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“Francis Prods Congress’ Conscience”: We Can Find No Social Or Moral Justification, No Justification Whatsoever, For Lack Of Housing

Wouldn’t it be grand if Pope Francis could be a recurring visitor to the U.S. Congress, a sort of spiritual superintendent who occasionally drops in to chide, cajole, and mostly just remind our legislators when their actions don’t promote the common good? What kind of country would we become?

Watching as the pontiff stepped away from the podium after his electrifying speech to Congress, I wanted the effect to stick. I wanted to see Democrats and Republicans get off their high horses and cooperate on restoring the health and prosperity of the nation. I wanted our elected officials to stop acting merely as the “political class” and instead legislate as men and women of conscience.

I know I’m not alone. A lot of reasonable people in this country wish the pope’s short visit would usher in such an era.

But with his visit to Capitol Hill complete, the pope drove off in his little Fiat, en route to greet the people nearest his heart: the poor and homeless. At St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Washington, he spoke to and looked in the faces of the least among us at a Catholic Charities free lunch for more than 200. It was a sharp contrast to his prior errand. And yet there is a role for government at this table, too.

“Why are we homeless?” Francis asked. “Why don’t we have housing? These are questions which many of you may ask daily.”

Then, he added, “We can find no social or moral justification, no justification whatsoever, for lack of housing.”

Is that clear enough for you? There is no justification whatsoever, and yet homelessness persists — thrives, actually — in this rich and powerful nation. Why?

Unwind the life of virtually any homeless man, woman or child and you may see personal failure or family failure. More likely you will see challenges that people can’t handle by themselves: mental illness, domestic violence, catastrophic job loss, poverty. No one sets out in life wanting to be homeless. No one should be trapped in homelessness, even as a consequence of poor choices.

That they continue to be is an indictment of a society that sanctions discarding — a word Francis often uses — those it finds inconvenient.

It’s also a failure of government. Just as you can track the problems along a person’s road to homelessness, you can track policy maker’s failure — or is it refusal? — to respond. The story of homelessness is a story of policy failure: shortfalls in vision and funding of public education, investment in neighborhoods, job training, access to healthcare (especially mental), affordable treatment for addictions of alcohol and drugs, and treatment for PTSD-afflicted veterans after they fight our wars.

Those are all issues that Congress has an impact on, for better or worse.

The pope’s arrival in the U.S. overshadowed a national headline on homelessness out of Los Angeles. City leaders declared a “state of emergency” because the number of homeless people setting up encampments has grown to an estimated 26,000.

In other words, the homeless have become too numerous to ignore.

So an announcement was made that $100 million would be shoveled at programs, which not surprisingly have yet to be FULLY outlined. That’s because there are no easy answers.

The skyrocketing costs of housing, and the lack of affordable options, are significant factors in why homelessness has grown by 12 percent in Los Angeles in the past two years. But affordable housing is an issue in virtually every American city.

The uneven way the economy is recovering from the recession is another complicating factor. Congress and the president approved bailouts and other deals for some, but that didn’t benefit everyone in the long run. How the U.S. rebuilds its economy will determine who and how many land on our streets in the future.

A central moral teaching of virtually every faith is the responsibility to feed the poor. Yet charity alone is not a solution. We have an obligation as a society, through the policies of our governments, to create the conditions and opportunities for all to house, feed and clothe themselves and their families.

Any honest assessment of homelessness apportions blame and responsibility in many directions. Like the stalemates of Congress, homelessness didn’t begin recently, and it continues through inaction or misdirected action from many, many quarters.

Day by day, struggle by struggle, people fall into being homeless through their own faults and from circumstances they did not create.

There but for the grace of God goes each of us.


By: Mary Sanchez, Opinion-Page Columnist for The Kansas City Star; The National Memo, September 26, 2015

September 28, 2015 Posted by | Congress, Government, Homeless, Pope Francis | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“The Right Question To Ask About Government”: What Steps Does Government Take To Empower Citizens And Expand Their Rights?

Many conservatives and most libertarians argue that every new law or regulation means that government is adding to the sum total of oppression and reducing the freedom of individuals.

This way of looking at things greatly simplifies the political debate. Domestic issues are boiled down to the question of whether someone is “pro-government” or “anti-government.”

Alas for the over-simplifiers, it’s an approach that misreads the nature of the choices that regulators, politicians and citizens regularly face. It ignores that the market system itself could not exist without the rules that government establishes, beginning with statutes protecting private property and also the various measures against the use of force and fraud in business and individual transactions.

More important, it overlooks the ways in which the steps government takes often empower citizens and expand their rights. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the realm of work.

The run-up to Labor Day this year brought a spate of news articles and commentaries on the actions of the National Labor Relations Board and other government agencies to strengthen the rights of workers and enhance their bargaining power relative to employers.

Last week, Noam Scheiber offered an important account in the New York Times of how the Obama administration has been “pursuing an aggressive campaign to restore protections for workers that have been eroded by business activism, conservative governance and the evolution of the economy in recent decades.”

Among the milestones Scheiber cited was a recent U.S. Court of Appeals decision upholding an Obama-era rule providing minimum-wage and overtime protections to nearly 2 million home health-care workers. They certainly felt empowered by government, not oppressed. So did the employees of contractors and franchises who were granted collective bargaining rights by the National Labor Relations Board.

Fast-food chains provide the obvious example of how loopholes related to new work arrangements and franchise agreements can let employers out of their traditional obligations. In the case of purveyors of hamburgers and chicken tenders, the parent companies set all sorts of detailed requirements for how these businesses should operate — and then turn around and claim that when it comes to workers’ rights, their franchises are utterly independent.

One of the most fascinating struggles, still ongoing, is over new regulations that the Labor Department is trying to establish to ensure that those who give investment advice to people with 401(k)s and individual retirement accounts base their judgments on the best interests of their clients. Along with defined-contribution retirement plans, they involve some $13 trillion in investments.

The Labor Department proposal would require investment advisers to abide by a “fiduciary” standard — meaning that the best-interest-of-the-client yardstick should be their sole criterion in offering counsel to clients. If this seems obvious, that’s not what the current law requires. As Labor Secretary Thomas Perez said in an interview, the standard now is only that an investment be suitable. “What the hell is ‘suitable’?” Perez asked, noting that he would hope for more than just “suitable” advice from his doctor.

The issue is whether some investment advisers might offer conflicted guidance influenced by “backdoor payments and hidden fees often buried in fine print,” as the Labor Department put it in a document explaining why change is needed.

“I don’t believe that folks who provide advice wake up with malice in their hearts,” Perez said. But he added that it is only natural that advisers might lean toward investments from which they can also benefit. “Surprise, surprise, if you have four or five products that are suitable and one gives you a commission, guess where you will go?” The new rules, which are being heavily contested by parts of the financial industry, are an attempt to realign the incentives, Perez argued.

The investment-rule battle is a near-perfect example of how the government is plainly promoting free markets — what’s more market-oriented than building an investment portfolio? — but is also trying to make sure that the rules regulating the investments tilt toward the interests of the individual putting money at risk.

As long as there are markets, government will have to establish rules determining how they operate. These necessarily affect the interests of market participants. Many of the choices are not between more or less government. They are about whether what government does provides greater benefit to workers or employers, management or unions, individual investors or investment firms.

“Which side are you on?” This question from the old union song is the right question to ask about government.


By: E. J. Dionne, Jr., Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, September 6, 2015

September 7, 2015 Posted by | Government, Labor Day, Workers Rights | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“A Challenge To Conservative Principles”: Humankind Is Better Off Than It Has Ever Been, And It’s Thanks To Government

There has never been a better time to be a human being than in March 2014. People live longer, wealthier, happier lives than they ever have. Each of the Four Horsemen — disease, famine, war, and death — are being beaten back.

This isn’t just my opinion. The data is incontrovertible. Life expectancy is the highest it’s ever been, and getting higher. Global GDP has never reached our present heights. The number of humans in poverty has never been lower. Wars between nations are almost extinct, and wars in general are getting less deadly.

The notion of human progress isn’t a grand theory anymore; it’s a fact. So why do so many people insist on telling you it’s impossible?

Almost everywhere you turn, some pundit or “literary intellectual” is aching to tell you the “hard, eternal truths” about the way the world works. Progress is a false idol, they’ll say — and worse, an American one. The harsh reality is that nothing ever changes; the sad truth of the human condition is pain and misery.

These people position themselves as besieged truth tellers, braving the wrath of the masses to challenge our dominant, rose-tinted national narrative. In reality, they’re just saying what most people think. A reasonably large majority of Americans think the country’s “best years” are behind it. Post-Great Recession, doom-and-gloom is in.

But while pessimism may be the conventional wisdom nowadays, its intellectual avatars have never been more anemic. Take British philosopher John Gray. Gray has made debunking the notion of “progress” his life’s work, having written two whole books on the matter in addition to innumerable columns and magazine articles. His review of Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, a book that carefully assembles immense amounts of statistical evidence showing that war and violence claim fewer lives than ever, does not dispute a single bit of Pinker’s data. Incredibly, Gray thinks pointing out that some Enlightenment thinkers disagreed with each other constitutes a devastating rebuttal to Pinker’s detailed empirical argument. The review’s shallowness is emblematic of the general tenor of Gray’s sad crusade.

It’s not just John Gray. Given the enormous amounts of data on the optimists’ side, pessimists have little more than handwaving left to them. The pessimists babble on about “permanent human nature” and “timeless verities.” The optimists cite U.N. life expectancy statistics and U.S. government crime data. Having no answer to books like Pinker’s, Charles Kenny’s Getting Better, or Angus Deaton’s The Great Escape, the pessimists resort to empty pieties.

The irony here is obvious. The pessimists accuse optimists of falling prey to a seductive ideological thinking; “the worship of Progress,” as Christian conservative Rod Dreher puts it. Yet the only people being seduced are the pessimists, clutching the pillars of their ideological house while its foundation shatters.

Today’s optimists notice clear evidence that humanity’s lot is getting better — a point that does not require assuming that it must get better as a consequence of some inevitable historical law. Opponents respond by asserting the world simply cannot be getting better, as their own pessimistic theory of history says it’s impossible. The critics of blind faith have put out their own eyes.

The reason that purportedly hard-boiled realists adhere to the absurd pessimistic ideology is plain. Their own political views depend crucially on the idea that nothing about the world can be improved. The clear evidence that human inventions — government, the market, medicine, international institutions, etc. — have improved the world point to devastating truths adherents to pessimistic ideologies are loath to admit.

The two ideologies I have in mind have been at odds of late: American conservatism and foreign policy “realism.” Yet popular versions of both rely on the notion of an unchanging, conflict-filled political landscape.

For many conservatives, the idea of “progress” constitutes liberalism’s fatal conceit. Russell Kirk put it most eloquently: “Man being imperfect, no perfect social order ever can be created.” Bill Kristol, living proof that movement conservatism has been immune from the happy trends improving the world, is more blunt. “Progressivism is a touchingly simple-minded faith,” he says. “The higher the number of the century, the better things should be. But progressivism happens not to be true.”

Kristol’s understanding of progressivism is wanting, to say the least. But the reason he needs to stamp his feet and deny the evidence of progress is that hard evidence of human improvement challenges his conservative first principles. Improvements in human welfare have come from government — most notably through public health programs, like the campaign against leaded gasoline, but also through institutions like the welfare state and mixed-market economies. It’s no surprise that the wealthiest, healthiest, and happiest countries are all welfare state democracies.

But more fundamentally, human progress runs against the conservative assumption that human nature does not permit fundamental victories over evils like war. Government will always fail, as Kirk suggests, because human nature will frustrate any attempt to eradicate suffering.

But as it turns out, human nature itself is shaped crucially by the institutions we find ourselves surrounded by — including government. The newest research on humanity’s basic psychology, lucidly explained in recent books by neuroscientist Jonathan Greene and primatologist Frans de Waal, find that human “nature” is malleable. We’re naturally inclined toward both conflict and cooperation, and thus have the potential for both great good and great evil. The crucial deciding factor is the circumstances we find ourselves in. The reality of human progress, then, suggests that the political and social arrangements we’ve created are bringing out our better angels. This is a truth the conservative view of human nature cannot abide.

Foreign policy realists are also concerned by human nature, but nowadays tend to rely more on arguments about “the international system.” For them, global harmony is impossible because nations can never trust each other. Without a world government, no one can really ensure that another country’s army won’t come calling on your doorstep. States are driven to conflict by the need to secure themselves from an always-there risk to their security.

The decline in violence constitutes an existential threat to this worldview. There is strong evidence that international institutions, trade interdependences, and the spread of democracy have all contributed to war’s decline. If that’s true, then it really does seem like the globe isn’t destined for conflict forever. Neither human nature nor the international system make war inevitable.

Now, there are real grounds to worry about the future of human progress. Most notably, climate change has the potential to wipe out much of what we’ve accomplished. The reality of human progress isn’t an argument against heading off ecological disaster.

But that crisis hasn’t happened yet. You can simultaneously celebrate the fact that humanity is better off than it has ever been and argue that we need to take drastic action if we want to make sure that progress doesn’t stop with our generation.

So there’s no reason not to sing progress’ praises. Today’s world is much more Lego Movie than True Detective: everything really is kind of awesome, and time is not a damn flat circle.


By: Zack Beauchamp, The Week, March, 13, 2014

March 15, 2014 Posted by | Conservatives, Government | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Not Just For The Few”: A Government To Love, One That Works For Everybody

Rep. Steve King of Iowa told a local TV station a few weeks ago that “the best thing anybody can do” in Congress is not come up with positive solutions, but to “kill bad bills.” He wasn’t just speaking for himself. He was explaining the philosophy of today’s right wing.

Of course elected officials should oppose bills they disagree with. But King and his party have taken this to an extreme, opposing any efforts to use the power of government to fix problems that affect ordinary people. This anti-government strain of the Tea Party that is calling the shots in today’s GOP doesn’t represent just hands-off libertarianism, as many would like us to believe. The Tea Party does want government to work: but they only want it to work for a few of us.

This growing movement that claims to be anti-government has caught us up in almost daily skirmishes over federal programs and budget line items. But these battles have obscured the real issue. It’s not a big government vs. small government debate. It’s a debate about who the government works for.

It’s not enough for progressives to fight these selective battles. We must also go on the offense, envisioning and proudly defending a government that works. A government that works serves the needs of all Americans. A government that works provides a safety net that allows us to take reasonable risks. A government that works is one that helps make the American Dream possible for everyone.

It’s important to note that the bashers of big government aren’t really against government in any form. They’re fine with the government that they want; they just don’t want one that serves all of us. When the Ted Cruz wing of the Republican Party shut down the federal government for weeks on end last year with their bluster about cutting the size of government, not everyone was hurt equally. Hundreds of thousands of government employees were sent home without pay, and government agencies shut down many services for low-income people, veterans, pregnant women, and National Institutes of Health patients. Also on hiatus: yes, environmental and financial regulators.

When the Senate refused to confirm any of President Obama’s nominees to the influential Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, it wasn’t just a refusal to let government do its job and thereby limit the work of the court. It was an attempt to preserve a Republican-appointed majority on the court that had been consistently rewriting the law to favor the interests of large corporations — that kind of government, they like just as is.

When the House Republicans voted to make drastic cuts to food stamps and Senate Republicans filibustered an effort to extend unemployment insurance to the long-term jobless, they weren’t concerned with shrinking the size of government. Instead, they focused their “small government” rhetoric on the minor portion of federal spending that goes to helping everyday Americans get a chance.

Unsurprisingly, the right, led by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, also favor “small government” when it comes to letting corporations and wealthy individuals give huge amounts of unaccountable money to political campaigns, drowning out the voices of individual Americans. Limits on campaign spending, some of which go back more than a century, are what allowed us to build our strong, vibrant government of the people — a government that is now under constant attack.

When President Obama said in his State of the Union address that “it should be the power of our vote, not the size of our bank accounts, that drives our democracy,” he wasn’t offering a platitude. He was outlining a clear vision of government that works. We must remain aware of what the government-bashers are really after and proudly stand for a government that works for all Americans.


By: Michael B. Keegan, President, People For the American Way; The Huffington Post Blog, February 7, 2014

February 9, 2014 Posted by | GOP, Government | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“In The Name Of Freedom”: How To Spot A Paranoid Libertarian

In a recent essay in the New Republic, Princeton University historian Sean Wilentz contends that Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald and Julian Assange reflect a political impulse he calls “paranoid libertarianism.” Wilentz claims that far from being “truth-telling comrades intent on protecting the state and the Constitution from authoritarian malefactors,” they “despise the modern liberal state, and they want to wound it.”

Wilentz gives credit to Richard Hofstadter for the term “paranoid libertarianism,” but he is being generous. Although Hofstadter wrote an influential essay called “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” he didn’t call special attention to its libertarian manifestation. Wilentz has performed an important public service in doing exactly that.

Most of Wilentz’s essay focuses on Snowden, Greenwald and Assange, and he offers a lot of details in an effort to support his conclusions about each of them. But let’s put the particular individuals to one side. Although Wilentz doesn’t say much about paranoid libertarianism as such, the general category is worth some investigation.

It can be found on the political right, in familiar objections to gun control, progressive taxation, environmental protection and health care reform. It can also be found on the left, in familiar objections to religious displays at public institutions and to efforts to reduce the risk of terrorism. Whether on the right or the left, paranoid libertarianism (which should of course be distinguished from libertarianism as such) is marked by five defining characteristics.

The first is a wildly exaggerated sense of risks — a belief that if government is engaging in certain action (such as surveillance or gun control), it will inevitably use its authority so as to jeopardize civil liberties and perhaps democracy itself. In practice, of course, the risk might be real. But paranoid libertarians are convinced of its reality whether or not they have good reason for their conviction.

The second characteristic is a presumption of bad faith on the part of government officials — a belief that their motivations must be distrusted. If, for example, officials at a state university sponsor a Christian prayer at a graduation ceremony, the problem is that they don’t believe in religious liberty at all (and thus seek to eliminate it). If officials are seeking to impose new restrictions on those who seek to purchase guns, the “real” reason is that they seek to ban gun ownership (and thus to disarm the citizenry).

The third characteristic is a sense of past, present or future victimization. Paranoid libertarians tend to believe that as individuals or as members of specified groups, they are being targeted by the government, or will be targeted imminently, or will be targeted as soon as officials have the opportunity to target them. Any evidence of victimization, however speculative or remote, is taken as vindication, and is sometimes even welcome. (Of course, some people, such as Snowden, are being targeted, because they appear to have committed crimes.)

The fourth characteristic is an indifference to tradeoffs — a belief that liberty, as paranoid libertarians understand it, is the overriding if not the only value, and that it is unreasonable and weak to see relevant considerations on both sides. Wilentz emphasizes what he regards as the national- security benefits of some forms of surveillance; paranoid libertarians tend to see such arguments as a sham. Similarly, paranoid libertarians tend to dismiss the benefits of other measures that they despise, including gun control and environmental regulation.

The fifth and final characteristic is passionate enthusiasm for slippery-slope arguments. The fear is that if government is allowed to take an apparently modest step today, it will take far less modest steps tomorrow, and on the next day, freedom itself will be in terrible trouble. Modest and apparently reasonable steps must be resisted as if they were the incarnation of tyranny itself.

In some times and places, the threats are real, and paranoid libertarians turn out to be right. As Joseph Heller wrote in Catch-22, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.”

Societies can benefit a lot from paranoid libertarians. Even if their apocalyptic warnings are wildly overstated, they might draw attention to genuine risks, or at least improve public discussion. But as a general rule, paranoia isn’t a good foundation for public policy, even if it operates in freedom’s name.


By: Cass Sunstein, The National Memo, January 30, 2014

January 31, 2014 Posted by | Civil Liberties, Government | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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