Democracy Hits Back

With the inauguration of the 45th president of the United States this weekend, democracy has officially hit back!

The U.S. political landscape has always been a see-saw affair, with one party pulling one direction for a while until the other party swings back with a vengeance. It is in this give and take that we find our true democracy. No side of the political spectrum has ever or will ever monopolize the political discourse, and it’s probably a good thing.

Now, before you ask if democracy actually won in this election cycle because Clinton received more votes than Trump, let me dispel that right away. Democracy did win, because the United States is a state-by-state democracy. Democracy won in enough states to secure the victory for Trump. If you say it doesn’t seem fair, I would take you back to the 1960 World Series when the New York Yankees trounced the Pirates 56-27 over a seven game series. However, the Pirates won the series 4-3 by winning four games. The overall score is meaningless in American politics. It’s the way the founding fathers wanted it, and it’s a pretty clever system to distribute power throughout the county so everyone has a say.

Now that that is settled, let’s get back to the victory for democracy. Eight years of Obama leading the nation to the left will be followed by Trump leading us somewhere else. We will have to see where that is because no one knows for sure.

Obama’s election was a shift to the left from eight years of GW Bush. Bush was a shift right (in some respects) from 8 years of Clinton (who was fairly centrist in many respects). Clinton’s victory in 1992 was a shift left from the Reagan and Bush years of 1981-1993.

If you go back further in time, Harding, then Coolidge, righted the ship in the 1920s after Woodrow Wilson’s grand overtures overseas. That was followed up by Franklin Roosevelt’s election in 1932 which dramatically shifted the country left as the country sought relief from the crippling depression.

When a democracy shifts suddenly, it’s working. That means everyone has a seat at the table and everyone’s voice is being heard. Is it a slip-shod way to run a government? Sure is, but it’s much more preferable to an authoritarian alternative.

When you welcome Trump into the White House, whether you like him personally or not, you are welcoming a properly functioning democracy.

And that’s a very good thing.

 

What is Democratic Socialism?

What is Democratic Socialism?

This is a question which has never been more pertinent in a US presidential election cycle with the prominence of democratic socialist candidate Bernie Sanders, enjoying an unprecedented look as the Democratic Party nomination. It is also worth noting that the front runner Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, has done little to distance herself from this “Democratic Socialism” label. So in order for the American public to make an informed choice, this term needs to be defined in a specific way.

Now, if Facebook memes are your main source of political information, you might start to get the impression that democratic socialism is a calmer and wiser version of the socialism which decimated the former Soviet Union, China, Vietnam, and any other society which tried a centrally planned economy. In a way, that’s true, but you might also get the impression (if you use Occupy Democrats as your guide) that democratic socialism is not a strange concept at all to America and that America has used democratic socialistic ideas many times during our existence. At best this sentence is misleading if not an outright falsehood.

Let’s start with a definition. Democratic Socialism (or Multi-Party Socialism) is a governmental system which uses taxes as a means of controlling the economy, especially by redistributing tax dollars in ways that benefit society’s less well-off. The hallmark of democratic socialism is a mixed economy–that is, an economy which allows free enterprise to exist but uses an aggressive and big government mindset to own and manage certain industries and create a massive safety net for the entire nation. The safety net might include single-payer healthcare, (Canada, UK) tax payer funded education (Denmark), housing, job training, and many other benefits. (You’ll already notice that I didn’t use the word “free” as Bernie Sanders uses it. That is, “free higher education” – “free healthcare” because there’s no such thing as free higher education. It should be correctly labeled as tax-payer funded higher education.)

Supposedly, if you google “75 ways that America is a socialist country” you’ll have your “proof” that America is already socialist and that this movement towards Democratic Socialism is nothing to be alarmed about. But this thought is disingenuous on many levels. The first and the easiest one to understand being that even if America is socialistic in 75 ways, it doesn’t mean that America would be better if it was socialistic in 76 ways or that America would be worse if it was socialistic in 74 ways, or in five ways. This is no way to gauge whether a country qualifies as a democratic socialist country or not.

The United States is only “socialist” in the sense that any nation with a democratic or republican style government naturally will have certain “social” aspects to the way they govern. Every country is socialist to a degree. If it wasn’t, it would be called anarchy. The theory of American democracy comes from what is called the Social Contract Theory. In this theory of how governments formed, people willingly and voluntarily banded together to form a government for the good of their community. It wasn’t through compulsion. This means that people willingly give up certain rights for the good of everyone so the rule of law and order could reign supreme. This way, the government is derived by the people, and the rights given are also agreed upon by the people, not the government. By extension, the social contract theory may create many areas within society which uses a more socialistic approach to maintain order or to accomplish large tasks which they couldn’t accomplish on their own–building roads, building school systems, and using government to provide for the needy. All of these are legitimate and useful ways for governments espousing democracy to act. But these in themselves do not make a country a democratic socialistic country. And just because a country has socialist elements doesn’t mean that democratic socialism would make it even better.

America has long espoused a robust market economy, with the role of government as that of a regulator, but not a major portion of the country’s economic output. This is in stark contrast with a mixed economy where the government plays a much larger role in the economy. America’s market-economy-past has had both its triumphs and failures. America became an unprecedented economic engine from the late 19th century through the 20th century. Innovation and limited government oversight drove economic progress. Unfortunately, in the midst of this tremendous growth, many workers, imigrants, and poor members of society were left behind, forcing the government to step in and rightfully regulate the playing field so free competition could survive and workers could make a fair wage in a safe working environment. These changes started in the early 20th century and ebbed and flowed in various degrees over the next few decades, until the Franklin Roosevelt administration drastically expanded the reach of government as a means of combating the Great Depression.

Since the 1930s, the general trend of American economics has been larger government oversight and regulation, and an ever-expanding federal government which controls more and more of the economic system. And while America still has a market economy today, it has gradually moved closer to a more mixed economy in various areas. It has also expanded America’s safety net to unprecedented heights.

Yes, it’s not just Canada that has a safety net. America has a huge one. Massive, really, and this reality often gets lost in the midst of political soundbites on TV. But think about these examples:

  • Fifty million Americans are receiving some kind of federal government assistance. That’s 1 in 6 people.
  • A typical family earning less than approximately $40,000 a year pays no federal income tax. None. But, if they have children or are in other types of circumstances, they will even GET money back from the government. (child tax credit) Repeat, they will get a tax credit even though they didn’t owe any taxes. These can add up to thousands of dollars.
  • Millions of American students receive Pell Grants and federally backed school loans.
  • Most poorer families can qualify for free health insurance, and this did not start with Obamacare. Many states have for years offered tax-payer funded healthcare to the neediest of citizens.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of the services that the government supplies in 2016. What about tax rates? Democratic socialism demands high taxes from their citizens. Where does America currently stand in that regard? Do the rich “pay their fair share” as the democratic candidates like to say?

  • The highest tax bracket for 2015 is 39.6% (this of course does not include state income tax, social security, medicare, capital gains, or the local tax you pay at stores) Meaning that the highest earners in America easily pay more than 50% of their income in taxes, while, if I can remind you all again, the lowest age earners pay no federal or state income tax (though everyone pays the SS, medicare, etc…)

Is a 50% tax for the rich fair? That’s up for you to decide.

If all of this happens under a MARKET economy, then what exactly are the Democratic Socialists wanting?

  • Democratic Socialists want a mixed economy. That means more government control over industry – especially the banking industry.
  • They want to drastically increase tax rates, especially on the rich – 70% is not an uncommon goal. Others have espoused a top tax rate of 90% for the richest of Americans after their income hits a certain threshold. While these sounds extreme, it’s not unprecedented, as this was, believe it or not, the highest tax rate under the Eisenhower administration.
  • They want to institute carbon credits to squeeze the producers of fossil fuels.

This is just a small list of what Democratic Socialists want. The problem is, this vision is far removed from the vision of the founding fathers because of one crucial ideal: liberty. Democratic socialism, by its nature, limits liberty. As has been said, “The bigger the government, the smaller the individual.”

One of the basic principles of the U.S. Constitution is limited government. The founders were expressly concerned with a government which would have too much say in their lives, so the powers of the federal government are expressed powers – meaning those specifically written in the constitution. If they aren’t listed, the government doesn’t have that power. Likewise, the rights of citizens were specifically put in the constitution to limit the government’s ability to curtail individual freedom.

One more thing about freedom. We have in America the Statue of Liberty, not the Statue of Equality. American ideals were never centered around equality but has held liberty to be more important than equality. Equality is a European value. (See French Revolution.) In this way, Democratic Socialism is historically not an American value. We have always espoused the individual. We have upheld personal responsibility. We have never wanted the government to tell us what to do, what we can make, what field of study we should focus on, or how successful we can become. We have always been innovators, dreamers, individuals searching for happiness the way we see fit. Our equality comes from the equality of opportunity – the idea that if you work hard enough in America and show some grit, then you can do what you love, live where you want, and espouse to dreams with no limits. These are all goals which conflict with democratic socialism in one way or another.

So that’s where we’ve come from. It’s up to the American people to decide whether we want to change our priorities as a nation, or to uphold what the Founding Fathers held dear: freedom from an overreaching government.

That’s my take. What’s yours?

 

A Jaunt into Philosphy 3: Absolutism vs. Relativism

Here’s my third attempt at philosophy. This one on absolutism vs. relativism.

Can it be determined that some actions are right and other actions wrong?  Can one culture’s traditions be morally inferior to that of another?  For example, a western person may look on in strange curiosity when a Vietnamese family gets together to celebrate the ngay gio or death anniversary of a loved one.  At the same time, a Vietnamese may wonder why an American makes such a fuss about their child’s birthday.  Is one better than the other?  Are they equally valid due to different cultural upbringings? Are they both actually pointing out the same moral principals in just different ways?

Relativism and absolutism are terms used by philosophers when discussing morality and society.  Relativism is described as each society having its’ own set of principles based on their culture and beliefs.  As the example in the previous paragraph shows, it is easy to see that different societies value different moral practices.  This is called social relativism. Ethical relativism builds on this principle by stating that any society’s ultimate moral principle is as valid as any other society’s principle (Burr and Goldinger 180-181).  This sets up a crucial conflict between ethical relativism and ethical absolutism which states that there is only one correct ultimate principle or set of principles.  This philosophical conflict has many ramifications in how someone might view abortion, punishment, education or the environment

In the modern world, the buzzword democracy emanates loudly throughout the world.  Leaders claim that democracy is every country’s destiny and possibly even their divine right.  Philosophers look at state and society and try to ask the big questions about the nature of democracy and its underlying political philosophy. They wonder about claims of one form of government being morally superior to that of another (Burr and Goldinger 269).  For example, in the often used statement “…with liberty and justice for all”, a philosopher might try to define liberty.  Can it mean different things to different people?  Can there be limits to liberty?  Why?  What is justice and can it really apply to everyone equally?

All of these questions lead to many very important issues which are discussed and debated every day.  Can there be true justice when some people are rich and others are poor?  Some say that an equal and just society should provide equal opportunity for everyone to succeed.  Others would take it a step further and say that equality of outcome is what is needed.  Everyone actually needs to be the same intellectually and materially for there to be true equality. When looking at the world, Nagel wonders if anything can and/or should be done about the tremendous economic disparity between the very poor and very rich nations (79).  The questions framed by philosophers are profound and difficult, but the practical application of the suggested answers to these questions result in very real consequences to our global community.

In Support of Pluralism

I was reminded again this weekend the wide range of views that people, even in my circle of friends, tend to have on various topics.

The hot topic this past weekend was President Obama’s remarks about the Crusades and Inquisition at the a prayer breakfast. The views from the right wanted to crucify him for making “unnecessary comparisons” while the left quickly came to his defense by reminding the world of the terrible actions committed by Christians throughout history.

While I do have particular views on this topic, they are extraordinarily not important in the light of the beautiful concept of pluralism – a great mix of diverse views being espoused.

Yes, pluralism can be maddening at times. It can bring “progress” to a halt. (I have to put that word in quotes because of the dizzying array of connotations that it drags along with it.) The U.S. Congress has pluralism through the roof – even without parties there is diverse ideas and disagreements.

Let’s face it, we all would love to live in a non-pluralistic society ONLY if we, ourselves, got to be the dictator. If we could live out our “rightness” then what a great place it would be (for us, that is). But the reality is that if we are able to have discussions and freely disagree with our friends and enemies, then we life in a pretty great country.

Democracy necessitates pluralism. And the amount of pluralism that a country has indicates how free of a democracy it really is. Sometimes, a high degree of pluralism seems to be showing the weakness of the society, but being able to see the weakness is exactly one of the reasons why a country is strong.

Think about it. When a country goes out of the way to put on its best face possible to show how strong it really is, you can be sure it is a country that has an authoritarian central government. Look how wonderful life is in North Korea! The North Korean government will prove it by telling you so!

Embrace disagreement and dialogue. Encourage discussion and debate. Do so respectfully and civilly. Pluralism is a wonderful tool where we can challenge our own biases and perhaps even grow in our beliefs and convictions. This will in turn give us more opportunity to debate some more.

Go ahead and lament the slowness of pluralistic bureaucracy, but never wish for anything else.

Don’t trust the word democracy. (aka: the principles of a democracy)

North Korea is officially known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Don’t trust the word democracy.

Countries can call themselves what they like but it doesn’t change the fact of what they are in real life.

I don’t know anyone, outside of the North Korean communist party, who would offer the word ‘democracy’ to describe the hermit kingdom.

But that’s not the only word you can’t trust. Example two: Vietnam. The official name of Vietnam is the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Oh, so they are kind of like Sweden, right?

Hardly.

Vietnam still has a one-party, communist system. Their economy has long since shifted into a mixed economy which indeed might fall in line with some democratic socialist countries that one would find in western Europe, for instance. But Vietnam does not qualify as a democracy. They just don’t pass the test.

What are the basic requirements of a democracy? Try these on for size and see if they sound right:

  • Fundamental worth of the individual
  • Majority Rules, Minority Rights
  • Equality of all People (before the law)
  • Necessity of Compromise
  • Individual Freedom

Fundamental worth of the individual (a little John Locke, perhaps?) Everyone has innate rights simply because they are human. These are often called inalienable rights. They can’t be removed from us. Now of course governments can prevent us from having those rights, but they are ours nonetheless because the rights come from God (or nature, if you prefer that description). This is a pretty special trait of democracy. It’s essential in creating a limited government where the rights of individuals are preserved.

Majority rules, minority rights. You can’t have a democracy if the rights of the minorities whether by race or religion do not have the same rights as the majority. Why? See point above. Laws and judicial rulings must be in place to preserve the rights of minorities. Without that, we would fall into an authoritarian regime. (Who wants that?)

Equality of all People. There can’t be any preferential treatment. Certain individuals, in government or elsewhere, have to play by the same rules as everyone else. It’s essential for any democracy.

Necessity of Compromise. Because all ideas are freely expressed, a democracy will naturally become a pluralistic society. Without compromise, you will get stagnation (see US Congress). There must be a natural give and take. No one will always get what he or she wants. If that happens, it’s called a dictatorship.

Individual Freedom. This is, perhaps, the hallmark of all democracies. Freedom to live. Freedom to pursue happiness. Freedom to express ideas, even unpopular ones. Freedom to demand government action (redress of grievance). Freedom to move. Freedom to work where one wants. Freedom to live how one sees fit, as long as that freedom doesn’t impinge on the rights of others. See point 1 and 2 above.

If a country has these five features, you can be assured it is indeed a democracy.

Democracies aren’t perfect. Some more imperfect as others, but even with all its flaws, it most definitely beats the alternative.

A Presidential, Federal, Capitalistic, Representative Democracy

What type of government is the United States of America?

A presidential, federal, capitalistic, representative democracy!

A mouthful, for sure.

Can’t we just say republic?  Nope!

Can’t we just say democracy? Serious lacking!

Can’t we just say federal? Think again.

All four of those descriptions are needed to truly understand how our government works because the forms of government are complicated and don’t easily overlap. Let’s take them one-by-one:

Presidential: This shows that the executive branch is a co-equal and separate entity from the legislative branch. The president is the head of the government, but not a member of congress (or parliament). This is a very important distinction.

Federal: This shows how power is divided geographically between the central government (federal) and the state governments. Some powers are specifically expressed and given to the federal government. Other powers reserved for the states. This is opposed to a unitary government where one central government makes all laws for everyone.

Capitalistic: This shows how the economy is organized. The government functions as a regulator of the economy but typically not an actually controlling any segments of the economy. This is different from a socialist government where many segments (healthcare, education, utilities) are owned and controlled directly by the government. Is this one changing in America? Yes, I believe it is in some respects.

Representative Democracy: This shows how we have a republic. Everyone has a vote and voice – but only through their elected representatives. Multiple parties are allowed to participate. This is in opposition to an authoritarian government which limits the number of people able to participate in politics.

So there you have it. To accurately describe the US Government, you should call it a presidential, federal, capitalistic, representative democracy.

A (Motion) Picture of Courage

I’ve long been an admirer of Aung San Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy leader in Burma (Myanmar) who was held for nearly 18 years under house arrest by the military junta who took over the country in a successful coup attempt in 1962.

Last evening I had a chance to see “The Lady”, director Luc Besson’s highly engrossing retelling of her story.

If you have an opportunity to see “The Lady”, don’t miss it.

Michelle Yeoh is remarkably good and believable playing Suu Kyi.  The dual focus storyline is how Suu Kyi, the daughter of assassinated general Aung San who helped lead Burma to independence int he 1940s,  rises to national prominence in the face of student led protests in 1988.  The story is also a love story of sacrifice as we see the tremendous burden her love for her country put on her supportive English husband and her two sons each of whom had to spend years apart from their mother while she was under house arrest.

This top-notch storytelling also reminded me of the blessings of freedom that we enjoy each day which we should not take for granted.

Fighting for democracy is worth it.  But successfully fighting for democracy using non-violence and steel courage in the face of one of the most repressive regimes on earth is all the more admirable.

See the movie!