Sunday, November 07, 2010


Sunday Reflection: Our political dysfunction as a spiritual failing

On Wednesday, I tuned into my local NPR station to hear Steve Inskeep interview Toby Walker of the Waco Tea Party. Here is part of their conversation:

INSKEEP: We reached out to a pair of people involved in the Tea Party movement, starting with Toby Marie Walker. We heard her on this program earlier this fall, and called her back again. She is co-founder and president of the Waco Tea Party in Waco, Texas, and feels good about the election results where she lives.

Ms. TOBY MARIE WALKER (Waco Tea Party): It was a sweep. Everyone who was in office that had not been, I think, on the side of the people is now on the outside of politics.

INSKEEP: Your congressman is, for a couple more months, Chet Edwards, who is a conservative Democrat. What happened to him?

Ms. WALKER: He didn't listen to the people of the district. It was the stimulus, it was the TARP. It was a myriad of other bills. We have things that needed to be done like I-35 expansion, and making sure that we are responsibly spending money. And so he just lost touch with the people.

Maybe we are so used to this type of talk that we no longer even realize how bizarre it is-- she is simultaneously complaining about government spending AND the failure of the government to expand the road near her. All in one sentence! She wants road building, but not the stimulus spending that builds roads.

In a nutshell, this captures our political dysfunction. A primary message of this past week's election was that people think the federal government is too large, and spends too much money.

I agree with that.

However, that is not the whole story. We want, it seems, to have a smaller, cheaper government that still fully funds everything that benefits us personally. There is no sense of shared sacrifice whatsoever. Politicians around the country are committed to the self-impeaching platform of a robust military, no changes in social security or medicare, stronger border protection, and... a smaller, cheaper government. Sigh.

This is a spiritual failing. One unifying element of most faiths is an element of self-sacrifice. From the Buddha's central teachings to the example of Christ, to the inspiring stories of the founders of Judaism, our faiths consistently teach an ethic of self-sacrifice. Yet, somehow, our political culture not only features a shocking collective greed, but a collective greed for government services and benefits combined with the contradictory insistence that government fade away.

Jesus told the rich man to sell all he had and give it to the poor, and chose a life of sacrifice and poverty. The Buddha taught that happiness comes from not wanting what we do not have. Moses led the chosen people through the desert in destitution. How is it that we Americans feel we are entitled to project our power through endless foreign wars, to have our roads widened, to cast a stout net at the border, to be taken care of in our old age by a government that is not very good at any of these things?

Our faith, if it is faith, extends outward to every part of our lives. It should be there when we work, when we shop, when we greet one another, and when we talk about our nation. If we did that, honestly, it might all be different-- and those of us who desire a smaller government would accept as a part of that the bare fact that we will not get all we want from that now-smaller government.

Love that quote.
In her defense, the U.S. Consitution expressly grants the federal government authority over the interstate commerce (I-35 is a channel of interstate commerce),relations with foreigners and their countries, and the military. Of course, it doesn't mean that we have to agree with what the federal government does in those areas.

Anyway, I don't want this to turn into political mayhem Sunday, so I will stop there. (P.S. I am not a tea partier. I am more of an 18th century federalist who believes that the federal government should stick to the enumerated powers granted it in the Constitution).

That said, I want to tell you that I completely agree with the overall Spirit of your message. We need to stop expecting the government to provide us with everything, and we as individuals need to start looking out for each other. Parents need to take care of their children, children their parents and grandparents. Neighbors should be concerned for each other.

Taking care of each other will always require sacrifice. I know of parents who would not eat meals so their children could eat. I know of children who decided to give the money that would have gone towards their Christmas presents so that their local congregation could use it to build a chapel. I know of other parents who wore worn out clothing so their children could have something to wear. I could go on.

And we should sacrifice because its the right thing to do. Not because the government tells us to do it or forces us to do it.
If you want a smaller government, I understand, but then we need to talk about exactly what we shall and what we shall not pay for; i.e. what are we going to cut. I like the idea of a smaller, more restrained government too, but let's be honest about what we shall and what we shall not spend money on.

It never ceases to amaze me how many folk still feel entitled for this or that, but do not want to pay for this or that. Certainly, they do not want to pay for someone else's this or that.

Here's an idea for the Tea Party person:

What if we let the states and regions of the country that produce the wealth, keep all of their wealth, instead of forcing them to share it with states and regions that don't produce nearly as much?

Maybe if all the wealth that is generated in the effete liberal East and in places like "godless" Silicon Valley stayed there, then perhaps the parameters of political, social, and religious discourse would change.

If people don't like the coasts so much, maybe they should not rely upon them so much.
This just displays what I have been saying all along: democracy is absolutely the greatest form of government when every voting citizen is properly informed and engaged.

TARP, for example, was signed in to law by the small-government fiscal conservative President Bush. It was necessary. I applaud President Bush's work there. But people continue to say that TARP was an Obama administration policy. (Admittedly, he does possess a Kenyo-Muslim Anticolonialist Time Machine developed by Bin Laden Laboratories in Riyadh, with parts made from the space ship that crashed in Roswell, but that's neither here nor there).

I hate HL Mencken, but this last election cycle reminded me of a quote of his: "Democracy is the belief that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard."

An ill-educated or ill-informed populace cannot make sound electoral or governmental decisions. It is government of the people, designed to fail by a largely exclusive club of opinion-setters and media personalities. Info-tainment and ill-informed opinion coverage (by both traditional and new media) has dramatically failed the public. I am unsure of where, exactly, I could go for news and analysis that is not agenda-driven at this point.

To me, I see the problem as deeper than no sense of self-sacrifice (though that is a part of it, as well), but rather no sense of unifying "us-ness" to our political corporate being. It's "me and those like me" against "them and those not like me." Tribalism. That kind of in-fighting benefits only those people who can profit from that in-fighting.
So as not be be distracted by the comments - I find this to be one of your best Sunday pieces since I started reading the Razor.
. . . . or, that we would be willing to sacrifice more (through our taxes) if we do want much from the government. We can't want more --or want just what we want, when we want it--and pay less.
(I always think of what happens when there's a hurricane or flood: people, some of whom advocate for less government, complain bitterly because FEMA can't get there fast enough).

I like your point that we need to carry our religious tenets of sacrifice into our interface with government.

And Lane, you are always my hero.
Well I guess we can at least now all agree that the Tea Party was never "astroturf"…unless it was Boise State blue (sorry, since PC 1 & 2 just ended I can’t help throwing in some BCS fodder; and having attended the Fiesta Bowl in 2007--where the entire state of Idaho attended--they seem to fit the Tea Party stereotype generally…until you remember that the whole thing was started by a CNBC analyst’s rant to a roaring crowd on the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade). Ms. Walker’s lack of articulation helps demonstrate the lack of organizational structure. Later in the piece she tries to explain that all this money was advertised to fix I-35, but it went to helicopters or something (again less than paid-for articulation...see Peggy Noonan's piece this past week in the WSJ). I'll agree that the whole highway-building-sales-pitch for the stimulus package was phony, but I'll stay on topic for the sake of this discussion.

I would not characterize self-sacrifice as the major religious fallacy in our country; at least as long as we have so many willing to sacrifice their lives to protect this country. I believe we’ve been misled by our own sense of religious duty. Government has intruded upon free markets and religion to the point in our society that many people have difficulty distinguishing between the two. Jesus didn’t tell the rich man to sell all he had and give it to the government for “redistribution.” Jesus called him to a religious duty called charity, and our government has tried for almost a century to sell us on its “charitable” nature. But our government was not designed to be “charitable” and I agree with the designers that it shouldn’t be. I also agree with Craig that deferring our Christian duties to the government not only ultimately fails to provide the needy what they need, but also robs those who would provide from the increase in character that charity instills in people by its nature.

I agree with Lane that we live in divisive times, but not due to tribalism or media creation. The electorate has major, serious issues to address and mostly 2 different viewpoints that become increasingly divergent. I think it’s great that political losers still mostly take it so well in the tradition of the Jeffersonian Revolution. But the jury is definitely still out on which way we’ll go, as shown by the dramatic swings in the past 4 years alone.

Also, I thought Ben Franklin said we were a Republic, not a Democracy…but I guess we’ve become more Democratic since then. And who ever said Bush was a “small-government fiscal conservative”? He cut taxes and tried to fix social security, but Bush partnered with Ted Kennedy too much to be a small government guy. Like his dad, he missed the domestic big picture. Although, had Bush been able to reform social security by pushing our entitlement society towards ownership, it would have been worth his failures. I suspect that was his motive. And I thought it was Obama’s leadership flight, stalling his campaign, that caused TARP to be passed…or did he vote “present” again? And doesn’t most of the Silicon Valley money now go through foreign accounts to avoid domestic taxation? I didn’t know Google was full of Tea Partiers…or maybe they just learned from Obama’s east coast buddies at Goldman?

Other Kendall
Other Kendall wrote: I'll agree that the whole highway-building-sales-pitch for the stimulus package was phony,...

I would disagree with this in my part of the country. Perhaps a regional complaint. Although this is money made available at the federal level it is the state/local Highway Transportation Authorities who apply for the funds and then prioritize the spending for the region. The fact that I-35 in the Waco area is being ignored is a local problem not a federal problem.

When I drive from Durham, NC to Tampa I encounter road projects on end for 700 miles. It may be road widening, paving, concrete segment repair or bridge replacement. This distance covers The Durham Freeway(NC147); I-40/440; I-95; US301; I-75 and I-275.

Self-sacrifice doesn't get you re-elected.

It begins and ends there.
My comment about the stimulus package was not meant to say that nothing was appropriated for highways; but as a percentage of expenditures in the bill, domestic highway spending was not the focus. From the figures I reviewed it was about $30 billion out of a $750+ billion bill. So perhaps compared to other highway legislation it's a lot of money, but it was not the major emphasis of the stimulus. More $$ was allocated for the "green" energy programs.

I also don't doubt that some regions benefited more than others because it seemed designed as kickbacks to special interests, payment for future votes in favorable districts, and a bailout for state and local governments.

Other Kendall
Perhaps in NC it is from all the gasoline and annual vehicle taxes we pay.
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