Monday, May 16, 2011

Remember the earmark crusade?

I sure hope so, since it was only last fall. But the crusade to ban earmarks in Congress is incredibly relevant to our current political climate. Perhaps not as a matter of procedure, but as a matter of public policy in relation to governing ideology. Let me explain.

The anti-earmark crusade was based on three important principles. 1) fiscal appropriateness, 2) political games, and 3) clarity. Each of these principals was advanced as an important reason to end this political tradition.

  1. fiscal appropriateness—Under the guise of cutting spending, Republicans have been arguing that earmarks are “pork” and “waste” that should be cut from the budget. This is more of an ideological principal than it is a pragmatic one. Earmarks made up less than 1% of the budget, so eliminating them makes little impact on the financial health of the government and rings of a “symbolic” measure. Lost in this argument, of course, is that earmarks aren’t always “waste” but the means of dictating where funds already budgeted will go. One might argue that without these specific instructions, waste is more likely to occur.
  2. political games—For many, the idea that single Senators, such as Ben Nelson with the Affordable Care Act, could hold up legislation until they could be “bought” with enough “pork” became bipartisan outrage. Nobody likes this kind of gaming, and led to a great deal of outrage on both sides. That Republicans have been more likely to use earmarks in deals over legislation seems to be lost in the conversation. Also lost is that the best tool our Congresspersons have is to negotiate and compromise. So the political cover of compromise is thrown out in favor of a winner-take-all approach. Even though nobody likes the opportunist (what Sen. Nelson seemed to be), this decision actually minimizes everyone’s chance at walking away with a “win”. Look up game theory for a full understanding of how this is the case.
  3. clarity—If it really isn’t about economics or political games, then it must be about clarity in government. Like the idea of despising the opportunist who tries to milk the system, people with all political proclivities hate this one last truth about this process: in many cases, earmarks have nothing to do with the bill in question. Actually, most do, and many more delineate how funds will be spent, but in some cases, the earmark is totally alien to the discussion. Most People want our representative democracy to battle over the actual matters, not slip bad ideas in the side door. If the fight is about a healthcare bill, then the fight should only pertain to that bill and its principle subject.

So when the new congress got to its first real battle: a budget resolution for 2011: they abandoned the principle behind banning earmarks (the clarity argument) in favor of political games and fights that don’t pertain to the budget (including the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) and Planned Parenthood). And as soon as a compromise was reached, the first statements out of the leadership involved what “deals” could be made over raising the debt limit and the 2012 budget. Instead of voting on the principal matter: the debt limit: Republicans hope to “get something out of the deal”. Isn’t this the very problem with earmarks? And if one is going to hold such a double-standard, shouldn’t they be held responsible for it?

It is not “politics as usual” when the governing ideology of one side refuses to fairly trust in compromise. It is a politics of cynicism and nihilism: two qualities needed least in our leaders.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Maybe I'm allergic to your intolerance...

My daughter is allergic to peanuts.

I have to confess that the moment I found out, I was upset. Not for her, but for me. Her allergy would deprive me of one of my favorite foods: peanut butter. I got over that (mostly) and we try very hard to be careful for her sake.

One of her favorite books, which we read today is The Princess and the Peanut Allergy. It is the story of two best friends fighting over a birthday cake. The one with the birthday wants to have her favorite cake and her best friend there at the same time. The friend wants to be included, but knows she can’t because of her allergy. In the end, the birthday girl chooses her friend over peanuts. It is sweet and the kind of decision I want my daughter to make on behalf of other people.

Reading it today, brought another idea up. One more to do with my selfish wish for peanut butter than it does the generous spirit of the book. The context of allergies actually means life-and-death stuff: not some simple question about politics du jour. Because here is the bigger question: should we accommodate the other or should we imprison them in their homes? Is your right to carelessness and selfishness more important than my daughter’s right to live normally and safely?

We brush this off so easily, making the parents of children with allergies work incredibly hard at determining ingredients of food and providing a safe environment for our children. And most of us get really tired of being the ones advocating for our kids constantly and having to deprive them of church dinners or parties simply because they can’t eat what is being served.

Isn’t safety more important?

The Mars Co., makers of M&Ms, is a great big company and makes a whole lot of money. But now we can’t buy any M&Ms because they all bear the warning that they may contain peanuts. Mars is a big enough company to have regular M&Ms produced in a different space from the peanut and peanut butter ones. Easy solution. But instead, we are satisfied with a warning on the package and new responsibility for the parents: “No, Baby Girl, you can’t have M&Ms anymore. I know they’re your favorite.”

The applications for this callous understanding of freedom are endless:
  • the “need” to pass concealed handgun laws and then open-carry laws so that you have the right to make everyone around you afraid;
  • the "importance" of seeing fairness as only applying to academic-based scholarships, which deprive needy, inner-city youth from even going to college simply because rich kids got better grades;
  • allowing insurance companies to deprive coverage to anyone for any reason at all after taking their money;
and these are just the tip of the iceberg.

Some conservatives may try to spin this the other way or simply disregard me as the usual liberal calling for tolerance. So here’s the deal: it is about power. People without allergies are in a position of power and dominance over people with them. My daughter didn’t choose this. GOD isn’t punishing her because of our choices (remember, GOD promised David GOD wouldn’t do that). Like Superman, she has a weakness. So show some compassion! Don’t put peanuts in everything. It’s that simple. It is getting so easy to avoid the common allergens, that we no longer have the excuse not to accommodate them.

So quit complaining about your gun rights or your right to deprive others of healthcare or the rights of oil companies to rob you or the rights of drug companies to lie to you or use some example of some white person losing a promotion that was “theirs” to some “undeserving” minority. Just answer why is that more important than safety, health, and well-being?

Why is your individual right more important than the lives of thousands or millions of people?