Tuesday, August 30, 2011

American Exceptionalism

Is America exceptional? Listen to any politician and the answer must be YES! Apparently one of the requirements to run for office is a willingness to say that America is the greatest nation ever, the most wonderful place on earth. Republican contenders for their party’s Presidential nomination have recently been polishing their exceptionalist credentials. Rick Perry’s campaign website says, “Rick Perry will restore confidence in the American Dream and American Exceptionalism.” His campaign book, “Fed Up: Our Fight to Save America from Washington” (2010), proclaims that Americans are “a people blessed by the Almighty”. Mitt Romney writes in “No Apology: The Case for American Greatness” (2010) that the US is “the world’s leading nation”. Hermann Cain is behind in the polls, so he may need even stronger words. In The American Spectator, March 2011, he wrote: “There is no denying it: America is the greatest country in the world.” Then he repeats the sentence a few lines later.

President Obama offered a different view at a press conference in 2009: “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” Perry in “Fed Up” comments sarcastically on this statement, and says, “America is unique in its greatness”. Romney also criticized Obama’s statement in his book, saying it means that Obama doesn’t believe in American exceptionalism at all. For conservatives, only Americans can rightfully be exceptionalists.

Throughout our history, Americans have claimed exceptional status for our country. John Winthrop, the Puritan leader, thought of his version of America as a “City upon a Hill”: the Puritans of New England would serve as a model for the rest of the world. As a conscious creation of settlers from many countries, a new nation with an unprecedented Constitution, the US was a exceptional nation. But what about now?

Last week I happened to be taking 11 international students to the Lincoln Museum in Springfield and thinking about what American exceptionalism might mean to them. I have been trying to explain my homeland to Africans, Asians, and Europeans. The US is very different from their home countries: for example, our farms and cars and houses are enormous compared to what they are used to. In those ways, every country is exceptional, with different languages, customs, history and economy. When does exceptional mean better?

As we might expect, the stronger the statements about America as the greatest nation, the more ignorance or disdain is displayed about the rest of the world. It is much more difficult to proclaim that the US is best after getting to know another country. Living elsewhere confronts you with two uncomfortable truths.

The first is that other people’s ways of doing things might actually be better than our own. The Germans and the Chinese have better train systems. The Dutch and the Scandinavians are far better at teaching languages to school children. Many peoples are more hospitable to strangers and we have the highest per capita rate of murders with firearms of any industrialized country. To say “America is the greatest” begs the question, “At what?”

A second truth is that Obama is right: each people sees their own country and culture as exceptional and exceptionally good. It makes no sense to argue for American exceptionalism with a Nigerian or a Swede. They might agree that our buildings are taller or our per capita income higher, but then ask, “So what?” Any claim that we are better people, more moral or more happy or more just, will provoke an argument without end.

American exceptionalism is dangerous. The desire to proclaim superiority leads to stupidity, such as Perry’s claim in “Fed Up” that the US has “the best health care system in the world.” It leads to attempts to hide any possible flaws, especially the most embarrassing ones, like our violent denial of Constitutional rights to black Americans through most of our history or our enormous prison population. Exceptionalism of the “We are the greatest” variety is an adult form of the elementary school boast, “My father can beat up your father.”

Leaving arrogance and ignorance aside, it is worth thinking about what is exceptional about the US. Our exceptional flaws should provoke us to seek corrections. Our exceptional virtues, such as our ability to challenge authority, our free press, our system of higher education, and our wide variety of good beers, can be sources of pride.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, August 30, 2011

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Libertarians, Watch Out!

Libertarianism is mainstream! It seems as if the libertarian moment has finally arrived, when Americans grasp the significance of the national Libertarian Party motto: “Minimum Government, Maximum Freedom”. The level of anti-government sentiment in the US is startling. Liberals think the Democratic President and his Democratic Congressional colleagues have failed miserably to promote liberal policies, and talk about taking their disapproval to the streets. Republicans have been preaching an anti-government line since Ronald Reagan was President, and have shown more than once their willingness to cripple the normal working of the federal government. Self-promoting ideologues, like Glenn Beck, adopt a libertarian cover to hide fascist ranting. Congressman Ron Paul, who talks like a libertarian, is making a respectable run for the Presidency.

But the Libertarians can’t win. The two big parties have so entrenched themselves behind a wall of laws and practices, that the rise of a popular third party is nearly impossible. Among 7300 state legislators across the country, less than one-third of 1% are from other parties. Only in Vermont has a third party had any success: 3% of state representatives belong to the Vermont Progressive Party, which was founded to support US Senator Bernie Sanders.

Most people who lean libertarian don’t vote Libertarian. Bob Barr, the Libertarian candidate for President in 2008, received less than half of 1% of the votes, although national polls show as many as 20% of voters with libertarian leanings. Like most people who don’t like either big party, they choose the lesser evil, rather than vote for a third-party candidate who can’t win.

So what’s a libertarian to do? The Republican anti-government mantra, including no tax increases on the wealthy, less regulation of industry, less consumer protection, and smaller social programs, seems to look good to those with libertarian leanings. The various groupings that call themselves Tea Parties are not really parties; they explicitly campaign as and for members of the Republican Party. Ron Paul acts like a libertarian, but runs as a Republican. But it would be a big mistake for libertarians to vote Republican.

The Republicans are by far the most dangerous advocates of using government to govern our private lives. George Bush’s administration routinely violated the law by secretly spying on Americans. The whole Republican Party wants to restrict marriage and sex to fit their ideology. If the consensus of scientists or educators doesn’t fit Republicans’ ideological framework, they try to use government to force discredited ideas, like creationism, into public school curricula. Democrats are much less likely to spy on Americans, listen to our phone calls, or tell us whom we can marry. They are, on the other hand, more likely to use government spending to achieve goals of social justice and economic fairness.

Libertarians want to get government off their backs; Republicans only want to get government out of your wallet. The policies that Republican presidential candidates and congressional leaders agree on focus on lowering the amount of funds that flow to government and reducing the influence of government in corporate practices. Minimal government, yes, but not maximum freedom. Does the biggest danger to our freedoms come from government? Today corporations in the “free” marketplace are a much greater danger to our privacy and freedoms. When they start to poke around in Americans’ lives, Republicans are nowhere to be found.

In 2010 Google was forced to admit that its Street View cars, besides taking photographs of the world's roads, had also been snooping into unprotected wireless networks. Apple acknowledged that iPhones and iPads secretly record their users’ movements.

For years, cookies implanted on your computer have been tracking your web browsing. The Wall Street Journal wrote last year that “one of the fastest-growing businesses on the Internet is the business of spying on Internet users.” That article is scary – you can read it by searching for “The Web's New Gold Mine: Your Secrets”. Then last week, the Wall Street Journal reported about “supercookies”: “Major websites such as MSN.com and Hulu.com have been tracking people's online activities using powerful new methods that are almost impossible for computer users to detect.”

So who is going to protect us from the real danger to our freedoms? The corporations who help us stay connected are following our every move. This is exactly where the two parties offer diametrically opposed policies. Republicans attack all government regulations and restrictions on business activity. They want to free big business from public oversight. The Republican dream is a libertarian nightmare – the “free market” is free to watch you all the time. Big Brother isn’t a government camera. It’s a corporate cookie right in your computer.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, August 23, 2011

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Congratulations to the Republicans!

The recent news out of Washington tells of an epic disaster of government. Across the world America looks like a dysfunctional society. But that’s the wrong way to see the collapse of our democracy’s ability to function as a political system. The real story is that a Republican Party strategy initiated decades ago has been crowned with success.

During most of the 20th century, the two parties vied to use American government to promote their differing political philosophies. Democrats were more activist in their domestic policy choices than Republicans, but there was fundamental agreement about the importance of governing.

The Presidencies of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon represent this basic consensus between the parties. Johnson’s Great Society programs to attack the social and economic legacy of discrimination and poverty were an obvious expression of Democratic Party beliefs about the proper role of government. Nixon used government to fight inflation with wage and price controls, to enforce desegregation of Southern schools, and to create the Environmental Protection Agency.

Ronald Reagan’s Presidency demonstrated a major shift in Republican philosophy. In his 1981 Inaugural Address, Reagan said, “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” He specifically targeted the national debt as “out of control”.

During the turbulent 1960s, conservatives had jumped on any American who criticized our government as a traitor: “Love it or leave it.” In the 1980s Republicans began to claim that real patriots should criticize the idea of government itself.

Reagan’s revolution in Republican public ideology was not a significant departure from traditional party policies. He continued the long history of Republican opposition to government regulation of business and to the use of social programs to deal with economic inequality. Under the label of the New Federalism, Reagan appointed administrators who tried to dismantle major government agencies: Anne Gorsuch at the Environmental Protection Agency and James Watt at the Department of the Interior.

The Reagan “revolution” was more verbal than real. Over his presidency, he tripled the national debt, signed the largest corporate tax increase in history, and expanded the number of federal employees by 60,000. But he bequeathed to Republicans a new political mantra that they have been repeating ever since.

Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” led Congressional Republicans to use a shutdown of the federal government in 1995 to try to put their economic policies into effect. Gingrich’s failure did little to change the Republican message. George Bush never tired of repeating how important it was to reduce government, even as he presided over an unprecedented increase in government spending and in our national debt. The elections of 2010 were an remarkable display of Republicans trying to get into government by running against government.

And now in 2011 this Republican strategy has been crowned with total success. They have managed to make the US government into a laughing stock, a global symbol of incompetence. Public confidence in government is at an all-time low, according to Gallup polls.

Republican rhetorical success is American political failure. By attacking government in general without identifying specific programs or policies that are working poorly, Republicans have reduced Americans’ confidence in our collective ability to deal with national problems. All of the current Republican candidates for President repeat the anti-government mantra, but none of them offer any specific discussion of what it would mean to cut particular programs now. That is because every poll shows a majority of Americans in favor of each expensive program – Social Security, Medicare, environmental protection, Head Start.

The Republican anti-government message has confused many Americans, who want to keep the government programs, but also have come to believe that government is the problem. The Republican message has been successful in winning votes, but disastrous for governing. Over the past weeks, stockholders have lost about 3 trillion dollars, our government’s debt has been downgraded, and confidence in government has been further eroded.

No American has been harmed by the size of our national debt, but 45 million Americans need food stamps to eat. No American will have to do without their Social Security checks, but 14 million Americans are unemployed.

So who will solve our problems? The rich, whose wealth Republicans in Congress are desperately trying to protect? The corporations, whom Republicans want to free from public regulation?

Only we the people can solve our problems, and that is why our government was created. Only government represents all the people, collectively deciding what our future will be. With government hobbled, the rich will get richer, corporations will run the marketplace, and we will be “free” to watch from the sidelines.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville, IL

Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, August 16, 2011

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Place Where Family Happens

Springbrook, Wisconsin, Saturday, August 6

Seven kids are playing Fishin’ Time, a children’s board game. I say kids, because they are the age of my daughter, 27, one of the players. Around the table are her boyfriend, her two first cousins who are sisters, one of their boyfriends, another first cousin from another family (my wife has two sisters), and a second cousin.

My sister-in-law and my mother-in-law are creating wild flower arrangements. My brother-in-law (different sister – are you following this?) is in the kitchen, thinking about curry for dinner and the music he will soon play. That sister-in-law is organizing strings of Christmas lights to decorate the party hall. My wife is accomplishing other tasks to prepare for a big celebration tonight of her cousin’s daughter’s recent wedding. Over 50 family members from across the country, Boston to Seattle, have gathered here in remote northwestern Wisconsin for the festivities.

I’m using a loose definition of family here. One pair of sisters are third cousins of third cousins of my children. Another large group is not actually related, except by generations of friendship.

This party demonstrates the real meaning of family – that circle of people who relate to each other through lifetimes of shared experiences. Whenever we gather, stories are told of last year and of decades ago. We want to know the latest news about children’s school and new jobs, and the aches and pains of those who are getting old.

Family is often connected to place, which might be a house or a home town. In our family a collection of cottages on a little lake in Springbrook, Wisconsin, acts like magnet, bringing far-flung people together every year. Some of the amenities are crude, outhouses and outdoor showers. The views are beautiful, but common in this part of the world; the fishing is just fair, although the former world record muskie was caught nearby. What matters is the sense that family always happens here, that small nuclear families suddenly become bigger here, because we all want to gather in the hopes of seeing each other.

With a family this large, happy and sad occasions often overlap. Yesterday we marked the passing of a woman whose kindness had touched generations of relatives near and distant. We heard stories of her youth and her final years. Later we sang “Happy Birthday” to my son who turned 30, ate pies baked by his cousin, and told different stories of his growing up. Tears and laughter over the course of a full day, different kinds of glue holding us together.

He and one of the wedding celebrants are the oldest of their generation in our branch of the family. More weddings will soon follow, then births and babies. Those kids will grow up with unimaginably fast computers, slangy new expressions, and awful new music, but at Springbrook they will find our tattered T-shirts and look at fading photos. A new generation will figure out who they are by memorizing the complex genealogies of intertwined families, by learning who built these houses and is buried in the cemetery, by experiencing the same outdoor pleasures that each young generation discovers anew – swimming in the lake, seeing loons and eagles, running after dogs, playing kick-the-can.

Mainly they will find each other, different in so many ways, but linked by a shared past that they don’t yet understand. Their parents and grandparents knew each other, meeting here every year, because obligation and love brought them together. They will form bonds which will bring them back to this place, not their home, but the home base of their extended family.

Family is not just a sum of people. It’s a continuing chemical reaction among all the molecules, each person evolving through life by observing, copying, listening to, and sometimes even avoiding the others. In this family these reactions are multiplied and stimulated by the crucible of this place.

We say goodbye each year, certain that family and place will keep us together forever.

This is for Carissa and Alex.

Steve Hochstadt
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, August 9, 2011

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Real Crises and Fake Ones

Today the world as we’ve known it might end. At least that’s what we have been told by economists, if Congress did not raise the national debt ceiling. On August 2, the United States will have spent all the money it is allowed to borrow by law, according to the last time the debt limit was raised in 2010. Congress has already passed legislation which promises to spend more money than the government is bringing in through taxes and other sources of revenue. If we can’t borrow more than the current debt limit, some of those promises won’t be kept – to Social Security recipients, to veterans, to contractors, to Medicare doctors, to soldiers. That default on obligations would make any future borrowing much more expensive, would cause banks and credit card companies to raise interest rates that we pay, would cause the stock market to plummet, a financial disaster brought on by Congress itself.

That would be a real crisis, but it is being caused by a fake one. The fake crisis is all the screaming by Republicans about the national debt. Our growing debt is a problem which needs to be controlled, but there is no debt crisis now. There is no reason why the debt limit could not be raised, averting any fiscal repercussions, allowing Congress plenty of time to find long-term solutions to the growing debt. Given the deep gulf between the parties’ conceptions of what government is about, that process needs time and thought.

In any case, the debt problem was caused by the very same politicians who are screaming the loudest now. A useful measure of how much debt we have is the ratio of national debt to our total economy, the gross domestic product (GDP). After peaking during World War II, the ratio of debt to GDP fell steadily until 1981. Since 1981, under a succession of Republican Presidents beginning with Ronald Reagan, the ratio has risen steadily, except while the only Democratic President, Bill Clinton, was in office, when it fell. Our national debt skyrocketed under George W. Bush, who more than doubled the debt, faster growth than ever before. President Obama, who inherited two expensive wars and an economy in deep recession, has added $2.4 trillion to the debt; Bush added $6.1 trillion.

You won’t hear Republicans talking about how their own policies caused our problems. They look everywhere else for people to blame – teachers’ salaries, government employees’ unions, firefighters' pensions. By spending us into a serious debt problem since 2000 and then creating an artificial crisis over raising the debt ceiling, conservatives have distracted public attention from today’s real economic crisis.

Our real crisis doesn’t make headlines because its victims are the most vulnerable, the poorest Americans. Unemployment has been 9% or more for 2 years, the longest since the Great Depression. Since World War II the average time that unemployed people have been out of work never went higher than 20 weeks. Now it is more than 40 weeks. The nearly 10% of the American working population who are unemployed face a daily financial crisis.

Over 40 millions Americans qualify for food stamps, another record. One-quarter of our children are fed with food stamps.

Non-whites have been disproportionately slammed by the recession. The average white household lost 16% of its net worth between 2005 and 2009.The average black household lost more than half of their net worth, and the average Hispanic household lost two-thirds. In 2005 the typical white household had 10 times the wealth of a black family and 7 times that of a Hispanic family. Now the median white household has 20 times their wealth. One-third of Hispanic and black households have no net worth at all.

These numbers represent a national crisis of inequality. Every day it gets worse, and no Republican economic proposal offers the poor anything but cuts to the programs which might keep them afloat. Conservatives insist that the wealth of the wealthiest must be protected from higher taxes, while proposing to cut unemployment benefits, Pell grants for students from poor families, Medicare, and food stamps.

Our economic disaster is not about national debt, but about national poverty. America cannot be a great country, if we do not alleviate the critical economic problems gripping our poorest families. Today’s fake political crisis might be the start of a real American crisis. The politicians have failed. We voters must stand up for our fellow Americans, and for our nation.

Steve Hochstadt
Springbrook, WI
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, August 2, 2011