Friday, May 26, 2006

Can Anything Be Done About it?

Several respondents to my previous pessimistic blog about the state of our country that is in the hands of rich, powerful interests who get their way to the detriment of justice, the general welfare, and world peace challenged me to suggest something positive that could be done. Fair enough!

The realistic answer is that in the short run there is not much we can do that will fundamentally matter. The system is too rigged in favor of the prevailing powers. The background preconditions for radical change do not exist:

(1) deep and fundamental dissatisfaction felt by the masses of people accompanied by aggressive anger and desire for change,

(2)a clear sense of what is wrong and of what and who is responsible for the calamity,

(3)the presence of an available alternative consisting of a transforming vision communicated by able charismatic leaders with organizational skills and with a positive program containing major goals and specific means to achieve them.

We will not see fundamental change of the sort that is required in the absence of a major crisis like that of the great depression that took us from Coolidge and Hoover to Roosevelt in less than a decade. This crisis will create the possibility of a revitalized democracy and economic order that serves all the people. But it will also create the possibility of a fascism based on blood and soil led by demagogues who can identify the evil sources of our troubles internally and externally which must be destroyed. Oh, probably a third way will have us muddling through so that the outcome is not much better, just led by different villains.

In the meantime, we can hope for modest progress around the edges and some incremental gains that will indeed make things better for many and even for us all in some respects. These gains can be of great importance and should not be underestimated or demeaned. This is where the churches and humanitarian organizations fit in. I have worked in both, and positive changes at the margins was all we accomplished at best or even attempted. Churches whose membership include the dominant classes in the culture will not foment revolution -- and that includes Roman Catholics and most Protestants. Zip code is the primary clue to social outlook not church membership. If you find a factor that points to religion, e. g., that most active church people were the ones who voted heavily for Bush, then look for the socio-economic-cultural makeup of those congregations.

The Democratic Party is the best hope for modest improvements, but it is a pitifully weak instrument of justice. The present leadership is anything but inspiring, e. g., Howard Dean. The DP is too beholden to big money and powerful lobby groups, just like the Republicans are. The DP is dominated by a variety of interest groups, each with its own agenda that it singlemindedly presses. The DP has lost touch with many ordinary working-class Americans and average citizens who rightly suspect the party of Roosevelt, Truman, and Johnson is rife with cultural elitism epitomized by that man of the people, that down to earth Joe SixPack, John Kerry and his French wines and windsurfing. The DP is too beholden to the Israeli lobby to offer hope for Middle East Peace. I give you Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton, and Harry Reid, among many others, who vote the Israeli lobby line as examples. Check it out.

When the Democratic Party championed civil right, and the feminist and gay rights movement along with abortion, gun control, etc. -- God bless them for it, it lost contact with many white working class folks, especially males, and conservative religious people, who, since they were doing well enough economically and many prospering, decided to vote their cultural values rather than their narrow economic interests. Democrats have not found a way to get them back without alienating major parts of its base. So Republicans have taken over. Still the DP is the best we have.

This is enough for now. I invite comments, alternatives, refutations, screams of protest, and bouquets of roses (I like the really red ones.)

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Maldistributed Power and Impossible Justice

We cannot achieve the common good with costs and benefits equitably distributed for many reasons -- lack of leadership and vision, defects in our democratic processes, ignorance, inertia, apathy, and the like. But a major factor lies in the fact that the realities of power and the requirements of justice do not always coincide. Where there is political power unchecked, it will be used to achieve selfish, limited ends that offend justice and thwart the general welfare. It is part of the phenomenon of original sin -- without which we cannot understand what goes on in this world.

Groups with effective power, money, organization, and intense commitment can often get what they want but that justice and the larger good forbid. The intense commitment is very important here. The majority that could prevent this domination are either apathetic, ignorant, or not deeply enough disturbed or lack the required organization and leadership. With potential opposition diluted, the strong, the aggressive, the wealthy, and the well organized get their way all too often. Some examples, please.

We cannot have a reasonable policy toward Cuba because of the power of fanatical anti-Castro Cubans in Florida who hold an effective balance of power in a state that both Democrats and Republicans desperately need in a presidential year. Both countries are thereby harmed.

We have a policy highly favorable to Israel and detrimental to Palestinians because of the effective power of the Israeli lobbies aided by right-wing evangelical Protestants with a peculiar and dangerous view of Scripture. Justice is offended, peace is made less likely, Arab and Muslim hostility to America is increased. The possibility of terrorism and opposition to American interests is enhanced

We cannot have a sane energy policy because of the power of the big oil and automobile companies and others. Thus we neglect alternative energy sources, drive needlessly inefficient vehicles that waste gas, contribute excessively to global warming, and otherwise put our future in jeopardy.

We have needlessly expensive drugs that are not as safe as they could be because of the power of the big pharmaceutical companies in influencing legislation and the FDA to suit their narrow ends rather than the common good.

We cannot have a rational policy on gun control because of the power of the National Rifle Association with its members, money, and fanatical outlook.

We have a terrible prescription drug policy for seniors because of the power of the drug companies and the insurance companies. Note that they were able to prevent Medicare from negotiating with drug companies for lower prices -- a shameful offense against tax payers and common sense.

We cannot have universal health care because of the power of the insurance companies and drug companies. A one-payer plan that universalizes Medicare would be more efficient, less costly, and produce better care.

We cannot find a middle way on abortion because two opposing sides take absolute positions and refuse to compromise, and they are sufficiently well organized and funded to prevent an outcome that would end the stalemate.

We cannot control urban sprawl, air pollution, long commutes, and the like partly because of the power of real estate developers and highway contractors aided by the inordinate love of the automobile and the desire to escape the city. Little that is effective is done until the air is too polluted to breathe, and long commutes and traffic jams become utterly intolerable.

We cannot have a healthy agricultural policy because of the power of giant agribusinesses and the farm lobby and farm-state legislators. Hugh subsidies are paid to rice, corn, wheat, and other growers that enable the big agribusiness corporations to flood other countries with cheap products and devastate their farmers. One rice cooperative (Riceland Foods Inc., Stuttgart, AR) was paid more than $500,000,000, I. e., more than a half billion dollars, between 1995-2004). Much of this subsidy money goes not to modest family farmers but to the wealthy. Charles Schwab of the investment group and his family received $564,000 in federal price supports for rice in 2000. The man is reputedly worth more than four billion dollars.

We have a miserable fiscal policy that produces massive tax cuts that go mainly to those at the top, especially those at the very top, that produces an enormous deficit that future generations must deal with, and that reduce revenues that could be used to benefit the middle and lower income classes. All this is rationalized by a dubious ideology that such policies increase investment and ultimately benefit us all, as if more equitable alternatives were not available that would be equally or more efficacious. The intense commitment of a powerful few prevails over average citizens who either ignore or passively acquiesce in this arrangement and others that result in a redistribution of income and wealth and income to those at the top at the expense of those at the lower middle and bottom. Sometimes this travesty is tolerated by non-affluent voters who are getting other gains, e. g., support of conservative values, from those in power more important to them and not intolerably offensive to or even in agreement with their own ideologies and values.

Perhaps this is sufficient to make the point. Groups deeply committed to causes and interests organize and add dollars to their passion in ways that elect and control those who will serve their interests. They pay close attention to every development that affects their concerns and exert pressure and money immediately in carefully chosen ways to maximum benefits. Meanwhile, the mass of citizens let it happen by their ignorance and apathy, by not being directly affected in ways that arouse their anger and swing their votes. The political system is rigged against effective opposition from people and parties that would upset these nice arrangements.

Beyond that gerrymandering of election districts, the power of incumbency, and other defects in the democratic process either aid or cannot prevent the domination of the government by narrow interests with the organization and money to get their way. Thus justice is not done, and the few benefit at the expense of the many, and, as always, the rich prosper, and the poor are neglected.

Even if we had a perfectly functioning democracy in which each person and group had power and means sufficient to protect their interests but not enough to oppress others, we would still have to deal with the values of the citizenry that may tilt the nation toward policies repressive of minorities and the poor and that are detrimental to the full flowering of freedom, equality, and the welfare of all.

As a white Baptist, I am particularly dismayed that the majority of white Protestants have a history in recent decades of voting for the Republican candidate for President, election after election. If you want to know the political, social, and cultural outlook of Christians, ask first about their zip codes not about how passionate they are about Jesus. I will quit now before I get even more depressed.