Breaking Bread

"The problem with any ideology is that it gives the answer before you look at the evidence. So you have to mold the evidence to get the answer that you've already decided you've got to have."

-Bill Clinton

I am weary of poring over budgetary policy and economic theory in an attempt to get at the heart of which party platform has the most to offer the most of us. Just to 'keep up' with political discussions and be considered a relevant player in discussing political ideas, you must be so immersed in politics as to be immune to all its toxicity. I read - and listen to - a fair amount of policy analysis. The sheer volume of historical data one must absorb to grasp the complexities of today's world is staggering. Don't believe me? Just do a Google search on economic theories about exactly what causes financial crisis and you're bound to stumble into a rabbit hole of flying numbers and interpretations of said numbers and decades of pie charts.

I've said this many times before, but it's no wonder people avoid politics like the plague. What a nasty business. I'm don't must mean all the substantive analyses involved, or the corruption of politicians themselves, I'm mean the surrogates for any respective political belief system - Democrats, Republicans and Libertarians - not only have to be right about what's right for you, but are convinced they are right (and smart) enough to convert you to their way of thinking.

When you express your beliefs and moral convictions about the society you want to live in loudly and clearly enough, someone will always be standing by with data meant to dismantle those convictions, or - at very least - humiliate you. There is no avoiding this. No matter what you believe in, there is always some contrarian standing by to poke holes in what they perceive as your worldview. Have no fear, though. In a world of diverse moral and ethical opinions, it takes a whole lot more than a careful assemblage of handpicked statistical data to dislodge someone's core beliefs. More than anything, getting people to understand where you are coming from - or even ultimately agree with you - isn't about comparing charts and spreadsheets and seeing whose math ads up most. In the world of political spin, the same numbers can be used to draw widely divergent conclusions. Getting others with whom you disagree to understand your beliefs comes down to the ultimate act of courage; one few have the moxie to summon.

It's an act more courageous than expressing unpopular beliefs. It's more courageous than being some so-called iconoclast. It's the act of identifying ways that someone else's belief system intersects with yours, and honing in on that, and breaking bread over it. Always start with the common ground, and you at least have a foundation on which to discuss your differences. If you insist on rushing in, guns blazing with the ferocity of your ego and your intellect, than more power to you. You're now the smartest guy in the room who nobody likes. You're the sole bearer of logic, simplicity, reason and absolute truth who everyone is loath to discuss important issues with, because for you, it's about being right more than it's about finding common ground. This approach doesn't win converts; it only discourages people from ever discussing politics with you for fear of being lured into a nasty, personal attack.

What offends me about political grand-standers is how simple everything in their world is. While I'm as eager to live in a fact based society as they are, and certainly appreciate having logic, math and reason on my side in a debate, it goes without saying that a complex, nuanced society almost always demands complex, nuanced solutions, not easy, blanket ideologies that paint everyone with the same ideological brush.

I feel that true politics - this 'breaking of bread,' is the discussion of how our everyday lives are impacted by our elected representatives, and what responsibility we bear as engaged citizens to making our voices louder when they need to be. How do we hold each other responsible for making public grievances and petitions? How do we find common ground on how far we want an elected Government to regulate our activity? When it comes to all of these things, we are all the same in regards to our desires for a better world. It doesn't matter whether or not you are a senior fellow for some center for budgetary and policy analysis, or a small business owner, or a single mother trying really hard to go back to school.

No matter who you are, you are qualified to discuss politics as they pertain to you. Each time some snarky armchair historian or economics snob tries to publicly humiliate you for having an opinion, you feel less and less inclined to speak up. Who can blame you? Just remember, in those situations, the fault is theirs for shutting down your voice, making it easier for them to exist in a bubble. It's their fault for making it about you versus them. They wrap their ego around a pet issue and force you to subjugate the validity of your beliefs for the privilege of having any common ground with them. That's wrong, and they may have access to more information than you, but what they choose to do with that information serves no one but themselves.

If I were to sit down and start a discussion with someone, I might start by outlining my fundamental beliefs. Our fundamental notions of what constitutes a fair working society may differ fundamentally, but they inform so much about us. They inform our perspectives on history. They inform the way we assemble and present evidence. Getting to the heart of that fundamental belief system is useful in breaking bread with those we may disagree with, and it's a hell of a lot better - and less exhausting - than just scrambling to find ways to prove them wrong.

That said, this is what I believe:

I believe a certain degree of Government regulation and oversight is necessary to temper the fundamental self interest impulses of privatized anything. I feel that some programs do need to exist on a State or local level, and that people accusing the President of wanting to socialize everything, and turn everything over to the Federal Government, are either being willfully disingenuous or have not actually glanced at the Administration's approach to problem solving, which has, when necessary, included private interests.

I feel that these private, Corporate, for-profit interests, if left to the whims of the market, reduce their transparency and reduce access for citizens who work for them and the communities they impact. I feel that the profit motive overrides a sense of duty or responsibility to the environment, to worker safety, to fair pay, and a number of other things. I feel that nuance is not a dirty word, and that while Federal oversight and bureaucracy can be an inhibiting force on financial mobility, unrestrained free market Capitalism simply cannot be depended on to act in the interests of the general population, when all is said and done.

I feel that Government is at its best when it is serving the public good in matters where individuals may not have the voice or the political power to stand up for themselves. I also feel that any system that hands control of market activity over to those who stand to benefit the most from it is not necessarily the wisest way to ensure this public good. I do not believe that Government should solve all our problems. I don't believe in a nanny state. The nanny state is a straw man, after all.. My life has been, in many ways, an ode to self reliance. At the same time, I recognize that the social safety net, a contract ensuring that our most vulnerable citizens do not fall through the cracks, should exist.

Government has no place in dictating morality when it comes to our sexual behavior, or what we can do with our own bodies. However, we do not equate this need for personal autonomy with a need for Corporate autonomy. Corporations, after all, are not people. They are not even assemblies of people. They're simple creatures with complex financial instruments, rules, mechanisms, and ethical systems that all intertwine with our lives in various ways. These various instruments, according to some, are self-governing and efficient in a truly free market. However, calculating this efficiency against the health of the community, or the people therein, is often not made a priority. This is where it falls to the people to exercise their power in getting what they need in this symbiosis between businesses and the individual lives they affect.

Direct beneficiaries to the mechanisms of a vibrant Capitalist system - entrepreneurs, shareholders, executives - achieve great success through great risk. They are to be applauded for their ambition, not demonized or made sport of. However, not everyone in this country is destined to be an ubermensch entrepreneur. We need to examine tax and social policies that act as if the only significant, relevant growth in this nation is tied to the next Steve Jobs. Stories like his are an inspiring example of how good things can get, but when it comes to our population at large, we simply are not a nation of overachieving tech pioneers. No longer should every citizen be treated as if not living up to that dream is some sign of failure. The overriding sense of entrepreneurial privilege and elitism coasting through our freeways and business parks doesn't represent our population at large, nor should it represent the population of the nation as a whole.

The vast majority of Americans - the teachers, the assembly line workers, the food service employees, the paralegals, the garbage collectors, its valiant soldiers, its lab techs and nurses, its struggling clerks, its physical therapists, artists, and everyone else who does not qualify as an 'entrepreneur' - have just as much value as anybody else. They contribute to the welfare of society in ways that go beyond how many employees they have, or how much of their success has resulted in skyrocketing stock value. They teach our kids. They give us safe roads and bridges and buildings. They take out our garbage. They improve our quality of life in ways many of us don't stop to measure.

Our nation has defined itself most proudly when it has broadened opportunities for civic engagement available to more of its citizens. For some, this means treating certain people like full citizens. Allowing people to marry, or vote, or serve in the military increases civic engagement. It increases diversity. It increases the number of people willing to represent this country. It does not weaken us.

A new breed of fiscal Libertarianism tells us that free market Capitalism is something that has actually never been tried. This so-called evil 'free market Capitalism,' which liberals decry as the source of such inequality and exploitation, they tell us, is not, in fact, true 'Free Market Capitalism.'

Believe us, they say, we hate that as much as you.

In that case, what brought us to the great recession, to the housing crash, to other such examples of free market run amok? The answer, they say, is not true Free Market Capitalism but instead something called Crony Capitalism. Crony Capitalism is, they say, is what happens when barriers to entry grow so thick with corruption that collusion between a corrupt two party legislature and the businesses trying to contribute to the economy result in a broken system. If the Government would just stay out of the regulation business, they urge, none of this would happen.

This idea that there are two separate things ('Crony Capitalism' and 'Free Market Capitalism'); this notion that Crony Capitalism exists and is Government's fault, and that Free Market Capitalism has never been tried, is at the center of a true limited Government ethos. This fundamental notion is at the heart of all the statements and assertions made by surrogates for right leaning and classic liberal strategies, and an effective salve against the notion that 'trickle down' has already been tried and failed.

Small Government advocates assert that so-called free market economic policies that Liberals often blame on Conservatives are a twisting of the truth. Corporate corruption, they urge, and all the ills that follow it is a real problem. Libertarians get frustrated when liberals prescribe Government regulation to stem the tide of corporate corruption. Why? Well, it's because the Republican fiscal platform (and, for that matter, the Libertarian platform) ascribes Government Cronyism as the cause of Corporate Corruption. Their view is, when Big Government tries to hard to restrict growth and competition through impossible criteria for entering (or exiting a market), and stifling regulations on growth for even those companies that do well, it creates a toxic collusion between Government and Business that should not exist.

Crony Capitalism is, according to Paul Ryan and many other like-minded pols, a poisoning of the Free Market's purity by unwieldy, bloated Government intervention. The 'cronies' in Crony Capitalism refer less to vested interests in Corporatism twisting Government for its advantage, and refer more to the toxic marriage that results when Government tries too hard to restrict the market's intended activity, which is to self regulate.
Liberals and Libertarians and Republicans can probably all agree that the relationship between Government and private, for-profit interests is rife with corruption. What they disagree on is which side catalyzes the corruption. Liberals believe the Corporate core is fundamentally corrupt. Others believe that Government regulation corrupts what it touches. These two competing ideologies inform so much of our debate, and yet we're so muddled up in the minutiae that we lose sight of it and our minds remain closed. We don't realize that our fundamental ideologies, at a base level, affect our interpretation of existing facts. So, in that sense, the facts don't give us what we want; instead, our underlying beliefs allow us to process the facts in a way that supports what we believe.

So, if you're a liberal and you really want to open your mind and break bread with those you disagree with, consider the decades of evidence that you've never questioned concluding that unrestrained free market Capitalism always results in income disparity, inequality, unsafe working conditions and products, a rise in cancer rates, and lower overall Corporate accountability. Consider that everything you know might be wrong. According to Libertarians, these things are not the result of deregulation. They are, in fact, the Liberals' fault for inhibiting, taxing, regulating, and in turn, corrupting natural business growth, and turning it into something genuinely destructive. For small Government Libertarians, the only economic environment conducive to real growth is one in which the barriers to entry (and exit) from any particular market are reduced to zero. Then, they say, then, we will have peace and prosperity for all. There is a kind of ideological excitement at the notion of having one's inhibitions lifted away, a place where the sky is truly the limit, a place where unbridled economic success leads to an unbridled generation of ideas, and talent, and yes... jobs.

The genius of this assertion about the ills of Government involvement is that you can point to any demonstrable time in history that so-called 'deregulated economic activity' has resulted in disaster, and you can say - no, in fact, Government regulation caused the problem. Government becomes the bogeyman, rather than, as Liberals assert, a catalyst for restraint, fairness and greater representation for those who might not otherwise be represented. It is, quite simply, a world view brilliant in its simplicity. Not only has it never been tried, but it's theoretical purity ensures that, in fact, it may never be tried. But it stands at the end of a corridor of thought as an example of something liberals cannot possibly point to and say 'that failed,' because it has never truly been tried.

Where is the real evidence that these limited Government theories work? These theories often feel like ideas in search of evidence. There are anecdotes, and plenty of airtight logical and economic models that assert a true free market economy will cause prosperity for all, but historical evidence often challenges this. But consider that anecdotes can be promoted to serve any cause. In fact, examine any political disagreement, and apart from a few rare instances where legitimate, non-partisan studies are cited, most people cling to their anecdotes and their cherry picked statistics to make their same points over and over again. It makes them sound smart, but in the absence of real, long term historical evidence, it doesn't make them right.

What we have now is more than just a 'war of ideas' between competing ideologies, be they party line Democratic, party line Republican, Libertarian, or some combination thereof. Did you find an example of how South Korea's privatized health care system is the best thing ever? How about that time between 1911-1915 where non unionized workers' wages went up and their standards of living increased, despite zero Government regulation? Hand the anecdote a rifle, and it will march forth for you, shouting your slogans, convincing passersby of your worth. The same with statistics. Every few weeks, non partisan think tanks release statistics, and those statistics are like a pile of ammunition in the center of a battlefield. They can be used in service of any number of competing factions. The same numbers - indeed, the same anecdotes - can be used in service of wildly competing ideologies. It's not any wonder - nor should it be - that internet arguments go nowhere, that fundamental beliefs are fixed, and that nobody gets, ever, to the heart of their moral persuasion. No one wants to discuss moral persuasion, because they're all convinced that the moral domain is separate from the factual domain. What I'm trying to illustrate is that the moral domain informs the factual domain, in every instance.

The heart of our moral persuasions, as different as we are, is a thing that few of us want to discuss. We're too busy trying to be right, and to belittle each other, and trying to sound smarter, more well researched, and generally better than those with whom we disagree. This kind of arrogance does not discriminate by party or platform, and it's antithetical to real discussion. It turns politics into a game of who's right and who's wrong, rather than a potentially enlightening intercourse between incompatible ideologies. In an environment crawling with partisan pundits, social media trolls, those friends you knows who always have to be right, there will never be any breaking of bread. People too short sighted to respect the beliefs of others will always contribute to division and discord. Our responsibility is to remember this, determine whether discord is truly what we seek, and act accordingly.


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