Saturday, October 31, 2015

The Debate over the Role of Government

One serious difference between progressives and conservatives is their estimate of the value of government interventions. In conservative theory, government has only one function and that is to secure the liberties given to us in the Constitution. Any other government action is illegitimate and should be ended.
The view of the role of government at the other end of the political spectrum is much more generous. Progressives tend to look to the government to equalize life chances in our society. Its role includes passing legislation to promote equality of opportunity and to guarantee, as far as possible, a productive and happy life to all citizens .

But in pursuit of equality of opportunity, the government often gets involved in programs that do not benefit the intended beneficiaries and instead puts money in the pocket of shady operators.

A recent example of that is a government program that provides significant financial support for persons who want to study law. The government is prepared to give substantial loans to law students. The goal of this program is obviously to enable people with limited financial resources to train for and enter a lucrative and respected profession, the law.

Unfortunately this program didnot meet its goals but instead saddled many people with very large debts without opening a legal career to them. Here is what happened. Once the loan fund was available many law schools, especially for-profit law schools but not they alone, raised their tuition. Thus people who attend law school with the help of the government loan fund may end up owing more than $150,000.

The schools not only raised their fee but also lowered their admissions criteria in order to take in more tuition money. As a consequence the supply of lawyers increased while the demand for lawyers remained the same. At the same time there were more lawyers who lacked the ability to pass the rather demanding examinations one needs to pass in order to be allowed to practice law. More and more law students, saddled with a large debt, failed their bar exams and thus could not practice law. The money they spent on tuition, not to mention the interest on their loans, was wasted.

This attempt to to equalize the opportunity for entering the legal profession is a complete failure. It damaged the lives of those it hoped to help and instead put money into the pockets of unscrupulous law schools.

Cases like this one bolster the conservative outlook. In attacking government activities designed to increase equality of opportunity – affirmative action in education and hiring are the most notorious examples of that – conservatives point to cases like the law school tuition loan program to prove that such programs do not work but, instead, do tremendous damage.

It is not difficult to find many other cases where government, especially the federal government, has tried to improve life for American citizens but has failed. The "No Child Left Behind" Act is one well-known example of that. The constant testing of students has not been nearly as beneficial as originally expected.

But it is important to remember that not all government programs fail. One of the earliest government moves to reduce racial injustices was made by Pres. Truman in 1946 with the integration of the armed forces. Separate military units for whites and for African-American were abolished. Soldiers,  regardless of their origins or the color of their skin, now served together. In the 1950s began the efforts to integrate schools, a program that encountered many difficulties and failures but has made a significant difference. So has government insistence that citizenship rights, such as voting or holding public office, are owed to all Americans not only to whites.

There are much more established government functions which are usually overlooked in these the debates. Since medieval times governments have tried to make sure that coinage and money were trustworthy. They have supervised scales and measures to make sure that consumers were not cheated by unscrupulous grocers or butchers. Consumer protection has been a government function that everyone, except some business people, have supported wholeheartedly. We have always believed that the government, that is local government, should be in charge of the education of our children. Private schools are understood to be tools for stratifying our society by promoting inequality.

    We seem to be caught between two alternatives neither of which is fully satisfactory. We can devise government programs to to help our fellow citizens who are suffering. The price we pay for that are other government programs that do more harm than good. Or we can resist all government programs and leave the poor or those challenged by undeserved adversity to their own, inadequate devices.

    But these are, of course, not our only options. In many, not in all, situations the choice is not between having government programs and not having them. There is always the third possibility of communities rallying and providing assistance by their own efforts to those who need it.

    One familiar example of that are schools. In some communities citizens do not merely hand over their tax money to the school board and then let them do whatever seems best to them. Instead citizens remain actively involved in running the schools to provide the education they want for their children. Active citizen supervision makes the schools better along the lines desired by citizens.

    Many observers see a dilemma between an activist government that often fails and a conservative government that fails its needy citizens. But that dilemma exists only as long as we are unwilling to be active citizens in our own communities and help provide the services that we want for everyone. Schools are one example. So are food banks, clothing depositories, shelters for the homeless, refuges for battered women, and rape crisis centers. These are often provided by local efforts, largely financed by local contributions and staff, in part, by local volunteers.

    Citizens who are willing to give of their own time and share their own resources can do much to provide good services that a community needs without relying on the work of often inept government bureaucrats.

    Activist citizens may improve government services by supervising particular programs and raising questions about ineffective or damaging ones. The questions about the law school tuition loan programs, for instance, were  raised in an editorial in the New York Times (

    Citizen prepared to be active either in their communities or in keeping a close eye on government programs  are essential to a proper functioning of our social-political system. Both the endless complaints about government inefficiency or the kneejerk call for more government programs to solve new problems come from citizens unwilling to play their proper role as activists in their community and in the nation.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Lies that Kill

     Osama bin Laden at one time lived in Kandahar, Afghanistan. When he moved to Pakistan he left behind a collection of 1500 audiotapes which by a circuitous route came into the hands of CNN.

    Among these tapes was the entire speech from which American journalists extracted what has come to be known as the "Declaration of War against the United States" speech. A journalist by the name of Flagg Miller, who speaks Arabic, has listened to the entire speech and in his judgment calling it a declaration of war against the United States is a complete misrepresentation. According to Miller the main targets of criticism in that speech are authoritarian Muslim regimes. (https://news.vice. com/article/what-i-learned-about-al-qaeda-from-analyzing-the-bin-laden-tapes)

    Obviously that puts the conflict in the Middle East in a very different light. What has been presented to us an enemy of the US, Al Qaeda was, at least originally, a much more complex and disunited movement. We have spent the last 15 years making sure that we would become the main enemy of dissident Muslim movements like Al Qaeda.

    This reminds us once again that the political system we live under has ceased being a democracy. In a democracy the citizens at large have, at least, an important voice in setting government policy. But if the opinions and judgments of citizens are manipulated by making them believe, for instance, that they are in danger, when in fact they are not, they no longer are the independent rulers of their country but are no more than pawns in a high-level power game that few understand.

    Many Americans believed that Al Qaeda was dedicated to only one goal, the destruction of America. That seemed to justify the expense in life and in money we suffered in Iraq and Afghanistan. But now it turns out those stories were made up. The situation is and was much more complex as were the conflicts in which, at first, we were at the margins and the enemies were Muslim dictatorships.

    Al Qaeda was not the threat we were told it was. Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction. Our country has spent excessive amount of money which was needed at home, on killing and destroying in faraway places. The decision to do that was not made by well-informed citizens but by voters manipulated by journalists and politicians, for reasons of their own – reasons that are often still opaque.

    The attack of 9/11 and its aftermath of manipulating public opinion into two wars which we lost, have indeed dimmed the reputation of the United States.. But the authors of this loss were not primarily Arab conspirators but manipulators of the news in the United States itself.

    It is really alarming to realize that. Our enemies are not overseas. They are not the youngsters at the margins of American society who dream of glory fighting with ISIS. Our main enemies are the manipulators of news, the manipulators of congressional actions, the public relations experts who misrepresent to us the world in which we live.

    These hidden enemies are assisted, often unwittingly, by local politicians, by high school history teachers, by notables who give commencement addresses, and others who pass on the misrepresentations foisted on us by the media and the people who own and run them.

    The upcoming generation grows up misinformed about their, and our, world. When young people talk about the 1960s, they know about the "hippies" but know little about the antiwar movement. They know about Martin Luther King but do not know the cruel and, at the same time, inspiring history of centuries of black resistance. The relative changes in the position of African-American is presented to them as the action of benign government that passed civil-rights legislation after Dr. King addressed a large crowd on the Mall in Washington

    Anyone who suggests that there is a group of people manipulating government policy by manipulating the information voters get, is likely to get accused of being paranoid, i.e. crazy.

    Were I to say that there was a secret cabal of powerful people who run everything, that accusation might be deserved. But of course the situation is much more complex. We were manipulated into two devastating wars – devastating for us, and even more devastating for the people in the Middle East – by a group of warmongers, with macho fantasies about US military power and glory, with an important side interest in controlling Middle East oil.
 The mythology about capitalism and the free market system is obviously perpetrated by a different group consisting of businesses large and small that receive government subsidies but want to resist regulation. These myths have tended, at times, to produce a workforce that will,  without complaint, accept layoffs in the interest of stockholder dividends. They have tended, at times, to produce a working class that does not get rewarded appropriately for its efforts but accepts that by blaming itself for not having more education.

    The mythology that global warming is the invention of scientists greedy for research grants is pushed by different groups again.

    The perpetuation of racism must be blamed, in part, on media who sell more copy "if it bleeds." Stories about addiction, drug dealing, gangs are preferred. Stories about decrepit schools, unjust treatment by social workers and police, of being taken advantage of by landlords – those stories are not heard very often.   

      If the people are fed many mythologies about their own country, they are not in a position to rule. What we call democracy is no more than an elaborate charade. The strings are being pulled by those who manufactured the information that most people get. The misrepresentation of Osama bin Laden’s "Declaration of War against the United States" is just one horrifying example of that.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Participatory budgeting

With the presidential campaign front and center and money flowing like manna from heaven the, question of democracy – what it is and whether we can still claim to live in a democratic country – is coming to the fore again.

In these discussions about democracy, descriptions of alternative mechanisms for ordinary citizens to express their thoughts and desires allows considerable interest.

One of the favorite examples of alternative institutions that have made a genuine political difference is the participatory budgeting process in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Here neighborhoods – especially poor neighborhoods--  come together to discuss their needs, to decide what everyone would like to have financed in the coming year. These groups then choose representatives who will meet with representatives from other neighborhoods to determine portions of the coming year's city budget. Once the neighborhood representatives have agreed on a plan, they need to persuade city administrators to adopt the budget as they have formulated it.

Serious issues are decided by the neighborhoods and significant amounts of investment funds are involved. For instance, in one year some people wanted to establish a neighborhood health clinic because at the present time healthcare was only available at a fair distance and not easily accessible to pregnant women, or women with several small children. But there was an alternative project to build a pedestrian overpass at a very busy intersection where four people have been killed in traffic during the previous year. After a good deal of discussion, the representative groups decided that the health clinic was more important and apportionment investment funds to establish it.

Instead of the bureaucrats and technicians in City Hall deciding what the neighborhood needed, citizens of the neighborhood itself determine what fourth most important to them.

It is easy to see that this participatory budgeting project does add a new dimension to the previously existing electoral democracy. The question of what people need in a particular part of town is not decided by representatives chosen to represent citizens with respect to all topics, but is decided by people chosen specifically to advocate for a definite, clearly specified project. The decision of what to build in the next year is made by the people who live in the area not in some centralized city government office.

Participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre has become well-known and is widely regarded as an important model for democratic procedures, at least among liberals and progressives. There are also a number of cities in the United States that practice something they call "participatory budgeting."

One example is participatory budgeting in New York City. The city has a budget of $77 billion. Of those, $30 million are assigned to community decision-making about the budget. That comes to roughly 1/3 of 1% of the total budget "'New York City's participatory budgeting process is a model for empowered, community-based decision-making across the country and around the world, and the City Council is proud to do its part to strengthen and innovate democracy' said New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito."

Is that an accurate assessment of New York City's participatory budgeting, or is it propaganda?

In Porto Alegre, citizens in a specific neighborhood choose a favorite project. They then elect a representative whose job it is to consult with representatives from other neighborhoods to select what seems to all the best project. Together these representatives decide what the chief projects should be for that year and go to City Hall to persuade the City Council to adopt their priority. The extent to which neighborhoods have a real voice in budgeting depends on the Mayor and the City Council. Participatory budgeting exists due to a group of voters deliberating together and the officials in the city government respecting those decisions.

In New York City, the process is firmly controlled by the City Counselors. They solicit suggestions and once a list of proposal has been established, citizens vote on the list and choose the proposal to be funded. What is called "participatory budgeting" is more like soliciting suggestions from citizens about very specific and narrowly circumscribed questions that always rather peripheral, limited to schools, libraries, parks.

The project involves such items as carts on which to store computers in schools, or and upgrading of the security system in the public library.

There are two ways of considering these North American projects. One can applaud them because they add another mechanism for democratic control of government by ordinary citizens. But one might also take a more negative view according to which this is a deceptive undertaking which does not, as claimed, "empower" citizens because the traditional distribution of power is unchanged except for one third of 1% of the total budget of the City of New York. Compared to the problems New York City faces in its schools and neighborhoods with poverty, addiction, crimes committed by citizens and by police, the decision to buy computer carts for the local school does not seem to me to empower citizens to participate in running their city.

The language of "participatory budgeting" and "citizen empowerment" is being misused to deceive citizens about the poverty of their democracy.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Reasonable concern about domestic security? Islamophobia?

The comment by a presidential candidate that he would not allow a Muslim to run for president, has raised an interesting controversy. Shall we say that this candidate has reasonable concerns about our domestic security and the maintenance of our Constitution and political system? Or shall we say that his statement was a clear example of  Islamophobia? Or, to speak plainly, a clear example of racism?

Those who agree with the presidential candidate point to what they see as the unwillingness of Muslims in the US to assimilate. Many Muslims maintain their native language, many Muslim women cover their heads, among Muslims gender roles are different from what they are in other parts of America.

But none of those differentiates Muslims in America from other groups. Most immigrants hold on to their native languages, sometimes because their English is not so good and sometimes because their language of origin is dear and beloved. Religious Jews will cover their heads but are not, for that reason, accused of unwillingness to assimilate. Women hailing from India often wear saris but no one thinks that politicians, whose families immigrated from India, are therefore not qualified for holding public office. Bobby Jindal, governor of Lousiana, is actually at the moment running for president.

Distrust of Muslims is also often justified by saying that they want to impose sharia law on everyone in the United States. But again, think of all the others groups, that we regard as good Americans, whose religion imposes on them specific rules that are quite different from those of mainstream America. Think, for instance, of the dietary laws followed by orthodox Jews. Think about the rules promulgated by the Catholic Church about families, divorce, reproduction, the role of women in the family.

Here we have two examples of reasons given to justify special treatment of Muslims. But these reasons would also demand that other religious groups such as Jews and Catholics should be excluded from being candidates for political office. But the same reasons are not used to exclude Jews and Catholics.

It is currently customary to call these prejudiced attitudes “Islamophobia.” That has a clean, clinical sound to it like “acrophobia” (fear of heights) or “agoraphobia” (fear of open spaces). Such fears may be irrational but should be treated more like a disease than a moral failure.

But it is clear that excluding Muslims from our democracy is not merely irrational, but is utterly reprehensible like any other example of racism.