Category Archives: Politics

Monday’s Mtg: How far should the government go to encourage healthy lifestyles?

The more I think about this one the more complicated it gets. OTOH, a lot of what the government does to prevent and treat what are called non-communicable diseases (like cancer, diabetes, anorexia, Alzheimer’s, and hypertension) is widely supported by most Americans. The public loves govt funding basic research on chronic diseases, Medicare and Obamacare subsidies, and govt-enforced safe food and water.

But, when Americans perceive that other people’s illnesses are due to poor lifestyle choices things get controversial. How far should, for example, regulation and taxpayer-supported health insurance go in protecting people from their own bad choices?

It’s not just a moral judgment, either. As the first article below points out, it is hard to attribute many chronic conditions to specific behaviors. This is true even for health problems they’ve been studying for decades like cancer and diabetes and (it seems to me) is probably even more true for new behaviors that public policy is targeting, like obesity. How can we know what interventions are cost-effective if we don’t know how a lot of the science works?

Oh, and what constitutes a bad lifestyle “choice” exactly? Not all decisions about what to eat and where to work and live are equally voluntary, especially for children but also in a sense for people too poor to afford healthy choices.

Along with these issues, here are some other basic questions we might consider on Monday. I will be back from my vacation, BTW.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. Rationale: Why should the govt try to prevent/minimize bad lifestyle choices?
    — Why: General public interest? Externalities (effects on other people)? To help the economy? To prevent needless suffering? To fulfill international obligations?
    —  When: Scientific uncertainty.
    — Who: Federal govt v. state/local concern?
  2. Targets: Which behaviors?
    — Smoking/drinking, other drug use and vices.
    — Diet: Obesity/sugar, child nutrition/school lunches, “food deserts” in poor areas.
    — Violence and accidents: Guns, hazards. At work/home.
    — Health care: Insurance, Obamacare carrot and sticks.
  3. Tools: It’s not just regulation.
    — Taxation/subsidies.
    — Information and advocacy.
    — Market regs: Restrictions on buying/selling, food service, product safety regs, etc.
    — Health care.
    — People under govt control: School kids, prisoners, soldiers…
  4. Limits:  How much govt action is too much?
    — Who should decide?
    — Where has govt gone too far or should do more?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK: Does foreign aid work?

Monday’s Mtg: Reparations for African-Americans, Yes/No?

It might seem odd to discuss a subject like this these days. Our current president embodies White grievances against minorities and foreigners and he has elevated outright White Nationalists to key government positions.

But, I’ve got some reasons. First, this topic compels us to examine American history from a different perspective than most of us are used to doing. The case for reparations for some form of reparations for African-Americans is not intended as a kind of punitive damages or monetary apology for slavery. As reparations’ most articulate recent advocate argues, it is about the edifice of exploitation that today’s White privilege stands atop right now and going forward. Maybe it’s a bad, wrong argument. But, it is about the present and future as much as the past.

Another reason is that acknowledging the truth of terrible historical injustices and in some instances and in some form compensating the victims is an accepted principle of international law in the 21st century. It’s called “transitional justice,” and it has been tried in a number of countries, such as Germany (reparations to Holocaust victims) and South Africa (truth and reconciliation commissions).

Lastly, the subject of reparations for African-Americans had a brief moment of prominence a few years ago for a reason that is erfect for this group: Because of a single, extraordinary article. “The Case for Reparations” in the June 2014 Atlantic Monthly was written by a brilliant young African-American intellectual named Ta Nehisi-Coates. I linked to it below, and to some representative critiques of its conclusions and recommendations.

If you have never read the Nehisi-Coates piece I highly encourage you to do so before Monday’s meeting.  His argument – which are entirely about what happened after slavery ended, BTW – are not above criticism, obviously. But, at the least he makes a strong case for seeing our country’s history in a new (for many of us) light.

I am out of town this week.  Be nice to each other.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

Restorative justice has been / is being used –

The Case for U.S. Slavery Reparations –

The Case Against –

NEXT WEEK: Encouraging healthy lifestyles – How much govt activism is too much?

Monday’s Mtg: Who Runs San Diego?

John M. will be our lodestar this week. I am out-of-town and John, a long-time San Diego-based journalist and activist, is much more qualified than me to guide CivCon through a discussion of who runs this town.

Here are some readings on San Diego’s power structure and some of its biggest policy issues that John and I culled from local media, such as Voice of San Diego and The City Beat and Reader.

I will see you on May 29, after your meetings on San Diego and slavery reparations. Our topic will be the government’s proper role in encouraging healthy lifestyles. I will still post the regular “Monday’s meeting” posts.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Power Centers –

Issues and evolution –

NEXT WEEK: Reparations for African-Americans?

Monday’s Mtg: Is a Global Far Right-Wing Movement Emerging? (Fascism, Part II)

Marine Le Pen and her National Front party did not win the first round of France’s presidential election. Despite running second she is considered a long shot to win the May 6th runoff race. So, the odds that the world’s sixth richest country will fall into the hands of a fringe political party next month have gone down a bit. I’m seeing articles speculating that the recent wave of right-wing populism in Europe may have crested.

We’ll see. Extremist political parties have come and gone since 1945. The tide goes in and out. Yet, as any newspaper reader (okay – news feed reader) knows authoritarian political parties have surged in popularity in many countries in the last 10 years. Depending on who you ask the revival has been fueled by the 2008-09 financial collapse or/and subsequent austerity, internal or external migration, Russian government interference to undermine NATO, and other factors.   On Monday we can talk about the big systemic reasons for this disturbing trend – and whether Donald Trump’s election should be considered a part of it.

But, I am more interested in whether all of this amounts to a transnational movement. Do Western authoritarian political parties share anything other than a mutual admiration? Do they have common goals and platforms, especially in foreign affairs? Do they share resources and coordinate messaging? How extensive is Russian aid and coordination? No, there’s no a current equivalent of the old Communist International (I think). Fascism is not going to unite and conquer the West. But, are we near a point where a loosely coordinated “national international” becomes a sufficiently powerful player to influence international politics?

I’m quite short of time this week (and all of next month). So, no detailed opening remarks from me on Monday. I think we probably hit the “Trump is a fascist” panic button a little too much two weeks ago. But, Trump’s rhetoric, the backgrounds of many of his closest advisors, and those amazing Russian government connections sure make me wonder how much is being coordinated with the global populist Right. YMMV.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Europe and beyond –

Trump/USA links to this movement –

NEXT WEEK: Why is American culture so violent?

Monday’s Mtg: The Constitution – Not Democratic Enough or Too Democratic?

As befits a discussion group devoted to politics, philosophy, and other public issues, CivCon has done a lot of topics on the Constitution.  Oddly though, we have never looked explicitly at how democratic our founding document was and (as amended and interpreted) is. I phrased the topic as a normative question, since is begs the question of ought. It also might make for a livelier discussion and prompt us to make the political preferences behind our opinions more explicit.

I see more than one way to approach our pondering, too. We could focus more on the standard (but important) stuff, like looking at the basic structures and functions the Constitution sets up. As Jim Z. noted last week, the whole document is in some ways “rigged” against pure democracy; e.g., the Electoral College, two senators per state regardless of size, an unelected judiciary, vetoes and supermajorities requirements, etc. College students spend a lot of hours reading classic books on this topic, some of which are referenced in the links. We definitely should discuss why the Founders did this and whether it’s too little or too much democracy for the 21st century (or for our tastes).

A second approach would be to look at the Bill of Rights. These rights are fundamental to protecting democracy. Are they being enforced today as designed, and is that sufficiently democratic? I’m thinking campaign finance as free speech, curtailment of civil liberties in the War on Terror, and conservatives’ religious freedom initiative (bakeries and gay weddings) might come up in this part of the meeting.

Thirdly, we could take a strict result-oriented approach. How responsive is our national government to the will of the people? Whose interests does our constitutional system represent and who does it not listen to? Some big studies have tried to quantify that in recent years. Their conclusions are sobering.

Here are some guiding discussion questions and suggested readings/skimmings.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. Was/Is: What are the major anti-democratic (or at least non-majoritarian) features of the Constitution?   Why did the Founders include them? What key components of democracy were left out and why?
    –>  Which of these have survived unchanged to today and why?
  2. Ought: What is “too much” or “too little” democracy? Upside/downside of both?
  3. Rights: Which rights (speech/religion, voting, property, etc.) matter the most? Are any rights under assault or overly-broad now?
  4. Results: How responsive is our constitutional system to the will of the people? Which people? Evidence?
    –>  Is un-accountability self-correcting via elections?
  5. Future: What are your biggest concerns about our constitutional democracy going forward?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

Not democratic enough –

Bad consequences –

No, too MUCH democracy is our problem –

NEXT WEEK: Fascism, Part II – Is a global movement emerging?

Monday’s Mtg: Is An American Fascism Possible?

Fascism fearfulness is everywhere these days. Serious people are worried that the sudden rise of right-wing authoritarian political movements all over the democratic West may be more than ephemeral. A new era of extremist politics may be emerging, including fascism. I thought we would consider this proposition in two meetings. We will focus on the global rise of fascism/authoritarianism at our May 1st meeting (on May Day – ha, ha.) Monday’s meeting is about the rise of illiberal right-wing authoritarianism in the United States.

Many observers think worries that something resembling fascism could take hold in America are overblown. The public’s commitment to a democratic ethos is too strong. Our Constitutional system distributes power (checks and balances, civilian control of the military, and federalism) too widely, and civil society institutions are too resilient. It can’t happen here, they say, even with an authoritarian character like Donald Trump as president. Trump cannot destroy American democracy even if he wants to.

Maybe. Probably, even. But I look at the whole debate a little differently. I don’t see fascism is an all or nothing possibility. We don’t just have a choice of full-blown dictatorship or pluralistic liberal democracy. As we discussed last year regarding Russia’s crypto-fascist lurch, authoritarian systems and even fascisms vary widely in form and degree. Fascism takes on the characteristics of each country it infests: Anti-Semitic and revanchist in Germany, highly religious and anti-modern in Spain, kleptocratic and anti-Western in Russia.

Moreover, a descent into a more than we dreamed possible degree of authoritarianism doesn’t have to happen overnight, or due to one president’s election. Consider these (albeit debatable) points.

  • U.S. politics has always had authoritarian tendencies – and moments. We had 100 years of Jim Crow, brutal wartime crackdowns on dissent (like in WWI), state violence against striking workers, and Red Scares. Not fascism for everyone, certainly, but authoritarianism for some.
  • Large majorities of Americans express no confidence at all in the government or in conventional politics. President Trump was contemptuous of liberal democracy on the campaign trail and all but campaigned as a wannabe strongman. He got 46% of the vote and he’s president for the next four years.
  • A true far right-wing movement (“Alt-Right”) may become a permanent, influential wing of the GOP. To me, this is not a big stretch. I have long argued that the entire Republican Party has grown increasingly authoritarian over the last 10-20 years.
  • The middle class may further hollow out in the next decade or two, for reasons we have discussed before. If this happens, non-college educated Americans outside of the major cities will be hardest hit. They voted for Trump.
  • Fascism feeds off of emergencies and war. Think of our response to 9/11. How do you think Trump and his top advisors would react to a major terrorist attack or war threat?

So, yes, American democracy is very resilient. But it has failed us before, at least temporarily. Trump may be either too ideologically mushy or incompetent to be our Mussolini. (Or, I could just be all wrong about him.)  But, could he and the people who support him move the USA quite a distance along the continuum of authoritarianism?

It’s all worth discussing on a Monday, I think. I will have a brief opening that leaves us plenty of time for Civilized Conversation.

(A note on links: A million of them, so pick and choose. Except for link #1 and some Krugman I tried to find ones you are unlikely to have encountered.)

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Fascism and Trump –

Is U.S. democracy really at risk?

It’s not just about one man’s character –

Conservative Voices –

NEXT WEEK: Is the Constitution too democratic or not democratic enough?

Monday’s Mtg: The Jewish People – Religion, Ethnicity, Culture, or Nation?

Happy Passover! Monday’s Jewish holiday seems like a good night to pose Aaron’s topic question: What does it mean to be Jewish today? Aaron said that he wanted us to consider in particular how the two most dramatic and disruptive events of the 20th century changed Judaism and Jewish identity.

Of course, sharing historical events – no matter how harrowing or horrible – is not the only shaper of a people’s identity. We also could discuss what modern Judaism “is.” Is Jewishness a religion? In some ways no. As one of the links explains, the idea that Judaism is a “religion” like Methodism or Lutheranism is a modern notion. To my father’s father, being a Jew was who he was. Judaism wasn’t just a sect to which he belonged. Plus, in America, less than one-half of Jews say they believe in God.

Are Jews a nationality or ethnicity? They have no common language nor geographic origin and most of them don’t live in Israel. Israel’s Rabbinate defines who is a Jew pretty narrowly, too, and for the moment (changing it has been proposed) Israel is not formally a “Jewish state.” Is Jewishness its own culture? American Jews do tend to share common moral and political values, but not a lot of day-to-day cultural practices. Maybe we’re a People, whatever that means.

As a half-Jew on my father’s side I’m not sure what being Jewish means, either. It’s a great discussion idea, especially since we have a few Jewish (or perhaps, “Jewish”) group regulars.

Below are some optional readings on Jewish identity. The first ones are some analyses of survey results, so at least we have some idea of what American Jews think about their Jewishness. I added some think pieces on Jewish identity including several focused on the role of the Holocaust and the creation of Israel in Jewish identity.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

NEXT WEEK: Is an American Fascism Possible?

Monday’s Mtg: Is U.S. global leadership slipping away?

The chaos of the first 5 weeks of the Trump Administration’s foreign policy can’t continue indefinitely, can it?

It absolutely could, and for all the reasons people cite. Trump knows little about the world and nothing at all about U.S. foreign policy and he doesn’t seem inclined to learn. Key foreign affairs agencies like the State Department and the intelligence agencies are unstaffed and/or being marginalized. Trump keeps insulting foreign governments and contradicting long-established U.S. foreign policy positions. Then there’s the Russian influence scandal, his business conflicts of interest, etc. Oy.

Or, maybe this won’t happen. After a shakeout period we might end up with a more or less conventional and at least minimally stable conservative Republican foreign policy.  For good or ill. I think Trump’s instincts on foreign affairs – a bellicose nationalism – are a lot closer to today’s “centrist” GOP foreign policy canon than a lot of people are willing to admit. But YMMV.  Alternatively, maybe U.S. foreign policy is so strongly based on eternal and unchanging national interests (also for good or ill) that even Trump and his crew could not fundamentally alter it.

Still, I think it’s entirely appropriate to ask whether U.S. global leadership is at risk going forward, for two reasons. First, chaos aside Trump has proposed some real roll-the-dice policy stuff. I will go over some of his big ideas in my little opening presentation on Monday. Maybe U.S. foreign policy needed shaking up and/or a more nakedly self-interested and transactional approach.  But these proposals are huge departures from 60 years of post-WWII consensus, and a lot of people are worried they could cause or accelerate a decline in U.S. influence.

Worse, some of Trump’s most trusted advisors and perhaps Trump himself may have a genuinely radical vision for America’s global role. Steve Bannon, in particular, has been described as seeking a kind of global alliance of far right-wing Western political parties and governments. Call it “White Internationalism” united to oppose our “true” enemies, like China and Islam. That’s not going to happen, of course. But even trying to bring it about could quickly pole-axe trust in American leadership.

Second, the global system and our position at the apex of it were deemed fragile long before Donald Trump decided he would look good as president. We have talked before about the possibility of declining U.S. global influence and whether the entire 60 year-old global liberal democratic order that is at risk.  So, we have some good substance to cover.  Trump has in some ways enunciated a coherent worldview, plus we can revisit the declinism debate in light of our new chief executive.

Here are the usual broad discussion questions and some background readings.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. Decline? Was a less U.S.-centric world order emerging before Trump’s rise? Why?
    –> Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
    –> What should we have been doing to stop it or shape it?
  2. Trump: How does he see our international problems and what solutions did he promise?
    –> What vision and theory of power are behind them?
    –> How accurate and how radical is it? à How committed/flexible is he on this stuff?
  3. Reaction: Will Congress, the bureaucracy, and the public support Trump’s ideas? How will the world react: Allies + adversaries?
  4. Results: What’s likely to be happen?  Will transnational alliances/loyalties be remixed?  Will global problems be neglected?
    –>  How will we know if U.S. leadership is less respected and our power reduced?
    –>   Any benefits to us from this?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

Was global order at risk before Trump?

  • Yep, it’s dying.

Trump’s foreign policy vision –

Its Consequences –

Alternatives beyond the status quo ante –

NEXT WEEK: Economism: The misuses of “pop economics.”

Monday’s Mtg: What is religion’s proper role in U.S. politics?

We haven’t done a meeting on religion in a while, so I thought a topic on religion’s role in politics would make for a nice, wide-ranging discussion. It also gives us a partial reprieve from the constant bombardment of Trump Administration news.  (Partial because he is rolling out many policies that are favorites of the religious Right and that could alter the role of organized religion in politics in substantial ways.)

Obviously, for lots of reasons religion has always been very intimate with politics in the United States and is going to stay that way. Almost two-thirds of Americans say religion is either important or very important in their daily lives. By placing limits on any particular sect’s political power, the 1st Amendment arguably encourages healthy competition among religious POVs for political influence. Our high (until now!) immigration levels ensure religion stays popular and vibrant. Voters are going to keep rewarding politicians that affirm their piety and justify policies in religious terms, and people of faith will keep boldly organizing to see their values represented in politics.

Still, might this be changing in the 21st century? As you know secularism is on the rise, especially among young Americans. About one in five U.S. adults say religion is not important to them, a three-fold increase in just 20 years. Public support for explicitly faith-based politics/policies has been trending (very slowly) downward. The religious Right is not what it used to be, and the religious Left never seems to organize effectively.

On the other hand, religious conservatives are the foot soldiers of the Republican Party. They voted in droves for Donald Trump and are about to be rewarded handsomely for helping to put the GOP in complete control of the federal government and of 33 state governments. Trump’s outrages may be energizing religious progressives. They are especially outraged over his immigration policies and – maybe – they can unite to oppose the coming large cuts to the social safety net.

The following discussion questions are among the things we could discuss on Monday. I will start us off by summarizing the major changes Trump is making to appease the religious Right. Some are big deals. Then, we can debate any of my discussion questions or anything else related to the role religion does or should play in our political system.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. Public: What role does religion play in forming Americans’ political beliefs and influencing their votes and political participation? à What role “should” it play? à Is religion’s influence over our politics waxing or waning?
  2. Partisans: How powerful and comparable are the religious Right and Left these days?
  3. Politicians & Policies: How big a role does religion play in politicians’ decision-making and policymaking?
  4. Issues: What are big current issues re
    1. Free exercise / religious liberty?
    2. Govt establishment of / support for religion?
    3. Discrimination against, for, or by religious Americans?
    4. Specific policy areas; e.g., repro rights, health care, immigration, education, foreign policy?
  5. Future: Will religion’s role in our politics decline or increase? Why/so what?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

The Public, religion, and politics –

Religious Right and Left movements –

Trump and hot issues –

NEXT WEEK: Is U.S. global leadership collapsing?

Monday’s Mtg: Should Democrats Cooperate With or Resist Trump?

Leonardo had a good question last week. Is Monday’s topic on resisting Trump about how big D Democrats or small d democrats should do it? I kind of envisioned a “where to now” discussion of issues facing the Democratic Party. CivCon usually avoid partisan strategy topics, since cable news supplies plenty of it. But, I thought this one was too important to avoid.

Now Leo, I’m not so sure we should limit the scope. It’s not just Democrats anymore that peer out from the wreckage of Trump’s first month and see a genuine threat to our constitutional democracy. Maybe our topic – and Dems’ strategy in general – should be to focus on finding ways to rally all of the other small d Republicans and independents American institutions to stand together to restore a functioning govt and oppose Trump’s movements towards strongman rule. Even if you disagree with this characterization of our new President and worry that any effort to unite elites against him would itself endanger democracy, Democrats have pretty much united around a strategy of total resistance to Trump.

For CivCon, I think that leaves us with three big questions to mull over at this meeting. (Four, if you want to debate whether Trump really poses an existential threat to our democracy). First, who and what exactly should we be resisting; everything Trump says/does or just the damages democracy/checks ‘n balances stuff? If Democrat self-limit this way, will they find any allies in the GOP and in other institutions, like the Media, the courts and the bureaucracy? Would it be worth the costs?

Second, does any bigger-than-usual opposition extend to congressional Republicans and their entire agenda? Progressives think some of them endanger our democracy all by themselves by tilting the electoral system towards permanent one party rule: Restricting voting rights, removing all remaining restrictions on campaign finance, crippling labor unions, and welcoming authoritarian White nationalists into the fold. Maybe this is overblown. Yet, Democrats bitterly oppose it all, as well as GOP plans to transform practically every area of national policy, like taxes, immigration, health care, the social safety net, and education.

Third , how specifically can resistance be implemented and maintained? Where’s the plan, the decision makers, the priorities, the resources, etc.? A large-scale resistance has sprung up quickly. How can it be used to maximum benefit in the months and years ahead?  How can it translate into a revived Democratic Party?

My expertise is in federal-level policy and institutions, not activism. So, I will open our meeting with a few quick comments on where the opportunities will come in the near future (budget process, nominations, special elections, etc.) to stop or dilute the Trump/Republican agenda. Then, in discussion I hope to learn from our more activist-type members what they think The Plan is, and from our more conservative members.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. Trump:
    1. Is he really so different as to merit total “resistance?”
    2. Do Dems have areas of agreement with him? If so, should they cooperate w/him, even if it normalizes him?
    3. Where should Democrats draw the line? Rhetoric? Personnel? Policy? Foreign policy? Anti-democratic actions?
  2. GOP:
    1. Resist to the max everything they do, like they did to Obama? Or, horse trade on highest priorities?
    2. What are those top priorities and which will resonate with the voters?
  3. Resisters: Who will do this resisting? Who’ll make the decisions? Federal versus state and local level Democrats.
  4. Resistance: What strategy and tactics might work? How can you plug into the movement/get involved?
  5. Pro-Trump/conservatives: How should your leaders respond to Dem “resistance” and how should you defend him/GOP?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Is there hope for Democrats?

Resistance –

Republican/conservative POVs –

NEXT WEEK: What is religion’s proper role in politics?