Archive for December, 2010

New Start

Monday, December 20th, 2010

Compromise is the grease that lubricates the workings of democracy.

The past month, we’ve seen compromise in action.

The President needed to prove that he could lead.  The Republicans wanted to prove that they could do more than just oppose the President.  The Democrats were going to lose a majority in the house and a super majority in the Senate, so they had a number of issues that they wanted to get through before the road became tougher in January. A number of those who lost their seats still had an opportunity to case one last vote to support legislation that was important to them.  A ticking clock is one of the best incentives to getting something done.

The tax deal was the best example.  Republicans got what they wanted, which was an extension of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy.  The President got what he wanted which almost $1B in additional stimulus funding for a struggling economy. 

The Democrats accused the President of selling them out because he took what they perceived as a potent political issue (Republican support of the rich) off the table.  The Republicans were criticized by the right wing media because they fell off the fiscal discipline wagon again.  The left wing media reminded the Democrats that if the President hadn’t made this compromise, the Republicans extended all the tax cuts in January anyway or maybe even make them permanent.  If they did that, they would also have been able to take credit for getting something done which would have taken a different potent political issue off the table for Democrats.  It’s also likely that a Republican tax extension would not have included the generous stimulus funding in this bill.  Finally, the right wing media criticized the Republicans for handing the 2012 election to Obama.

This last point is the most troubling.

When the right wing media says that the prospect of accelerated economic recovery is bad for Republicans, we have reached the point where partisan politics has trumped what is good for the country

First, there is nothing wrong with Republicans working hard to elect a Republican President in 2012.  We’ve jumped the track, however, when a party is willing to put the country at risk in order to score political points.

Unfortunately, we are seeing that play out this week with the debate to ratify the Start Treaty. 

This new treaty is fairly simple.  It extends the previous agreement to slowly dismantle US and Russian nuclear stockpiles.  The original agreement was proposed by Reagan and signed by Bush I. This extension is supported by all past Republican and Democratic secretaries of state as well as all of the current military commanders.

What is at risk if it doesn’t get ratified is our relationship with the Russians and our ability to negotiate future treaties.  The Russians for example are unlikely to come back to the negotiating table if they are unsure about this President’s ability to deliver on his promises.

The Russians are also our primary ally in controlling Iran’s nuclear ambitions.  They are key to the long term stability in Afghanistan.  Ongoing inspection of their nuclear facilities is also vital to preventing any weapons grade materials from falling into the hands of our enemies.  Because the current Treaty has expired, inspections of those facilities have stopped.

You don’t have to go much further than to listen to Senator Graham last Sunday.  He had previously said that he would support the treaty but changed his mind when the Democrats successfully repealed the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” provisions controlling the status of gays in the military.  He declared the current lame duck session of congress as poisoned and blamed the Democrats.

What’s happening now is that Republicans are working hard to defeat this treaty solely because it would be an international embarrassment to this President.  They are threatened by his recent success and his newfound ability to compromise.  They would prefer to continue the narrative that this is failed Presidency because Obama is weak, indecisive, inexperienced, and out of touch.  They won’t be able to do that if he proves that he CAN govern from somewhere between his party and the Republicans.

The Russians have already sent a clear message that any modifications to treaty language will kill the compromise that led to their signature.

The military professionals have also confirmed that this treaty will not weaken the inspection regimen, limit our ability to develop missile defenses, or impact our tactical use of nuclear weapons.  Some Republicans have also suggested that they need more time, but Democrats point out that previous ratification debates took less than the two weeks remaining on the congressional schedule and that Republicans were the ones who originally requested that this debate be delayed until after the fall elections in order to reduce the level or partisan politics that would come into play.

My hope is that the treaty will be ratified and that the American people will continue to keep pressure on all their elected officials to keep the good of the country as their top priority.

Sputniks

Sunday, December 12th, 2010

“Many of the people therefore, when they heard this saying, said, Of a truth this is the Prophet.  Others said, This is the Christ. But some said, Shall Christ come out of Galilee?  Hath not the scripture said, That Christ cometh of the seed of David, and out of the town of Bethlehem, where David was?  So there was a division among the people because of him.”  John 7:40-43

The Jews were divided on whether or not this man Jesus was the Christ that they had been waiting for.  He healed in ways that no one had ever seen.  He stirred such deep feelings in people that some left all they had to follow Him.  Yet, some were so caught up in their own interpretations of scripture that they were unwilling to accept that the Messiah they had been praying for had come.  They would rather deny the truth of what this man said and did than give up their particular ideology.  There were also those in positions of power who felt threatened by ANY Messiah.  They knew that the Messiah was supposed to overturn the current political order, defeat the Romans, and re-establish Israel as an independent and powerful country.  They didn’t want to see that happen because it likely would have turned them out of power too.  Ultimately these were the ones who arranged to kill him.

There is a lot of the same ideologically motivated self-centered short-term thinking going on in this country today.

It wasn’t always like that.

I grew up during the cold war and benefited from the government’s investment in math and science in the 60’s. 

The Russians beat us into space with the Sputnik.  Just like the various healings that Jesus performed, this was clear and undeniable evidence that Russian technology was better than ours.  Their missiles didn’t blow up.  Their missiles were powerful enough to put an object into orbit.  If they could put a satellite into orbit, they might be able to put a nuclear bomb into orbit too. President Eisenhower rallied the country to respond.  The response was the government’s commitment to produce a generation of engineers and scientists who would be the best in the world.

I was able to attend a college prep summer camp for bright math and science high school juniors sponsored by the National Science Administration.  It’s where I met the cute smart girl who eventually became my wife.

I got a scholarship to Northwestern University that wouldn’t have been available to a kid from Omaha, if it weren’t for continued government support of math and science education.

That commitment turned things around in this country.  We beat the Russians to the moon.  We had the largest arms race in history.  We fought a proxy war in Korea and another in Vietnam. 

We also created a generation of tech savvy kids who went on to create the personal computer industry and start the largest industrial revolution since the printing press.

The world situation is not that much different now.

We aren’t engaged in a cold war with a power that has missiles pointed in our direction.  Instead we are engaged in an economic war with emerging East Asian superpowers.  They aren’t threatening us with missiles.  They are overwhelming us with innovation and efficiency.  They are doing a better job of educating their children and as a result, they are beating us in the marketplace of ideas. 

That’s not the only place that they are beating us.  They provide better healthcare.  They live longer.  They invest more in alternative energy.  Their networks are faster.  Their citizens are more connected.  Their economies offer more opportunity.  More than all of that, they have focus on what they are trying to accomplish and how they are going to accomplish it.  The United States used to be where all the smart Asian kids wanted to move because it was the land of opportunity.  Not anymore.  They still come here for college and to learn english.  When they graduate, however, they return home because that’s where the new fortunes are being made.

Now let’s compare that to how our government is spending it’s time.  We are cutting educational budgets at all levels.  College education is fast becoming a luxury that only the rich can afford.  Our graduate schools are filled with foreign students who come here to learn how to beat us at our own game.  We can’t agree on healthcare.  We think our competition is the guy across the street that belongs to a different party, when our real competition is our Asian neighbors.  They are happy to buy our debt, out educate and out work us, and take all of our manufacturing jobs.  They will soon take our engineering and finance jobs too because we are more concerned about prayer, creationism, and sex education in school rather than the quality of our math and science courses.

By any objective measure (feel free to pick), we are falling behind our international competitors.  Worse, we appear powerless to respond because we have allowed our leaders to convince us ideology is more important than our shared values of being the best.

We have created a political environment where it is impossible to speak out about our competitive disadvantage.  Every time the President even hints at the fact that we are not the best in world at something, the right-wing media machine tries to nail him to the wall as being unpatriotic, socialistic, or some sort of Asian Manchurian candidate.  The right wing starts every conversation with an affirmation that America is the greatest country in the world.  Then they go on to chant that the only people who don’t believe it are the liberal elites who only care about tearing this country down.

The papers are filled with diatribes about competing ideologies with no explanation about how these ideologies will improve our international competitiveness.  We are obsessed with illegal immigration while we blissfully ignore the jobs that we export with every purchase at Walmart.  We depend on call centers in India to explain how to use our China-built technology.  We allow our biggest companies to reduce their taxes by putting their profits in other country’s banks.  We squander our wealth by giving tax breaks to folks who don’t need them and fighting dead-end wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. 

The bad news is that the proverbial sputniks are flying over our head every day. 

We ranked 17th in recent world-wide standardized student testing.  The top five were Shanghai, South Korea, Finland, Hong Kong, and Singapore.  They didn’t get there by accident.

We have the most expensive healthcare system in the world, but are only 37th in life expectancy.  Why is this problem so hard for us to solve, when even poor tiny communist Cuba is able to beat us?

We don’t even crack the top ten in broadband internet availability per capita, and this was a technology that we invented.

We aren’t in the top twenty “greenest” countries.  In terms of investment in the new growth field of alternative energy, China leads the world. 

Even in measures of economic freedom where we think we are a world leader, we trail Hong Kong, Singapore, Ireland, and Australia.

We need the Tea Party to start thinking about what truly made this country great, which was our commitment to common purpose and our drive to be the best in all that we do.  They should be holding government accountable for a real return on our investment, rather than labeling all government as evil and all tax revenue as waste.  The Republicans need to engage in helping figure out how to fund our growth rather than cut our deficit.  History has proven that you can’t cut your way to prosperity.  Our competitors certainly understand that.  The huge Chinese stimulus package was focused directly on growing their business exports. The Democrats need to remind themselves what it felt like to have a unified country, quit blaming the Republicans for getting in the way, and start giving the American people a vision and a promise of a future that they can believe in.

Most of all the American people need to accept the fact that we’ve done this to ourselves by focusing on our differences rather than our similarities.  We’ve allowed our politicians to divide us up into warring camps, while our international competitors happily take advantage of us. 

We can reclaim greatness, but only if we are willing to admit that our greatness comes from our ability to overcome our difference.  We do that by celebrating a selfless commitment to the greater good.  That greater good, by definition, must include everyone – not just those that agree with you.  It means that the only progress that counts is progress where everyone gets ahead, not just the wealthy.  It means that everyone is entitled to a piece of the pie as long as they are willing to work for it.  For those who through no fault of their own are unable to work, they get to come along too, because another one of our shared values is that we don’t leave anyone behind.