At the birth of our nation great men of character were able to forge historic compromises on the inflammatory issues of slavery and state’s rights in arriving at language for the Declaration of Independence and provisions in the U.S. Constitution. Our modern leaders seem to have lost the art, being motivated more by hubris and practical political realities than by character or wisdom. The hubris involves rejecting views apart from one’s own as unworthy of consideration and insisting on getting one’s own way at any cost. The lack of character consists of exhibiting cowardice in avoiding votes on issues that are politically volatile. That is not to say that there are not legitimate concerns about the state of our country. Such concerns are not new, however. In the 1945 Vincent Minnelli movie “The Clock” starring Judy Garland, a drunk, unable to obtain a drink in a diner because the establishment has no liquor license, blurts: “I have to have a license to buy a drink while this whole country is going to the dogs.” The Congressional two minute drill to stave off tax increases may lead to the passage of a tax extender bill but it will by no means secure a victory for the American people who will obtain a temporary reprieve from inevitable harsh economic measures necessary to reduce the federal budget deficit.
THE ARROGANCE OF CERTAINTY
The mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead said, “Knowledge shrinks as wisdom grows.” In other words as we grow wiser we realize that we know less than we thought. Just hundreds of years past, scientists believed absolutely that the sun orbited our flat world. Last week, scientists reported discovering that the universe is not as they had believed, concluding now that there are three times as many stars as had previously been calculated. Other scientists were stunned to observe a microbe that lives in an arsenic environment thought previously to be inhospitable to life. Financial gurus and economists have performed no better: the former utilized faulty computer models that, in part, caused the Great Recession: and, the latter long relied on the now deflated theory of a rational market.
A wise friend and client once told me that 50% of what we know today will be proved false eventually. Despite being consistently wrong, humans continue to declare, “I absolutely know this to be so.” At the extreme, religious fanatics who claim to know what G-d demands commit mass murder in his name. More commonly, we all ignore Voltaire who admitted, “Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd;” and, Nietzsche, “You have your way, I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, the only way, it does not exist.”
In the 1985 entertaining film Insignificance (Dir. Nicholas Roeg), in which Marilyn Monroe (Theresa Russell), Albert Einstein (Michael Ermil) Joe Dimaggio (Gary Busy) and Joe McCarty (Tony Curtis), cross paths on a hot 1953 night in New York, Einstein says, “When we say ‘I know’ we close our minds to the truth. We are agreeing with someone else instead of turning over the possibilities. Turning over the possibilities is thinking and thinking is what ultimately leads us to the truth.” People thinking over the possibilities is what our founders had in mind in describing democracy as a process of reflection and decision but it is not what William James calls “rearranging their prejudices.”
CONGRESS AND THE BUSH TAX CUTS
Congress had a decade to do something about the automatic expiration written into the 2001 Bush tax cuts. Instead of debate and compromise, each party dug in heals over an admittedly complex and contentious issue. Each side declared that its position was correct and the other side was wrong. The estate tax was allowed to expire for 2010 only, an incredible feat of governing malfeasance. Now, on the eve of the reality of looming income tax rate increases, a compromise has been forged, or stated more aptly a temporary reprieve from raising taxes at a inopportune economic moment has probably been averted. The still shaky compromise, however, merely allows congress to avoid disclosing the long term cost of fixing our anachronistic income tax code.
Moreover, instead of serious debate on the deficit (recall the Lincoln – Douglas debates on slavery; or, the William F Buckley – Norman Mailer debates on conservative versus liberal values) and related issues of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the new health insurance law, immigration reform, improving education, deciding the future structure of our military, our decaying infrastructure, climate warming, the size of the federal government and division of powers between the federal and state governments amidst a dynamically growing population (2010 census expected to report almost 312.7 million up from 281.4 million in 2000), we hear demagoguery from both parties in the form of statements reeking of bias and misleading inference, bullying for the cause. Instead of intelligent and thoughtful information we are thrown meaningless slogans and derogatory personal characterizations. These political tactics are terribly polarizing and present the picture of an inoperative government more and more resembling a ship dead in the water.
CONCERN FOR THE FUTURE
Jean Renoir in his most highly regarded film, “The Rules of the Game” has the character Octave state: “The terrible thing about life today is this: Everyone has his reasons.” Republicans and Democrats are each certain its side is in the right. They each have reasons to believe that the other path will cause great harm to our country. The two sides cling to ideology and already held beliefs that are a roadblock to creative problem solving. They prove true what Abraham Maslow said, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.” Those recently elected seem unable to rise above politics to govern but are already looking ahead to the next election. There is no longer social or collegial interaction between the two parties which caucus in clicks during the work week and flee home for fund raising on the weekends. Thus always locked in battle, alternative views go unheard and sound principles of governance are ignored as the deficit grows and structural problems in our economy and safety net remain unresolved.
Volume 2, Number 3, Steinberg Talks Tax™ “A Primer on the Sub Prime Mess” discusses the crisis and offers my optimistic appraisal about the future of our country. Those who did not receive the issue can email me for a copy. I am, however, becoming increasingly concerned with the level of political acrimony and use of fascist-like tactics to attack opposing views many of which are depicted in Sinclair Lewis’ scary book, “It Can’t Happen Here,” a fictional account of how despotism could happen here. Lewis describes a struggle between tolerance and bigotry against intellectuals, one in which normally generous citizens become dangerous fanatics.
Fred Siegel in his Miami Herald review of David Callahan’s book “Fortunes of Change: The Rise of the Liberal Rich and the Remaking of America” speaks of a well funded class conflict between “tea- party stalwarts” and “elites”, citing Callahan: “the most active donors hold the most ideological extreme views.” Irresponsible remarks like unsuccessful Nevada Senate candidate Sharron Angle, “if this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies” could encourage violence among Americans holding the most extreme positions or harboring the most certainty about their own perspective. Were violence to erupt, foreign investors might lose confidence in our political system.
WHAT IS NEEDED: OPEN MINDEDNESS AND A TOUCH OF GENIUS
Last week, I watched an adult showing a few children a bowling game comprising a mat with numbered places for the pins, a ball and plastic pins. The adult kept setting up the pins in the correct places but the kids kept knocking them down and taking them up to use in some other imaginary play they had created for themselves. The adult finally gave up the effort a bit frustrated. What we need today is for adults to recapture the inventiveness and creativity of those children at play. Saul Bellow in his short story, “What Kind of Day Did you Have?” puts it: “Genius must be the recovery of the powers of childhood by an act of creative will…. By combining the strength of a man (analytic power) with the ecstasy of a child you could discover the New.” I see this miracle of creation every when I play with my two year old daughter Alina.
Contrariwise, in the “Lost World of Kalahari,” Laurens Van der Post, writes: “Human beings are perhaps never more frightening than when they are convinced beyond doubt that they are right.” Resolving the problems we face today will require a touch of genius or the Wisdom of Solomon but our problems will not be solved through rigid ideological thinking.
THE CHOICE IS OURS TO MAKE
Wilfred Sheed in the short novel, “The Blacking Factory” addresses the morality of a nation: “What (is) national morality all about? … It is the way we talk to each other in the street, the things we laugh at: I think it is a quality of the heart.”
As a nation, we need to get back to plain old conversation, begin to listen to one another again and give respectful consideration to the views of others, however divergent they may be from how we think we think. We need to disconnect from the viral emails that circulate telling us what we already know and seriously consider the opposing argument. Only then can one test the strength of his or her own convictions or opinions. Write to your congressman and demand civility and more governance over politics. If we allow the polarization in Washington to continue, our future may resemble what William Butler Yeats describes in his poem, “The Second Coming:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
I am not suggesting here that every problem can be easily solved or that reaching consensus on tax and other important issues is possible or even desirable. Margaret Thatcher felt, “Consensus seems to be the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values and policies.” Still, compromise is a necessary part of any democratic government if that government is to survive as a democracy. We must demand that our leaders rise above petty grievances and arguments to govern. Governing means adopting the saying atop the magical brick in the tomb of Egyptian Pharaoh Tuthmosis IV (1400-1390 BC)) “You who come to pull my hair, I will not allow you to pull my hair.” My modern interpretation: our elected leaders must not allow themselves to be distracted from governing by political in fighting and other petty annoyances. They must hunker down to the task of governing which includes addressing the myriad problems facing our generation among which is reforming our arcane, inefficient and overly complicated tax code.
The newspapers are resplendent with columns about possible provisions in the tax extender bill and possible amendment. I have refrained here from discussing details but welcome you questions or inquiries about how the bill, should it become law, will impact you personally.