Which party is really committed to fiscal responsibility?The debate over the proposal by President Obama’s blue-ribbon commission on how to cut the deficit is revealing of something most rational people of goodwill already knew: Reason has fled the Republican Party completely, and a combination of fanatical ideology and rampant hypocrisy is all that now defines it. Though Republicans made their recent electoral gains by pretending to be responsible fiscal conservatives, the Republican rank-and-file is, ironically, less willing than Democrats to support the commission’s proposals, which rely mostly on spending cuts and secondarily on tax hikes, due to their ideological refusal to acknowledge that fiscal responsibility includes any responsibility to actually pay for a functioning government (I’ve been unable to find the poll; I believe I saw it on The Chris Mathews Show today, 12/4/10).

Secrecy in International Diplmacy is a Vital Ingredient.There are many situations in which shedding some sunshine on political maneuvers that have been hidden from public view serves the public interest, but, as is so often the case, revealing all secrets is not a universal and absolute good. JFK negotiated a peaceful end to The Cuban Missile Crisis in part by making a secret promise to remove American missiles (equally threatening to Russia as Cuban missiles were to America) from Turkish soil. The nuances, subtleties, and practicalities of international negotiations sometimes require a level of candor among our agents than complete and universal transparency allows. The traditional press, though always (for the last half-century or so, at least) far more inclined toward public disclosure than toward helping government keep secrets, has exercised a bit of self-restraint when a good case could be made for the maintenance of some secrets in service to the public interest. Some are offended by such a notion, but I argue that such a reduction of all things to plebiscite would be crippling to international relations. We formed a representative democracy for a reason; their are functions that require agents to be able to act with some latitude on behalf of their principal, and if we strip all of our agents of all such latitude, we will collectively suffer for it. The difficult challenge of holding our agents accountable to our interests, while empowering them to act with some independent (and even occasionally secretive) latitude, is not a trivial one, and errors will be made of both too much and too little public vigilance, too much and too little government empowerment and authorization. But the worst error almost always is the embrace of an extreme and inflexible absolute rather than some acknowledgement of the demands of nuance and subtlety to strike a well-reasoned balance.

While the decentralization of information production and access is, overall, a very powerful tool for human progress, it also poses some serious challenges to our collective welfare on a variety of fronts. One such front is reliability; a great deal of very unreliable information flows very rapidly along virtual networks. Another front involves striking the balance between complete public transparency and some enclaves of confidentiality, a challenge which involves dimensions other than international diplomacy (e.g., decreased confidentiality of personal information of various kinds is another, very different, dimension of this same problem). While some might make a bright line distinction between “public” and “private” information, the more useful distinction is between productive and counterproductive secrecy.

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I have no idea what motivated the Australian sisters, one of whom died and one of whom survived after a suicide pact at a firing range where they rented the weapons they used on themselves ( But it is something more than just a bizarre story that grabs our attention, or a private human tragedy made public due to a combination of the circumstances and our own fascination. It is one of the more dramatic expressions of something that is very widespread, and very significant: Human desperation. And of the general challenges we face as a society, the general good we can do together, mitigating human desperation should rank high on the list.

As one commenter on the message board following the Denver Post article said, mental health problems are far more prevalent than most people realize, and the need for better mental health hygiene is nearly universal. All of our social problems are interrelated, usually incubating in troubled childhoods with issues of school truancy or academic failure, child abuse, substance abuse, juvenile delinquency, poverty, and/or mental health issues mixed together in various combinations, reinforcing one another, growing over time.

There are many on the Right who decry “the nanny state,” but we are not enough of  a nanny state when it comes to those who most need nannies. We do not invest enough in our children’s welfare –all of our children’s welfare– though the benefits to all of us, let alone those whose lives are essentially saved by being proactive with early interventions, are well worth the investment, and end up saving us not only the suffering inflicted by troubled others, but also the material costs.

The mantra on the Right is that that’s the responsibility of parents. There was a time, just over a century ago, when “child abuse” and domestic violence in general had not yet been defined into existence, because those issues were the family’s business and no one else’s. The more rational and compassionate view is that we all have a responsibility to assist families in meeting theirs. When no families exist to do so, or those that do exist are unable or unwilling to do so, then it is our shared responsibility to step in and assist those innocent souls who some would leave to a life of suffering (and often of inflicting suffering on others, sometimes in ways which perpetuate the cycle of violence and despair across generations). The question should not be whether that is our shared responsibility, but rather how best to meet it.

It doesn’t matter that the sisters in this story were Australian nationals visiting the U.S. No one can deny that we have many like them that are home grown, and that our policies are implicated. On the news last night, there was a story of a woman who has had problems with alcohol abuse, and child abuse of her nine year old daughter, who apparently adored her daughter nonetheless, who was found, along with her daughter, in her running car in the garage of her home, both dead apparently from carbon monoxide poisoning ( Friends and neighbors said that she loved her daughter too much to “take her with her” if she had wanted to commit suicide, but desperation isn’t that rational, and it’s not hard to imagine that, once the despair made suicide the only option the mother felt she had (if that was indeed the case), that same desperation could easily have made the thought of leaving her adored daughter behind to suffer the consequences as unbearable as life itself had become for her.

In an all-too-common story of deadly domestic violence, an ex-boyfriend, a military veteran, killed the girlfriend who ended their relationship ( No member of the perpetrator’s family ever showed up for the three-week-long trial, and the mother of the victim said, with compassion, “I expect they were never there for you.” But we should have been. We can reduce the rate at which lives are destroyed by the combination of extreme individualism, a refusal to invest in proactive services (such as mental health service), insanely easy access to weapons and a culture that constantly glorifies violence. The fact that our rates of violent crime are much higher than those of other developed countries suggests that it’s not just the inevitable consequence of individual defects, but the very avoidable consequence of political choices and their cultural consequences.

A man, apparently also with mental health problems, who refused to leave his foreclosed home in Jefferson County not far from where I live required a SWAT team to evict him ( The combination of economic stresses in this period of economic downturn, and a decrease rather than increase in our commitment to take care of one another, bode ill for the rate at which such events are likely to occur, and the rate at which they are likely to end badly.

There is no shame in evolving as a society to do more to mitigate such desperation, to be there for one another, and to create social institutions which identify, intervene, and offer assistance proactively at the earliest possible stage of the development of such problems. But the newly minted Republican Congressional majority in the House voted not to extend extensions of unemployment assistance (, when about 14.8 million Americans are unemployed (

This commitment to leaving people to fend for themselves is justified by a highly questionable analysis of how to strike the optimal balance between debt and spending, and when to impose austerity v. when not to ( In the long run, investing in proactive human services, that reduce the private and public costs of unaddressed problems and the public costs of expensive reactive policies (e.g., the highest both percentage of population and absolute number of people incarcerated of any nation on Earth) not only increases human welfare, but it also improves our bottom line in the long run.

Those who hide behind the subterfuge that, sure, it’s our shared responsibility, but a responsibility best met through private charity and the decentralized volition of people of goodwill, are engaging in the convenient historical amnesia of how inadequately these needs were met prior to the utilization of government as an agent for meeting them, and how hollow such calls are when there is no private substitute anywhere in sight, capable of meeting these needs at anywhere near the level that government today currently inadequately meets them.

I am all for well-designed government-private sector partnerships, including with churches and other religious institutions, to address these problems. I have no inherent preference for government; just an inherent preference for facing our collective responsibilities to one another rather than finding excuses to shirk them. In fact, I’m a staunch advocate of strengthening our communities, and building greater non-governmental solidarity and mutual support into them, replacing something that has been lost in our forward march into extreme individualism. There are many pieces to the puzzle of addressing our failings as a society; improving the role of government, and integrating that role into the more organic social institutional materials with which government can and should work, is just one set of such pieces.

It’s time to stop the spiral down into cruel insanity, both the cases of individual insanity that we augment with our widespread ideological commitment to hyper-individualistic public policies of mutual indifference and disdain, and the collective insanity that those policies and that attitude are a symptom of.

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Republicans claiming to represent fiscal conservatives signed a pledge not to raise taxes, though even conservative economists such as Alan Greenspan are adamant that continuing the Bush tax cuts for the uber-wealthy is irresponsible and indefensible. Those who decry the national debt, and exaggerate its significance, have proven that they are also unwilling to maintain a revenue stream capable of paying it down.

Economist and Money Manager Zachary Karabell ( writes in the November 8 issue of Time Magazine, echoing what 2008 Nobel Prize winning Economist Paul Krugman and many others have long maintained, that the populist Tea Party obsession with debt is not only misguided, but economically and fiscally self-destructive (,9171,2028095,00.html). “Whatever the Tea Party says, we haven’t mortgaged our future. We’ve endangered our present.” The national debt “isn’t excessive. On a relative basis the federal debt burden has hardly changed over the past 20 years. In fact…, the percentage of the federal budget spent servicing the debt has actually decreased…. [I]n 2009, net interest payments on the debt decreased from the year before, and the overall percentage the U.S. pays to service the debt (currently less than 3% of GDP) is lower than it was in the late 1980s and most of the 1990s.”

Karabell also tackles the currently popular Right-Wing mythology that New Deal stimulus spending prolonged The Great Depression, another step in the gradual revisionism of historical fact, moving from the long-held accurate recognition that The New Deal stimulated enormous economic growth (see The Economic Debate We’re Not Having) but failed to end The Great Depression due to Roosevelt’s compromise with fiscal conservatives in 1937, sending the economy back into a downward spiral (rescued by the massive public spending project called “World War II”). Prior to The Great Depression, he notes, “the orthodoxy of austerity and budget cutting hobbled the world and led to a decade of deflation and depression.”

Ironically, despite the enormous success of stimulus spending in avoiding the complete economic collapse that we were teetering on the edge of two years ago (see How Do We Stop The Insanity? for a discussion and link to a graphic depiction of how effective the stimulus bill was at turning around the growth in unemployment from rising at an accelerating rate to rising at a decelerating rate), “rational argument about (debt and deficit) is as rare as levelheaded discussion of sex and religion” (see “Political Fundamentalism”, comprised of the unholy trinity of “Constitutional Idolatry”, Liberty Idolatry, and Small Government Idolatry, for a discussion of the reasons for the similarity).

Karabell goes on to describe how the “simple narrative” of the Tea Party, “as economic policy…is the 2010 version of what the blind, rigid bankers of the 1920s and ’30s offered –and it will sink an already leaking ship.” “Debt is simply a cost,” Karabell emphasizes, “a powerful tool when properly used…. [W]ise fiscal policy–focused on investment—is a spark plug when activity sputters…. [A]ny business leader will tell you that you can’t cut your way to prosperity.”

As I’ve frequently repeated, there are legitimate debates to be had. A minority of economists (adherents of The Chicago School, which has been eroding for decades due to accumulating countervailing evidence) disagrees with Karabell and Krugman, and their analyses should not be dismissed out of hand. But neither, certainly, should the majority view of economists and historians, whose narrative, better  informed and better reasoned than the popular Tea Party narrative, insists that this populist push for austerity is going to cripple rather than save our economy. The risk that those who know what they’re talking about might be right, and those who don’t might be wrong, is not a risk that rational people should take lightly.

As Karabell writes, “our children and grandchildren will not praise us….” They will reproach us for “running scared,” echoing President Obama’s apt characterization of the choice we now face:  “A Choice Between Our Hopes and Our Fears”.

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It’s more difficult than ever to talk about what’s right with America these days, both because we’re still languishing in a persistent economic downturn, and because the most visible movement in America today is a single screaming complaint against everything that America, as a nation-state, does. As Susan Greene discusses in her column in today’s Denver Post (, it is political fodder for both candidates and citizens to decry the alleged laziness and inefficiency of public servants, without acknowledging the hard work, low salaries, and deep commitment that is widespread among them.

Certainly, there are inefficiencies, there are the issues of “goal displacement” and “agency problems” that are inherent to large bureaucratic organizations. These are authentic institutional challenges posing a legitimate need to address them to the best of our ability. But that demand on our ingenuity should not be confused with condemnation for the essential work that is done, and must be done, through our public agencies.

The problem is that the many indispensable things that America does, and that American public servants do, are so fully incorporated into our lives, so much a part of our expectations of what is and what should be, that they have become invisible to most of us, taken for granted and unacknowledged unless and until they’re gone. And even then, the competing streams of often inaccurate information allows people to blame the decreased quality of their lives resulting from the lack to other forces altogether, perversely leading to an increased demand for the shrinkage of government that caused the material and palpable decreased quality of life in the first place.

Such is the dilemma we’re in now. A decades long Republican-driven agenda of deregulation led to underregulated financial markets, the consequences of which were well foreseen (and frequently trumpeted on shows such as 60 Minutes, as was the inevitability of a major large-scale terrorist attack in the United States and a clear identification of our vulnerabilities) at least as long ago as the 1990’s, resulting in 2008 in “the biggest economic crisis since The Great Depression,” driven by a financial-sector fabricated housing bubble collapse and subsequent crash in values of mortgage-based securities.

If, at the end of the Bush administration, a deal had been offered to the nation that we would be in the economic condition we’re in today less than two years later, with a weak but stabilized economy, with an end to net increases in job loss and less than 10% unemployment, with the fairly clear prospect of a gradual return to economic growth and prosperity, every sane human being would have wiped their brow in relief, and screamed, “God yes! I’ll take that deal!”

But instead, the disingenuous Right gets away with trumpeting that 3.3 million jobs have been lost during the Obama administration, and even stating that that loss is a direct result of stimulus spending, disregarding that the rate of job loss was accelerating right up until the passage of Obama’s first stimulus bill, and began decelerating right after (, and that the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office has reported that the stimulus bill created between 1.3 and 3.4 million jobs that would not otherwise have existed (Organized Ignorance and the Amplified Echo-Chamber of Disinformation).

More importantly, those of us who have actually studied the legal, economic, and physical complexities of things like energy and financial markets, and recognize the role of information asymmetries in the ability of those in centrally located market positions to play markets to the advantage of a few at the sometimes extreme expense of the public (such as happened in the Enron-fabricated California Energy Crisis of 2000-01, and the financial sector collapse of 2008), are aware of the immensity of the task of creating regulatory regimes sophisticated enough, and well-enough funded, to keep up with and police the opportunities for socially disastrous mischief. (See, e.g., Monday Briefs: Labor Markets, Mandela, & High Frequency Trading, Regulation of Financial Markets)

Not only the large demand on the nation-state to provide, maintain, and grow an extensive enough and sophisticated enough regulatory architecture to keep up with technological and institutional advances in insiders’ ability to game the system at the public expense, and unsure the smooth and efficient operation of our markets, but also the large demand on necessary infrastructural maintenance and improvement to reduce transaction costs, attract investment capital, and, in general, grease the gears of the market economy in ways that no private investment capital can’t fully accomplish (due to long time-horizons of return-on-investment, for instance).

We have been underproducing these public goods essential to the smooth functioning of our markets, with Democrats fighting to better approach the optimal level, and Republicans fighting to reduce our investment even more, moving in the direction of increased dysfunctionality. Doing as much as we are doing (and, preferably, considerably more) on these dimensions is what’s right with America; the populist and corporatist pressure to do less is what’s wrong with America.

Beyond these demands on the government to provide the material and regulatory infrastructure necessary to the maintenance of a robust market economy, is a duel-natured demand to make a similar investment in our human capital. As I argued in The Real Deficit, there is both an economic and social imperative to do so: We need a well-educated work force capable of competing in the global economy both to be economically competitive as a nation, and to enable our citizens to occupy the high-skilled high-salaried jobs that contribute to individual prosperity and financial security.

What’s right with America is that, until recently, we have maintained a vibrant system of state universities and government subsidized student loans which have enabled most academically capable young people to take advantage of higher educational opportunities. What’s wrong with America is our diminishing commitment to continue these policies, the erosion of higher education opportunities for middle and lower class Americans.

Of course, those young people need to have not only access to affordable higher educational opportunities, but also the academic preparation necessary to utilize those opportunities successfully. American public education is the target of widespread and, in some ways, much deserved criticism. But the problems with American public education are much more a function of factors outside the schools than within the schools. What our schools themselves have been doing, to the extent that we have allowed them to do it, is very much what’s right with America, for we have gotten an enormous return on our investment in public education. We have, on average, a far higher-quality teacher pool than the salaries and benefits themselves alone would be able to purchase, because many people who simply love to teach and love children go into that profession because it’s what they were born to do.

Even so, there are many deep structural problems with American education, within the schools as well as without. The profession attracts not only the highly committed, but also those who are not competent but can pass the threshold of entry into education, because the demand is so high and the compensation so relatively low. We cannot improve the teacher pool simply by eliminating tenure and removing “bad teachers,” because unless we alter the supply-and-demand equation, all we would accomplish by doing so is to stack the deck just a little more against attracting the highest quality human capital in the first place (by reducing incentives to enter, without counterbalancing the change in incentives elsewhere).

But, despite this weakness in a generally strong teacher pool, and the overwhelmingly risk-averse, ossified, autocratic administration of large school districts (qualities which further undermine the efficacy of the elimination of teacher tenure, by ensuring that almost as many excellent teachers as poor ones are likely to be weeded out as a result), the biggest problems with American public education are, in combination, the deep and widespread cultural anti-intellectualism that continually undermines the educational mission in most out-of-school social contexts, and the general failure to create robust school-community partnerships and programs to better prepare and include parents in the educational mission.

What’s right with America is that we currently counterbalance the relatively low professional salary we provide to teachers with an attractive package of benefits, ample vacations, and unusually high job security. What’s wrong with America is educational reform that kicks responsibility for deep structural and cultural problems down the hierarchy, blaming and punishing those who are, by and large, the strongest component of American public education for defects over which they have virtually no control, and, by doing so, undermining that strong pillar without strengthening the weaker ones. What’s right with America is maintaining the revenue streams that schools require to address these challenges. What’s wrong with America is the zealous movement committed to continuing to reduce and eliminate those revenue streams. (For more on education and education reform, see, e.g., Real Education Reform, A Positive Vision For Colorado, Are We Civilized?, and Education Policy Ideas).

Beyond the regulatory architecture and material and human infrastructural investment that only government can provide, and our commitment to public education as the foundational institution in preparing our citizens to prosper individual and contribute to a robust state and national economy, there are a host of challenges that society faces, and commensurate demands on government, that can be met at considerable present cost in return for both far greater future savings, and a generally improved quality of life for a larger spectrum of the population. I have discussed these at length in essays such as The Most Vulnerable Americans,  The Vital Role of Child, Family, and Community Services, Community, Family, and Crime Prevention, and Sound Mind, Sound Body, Sound Society; Sound Good?.

What’s right with America is that we have, by and large, elected people to public office who are more often than not pretty well-qualified for the job, people who know some economics and some law, are aware of the devastating suffering of millions of children, recognize the magnitude of social challenges we face that can only be addressed through the agency of government, and, in general, have some understanding of the real demands of governance. What’s wrong with America today is the massive and massively misinformed populist movement, financed by corporate money eager to keep the candy store unlocked and unguarded, pushing to put people who reflect and embody their own lack of comprehension and misconceptualizations into office, and threatening to do so successfully, at great and enduring cost to all Americans.

If America ever was an enlightened country, it hasn’t been in my lifetime. Shortly before I was born, we had congressional hearings and blacklistings to destroy lives on the mere insinuation that someone believed in a particular political economic theory. During my childhood, we had the hippy movement that, while more hopeful and positive in outlook, almost immediately became just another pretext for a symbiosis of glassy-eyed and opportunistic human folly (even more so in the case of its progeny, the “New Age” movement). Then we (over-)reacted to such utopianism with the Reagan years, which put into place an astronomical bloating of the national debt (while claiming to represent fiscal conservativism), a renewed (self-delusional) sense of moral superiority vis-a-vis the rest of the world, a cynical promotion of religious fanaticism and cultural tyranny for political strategic purposes, a deregulatory frenzy that we are still paying for in numerous ways, and a set of policies that created more economic polarization in this country than existed in the 19th century “gilded age” of the “Robber Barons.” (As of 2007, 34.6% of net worth and financial wealth, 42.7 % of financial wealth alone, was concentrated into the hands of the wealthiest 1% of the American population. The bottom 80% of the American population were left to divide among them 15% of net worth and wealth combined, and just 7% of financial wealth alone.

After a brief respite under Clinton, we returned to insanity with redoubled enthusiasm. Like a reverse John the Baptist to Bush’s reverse Jesus, Newt Gingrich regaled us with his “Contract With America,” a grandstanding promise to be indifferent to the needs of our most vulnerable citizens. Then came George W. Bush himself, not merely an embarrassing dimwit, but the first president in American history to both engage in and try to advance as our national values the torture of prisoners, the pre-emptive military bombardments of other sovereign nations, the kidnapping of foreign citizens off of foreign streets on the barest wisps of evidence against them (a mere accusation from a neighbor perhaps miffed about some private dispute) and then holding them in secret compounds and torturing them, even after concluding that they’re innocent of any crime, or “rendering” them to other countries that will torture them with even less self-restraint. After eight years of that president who morally and financially bankrupted the country, squandering the economic surplus left by Clinton, catalyzing the worst economic crisis since The Great Depression, we finally, in a rare glimmer of sanity, elected Barack Obama.

But sanity never lasts long in America. Since after a year and a half he has failed to erase the mess that Bush (and his Republican predecessors) created, since though he stopped the hemorrhaging of jobs ( he has not turned around what economists almost universally admit no one can, since he has tried to address the disgraceful fact that the richest country in the world had the most expensive and least efficient health care system in the developed world (the only one that failed to cover a significant portion of the population), since he addressed the lack of financial regulation (insisted upon and advanced by all preceding Republican executives and legislators) that led to the financial sector meltdown in the first place, he is the devil incarnate (born elsewhere, foreign in every way), and we must return to the insanity that preceded him (and is reacting to him).

Yesterday, on “This Week” (, Queen Rania of Jordan very eloquently and moderately captured the corrosive role of religious extremism, both at home (in the United States) and abroad, the multiple folly of opposition to the Muslim cultural center in Manhattan (which stands in opposition to the intolerance and extremism of 9/11, and which in turn is opposed by the parallel intolerance and extremism at home), and the need not to surrender to cynicism and pessimism regarding the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Such a voice of reason! So certain to fall on deaf ears….

After all, she is speaking to the America of Florida pastor Terry Jones, who felt that responding to the hopeful building of a Muslim interfaith center in Manhattan (not at “ground zero”, in fact) by threatening to burn the Koran was the epitome of what it means to be an American ( While many even on the right denounced him (only because they knew it would end up costing American lives), the ironic similarity of such intolerant ethnocentric escalators of hatred to the terrorists whose acts they abhor, and the dissimilarity to those who preach tolerance rather than interethnic hatred, is lost on them.

The Republican “Pledge to America”, which even conservative economists admit will further increase the deficit (, is being aggressively and successfully marketed by the right as fiscal responsibility which no rational person could oppose (though virtually all rational people oppose it). And it imposes debt on future generations only to benefit the wealthiest Americans, rather than those who need assistance, or to improve our human or material infrastructure. We should incur debt only as an investment in the future, not as a redistribution of wealth, across generations, to the uber-wealthy of today.

At South Jeffco’s Summerset Festival the weekend before last, for instance, I had numerous encounters which drove home the zeitgeist. One pleasant young woman told me she was a Republican, and responded to my suggestion that we should all agree to be reasonable people of goodwill and build on that by saying, “yes, just look at health care reform, that ruined the best health care system in the world.” Was she referring to the same health care system that, by every statistical measure, underperformed the systems of every other developed nation on Earth, and did so at far greater expense, while managing to cover a smaller percentage of the population than any other developed nation’s health care system? And another woman insisted that illegal immigrants never pay taxes and are purely a sap on our economy, though many pay taxes, often for services they can never collect on, and by all economic analyses are either an economic wash or a slight benefit nationally. Truth is the first casualty of war, and there is currently a war being waged on truth itself in America.

Examples abound. There are the Colorado ballot initiatives, 60, 61, and 101, that even fiscally conservative Republican politicians in Colorado oppose (, but that have a chance of passing, and are defended by earnest pseudo-economic arguments such as those presented by Debbie Schum in yesterdays Denver Post ( This is what happens when insanity is cultivated, in the hope of it being harnessed for political gain. Those who cultivate it eventually lose control of it, and it is the insanity unleashed that prevails.

As I’ve often said, there are legitimate debates to be had, legitimate disputes based on the differing conclusions of sound reasoning applied to reliable data in service to mutual goodwill. But we’re not having those debates. Instead, public discourse and the political process that simultaneously tracks and exploits it, have been hijacked by the need to incessantly debunk the unsound reasoning, fabricated facts, and fundamental inhumanity of what is perhaps the most powerful social movement in America today. We are too busy fighting the sheer human folly incarnate among us to get to the legitimate debates, and the hard, information-intensive work of governing ourselves wisely and effectively.

I have long noted that, in many ways, America is Ancient Rome to Europe’s Ancient Greece, the more brutish inheritor of a cultural, economic, and political fluorescence. Unlike Rome, however, which coveted Greek slaves to tutor their children, America has come to disparage rather than respect the still more civilized originators of modernity across the Atlantic. We look at countries that have almost completely eliminated poverty, have universal health care, low infant mortality, a far more successful and higher functioning public education system, greater social mobility, and higher rates of self-reported happiness, and many among us dismiss them as “socialist” countries, which we arbitrarily claim, by definition, must be failures. (As one individual quoted in yesterday’s Denver Post said, health care reform is “a communist, socialist scheme. All the other countries that have tried this, they’re billions in debt, and they admit this doesn’t work” (

The western European countries have their defects, to be sure, and America has done better than them on some dimensions, but this absolute rejection of the possibility that we have something to learn from others, who have fared better than us on numerous dimensions, is the epitome of combined arrogance and ignorance, that unholy marriage that dooms any individual or social entity to self-destructive irrelevance. We are a country very much like the one we were when Elmer Gantry was written a century ago, a country of small-minded yahoos and those that exploit them, with the marginalized voices of sincere and well-informed analysts shouting desperately across the sound-proofed barrier that has been erected against us.

But the question remains: How do we defeat this persistent, deeply embedded insanity that has come to define us as a people? In a conversation with Adam Schrager (Colorado’s pre-eminent political broadcast journalist) last week, we both voiced our disgust that politics has become far too much about the acquisition of power, and far too little about the challenge of devising intelligent public policies. But I shared with him this thought: Politics is almost inevitably hostage to an evolutionary logic. That which works (in the competition of policies and candidates) is that which is reproduced, while that which doesn’t work is abandoned. As a result, politics has devolved into a competition of marketing strategies and raising the funds necessary to their effectiveness. It isn’t enough to bemoan this fact, because any attempt to reject it, unless embracing an alternative simultaneously less cynical and more effective (which, as much as we’d like to be the case, almost never is), is doomed to failure, and thus obsolescence.

The ironic challenge we face, then, is how to use what works to create a context in which it is no longer what works, or no longer an option. For, while extraordinary acts of self-sacrifice for the public good by political leaders are both admirable and meaningful, they are not a sustainable strategy. Ralph Carr (Adam Schrager’s favorite example), the Republican governor of Colorado during WWII, who refused to comply with Japanese interment, despite such refusal being political suicide, might be a great example to follow, but if universally followed by all reasonable people of goodwill in all instances, would succeed only in ensuring that only irrational people of ill-will ever remain in office once confronted with the choice to do what’s right or do what’s politically expedient. The somewhat empty admonition that elected officials (like the rest of us) should always do what’s right rather than what’s in their own interests does not get us very far, both because of human nature (one’s own interests are going to remain a powerful incentive, whether we like it or not), and because of the evolutionary logic of politics (to paraphrase a famous quote from Henry Kissinger, in politics, always doing what’s right rather than what’s politically expedient or strategically superior merely cedes the world to the less scrupulous).

We can afford neither to be “above politics,” nor to surrender completely to its dysfunctional logic. But here is the limit of my own cynicism: We most certainly can’t afford to make ourselves morally indistinguishable from those we oppose. We must find successful strategies, in pursuit of raw political power, but by finding resonance between our own better angels and those of the electorate, rather than bringing both us and them down by resorting to the same old political cynicism as a first rather than last resort.

People criticize Obama for having tried to take the political high road rather than jamming through whatever we could any way that we could, but I do not. He is looking at a longer-term agenda, and a deeper necessity, than his critics are. There is a balance to be struck between what reality demands of us, and what our ideals demand of us, and we must always subordinate the former to the latter in the final analysis. Health care reform may have been critically important to our collective welfare, but there are deeper and more essential reforms that should not be sacrificed in every instance to the exigencies of the moment. We cannot defeat our own ignorance by surrendering to a political strategic system that exploits and cultivates it.