Monday, January 09, 2017

Government isn't the problem - people are the problem - let's solve our problems together

I've been debating in Google+ again. The worry over Trump as president increases with each passing day as inauguration looms closer. I'm not worried myself, because we have a government that is built with checks and balances. I don't believe the gloom and doom about Trump. Already, I see the debaters in Google+ scoring points against each other and I see the posturing. I've also noticed some anarchists coming out in the debates I've participated in. Some are gun rights activists. I know this because I can check their profile to see what they're promoting with their Google+ accounts.

"Guns don't kill people, people do." This is the mantra of most gun rights activists, and they're right. That doesn't mean we should not regulate the sale and use of guns. That slogan simply makes the observation that guns are inanimate objects and do their damage in human hands.

I have a song playing in my head and I can't get it to go away. It's called "Heartache Tonight", by The Eagles. They are the ultimate band for the bar scene because that's what they sing about. I see the bar scene as being analogous to the playground and high school. That song "knows" that someone will get hurt tonight and assumes that no one can do anything about it. The Eagles were a big part of American pop culture for my generation and they provide some of the inspiration for this article.

I'm also reminded of this very interesting quote from a former member of the Nixon Administration:
“You want to know what this was really all about,” Ehrlichman, who died in 1999, said, referring to Nixon’s declaration of war on drugs. “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying. We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
That was from John Ehrlicman, counsel and Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs under President Richard Nixon. It is a rather startling admission of the need of those in power to score points against those not in power. The attitudes expressed by the drug war clearly show the need to silence the opposition, the dissent, so that other wars may proceed without challenge. It is all about scoring points against the other side.

More recently, I'm now seeing worry about efforts by the GOP to defund Planned Parenthood. There are some who would have us believe that efforts to defund Planned Parenthood are about defunding abortions performed by the agency, but I've seen very well documented proof that no federal money is used to pay for abortion services at Planned Parenthood. Defunding Planned Parenthood means removing funding for a wide range of services that women need to check on and maintain their health. Again, I see one party with power scoring points against someone with less power.

Maybe it's just me, but lately, politics has become a sport to some and for them, it's all about scoring points. I disagree. Politics is not a sport for me. Politics about how we can all get along together. In peace.

As we close the book on the Obama Administration, I see that people are worried about Obamacare. There are serious concerns that millions will be booted from their health care plans, their insurance, and a portable system that works regardless of jobs or employers. Millions of Americans found that they are no longer tied down to one employer just for health insurance, always a dismissal away from being uninsured. Millions of Americans found that they could work part time and still have health insurance and made a choice to work part time.

With the election of Donald Trump, we see Republicans, with their majorities in Congress, ready and willing to repeal Obamacare. Yet, few if any can point to a practical and realistic replacement for Obamacare offered by Republicans. It is even a fair question to ask if Republicans did whatever they could to hobble Obamacare with amendments to the legislation that were tacked on in committee or during reconciliation proceedings as the legislation went from House to Senate and back. Their goal, it seems, is to make sure that no government healthcare program could ever work.

A fair number of conservatives that I've encountered in social media debates on the subject would have us believe that private enterprise has clean hands. Yet I can recall upon the passage of Obamacare how private insurance companies jacked up rates, leaving the marketplaces set up for Obamacare and generally, acting like sore losers in the debate, doing everything they could to make Obamacare bitter for the beneficiaries.

More than a few conservatives in debate and in the op-ed pages worried that Obamacare paved the way towards a single payer system. They worry about a government monopoly on healthcare. What they fail to acknowledge is that in many cases wherever government monopolies are compared to private monopolies, government monopolies tend to be more efficient. 

We have a natural experiment to consider with public vs private monopolies: internet access. In millions of homes across the country, most people have one or two broadband providers, and they are mostly private service providers. This is not a sign of thriving competition. These private monopolies are often unresponsive to the needs of the communities they claim to serve. They use a portion of their profits to lobby for greater protection of their business interests. Protection? From what? Municipal broadband.

In places like Colorado, Tennessee and even Utah, incumbent providers faced with real competition from "the public option" have spent millions lobbying statehouses to protect their monopolies. In Chattanooga, Tennessee, they have the very popular EPB, the Electric Power Board, now offering 1Gbps up and down service for $70 a month. Neighboring counties clamored for EPB service but are now denied service due to state legislation that prevents the EPB from servicing customers outside of their original service area. Incumbent providers like Comcast, Time-Warner and ATT all lobbied hard against the EPB, claiming unfair competition. This is what I mean when private enterprise claims the need for protection against "the public option". This is what opponents of Obamacare are afraid of - that the public option might actually work.

In Colorado, communities fed up with the private monopolies of Centurylink, Comcast and ATT decided to build their own broadband services run by the local municipalities. The incumbent providers prevailed again with a state law that says that communities may not provide public internet service without passing a series of hoops intended to hobble adoption of municipal broadband, again claiming unfair competition from a public utility. The law had an out, the referendum.

To date, 95 governments in Colorado have passed referendums seeking local control over their internet access to escape the grasp of the private monopolies running the show in their towns. Often, these referendums passed with better than 80% of the vote, sometimes breaching 90%.

Colorado is not exactly a hotbed of liberal passion, either. They are a mostly Republican state and have found the low hanging fruit of change is at the local level. Colorado passed legislation making cannabis legal for recreational use. They are flirting with the idea of a public option in healthcare, too.

Long ago, I read of an insurance executive who was paid $80 million for one year of service. He was one of the highest paid executives in the United States. His company had a PR department that worked hard to justify this outrageous CEO compensation. The wealthy, when they find the power that comes with their wealth, seem to have a hard time knowing when to stop. How do they know enough is enough? They too, are scoring points.

I'm reminded again of the soup bowl study. They tested college students in two settings. In one room, the control group, the test subject was presented with a bowl of soup and something to read, like magazines. Students were asked to eat until they were full or until the soup was gone. Most ate until the bowl was empty. They stopped when they could see the bottom of the bowl.

In another room, they were presented with the same thing, but this time, there was a hose connected to the bottom of the bowl that would create a bottomless bowl of soup. Students with the bottomless bowl would not stop even after they were full because they were looking for the bottom of the bowl. Instead listening to their bodies, they were looking for external clues and references to determine if they had enough to eat.

Wealthy people do that. After making their first billion, do they have enough? I see hedge fund managers who make more money in a day than many people do in a lifetime. Oil company executives continue to work long after they have more money than they could ever hope to spend. Long after our environment has been polluted and denatured. The wealthy can use their money to influence politics, for better or worse. I see them just scoring points, too. They seem dependent on external cues for happiness.

Life is more than just scoring points: getting an A, getting rich, making the other side feel pain. Yet there are some people who want government to work that way. Legislative jockeying and political posturing is about scoring points and making the other side feel pain. We saw that with the government shutdown a few years ago. We saw that with the DNC and their deliberate plans to make Hillary the nominee. We're seeing it again now that Republicans have majorities in Congress and the White House. They're all about scoring points and making the other side lose or feel pain.

Government is not the problem. People are. The Washington Post has an interesting article about two socialist countries. One on the brink of economic and social collapse, the other experiencing economic growth and blossoming culture. Conservatives would score a point by telling us that Venezuela is getting what they deserve while omitting how well Bolivia is doing. Both countries made different decisions about how to allocate resources. Both countries have problems, just like ours, both countries have governments that are run by people and those people determined the outcomes.

People have frailties. They have faults. They are not perfect. When governments fail, it's not because of the system, it's because of the people. When governments are run by people who treat others with respect and empathy, it doesn't matter which system they're in, the people will be better off. In every case where there is tyranny, there are abusive people in abusive cultures raised by abusive parents. Hitler's Germany was an authoritarian culture seeking world domination. The system of government didn't make Germany that way, the people did. Scandinavian countries shun confrontation with their kids, they shun judgement of their kids and they actively work with their kids to solve the problems of life with them.

It doesn't matter if the service provider in any economy is public or private. If the people providing the service are abusive, we can expect abuses. It doesn't matter if the system of government is libertarian or totalitarian, if the people are abusive, we can expect abuses. It doesn't matter if the economy is socialist, communist or capitalist, if the people are abusive, we can expect abuses.

People who are abusive believe in reward and punishment. They believe in scoring points and making the other side suffer for their weaknesses. Abusive people have a really hard time finding or creating internal motivation to succeed, to do the right thing, to have empathy for others. Abusive people rely upon external cues for happiness. This is not to say that abusive people are bad. This is to say that abusive people lack the skills they need to get along with others and play nice.

We find abusive people in a continuum, from the violent to the merely passive aggressive. We find them in a cult of personality. We find them in identity politics where we are made to focus on the person rather than the policies. Abusive people in politics exhibit little interest in teaching skills and more interest in making people pay the price for their lack of skills.

So how do we break the cycle? How do we make the world a better place? Bernie Sanders said real change starts at the bottom. Although I don't think this is what he had in mind, I believe that real change starts with our kids. How we raise our kids determines their outcomes. We've tried teaching them how to score points, but in the end, they will not find happiness in a gold star or winning at the game of life. Scoring points means that someone else loses.

Achievement cannot fill empty arms. So we could teach them collaborative and proactive solutions. When we see challenging behavior in kids, we could look at the behavior as a signal rather than the problem. Then we work with the kids to solve the problem that gives rise to challenging behavior. In so doing, we teach kids how to meet their own needs without making someone else lose. We teach them to be internally motivated to solve problems independent of how other people act.

Where could we learn about this? We could start with a book by Ross W. Greene, PhD., "Raising Human Beings". In fact, this isn't just for kids, this is for adults, too. The principles described in this book (and a few others by the same guy), are not just techniques for getting along. They are a way of life.

Dr. Greene is not the only one on this trail. There are many others on the same trail. They too, have learned that reward and punishment don't work. Happiness is not about scoring points or getting the best of someone else or making them lose. Maybe the human race is starting to learn that happiness is knowing that we have the skills to solve problems with durable, repeatable solutions.

Isn't that what government is supposed to be for?

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