Many thanks to Intelligence Squared for organizing an excellent, thoughtful debate. Watch the video below--
There is more than may appear in President Obama’s plan to cut the social safety net in his new budget proposal. The offer, on the face of it, reflects a significant violation of a major liberal creed, discarding the strongest liberal political card, and Obama’s peculiar negotiation style of making major concessions at the opening of a give-and-take session. But it also reflects the sad but true fact that the dynamics of American politics cannot be understood in terms of Democrats vs. Republicans. Party labels aside, the nation is still being ruled by what I call a majority “conservative party.”
If Democrats and Republicans were the true divide, the meager gun control measures recently introduced in the Senate would have the majority needed to pass. After all, there are 53 Democratic Senators (and two independents who generally side with them). Moreover, this time, the threat of a GOP filibuster is not to blame. Yet the Democratic majority leader, Senator Harry Reid, removed the assault weapons ban from the draft bill, because some 15 Democratic senators, in effect, supported the conservative, pro-gun position, making up — with the Republican senators — that majority “conservative party.” Thanks to this party, the same legislative defeat is about to befall liberal proposals to curtail high-capacity magazines. This leaves only better background checks on the table, but these, too, will inevitably be rendered ineffective by the conservatives via the underhanded gutting of enforcement (more about this shortly).
Social security and gun safety are but a couple of the numerous issues on which conservatives in Washington get their way and the minority liberal party loses out. Most recently, every Republican and 33 Democratic conservatives came together to repeal a tax on medical devices, a major source of funding for Obamacare. And on Dec 28, the conservative party — 42 Republicans, 30 Democrats and one Independent senator — voted to extend foreign intelligence law known as FISA, opposed by civil libertarians. We should further expect that the conservative party will keep winning on many fronts, from greatly limiting all new investments in education to unduly slashing social spending.
Some argue that the president is trying to build up a broad following so that, come the 2014 elections, the Democrats will carry the House and he will be able to push through a progressive agenda in the second half of his term. These doe-eyed optimists disregard the fact that, even if the Democrats hold both chambers, the additional Democrats elected in 2014 will largely be from so-called red (i.e., conservative) districts. The situation will then be much like 2009, when the Democrats had a majority in the House, a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, and a president in the White House, yet still could enact only very little progressive legislation. The reason? Very much the same: conservative Democrats voting with the GOP to extend the Bush tax cuts, cut social spending, weaken financial regulations, and so on.
I must regretfully add that the situation in Washington is even bleaker than what I have laid out so far. While gun control legislation makes its way through Congress (we may get slightly stricter background checks), the conservatives in Congress have passed various measures that eviscerate the agency charged with enforcing these background checks, new and old, thereby ensuring that they will remain weak and ineffective. Liberals tend to focus on passing laws; conservatives, when they cannot block or weaken the laws themselves, see to it that they are not enforced.
Conservatives in Congress have a long history of undermining the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), and new moves to this effect pile on top of old ones. The Firearms Owners’ Protection Act of 1986 bans the ATF from inspecting gun dealers more than once in any twelve month period, even if violations are uncovered, and reduces record-keeping violations from a felony to a misdemeanor offense, the result being that they are very rarely prosecuted. The 2003 and 2004 Tiahrt amendments, named for their sponsor Rep. Todd Tiahrt, require that records from the background checks of gun buyers be destroyed within 24 hours; it bars requiring gun dealers to conduct inventory checks to monitor gun thefts; and it prevents crime gun trace data from being used in court, even when a dealer has broken the law. In addition, Congress has barred the ATF repeatedly from creating a computerized database, so when a gun is recovered at a crime scene, agents must manually search through boxes of paper records to trace the firearm to dealer or purchaser.
NPR's social science maven reported that President Obama may have undermined the success of gun control legislation when he stated that "We don't live in isolation, we live in a society. A government of, and for, and by the people. We are responsible for each other." Americans, Shankar Vendantam stated, care about individual rights and liberty, not the common good. As evidence he cited a research paper by MarYam Hamedani and her associates called, "In the Land of the Free, Interdependent Action Undermines Motivation," showing that when researchers evoke concepts of the common good -- the subjects did less well on various tasks than when no such concepts were evoked.
Much of the paper relies on the notoriously unreliable concept of psychological priming, contrived situations, and extremely trivial stimuli and responses. Thus, in one of the paper's experiments, students were asked to unscramble anagrams of communitarian words (e.g., "accommodate" or "coordinate") and then were given very difficult anagrams -- their motivation being measured in terms of how long they attempted to solve the puzzles. A second study by the authors had students role-play a job applicant "skilled at working with others," and then measured how long they would squeeze a handgrip -- a short squeeze was taken to show that communitarianism had undermined their motivation! In both cases, the authors found a measurable decline in motivation of the students when compared with various control groups.
Such "priming" has come under fire from many researchers who have been repeatedly unable to replicate these kinds of findings. Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel laureate, who at one point favored priming experiments, has recently expressed serious doubt their legitimacy, urging priming researchers to thoroughly address the charges of many skeptics, or else there may be a "train wreck looming" for the field.
An additional problem is that the tasks that the researchers asked students to perform were all individualistic ones. They did not explore how such prompting affects behavior when the task at hand requires teamwork, as is the case for much of work and life. There are a number of studies reporting that those with communitarian tendencies achieve greater success when working as teams (Lillian T. Eby & Gregory H. Dobbins, 1997), have greater work group commitment (Michael Clugston, Jon P. Howell & Peter W. Dorfman, 2000), and exhibit more behaviors associated with citizenship (Linn Van Dyne et al., 2000) than do their more individualistic peers. Such findings suggest that communitarian values have a positive effect on people's motivation to collaborate and achieve team-based objectives.
This conclusion is supported by other studies show that people are more motivated to contribute their time and effort if they believe they are being helpful and promoting the common good (Martha E. Kropf & Johnny Blair, 2005) . Furthermore, studies of voting show that the most important factor determining whether or not a person will vote is his or her sense of civic duty. And studies on recycling show that people are motivated to recycle not so much for themselves and their kids but for all of us.
Read the rest at The Huffington Post.
If anyone had doubts that the much ballyhooed 2011 pivot to Asia was not much of a move, and that all the hot spots continue to be in the near, not far, east (east viewed from an American vantage point), the recent news should have removed these doubts. Reports suggest that the first international trip the President is planning to make at the start of his second term will include stops in Israel, the West Bank and Jordan. Secretary of State John Kerry was on the phone with the Israeli and Palestinian leaders even before he reached his desk. Making peace here is said to be one of the only two international issues that President Obama is emotionally engaged in and sees as part of his legacy. (The other is equally quixotic: moving toward zero nukes – by further reducing the strategic arms the US and Russia are holding, thus “inspiring” other nations to follow.)
Read More here.
Professor Etzioni takes a critical look at consumer society, arguing that people are better-off without the excessive consumption that characterizes modern America.
Watch the video here--
The ads that recently appeared to the sides of buses in several American major cities declare: "#MyJihad is to march on despite losing my son," "#MyJihad: Modesty is not a weakness," "#MyJihad is to build bridges through friendship," and "#MyJihad is to not take the simple things in life for granted." The ads are part of a public education campaign sponsored by the Chicago Council of American-Islamic Relations. They remind me of a noble moment during President George W. Bush's presidency when, on Sept 17, 2001, while the ruins of the Twin Towers were still billowing smoke and many of the bodies had not yet been pulled out, he stated that, "The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That's not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace." It was a magnanimous and even courageous statement to make -- although not a particularly accurate one.
Those behind the #MyJihad campaign argue that the term "jihad," which is defined as "struggling in the way of God," has been misrepresented by extreme Islamists and Islamophobes alike. Countering common associations of jihad with violence, terrorism, and religious extremism, the #MyJihad campaign presents jihad as, "a concerted and noble effort against injustice, hate, misunderstanding, war, violence, poverty, hunger, abuse or whatever challenge big or small we face in daily life, with the purpose of getting to a better place."
Actually, an intensive study of Muslim texts and preaching that we conducted leaves little doubt that Jihad can be understood in two different ways. For some, jihad is a holy war waged against the infidels while others see it as a spiritual struggle for moral self-improvement. Regarding the former, textual support can be found in Quranic verses urging Muslims to "Slay the idolaters wheresoever you find them," (9:5) or the Hadith's statement that "the Messenger of Allah declared: I have been directed to fight against people so long as they do not say: There is no god but Allah."
A rather different interpretation of jihad, associated with the Sufis, is that it refers primarily to the internal spiritual struggle against immorality rather than an outward battle against one's enemies. Thus, Sufis attribute to Muhammad the statement "The greater jihad is the struggle against the self." And as the twelfth-century Sufi master Abd al-Qdier al-Jilani explained, "[There are] two types of jihad: the outer and the inner. The inner is the jihad of the soul, the passion, the nature, and Satan. The outer is the jihad of the infidels who resist Him and His Messenger." When a pollster asked 10,004 adults in predominantly Muslim countries "what jihad means to you," he found that the majority of responses spoke of jihad as a "duty toward God," a "divine duty," or a "worship of god" -- "with no explicit militaristic connotation at all."Read the rest at The Huffington Post.
Making Japan a centerpiece of the U.S. drive to contain China is a seductive idea—but one to which Washington should not succumb. Containment may or may not be the right policy for dealing with China, but even hawks should realize that pushing the most emotive buttons of a potential adversary amounts to cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face.
At first blush it may seem wise to draw upon Japan for support. As Fred Hiatt of The Washington Post put it, “Abe’s legacy is of little concern to most Americans. But as the United States seeks to contend—on a limited budget—with a rising China, the ability of its most important Asian ally to contribute…matters a great deal.” Getting Japan involved is a form of burden-sharing. Moreover, Japan hardly needs to be pushed; it is raring to go. It feels both threatened and aggrieved by China, and is shedding the pacifist plumes it acquired after World War II.Read more at the National Interest.
We need a Coffee Party to wake up the American people, and there are fewer better wake up calls than Steven Brill’s outstanding recent Time cover story, “Bitter Pill.” Indeed, if you have time to read only one essay this month, make it this one. It not only reveals how we can protect Medicare from the right-wing assaults (and a president who seems all too anxious to cut a deal) — but also what ails America’s health care system, indeed the whole political system, and what must be done to fix it.
If I had to put it all in a few lines, I would say that the Tea Party is half right; often our government is not working for the people and we ought to be pissed off. Unfortunately, the Tea Party channels this anger to the wrong address. The main issue is not that the government is too big, but that it is often captured by special interests, especially corporations. It often does their bidding rather than ours.
Read more at the Huffington Post.
If you understand where President Obama is headed in his second term, pray send me an email. I like him, wish him Godspeed, and might well support where he is going -- if I could just figure out where that is.
I thought I got it during the inaugural speech. The president ran up the flag pole one, and only one, policy: climate change. As the New York Times reported, Obama's "Speech Gives Climate Goals Center Stage." I did not think it was an ideal choice, as the GOP, in collaboration with conservative Democrats, is most unlikely to support much action on this front, and there are sharp limits on what the president can do via executive order. Further, there is little we can do without global cooperation, and moving aggressively on this front might weaken the anemic economic recovery. But it is a worthy purpose, so I was all ready to suit up and see how one could help. However, this is more or less the last I heard on the subject from the president.