Liberals don’t see the problems; Conservatives, the promise

Recently, I saw a bumper sticker that said, “When the government gives you something, they take something away from someone else.” “Wow”, I thought. “What a cynical way to look at the common good.” Why not view it as “when the government gives you something, it is really your neighbor giving you a helping hand”? The government is after all, nothing more or less than all of us.

And yet, the GOP has managed to convince many Americans that as Ronald Reagan said, “government is not the solution of our problem; government is the problem” and Grover Nordquist said, he wanted to “shrink it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.”

There are however, a multitude of functions that can only be effectively and fairly provided by government. There are many examples of this such as national defense and public education, but basically, I think the primary role of government is to provide for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. William Weld, a former Republican governor of Massachusetts, wrote that,

“Liberals often don’t see the problems, and conservatives don’t see the promise, of government.”

I certainly can’t speak for all liberals, (which literally, is not a four letter word oh by the way), but I think I’m fairly clear-eyed about some of the problems of government. But…I haven’t found many Conservatives who will admit to the essential good that government can provide. Yes, government is not perfect. It tends to be bureaucratic and inefficient. But…if we the people, do our one main job (voting) correctly, we elect those who will make it the best it can be.

Weld’s circa 2000 article talks about the role of government to act as a check on corporate greed that doesn’t serve the greater good, to protect the environment, and to as Lincoln said, “appeal to the better angels of our nature.” Weld noted that, “Oliver Wendell Holmes once said that the desire to exclude other people from your circle and surround yourself with people just like yourself is a perfectly natural human phenomenon.”

That natural tendency though argued Weld, must be “guarded against and restrained.” He added that,

“Government can contribute to a shared sense of purpose on the part of the citizenry; that’s its highest and best application.”

This role to contribute to a “shared sense of purpose”, is I believe the biggest failure of President Trump. Not only has he not appealed to our “better angels”; he has stoked the fires of division and then continually turned up the heat. Whether race-baiting, declaring himself a nationalist, declaring the press the “enemy of the people”, or working to reduce people’s trust in our nations’ institutions, he continues to appeal to the lowest common denominators of hate and fear. And, unfortunately, GOP leadership has pretty much been “lock-step” with him.

In an article published two days ago on Salon.com, Jim Sleeper, a lecturer at Yale and author of two books on liberalism and race wrote,

“Yet Aristotle was right to warn that humans who lose the art and discipline of “the political” become lower than beasts. When conservatism talks about the sanctity of property and, at the same time, about the dangers of materialism and of public-deficit financing, both of which it pursues to strengthen plutocrats and to bankrupt Social Security, public education and health care, it opens the vacuum to Trumpian malevolence and corruption. Its “pre-political” anti-politics subverts its own professed ideals of republican self-governance, which should reinforce mutual trust, not dog-eat-dog competition and empty salvific, decadent and scapegoating escapes. But what they didn’t do – what we need to do most now – is to stop the disease of turbo-marketing from dissolving the republic that has given its insurgents enough breathing room and footholds to transcend even themselves.”

If we are to change the narrative, the Democrats in Congress now must, (as my wife had hoped to do in the Arizona Legislature), prove that government CAN work for the people. It CAN function well to ensure the people’s needs are addressed. That, rather than investigations and committee hearings, will speak loudest to the American people.

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Government vs. Commercial

During his first inaugural address, President Ronald Reagan said “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” Grover Norquist, of the “no new taxes pledge”, doubled down on this line of thinking with his goal to “to get [government] down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.” This GOP focus on government as the problem helps explain why those out to kill district schools refer to them as “government” schools. After all, “government” is the problem so how can “government” schools be any kind of solution for America’s students?

Yet the truth is that there are great district schools, great charter schools, great private schools and yes, even top-notch home schools. Of course, there are bad examples of all these options. Each option is just one of the tools in our country’s educational tool kit. The most useful tool in the tool kit by far however, (as proven by the 94.3% of American students who use it), is our system of public district schools. Charter schools have been around for twenty-five years, yet the overwhelming “school choice” for American families is still district schools. There is a place for other school choice options, but it shouldn’t be first place. Not in terms of taxpayer funding and not in terms of our nation’s focus.

Most families didn’t make this choice because they had no other options. Rather, they chose to send their children to district schools because those are the schools in their communities, those are the schools that offer a more diverse experience with a wider array of extracurricular programs and, those are the schools that are locally governed and therefore provide recourse when it is needed. The “haters” can refer to these choice schools as “government” schools, but that doesn’t change the fact that for the vast majority of American students, they work. Our community public schools helped make America great and, they continue to be integral in keeping it that way.

For those who insist on referring to our district schools as “government” schools, I say “sticks and stones…”. Don’t be surprised though when I refer charter and private schools as “commercial” schools. After all, the vast majority of charter schools, whether for-profit or non-profit, are business entities. Non-profit doesn’t mean no profit is made or even, that the entity is operating for the common good. It just means that the entity has qualified for federal tax exemptions.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, there are many definitions of commercial. The first is “occupied with or engaged in commerce or work intended for commerce.” Then, there is “being of an average or inferior quality” or “producing artistic work of low standards for quick market success.” There is also, “viewed with regard to profit”, “designed for a large market”, “emphasizing skills and subjects useful in business”, and “supported by advertisers.”

Some of these definitions fit commercial schools better than others. We’ve all heard stories about the “fly by night” schools set up for “quick market success” but then fail their students. We also know that some charters are big chains “designed for a large market.” And, there can be no doubt that the corporate reformers with their mantra of “school choice” have been focused on “emphasizing skills and subjects useful in business” to ensure a trained workforce to meet their needs.

This focus on developing a trained workforce is just one step away from replacing the idea of citizens in our democracy with consumers focused on nothing more than what’s in it for me? This attitude helps drive the concept of “backpack funding”, where taxpayer dollars for education follow the student and the hell with those left behind.

An encouraging note though in a very crazy election year is that of young people’s response to Bernie Sanders’ campaign. As Harry Boyte writes on Moyers & Company, “championing public goods – from schools to parks, infrastructure to health provision – suggests a generation hungry for the commonwealth.”

I understand parents wanting to ensure the best for their child, but what about the rest of the children? John Dewey, arguably the most significant educational thinker of the 20th century said, “What the best and wisest parent wants for his child, that must we want for all the children of the community. Anything less is unlovely, and left unchecked, destroys our democracy.”

So, send your kids to those “commercial” schools if you want, my money is on our community district schools to prevail at both providing ALL our children well-rounded educations and, at helping ensure our democracy stays strong.

Socially Liberal, but Fiscally Conservative

I live in a largely conservative active-adult community where the average age is this side of 65 (I do my part to keep the average on this side.) The other day, for probably the 100th time, someone said to me: “I am socially liberal, but fiscally conservative.”   I’m guessing what she meant was that she supports the idea of “live and let live”, but believes that we (mostly the larger “we”), should live within our means.

What I heard is that she is a nice person, but unlike “real” liberals, she doesn’t believe in giving away the farm. And that, quite frankly, pisses me off. My wife and I are pretty dang liberal, but guess what? We are also retired Air Force Colonels who pay our mortgage, our HOA fees, and our taxes. We, unlike GOP Presidential hopeful Scott Walker, pay our credit card bills off each month because we believe in living within our means.

In other words, we are fiscally responsible. That means we believe in staying out of debt, we believe in saving, and we believe in individual responsibility. At the same time, we are social liberals who believe that some people are born with more advantage than others and that a civil society concerns itself with the common good. Where “fiscal conservatism” is synonymous with classical (or neo-classical) liberalism and advocates small government to allow the exercise of individual freedom, I believe fiscal responsibility doesn’t advocate for smaller government, but an efficient and effective one. Government has an important place in ensuring the common good and it is incumbent upon each of us to ensure it provides what we need at a price we can afford. Isn’t that how we try to manage our personal budgets? We try to get the most “bang for buck” on those things we most need and want.

Many conservatives seem to believe government is evil. The truth is, neither government nor business is inherently good or evil. They each have a role to play in ensuring our right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But, motive does matter. Business is in the business of making a profit and that must drive their strategy if they are to survive and prosper. Government is in the “business” of providing for the common good.   Its charge in that regard is to do what is right for the common good without total regard for the “bottom line.”

Social liberals endorse a market economy and the expansion of civil and political rights and liberties. The difference between them and classical liberals is that they believe government has a legitimate role in addressing economic and social issues such as poverty, health care, and education. Under social liberalism, the good of the community is viewed as harmonious with the freedom of the individual.

Unfortunately, for those of you who say you are “fiscal conservatives” but also “socially liberal”, I say get real. You can’t legitimately claim you are in support of those in our society who are disadvantaged in some way and yet be unwilling to do what it takes to help them be equal. It is disingenuous and dishonest. I know the people I’m really trying to reach with this post probably won’t like my using Ellen DeGeneres to support my position, but I believe she said it well. She said: “here are the values that I stand for: honesty, equality, kindness, compassion, treating people the way you want to be treated and helping those in need. To me, those are traditional values.”    According to the Dalai Lama, all major religious traditions carry basically the same message, that love, compassion and forgiveness are the important thing and should be part of our daily lives.  Being compassionate is not  a sign of weakness, irresponsible, or unAmerican.  It is the better side of humanity and essential to our harmonious existence and long-term survival.

What’s in a label?

I was at the Arizona Capitol yesterday meeting with both Democrat and Republican legislators. My focus of course, was to advocate for support of traditional public education. What I came away with at the end of the day though, was a feeling that much of the dysfunction we currently see in our political process is a result of the labels we put on ourselves and others and the perceptions that drives. To illustrate my point, please bear with me as I ask you to read the following words and pay attention to what thoughts pop into your head. Here we go: BLACK, WHITE, GAY, STRAIGHT, REPUBLICAN, DEMOCRAT, LIBERTARIAN, TEA PARTY. I’m guessing that your brain defaulted to a fairly vivid stereotype based upon your frame of reference. That’s probably normal and something open-minded people work to avoid.

The harm in these labels is they inhibit the ability of those so labeled to work outside the stereotype to bridge the gaps in understanding between people. Yes, I am a Democrat. I believe in gay rights, a woman’s right to choose, and traditional public education. I also however, believe in fiscal responsibility (as I suspect most of my fellow Democrats do), I am pro-life (no, my default is not abortion), and I am okay with responsible gun ownership (although I don’t think anyone needs a semi-automatic, I think it is absolutely ridiculous to allow folks to take guns into bars, and I am uncomfortable with open carry by ordinary citizens.) I would guess that those positions are surprising to some people who conjured up the vision of a flaming liberal when I said I was a Democrat.

Our political process has become so hijacked by political parties and labels that our legislators can’t get the work done. I don’t know about you, but when I elect candidates to represent me at the local, state or national level, I don’t just want them to represent me, or far, far worse, to just vote the party line. I want them to study the issues, listen to constituents, reason with colleagues and then make the best decision they can for the health of the entity they represent. After all, if the United States is healthy and Arizona is healthy, I’m probably fairly happy too.

That’s not what is happening now and it needs to stop. Former Senator Russel Pearce (who was recalled by the people of Arizona for being a not so great legislator among other things), is now raising funds to oust AZ GOP legislators who voted for Medicaid expansion last year. I have to believe those legislators were voting their conscience, doing what they thought was best for the state, because they sure had to know that by voting against the far-right they were putting their chances for reelection at risk. I of course, thought this vote was the most positive thing I’d seen come out of the AZ legislature in the 5-1/2 years I’ve lived in this state.

I’m sick and tired of politics as usual and will do everything in my power to support candidates who think for themselves and support traditional public education. I pledge to go beyond the label and learn about my representatives and their viewpoints and yes, voting records. After all, labels make it easy for us to be lazy. When it comes to election day, how many people just vote the straight party ticket or, just for women, etc.? I must admit, I’ve done that sort of thing in the past when I was in the military, moved every couple of years and didn’t know the local candidates. Now though, I understand how important it is to our democracy for each of us to be informed and fully participate. Plain and simple, it is OUR government and if it is dysfunctional, it is OUR fault.  You want our government to work better? Get informed, get involved, hold your legislators accountable. Please go to the Arizona School Board Association (@AzSBA) website to learn how or comment on this blog and I’ll connect you to resources.  We need #ACTIONnotANGER!