Friday, February 19, 2010

Crazy people and airplanes...

The events of the last day are the inevitable byproduct of a maliciously paranoid undercurrent that is sewn into the fabric of the United States. We are a country founded on the principal of mistrust and the violent throwing off of the oppression of the many by the privileged few. Anthony Joseph Stack was deranged and he perverted what is otherwise the noble underpinnings of our country to fit his selfish and self-centered interests. He was not a martyr. He did not die for a noble cause. He is NOT Samuel Adams!

Every year a study is released that rates the happiest countries in the world. Every year the United States scores disproportionately low based on its relative wealth. Every year my other home country, Denmark, scores at the top. Why? Denmark has an oppressive and ├╝ber-progressive tax system that takes a significantly larger bite out of the ass of entrepreneurial minded people (like Stack purported to being). In their piece on the happiness study 60 Minutes interviewed a Danish college student. They asked him why Danes were so happy. His reply was in essence; low expectations. They asked him why he thought Americans are so unhappy relatively speaking. His reply was fascinating and incredibly astute. The American Dream, he replied. Americans have too much faith in this Dream that we will all and are all entitled to wealth, to a car (preferably two), a house that we own, unlimited natural resources (water, gas, electricity), unlimited credit, and unlimited opportunity. The truth is, the Dream is opportunity, not a promise. We view it as a birth right, taken for granted, not something sought through hard work. It lets most of us down, in the end.

In comparison to the United States, there are very few extremely wealthy people in Denmark, taxes are much higher, but also, no one goes without health care, is left destitute if they lose their job. Danes know that their kids, whether raised in a working class family or an upper class family, have access to quality education and the opportunity to go far and find a career that will enable them to raise their kids in relative comfort. This is, I believe, never taken for granted in Denmark.

I digress from the events in Austin, but I think it is all pertinent. Americans value, above all else, individualism! In America the belief is you can go as far as your individual ability can take you. If you falter, though, you’re on your own. In Denmark there is a genuine sense that the collective good is in the best interests of all.

This isn’t to say that Americans are not generous. We open our hearts and wallets when events happen around the world, like with the earthquake in Haiti. But I think American generosity is also rooted in our individualism. We do not believe that it is our government’s job to act out our generosity. We prefer that come from the individual or the micro-group (such as churches or nonprofits).

I have a couple of favorite quotes that both stem from the progressive movement that started in this country during the Great Depression.

The first is from LBJ: “I know that government cannot resolve all problems. It cannot make them happy or bring them spiritual fulfillment. But it can attempt to remedy the public failures which are at the root of so many human ills.” It is amazing how not in touch with the pulse of America this statement is.

The second is from FDR during a signing ceremony for a piece of New Deal legislation, he said: “It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.” President Roosevelt was calling for bold experimentation by government to try to address the social ills of the Great Depression.

LBJ came into politics in large measure because of FDRs populist New Deal. The former quote is certainly from the same spirit as the latter. What is amazing is how the progressive movement was born in this country, pulled us back from the brink and then was strangled to death and blamed for all that ills our country.

Stack hated the Internal Revenue Service. He blamed them for his inability to amass wealth. He blamed big business for getting advantages that he as an individual and small business owner never had access to. The harsh truth for us all is that he isn’t wrong. Deeply troubled? Yes. Unjustified? Yes. But not entirely unfounded. Our government is broken. Only 13% of Americans approve of our Congress. Only 17% trust the government. This is information that flows to the people from the media. I wonder, though, if we don’t approve of Congress, why do so few of us vote? Asking people if they trust the government is a form of manipulative “push” polling. I would have to count myself in the group of the 83% of Americans that doesn’t, to one degree or another, trust the government. I never trust the government. As Congressman Barney Frank said at a town hall meeting; “Don’t trust the government. You’re an American, who ever told you to trust the government.” The better question might be: do you actively distrust the government? I would bet the number would be smaller, though not as much as I might like.

The truth is, our political system is broken. Unfortunately we tar “government” with the sins of our elected officials. Most government employees are just hard working people trying to make a difference. Truly noble! Our politicians are, by and large, scoundrels. Congress is a dysfunctional mess and it really doesn’t matter which Party runs it. When the Republicans are in charge they spend all their time drowning government in Grover Norquist’s bathtub. When Democrats are in charge they spend all their time pulling it out again. Nothing ever gets done.

Some might think that this proves the conservative maxim that small and limited government is better. It absolutely doesn’t prove that. This seesaw approach to government was deliberately designed by conservatives to create that impression in the minds of Americans, and it has worked. Unfortunately for conservatives, it hasn’t helped Republicans much. They are more hated than Democrats and it has created a splinter group on their right fringe. The Tea Party hurts Republicans much more than it hurts Democrats, and if the Democrats survive the midterm election intact it will be in large measure because of the Tea Party.

As my father pointed out to me the other day as I was complaining to him about the Democratic Party, they have always been more a governing coalition of more than one party. That is why it is so hard to control them and get bills passed. To be a Democrat is to accept that our Party includes, liberals, social democrats, fiscal conservatives, hawks and others. Like it or not, Democrats have decided that it is better to have Barney Frank and Ben Nelson seeking compromise together than have multiple parties pushed aside by the lock step Republicans.

Now we see the solid coalition in the GOP is fracturing too. I think ultimately the GOP will end up as a party of the Center-Right, but I wouldn’t bet against them veering too the right.

Either way, until we find a way to grow together regardless of ideology and all believe that we are one community, one society full of diversity; the Stacks of the world will regrettably always exist.