Of Accommodation and the Good Society

SmokinSociety

Photo Credit: Pierre Rougier

Sitting and waiting to pick my wife up from a meeting at a youth piano festival, I can see a marvelous thing.  I am witnessing a steady stream of people coming and going—and accommodating one another.  They are doing what it takes to spend time together, setting aside what they might wish to do on their own, bending their plans to involve the plans of others, each doing so to some extent, and all more or less satisfied with it.

Parents are taking time at whatever inconvenience to hear children play the piece that has been sounding from the living room for weeks.  They will crowd into a classroom converted for the day into a makeshift music hall where young performers will queue for their three-minute performances.  Nervous children will wait their turns, relieved children will be glad that their turns are over, and parents will politely listen to other parents’ children, perhaps playing the same piece that their child just attempted.

It cannot be called much of a musical experience—I have been there in those temporary conservatories—but it is an experience in accommodation in a good society.  Most of the people in the room have never met, little know one another, and do not expect to meet again, and they get along fine.  Those who run the festival have freely given hours to organize the event to accommodate the hundreds of participants.

As the participants leave, in quite orderly ways, they continue to accommodate one another with little thought.  It is the normal, customary thing to do.  They take turns through doors, they help carry books, some hold hands, and they smoothly arrange who will sit where in the car.  Some may chat about the performance, some may chat about other activities of the day, continuing to adapt schedules and plans.  This is how society and its people get along.

It can easily break down.  Some accommodation is easy and natural, some takes effort.  It all involves an element of sacrifice of some personal desire or plan or wish.

I contrast this with the horror of the current presidential campaign.  It comes in the climate change of a chief executive who for seven long years has offered an example of little to no accommodation, asserting his will forward by dividing society, pitching Americans against one other.  This very real climate change endangers the future of our Great Republic, our hard-won society, and our very real welfare.  It breeds imitators. President Obama’s executive narcissism has fomented fears and frustrations while making egocentrism in high places unsocially acceptable.

By long tradition we have come to call our Presidents public servants.  Would anyone apply that term to Barack Obama, or imagine those words describing would-be presidents Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump?

Donald Trump in particular has built his candidacy on personal braggadocio about running roughshod over others.  He threatens retaliation against opponents, warning them Caesar-like of when it will be “their turn” for his attention.  He promises thunderbolts of lawsuits as tools of Olympian vengeance should anyone pin effective criticism on him.  In short, when given a podium he gives new meaning to the term bully pulpit.

Should any doubt his intentions, Trump points to a business career built on his model of punishing human interaction.  Now Trump seeks the full power of the Presidency of the United States to be placed in his hands—all of the federal government’s economic tools and the might of our military at his disposal to pursue his wishes and run over any and all who would stand in his way.  The discipline of the marketplace will no longer hold him back.  No wonder he expresses admiration for Russia’s would-be-czar Vladimir Putin, a kindred spirit.

Remember what the military—any military—does.  It kills people and destroys things.  In the hands of genuine public servants operating within constitutional limits, for 200 years that power has been controlled to defend and preserve the Republic and the liberties of its people, and liberated not an insignificant number of peoples around the world.  What would a Donald Trump do with such power?  How would he accommodate his personal ambition to the will of the people?  What happens when those powers are used to apply the ego-laced Trump model to the national and world arenas?

We have had too much of this abuse of power already with the Obama administration.  A republic like the United States thrives by accommodating the great variety that makes our nation.  The current President has sought to get his way by manipulating the differences among us.  His has been a cynical program to rule by dividing and conquering, when necessary running over constitutional constraints designed by the Founders to require government officials to accommodate the diverse elements of our union.  Too often, but fortunately not always, President Obama has gotten away with it.

Donald Trump promises to give it a go, with an audacity that surely makes Barack Obama envious. Of course, we see examples each day of unaccommodating and rude actions, but we do not usually applaud boorish behavior.  The usual pattern for ourselves and our neighbors has been to make way for each other, extend courtesies, and even help; we show patience and even kindness, that are akin to love.  The little and frequent and vital considerations to our neighbors are of the glue that holds our good society together, transcending our personal foibles.

What can we say, then, of opposing examples presented by would-be national leaders?  What are the consequences for society itself (beyond the potential calamities for national and global affairs)?  Given the degree to which people take their social cues from the chief executive—for good or ill—what do we get from a President who is a brash boor who threatens any and all to feed his ambition?  What kind of imitation, here and abroad, will that spawn?

For the good of our society we can aspire to something better.  I believe that most yet do.

Of Losers and Presidential Candidates

Blindfold

Photo Credit:  Oscar Keys

In the early Autumn of 2008, the presidential election was vying for attention with the onset of financial panic—the latter aggravated by the unwise policies of Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, who repeatedly spooked the markets and drove investors to the sidelines.  At that time I published a blog post about the Democrats’ nominee for president, Barack Obama, “Of Con Artists and Presidential Candidates”.  I refer to that not because I take pleasure in being right about the calamities that followed, but because we are faced yet again with the potential election of a con artist as President of the United States.  I am not sure that we can stand in the White House a consecutive fomenter of calamities, though I hold to my great confidence in the resilience of our Great Republic.  As with ancient Rome, it will take a lot for the barbarians to overrun civilization, but the process is terrible.  In the end, it was repeatedly bad government that gave the Goths, Huns, and Vandals the victory.

I need not catalog the list of Goths, Huns, and Vandals that civilization faces today, but it starts with radical Islam, and mullahs of Iran, the mentally-disturbed dictator in North Korea, and the current would-be czar of Russia.  Not a one of these should pose a serious threat to the survival of the United States, and not a one of them would have achieved the level of danger that it poses today, were it not for the bad leadership of our nation (little relieved by any appreciably better leadership among most of our allies).

Which returns me to con artists.  At least three of the prominent presidential candidates have built their campaigns on the effort to con the American voters.  For the most part, our popular media are buying and supporting it all, either for its good copy or for its entertainment value, hard to tell.  I refer to Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Donald Trump.  The greatest, or worst, of these is Donald Trump.  Hillary wears so many masks, one wonders whether she even knows who she is.  Bernie is the foremost in promising trillions of dollars in government freebies that could never be delivered, since trying to do so would collapse the economy—you have to pay for that stuff somehow, and the dollars will not come from economic decline.  Donald Trump, like our current president, is a classic demagogue—the bane of democratic government—saying whatever he may to stimulate and feed upon the failures, fears, and frustrations of significant segments of voters.

Donald Trump offers no discernible philosophy of government beyond bluster and hubris.  From his personal history one can find that he thrives—when he thrives—by networking cronies, including government officials whose favor he courts to support his “business” plans.  Pretending to be an outsider, he has lived by being a consumate courtier, a classic insider.

Is he a conservative?  Then why do his ideas so often turn to big-government solutions?  Does he believe in the Constitution? Constitutional constraints would get in his way.  The unifying theme of his shoot-from-the-hip ideas is an action platform of presidential dictatorship, with anyone who opposes them or him labeled as enemies, losers, or idiots.  He surely feels like the kind of person our Constitution was written to protect us from.

While Donald Trump does not often mouth the word “change,” (perhaps because that would make his likeness to Obama too apparent) he is clearly offering the same “change” formula as candidate Obama served up in 2008.  Obama’s “change” in 2008 was really more of the same of the tried and failed tax-and-spend programs of government control over our lives.  Donald Trump pretends to something new, to change government, when in fact his plan is all government, and government controlled of, by, and for his cronies.  That was the same way he ran his businesses.  He offers you his business model as a model for government.  Do not take the deal.  We will all be losers.

Of Lessons of History and Preventing Wars

History does not repeat itself, not precisely. Humans, though, have been doing similar things for thousands of years. History offers patterns from which we can learn. That is to say, that there is nothing new that is wholly new.

There is too much for comfort in the current international situation—and the U.S. response to it—that feels like the 1930s. The republics of the West, focused inward, struggle with economic traumas and work hard to make them worse in the name of making things better. National leaders even when aware of storm clouds on the global horizons ignore them if they can, and minimize the dangers if they cannot, applying symbolic but ineffective remedies where action is unavoidable. Aggressive second rate powers strive for recognition as though first rate powers, conspiring to disrupt the international equilibrium and the peace that rests on it to get what they want. While potential enemies rapidly rearm, the West disarms in the name of peace, heedless of the wars and conflicts that fill the vacuums of their military retreats. Again, I am talking about today, not the 1930s, but the parallels are disquieting.

The United States has gotten into unwanted conflicts, especially in the 20th Century, when adversaries miscalculated our nation’s willingness to sacrifice to defend crucial interests. Weak-kneed, pusillanimous, or just unwise national executives invited war by giving enemies many reasons to doubt our will and resolve: unprepared armed forces, verbal warnings enforced with bluster, shirked fulfillment of pledges to help endangered friends. The Japanese thought that isolationist and poorly armed America would seek a negotiated settlement after Pearl Harbor, the North Koreans were confident that we were too war-weary to defend the South, Saddam Hussein—twice—believed that we would not want to fight a war in the sands of Iraq. Our responses to frequent goading did little to dissuade them. Logically following our miscues they each went too far at last. They all could have been stopped by a determined show of strength early while war remained avoidable, when we could have corrected their calculations at lesser cost to us and to them.

The communist leaders of China are by nature cautious. You survive the palace intrigues of the Forbidden City by avoiding mistakes, not by making them. But the Chinese leaders also have big plans, increasingly marked on a global map. The leaders of the regime in power are the heirs of their founder, Mao, who liked to refer to the United States as a paper tiger. For a time Nixon and Reagan disabused them of that notion, but they seem to be reconvincing themselves of Mao’s insights. Where is the recent evidence to the contrary?

At first, Chinese forays were camouflaged by equipping and supporting the adventures of the proxy North Koreans. Lately, the Chinese military itself has repeatedly hacked into U.S. civilian and military computer systems, with efforts ranging from nuisances to theft of military and technology secrets. The rapidly expanding Chinese navy is now building aircraft carriers, though it has no overseas enemies. In a related effort, the Chinese are dredging up artificial islands in the South China Sea, a thousand miles from their shores, closer to the Philippines, Malaysia, and Vietnam than to the southern coast of China. With naval stations and air strips on the islands, the Chinese are asserting a dramatic expansion of territorial waters measured from these militarized sandbars. Connecting the dots from new island to new island (there are some half dozen or more of these land-creation projects underway), the Chinese navy alleges control of sea lanes and airspace, demanding that planes or ships not pass their theoretical net without Beijing’s permission. The U.S. has made protests, recently backed up by a reconnaissance plane flying across what has been international waters and free airspace since before and after World War II. At least for the moment the Chinese only fired words, eight times (according to a CNN story) warning the U.S. plane to stay away. “This is the Chinese navy. You go.”

This is a minor disturbance in a major geopolitical struggle. Busy trade lanes cross the South China Sea. In the context of Beijing’s acquisition of an offensive, MIRVed nuclear missile arsenal now approaching the size of Russian and U.S. nuclear forces (the U.S. being the only one developing plans to reduce its stockpile), the risks are becoming very high.

China has big domestic problems. The economy is slowing, if not already in recession. That will make it even harder for Beijing to keep quiescent a population only half of which has experienced extraction from grinding communist poverty. An aging population will be difficult for the declining workforce to support in coming years. And then there is the legacy of China’s one-child policy, more than 100 million males with no possibility of marriage and family. What to do with those restless men?

Throughout history, China’s biggest dangers have usually been from Chinese, vulnerabilities from the outside attracted only when there was weakness caused by internal struggles. Might the heirs of Mao seek to distract internal discontent with international adventurism? A lesson from history is that the more autocratic the regime, the more likely it is to resort to this gambit.

We need a foreign policy that convinces the Chinese leaders how dangerous and unrewarding such moves would be. That becomes harder to do the more we allow the Chinese to fool themselves that it might be otherwise. That was a pattern of disaster for Tojo, Hitler, and others—and for us.

Of Compromises and Congresses

The beginning days of 2015 have brought the convening of a new American Congress. It is fair to say that expectations and skepticism are high.

Both are merited. Our Constitution was inaugurated with high expectations, not that the end to all problems was at the door but that the means were available to deal effectively with the problems of government for the new nation. The people who wrote the Constitution and those involved with implementing it (many the same people) were also deeply skeptical of government, including the one that they had just created. Memorable and personal experiences had shaped their skepticism. For that reason, the adoption of the Constitution had been a close thing, the opposition coming chiefly from those who thought that it imposed too much government on the people. There may have been some contemporary views that the proposed national government would be too weak and light, but I have not found any examples.

No surprise, then, that an early use of the new Constitution was to adopt the Bill of Rights—a set of fundamental rights to protect individual people from their government. If this new government were really self-government (a misconception reflected today in such bromides as, “Don’t worry about the national debt, we owe it to ourselves,” and “we should not fear the government because we are the government,” as well as much similar foolishness), then these first ten amendments would all be unnecessary. They have since proven to be very necessary, sometimes breached by our government, but more often employed to preserve and protect us from government offense.

Much as with the convening of the First Congress in 1789, the 114th Congress convenes after a troubled period of bad government. Hopes and wishes abound that errors can be corrected, freedoms restored, troubles addressed. As then, so today patience is in order.

A great virtue of our Constitution, an intentional feature, is that no one person can do much, for good or ill, in the federal government. It takes a lot of people cooperating together to get things done. Both Houses of Congress, usually with significant majorities, must agree to identical—word for word identical—legislation for it to be sent to the President, who must agree enough to add his signature to make it law. And then the President and his colleagues in the executive branch must actually execute the law, which as we are seeing with this President is no sure thing, despite a solemn oath to do so.

All of that coming together of many people, with varying ideas and backgrounds and interests, seldom happens quickly. For a people who do not need a lot of laws and direction from government to know how to live their lives, that is a fact to be celebrated. As the Founders envisioned, making law requires compromise and accommodation of the many interests of the many who compose our great nation. That takes time, as it should.

It is a mistake to banish the use of compromise from republican government. Those who would eschew compromise in our Republic would doom us to the fate of the Roman Republic. The members of the Roman Senate lost the ability or willingness to compromise. In so doing, they were doomed to inaction—not just slow deliberation—in the face of crisis, followed by reliance upon dictators, whom they fancied they could limit if not control. They sometimes chose wise men, sometimes they trusted their liberties to demagogues, invested with nearly unilateral authority for an entire year. The Republic and Roman freedom regressively devolved into the rule of the Caesars.

I understand the impatience that many have with compromise, people who would wish bold and decisive action in response to the would-be Caesar currently in the White House. To these I would say, do not despair of the strength of the Constitution, even as the chief executive seeks to violate it. In such times strengthening the Constitution and reinforcement of its checks and balances are the orders of the day, not further erosion of accommodation and compromise that have held our nation together (even through a Civil War) for two hundred years and more. It is true that some compromises are bad; despotisms or anarchies are not much good.

One of the most important compromises involves idealism and realism. American legislation requires a marriage of idealism and realism. Idealism can offer the vision of a free and prosperous nation and the inspiration to action to protect and promote our liberties. Realism, when operating in the light of idealism, focuses our work on what can be achieved now, without exhausting our energies and resources on quixotic quests that may do little more than tear the national fabric. Realism would teach that much of the policy errors of years will take years to unravel. With idealism and realism together, we can know what can and should be done today to make things better and get national policy moving in the right direction.

While a realistic view of the doable is essential to good legislating in a Congress of free men and women, the key and fundamental principles of our idealism help us discern a good compromise—one that makes things better and enables further progress—from a compromise that walks us closer to the abyss. President Reagan made many compromises, but he had a vision and knew where he was going, each compromise uniting our nation for more prosperity, greater freedom, and stronger security.

We should rejoice that no one in the Republic by himself can bring about much change, however well meaning. That virtue of our Constitution is why it has taken many steps and many mistakes to come to the many calamities our nation now confronts. In the same way, because of this Constitution, it will take seemingly many steps along the way to optimal answers. Every reason to be about the work and not tire of it.

Of Unbanked and “Underbanked”

Speaking of banks, as I did on this page a short time ago, there are those who are concerned that too many people in the United States are “unbanked” or “underbanked.” By the former they seem to mean those who do not use any banking services, particularly who do not have any bank accounts. By the former, they mean those who obtain some banking services from businesses that are not banks. The very existence of the terms, and the way that they are used by those who use them, implies that being “unbanked” or “underbanked” is a bad thing.

I will here disclose that I have worked for banks for nearly 10 years and for all I know may continue to do so for some time into the future. Whatever bias or color to my views that this condition provides I will nevertheless try to comment from a fair and factual point of view.

My first point, therefore, is that I am not prepared to assert that absolutely everyone should have a bank account. I can easily envision the value of a bank account for most if not all people, but I concede that they should be allowed to choose for themselves and that it would be terribly wrong to force people into banks. I acknowledge that there are some alternative providers of financial services who seem to please their customers, and I do not deny that banks can benefit from good competition. Banks have a long history of drawing upon the ideas and innovations of non-banks, just as non-banks have been eager to try their hand at successful new products and services that banks have pioneered. Bank customers have benefited the most from that process, as the variety and value of financial products have expanded, and the United States has led the world in the discovery of new and useful financial services.

Having said that, the nation cannot do well without a strong, vibrant, and prosperous banking industry. Our nation and people grow as we save financial resources and invest them in improvements for the future, whether new homes, new factories, or new ideas of how to do and make things better, faster, and cheaper. That is a major part of what banks do and are all about.

Moreover, there are a lot of things we do and a lot of places we go because we know that our ability to pay and get paid—to exchange things we value less for things that we value more (the reason we buy and sell things and use money to do it)—is secure, reliable, accurate, and relatively quick. That is our payments system, and banks created it and are at the center of it.

Americans also like the idea of becoming wealthier and expect to do so. If that seems a commonplace to you, recognize that it is not so in all parts of the world, where getting by from day to day is about the most to which people can aspire, for whom poverty is a way of life that they expect to bequeath to their children. To the extent that this miserable condition is becoming less the case in much of the world, that more people are beginning to believe that they can build and improve their wellbeing for themselves and their posterity, this new-found hope for accumulating wealth is attributable to the dispersion of principles of freedom and prosperity that Americans take for granted but which are new to much of the world. The global adoption of many American principles of prosperity has been a major contribution of the New World to the Old World and to all mankind.

Now get ready for the bold but true statement: you cannot get there and stay there without banks and the services that banks provide. Banks gather wealth, safeguard wealth, allow it to be used efficiently, and apply it to building the future. That is why governments pay so much attention to banks, and also why it is so harmful when governments try to capture banks and channel their services to the personal gain of themselves and their cronies. That is also why misguided bank regulations are harmful—even if in subtle but powerful ways—to the nation and its people.

Which brings us back to the agenda of the “unbanked” and the “underbanked.” In the United States, chief causes for people remaining “unbanked” are regulations that make banking more difficult and services more expensive; cultural barriers for people who come from societies where personal banking is either unknown or where the experience has been one of banks used by local governments to harvest wealth from people to enrich the governing elites and their cronies (much of Latin America, for example); and people who for whatever reason just do not prefer to use banks. The first cause regulators can solve but have largely been resistant to solving; the second can be overcome by time and experience and is showing signs of that; and the third cause is no more of a problem than people who prefer to rent rather than own their home, to eat eggs without grits, or who do not like the New York Yankees. I do not have to understand the personal preference to acknowledge it.

The concept of “underbanked” (that government needs to help banks figure out how to serve people who may get some banking services outside of banks) I fear may be a political device to harness American banks to serve the cronies of the “underbanked” advocates. We have already seen this game with the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) regulations, adopted ostensibly to ensure that banks lend to their local communities (as if bankers, unlike other businessmen, need government regulation to notice business opportunities right under their own nose). In practice, CRA has been used to coerce banks into providing loans and even grants to and through poverty advocacy agencies that tend to prosper more than the people whom they claim to be helping. The folks who fret about the “underbanked” have marvelous formulas and plans for other people’s money to solve problems about which the people to be helped seem little concerned. I have never heard of any truly “underbanked” people themselves calling for the firm hand of government to get them into the banking system; if they want banking services, they just go and get them.

I have the haunting suspicion that the “underbanked” advocates would if they could use banks the same way found in the abandoned societies of the “unbanked,” where banking services came through the hands of people who knew better than others and always made sure to get their cut for their benevolence. That is not really banking, and that is symptomatic of why people flee those lands. The wealth creation of such captive banks seems to be for someone else. If it happens in America, where will the people go?

Of the Meaning of “Still” and the State of the Union

These thoughts, first published almost a year and a half ago, still seem pertinent today.

Notice how frequently these days when discussing the state of the American union, or any parts thereof, people rely upon the word “still.” That is a bad sign. When someone says, “I am still able to see my own doctor,” he or she implies that continued access is in doubt. Rather than reassuring, it insinuates caution and reveals anxiety. What do you hear when someone says, “At least I am still married”?

You do not commonly hear people using “still” in connection with things that they are sure of. If a baseball player boasts, “I can still hit the ball out of the park,” is he likely to be in his prime or in the twilight of his career?

Allow me to offer for your consideration a dozen recent objects of STILL in public discourse about the condition of the nation:

  • The United States is still the largest economy in the world.
  • The United States still has the strongest/best military in the world.
  • The dollar is still the world’s reserve currency.
  • The United States still is a free country.
  • America still is the land of opportunity.
  • The Supreme Court still can be counted on to defend the Constitution.
  • By hard work and best effort you still can become anything you want.
  • My children will still have a better life than I have had.
  • My children will still live in a bigger house than the one I grew up in.
  • In this country you can still get the best healthcare.
  • America still has the deepest, most liquid, and efficient financial markets.
  • At least the air you breathe is still free.

Undoubtedly, you can think of more for the list. Then, there are some things we do not hear people saying “still” about any more:

  • America is the best place to get an education.
  • Americans make the best cars.
  • I can freely speak my mind.
  • I can trust what I hear or read in the “news.”
  • You can count on the elections not being rigged.

I forbear going on. You can add more if you wish. There are some topics where the doubt is too palpable for people to venture “still” in their expressions.

If we leave the discussion at that, then we have a sad commentary on the sad state of the union. The expression of “still” in our conversation can reveal a desperate clinging to the past with a forlorn wish that things will work out for the future, without doing the good works to make the good future happen.

I would suggest, though, that “still” can also mean “not over,” or “not gone.” We need not settle for “still” and do nothing about it. That which we value can be reclaimed from assault and reinforced, the erosion stopped, the tide turned. After all, John Paul Jones is famous for winning a naval battle from the deck of his sinking—but still afloat—flagship, because he used it as a platform from which to regain what was lost. “I have not yet begun to fight!” is still part of the American heritage.

(First published February 10, 2013)