the communications revolution and social media, the profound challenge created by energy and environmental crises, the dysfunctional nature of economic policy throughout the industrialized world and the shift of power and influence from the West towards countries like China, India, and Brazil – whew!    How do I come up with a clear framework?   At times I think I have a track and then somehow it goes astray.

So I started to think.   What is the point of my research, why am I motivated to move away from examining German foreign policy?    The answer is because I feel myself lucky and intrigued to be living in an era of real crisis and transformation (the theme of this blog).   As a social scientist I find it fascinating to be on the planet at this time, watching as one era folds into another, bringing about profound change.

Watching the political discourse, its clear in the attacks on Obama that many people are lost in the 21st Century, trying to understand it through a 20th Century anachronistic lens

A motive of mine is to focus on what I see as the biggest barrier to successful navigation of this period of transition – old thinking.   Old thinking is everywhere!   When I see someone call Obama a “socialist” or a “Marxist,” I shake my head in amazement — can’t they see how obsolete looking at the world in those terms has become?   When people argue against globalization, talk as if a fossil fuel based economy is sustainable or speak of American power as if it still has the force it did in the last century, I realize “old thinking” dominates much of the political discourse.

That’s true in the US, but not so much in Europe.   I’m surprised by how Americans dismiss the European Union.   When the Eurocrisis started a couple years ago bloggers said things like ‘bye bye Euro’ and a few dismissed the possibility that the EU could survive.   I realized they were imagining people in the EU to be thinking about politics just like they were – with ‘old thinking.’  This is especially true from Great Britain and the US, the two former hegemonic powers where old thinking remains strongest.

E pluribus unum?

Yet within the EU, new thinking has already become entrenched.   The EU achieved the goals set by the Kyoto accords without harming their economy and are cutting ambitiously moving forward.   Germany plans to be off fossil fuels by 2050.   Military power is considered best used for humanitarian interventions sanctioned by the UN and not raw pursuit of national interest.  Sovereignty has already been replaced by subsidiarity, and globalization is taken as a matter of course.

That’s it – the European Union needs to be the center of the research.   All policies and issues connect, and it takes me back to a literature I know well and have been studying since the 80s – European integration!   Moreover, I think there needs to be some work done really stressing the revolutionary, positive and sustainable aspects of the EU at a time when people want to prematurely embrace its demise.   The fact the EU won the Nobel Peace Prize this year only adds to its relevance.

The Euro crisis opens the door to analyze the global economic crisis, its causes and the way out.  The EU’s strong focus on human rights, the environment and energy opens the door to address those issues, including the diversity between France’s embrace of nuclear energy to Germany’s (apparent) rejection of the same.    The diverging paths of the US and EU since the Iraq war, including questions about the future of NATO, open the door to discussing terrorism and the nature of war/conflict in this new era.   Issues involving Islam and the West are profound in Europe.   The whole package requires a new theoretical approach to politics, building on the neo-liberalism and identity theories of the 20th Century.

That necessarily includes the impact of the information revolution ranging from the internet to social media and beyond.  But with the EU as the core, I can now envision how it will fall into place, including how all the work I did the last three years is not for naught — I simply needed something to center it.   To find that I went back to my roots as an academic, a focus on Europe and the EU.   In fact, my concluding chapter in the book on German foreign policy has those very arguments which I can build upon.

Of course!  The answer has been in front of me all the time.   I thought I had to venture away from my specialization to look at media and change.   The key is to integrate these ideas into what I’ve already been doing.   Time to get writing!

7 Comments

The Christmas Season Begins

Appropriately the traditional Thanksgiving Day parade is associated with Macy’s, a retailer.

Today Americans travel to be with family and/or friends to celebrate the most traditional of American holidays.   Most people will roast a turkey, enjoy potatoes, veggies, dinner rolls, pies, and various family delights.   Even the most secular of families will talk about giving thanks for what they have.   Many families will take out the Christmas decorations, ready to celebrate “the holiday season,” where the Christmas values of peace, love, and goodwill overcome greed and selfishness.

One need not be Christian to appreciate the Christmas spirit, expressed in everything from Ebeneezer Scrooge’s visit from the spirits of past, present and future to George Bailey’s journey in It’s a Wonderful Life.  Kids get it when they watch the Grinch’s heart expanding as he hears the Whos celebrate joyfully even after he stole their Christmas loot.    The Christmas spirit reflects a belief there is something more important than material possessions and the daily grind.   Love, connection to others, and a sense of the spiritual combine to point to a more joyful and meaningful mode of living.   The eternal trumps the temporal, values trump self-interest.

Target is one of many stores opening on Thanksgiving evening as work and shopping intrude on family

Yet today, even on Thanksgiving many “big box”  stores are opening, usually at around 8:00 or 9:00 PM.  Those not opening today will do so early tomorrow, sometimes at midnight or 2:00 AM, so that shoppers can get the best bargains of the year, so called Black Friday.   Stories of violence often accompany Black Friday — shoppers being trampled as they rush to get bargains, people fighting over the last of a specially priced item.

Then for the next month malls will be full, kids will be adding to Christmas wish lists and then feel deprived if they don’t get most of what they wanted.  Stress will grow as people churn out Christmas cards as an obligation, juggle party schedules, deal with shows and activities planned for the kids, and try to get that shopping done.   The music, lights and smells of the season will offer momentary distractions, but far too often the Christmas spirit gets defined by materialism and stress.

If stress gets too intense it feels like the evil Santa above is hounding us!

Peace on earth, good will to men. “Yeah, yeah, but I have to shop, get this package to the post office, and damn, we got a Christmas card from them?  Sigh.  I think I have one more I can send out.”     “Dad, why does he have five more presents than me, it’s not fair!” It’s the most wonderful time of the year.   Yeah, for the retailers!   For the small shops in the mall!

A savior is born in Bethlehem.   Jews, Muslims, agnostics, atheists, Wiccans and others might smile and nod, but don’t get meaning from that.   Christians will, but many will quickly pivot “hey, that’s the true meaning of Christmas, but I have to go get supplies for our party…why’d we invite so many people…”

What irony!   The Holiday most focused on our better selves has become the most stressful and materialistic time of the year.  Instead of learning the value of sacrifice and sharing, children shout “me, me, me” and fantasize about the stuff they’ll get.   Starting Thanksgiving evening we embrace raw consumerism in the extreme — “you are what you own, and today you can get great deals!”

What if people decided to reject that and grab the true Christmas spirit instead?   For Christians the answer is right there — the teachings and traditions provide a guide of how to steer clear of crass consumerism and materialism.

One does not have to be Christian to celebrate and appreciate the joy inherent in the Christmas spirit: Love for others, good deeds, giving without needing to receive, forgiveness, family, friends, and connections.  The Christmas spirit appeals to the part of ourselves that rises above self-interest and sees meaning in core human values rather than the daily routine or material possessions.  After all, early Christians choose late December in order to mesh the holiday with already existing pagan traditions.   The holiday spirit belongs to all of us, not just Christians.

The holiday spirit is a sense that life has a meaning beyond our mundane material existence.   If one cannot bring oneself to believe in something specific, then imagine — imagine the best each of us can be and the best for humanity.    The boundary between faith and imagination is blurry and perhaps non-existent.

Allow the season to be filled with beautiful, natural, spiritual joy.

The Christmas spirit is truth, even if one rejects the story behind the holiday.   That spirit can be tapped to defy the stress, material excess and greed that too often subverts this time of the year.   That spirit is here, inside each of us, and in the songs, movies, and ideals expressed this time of year.  Grab the Christmas spirit!  Share it.   Make this a season of joy rather than greed.   Let love and human connections trump selfishness and consumerism.    A family snowball fight always beats a day roaming the malls.   And maybe, just maybe, we can enter 2013 renewed rather than spent, focused on values rather than stuff, and thankful for our family, friends, and the lives we’ve chosen to lead.

6 Comments

Mideast Mess

Two Palestinian children in the rubble after an Israeli strike in northern Gaza

My mantra:  You cannot be pro-Israel without being pro-Palestinian.  You can not be pro-Palestinian without being pro-Israel.   The two peoples’ destinies are linked, they’ll either keep killing each other or find a way to live together.    There is one feasible solution: a viable Palestine alongside a secure Israel.

The frustrating thing about violence like this is that observers tend to join the combatants in forming two camps.   The pro-Israeli side condemns the Palestinians for engaging in terrorism, and dismisses concern about innocents by simply blaming Hamas.   In the US sympathy for the Palestinians in Gaza is dismissed by pro-Israel hawks as “anti-Semitic,” or akin to support of the Nazis.    Never mind that a large number of Jews in Israel form the backbone of an Israeli peace movement even more radical, the pro-Israel side often paints the world in stark good vs. evil tones.

An Israeli woman worries for her children as air raid sirens sound in Tel Aviv

On the other side are the defenders of the Palestinians, pointing at the big bad Israeli military hurling massive weapons into Gaza, killing women, children and other defenseless folk.    They rationalize Hamas’ missile attacks into Israel by pointing out the horrid conditions in the occupied territories and how Israel’s grip limits economic opportunity and leaves millions with no real political and economic rights.   For them it’s good vs. evil as well, but the Palestinians are the victims, fighting out desperation for a better future against a ruthless foe.

Go on line and follow blogs and news sites for each side and you’ll find two self-contained narratives wherein it is absolutely clear that one side is right and the other wrong, with little ambiguity or uncertainty.   Of course, which one is right depends on the side you’re following.

The reality is that ambiguity and misunderstanding define this conflict, while the capacity to paint it in stark black and white terms makes it harder for each side to truly understand the other.    In turn, that makes it more difficult to solve the conflict.   But the Arabs won’t drive the Jews into the sea and the Jews won’t drive the Arabs into the desert.

The Gaza strip is small but densely populated (yellow area on the southern coast of Israel)

Consider this case.   Border clashes leave a Palestinian youth dead.   Mad at that and other IDF (Israeli Defense Force) actions Hamas shoots missiles into Israel.   In Hamas’ mind it’s a tit for tat, they’re retaliating.   For Israelis shooting missiles into residential areas is an escalation – the IDF was engaged simply in protecting Israel’s security.   So they retaliate hard against Gaza.   Hamas then retaliates back, upping the ante.

Emotions are ignited on both sides, the conflicts grows in intensity, and soon we have a full blown crisis that apparently neither side planned or wanted.   Protests world wide show sympathy to the residents of Gaza, while supporters of Israel grumble that the media is unfair and doesn’t understand that no country could tolerate missiles being launched across the border into residential areas.   Two legs good, four legs evil.   Or was it four legs good, two legs evil?

The reality is far more complex.   The Palestinians have suffered and often have been treated unfairly and denied dignity by the Israelis.   Hamas did send missiles into Israel in an action no state could ignore or just accept.   Hamas is a terror organization which could end this by renouncing its terror tactics and stopping the bombardment.   Israel does keep the Palestinians on the leash that naturally breed resentment and anger.     That’s why each side is so adept at seeing themselves as the good guys – each side has evidence to that effect.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suddenly find concerns about Iran on the back burner as Gaza violence flares

At this point its foolish to try to say one side is “more to blame.”   That falls victim to that same capacity to choose evidence and make interpretations that will see one side as essentially good and the other as the cause of the violence.  The first step out of this is to see it as a problem to be solved, rather than enemies to be defeated.   Neither side can win unless they both win.   That can only happen if they solve the fundamental problems they face.

There is a reason why war maker Yitzak Rabin became a peacemaker, reaching agreements with the PLO in 1993.   There is a reason why ultra-hawk Ariel Sharon ultimately proposed unilateral withdrawal from the occupied territories after running a much a different platform.   An objective look at Israel’s security interests makes clear that on going conflict is harmful to Israel, especially with the rise of non-state actors like Hamas and Hezbollah.   The Arab states never really could pose an existential threat to Israel.  The non-state actors?   That’s a different story.

So how to solve the problem?   First, the two sides need to agree to a cease fire.   Israel should not try for a ‘military solution.’   Invading Gaza will be no more effective than invading Lebanon in 2006. Even if they damage Hamas, the conflict will be intensified and Israel will be no more secure.

Partner for peace? Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas

However, Israel should work to split the Palestinians.   There are two groups, Hamas and the Palestinian Authority.   Israel should turn to the PA and work with it, trying to get Arabs around the region to throw their support to the PA as the voice of the Palestinian people.    As this is happening, the US needs to pressure Arab states to emphasize the role of the PA as opposed to Hamas, with Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad as the primary Palestinian negotiators.

This will create dilemmas for both the PA and Hamas.   The Palestinian Authority doesn’t want to be seen as abandoning Gaza.   The only way they can possibly break from Hamas is if Israeli military action in Gaza has ceased.   Israel would also have to renounce some of the new policies they have for settlements in the West Bank, as well taking a softer line on the Palestinian Authority’s efforts at the UN.

Some would see that as Israel giving into pressure, but it’s a clever “giving in.”  If done in a way that undercuts Hamas it would be a victory for Israel.  Hamas might respond by upping the ante with more attacks.   But a more likely response would be to communicate to the PA the need to be on the same page and try to influence the negotiations.

Much conspires against such a solution.   Can Israel really pivot to a political effort to isolate Hamas rather than a military effort to defeat it?   Will Israel and the Palestinian Authority be able to make enough progress on past roadblocks to negotiation to make real communication between the two feasible?   Will the PA be willing to risk “selling out” its rival Hamas, and will the Arab world side with the PA over Hamas?   Still, despite the mess, this could open up the chance for a real move forward.

The phrase may be over used but it’s true – in every crisis there is an opportunity.

27 Comments

Binders of Black People!

Maine Republican Chair Charlie Webster

I wanted to blog about something other than politics today but I can’t ignore a local story gone viral.

Farmington’s own Charlie Webster, who runs a successful heating company, got into some hot water this week.   Webster, who serves as the state Republican party Chair, made a claim that “dozens” of black people had registered to vote on election day at rural polling places where none of the poll workers knew them.

Immediately he was attacked for making a charge that seemed racist — black people voting in rural Maine?   They must be from away!   I think, though, it was more stupid than racist.

Here’s the context:  Charlie Webster has long thought that Maine’s same day registration policy makes fraud likely.   He once produced the names of 206 college students in Farmington who had registered on election day and had the Secretary of State Charlie Summers investigate.   No wrong doing was found, though many students were sent semi-threatening letters warning them that they shouldn’t vote in a community if they had cars registered elsewhere or otherwise did not plan to become long term members of that community.   Maine law has no such provisions, but Summers had to show some deference to his party Chair.

The Republicans grabbed control of both houses and the Governorship in 2010, and one of the first things they did was push through a law ending same day registration.   Reports are that in a state legislature where individual independence usually trumps party loyalty, this was one issue where intense pressure was put on legislatures to vote in favor of ending the practice.   This was a priority for Webster.

In Maine the people can overturn legislation through a referendum and that’s what happened.   By an overwhelming margin of 60% to 40% Mainers voted to keep same day registration.   Many on the right, buoyed by early polls showing support for the ending same day registration, thought having an off year (2011) vote would help them win.   It did not.

If 2012 was like other years, about 50,000 people state wide registered on election day.   They must have ID and a piece of mail addressed to them showing that they have a Maine address.     Part of what irks Webster is that often college students in his town of Farmington (where I also live and teach) come and vote in elections even though those students probably don’t really consider Farmington home.   His view: they should vote in their own localities, or if they are out of state, in the state in which their parents live.

UMF students were active on the same sex marriage initiative, trying to register students and get them to vte

That is a legitimate argument.   To the extent that local representation in the state house in Augusta gets decided by students with no real “base” in Farmington, local residents may feel like their vote is being usurped by students from elsewhere corralled to vote by campus activists.

Counter arguments would note that these students live at least a good nine months in Farmington and add significantly to the local economy.   The strongest counter is that it’s unlikely the campus determines election outcomes.    Students tend not to vote, and many who do vote Republican.   Republican candidates such as the State Rep Lance Harvell and State Senator Tom Saviello actively campaign on campus and have strong levels of student and faculty support, including from Democrats.

The point:  same day registration irks Webster, he thinks it damages the electoral process and should be done away with.   Yet dozens of black people going to rural Maine?

Most people would be skeptical.   Busing black folk to rural locations would be an expensive and rather odd way to try to influence elections!  \    The Sardine report did a nice satire on this, claiming “thousands of mysterious white people voted in Portland, Lewiston, Auburn, Brunswick, Bangor, Brewer, South Portland, Waterville, Ellsworth, Sanford, Saco, Westbrook, Augusta, Orono, Belfast, Bath, Rumford and Newport.”   An excerpt:

“It was an ingenious plan, really,” commented Maine Democratic Party Chair Ben Grant. ” We were only able to get a few hundred black people up from Massachusetts, and we had them voting in places like West Norridgewock, where they kind of stuck out. In retrospect, it wasn’t the smartest way to undermine the electoral process.”

And:

Rumford town clerk Corinne McLaughlin said they were definitely some shady European-looking types registering on election day in her town. “I make a point of noticing and remembering all the white people in town, and there were definitely a few that I had not seen before,” she said.

After the Webster story went viral on Drudge, Politico, Talking Points Memo, Think Progress, and most political websites he backed off.   He apologized for making it sound like he was disparaging a racial group, and withdrew his claim that he’d send out postcards to see if people really did live where they registered.

In the end, it was a bit absurd.  I’m not sure how it went down, but I can imagine Webster hearing rumors about black people voting, taking them seriously and then blurting it out while being interviewed.    He hates same day registration and thus is predisposed to believe stories that show it to enable fraud.

Here in rural Maine there are not many black people.   Therefore we sometimes forget to think about how what we say might sound.   Heck, my six year old son in looking at a picture of Barack Obama once said, “dad, do you have to have black skin to be able to become President?”    I suspect Webster was so focused on the issue of same day registration fraud that it simply went over his head just how racially charged his claim was.

“He who gaffes last…” Romney putting blame for his election defeat on Obama’s “gifts” to voters reinforced why the Governor had so much trouble connecting

So in the end it was just a minor gaffe that gave this part of the country some national attention for a day or two.  It wasn’t even the worst gaffe of the week – that honor belonged to Mitt Romney who channeled his 47% video self to decry how Obama won by “giving gifts” to various demographic groups.    Republicans reacted to that by distancing themselves from Romney even faster than Maine Republicans fled Webster.

I’ll take Webster at his word that he didn’t mean to focus on race and is genuinely sorry about how careless his comments were.    The gotcha gaffe game is a poor excuse for political discourse in any event.    And as much as I hate to admit it, I think it’s sort of fun when something silly puts Maine and especially my part of Maine in the national spotlight.

6 Comments

Money and Power

I’ve been reflecting on the economic arguments made this election cycle and find myself dissatisfied with a lot of thinking on both the left and the right.

Many people buy into a way of thinking that is essentially materialist and anti-human: that people are at base value creating mechanisms and the market correctly assigns them money according to their work and value.   This leads to false thinking on both the right and the left.   On the right, the state is demonized and the market is seen as almost magic.   On the left the rich are demonized and the the role of the state is seen as equalizing outcomes.   Both views are wrong.

Turning first to the pro-market side, many believe that taxation and efforts to expand opportunity are wrong because they “confiscate” money from those who have “earned it.”   Earning it is defined by being able to take whatever you can get away with in the market.   If one is super wealthy and the other poor, then that’s how “nature” or the “market” justly caused events to turn out.    The rich can choose to help the poor, but have no obligation.

However, no one who buys, sells, works or trades by using federal legal tender has an ethical claim on all his or her own money.   That money is provided by the government to facilitate trade and cooperation.    It brings a tremendous amount of efficiency to the system and allows people to have massively more wealth then they would without this government service.

Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s…

If you are part of this system that makes wealth generation possible for large numbers of people, you have chosen to be part of a collective.   You have cast your lot with a web of relationships and interactions that allow you to achieve much more than you could on your own.   Without the state, only organized crime and other thugs would have wealth and most people would be living in poverty.  Only stable functioning states bring about true prosperity for large numbers of people.So if you’re benefiting from this, your money is a result of your effort, ingenuity, and the role of effective government.   Your effort matters, but the level of your success and prosperity is due to being part of a collective.    That means that the state, through legal democratic processes, has a legal claim on a chunk of your monetary wealth.

Moreover, the role of the state must be more than just being a “referee” to make sure nobody is cheating.   Power permeates all social relationships.   If you have wealth, you can structure the game in your favor.   You’re inherently not on an equal playing field with those who lack wealth.   You can get for yourself and your progeny excellent education, opportunities, good health care and if need be, start up capital.   To get a level playing field the state must actively work to assure real opportunity for all citizens, not just those with structural advantages.    

The state acting solely in the role as umpire cannot protect a level playing field because the playing field is already made uneven by the distribution of power and wealth in society.

The winners often don’t acknowledge the vast structural advantages they are able to enjoy in the system

The rich often ignore this problem by denigrating and demeaning the poor, calling them “takers” and making it seem as if they want to live off the work of the rich rather than simply wanting opportunities to succeed.   This was seen in the latest gaffe by Governor Romney (quickly repudiated by other Republicans) that Obama won because he “gave gifts.”   At the height of perversity is the claim that the poor have the same opportunity simply by being in the same legal system, as if all the wealth and power of the rich don’t provide them structural advantages.

The left errs as well when they lose sight of the fact that the goal of government should be to expand opportunity so that everyone has the chance to succeed.    That does not mean equalizing outcomes.   It does not mean demonizing the rich or punishing success.  It only means that the winners pay a portion of what they’ve gained thanks to both government protections and their position in the system to create conditions whereby the losers and their children have the education, health care, legal protections and opportunities to succeed that the rich enjoy.

The rich will always be able to afford better colleges, tutors and equipment for their children.   Trying to level that will do more harm overall, and is not necessary.   Here the materialist delusion hits both the right and the left:  Wealth is irrelevant to success and happiness in life, so long as people have a sense of meaning and personal responsibility for their lives.

Demonizing the rich ignores the complexity of assuring initiative and reward in a complex economy

I am absolutely convinced that the wealthy are no happier or more content than the poor so long as the poor have opportunity and the chance to work to make something of their lives.   Only when poverty is so intense that basic needs are not met, or that there is no hope to be able to build a better life, does lack of wealth lead to despair.    Moreover, a psychology of dependency on government handouts damages that sense of meaning just as much as poverty can.   If the left tries to “fix” the system in a way that simply makes the poor dependent on handouts, the solution is as bad as the problem.

True wealth is far more than that which we buy and sell

Not only is it OK to have rich and poor if the poor have real opportunity and their basic needs met, it’s necessary.   As long as all citizens have access to a quality education, decent nutrition, health care without risking bankruptcy and ruin, and the opportunity to succeed, outcomes should be diverse.   The market then functions properly, reflecting the desires and preferences of the public.   The left should focus on that – true liberty and opportunity for all – rather than worrying about outcomes.

This requires an active state, but also civil society and civic engagement.   Community organizers should be more important than government bureaucrats in social welfare programs.    Most importantly, we need to recognize that money and wealth are not ends in and of themselves, nor are they key to having a happy and successful life.   The rich lose no liberty just by paying more taxes, and the poor need not have equal material outcomes if they have their basic needs protected and an opportunity to succeed.

2 Comments