05 March 2012

Get Elected To Congress, Get Rich

Funny how that happens...

Houston Chronicle: Many Texas congressional leaders got richer during the recession
Even in a flailing economy, many Texans in Congress have seen their personal net worth swell - and 17 of the state's 34 representatives on Capitol Hill have emerged from the recession with money in the millions.

Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, a Democrat representing a downtown Houston district, boosted her estimated net worth over the four years from $175,505 to $935,005, with investments shifting from insurance to commercial banking.

02 March 2012

The Canary In The Coal Mine

Washington Post: Olympia Snowe: Why I’m leaving the Senate
The Senate of today routinely jettisons regular order, as evidenced by the body’s failure to pass a budget for more than 1,000 days; serially legislates by political brinkmanship, as demonstrated by the debt-ceiling debacle of August that should have been addressed the previous January; and habitually eschews full debate and an open amendment process in favor of competing, up-or-down, take-it-or-leave-it proposals.

The great challenge is to create a system that gives our elected officials reasons to look past their differences and find common ground if their initial party positions fail to garner sufficient support. In a politically diverse nation, only by finding that common ground can we achieve results for the common good. That is not happening today and, frankly, I do not see it happening in the near future.

For change to occur, our leaders must understand that there is not only strength in compromise, courage in conciliation and honor in consensus-building — but also a political reward for following these tenets. That reward will be real only if the people demonstrate their desire for politicians to come together after the planks in their respective party platforms do not prevail.

I certainly don’t have all the answers, and reversing the corrosive trend of winner-take-all politics will take time. But as I enter a new chapter in my life, I see a critical need to engender public support for the political center, for our democracy to flourish and to find solutions that unite rather than divide us.

You read about other politicians with the same concerns. Why has our politics become so divided? Is it a generational thing, and because of some mind-set of the baby-boom generation? It is the rise of cable television channels? A shift in our culture?

It is because of the increased centralization of power in the federal government. The federal government has too much power, too much money, too much control. Issues, decisions, and money that used to be distributed to the states and localities has now all been concentrated in Washington. The result is toxic.

With just 545 people (435+100+9+1) lording it over the activities and income of some 300 million plus Americans, gaining access to - or a sense of obligation from - one of these precious empowered few is poisoning our entire political and economic culture. The stakes for those involved are just too high. So every decision point, every angle, every advantage, has to be fought over in a herculean life or death struggle.

As long as decision making is increasingly concentration in the federal government, as long as the federal government intrudes into personal life, and long as business are dependent on federal regulatory whims, then politics will grow ever more fraught with corruption, manufactured partisanship and vitriol. The question is, will the trend towards centralization reverse itself before the system irrevocably breaks down?

A Penny For Space Exploration Is Worth It. We Shouldn't Leave Space Exploration To The Chinese.

A few excerpts from Foreign Affairs: The Case for Space: Why We Should Keep Reaching for the Stars. (It's behind a pay wall, but you should be a subscriber, anyway. It's a great magazine.) A good article, which makes compelling arguments for our continued involvement in space exploration. A few salient points:

If the United States commits to the goal of reaching Mars, it will almost certainly do so in reaction to the progress of other nations -- as was the case with NASA, the Apollo program, and the project that became the International Space Station.

Last December, China released an official strategy paper describing an ambitious five-year plan to advance its space capabilities.

When it comes to its space programs, China is not in the habit of proffering grand but empty visions. Far from it: the country has an excellent track record of matching promises with achievements.

The partisanship surrounding space exploration and the retrenching of U.S. space policy are part of a more general trend: the decline of science in the United States. As its interest in science wanes, the country loses ground to the rest of the industrialized world in every measure of technological proficiency.

Clearly defined, goal-oriented support for specific outcomes in specific fields may yield evolutionary advances, but cross-pollination involving a diversity of sciences much more readily encourages revolutionary discoveries. And nothing spurs cross-pollination like space exploration, which draws from the ranks of astrophysicists, biologists, chemists, engineers, planetary geologists, and subspecialists in those fields. Without healthy federal support for the space program, ambitions calcify, and the economy that once thrived on a culture of innovation retreats from the world stage.

Many will ask, “Why are we spending billion of dollars up there in space when we have pressing problems down here on Earth?” That question should be replaced by a more illuminating one: “As a fraction of one of my tax dollars today, what is the total cost of all U.S. spaceborne telescopes and planetary probes, the rovers on Mars, the International Space Station, the recently terminated space shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit, and missions yet to fly?” The answer is one-half of one penny. During the storied Apollo era, peak NASA spending (in 1965–66) amounted to a bit more than four cents on the tax dollar. If the United States restored funding for NASA to even a quarter of that level -- a penny on the tax dollar -- the country could reclaim its preeminence in a field that shaped its twentieth-century ascendancy.

Video: Why The Economy Growing So Slowly?

Despite the media happy talk, the economy is sluggish.

So what do our political and media elites want to talk about? Contraception!

Grow, Little Political Start Up

I have long been a believer in political moderation and centrism. I was one of the early signers-on to the Modern Whig Party, an effort by returning Iraqi War Veterans to start a centrist new political party.

Although, for personal and work-related reasons, I had to reduce my involvement in that effort, my time spent with that group introduced me to some of the most decent, patriotic, and concerned citizens I have ever met in my life. It gave me real hope for our country to meet other people with a lot of common sense. If only such deep concern and goodwill would pervade our everyday politics, and media reporting, out nation would be in better shape.

One thing we did not have much of, though, was money. And to play with the big boys, you need of lot it. I mean a lot. Think of a lot of money. Then multiply that by 100. OK, got it? Well, you still don't have enough. So that was the one thing that was limiting, and very frustrating. How to get money? Contributions, of course. But the kind of people who give the big bucks do so because they expect something in return. And being a start-up, you don't have anything to give. And you won't, unless you get some money. So you have the familiar what-came-first-the-chicken-or-the-egg kind of problem.

Three solutions can easily be imagined for a political start-up. First, overwhelming public enthusiasm will help you bootstrap your way into office, and into getting some contributors. An example of this would be the Tea Party surge that we saw in 2009-10. Big, big, big public interest creates rapidly growing credibility. However, the powers-that-be will strive mightily to divert you insurgency in to established political channels. As we saw with the Tea Party, where the anti-establishment ethos of its early days was diverted safely by the moneyed political elites into the Republican Party. If the Occupy Wall Street protests had picked up more momentum, the Democrats were certainly prepared, if not eager, to divert them into another Democratic Party interest group.

Secondly, a significant donor can step up and back the start-up effort. While sure to be welcomed at first, one can never forget that money brings control, and unless your deep-pocketed donor is truly benevolent, you risk becoming a political tool of one person's interests (or the interests of a small, wealthy group).

Thirdly, established political figures can break away from established politics and back the start-up. This is what has happened in our distant past, and what happens in other countries. It has not happened here in a long, long time. I suspect it is due to both sheer inertia and the legally entreated positions of the two parties. But it was this possibility that always intrigued me the most. Surely, I thought, there must be some established political figures that were deeply unhappy, and would be willing to make a leap if the time looked right.

Which is why I am intrigued most by articles like this one:

NY Times: Prominent Democrat Endorses Third-Party Group
Even as Republicans wage a bitter, intra-party feud for the right to challenge President Obama a group called Americans Elect is steadily building support — and a 50-state infrastructure — for a bipartisan ticket that could challenge both parties for the White House.

That effort will get a fresh push on Tuesday from David Boren, a former Democratic senator and governor from Oklahoma who backed Mr. Obama in 2008 but says he is now looking for a way to provide “electric shock therapy” to the political system.“The country is going to really be in deep trouble if we don’t act soon,” Mr. Boren, who is now president of the University of Oklahoma, said in an interview with The Caucus. “I think this is really a cry from many of us who are really concerned for the future of the country.”

Mr. Boren is part of a small, but growing cadre of politicians from both sides of the aisle who are expressing displeasure with the political system — and the political gridlock it is producing. Just last week, Jon M. Huntsman Jr., the former governor of Utah and candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, voiced support for a third party, saying that the two-party system was broken.
Now, I will admit, that this kind of news may not seem all that exciting. Also involved in this type of general disgruntlement are former Louisiana Governor Buddy Roemer, and N.Y. Mayor Bloomberg. No individual may seem particularly inspiring. But taken together, their general disgruntlement hopefully represents a larger trend. And then you also have the Americans Elect effort.

Among average Americans there is a lot of unhappiness with the way our politics is (not) working. More unhappiness than the media would ever reveal, in bed as they are with the political establishment. The number of those who say they are political independents increases every year. Something will have to eventually give. I may not think Americans Elect is ideal. I still pine away for my beloved Modern Whig Party. But perfection is rarely encountered in politics. We cannot not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Maybe a combination of methods two and three, mentioned above, will work. Taken together, maybe some break away politicians together with the Americans Elect effort could grow, and start a crack in the deadening concrete overlay of the two party system.

01 March 2012

Democracy or Secularism?

If you are in the Middle East, take your pick, because it appears you can't have both. Or they won't allow themselves both.

It reminds me a bit of the early '90s, when our State Department said that we supported a "unified, democratic Yugoslavia." As a friend of mine at the time observed, they needed to pick one, because they sue as hell weren't getting both.

Ah, the Arab world. As if their lives were not complicated enough. So what do you value most?Democracy? or Secularism?

It's a false choice, to be sure. But, tragically, in some parts of the world, it's not. Even more tragically, they may very well end up with neither.