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 behaviors that public policy is newly 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: Why is American culture so violent?

The United States is one of the most violent countries in the developed world. For example, here is how we compare with other OECD countries in deaths rates from assaults.

assault-deaths-oecd-ts-all-new-20131

[Source: OECD See here for identities of the other countries.]

Wow.  And it it’s not just homicide and it’s not just crime. Just thinking out loud I suppose we could identify four kinds of societal violence:

  1. Domestic violence (home/family);
  2. Public violence (crime, racial/sectarian/communal strife);
  3. State violence (repression, war/pseudo-war, criminal justice system); and
  4. Recreational violence, both simulated (TV/movies/gaming) and real (violent sports, hunting, gun hobbyists).

I haven’t looked up whether we lead in all four of these. But, we certainly do on #2, and maybe on #3 and #4. Of course, many poor/non-democratic nations have much higher levels of violence us, and much of our war fighting is as head of the Western alliance system. Still, the American people and its institutions are really, really violence-prone.

For this meeting I thought we could tackle the very unnerving idea that the main cause is cultural. Is there something, er, exceptional in American culture that makes us this way? The 300 million guns? The high poverty rates? Racism and segregation? Mass incarceration? Hyper-individualism?  A Wild West mentality or Southern culture (the South is by far our most violent region)?  Do conservative explanations hold any water, like declining religiosity/respect for moral authority or self-destructive “culture of poverty” values?  Violent entertainment?   Drugs?  You get the complexity idea.

Also, has a high tolerance for violence always been a part of our society, or has something changed recently? One of the links below is about the growing paranoia of U.S. gun culture.  Also, we just elected a president at the very least despite of – or more likely IMO – because of the way he reveled in violent rhetoric and promises to inflict actual violence. His message of an “American carnage” terrorized by violent crime and foreign exploitation and his unveiled threats of vengeance against foreign and domestic enemies deeply resonated with tens of millions of Americans. What does that alone say about our culture’s normalization of violence, or, perhaps more benignly, about voters’ beliefs that the violence is out of control?

Here are some different points of view on whether and why American culture is distinctively and excessively violent.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK: Who runs San Diego – and for whose benefit?

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: Which moral standards should we use to judge historical figures?

We love to talk about the lessons of history in this group.  Searching our website I count half a dozen meetings on the “lessons of” some particular historical event. We have had meetings on judging the successes and failures of various U.S. presidents, and we discussed which were the best and worst ones.  (I think we may have to update the Worst list pretty soon.)  We even spent an evening asking “how will future historians judge us.” I always enjoy these meetings.

Monday’s topic is about historical judgment, too.  But, it is a little more challenging, I think. By asking us which moral standards we should be using to render historical judgments, the topic asks us to judge ourselves as well as the past. It compels us to make explicit the moral values that always lie behind our historical judgments, even if they usually are left unspoken. History only has lessons (and heroes and villains) if we supply the moral metric.

Also, there’s a sub-field of philosophy that wrestles with issues like what history is, to what uses it can be put, and how the present colors our perceptions of the past. It’s called the “philosophy of history.” I believe. I will try to learn a little bit about the field’s basic concepts and use it on Monday to guide our discussion. I think the true art of the meeting will be if we can learn to think about this stuff in different ways.

I will also make a short list of historically-controversial people and events and ask the group about them as needed (e.g.; Jefferson, the Confederacy, Truman/Hiroshima, Malcolm X, etc.).

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK: Jewishness – Faith, ethnicity, culture, or nationality?

Monday’s Mtg, Part 4: Where our tax dollars go.

Most of you know the broad outlines of this.  Here is a pie chart showing where the federal govt (2/3 of taxes go there) spends our tax dollars.  It is from the liberal Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.  For a breakdown of state and local spending in California go here.  For CA it’s basically 75% goes to five major activities: Education 25% + health care 20% + 10% prisons + 10% public safety + 10% welfare.  In most other states the pie chart looks about the same.

e USG Spending Pie Chart - CBPP