The state of the political system

Almost time for the president’s State of the Union address—oh boy oh boy oh boy oh boy!

Not really.  I’m feeling that I should watch/listen to the speech just because I like to think that I’m a good citizen, but I don’t expect that what we’ll hear from the House chamber in a few hours will be very uplifting or much of a surprise.

But what if…what if Mr. Obama dropped all political pretense and told us what was really on his mind?  Ezra Klein imagines he might remind us that we’re in a slow but steady economic recovery, although wages need to catch up with inflation and we need to invest in infrastructure; and that although there’s a lot to do, he would predict “The really bad news is we’re not going to do any of it.”

And that’s because even if the state of the union is strong, the state of the political system that governs the country is weak. We have made it weak. You have made it weak. And whether you are a Republican or a Democrat, a liberal or a conservative, you need to know there’s a problem here.

The hard thing I have to say to you tonight is that I was wrong. When I ran for president, I believed that the political system could be repaired by people of goodwill, who genuinely wanted to agree, to reach out, to compromise. I ran for president telling you that the problems in American politics could be fixed through elections. But the problems run deeper than the people serving in Washington at any given moment, and the way all of us in this room are elected is making them worse.

The refrain I hear all around the country is, “why can’t you guys just agree?” It’s the right question. Families balancing their books need to agree on how to spend their money. Businesses trying to make payroll need to agree on which investments to make, which workers to give raises, which costs to cut.

(snip)

In a family, everyone cares for each other, everyone is working towards the same goal, everyone would throw themselves in front of a truck to make sure the others are safe and healthy and happy. A family is built to find agreement.

The government isn’t a business either. It doesn’t work towards a single goal. It can’t judge itself based off stock price or profit margin. And it isn’t built to make decisions or to be held accountable for them. When a company has a disagreement about its direction, there’s someone with the power — an owner, a CEO, a board — to make a decision. A business isn’t built to find agreement the way a family is, but it’s built to force a resolution to disagreements when necessary.

You want to know the truth? Government, or at least the political system, is like a football game.

(snip)

The honest truth is that that’s how politics works, too. We’ve got two teams. And only one of them can win the election. So they line up and they hit each other as hard as they can. They don’t cooperate because the rules don’t let them cooperate. They don’t agree because agreeing means losing — and losing is political death. Losing means you can’t help the people you came here to help.

(snip)

If this was just about policy, we could come to agreement. I promise you we could. When you’re just talking about policy there are lots of ways to make both sides happy. But this isn’t just about policy. It’s about power. It’s about who will win the next election and govern the country. And while policy questions have answers that can make both sides happy, elections only return answers that make one side happy.

(snip)

This is a room of honorable men and women who entered public service for the right reasons. Most of us are still in it for the right reasons. But even if our motivations are noble, the game we’re playing is ugly, and more than it’s ugly, it’s getting dangerous. And that’s because, even though we can’t agree, even though the rules of the game make it career suicide for us to agree, the political system is built to require our agreement. It needs us to do the thing it makes impossible. If we can’t agree, the country often can’t move forward, and sometimes, it will get pushed backward.

Over time, the failures of our political system will eat at the very foundations of our country’s strength: they will weaken our economy, divide our people, and squander our opportunities. They may well lead to an unnecessary and devastating crisis, like a debt-ceiling fight that is not resolved in time and triggers a global financial crisis that leaves the American economy forever diminished.

And here’s the thing. We can’t change the game. Politics has no place for conscientious objectors, either. Only you can change the game. Only you can change the rules. But right now, you’re just punishing the players. In 2008, you elected me and my party. But Washington still didn’t work. So in 2010, you elected the Republicans. And then Washington worked even worse. So in 2012, you gave us Democrats another try. We disappointed you again. In the most recent election, you turned back towards the Republicans. And they’re going to disappoint you again. Because you can’t change the game by changing the players. You can only change the game by changing the rules.

The good news is we’ve changed the rules before. When this country was founded, people who looked like me didn’t even count as a full person. People who looked like Minority Leader Pelosi couldn’t vote. All those senators out in the audience, they were elected by state legislatures rather than ordinary voters. Speaking of those senators, most of the states they’re representing today didn’t exist. Nor did the filibuster, for what it’s worth.

The genius of this country is that it has continuously reinvented itself to handle new challenges, new problems, and new opportunities. The most honest thing I can tell you tonight is that we need to do it again, that you need to do it again. We need a political system as strong as this union, and right now, we don’t have it.

God bless you, and God bless America.

Posted in American Values, Elections, Intellectual Dishonesty, Politics, Rhetoric | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

It’s a good news/bad news Friday

The good news comes from the Supreme Court of the United States, which has decided that it will hear arguments on whether or not same-sex couples have a right to marry. This New York Times story summarizes the cases from Ohio, Tennessee, Michigan and Kentucky that are at the heart of an appeal of a decision from the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit which the High Nine have now agreed to consider.

The court said it will hear two and a half hours of argument, probably in the last week of April. The first 90 minutes will be devoted to the question of whether the Constitution requires states “to license a marriage between two people of the same sex.”

The last hour will concern a question that will be moot if the answer to the The first one is yes: whether states must “recognize a marriage between two people of the same sex when their marriage was lawfully licensed and performed out of state.”

This is very exciting: within just a few months we’ll have a ruling from the country’s highest court on whether same-sex marriage is to be permitted in all 50 states, not just the 36 states and the District of Columbia where it is legal now.

Now, the bad news: the Southern Education Foundation believes that “For the first time in at least 50 years, a majority of U.S. public school students come from low-income families.”  The Washington Post has a good summary of the report.

Half of all public school students in America are poor?  Half?!  (More than half in 21 states; Mississippi at 71% has the highest percentage.)  I find myself surprised by this confirmation of how far the abandonment of our public schools has gone by those who can afford other options.  (Full disclosure: although most of my education was in public schools, I attended and graduated from a private high school.)  A free public education for all was a great example of America’s commitment to a society where everyone has an opportunity to succeed.  We all paid our share for public schools, even those who sent their kids to private school or whose kids had finished school or who never had any kids at all, because it meant a better-educated society and that was a benefit for all of us.

But more and more, people became unhappy with their public school systems.  When the quality of the education declined people got upset that their kids were being cheated out of their futures; in some cases it was court-ordered desegregation that made people unhappy with their public schools.  Many of those who could afford to moved to suburban school districts and took their tax money with them, leaving the city schools with less and less money to spend on teachers and books and buildings.  Which meant even poorer quality education, which prompted more parents to flee, and the cycle continued.

Today people are trying to get voucher laws passed that will in effect allow their school tax money to pay for their kid’s education in private schools, taking even more money out of the system that is the only resort for the poor, the students whose families can’t afford private schools or charter schools or anything other than the old school down the street.

I understand that parents want the best for their children; I get it that despite recent improvements our economy isn’t as strong as it once was and a lot of people don’t have the jobs and income they want and deserve.  Still, I’m saddened at how many people seem to feel that abandoning the greater good for American society—the education of everyone else’s children—is the best way for them to take care of their own.

Posted in American Values, Civil Liberties, Civil Rights, Education, Intellectual Dishonesty, Justice, Politics, Religion | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

#JeSuisCharlie

What happened in Paris this morning?  Well, for starters, it’s not about cartoons:

…this isn’t about Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons, any more than a rape is about what the victim is wearing, or a murder is about where the victim was walking.

What happened today, according to current reports, is that two men went on a killing spree. Their killing spree, like most killing sprees, will have some thin rationale. Even the worst villains believe themselves to be heroes. But in truth, it was unprovoked slaughter. The fault lies with no one but them and their accomplices. Their crime isn’t explained by cartoons or religion. Plenty of people read Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons and managed to avoid responding with mass murder. Plenty of people follow all sorts of religions and somehow get through the day without racking up a body count.

Read Ezra Klein’s essay.  And this one by Joe Randazzo, a former editor of The Onion.

If it turns out that members of Al Qaeda or some other radical “Islamic” sect carried out this attack, the saddest, most profoundly ironic thing about it will have been that the satire worked. It did its job. It so threatened its target, cut so deeply at the truth, that it resorted to the most cowardly, most offensive and despicable form of lashing out.

Satire must always accompany any free society. It is an absolute necessity. Even in the most repressive medieval kingdoms, they understood the need for the court jester, the one soul allowed to tell the truth through laughter. It is, in many ways, the most powerful form of free speech because it is aimed at those in power, or those whose ideas would spread hate. It is the canary in the coalmine, a cultural thermometer, and it always has to push, push, push the boundaries of society to see how much it’s grown.

It’s about freedom—of speech and of religion.  Yes, I know that the people who committed the murders in Paris today probably aren’t Americans with an American’s sense of those freedoms—more the reason why people who do have an American’s sense of freedom should be spreading the message.

Posted in American Values, Religion, Terrorism, Tolerance | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Astros first!

621_craig_biggioHome sick today, but not so sick that I missed news that former Houston Astros’ great Craig Biggio was elected to the Hall of Fame—first player ever wearing my hometown team’s cap to be in the Hall.  Going in with first-time eligibles Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz.

Mind too cloudy to write so I offer my post from Biggio’s first year on the ballot, when I found myself actually caring about Hall of Fame vote results, and another look at a YouTube video poking fun at the Biggio hagiography that passes for news coverage in Houston.

Congratulations, Craig!

Posted in Sports | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

This week’s winner of the Internet

Who was it who said there’s a sucker born every minute: P.T. Barnum?*  Roger Ailes?  Well, whoever it was would love this one:

I saw the story on the net Monday—actually I only saw the headline—

President of Argentina adopts Jewish godson to ‘stop him turning into a werewolf’

—and I thought, c’mon…this is the 21st century, right?  No elected national leader in the modern world is believing this, or even going along with it for the sake of his or her people (unlike national leaders who talk man-to-man to Santa Claus or pardon Thanksgiving turkeys for unspecified crimes).  Of course, it’s not true.

The Guardian took a bit of pleasure in popping this balloon:

Evidently, the chance meeting of a Latin American president with a colourful myth too good to fact-check proved irresistible – confirming as it did any number of stereotypes about erratic behaviour from national leaders in the continent of magical realism.

But according to Argentine historian Daniel Balmaceda, there is no link between the two traditions. “The local myth of the lobizón is not in any way connected to the custom that began over 100 years ago by which every seventh son (or seventh daughter) born in Argentina becomes godchild to the president,” he said.

It seems this tradition was born in 1907 when a couple from Russia asked Argentina’s president to be godfather to their seventh son: “The couple wanted to maintain a custom from Czarist Russia, where the Tsar was said to become godfather to seventh sons, and Argentina’s president accepted.”  The tradition in Argentina became law in 1974 and President Isabel Peron extended the benefit to seventh daughters; it was subsequently granted to non-Catholic children beginning in 2009.  The president’s godchildren receive presidential protection, a gold medal, and a scholarship until their 21st birthday.

It was Mark Twain who said, Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.  Many publishers and editors have been making a good living following his advice since long before the Internet came along, but now we can get the full story in fewer news cycles.  So in that sense we all won the Internet this week!

*(Come to fine out it was not P.T. Barnum, it was someone named David Hannum.  Read the interesting backstory here.)

Posted in Funny, History, Intellectual Dishonesty, Woeful Journalism | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment