Servant and Master

It’s ever been fashionable for political candidates to refer to themselves as “public servants.” They do this so frequently that it tends to obscure the fact that, for once, they are absolutely, 100% right. They literally are our servants, just like the tuxedoed valets and uniformed maids on Downton Abbey—people we hire to do chores that we don’t have the time, inclination, or often capability to do. But instead of cleaning the fireplace, washing dishes and polishing the silver, public servants put out fires, clean toxic spills, and fix the roads. I grew up on my grandfather’s farm, and he spoke of how in the early 1900s, he and the other nearby farmers paved the dirt road leading to their farms with crushed stone, as they were tired of getting stuck in the mud. And when I say they paved, I mean they got their horses and wagons, loaded them with stone from the local quarry and laid and packed 2 miles of road—by hand. Other than Ron Paul, anybody else against hiring public servants to do this stuff? Didn’t think so.

 So where’s the source of tension between us and government? Particularly among the conservatives (and the 1% who draft their marching orders). After all, the 1% like having servants. Why should they mind a few more, especially ones who don’t live in the house, where they might filch the caviar while people are out? Well, the reason is that public servants are funny kinds of servants. They work for us, but we also grant them power over us. They can tell us what to do and not do. They can take our money, our possessions and sometimes even our lives. Funny kind of servants indeed. Sort of like if Downton Abbey’s butler, Mr. Carson, could decide to have the Earl beaten for taking an extra helping of beef Wellington (would make for effective dieting, though).

Republicans say the answer to the problem of servants-as-masters is smaller government. Now I’m as much in favor of value for money spent as anyone on the Right, but I don’t see how focus on quantity of government is terribly helpful. Complaining that government is “too big” is like rejecting one of Lady Gaga’s hits for having “too many notes.” Anyone think that a small government with a small budget—like, say, the Taliban—can’t be cruel and oppressive? Genghis Khan didn’t slaughter millions across 2 continents because his bureaucracy was out of control. A government could be quite evil with only 2 laws: “Everything belongs to the king,” and “Obey the king or die” (which probably was the sum total of government through much of human history). Quantity of government power is not the problem, it’s what it does with its power. Although the Constitution serves to check government power, its general and sometimes vague requirements must be applied and interpreted by the courts. And this means the only way to ensure quality government comes down to staffing it with quality people.

 That’s why our presidential candidates’ personal qualities need to be unashamedly brought to the fore. In one of the recent Republican “debates,” Newt called questions about his personal conduct “despicable,” and the debate moderator tripped over himself backing down. Why are we reluctant to consider the “character issue?” Perhaps because it’s so much easier for pols to justify, excuse and otherwise spin their character (and their opponents to twist and demonize) that we are wary of trying to judge candidates’ personal qualities. More likely we fear appearing subjective, rather than objectively focused on concrete policy statements like, say, plans to colonize the moon. But no matter how detailed the position papers, no one really knows what problems we’ll face in the future. We can, however, judge the qualities of the people we put in place to deal with them. And one of the key things we should know about someone given power over us is how they treat other people when they’re not constrained by law but only their character. Newt treated his ex-wives poorly—how will he treat strangers like you? How will other candidates for office treat you?

Voting With Dollars

Well, John Huntsman has jumped out of the clown car for the last time, finally announcing he is leaving the GOP race to be not-Obama (see today’s NYT article). I would think the Republican Party should be pretty concerned to have lost the only relatively rational and human-appearing being in the race and to be stuck with the current disturbing mix of phony, greedy, ignorant buffoons (I leave out demonically possessed, as Michelle Bachmann has already given up).

So why did Huntsman leave? Obviously, it had to do with his performance in the polls (face it—coming in behind Stephen Colbert in SC is not a good sign). But let’s think about this. Why should these “polls” matter one whit? After all, elections are the real polls, and we’ve had only 2 of 50 so far (or maybe only 1 ½, as the Iowa caucuses aren’t even real elections)—that’s 4% of the states and, given their relatively low population, likely even less than 4% of Republican voters.

Oh, Rob, you just don’t understand. It’s all about the money (hmmm, where have we heard that before?). Poor performance in polls (and in a few trial-run elections) mean that a candidate isn’t “strong” and thus probably wont win. And thus people with lots of money wont donate any of that money to the candidate. Leaving aside the negative feedback nature of this system (which means that small perturbations of an initial state amplify themselves, usually to destruction) that creates self-fulfilling prophecies, what does this really mean for “democracy?”

Well, it means this: We actually have 2 separate, parallel elections. The first election uses not votes, cast one per customer, but dollars, cast many per customer (but only from customers who have lots). Now of course the dollar election doesn’t occur on just one day, or even 50 separate days. The dollar election is every day, and the dollar tallies are reported religiously by the media. As candidates rise in dollars, they spend them on ads. The ads help them rise in the polls. And the polls help them get more dollar votes. This is now a positive feedback amplification—the winners of the dollar vote become strong, and the losers drop out of the race. Hence Huntsman. Does anyone think Huntsman (or other departed candidates with a national following) would’ve dropped out if each of the candidates had the same sized pool of funds? Of course not. They would’ve stayed in and let the real vote (not the dollar vote) play out and we could all see who the most voters in the whole country wanted.

But that doesn’t happen. Because the dollar vote has had its destructive effects long before most people votes take place, we-the-people are left to choose only between the winners of the dollar vote. Is this so bad (rhetorical question; if I have to explain this to you there’s no hope)? Yes,Columbia, it is. Reason being that it’s not “one person, one vote.” Some people (now including corporate people, thanks be to SCOTUS) are able to cast lots and lots of dollar votes. But a great many people who can cast their single person vote just fine can’t afford to cast any (or very many) dollar votes. This means that the winners of all national and state-level elections have already been pre-elected by the dollar vote. Whomever the people voters choose, of whichever party, has already been elected by dollars, dollars that come from a tiny subset of the electorate. And this subset has its own agenda, which is not shared with the rest.

So why do we want moneyed people and corporations to have this outlandish, outsized, outrageous control of our electoral process? Well, people (and corporations) need to be free to do what they want with their money. After all, that’s democracy.

American Taliban

As the neverending Republican campaign for the presidency slogs along to its distant conclusion, I’d like to step back for a broader look. We focus on details: What regulations should we apply to offshore oil drilling? Should rich people pay 35% or 39% income tax? Is giving “historical” advice to Fannie Mae worth $1.3 million? And of course these and similar questions are very important, sometimes critically so. But, despite the strength of partisan opinions (including mine), it’s clear that many if not most have no objectively “right” answer (well, maybe except for the one about giving historical advice to Fannie Mae). Certainly not right answers in the same way that “How many houses were destroyed in the latest Alabama tornado, and how much will it cost to repair them?” has a right answer.

Now this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to understand what candidates want to do and their reasons why. But not only do politicians tend to try to dodge providing detailed (and hence debatable) answers, but there wouldn’t be enough time in the day to hear their opinions on everything. Hence the need to take a broader look past the day-to-day antics of who the Republicans want to bomb or jail. So, how do we do that?

Well, if we’re going to give vast power to a person or group of people, it would help to know what kind of people they are. Although I wouldn’t hold that we each can be stereotyped as one, specific kind of person, I think everybody knows from day-to-day life that we all have underlying character traits (or tendencies, if you will) that shape how we typically respond to problems and challenges. So what are the traits we want in people to whom we hand power and authority, people to whom we might turn in times of personal or social need? Maybe more importantly, what traits do we not wish to see? (If it would help redirect you from thoughts of partisan politics, think of bosses you’ve worked for, rather than political candidates)

Well, maybe it’s just me (or maybe not) but let me throw out this starter list of character traits we don’t want in people who are tasked with representing the incredibly varied interests of large numbers of people:

  • Cruelty
  • Rigidity
  • Intolerance
  • Mean-spiritedness

Perhaps you might argue that it depends in part on what problem we’re addressing. For example, if we need to lock up (Al Capone) or kill (Al Qaeda) dangerous people, maybe we need cruel, rigid, intolerant, mean-spirited leaders. On the other hand, since we first need to figure out who to lock up or kill, maybe we don’t. And if there’s a problem to which incarceration or death is not a solution, then what? Typically, leaders with these negative traits deal with such problems by denying their existence (what climate change?), and then suggesting that everybody just deal with it on their own (good luck with that flood thing!).

There are numerous historical examples of individual leaders with those repellant characteristics (eg, Attila the Hun, Hitler, Stalin, Donald Trump). But what happens when the whole power structure of a country is composed of people like that? Look no further than Afghanistan under the Taliban—jail for kite flying or playing music, no education for women, mandatory observance of the leaders’ religion, a haven for Al Qaeda but not for anyone who’s sick. Great place, don’t you think?

But what’s that got to do with us, here in America? Well, for some, strange reasons (for once, no sarcasm intended) one of our political parties has been possessed by the spirit of the Taliban, right down to the religious fundamentalism (except they are consumed by the tenets of a different religion). Which party? Does even the most right-wing among you think for a minute I’m talking about the Democrats (you of course don’t agree with me, but you knew right away who I meant, didn’t you)? No, the Republican party (though certainly not every Republican) has taken on a Taliban type of cruelty (GW Bush chuckling about what he imagined an executed woman’s last words were: “Please don’t kill me!”), rigidity (refusing to democratically compromise so that everybody gets a little of what they want), intolerance (gays out of the military), and mean-spiritedness (all our opponents hate America).

Now there are certainly many conservative individuals with whom I disagree about, say, the need for troops in Korea or stronger regulation of derivative trading, who are good-hearted people—people who donate money to help the needy, volunteer time to teach, etc. But can you honestly look at the words and actions of the Republican party (particularly its leadership, and especially the presidential candidates) and conclude they represent the positive traits I suggest we would like to see:

  • Fairness
  • Open-mindedness
  • Care for others (and by “others” I mean people of different sex, skin color, religion, ethnic origin, hobbies, fashion sense, etc.)

I didn’t think so. A shame.