Cato the Current

Jun 24

1960: Part II

In case you haven’t heard, Barack Obama and John McCain are running for President. Both candidates are good, decent, honest Americans. It’s anyone’s guess who will become the next President of the United States of America, but as of this writing Obama has a lead in most polls and match-ups.

I try to take a moderate approach to most things political, but I’m only human, and have personal political views that sometimes become a factor in decision making. That being said, I’d like to appreciate the moment, and crack a smile for where we find ourselves. Very few commentators have done so, and we seem to forget the facts that make this a unique and historic election.

To begin with the obvious, we now have a leading presidential candidate for the first time in history who is an African American. This is a great thing. And to make it better, let us move past it and treat Barack Obama as any other candidate. He deserves it, and the American Presidency demands that we view any candidate as a full human being, not as just a character in the story of our lives. No less of an interesting story and a great man is John McCain (although perhaps lacking a certain sex appeal, according to some) McCain is a great patriot who has sacrificed pain and great effort in service to this country. Beyond that, he has a fierce independent streak, and is willing to make party enemies if only to stay true to his beliefs. Both candidates have their own type of charisma, and both love this country dearly.

To top all this off, both men are United States Senators. Yes, for the first time since JFK in 1960 we will have a president who came from the federal legislature. For their personal and political reasons, both these men represent fundamental change to the executive branch. Obama exudes change, McCain practices reform. The voters will decide which is more appealing, and history will decide who was right.

I’m full of admiration for both candidates, and for the country itself. My only hope is that both men live up to their ideals, and practice what they preach. And I’m also crossing my fingers that whoever wins in November, the American people will respect the decision, and get behind our new President 100%. For whatever the outcome, we could all do with a little unity. And with these two great candidates, there’s never been a better time to welcome an end to partisanship.

Jun 02

Institutional Rust

Picture for a minute, the Eiffel tower. For those who know their history, you’ll recall that the Eiffel tower was built as the centerpiece to the World’s Fair of 1889. While it was originally criticized as an eyesore, and scheduled for deconstruction in 1909, it grew on the city of Paris into the cultural icon we all know. Compare the example I’ve just given, with the most well known and received World’s Fair, the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893. The Chicago Fair aimed to eclipse the Paris Fair in every respect, and ultimately succeeded in every respect. Even the fair’s newly invented Ferris Wheel was intended to “out-Eiffel, Eiffel”. And even though the later fair saw the construction of the “White City”, a city of immaculate beauty and design, very little of that endeavor exists today. Yet when referred to, the Chicago World’s Fair is remembered as something perfect, almost like Disneyland for Angels. And I think it is due in small part to the fact that the White City and most everything that was constructed for the Fair, burned down shortly after the festivities concluded. It existed for a brief moment in time, served its noble purpose, and then resigned itself only to history books.

This example is poignant because of the lesson it can teach: serve your purpose as best you can, and then make room for the new. And while most people are grateful that the Eiffel tower was not torn down, how many can imagine that the original planners had intended their attraction to serve as a cultural landmark some 100 years later?

Most problems in current day society have a solution, and while not always easy, a solution exists nevertheless. Do you have too much debt? Get a second job, or stop spending so much. Are you in a bad relationship? Break up and move on. Is gasoline too expensive? Start taking mass transit, or try walking. But there also exist problems that have no clear answer, such as bigotry, environmental pollution, homelessness, and so on. And almost as long as these problems have received major attention, the answer for lack of a better answer has been: form an organization. The reasoning behind these actions is invariably, “this problem is so huge, the only way to solve it is to create a group to combat it” This response is not surprising because oftentimes it is the best solution, and also because people enjoy feeling special in creating something new. What we fail to realize though, is that in creating a solution to a problem, we are very often giving birth to a new problem. The new problem is one of relevance.

To illustrate the point I’m trying to make, let us take two example problems. A large and serious problem faced by this country is the decision to allow drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Rescue. This issue is still current, and on the one hand is the benefit of billions of barrels of oil for the American market, and on the other hand is the possible irrevocable harm to the land and wildlife. Not an easy issue. For a second example let us take neglected and sick Chihuahuas. At least within the state of California there are a large number of sick and abandoned Chihuahua dogs that need help. Not a fun issue, but in some regards possibly easier to handle. The answer to both these quandaries? Form an organization! The good folks at “Save ANWR” and “Chihuahua Rescue” have organized and created institutions to fight against drilling, and for Chihuahua adoption. And while there’s no question that these people mean well, and believe in the causes they’re championing, did they really need to form an organization? Is it not possible that rational thought and discussion, letter writing, and personal philanthropic work would better serve these issues?

This existential dilemma has expressed itself most fully in the case of special interest groups. I believe a special interest group is granted that name as soon as a lobbyist is on the payroll, before that time they’re merely an “organization”. My primary criticism in all these groups is not that they’re foolish or excessive, but that they can become irrelevant. What happens when an issue is resolved, do the groups on either side disperse? If personal and corporate taxes are slashed or reduced to zero, does the Center for Economic Growth dissolve? If abortions are made free in every state, at all stages of pregnancy, does NARAL fold up shop? And if carbon emission becomes a crime on par with manslaughter, does the Sierra Club ride off into the sunset, mission accomplished? The answer in all likelihood, is no.

Now consider that in 1992 there were approximately 200,000 non-profit corporations in America. By the year 2006 that number had ballooned to 1.9 million 501(c) non-profit corporations. It would appear that business is good for non-businesses. And perhaps the reason why special interest groups rarely close down is because they care more about surviving than succeeding. They’re not concerned with how much money they’re making, or results, no their cause is all that matters. And while their courage of conviction is very admirable, can we all stop to ask, “is this helping America?”. The purpose of special interests is to inform the public and politicians of their position, and let democracy work. So what happens when their issue is definitively ruled upon, loses steam, or becomes an anachronism? The logical and evolutionary answer would be to die. Sadly, that is not the case.

It was in 1933 that the Anti-Saloon League shuttered its windows and ceased to exist. That special interest was a powerful lobbying group that worked on behalf of the temperance movement to enact prohibition legislation. Prohibition became law, and was later repealed much to the thanks of drinkers everywhere. You will notice that the Anti-Saloon league does not still exist today. Whether it was logic or frustration, the League at least had the common courtesy to say “when”. I doubt such courtesy or rationality exists in today’s special interest groups.

It all comes down to relevance and decay. When an organization is founded with stated goals, they should work as best they can on behalf of those goals. However, once those goals are met or they become unreachable due to some immutable facts, the organization should resign itself to history. The alternative is to become an institution. And institutions are old, crotchety, inefficient things. They exist primarily to further their own interests of staying relevant and well-funded. What’s worse, a special interest that becomes an institution becomes a ruler of opinion, it denigrates the marketplace of ideas, and is a hindrance to individual thought and expression.

A Democratic Republic such as we Americans enjoy will always foster differing opinions. And thank God for that. If an opinion is worth having, it is worth explaining and promoting. But may we never confuse an institution with the cause it promotes. For if we do, the cause is weakened and we make enemies for the sake of rhetoric. We must recognize that in politics, much like life, there is a cycle of birth and death. New causes and organizations should come and go, in an effort to affect change or die trying. Presently this is not the case, and we are locked in a political landscape that cannot grow, but continues to clutter with immortals. These special interests and institutions keep thundering on, bereft of purpose and growing rust.

So to every organization, special interest group and institution, heed the saying that, “it’s better to burn out than to fade away”. My my, hey hey.

May 19

GOP feared DOA

Catchy title, eh? That took all of 5 seconds to come up with, given the lamentations of current Republicans and analysis from political commentators. But I would like to set aside the griping and focus on explaining how the Republican Party can re-brand itself and avoid disaster. And perhaps these terms are too modest. The Republican Party is having an identity crisis, primal in nature. Beyond a need to come up with a new message or fresh face to the voters, the Republican Party stands at a crossroads in their evolution. Some fear the conservative movement has reached its end, while others feel that the party is devoid of direction. Whether Republicans recognize such problems is another matter entirely, as is the process by which they got here. My hope here and now is to propose a new party mandate, or to simply shine a light at the end of the tunnel they currently find themselves in. Hear me out because really, what have you to lose?

Let me begin by disclosing that I am not an academic or political pundit (the blog and timbre of my words could have given that much away already). I am also not a registered Republican. I am a young man, fiscally conservative, socially liberal, strong on defense, and an advocate of limited federal government- by all accounts GOP recruiters should be buying me cocktails and reminiscing about the glory days of Reagan. And the reason I mention who I am is because in essence, I could be the future of the Republican Party. (not like Pat Buchanan in the 60’s, I mean people like me)  So please take my words with a grain of salt, unless of course, you feel that the party has need of a future.

As of this writing the Republican Party is rife with fear and disunity. They remind me of a high school prom king who just graduated- once top dog, but now regretful having squandered time and facing a bleak future. Bad analogies aside, the Republicans need to know what they stand for, what is their raison d’être? (perhaps the fact that some might wince at this french is proof enough that the problems are numerous and real)

If you were to ask the typical American, “what do Republicans represent?” you would find a myriad of responses. And apart from the partisan four-letter words, you would hear the terms “conservative”, “principles”, “strong defense”, “low taxes”, “big business” thrown about. All are the same rubric that has been used for the last several election cycles. The GOP has been either unwilling or unable to fulfill many of these ideals during the past 8 years, and more importantly- none of these concepts seem to be accurate or attractive to America. The voters have endured the current Republican Party for too long, and are not satisfied with the efforts or the results. Newt Gingrich said it best in an open letter to GOP leaders, “My Plea to Republicans: It’s Time for Real Change to Avoid Real Disaster.”

So what is the answer? What should be the core principle driving the current Republican party, both in this election and beyond? I would advise quite simply: A Return to Common Sense.

This term of course is a reference to Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, from which the American Revolution drew most of its arguments and inspiration- arguably a good starting point for any political party. I believe this theme so strongly, that simply taking the opening line from Thomas Paine’s work;

"Some writers have so confounded society with government, as to leave little or no distinction between them; whereas they are not only different, but have different origin."

and you’re already a step in the right direction. (perhaps replacing “writers” with politicians” would be more apt) Such language and a fundamental message speaks loudly to America, like a trumpet blast of reason. The Republican Party needs to stand as a party that espouses the spirit of the American Revolution. Forget change, Americans need a revolution in politics.

While you ponder the slogans, marketing rhetoric, and warm association of words that this theme embodies (all of which I am acutely aware of, but will leave to the PR types to run with) I’ll talk brass tacks. After all, now that we’ve stated the broad strokes, what’s behind it? This cannot be a theme or principle in name only, given lip service to gain votes and quickly discarded after election season- to do so would be incomprehensibly stupid, and like deja-vu all over again. No, this principle which would define and drive the party must be the central question asked when confronted with all policy decisions and problems. What does common sense dictate? It’s a question that all Americans should be asking at all times, but one which the Republican Party could embrace and wave as a standard.

The Republican Party may not currently be the party of Common Sense, but certainly neither are the Democrats. Whereas many consider Democrats to be the party that vows to do good deeds regardless of consequences or methods, the Republicans could be the party that affects the greatest good by doing that which makes sense. I have joked that “Democrats practice good regardless of the evil it inflicts, whereas Republicans practice evil and surprisingly produce good”, but such sayings could be a thing of the past given this new direction. Any party that uses common sense as its’ moral compass would surely find a receptive public, and an easily identifiable theme. Taken seriously, this idea could produce spectacular results for the part and for the country.

Ah, but what’s the catch you ask? Indeed, there is always a catch. On this matter I would refer to Voltaire who noted, “common sense is not so common”. Common sense is open to interpretation and that which is defined as “common”. If the Republicans embraced this idea, they would by definition need to move towards the center, to become more moderate and thus “common”. Now before neo-conservatives and party faithfuls convulse in fits of rage, please hear me out. For starters, you’re already going to need a return to the center, based in no small part upon the current political climate, but also due to a slant to the “hard right” during the Bush administration. That’s just the simple reality of being a political hegemony for 6+ years- sorry. The other silver lining here is the fact that shifting to the center isn’t too far a trip on certain issues. Low taxes, strong defense, open markets, and even boarder control are all issues that you have public opinion and common sense on your side. On other issues you may need to do one of two things; 1) Enter the 21st century, or 2) Refer to states rights. The former is my opinion, the second is a basic principle that for some foolish reason has fallen out of usage. Why must everything (namely social issues) be a federal matter? Republicans are supposed to be in favor of limited federal authority, so embrace it and let each state decide on issues that effect them, and perhaps these same issues were dragging down the party? Just a thought.

How this all translates into practice and party framework is largely based upon implementation. The devil is in the details, and a change in fundamental theme is no exception. A return to common sense would require strong, intelligent, and fair-minded leadership. But the Republican ace in the hole is exactly that- John McCain. I came to creating this theme by looking at what Republicans are lacking, and what is so appealing about John McCain. This is a man who embodies common sense and moderation. If more Republicans were to follow his example, the party would have strong prospects for the future. It’s ironic that a candidate so old and discredited can hold the future of the party in his hands. Maybe it’s poetic justice. McCain is someone who embodies the best of the past while creating the best future. Just as a return to common sense would need to embrace the teachings of the past, it must not forget to live in the present and build for the future.

From the outset, the theme of a return to common sense would face critics and adversaries. It would also attract supporters and like-minded individuals, with the hope that the latter outweighs the former. Old party stalwarts, evangelicals, and strict neo-cons in power might reject the idea of a fundamental revolution within the GOP. Such opposition could be expected, but must not be shied away from. Indeed, the party needs to make enemies with those who have put it in the predicament it currently finds itself in. Corruption and conservatives in name only must be shunned. It must break with the past and stand for something, instead of accepting anything that will generate more votes. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, “You have enemies? Good, that means you stood for something at some time.” Republicans have for too long avoided dissent within their ranks at the cost of accepting bad judgments by those in power.

And should you like a play-by-play of how such a revolution would play out, here’s the abridged version: the Republican Party begrudgingly accepts this behind closed doors with some leaving the fold and others shouting nasty words, followed by an announcement to a skeptical public. Then some realistic libertarians (think Ron Paul supporters) see this as an opening to join a party not so distant from its’ own, and the movement grows. This new policy and direction is elaborated upon with an emphasis on re-evaluating party stances, causing the movement to grow further. Democrats are forced to explain the logic behind their own positions and why these are not “common sense” approaches, causing public scrutiny or disagreement with Democrats. Over time the guiding principle of common sense becomes the distinguishing characteristic of Republicans, and voters identify with this. Eventually the theme “a return to common sense” becomes a rallying cry at polls and within all levels of government. Upon a string of Republican victories, and a period devoid of scandal (but full of bi-partisan cooperation) the revolution would be deemed successful.

Is all this too lofty a goal? To over-reaching and intangible? Perhaps. To dismiss this notion of “A Return to Common Sense” is easy because America has forgotten it can be united behind an ideal. However, if we look to Barack Obama we can see that Americans are ready and willing to back a theme of hope and change. But why hold out hope in the unknown, and support change anywhere and everywhere? People support hope and change because what is their alternative? There is little alternative, and therefore something greater and more primal is needed. A revolution. The common sense revolution has the potential to fuel an entirely new Republican party.

A return to common sense could be a guiding principal of incredible value for the party. More importantly, it could serve as the harbinger of a new era of prosperity and happiness, if given the chance. Much of what I have said here is opinion, other parts interpretation, and still other parts are simple plain truth. My hope in writing this is only to put forth a new idea for an old movement, and to benefit a party in need of help. In closing, please remember the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson who said, “Nothing astonishes men so much as common sense and plain dealing.” Learn from this and lessons of the past. Have the strength now to practice a little Common Sense.