A Bit 'o Random Musings on Politics, Religion, and Anything Else That Passes Through My Crazy Head

Monday, July 30, 2012

You're Wrong vs. I Disagree

I shun conflict.  I flinch from controversy.  It is entirely possible that I am the worst debater in the history of the world, which is why I rarely engage in political debates.  While I may try to pass it off as a calm parsing of other's positions, it is really cowardice and the fear that I might harm the cause I support which prevent me from entering the fray of political debates.  I know that, inevitably, I will get flustered and make a mistake that will expose me to ridicule (see Perry, Rick).

One theme that seems to emerge from this blog is that my cowardice often manifests itself as a plea for civility.  I was reminded of this as I listened some friends recently.  They were tearing apart a political pundit - saying "He is so wrong!  Can you believe that?"  It was not facts that Mr. Pundit was discussing, which, of course, you CAN be objectively wrong about.  No, it was the interpretation of the facts and the prescription for fixing the problem that Mr. Pundit was pontificating  upon.  For purposes of this discussion, it is not relevant whether I agree with Mr. Pundit's proposed solution. The point here is that these individuals choose to say "you are wrong" instead of "I disagree."

When we transform political arguments into moral ones with only one right answer, we risk demonizing those on the other side.  So often, political views are value judgments.  I support Obamacare, for example, because I value the social goal of universal health coverage over the loss of individual freedom related to the individual mandate.  Others value personal freedom over health care.  The point is: there is no "absolute right" in that situation - if you think otherwise, you have carried the idea of universal truth too far.

So, my plea is for humility.  For a willingness to admit that YOU - yes even YOU could learn something by listening to others without judging.  Of course, if I take my own medicine, it means that I must admit: I could be entirely wrong here.

Monday, July 23, 2012

On Being First

Sally Ride passed away today (If you don't know who that is, stop for a moment and read here and here, and maybe here too).  Dr. Ride was remembered for being first, but what the articles don't note, is that since her two flights on the Challenger space shuttle, 44 other American women have entered space as astronauts. Someone had to be first, and she was the lucky one to be the first American woman in space.  Being first is annoying - you get asked a lot of stupid questions and you are probably held to an almost-impossibly-high standard that you need to be smarter and better than the men.

But it's also awesome that you get to be a hero to women and girls the world over!  It's interesting that Sally's Ride into space happened so long ago that I don't remember it - but I am surely glad that she broke that barrier.  I'm glad that if I had that inclination, I could have worked hard and become an astronaut.  There are still many "firsts" for women, but hopefully the "firsts" make it easier for the "nexts" - each woman who follows.  Feminism isn't about being a shrill voice of discontent - true feminism is about helping each person reach their potential, regardless of their gender.  I've heard it said that "feminism is the radical notion that women are people."

My favorite line from the articles I read today comes from the NY Times obituary: "In photographs of her afloat in the spaceship, she was grinning, as if she had at long last reached the place she was meant to be."

I hope each woman and girl can find the place she's meant to be - whether it's as a "first" something, or a "next" something.  I used to think I would be the first woman president, but I don't think that's likely to happen.  I hope it does happen soon, however - we need more women in all fields of endeavor.  Huzzah for feminism!

What are you doing to carry on the legacy of "people who went first"?  What do you want to be "first" in?

Monday, July 16, 2012

P.E. (not the class in school)

Private Equity.  What do those two words evoke for you?  Fear and loathing of corporate greed?  A misty eyed view of the invisible hand that inexorably leads towards efficient allocation of economic resources?  Or, more commonly: "What?"  Of course, if you have been following the Presidential campaign, you know that Private Equity has become a story because it's part of Mitt Romney's background.

Governor Romney founded and worked at Bain Capital, a private equity firm.  Here's my understanding: essentially Bain Capital would buy stock in privately-held companies.  They would pick companies which they thought had potential to grow and expand, and use their business expertise to help them grow.  After improving the business for several years, Bain would then sell the company (hopefully, at a profit).  The company that Mitt Romney likes to use as an example is "Staples," the office supply chain.  That was an early investment for Bain which paid off.

Seems non-controversial - until you look at the non-success stories.  One of the big criticisms of private equity is that it emphasizes "quick turnarounds" at the expense of long term goals - PE firms buy and sell companies relatively fast, which may lead them to employ an ax instead of a scalpel.  PE firms sometimes do things like fire a lot of people or load up a company with debt before selling it off.  These types of measures may not be in the long term best interests of the company the PE firm is buying.  People who run the PE companies also have incentives to maximize their own profit and they don't have to worry about what happens to the company after they sell it.

I don't think private equity is good or bad, really.  It's a tool, and like any tool, it can be misused.  I do worry that Mitt Romney does not seem troubled by the havoc he terms "creative destruction."  The destruction caused by capitalism is massive and disruptive - it truly destroys lives through layoffs and business failures.  The question is whether what it creates is "worth it" - is the destruction caused by this particular breed of capitalism outweighed by the positive economic growth it creates?

Personally, the answer for me is no.  I think private equity is not a builder of long term economic growth.  It emphasizes all the wrong things, and I think it fosters a "get rich quick" mentality.  We need economic growth for the long haul, and I don't think private equity has that focus, drive and discipline to get us there.  Private equity isn't to blame for every economic problem we have, and I'm certainly not saying that Mitt Romney is evil.  I just don't think his private equity background makes him the arbiter of all that is right for the economy.

Sorry, this post was kind of lame.  Better thought out next week, I promise.

Monday, July 9, 2012

What Kind of Country Do We Want?

Over the past week, I visited Texas, and got a glimpse of the Alamo, the bats of Congress bridge, and even a buffalo.  The highlight for my staunchly Democratic family was a visit to the ranch of Lyndon B. Johnson.  It was really neat, and if I was a picture taker I would post pictures.  But I'm not.  So I'll just tell you what I liked about LBJ.  He was not afraid to dream big and imagine our country better than it is.  Visiting his ranch made me think about what kind of country I want to live in.  Here's the kind of country I want, in President Johnson's words:

"In a land of great wealth, families must not live in hopeless poverty.  In a land rich in harvest, children must not go hungry.  In a land of healing miracles, neighbors must not suffer and die untended.  In a great land of learning and scholars, young people must be taught to read and write."  - Lyndon B. Johnson, Inaugural Address, January 20, 1965

True, I don't yet know how to achieve it, or what my role in bringing it to pass will be.  But at least I know where I want to go!

Watch President Johnson's inaugural speech in 1965 here:

(Note that I haven't yet watched the whole thing - looks like his speech starts after about 14 minutes of video.  Also I love the look his wife gives him right after he's sworn in, a kind of "now you better know what you're doing" look - right before the 14 minute mark)

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Happy Independence Day!

Couldn't let that most patriotic of American holidays pass without sharing some videos :)

Monday, July 2, 2012

I'm No Constitutional Lawyer, but I Play One on the Internet

It's that time of year when we all get a super-duper dose of patriotism, in all its glory. I was thinking about the Supreme Court and the Constitution this week. Before the healthcare decision was handed down, I was thinking how interesting the Supreme Court is as an institution - it has endured a lot in over 200 years! Before I heard what the decision was, I was thinking how grateful I am to live in a country where the Supreme Court does actually have a say. The Supreme Court has enormous influence in how the American justice system works, what laws we pass, and what our rights mean (I promise I was thinking this BEFORE the court handed down the decision I happen to agree with). With very few exceptions, the decisions of the Supreme Court have been respected by our political elites and enforced by the other arms of government.

Generally I don't get worked up in a frenzy about what the original intent of the constitutional framers was. There are a couple of reasons for this. For one thing, they themselves argued about the constitution's meaning during their lifetimes. If they couldn't agree on their own original intent, what hope do we have? Too often, the originalists are forced to choose sides among founders - which simply degenerates into an argument akin to a poker game - "I see your John Adams, and raise you one James Madison." They pick the founder that agrees with their viewpoint and then throw out any contradictory evidence, sense of nuance, or any idea that the political problems and viewpoints of the late 18th century were slightly different than our own.

Also, if the Founders had their way I wouldn't have a vote or be able to run for political office - nor would our current president or many people reading this blog. The writers of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution simply didn't envision universal suffrage, civil rights for people of color, or the nuclear bomb.  They were smart men, but they were limited by the parameters of thinking of their age.

What the Founders DID do is set up a series of principles that have become the parameters of our arguments. I think in a very real way it is American to argue about these principles and how they are applied to today's real world. You may disagree or agree with the Supreme Court decision this week on heathcare, but it's American to constantly debate how these broad principles are used and understood.  I choose to believe that these arguments, carried on in the proper spirit, are what the Founders meant for us to be doing 200+ years after they committed quill to parchment.  When carried on in good faith, these battles about broad ideas can lead us to the right answer for our time.  The brilliance of these documents, then, lies not in their static meaning, but in the flexibility they give us to understand challenges that the Founders never could have dreamed of.

 The Bill of Rights is one of the bedrocks of American constitutional theory, but if you've ever had trouble remembering which amendments are which, this song's for you: