Political Debates 3- In which it gets longer (She said):

I think you slightly concede the original point when you recognize the state as the balance to the individual. The state is the institution by which the collective makes decisions, but prior to ‘state’ there is still collective. The modern state is the specific institution we have chosen to expedite the decision-making and execution process, but the balance, at a philosophical/ ideological level remains individual and group.

In many ways, the tipping that you refer to, and the expansion of the government, is specifically because individuals feel it is acceptable to attempt to subvert the government (i.e. the agent/ institution of the collective) to benefit their individual wants. There is no personal motivation for an individual to contain themselves against others. I talked to a guy in politics who says he spends most of him time attempting to stop the government passing bills that individuals want sponsored to solve a specific personal problem. When an institution that needs to govern such a large body politic is being used (or is attempted to be used) regularly as a vehicle for personal advancement it seems somewhat self-evident that any kind of functionality will be necessarily reduced.

Although rights travel with individuals it is also incumbent on them to exercise those rights with responsibility and to consider the larger social order when making decisions about how they comport themselves when in the public sphere. I would actually argue that bureaucracy expands precisely because without a social fabric organizing the collective other means emerge to reduce anarchy and chaos and allow people to live in high levels of population density without going postal on a regular basis.

I think that actually is part of the explanatory principle behind your example- in order to ‘reduce conflict’ (put in that way because it doesn’t actually accomplish that in the slightest) governments have attempted to reduce the potential friction points by mandating every minute detail and then making those who govern argue about whether or not each individual act meets the statutes enshrined in law. I would completely agree that it doesn’t make sense, and that the increasing level of conflict is inevitable when predicated on that system. As well, the increasing numbers of details mean that those who govern are able to spend less and less time deciding principles and higher-order issues and more and more time spiraling down into municipal planting hell. (I could make some argument about the connection of the trees to the environmental impact and offsets, but I think that is tangential and time wasting so I’m going to refrain!)

Think about the most recent CEB work actually, the world is too variable to mandate specific process and actions, instead it is incumbent on leaders to set a vision and guardrails within which each individual attempts to reach that goal in the best way they see fit. The difficult in applying this to our current political situation is that we have lost any concept of a shared vision. My fear/ issue with resting too much power with the individual (through reduction of discourse to rights and more specifically individual rights ala Locke) is that when the balance tips too far that direction we lose any semblance or possibility of finding or establishing any kind of shared vision. If we had less people in the world, and lived in less highly dense areas that might work as a proposition, but we don’t. We must find a way to negotiate with those around us and that has to start from some kind of shared hope or expectation that can allow us a guiding principle. For almost 500 years we have been able to rely on systems of governance that reduce variability and contain the chaos around us, largely by pushing specific groups out, and building on their disenfranchisement and deprivation. Unfortunately for that paradigm we have hit several kinds of limits at once and that ideology is inadequate to address the individual and collective challenges with which we are faced. Instead of attempting to control external chaos so the individual can live largely in peace I think one of the new challenges of our time is to teach individuals to personally address the chaos that comes at them so they can deal more deliberately in their choices.

Totally agree with your entire paragraph about big government. Completely. (including the last sentence J)

I think the next time we are in the same place we should sit down and talk about the inequality bit. I’ll go find and read the book and you can elucidate that argument a little more clearly J

I see the possibility you point out about exposing fraud, but at the same time, non sequitur numbers, out of context, are easily misunderstood. Having been involved in academic research I am the first to admit that there is a lot of schlock that should never be paid for (again, because individuals want to be academics and want someone else to pay for it without thinking about the broader applications of the work they do) but I have also seen brilliance in unexpected places, spurred by connections and cross-over that to the uninformed would be easy to point to as ‘waste’ but has moved forward lines of inquiry/ analysis/ innovation that does have real value. Secondly, it is a little too easy for us to label as ‘useless’ funds paid for things we don’t agree with when, again, it may have universal value, or value to a group within society that is deserving of whatever benefit that patronage might provide but without specific context it becomes a waste or a joke instead.

I would be interested to hear your take on how we hope to get some kind of functionality as a state with huge numbers of individuals all competing against each other, with little shared  vision and even less goodwill to work together. How do we get to a point where it is possible to have some kind of public discourse around both principles and tactics and what the mechanism for execution looks like while attempting to reduce the apathy that bureaucracy instills both within those who are a part of it (read civil servants) and those who have to deal with it (all the rest of us poor schmucks)?

Still believing in some kind of greater good…

Political debates: 2- He said:

First, as soon as we start ‘balancing’ freedom of individuals with anything else, we’re already coming untethered. The only ‘balance’ there should be is the one the Constitution strikes between the individual and the state – a balance which has inexorably tilted toward the state since the founding, and accelerated with the expansion of the administrate state/bureaucracy. Second, the ‘collective’ has no rights. Rights travel with individuals. Individuals may choose to exercise those rights as part of a group (e.g. free speech by a protest march, owning private property with an investment team) but the rights are tied not to the collective but the individuals thereof (hence why I and many conservatives believe Citizens United was properly decided).

Anyway – I’ve been trying out the following argument on my socialist (truly) uncle to no avail, but let me see if it works on someone I consider much more rational. The reason we argue so divisively over politics, fight tooth and nail for every inch of our ideology, and most often fail to compromise is that the state impacts so much of our day-to-day lives. Government at all levels is so large and so expansive that we have to fight there, for fear of losing any semblance of the individual. For example – I sit on my county’s Board of Adjustment. We literally have ordinances that prescribe the size, number, and spacing of trees/brush/plantings that must encircle each type of commercial building. We spent an hour at our last meeting arguing if the current level of forestation on a piece of private property was sufficient to meet the statute for building a self-storage facility. And this is at the county level – let alone the state or federal level. When government starts to prescribe something as minute as the trees on my property, you’re damn sure I’m going to argue like hell when they try to mandate what gets included in my health insurance plan (something of infinitely greater importance to my overall wellbeing).

And when government gets so big – particularly at the federal level – you know who wins? Other big things – big business, big labor, big lobbying, etc. This to me is the overarching argument for smaller government at all levels. And you know why politicians of both parties don’t want that? As Instapundit blogger Glenn Reynolds is fond of saying – insufficient opportunities for graft. Smaller government – even with a decent safety net – would greatly increase the odds of compromise because no longer would we be talking about things that strike to the very core of our individuality. We’d be back to talking about whether there should be a tariff on Chinese goods, for lack of a better example. If you want politicians to get out of the pockets of ‘big’ things, you need to reshape the incentive structure – and so long as ‘big’ always wins (because they have the time/money/resources to actually figure out how government actually works), there will be no incentive to trim it down. And the thing that is mind-boggling to me about poorer Democrat voters is that they are getting royally f**ked by the upper class of their party who are the very elite who create the system that keeps them poor and dependent. [Yes, that last sentence was a bit of a gratuitous cheap shot, but you get my drift.]

+1 on getting rid of gerrymandering. I’d do away with it in a heartbeat. Draw horizontal and vertical lines across each state. We’d see partisanship go down in a New York minute.

On the inequality bit – I wish Democrats would admit they want equality of outcomes. Don’t be coy about it – out with it. Let’s have an honest debate. I’d love to know what a liberal’s ideal top tax rate is. What percentage of total taxes should the top 1% pay? Top 5%? Top 20%? When will we have enough? Here’s the thing that makes me die inside though – and what tells me that today’s liberals don’t actually care about raising people out of poverty – we know certain behaviors greatly increase the likelihood of being a middle class family and yet liberals outright REFUSE to facilitate policies that would incent those behaviors. Please read Charles Murray’s book Coming Apart – fantastic illustration of this. We KNOW that waiting until you’re married to have kids is a quote-unquote good thing. We KNOW that finishing high school is a similar good thing (but no, it must be in a public school taught by a unionized teacher, wah wah). And yet – nothing.

Lastly (for now) – pulling out random numbers is exactly how you expose the fraud of government spending. No one will fix the abomination that is Medicare fraud until you point out instead of giving quality healthcare to Grandma, government is busy researching whether rhesus monkeys respond to phallic symbols on the second Thursday of the month.

Yours in smaller government and a freer civil society,

Political debates: 1- She said:

Although I lean left, and I voted for Obama with lots of hope, I in no way blindly support his policies or rhetoric. There are a lot of flaws in him and his administration and I freely admit that, but I think most of that debate is a smokescreen. I think it is about both sides avoiding things we don’t want to talk about- because it makes us look bad, or because we are afraid there is no possibility of reconciliation. Who knows? Debating over whether he or his administration is at fault for a fatally flawed system ignores the greater point that most politically minded (young) people need to address which is

a)       How do we come to consensus on the things we can agree on (as an ideological basis for future policies) and

b)      How do we begin to tactically execute on those priorities in a way that balances freedom of individuals, some kind of safety net for those we deem to be unable to provide for themselves and deserving of some social support to enable them some dignity and the rights/ needs of the collective?

Politics has become so divisive- about how to beat the other guy, prove people wrong, take things away from one group so we can give it to another. But the reality is that we are all here together, and we do have issues that face us all and are better solved by finding common ground and then common solutions. There are collective action problems that must be solved together, and problems that when solved together are more likely to have positive and longer term solutions. At the same time it is unproductive (at best) to deny the individual as much power and responsibility for their own actions as feasible within a highly dense social population.

Both parties are now in bed with special interest groups in such a way that governance is almost impossible. It used to be that government was able to play mediator between factions within society who rightly or wrongly believed their interests to be mutually exclusive to other factions. At times government was able to help those groups find a common ground, and when they couldn’t both sides trusted them to arbitrate fairly for the best interests for society. Between campaign contributions and gerrymandering we have pretty well f*ed up the system we had working for us.

In terms of equality- I think is issue is less about the income equality, and more about the socio-economic level within which we think it is beneficial to have the majority of society exist. Once we have an idea about what that level is, there are a number of tactics that can be employed to attempt to bring more people to that point- but we haven’t agreed on that first piece. There are a lot of issues on the backend that make up the nuance- how much is any one individual or group responsible for their own poverty/ deprivation? Who has responsibility to change those circumstances- especially if we don’t all see ourselves on the same side? If I don’t agree with the moral choices they make how much do I get to dictate their behavior to balance the economic support I may be offering?

At the base level, any society attempts policies to contain chaos and anarchy: wealth redistribution, monopolies of violence and some form of bureaucracy are the main instruments by which that is accomplished but which nuanced articulation and instantiation of those policies we choose to use is undermined by the extent to which we are so busy yelling at and blaming the other guy for the things they are not doing…

Anyway… just a few opening thoughts 🙂

PS- I do think that pulling out random numbers from the budget about things we overspent on is both a red herring and unproductive but that might be the academic that still lives in my heart [response to a different thread]

So it begins

As many people know I like to debate, often more than is good for me. Over the last several months I have been having debates with people at work. (Yes, they were willing participants, I promise!)

One of the reasons I love my job, and my place of employment is the fact that I get to work with really intelligent, interested people. We happened to have a night out the same evening as the State of the Union. At first, I thought it would be a problem, exposing the significant political differences between myself and a few of my colleagues. Never deterred, I broached the subject with one I considered a friend and instead of assuming our friendship was over he agreed to have lunch and actually discuss the issues, like adults, and explore where we agreed and where we differed. He even offered homework to better understand where he was coming from!

Fast forward a month or two, and another person I work with heard about our ongoing debate. We began an email dialogue that has been highly thought-provoking (though slow as we are both very busy- although me less than him). A few weeks ago, as I was composing a response I realized that our dialogue might be of interest to other people. We disagree. A lot. But I think that we are managing to find the relevant points of clash and consider them in ways I don’t get a lot of exposure to elsewhere. I really value the ability to have hard conversations and I think we are lacking much of that in our current political discourse.  Although at times we veer towards jocularity (and have been accused of having a long-word contest) I think there is substance in the argument, and might help point out some of where our public conversations are missing.

Anyway, he graciously gave me permission to post the contents here for all to read. I hope you enjoy reading and that it might spur some intellectual reflection of your own. Always appreciate thoughts, responses or ideas in return, although I really can’t promise swiftness in my response.

They are rather long, so I will be posting as independent pieces, read in chronological order for it to make more sense.

My own in- and out- group ambivalence


To my friends, Willamette Heights neighbors, and loved ones,

I’m writing because I know no other way to express my sadness clearly and even if it’s only one voice, I would like to be heard.

I was dismayed about the potential loss to our neighborhood and community of a space that contains so many pieces of my childhood. I saw the threat to community, and to a rare and precious building block of what we cherish so dearly. I signed the petition, hoping that an intervention might change the direction of history, that the weight of our voices would be enough to help a young couple change their minds.
Immediately, I also wondered how directly we had been able to communicate with them. The more I researched the more I realized how similar they were to myself, and other children of our community. We inhabited the same space in time, even if not the same location. I’m sure I can relate to many of their experiences and memories, and I hoped that there was the possibility of reconciliation. That instead of being a threat, they could be welcomed into the community.

Our neighborhood has a history of accepting new people- waves of immigrants have come at different periods seeking similar things from the place they choose to live. I was the child of speculators, and remodelers, and yet I was welcome, as were my parents.

I understand that modifying the status quo is not the same as destroying and rebuilding, and I felt the same fear that the place of my memories would no longer be available. Many of you know how my childhood home no longer resembles the place I grew up, and the distress it has caused. But there is a new family there now, and they love the place as it is now as much as I loved it as it was before.

For me, Willamette Heights has always been about the people who live there. The architecture and the landscape are important, but what makes it a home is the community-the faces that grow and age but remain smiling and happy to see you. The houses have been the backdrop, but the real magic is in the events in those homes, and the continuity of connection year after year.

This is what I have found most distressing this week. For a place that claims community as a differentiator we have not been very community minded. Kevin and Darya are a young couple who had no way of knowing the expectations that came with the house they purchased, how could they? We don’t list neighborhood Easter Egg hunts on a spec sheet, and there is no written statute that says they must participate. I too would hope they would want that, but after their treatment this week I understand why that choice would be unthinkable.

People must choose to be a part of a community. A measured response from us might have engendered that choice. It might not. I freely admit that, but I also believe that either way it needed to be for them to decide.
Early on I hoped that they just didn’t realize how people felt, that a natural unawareness of this context led to choices that others were unhappy about. Optimistically I thought that perhaps they didn’t realize that community was on the table. That in return for modifying plans for their individual space they would be offered a precious alternative- a welcome to a community that I have been proud of. But watching as this story became increasingly sensational, as people tangentially related became involved and used our small drama as a soapbox for other issues I became both disheartened and ashamed.

I don’t think they came off in this story nearly as badly as we did. We had the opportunity to be transformative, to attempt some form of reconciliation or mediation. To truly practice the sense of community we espouse. We failed.

Many of you knew my mother. Many of you attended her memorial where we passed out cards of her most important philosophy ‘both/and’. I have seen many of the cards still in your homes years later. This was an opportunity for us to try to inhabit that and make choices allowing space for both perspectives. To keep thinking that we could find a solution that wouldn’t end with lawyers and media storms.

We vilified a young couple internationally, and for what? To save a house? To ‘protect’ our community? Did we really think they were so deaf, or so willful that they would choose to live in a space after knowing the neighbors felt so negatively? Did we think they would destroy the house for spite?

Many have been silent, many have said things that upon reflection they would take back or modify. We had the opportunity to have a truly civil discourse, and we missed. There are lots of reasons for that; emotions run high over community, history, in- and out- groups and, above all, money.

I don’t hope for any specific outcome from this- after all, it really has little to do with me and I trust that those people actually involved will come to some resolution, most likely with everyone walking away unhappy. I walk away sad, ashamed of how we treated people who could just as easily have become one of us, might have been if not for a number of accidents or coincidences that took us in different directions.

I needed to speak because it is important to have different voices in any functional community. Many have spoken for me this week, some I know and some I’ll never meet. I wanted to speak for myself and offer an alternative perspective.

Thank you for reading.