Thursday, June 16, 2011

Let the sunshine in

June gloom is here. A marine layer of fog lays over most of Los Angeles for the first part of every day – then “burns off” for a glorious sun soaked afternoon. This meteorological phenomenon occurs regularly every year, most often in June...hence the moniker. It appears that the symbolism of June Gloom has gone inland this year…all the way across the country.

The U.S. economy continues to be anemic.

  • Official unemployment figures are over 9%. Unofficial figures are near 20% for those of us who are the long-term unemployed and the under-employed class.
  • The U.S. borrows $0.46 for every $1 it spends.
  • The U.S. “credit card” has maxed out at $14.3 trillion and the country’s leaders are toying with default that would only increase borrowing costs.
  • The mortgage industry was nationalized in 2008 with nearly 50% of all mortgages guaranteed by U.S. taxpayers. Freddie/Fannie are unlikely to ever return to the private sector.
  • The Treasury Department holds 500 million shares in General Motors, the result of the 2008 bailout.
Foreign affairs are even less sunny.

  • The U.S. continues to be engaged in Iraq. The Iraq government said a U.S. Congressional delegation was not welcome in the country.  Their crime? Asking for reimbursement of rebuilding costs from oil profits.
  • The 10th anniversary of the Afghanistan invasion is here. So unpopular is this conflict that when outgoing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates met with the troops a few weeks ago the question about leaving the country led all questions 3:1. Usually troops ask about pay, leave time and other issues – not since Vietnam have active duty troops questioned strategy.
  • The U.S. military is active in the Libyan conflict but are absent from uprisings in other Middle Eastern countries that are part of the “Arab” Spring.
Partisans may read this litany as an attack on the President. It’s not. Virtually all of the above points are equally applicable to the Bush (43) administration which caused many of the underlying issues or extended them from the Clinton administration (and on and on).

It’s nearly overwhelming. There's emotional culture war subjects like abortion and equal rights.  Add into the mix a host of more local issues – states that can’t balance their books, local crime issues, safety-net issues with regards to education and health and it feels insurmountable. What can be done?

Voters have tried what they know how to do, the levers of power available to them. In 2008 they voted for a “transformational” candidate who promised change – punctuating the vow with the chant “yes we can.”

When complex, intransigent problems combined with polarized partisanship clipped the promise – voters elected hard-core ‘tea-party’ types. Had the pendulum swung so dramatically that voters who supported Barak Obama were the same ones supporting Tea Party candidates? Likely not. The message voters who participated was: DO SOMETHING.

The American legislative process doesn’t lend itself to getting things done. The cumbersome structure of getting legislation to become law requires an introduction of the bill, committee work, debate and a vote. Both the Congress and the Senate have to do this and then reconcile any differences before it goes to the Executive Branch. The framers made it intentionally difficult in order to minimize the nation becoming too enmeshed in governing people’s lives.

Newt Gingrich had the most accurate and effective statement in Tuesday’s CNN “debate” of 2012 GOP contenders when he reminded viewers that electing one President isn’t going to solve anything – it’s having a working majority in Congress and the Senate that is aligned on the same philosophy that will actually effect change.

Voters get the idea that one person can just wave a wand and make things happen from movies and television whose function it is to tell compelling stories. One person being able to solve problems is much more interesting than the messy reality of process. Politicians don’t help themselves when they campaign on the illusion that they alone can solve issues. (Cue music and grand sweeping vistas.)

The inevitable frustration that results in society is a further decline in participation. In 2010 the voting-eligible population in the U.S. was 41.6%. Elections are usually pretty evenly split between the major parties so some 21-22% of us actually elect leaders.  Those elected usually succumb to the idea that they have a mandate when they actually got a majority of the minority who care enough to participate.

Apathy is the lack of interest in something. How interesting is it for people who are working hard, raising children, participating in life to go to the effort of voting when nothing seems to change? Add in that voting itself is more difficult than it should be. There is no consistent process to register and deadlines are often arbitrary. You have to find some random community center to stand in line. In a country whose entire economy is run electronically there must be an accurate, safe and anonymous way for the entire eligible population to participate.

Imagine the difference adding the other 58.4% of the electorate to political discourse! The electorate could be more easily and effectively engaged. Issues would no longer be narrowed to the few percent who decide elections, but instead would be geared to the majority. Political Party would be less important. Whoa! Deep breath. Getting carried away. The morning fog must be particularly strong today.

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