The president committed attempted extortion

November 14, 2019

It appears that the president of the United States committed the crime of attempted extortion on July 25, 2019, during his call to Ukrainian president Volodomyr Zelensky.

During public testimony in the House of Representatives yesterday, Congressman Joaquin Castro asked Ambassador Taylor, “Is attempted extortion and bribery a crime?” Taylor had already pointed out that he is not a lawyer, and that he was testifying only to report what he knew, not to give opinions and speculations. He stuck to that position and answered: “I don’t know.”

Fair point. So I looked it up. Attempted extortion is definitely a crime under state laws in California and Massachusetts. It also seems to be a federal crime, under U.S. Code Title 18 (Crimes and Criminal Procedure), Part 1 (Crimes), Chapter 41 (Extortion and Threats), Section 878 (Threats and Extortion Against Foreign Officials). Both the threat and the fulfillment of extortion are treated as crimes in this chapter. However, the statute focuses specifically on threats to physically harm the foreign official, rather than trying to coerce them to provide a personal favor.

The reason I bring this up is that I think impeachment hinges on discovery of the president committing of an actual crime. It is irrelevant whether the president acted unethically. People who support him wanted someone who was rude and disruptive to force change in the culture and tenor of national leadership. Yes, one could argue that there is deep hypocrisy in ‘moving the goalposts’ from condemning Bill Clinton for (a) having an affair with a subordinate and (b) lying about it, to the known acts of the current president: (a) having multiple affairs (b) raping and sexually assaulting multiple women (c) bragging about this behavior (d) lying about it repeatedly (e) paying off a prostitute on condition of a non-disclosure agreement. Based on the impeachment of Bill Clinton, conservatives have established that infidelity and lying under oath qualify as High Crimes and Misdemeanors as indicated in the Constitution. Since his inauguration, the current president has been under oath to defend the Constitution; so he has been lying under oath ever since that day. But I think that both the Republican officials, who are breaching their oath to defend the Constitution, and the citizens who are ready to vote for them again, are fully aware of this double standard.

One of the proponents of anti-immigration policy here in California was interviewed about the consequences of Prop 187, which mobilized many Latinx voters and leaders here to change the political climate of the state. When asked about our current president, Barbara Kiley said “I don’t have to like Trump, but I like what he does. We needed a junkyard dog. We needed someone who could repo your car and not even think about it the next day.” Electing a disruptive thug makes sense, especially if you are fundamentally unhappy with the direction of national policy. And it is far less violent than forcing a collapse of the government.

The great value of competitive elections is to permit revolutionary change to happen incrementally, without trashing the credibility of the government. On the one hand, incrementalism is deeply unsatisfying to the people (and peoples) who want justice now and have wanted it for decades. On the other hand, a quick review of regime-collapse in other countries shows that the poor and vulnerable die first and suffer most in those conflicts; so violent overthrow tends to harm the very people who deserve justice the most. Over the years I have noticed that advocates of government overthrow tend to be very privileged people. They miss the part about the disproportionate suffering of the poor during government overthrows, because it does not apply to them.

But I don’t think that voting based on fear and self-constructed victimhood is healthy, either. If you feel like elites have limited your ability to earn a dignified living through hard work, then why would you support the policies of Nixon and Reagan? Their policies began the process of undermining working-class earnings starting in 1973. Reagan promoted union-busting. How could you logically conclude that the weakening of unions, and the decrease of working-class wages are unrelated? Why would you try to elect a vulture-capitalist millionaire (Romney) and then actually elect a billionaire? Even now, as official statistics declare that unemployment is low, are you financially secure? Can you pay off your debts with your current income? If Obamacare is repealed, will you be able to afford medical insurance for yourself and your children?

American voters have achieved great things when voting for positive projects and aspirations. When voting with courage, Americans have extended rights at home and resisted tyranny abroad; we have welcomed refugees; we have opened up opportunities both for ourselves and for strangers and immigrants. The list of immigrants who have benefited our country is long, including John Muir, Nikola Tesla, Albert Einstein, Madeleine Albright, Sergey Brin, and Rita Moreno. If ‘great again’ means restoring America to conditions in which waves of refugees are welcome, and wages and benefits for workers are ensured by high rates of unionization (highest in 1954), then yes, we need very different leadership. Certainly not a privileged bully who insists on complete executive impunity.

Christian Ethics and Immigration

Both Democratic and Republican American political leaders have taken a ‘tough on immigration’ stance over the past 20 years. In part they are responding to constituents. Both voters and leaders are engaged in a misguided attempt to prevent terrorism in the U.S through increased immigration restriction. One reason that it is misguided is that most terrorist attacks in the U.S. are committed by American citizens. Anti-immigration practices would not identify these people at all. Second: we have a ‘rich man’s window’ in our immigration system called the EB-5 Visa. If you can invest $500,000 in the U.S., you can get a Green Card and onto the path to citizenship. The Bin Laden family are billionaires. Tightening immigration restrictions against the poor would not have identified the 9/11 attackers, either.

There is no valid national-security argument for increased immigration enforcement. In fact the funding for border patrols, detention centers, and deportation processes would be better spent on…actually funding research and intelligence-coordination about terrorist threats. If you need intel, then fund foreign-language instruction at universities. Require foreign-language proficiency for all undergraduates. Encourage Americans to study and travel to other parts of the world. And let immigrants inform you about conditions and attitudes across the world. At minimum, Donald Rumsfeld should have heeded what Iraqi immigrants were warning about the invasion of Iraq as they protested–every weekend for months–in 2002 and 2003. As immigrants they had chosen the U.S. over Iraq; but that also meant they knew both countries well enough to make a better strategic assessment than a sheltered, privileged German-American.

There are other dimensions to the immigration debate. The economic pros and cons are complex, but in fairness, all of us whose ancestors immigrated from other continents over the past 500 years need to apply all those arguments to ourselves. In fact, the ethical question of fairness overrides all considerations other than security. Fairness and ethics are the basis of rights in the U.S., and rights overrule any more particular consideration.

Here I want to focus specifically on the ethics of the Christian tradition, because I am surprised to find that some Americans who regard themselves as Christian seek to restrict immigration.

The cautionary lesson of the Fate of Sodom

In popular American culture, Sodom is usually characterized as a place that was destroyed because ‘unnatural acts’ were permitted and encouraged there. However the prophet Ezekiel states that God explains the condemnation of Sodom very specifically:

“‘Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen. (Ezekiel 16:49-50)

We could get distracted trying to imagine the ‘detestable acts’ of the Sodomite women. Or we could focus on the one practice that was unambiguously declared to be objectionable: they did not help the poor and needy. In other passages, the explanation for the damnation of Sodom and Gomorrah is that they were unrepentant for their sins (Isaiah, ch.3 and Amos, ch.4). When they harmed others, intentionally or not, they did not apologize.

Regarding the depravity and the destruction of Sodom, many Christians fundamentally miss the point. Conservative Christians in the 1990s remarked that if the year 2000 marked the End Times, God would destroy San Francisco because of its tolerance for homosexuality and the rights of gay people. There is a shocking gap between what conservative Christians say, and what is actually written in the Bible. If San Francisco—and other American cities—are to be condemned, it will be for the collective preference of homeowners who enjoyed massive capital-gains on their home-values, at the expense of thousands of families being driven into homelessness. ‘Knowingly doing nothing to help the poor and needy’ is a really clear case of unrepentant cruelty.

But back to the question of immigration. Who are the people trying to cross the border from Mexico into the U.S. without papers? Are they an invading army? If yes, that means that the governments of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador have declared war on the United States, and are seeking some military objective. We have dealt with enough actual war to know this is not the case. Calling migrants ‘illegals’ and ‘invaders’ is a way to dehumanize them and make it easier for us not to think about their actual circumstances.

Is there some other way we should understand these migrants? What reasons do they give for risking so much to come to the United States? (1) Grinding poverty in their home communities. (2) Gang violence and the threat of forcible recruitment of their sons into the gangs. (3) Government-backed vigilante groups terrorizing ethnic minorities.

In other words, migrants are refugees.

Some argue that they should be helped by their own governments. But is that what scripture says about foreigners?

The Lesson of the Good Samaritan

Do we have any ethical obligation to help foreigners? Two thousand years ago, foreigners were even more despised than they are now. Not only did they speak other languages; they also committed sacrilege by worshiping differently and eating differently. Foreigners were not just unclean; they were corrupting. You had to re-do ritual cleansing if they touched you.

For Judeans and Nazarenes, the Samaritans were a well-known example of impure foreigners. One of the most overt messages Jesus relayed was that anyone who follows his teachings must regard all peoples as worthy of compassion—and sometimes as better examples of good behavior than his fellow Jews in good social standing.

The Vision of Peter (Acts, chapter 10)

Ah, my namesake. The stubborn, hard-headed Apostle who governed the Church in its earliest days. Initially, Simon Peter shared the prevailing view that Gentiles are unclean. Furthermore, the most blatantly unclean Gentiles were the occupying Romans, with their unclean foods, idol-worship, and pantheism. But Peter had a vision in which a vessel containing ritually unclean foods was lowered from heaven three times, and he was commanded to partake of this heavenly-but-unkosher feast.

Peter did not know what to make of this vision until he had to respond to another vision—that of Cornelius, a centurion of the Italian cohort. Cornelius is described as God-fearing and pious, but still a Gentile. Cornelius’ vision was that he had to seek out Simon Peter in Jaffa. Peter responds to Cornelius’ invitation without hesitation. Peter even knowingly breaks Jewish law to do so:

“You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without objection. Now may I ask why you sent for me?” (Acts 10:28-29)

Peter’s sense that he must abandon rigid exclusionism is soon confirmed. The Romans ask him to testify. As he testifies,

The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (Acts 10:45-47)

Scriptural Ethics About Migrating Refugees

Some lessons from scripture are difficult to interpret. This message is not:
1. Welcome strangers.
2. Treat foreigners with respect and compassion.
3. Help the poor and needy.
This message is consistent in both the Old and New Testaments. Muslims use different examples, but the same ethic is clear in the Qur’an and the Hadith. Believers in Odin and Zeus are also commanded to welcome and honor the stranger. Humanist atheists have an equally strong ethic of mutual accountability of humans towards humans.

This essay is addressed to all those who practice some form of religious faith, but especially to those of us who take up the challenge of following Christian teachings. We must welcome foreigners into our community, even when that goes against our sense of comfort or tradition. We must challenge any elected leader who claims to be Christian but also opposes immigration. Not only do they harm the most vulnerable people in our world, but such leaders also poison the public understanding of Christianity.

Is Christian faith a belief in hatred, intolerance, and racial supremacy? No; but to challenge such cruelty among your fellow believers means risking your membership in your worship-community. This requires extreme courage and devotion to the lessons of the New Testament. You risk alienating your parents, your brothers and sisters. Does Jesus call for such radical action in his teachings? Are we called to follow the harder road, through the narrower gate? Are we called to challenge prevailing beliefs and practices, even as the elders and respected leaders condemn us for violating convention and custom?

This is not easy. But then again, neither is smuggling yourself from Honduras to Tijuana. Anyone tough enough to make that journey will be an asset to American society.

Thinking Through Access to Healthcare

My my parents are retired healthcare practitioners, who have long opposed a universal healthcare system. So I am familiar with the doctors’ side of the story on healthcare, which is reflected in the American Medical Association’s longstanding opposition to the idea of healthcare as a basic right. However, the policy of the AMA is beginning to change. In June of 2018, the medical student caucus of the AMA revolted against older physicians and forced the AMA to begin deliberating universal healthcare:

When the American Medical Association — one of the nation’s most powerful health care groups — met in Chicago this June, its medical student caucus seized an opportunity for change.
Though they had tried for years to advance a resolution calling on the organization to drop its decades-long opposition to single-payer health care, this was the first time it got a full hearing. The debate grew heated — older physicians warned their pay would decrease, calling younger advocates naïve to single-payer’s consequences. But this time, by the meeting’s end, the AMA’s older members had agreed to at least study the possibility of changing its stance.
“We believe health care is a human right, maybe more so than past generations,” said Dr. Brad Zehr, a 29-year-old pathology resident at Ohio State University, who was part of the debate. “There’s a generational shift happening, where we see universal health care as a requirement.”

In contrast to what young physicians and many Americans want, my parents’ position is closer to the current official position of the AMA:

The AMA has long advocated for health insurance coverage for all Americans, as well as pluralism, freedom of choice, freedom of practice and universal access for patients.

Which sounds like a wonderful set of ideals:
(1) freedom of choice: consistent with the ideal of liberty for all Americans.
(2) freedom of practice: doctors retain the right to decide the best medical care.
(3) universal access: no-one is turned away from emergency rooms or the care of physicians who choose to disregard ability-to-pay.
(4) health insurance for all Americans: if you can’t pay fee-for-service, then you have the right to have insurers cover your costs.

What is not mentioned explicitly in the AMA’s position, however, is:
(1) …their opposition to healthcare as a universal right. Opposition to a national healthcare program implies a preferred ideal: fee-for-service. Since the vast majority of Americans cannot afford fee-for-service, most people end up paying for health insurance. Those who cannot afford insurance (a) remain at risk of financial ruin, (b) under-utilize preventive care and health maintenance, (c) over-use emergency rooms at great public cost, and (d) die early from preventable conditions.
(2) …that doctors are extremely irritated by the fact that insurers—who are not qualified physicians—decide what gets covered, and what reimbursement-rates are.
(3) …that doctors might be charitable enough to treat any patient regardless of their ability to pay, but that does not mean that the poor can actually access care. Hospitals, pharmacies, and laboratories do not share this charitable policy of physicians, and those costs are often much larger than the actual doctor’s fees.

The trouble with normative idealism

Unstated support for fee-for-service among doctors is a normative position that distorts actual policy. It is normative because it is a strong belief in what should be; but since only a tiny fraction of Americans can afford medical costs out-of-pocket, the actual policy is that most Americans pay via private insurance. Doctors suffer an unintended consequence of their own normative ideal: a lot of medical decisions are made by for-profit insurers. Patients are also deeply aggrieved by denial-of-coverage, shocking unexpected co-pays, and unilateral cancellation of their policies. However, patients are not the ones who direct the AMA to block the recognition of healthcare as a fundamental right.

Sticking to a normative position has also blocked another possibility: doctors could have been the ones who shaped and governed health-insurance policy. The ideal of ‘fee for service’ and the deference to ‘freedom of choice’ has meant that doctors stayed out of governing insurance policies. Such involvement would have been interventionist and socialist—precisely what the doctors have opposed, as they have shown for decades through their AMA lobbying positions.

Furthermore, since doctors have recused themselves from governing the system of health insurance, the insurers, pharmaceuticals, hospitals, and labs share a perverse incentive to raise fees well beyond reasonable costs. The structure of private medical care is non-competitive. In Adam Smith’s words, is a market-failure. In fact, there may be no feasible way to set up a healthy, competitive marketplace for healthcare. Some services cannot be delivered effectively through the market mechanism, and healthcare might be one such service.

Re-examining healthcare through a planning lens

As a city planner, I think more about the long term well-being of whole populations, and the public fights necessary to promote that well-being. Through this lens, the question of healthcare looks very different from ‘healthcare as a right versus healthcare for those who can pay.’ Instead, we look at collective benefit of outcomes. Sometimes societies create markets where firms can compete and deliver excellent goods, services, and innovations at low costs. Sometimes societies need an asset which cannot be delivered by any effective profit model, such as roads and comprehensive education. Initially we tried both private and hybrid public/private agencies to build infrastructure and education. Some private and semi-private agencies still exist; but by the early 20th century Americans decided to fund most of these goods through taxation.

Public K-12 education might be the closest analogy to healthcare. We collectively decided that we needed all Americans to be well-educated both for an informed democracy and a productive, innovative economy. In fact we decided that we cannot afford to have Americans who are not educated. Therefore, primary and secondary education in America are not only universally funded; they are also compulsory.

The planning lens makes clear that we also cannot afford to have some Americans remain chronically uncared for, nor allow Americans to avoid medical care. One example of avoidance is the anti-vaxxers; their behavior makes a strong case for compulsory vaccination, just as we have compulsory education. Another, less-known example is the outbreak of Hepatitis-A among the homeless population in San Diego in 2018. At minimum—that being enlightened self-interest—we need to keep whole populations healthy, because diseases like Hep-A and the measles are highly contagious.

There are also several economic reasons to implement universal healthcare. First is to maintain the health of the working population. Fewer sick-days and fewer premature, preventable deaths is actually more profitable for employers. Second: if individuals do not have to worry about losing their healthcare when a business fails, they will be more willing to take business risks. This is precisely the behavior we need to maintain an innovative economy.

Furthermore, a government healthcare system can push back against profiteering by labs, pharma, hospitals, and doctors in a way that insurance companies clearly do not do. I think we all have seen the astounding costs that we don’t have to pay (whew!) when we do have insurance, and the insurer pays most of the various fees. Americans pay more per capita for medical care than any other wealthy country—all of which have universal healthcare systems. There are flaws in any complex system; certainly public systems have gone awry many times, as have private corporations. The question here is about basic structure: the for-profit healthcare system has perverse incentives which seem incorrigible. And since any complex system can go awry, it helps when that system is publicly accountable, as a fundamental mechanism for correcting errors. Trust the private sector? Three words: Wall Street banks. Or two more: petroleum industry. Or just one word: tobacco.

In today’s private, for-profit system, part of what we pay for is the excessive labor of paperwork generated by private insurers. Supposedly only governments create paperwork and red tape; and yet private health insurance paperwork exceeds any other paperwork I have had to deal with. Yes, public agencies can also get bureaucratic. But if healthcare is accepted as a right, then the whole process of determining eligibility for treatment, restricted enrollment periods, and scrambling to deal with denial of service—all of that goes away. Struggles over healthcare shift entirely into the public realm, such as fighting the malicious efforts of leaders in Georgia, Alabama, and Ohio to harm women. The public sphere is the proper realm in which to oppose harmful policies.

I call on physicians to reverse course from your libertarian absenteeism and actually engage in the management, design, and refining of a universal system. This is where your Hippocratic oath and your obligations as citizens overlap. Government administrators are no better qualified than for-profit insurance administrators for determining the structure of appropriate care. Don’t recuse yourselves this time; engage in governing health policy.

Private insurance is useful for spreading risks related to investments in property. It has a valuable role in the economy, when used as it was originally intended. Managing the health of an entire society, as we have seen in America over the past 70 years, should not be done through the profit model.Economies are social creations, and the health of the society comes first. Human health is foundational; it is a precondition for a healthy economy. In this respect, a comprehensive public healthcare system is essential infrastructure.

One of the great distortions in modern political debate is the assumption that capitalism and socialism are mutually exclusive. In practice, political economies have always had a mix. In the U.S., public streets, public schools, police, the courts, firefighters, and the military are all tax-funded, socialist organizations that have actually supported and promoted capitalism in other sectors of the political economy. The normative, idealist either/or presumption is a hazardous distraction. The relevant question is: what combination of capitalism and socialism works best?

Escapism and Warfare

You might think, from the title of this post, that it will be about violent video games. Actually it is kind of the opposite: it is about dramas that are ostensibly escapist, but actually engage in real warfare.

What provoked me to write this essay is episode 12 of season 2 of The Orville, entitled “Sanctuary.” Television science-fiction, yes. With the goofball touch of Seth MacFarlane, and a most improbable song during the dramatic climax. This episode brings us deep into a surreal situation-comedy to show something brutally specific to our time. (There will be spoilers below, so I recommend watching the episode first.)

Science fiction is often dismissed as escapism; and a lot of it is. But the original Star Trek series had Uhura on the bridge, while the United States was just barely legalizing interracial marriage. It had Pavel Chekov at navigation during the Cold War, and Hikaru Sulu at weapons only 23 years after World War II. Like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Metropolis (1929), and Frankenstein (1818), Trek included very pointed social commentary. The Orville, in this tradition, engages in some very intense present-day cultural conflict.

I think a lot about conflict in my work. After seven months in Kabul I returned to California in 2018, to an American society sliding away from ‘argumentative civility’ towards warfare. The risk is unavoidable. We are in the midst of significant cultural change in the United States. Opponents of that change have called it ‘Culture Wars.’ There is some truth to the characterization; but the difference between a struggle and a war is the choice to engage in negotiations with people you disagree with, or to refuse communication and choose violence instead.

The changes we are working through right now are not so much like the civil rights and anti-war protests and riots of the 1960s. Instead, they are more like the shifting role of women in the 1970s, which turned out to be a far greater revolution. True, poorer women never left the workforce; so the changes in the 1970s were not quite the feminist ideal of progress towards equality. However, the cultural expectation of ‘men as breadwinners and women as homemakers’ was challenged and frequently rejected. Difficult and intimate negotiations within families often led to separation and divorce. But it also led to a widespread abandonment of the implicit—and unrealistic—expectations about gender roles in families. The struggle was about rejecting a set of normative expectations of what women should be, and moving towards recognition of actually-existing conditions and the actual humanity, agency, and personhood of women. The emotional stakes and consequences of this struggle cannot be overstated: it drastically altered identities and relationships, and tore apart many families. The 1970s was revolutionary in the true sense of the term: radical changes-of-mentality.

The struggle for women’s equality persists in 2019, now taking on harassment-culture and the gender gap in senior leadership positions in politics and business. At the same time, awareness and struggle over issues of racism and class-exclusion have become much more intense, much more openly discussed in the 21st century.

In this context, the Orville is the opposite of escapist. Not only does it highlight present-day struggles, it takes a strong position on these issues. In the story, female are not allowed to exist in Moclan society: children born female are “surgically corrected” to be male. In this episode, the crew of the Orville discover a maroon colony of Moclan women. Their struggle to gain recognition and rights during the episode clearly echoes the struggle for civil rights, the underground railroad, and arguments against female circumcision. Because it is science fiction, the situation can be ‘one step removed’ from our present reality and represent all of these issues through a slightly metaphorical mirror. But when MacFarlane chooses Dolly Parton’s “(Working) Nine to Five” as theme song of the dramatic climax, he does two things at the same time: (1) he mixes comedy with drama in the strange and remarkable way he has been doing with this whole series; and (2) he brings the issue directly ‘back to earth’—back to our present 21st century—by reminding us that women’s inequality is still a major issue of injustice today. This is not even a thinly-veiled critique of anti-feminists. This is an overt challenge to towards political and social intolerance.

Furthermore, MacFarlane does not simply portray this conflict as grand, abstract political drama. The social side is intimate, framed in the relationships between friends and lovers. He shows how injustice and significant changes in mindset affects families and friendships.

In Western tradition, the heart is the focus of love; but it is also the symbolic locus of willpower and intention. This is a story of the heart as the site of revolutionary change.

Storytelling as Jazz

A year ago I posted about my enthusiasm for Seth MacFarlane’s show the Orville. I have just watched Season 2, Episode 8: “Identity, Part 1”. If you have not seen the episode yet, I highly recommend that you do so. This posting includes spoliers.

** Spoiler Alert **

In my previous post I described the Orville as homage, rather than parody. Here I want to explore the value of this homage approach. This episode has elements of many, many classic sci-fi shows:
Star Trek TNG’s “Best of Both Worlds”;
Star Wars Prequel portrayals of Coruscant;
Empire Strikes Back’s cloud city of Bespin (and the floating pallet);
Battlestar Galactica (both the original 1978 and 2003 reboot series);
A.I. (2001) and I, Robot (2004);
Dr. Who’s Cybermen;
the Day the Earth Stood Still (esp. the 1951 original);
and the Terminator.
It feels like all of these inspirations have been used to weave this world, but none specifically as an ironic or overt set of references. It did not feel derivative, but rather the way that a rapper, a jazz musician, or J.S. Bach would incorporate well-known melodies into new improvisations. MacFarlane gave himself license to do this because he claimed from the outset that he is a fan of previous shows. He seems to take the vocabulary they have created and use it almost as pre-mixed paints, or collage materials, freeing him to focus on his priority: the interpersonal relationships of the characters, and the story-arc of how those relationships are changing.

Before copyright locked stories and melodies in stasis for decades, this was the way storytelling was done. The Grimm brothers documented fairy tales as they were being told in one place and time in the 19th century. The Elder and Younger Eddas captured some of the Norse Myths as told by very different storytellers. There is a medieval song I like to sing, which not only has multiple versions, it is even known by two names: “Los Bilbilicos” (the nightingales) or “La Rosa Enfloresce” (the blooming rose). So far as I know it has been sung for 500 years, mostly by Sephardic Jews exiled from Spain after the Christian Inquisition was declared against them in 1492. Any living song, any living thread of storytelling was incorporated by the performer and relayed through their own experiences (I have dedicated performances of this song to refugees across the world). Even as the core elements remained identifiable over centuries, what audiences heard was each specific performer’s retelling. The performer often includes details and references which are familiar to the audience from their time and place. These details make the performance more relevant, and make the jokes both intelligible and more pointed as satire or veiled criticism.

We have lived with intellectual-property control over creative works for two centuries. This seems to be a moment where we are struggling with its implications. On the one hand, maintaining temporary-monopoly claim over specific re-tellings is the way we fund current productions. On the other hand, the Star Trek television (CBS) and film (Paramount) franchises seem to be interfering with each others’ liberty to focus on strong storytelling. Going back to the original intention of copyright: a temporary monopoly of 7 years, renewable once, so that the artists could recoup their money–but not to interfere with future developments of the work. Star Trek TOS was aired more than 50 years ago. Maybe some aspect of the artwork should be trademarked in perpetuity to protect the brand reputation. But wringing every last license-fee out of the maximum-extension of IP control seems to be strangling the original franchise. A better option is to adopt the jazz strategy: freedom to perform respectful homages.

Leadership from the Arena

The one thing that will make American football continue to have relevance is when all players, on both teams, led by their quarterbacks, take the knee during the singing of our National Anthem. Taking the knee, a practice of soldiers honoring their fallen comrades, is an act of respect. Taking the knee during the Anthem means two things: first, it is an act of respect for the United States and its promise of liberty, justice, and equality. Second, it is a call for all Americans to honor those who have been brutalized when that promise is betrayed because of racial prejudice. Taking the knee, therefore, is a civic act to call on all Americans to fulfill our commitment to the principles we declare:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

The Preamble of the Constitution declares our republic as a project, as a commitment towards justice. It does not declare that we are perfect already. So what does it mean when political leaders and NFL employers suppress that call, that respectful request to keep struggling towards a more perfect union?

Their current policy is to insist that football is only a-political entertainment, only a distraction. In that case football has the same status as a circus, and the same grim origin of circuses: gladitorial death-sport. American football is already played in the same type of building that was originally developed by the Romans for the spectacle of blood sports. We also know–and should have known long ago–that American football involves human sacrifice. The painful consequences of playing are hidden from the (mostly white) fans because the neurological damage, depression, and suicides of players usually happen after they retire. This concealment parallels the fact that most white Americans never witness the unequal and humiliating treatment of young African-Americans by police, because we live in communities that are more racially segregated now than they were during the Jim Crow era. Mobile-phones make it much easier to capture video than the fortuitous taping of the beating of Rodney King in 1991. But there is no substitute for personally witnessing prejudicial abuse.

Opposition to the take-the-knee movement expresses a desire by most Americans to keep ourselves deliberately ignorant. Through this denial, we intentionally refuse to acknowledge widespread betrayal of American values, at exactly the moment when we publicly proclaim our commitment to those values. In this respect, Americans right now are behaving in a more brutal, more cruel way than the Romans in their coliseums, who were fully aware of the consequences of their thumbs-up or thumbs-down gesture. The Romans knew their entertainment meant pain and death for the slaves who entertained them.

Football players have known for decades that they are sacrificing their health in order to play. They know they will live shortened lives, in significant pain, as a direct consequence of playing. By taking the knee, they are not asking for rule-changes that would reduce their own long-term suffering. Instead, they are asking all Americans to fulfill the promise we affirm when we sing our national anthem and pledge allegiance to this republic. They are not even asking for us to outgrow our racist prejudices. They just ask us to treat citizens equally under the law, as we promise to do when we claim loyalty to our Constitution and our Declaration of Independence.

The Wealth of Nations and the Work of Fables

One of the challenges of a fragmented, partisan, hostile political landscape is to get reliable insight into conversations you disagree with. Recently, we have discovered that Russian agencies are seeking to amplify social division in the U.S. However it is unfair to (only) blame the Russian government: they are amplifying something that is already here. My students feel very uncomfortable when I push them to seriously consider other points of view on policy. They are not sure where I stand politically, and that makes them nervous because most of the media (on both sides) continuously makes the argument that the ‘other side’ in American politics is ill-willed, ill-intentioned, and foolishly destructive.
What follows is a story that was forwarded many times by email, and according to its own self-reporting, is a quote of a widely-shared Facebook posting. So I am fairly convinced that this is a reliable portrayal of a conservative point of view, not one that has been cherry-picked by partisan media. I will include the entire message, and then contemplate the troubling work this fable does.

An important message for your children if they don’t already know, but especially for grand children and great grandchildren in this day and age where the movement for socialism is alive and well. This is a good non-confrontational way to get the message across that capitalism and hard work go hand in hand and are the ONLY sure roads to success. BUT, never forget: “MAKING A LIVING IS NOT THE SAME AS MAKING A LIFE!”

A genuine capitalist with a grasp of the real world! Good read!
The Corvette. A man named Tom Nicholson posted on his Facebook account the sports car that he had just bought and how a man approached and told him that the money used to buy this car could’ve fed thousands of less fortunate people. His response to this man made him famous on the internet. READ his story as stated on Facebook below:

A guy looked at my Corvette the other day and said, “I wonder how many people could have been fed for the money that sports car cost.”
I replied I am not sure;
it fed a lot of families in Bowling Green, Kentucky who built it,
it fed the people who make the tires,
it fed the people who made the components that went into it,
it fed the people in the copper mine who mined the copper for the wires,
it fed people in Decatur IL. at Caterpillar who make the trucks that haul the copper ore.
It fed the trucking people who hauled it from the plant to the dealer
and fed the people working at the dealership and their families.
BUT,… I have to admit, I guess I really don’t know how many people it fed.
That is the difference between capitalism and welfare mentality.
When you buy something, you put money in people’s pockets and give them dignity for their skills.
When you give someone something for nothing, you rob them of their dignity and self-worth.
Capitalism is freely giving your money in exchange for something of value. Socialism is taking your money against your will and shoving something down your throat that you never asked for.

The first line assumes a condescending attitude towards “children if they don’t already know” that capitalism (and hard work) is the only way. This kind of absolute certainty about a set of policies is only justified if overwhelming evidence supports that position. The financial crisis that began in 2007 is strong evidence that a deregulated capitalist system is unstable and capable of destroying the wealth and savings of hundreds of millions of people. So, the certainty expressed in this story is not justified.
That does not mean that other answers are automatically correct, either. But advocates of deregulated capitalism insist only on their own yardstick: either one must be absolutely certain that this specific version of capitalism is correct (you “already know”), or equally certain that some other solution is absolutely correct. That is a “straw-man” assumption that is not even stated, so the author does not need to take responsibility for asserting such a narrow point of view. But there is a different yardstick: the actual evidence. In practice, markets that are regulated to maintain competitiveness and prevent instabilities seem to perform best. The actual evidence is messy, and does not fit any doctrinaire ideology. the core problem of insisting on a normative ideal is that such certainty leaves no room for listening, for responding to evidence that might show that your one solution might have serious flaws.

Second: the author states the purpose of the story: “to get the message across that capitalism and hard work go hand in hand and are the ONLY sure roads to success” in contrast to socialism “in this day and age where the movement for socialism is alive and well.”
My main concern here: capitalism and socialism are not mutually exclusive. In fact, in modern economies, capitalism and socialism are inseparable. This goes straight back to Adam Smith, who was trying to figure out how to restructure the British political economy to help grow the wealth of the whole nation. The Wealth of Nations does not mean the wealth of individuals. In Smith’s era, it meant the common-wealth, rather than the wealth of the permanently privileged class of aristocrats. One of his suggestions: liberate the markets from the direct meddling of the aristocrats, and guarantee the property-rights of commoners by having tax-funded police and courts that anyone could access.
Smith also argued that liberated markets would find a balance of high productivity, high quality, and lower prices so long as: (a) producers sought to sell the most at the highest price they could; and (b) buyers could comparison-shop for the best quality at the lowest price. That is what Smith meant by the “invisible hand.” There is nothing mysterious about the invisible hand: it is both a tension and a balance that occurs in competitive markets. And there is nothing mysterious about when the invisible hand fails: it fails when markets become non-competitive.
Smith was arguing for markets that were freed from the control of a privileged few, and kept competitive through government regulations. Is that capitalism or is that socialism? The answer is yes. In other words, functional market competition and government regulation cannot exist separate from each other. In practice, there is no way choose one “versus” the other.
What parts of the American system are socialist? Public schools. Libraries. Freeways. Regulation of money supply and the prime lending rate. Product safety: food, vehicles, drugs, toys, paints, and clothing. The Seventh Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees that commoners have access to a tax-funded court system to defend property rights, just as Smith recommended.

The third really questionable part of the story above is the section about buying a luxury car versus giving to charity. Socialism is equated with charity, without any clear explanation of why they are supposedly the same thing. This maneuver demands that you accept this questionable equivalency. Then, the author implies that all socialism is the same as a coercive Communist regime: “Socialism is taking your money against your will and shoving something down your throat that you never asked for.” The storyteller condemns socialism, taxation, and charity all at the same time, and folds them all together. He characterizes charity as “giving a man a fish” without teaching him how to fish.
But where do we “learn how to fish” for ourselves? Where do we get the capabilities to innovate, start businesses, and earn a living? Tax-funded, comprehensive public schooling to teach literacy, math, and analysis. So this attempted bundling of taxation, charity, and coercion falls apart from its own contradictions. Also, voluntary charity is pretty different from Stalinist confiscation of property, which is usually what is implied by the “against your will” reference.

Fourth: the Corvette-owner’s response shows awareness of all the people involved in production. He uses a very socialist ‘dignity of labor’ argument for why his purchase is a good thing. I actually agree strongly with the dignity of labor; as did Eisenhower who allowed a third of the American labor force to unionize. Yes: if you work hard, your labor should be rewarded, your rights and property protected, and yes, that includes the right to pursue happiness. Conservatives from Nixon onward have had a very poor track record of promoting the dignity of American labor in any way. So in this case, borrowing a socialist argument when you demonstrably oppose it is dishonest and dishonorable.

Stepping back for another look: the political work of fables

The actual event probably happened. But the re-telling and re-framing and sharing of this story means that the role of this story is now as a fable. Fables have a purpose, a social function. What work does this fable do? For those who accept the assumptions of this fable, it helps them justify their point of view by belittling a straw-man version of a ‘socialist’ point of view.

First: it works because it is simple in structure: an out-of-context retort by someone who is offended by a challenge.

Second: it portrays the Corvette-owner as the victim of condescension from the “charity” person. The re-telling of this story is a collective act of conservatives repeating to each other that they are victims of condescension from the ‘other side’. Those who agree with the fable do not see themselves as condescending: “This is a good non-confrontational way to get the message across…” However that is a blindness that comes from not looking too closely at their own tone, their own story-telling. Ancient Greeks had a word for such deficient self-critique: hypocrisy. I don’t want to slip into a ‘what about-ism’ here by implying that liberals, socialists, and all other unsundry folk are not condescending. Acknowledging condescension is a first step towards being respectful to differing viewpoints.

Third: the ‘take-away’ ending lines argue against taxation. Note that there are other ways to fund governments rather than taxes: through sales of oil, rare minerals, or other natural resources. There are governments which rely on nationalized oil revenue, and do not tax their people, such as Nigeria, Angola, DR Congo, Kazakhstan, and Myanmar. So taxation is not as inevitable as death. However, non-taxed people pay a very different price. Non-taxing governments understand that since the people do not fund them, they owe the people nothing. As odious as taxation may be, we must be careful what we wish for.
Taxation is irritating, and for exactly that reason, it is also a powerful mechanism of government accountability. No one likes paying taxes. The ongoing struggle of governments to extract taxes from reluctant populations is a process that holds those governments accountable at least as much as voting does.

Fourth: this corvette fable does important political work right now. In 2005, George W. Bush’s failure to respond to the flooding of the poor parts of New Orleans damaged his reputation. The current Republican-controlled government faces a similar threat with the poor response to hurricane damage in Puerto Rico. How to disparage calls for a government response? If tax-funded disaster-recovery work is characterized as charity, and charity is “taking your money against your will and shoving something down your throat” like assistance to an island of Spanish-speakers, this tone of conversation may protect Republican reputations while delivering a minimal response.

How to challenge such a fable?

Challenging this fable requires persnickety analysis. Detailed analysis does not mobilize voters or win heated arguments. George Lakoff is correct: all this reasoned analysis goes nowhere against a simple, emotionally sympathetic, straw-man argument for capitalism “over” socialism. Furthermore, I do not and cannot directly disagree with some of the arguments here–especially the value and honor of labor. I reject the intolerant either/or presumptions of this fable, but that is because actual, functioning capitalism is inseparable from socialism. Any country that has industrialized since 1870 has major socialist components in its political economy.
Furthermore, the either/or argument is totalitarian. The argument pre-constructs any disagreement as an opposition to economic growth and the dignity of labor.  Absolutist arguments like these cripple our ability to tackle the actual, complex problems of managing our economy so that we can produce wealth and well-being through our work.
What I really disagree with is the type of capitalism implied by this fable: de-regulated capitalism. Adam Smith’s arguments, described above, make a strong case for why deregulated markets fail: de-regulated markets “consolidate” into a few dominant firms who dictate prices and service-quality to consumers, and increasingly to suppliers as well. Total monopoly is not necessary for a market to fail. Markets become less-competitive and less efficient when as little as 1/3 of the market is dominated by one firm or a cartel of firms. Keeping markets competitive requires active, tax-funded enforcement of government regulations. If the regulating hand of government is removed from markets, the “freedom” of the market is immediately lost to the meddling hand of oligarchs and plutocrats, the new aristocrats.

But how to make a persuasive argument for a regulatory political economy, where taxes are reinvested in the people to build the common-wealth? How to make that argument with the same, blunt, bumper-sticker simplicity of the Corvette-buyer fable above?

The following ‘visualization exercise’ has the same bluntness. Unfortunately, it probably reads as condescending to someone who is already certain that de-regulated capitalism is the “ONLY sure road to success”:

Imagine a country without taxes.
A place where markets are completely free.
A place where no-one takes your money and spends it on socialist things: schools, roads, building inspections, and workplace safety enforcement.
A place where life is simple because all the red tape, all the regulations have been removed.
There is such a place:
Somalia.

Republicans need to save their own credibility

This is a weird post. But it needs to be said, publicly:
Republican leaders need to challenge President Trump, and if necessary, impeach him and remove him from office.

Why?

In order to restore some credibility for the Republican party for future generations.
The Unites States needs at least two credible political parties to struggle publicly over policies, and give the population at least some choice during elections. Since the Gingrich-led House in 1994, Republican political leaders have been behaving as what political scientists call “disloyal opposition.” A loyal opposition is one which sincerely and substantially disagrees with the party in power, but expects that it gets voted in, it will continue some policies while changing others that it really prefers. A disloyal opposition vandalizes the government by recklessly and cynically dismissing people and policies.

Perhaps this began with Ronald Reagan’s inaugural phrase: “government is the problem.” Since then, Republican leaders have behaved in the strangely contradictory way of attempting to trash modern American government when they are the government. George W. Bush (unlike his father) behaved like a member of the disloyal opposition through his eight years of tenure as president, including when both houses of Congress and the Supreme Court favored him. If daddy gives you a mansion, and then you trash it, how should you be remembered?

But the current situation is even worse. Trump has alienated the vast majority of Latinos, African-Americans, and the majority of women. Asian-Americans have been quiet about this (they were subjected to extraordinary discrimination and violence in both the 19th and 20th centuries), but his treatment of China cannot be helpful.

In California, that leaves only about 15% of the population (white men) whom he has not attacked as a category. But even if he could recruit 2/3 of white men to support him, that is only 10% of the population. Which means California is extremely likely to vote for whomever the DNC selects as the Democratic candidate.

The demographics of California are a preview of what the rest of the United States will be in one generation. If Republicans remain associated with Trump’s toxic bigotry, they will be unelectable across the majority of the country, and the Republican party will wither, leaving only one significant political party, and no significant choice for voters. Would Americans voluntarily give up democracy to become a one-party government? I may agree with more Democrat policies than Republican policies at this time; but I don’t want to see ANY party become the sole credible party of the country.

Right now, we have a billionaire president who has convinced himself that he is a victim. I think Republicans may expect Democrats to seek impeachment of the president, so that Republicans can say he is a martyr and call themselves victims. For the moment, that wins elections in a country where a lot of privileged people regard themselves as victims. I don’t think that will last. I don’t think that truly pious Christians will continue to unquestioningly support such a publicly immoral man, despite what their televangelist leaders preach at the moment. White men? Victims? I just worked for half a year in Afghanistan. Consider what I have witnessed, and then try to look me in the eye and tell me you are a victim. There are Americans who can—and they are precisely the peoples whom the president and the Republican party sneer at and seek to marginalize.

A reversal of policy is possible.

In the 1920s it was the Democrats, including President Wilson, who supported the intensification of Jim Crow laws and practices against Blacks. It was Roosevelt who interned Japanese-Americans. Between 1948 and 1964, there was a “Great Flip.” It started with Truman’s de-segregation of the military, and granting of citizenship to Chinese and Native Americans after WWII. It ended with the racist Dixiecrat senators like Strom Thurmond switching to the Republican Party in 1964. In 1920, the Democratic President Woodrow Wilson segregated Federal offices. In 2008, a completely different Democratic Party put forward an African-American as presidential candidate. We should not forget where the two parties were in the 1920s (or especially the 1860s and 1870s), but that does not mean we can ignore where they are now.

Taking Responsibility Earns Respect

Republicans control all three branches of government now, and have had dominating power almost continuously since Reagan. For six years out of the last 38, Democrats have had majority power: 1992-1994, and 2008-2012. To try to blame any political consequences at present on the Democrats or “the Far Left” will be remembered as the whining irresponsibility and attempted impunity of spoiled children. Is that how 21st-century Republicans want to be remembered? Is that whom they want to recruit to their party? And what kind of a platform is “trash the other guys’ work and send people back to coal-mining?” Republicans chose to eliminate the Voting Rights Act; Republicans are openly working to deny voting to African-Americans. How can this be reconciled with a commitment to liberty and democracy?

There are real policy problems we need to struggle over. How do we grow the well-being of American families into the 21st century? What policies will enable us to live better, by whatever measure we care about? Republicans seem to be fixated on how they are offended by the behavior of others who disagree with them. “Those are distractions,” as President Obama cautioned. While distracted with their own sense of self-righteous offense and the self-pity of Trumped-up victimhood, Republicans look increasingly unattractive to American conservatives. By aligning themselves with white supremacists and overt racists, the Republican Party is sacrificing its long-term future electability for very short-term electoral gains.

To restore their own credibility—to restore and sustain their own electability—Republicans need to challenge president Trump and remove him from office, if necessary. They should not wait for Democratic leaders to be in a position to do this. If Dems challenge the president, there will be Americans who regard him as a martyr, just as many Southerners still regard Confederate President Jefferson Davis as a martyr. But I think—I hope—that self-pity will lose out to a “We can do this” attitude among American voters and political mobilizers. America needs a party that argues for fiscal responsibility; argues for individual rights and duties; promotes meritocracy over nepotism; and enforces regulations that maintain market competitiveness, rather than corporate consolidation and market domination. In other words, a Republican party more like the one in 1954, when unionization and top-bracket income taxes were both at their highest. I do not agree with many parts of the Republican platform of 64 years ago, but at least I can respect it and understand the logic behind most of those positions.

Right now, a party which seems devoted to sneering at whole populations based on their gender or skin color is a party with no future in a country where women outvote men, and where whites will soon be one of many minorities—as it is now already in California. Republicans, please work towards the future of American democracy. Please depart from Trump’s policies and cultural politics; please seek to serve the whole population. Please promote voting, and recruit immigrants to become citizens. Above all else, do not let Russian social-media operatives sucker you into “being offended.” Patriotism means opposing Russian political malice, and opposing Americans who have profited from that malice. You can do this.

A Call for Answerable Socialism

The candidacy of Bernie Sanders in 2016 and the election of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in 2018 have demonstrated that Americans are reconsidering Socialism carefully, and that Socialist candidates can get elected. The problem for Americans is that Socialism is an ambiguous term. It can mean political economies ranging from Denmark and Sweden to the USSR and Venezuela. The first two are called “Democratic Socialist” and the latter two are called “Totalitarian Socialist,” at least by American political scholars. But the confusion remains because many totalitarian countries actually put the word “Democratic” in their names, including the former East Germany and the present North Korea.

I propose a new term, to identify a specific type of Socialism that the United States needs: Answerable Socialism.

Why “Answerable” instead of “Democratic”?

I am certainly in favor of democratic government. Regular elections usually hold political leaders answerable to the people they govern. However, populist leaders can abuse supposedly democratic processes and act with impunity. Abuse can happen through forcing certain candidates out (such as Bernie Sanders in 2016), or through purchase of the election through massive campaign-funding, through distortions of facts, and through appealing to fears rather than aspirations of the voters. So democracy alone is insufficient to maintain answerability of leaders. It is a mistake to assume that periodic elections automatically equal rule-by-the-people. Democracy is a means towards that goal, but not the goal itself.

What other practices and institutions keep leaders answerable to the people? An uncensored, independent press, and taxation. The role of a free press in maintaining answerability was clearly articulated at the time of the American Revolution. However the link between taxation and political answerability only became apparent when some countries found that they could abolish taxes and fund their governments through revenue from resources such as oil or diamond exports. This phenomenon is now called the “Resource Curse” because countries that rely on resource-exports for revenue have a strong tendency to treat their own people badly. The reason can be summed up in a simple maxim: “If the people do not fund the government, the rulers will come to believe that they owe the people nothing.”

Conversely, paying high taxes is a constant irritant. I will not pretend that anyone actually likes doing that. But it is a mistake to think that the only solution is to therefore cut taxes and seek other sources of government revenue (like export-revenues, or borrowing from the future and going into deep debt). Instead, promote an understanding of how the irritation of taxation is a prod towards answerability. It seems that people feel much more strongly about having the government explain what it is doing with their money, compared to what the government is doing with their occasional vote. With the adoption of the Internet in the 1990s, governments now have an efficient, inexpensive means to explain how they are investing tax revenue. An independent press can cross-check whether rulers are being honest with those explanations.

A Competitive-Market Socialist system

Answerability is a call to set up and maintain political mechanisms that will hold leaders answerable even more than technical democracy by itself. This is the opposite of totalitarianism, and tyranny by a thug-like populist leader who plays on fears and phobias rather than hopes and aspirations. However, Americans also question whether Socialism means abolishing a market economy and the financial incentives for productivity and innovation.

Actually, a Socialist political economy is more suitable for maintaining a competitive market economy. Why? Because a de-regulated “free” market slides very quickly into an economy controlled by cartels and oligopolies, if not outright monopolies. As Adam Smith argued, such economies are market failures. Smith argued that the role of regulation is to maintain competitiveness.

In practice, there are actually only two types of market: a competitive market (maintained by regulations and enforcement) and a dominated weak market. There are a few ways a market can become weakened by domination: excessive government interference (such as in the USSR under Brezhnev and China under Mao) or by private oligarchies. De-regulation leads to private domination of the market, so a supposed “free” market is actually a path to market failure. Either type of dominated market stifles innovation, and stifles new competitors from coming in and keeping prices low and quality high.

Why not just call it Capitalist, then?

A Competitive-Market Socialist system certainly allows for inequality, but it balances inequality against the need to maintain the welfare of the whole population. The United States (and all wealthy countries) implemented many socialist programs decades ago, such as universal primary and secondary education, publicly-funded civil courts, public health agencies, and municipal infrastructure. Using tax revenue for human investment in both education and health are the most effective ways that governments can promote both well-being and competitive economies. A capitalist system alone does not do this. Technically, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo are capitalist, and almost completely de-regulated because their governments are mostly collapsed. “Pure” capitalism where there is no government regulation and no enforcement is clearly disastrous. However, a well-taxed and well-regulated capitalist economy is productive. In other words, Socialism and Capitalism are not mutually exclusive. The most effective Socialist political systems are those which regulate and promote Capitalist wealth.

Not against Capitalism, but thinking beyond Capitalism

In the 19th century, Socialist thinkers assumed that the central problem was to manage social inequality to prevent popular revolt against the elite. In the 21st century, that problem persists but a completely new problem has emerged: the question of ecological sustainability. As Naomi Klein and others have argued, Capitalist political economies are running up against a fundamental system design flaw. Capitalism requires economic growth in order to remain viable. However human population growth is declining in wealthy countries, and we are destabilizing many ecosystems through the scale of our collective economic activities.

The problem of sustainability provokes a very different question: How do we enable all humans to live well without exhausting natural resources and destabilizing the climate? Whatever answer we find to this question, it will force a fundamental design-change in the market system. The difference between mercantilism and capitalism was that Mercantilists believed that the “resource pie” was essentially land, and that it was a fixed quantity. With the invention of intellectual property, Capitalism assumes that the “wealth pie” can be grown without limit. This assumption has worked extremely well for 200 years, resulting in massive growth of wealth and human population. Inequality, discrimination, and injustices have tainted that success, and the way to address those problems seems clear: make governments more answerable.

However we are back up against the limit of natural resources again, in a more complex way. We need to adjust the market system to address this limit. So this is not a 19th-century argument for a revolutionary overthrow of Capitalism, nor an argument against markets, nor an argument against living well. Rather, it is an observation that we need to shift our attention towards revising the design of our market system to address three core goals: to achieve and maintain a good quality life for all people; to balance inequality with justice; and to coexist well with all the life and processes of the earth. I see no clear answer about how redesign markets to achieve these goals; it is a very complex problem which might require very refined solutions. However, the process for getting to that answer is clear: we need a political system that responds to the people, invests heavily in their education, and rests its credibility on the argument that its purpose is to maintain their long-term well-being.

A proposed Constitutional Amendment: Rights of the People

Note: this Amendment was drafted by some friends of mine. I like it, and believe it deserves wide consideration. I will comment on it below the text.

CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENT XXVIII: “Rights of the People”

Section 1

The Federal Government shall mandate and provide free, universal, “single payer” healthcare to any and all US citizens, or permanent residents, regardless of age, medical status or medical history. Each person over 18 shall be issued some form of National Health Care Card. Private health insurance will still be available, but all physicians must, as a pre-condition of their state licensing and certification, provide service if possible to any citizen with a card. The intent: No one should be denied the right to health care because they don’t have adequate funds.

Section 2

The United States Federal Government shall make available to any and all academically qualified citizens and permanent residents, free tuition at a public two or four-year state college or university. This includes up to and through the doctorate level, including professional graduate programs. These schools must be accredited by the appropriate accrediting agency. The intent: No one should be denied the right to a college education because they don’t have adequate funds for tuition.

Section 3

The United States Federal Government shall provide financial stipends for livable housing to any and all US citizens and permanent residents who are unable to pay fair market rates for housing in the area where they reside. These stipends will be individually evaluated and issued on a sliding scale of payment, determined by family size, income, assets and zip code. If it is determined that there is an inability to work due to physical or mental health or other issue, resulting in a citizen not capable of affording livable housing, free housing will be provided on an emergency basis. The intent: No one should be denied the right to livable shelter because they don’t have adequate funds.

Section 4

The United States Federal Government shall provide money to any and all citizens and permanent residents for food to those who need it. This program will be an upgrade to the National Food Stamp Program, (SNAP): as long as a citizen can demonstrate need, they will be issued monthly stamps/coupons providing for sustenance. The intent: No one should go hungry because they don’t have adequate funds.

Section 5

Congress shall earmark adequate funds annually on a nondiscretionary basis, to cover the costs of Sections 1 through 4. These funds will come from a pool which will be funded annually by a new progressive tax structure on all citizens and all corporate and investment earnings. Since the Constitution defines corporations are persons, they shall be taxed like persons. They shall behave like good citizens in that they shall invest in people for the good of the people and the country. The intent: to reaffirm the rights described in the Declaration of Independence, and enhance the social contract of our democracy without bankrupting the government.


Pietro’s Comments

I like this proposed Amendment because it is focused. It proposes four rights: healthcare, higher education, housing, and food. I also like the fact that the economic benefits likely to result from these rights would more than pay for the costs. Why?

1. Lowering risks to business entrepreneurs.

Small business start-ups are the backbone of a growing economy. But small business fail 80% of the time as a general rule. So individuals must be willing to take risks, and fail, in order for that one-in-five success to become a common event. However, individuals become increasingly risk-averse if they fear losing health-coverage, housing, or even going hungry if their business fails. In order to encourage people to release their creative energies and try audacious things, we need to let them know that failure will not be punishingly costly.

2. Treating education as a national investment in growth.

Which economic sectors have experienced the most economic growth over the last 40 years? Advanced technology in pharmaceuticals and medical instruments; electronics hardware and software; the entertainment industry; design and branding. Working in all of these fields–as an entrepreneur or even as a laborer–requires advanced education.

We can bring clothing and manufacturing back to the U.S. through protectionist tariffs, but those are not growth industries and the pay in both sectors flattened out decades ago. Even East Asian countries are now being priced out of manufacturing by even poorer South and Southeast Asian countries. So, yes, we can implement a National Charity Act of protectionist tariffs to make Bangladeshi shirts more expensive than shirts sewn in Tennessee. Or we can invest in the citizens in Tennessee to innovate the next valuable economic innovation.

3. We need to take care of those who take care of us.

America needs a high-tech, innovation-driven economy, but it also needs to take care of the people who care for us by picking up the trash, teaching our children, caring for our elderly. These service-sector jobs are respectable and absolutely necessary, but do not pay well. So we need to guarantee housing, health care, and food to all of the people who care for us. Cities in the U.S. are not functioning well at the moment because high-salary people have moved back into the centers and service workers now have to pay the highest price in both fuel and time to get to the places where they can earn a living. If the right-to-housing becomes a civil right in every jurisdiction in the America, cities will be compelled to make housing available where the jobs are.

4. What about the ‘undeserving poor?’

First, set the policies that will maximize long term economic growth for the whole country, before seeking out policies to punish the people you think are ‘undeserving.’ When I think of ‘undeserving,’ I think about the billionaire who would get free healthcare through this Amendment. Can we afford it? Yes. In fact, I am not sure that we can afford not to implement these rights.

5. These are positive rights. The Constitution only has negative rights.

Most of the rights in the U.S. Constitution are ‘negative,’ meaning that they restrain the Government from messing with the People in some way. However, the right to vote, the right to tax-funded civil courts, and the right to a speedy and impartial trial are actually positive rights. Furthermore, we have enacted major positive rights as Congressional Acts: the right to clean air, the right to clean water, the right to non-poisonous food. In fact all three of these positive rights were signed into law by Republican leaders who saw them as expressions of the long-standing conservative promotion of individual rights. Democrats, likewise, have promoted positive rights. Many of the rights proposed in this Amendment are similar to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was largely drafted by Eleanor Roosevelt, and which the U.S. has adopted through ratification.

Conclusion: a nonpartisan Amendment that would be most useful.

This Amendment is consistent with John Dewey and Jane Addams’ push for universal, compulsory primary and secondary education in the early 20th century. Implementation of universal K-through-12 education prepared the U.S. to become the global economic powerhouse in the 1950s and 1960s. Which countries have higher standards of living than the U.S. today? Singapore, where the government develops 80% of the housing stock, and promotes higher education very aggressively. Hmm. Does this damage trade and competitive markets in Singapore? No. Hmm. It is worth looking around the world to discover that these proposed “Rights of the People” are not actually that radical. They just make sense.