Today is the true first day of the Trump administration.  Up to this time, all that he and his representatives have said has been rendered meaningless by their constant contradictions and weasel words.  Think, for instance, of the promise by Trump that all Americans will be insured for medical care and then his Secretary of Health and Human Services announcing that all Americans would “have access” to medical insurance.  We are thus left to judge them solely by their actions.  All the rhetoric — “America First,” “We will win,” “the government is about you” — now gets its real meaning from their actions.

So how do we judge this administration and the Republican Congress that has espoused it?  I suggest two possibilities.  The first is by its ability to satisfy our own personal wants and needs.  Those who voted for this administration objected to the Affordable Care Act because it cost too much and it did not provide adequate insurance.  They also wanted lower taxes, a more or less constant Republican campaign promise.  They also wanted more job opportunities and higher pay and benefits.

The second possibility for judging this administration is by its effectiveness in promoting the American ideal, which is presented in the Declaration of Independence as the founding notion of our nation:  “We hold these truths to be self-evident:  that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain alienable rights, that among them are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness …”   True enough, the founding fathers excluded, in practice, from “all men” a substantial majority of the population, but the ideal is just that, an ideal, and as such it is clearly meant to cover all human beings.

This second possibility stands in stark contrast to the first.  That possibility asks, in essence, what this administration will do for me.  I want a high-paying job.  I want all-inclusive insurance.  I want to pay less in taxes.  As for you, as long as I get what I want, I will agree to let you have whatever you want.  The measuring stick, however, is me.  This is the so-called morality of self-interest.  I say “so-called” because it is self-contradictory.  Morality is that which I owe to others.  A dedication to self-interest necessarily entails a denial of any such obligation.

The second possibility — the American ideal — has often been misinterpreted as a commitment to my own personal liberty.  It is mistakenly seen as an announcement that I can do whatever I want, with the tacit correlative that the best way to get what I want is usually to not violate the liberty of others.   Freedom, in other words, is defined as license, and that definition perverts the entire meaning of the American ideal.  To measure the rights of others by whether or not they serve your own is, at base, a complete denial of the American ideal.

That ideal is a bold and brave and earth-shaking commitment to respect and serve the rights of every human being.  Not just those of my race or my locale or my social or economic status or my religion, but every human being on the planet.  That colossal ideal is what brought the poor and the hungry and the oppressed of the world to these shores:  the knowledge that they would be freed of the chains forced upon them by their birth or their beliefs.  It is the inspiration for those words that stirred us long ago:  “Ask not what your country can do for you.  Ask what you can do for your country.”

Self-interest is not an ideal.  It is, in fact, the denial of all ideals.  The primacy of self-interest is the root of all conflict.  It is the mother of injustice.  It is the breeding ground of war.  It is the very antithesis of the American ideal.

If, then, we are truly Americans, we should, we must, measure the actions of those presently in power by whether they foster a world that respects all human beings or whether they operate on a fundamental policy of self-interest.  If self-interest prevails, the founding notion of America will fall from an ideal to a mere advertising campaign.





There is a decided wisdom in allowing some time between the heat of an election and the assumption of duty by those elected. It gives us time to shift from the clamor of politicking to doing the serious business of governing. It is in that interspace that we are allowed, in fact required, to retreat from our political prejudices and reflect about our ideals, about who we are and who we want to be and what we should be doing to take ourselves in the direction we desire. That reflection rests upon a hope. best captured by Franklin Roosevelt in his last inaugural address. He said there that the trend of civilization is always upward, and that, if one draws a line through the peaks and valleys of human history, the line will point up. Our hope is that that is true, that, however chaotic and discouraging the current atmosphere may be, we are, in the long run, making a better world.

That hope, however, rests on an assumption, namely that we can identify just what our direction is, what a “better world” consists of, what our true ideals, our long-term goals, really are. Answering these questions is fairly impossible in the midst of the daily struggle to earn a living, feed a family, do all the mundane tasks that take us from morning to night. We have, first, to set aside a time away from all that, a time to think, and a time to talk, to discourse honestly and calmly and rationally and cooperatively.

Assuming that we can find such time, we need, secondly, to figure out just who we are, what that direction is toward which we aspire, and what we think are the best means to achieve those aspirations. A good friend recently likened it to laying out what he called a storyboard. At the top you set forth what it is you want to achieve. Below that you lay out a list of various proposals for the best means to attain those achievements. In all of it, you agree that what is important is the goal, and, if the means you choose fail, you admit your failure and choose others.

Following this pattern on the question of how we wish to govern is made immensely easier by the fact that our founding fathers did the first step for us. They laid out, quite directly, the ideals that define the American way of governance. “We hold these truths,” they stated, “to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness…”

These words, read honestly, are breathtaking, earthshaking. They are a declaration that we recognize the right of every human being — not every person of a certain color or a certain sex or a certain religious persuasion or a certain national origin, but absolutely every human being — to be treated even as we see ourselves as deserving of being treated. The American ideal is of the very essence of morality. To be an American is to have as one’s ideal not power, not wealth, not status, but a world in which every human being is honored.

If we agree with this ideal — and one cannot claim to be an American without agreeing to it — then the next point is critical. Everything else is a discussion about means. If we are Americans, we are all working toward the same goal. If we disagree, we do not do so as enemies, but as members of a team trying to find the best way to achieve our ideals. If we are Americans, then those who oppose our proposals are not enemies but friends, co-workers, fellow strivers toward that upward trend to a world of universal recognition of human rights.

Let me be the first to admit that I have not treated my political opponents in this fashion. Both sides of the recent political debates have failed miserably to honor their opponents as fellow strivers toward the American ideal. Each side has, in effect, denounced the other as precisely unAmerican. Each has decried the other as working against the American ideal, as being fascist or communist, as replacing the American ideal with an ideal of power or wealth. That, fundamentally, is not so. Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, John Boehner, Mitch McConnell — all of these are Americans, because all of these adhere to the American ideal of universal human rights. They have, at enormous cost to themselves and their families, dedicated their lives to public service. They can only have done so because of an abiding commitment to the American ideal. No amount of honor or power or wealth could, by itself, have justified the sacrifices that each of these public servants have made.

Herein lies a key to the appropriate structure of political debate, a key to determining whether a particular political argument is sincere, and the basis for a promise I am making to my reader. All political debate, if it is appropriately structured, must be a debate about means, a debate that honors all proponents and opponents as members of one team, all seeking the same goal. Any political debate, if it is sincere, will be reasoned discourse about the best means to attain universal human rights.

Third, and finally, I renew a promise the founders of this blog made when it was first created. I promise to concentrate my efforts on insights and proposals meant only in the service of the American ideals. I promise to honor the right of the those who oppose my thoughts as honestly striving for those same ideals, and I promise to roundly criticize those, including those with whom I agree, who unfairly treat their political opponents as anything but sincere Americans.

Happy Thanksgiving.


     Some git who is presumably being paid money to do something or other for the American Enterprise Institute, the bastion of pseudo-thought for right wing causes, announced the other day that Pope Francis doesn’t understand the value of “free market capitalism” in creating a “moral society.”  I swear, that is what he said.

     Let us start with the oxymoron, “free market capitalism.”  The correct term is “laissez faire capitalism.”  To call it “free”, you have to seriously abuse the word “free” to mean allowing capitalists to do whqtever they want to do.  What they want to do has nothing to do with freedom in any sense.  The most casual glance at what capitalists have done historically will show that capitalists desire, most of all, monopolies.  The practice of laissez faire capitalism has been to drive out all competition and drive up prices as high as the market will allow them.  I give you, as a trite example, the recent disclosure that the drug companies were charging, five hundred dollars for a drug that, when produced generically, went on the market for eleven dollars.  You might also want to review the “free market” conduct of the mortgage brokers pre-2008 or the “free market” conduct of a deregulated banking industry.  You might also want to look at the marvelous things “free market” capitalism are doing for morality in the emerging nations.  The air quality in Beijing might be a good place to start.   In fact, China is a perfect example of what the “free market” capitalists do to a country.

     Oddly enough, what the AEI guy called “free market capitalism” is quite in sync with a Communist political regime.  These are the same people who use their money to promote the restriction of voting rights and the continuing impoverishment of the lower economic classes for the benefit of the upper one percent.  That kind of elitism is precisely the cancer that pervaded Communist Russia and Communist China.  Laissez faire capitalism is far more compatible with dictatorship than with the American ideal.  Just ask yourselves why it is that the United States has historically supported dictatorships over those who protested the violation of their rights.  Cuba, Argentina, South Africa.  The list is very long, and the story is always the same, capitalists insisting on protecting their property in dictatorships.

     Second step:  Please let us stop confusing capitalism with democracy.  Capitalism is an economic theory, and democracy is a political theory.  American democracy is grounded in the principle of inherent human rights, and I dare you to find in any writing by any theorist of capitalism any mention of inherent human rights.  Capitalism justifies itself in answer to the question:  how is a large money economy best organized and operated?  Democracy justifies itself in answer to the question:  how are a people best served by a government?  Capitalism is a tool in service to a people.  It is not a moral or even a political principle.  If anything, the appropriate model for laissez faire capitalism is war, which is properly defined as the abandonment of morality.

     Final step:  Morality is the overarching question to which all other principles and theories are in service.  Morality is the principle of fundamental human value.  The United States was not founded on capitalism.  It stands, perhaps alone in the history of the world, as a nation founded on a moral principle, on what, in fact, I consider the fundamental principle of all human value:  each and every human being, by virtue of simply being human, has inviolable rights.  To say that differently, my value rests entirely in the fact that I am responsible to every human being.  The American ideal is not contained in the term “laissez faire.”  It is, rather, the over-arching principle by which we judge and control the conduct of capitalists. 

     Ask yourself this:  who are our heroes?  Donald Trump?  Carl Icahn?  Michael Milliken?  No.  Nelson Mandela?  Mohandas Gandhi? Mother Theresa?  Yes.  Why?  Because of their commitment to laissez faire capitalism?  No, more likely because they knew the difference between laissez faire capitalism and morality.  Capitalism, properly regulated and controlled, is an effective tool to be used in service to the rights of human beings.  Laissez faire capitalism, alway hiding behind the term “free” when it is anything but that, is the abandonment of human rights in service to power. 

     I wish someone would explain that to the git from AEI.

America’s Achilles Heel

There is a flaw hidden at the very heart of the American view of values, and, therefore, at the very heart of the American system of governance.  This flaw now threatens to bring that system of governance to its knees, and, ultimately, to destroy that system of governance altogether.
     The American ideal, set forth so eloquently in the Declaration of Independence, announces a moral worldview grounded, not in individual freedom or license, but rather in a commitment to responsibility to each and every human being.  It says, not that I have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but that every human being has those rights, and that, since those rights are inalienable, I am obliged to recognize those rights in each and every one of my fellow human beings.  The American ideal thus states a revolutionary value system based, not on my individual needs and wants, but on my inexhaustible obligation to others.   
The genius of the founding fathers was to recognize that this was not the real moral view of the people for whom they were providing a system of governance.  They knew that the actual moral worldview of the people was egocentric.  So they built a system of governance that would, at its best, protect and grow the inalienable rights of all, but that would, at the very least, survive the battles that would inevitably arise from conflicting self-interests.   
The primary instrument used by the founding fathers to avoid the damage done by such battles was a web of checks and balances.  The power of government was divided among the three branches, and each branch was honeycombed with the weights and counterweights necessary to prevent one faction from outweighing the interests and powers of all other factions.  Things like filibusters and super-majority cloture votes, exasperating as they have sometimes been, are all there to make sure that no one faction can assert its will over all other factions.
     This whole system of checks and balances is an implicit recognition of a moral worldview radically different from, in fact radically contrary to, the other-centered value system stated in the Declaration of Independence.  In setting it up, the founding fathers were quietly recognizing that the real value system, the ethos actually espoused by the people, was not other-centered but rather ego-centered.  While we may give lip service to the inviolability of the rights of others, and while we may express deep admiration for those who dedicate their lives to the service of others, the fact is that the fundamental principle defining Western values is self-interest.  Whether it is framed in terms of the spiritual or the material, the fundamental question that is at the heart of Western man’s moral decisions is:  how will my actions best serve my interests?  There is, at base, not much difference between living to obtain eternal happiness and living to accumulate wealth and pleasure.  They differ only as to means.  The end is the same — to serve myself.
    The economist and philosopher John Rawls, in his great work, A Theory of Justice, said it best in modern times.  Each political faction, and each individual, enters into a kind of implied contract.  That contract states that we will all agree to act in such a way to at least serve the minimum interests of the least advantaged among us.  We enter into that contract for reasons of self-interest.  We are agreeing to a system in which we are guaranteed that our own interests will, at the very worst, be served in some way.  This is what we might call a kinder, gentler version of what was said long ago by the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes:  in a world defined by self-interest, the natural state of human relations is that of a war of each against all, and we submit to government to avoid that war.  If we did not, said Hobbes, our lives would be nasty, poor, solitary, brutish and short.
     So I recognize the rights of others because doing so best serves my own interests.
  But — what if that were not true?  What if I gathered to myself sufficient power that I did not have to recognize the rights of others?  What if I had so much power that it would best serve my interests to reduce or even eliminate the rights of others?  What if, for instance, I felt that my interests were best served by not sharing any of my assets with anyone, and that I could resist, or even eliminate, for instance, my government’s policies of providing aid to the poor and the sick and the elderly and all the least advantaged among us?  And what if I had the power to stop the government from pursuing those policies?  How would those who oppose my views respond?
     Herein lies that central flaw I mentioned. If you accept self-interest as the defining value, then you cannot object to someone using that same principle to serve his own interests by subjugating your interests. Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. If your own interests were best served by violating the interests of others, you would do so. At the very least, you would have no reason not to do so.
So at the heart of every value system based on self-interest is this frightful flaw capable of wreaking havoc in a human community. It is possible that one’s self-interest could be best served by subjugating the interests of others, and in a value system based on self-interest, such power plays are perfectly justified.
Imagine how someone could go about profiting from this flaw in, for instance, the American governmental system. Some faction might decide that its interests would be best served by seizing control of the government in such a way that the power of any opposing interest is rendered ineffective. To do this, the faction insists on making its control on government immune to attack. It gerrymanders legislative districts so that its proponents cannot be voted out of office. It uses every legislative device available to install its own policies and defeat all attempts to install policies and programs to which it is opposed. It limits the rights of its opponents to vote. It works to fill the judicial positions with judges and justices whose opinions are in accord with its own. It runs a campaign of ceaseless objection and denigration of the executive branch when held by someone who opposes it, and it runs a campaign of ceaseless justification of the actions of a president whose views are in accord with it. Most of all, it abandons reason, which would give the lie to its tactics and goals, and replaces reason with rhetoric and appeals to prejudice.
If such an attack on the American system of governance were to be pursued, the system itself would be effectively destroyed. Remove the system of checks and balances, and the American democratic government can, at best, remain only a meaningless shell. The faction that succeeds in installing itself in power in such a fashion could never be removed. We would have, in practical fact, a dictatorship.
And here is the real problem, the real flaw. If, as seems to be the case, our moral worldview is grounded in self-interest, we would have no way to object to this takeover. The faction would, after all, be pursuing the same principle of self-interest on which we ground our own moral decisions. We would, of course, be tempted to cry out, “It’s not fair! It’s not just! It’s not right!” To all these cries of injustice and unfairness, the faction would respond, “We are only acting in accord with your own principle — self-interest. It serves us better to take over government, so we did it.”
To that, dear reader, what would you respond? Justice, fairness, right and wrong — all these things are subject to your first principle, self-interest. Now where do you turn?
This is, of course, all hypothetical. In the real world, no one would stoop to such despicable tactics. No one would systematically gerrymander congressional districts, load the courts and carry on a ceaseless smear campaign against the president. After all, this is America.