Take Back America – Tuesday

I am at the Take Back America conference in Washington DC. This is an annual gathering of a couple of thousand progressives. You see lots of familiar names and faces here, people you see on TV and in magazines. Just five minutes ago I was saying “Hi” to Arianna Huffington. Earlier today I said Hi to Jesse Jackson…
I was thinking about why people do this. I don’t mean the overnight flight with a three-hour layover in Atlanta. (But really, why did I do that?)
I mean, being a progressive is not a big-money gig. So I am attending these great panel sessions and the speakers are very sharp, productive people, who speak very well, and who have dedicated their lives to helping other people. Yes, some make pretty good money, but nothing at all like they could make out there in the corporate world.
Trust me, nobody does this for the money.
I was watching one particularly good speaker yesterday. She was very good, very persuasive, interesting to listen to… and I thought, “I used to do this for products.” Now I can’t do this for products. Something inside of me will not let me.
It is about being a citizen. In a morning session today Taylor Branch was talking about lessons from the civil rights movement. One thing he said resonated with me. He said, “Citizens in a democracy are all supposed to have an equal share in that democracy, so we ought to act like it.” We all have a duty, a responsibility to be involved in bettering our country, and to work to stop the wrongs we see.
That’s why.

Political Suicide II

Earlier this week I wrote about how “conventional wisdom” says that politicians acknowledging reality and offering solutions that could actually fix the state’s problems is considered “political suicide.”
Here is something else that is considered political suicide: Acknowledging that undocumented residents live and work here and are members of our communities. But it is a fact. A lot of people have come across the country’s borders and settled in California, especially across the southern border.
Economic conditions have forced people to come here to try to find work. This is something that each of us would do if the situation were reversed. Heck, if the financial crisis that we are reading about in the news continues we might be doing just that very soon.
It is especially dangerous for a candidate to acknowledge that undocumented residents drive on the state’s roads and suggest that while we work out solutions to the documentation problem, we test and license them so they can be insured. And so instead there are lots of unlicensed and therefore untrained, untested and uninsured people driving. This endangers all of us. But woe to the politician who actually tries to suggest realistic and workable ways to fix this.
Second to this on the political suicide scale is acknowledging that these undocumented residents are human beings, just like the rest of us.
The challenge here is to find solutions that fit our progressive value system. As progressives, we recognize and celebrate the humanity of every person. We don’t ignore reality and we don’t condone lawbreaking. We must look for practical, humane, innovative, equitable and democratic approaches to resolving these difficulties. We must always look for progress.

The Public Interest

Whatever happened to the concept of “the public interest?” What about “the common good?”
In 1961 John F. Kennedy said in his inaugural speech, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” This statement inspired an entire generation to dedicate themselves to public service or other pursuits that helped the public-at-large ahead of narrower, selfish interests. And they thought that was a good thing to do with their lives, not a foolish waste of their time.
Many today would scoff at that notion. In the decades since JFK’s call to public service the idea of government as a force for good has been severely denigrated. For so many years conservatives and business interests have been getting their message out, trying to convince us that people should be selfish — that they shouldn’t care about others because it is up to each person to take care of themselves. They say that we are not our brother or sister’s keeper, that each person should be responsible only for themselves.
But there are some basic facts and realities that get in the way of conservative philosophy.

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A Budget Shock Attack

California is said to be having a budget “crisis.” Last week the Governor signed an emergency proclamation forcing the legislature to meet and act on the budget within forty-five days.
“Crisis” and “emergency” are serious words, and the public is upset about hearing them. This is, of course, the intent of those using the words — to get the public upset and demanding action. When people are shocked and worried they will accept solutions that might not be what they would accept if they had time to think, consider all reasonable alternatives and weigh all the consequences. In an “emergency” the public just wants the problem solved. (This is a “Shock Doctrine” approach.)
So having created a crisis atmosphere the Governor is asking for “across the board” cuts in state government spending. This is a tactic that let’s him avoid specifying any particular cuts. The reason the Governor does not want to specify any particular spending cuts is because people will realize that such cuts are not a good idea.
Asking for cuts “across the board” sounds so fair. But not specifying also means not prioritizing. By setting no priorities for spending cuts the Governor is saying that one area of spending matters to him no more than another.
Let’s be clear about what the Governor is doing. He is cutting police and other law enforcement and public safety. He is cutting schools — when California already is 43rd in spending per pupil. He is letting prisoners out onto the streets. He is cutting disaster assistance. He is letting roads and bridges deteriorate. That is what government spending is — and we are who it is for.

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Will California’s leader lead in 2008?

As the post-mortems continue to characterize the year just past and prognosticators speculate on what will be the year to come, it is clear that California is in for a bumpy ride over the next several months, if not years. With a projected $14 Billion short-fall (with many estimating the number may reach much higher), there is no question that the times call for some courageous leadership. But in today’s political world, where cynics and superficial pundits abound, it is difficult for real leadership to emerge and be given the space to articulate and implement that necessary vision, courage and know-how to make the necessary changes we desperately seek and need.
Commentators proclaim that little was accomplished in the year past—no major health care reform, no real water policy emerged to deal with our state’s chronic but moving toward acute problem, little real movement to develop a massive but necessary investment in transportation infrastructure, including our roads, bridges, ports or public transit, sewer systems, schools, etc. The bottom line is: we haven’t seriously or effectively addressed these needs. Our massive prison system is crumbling under its own weight, while federal judges determine whether we are complying with basic legal and human rights while we warehouse more and more people and spend greater and more scarce resources in doing so.
There are many who study our state’s political institutions and systems and declare the state ungovernable, observing that we are too dependent on special interests who fund campaigns; suffer from public initiatives generated from out-of-state business or ideological interests who are using our state as a guinea-pig; a tax system that is arcane and heavily-weighted in one direction or another. Also factored in is simply the massiveness of our state, with one out of every eight Americans living within our borders. So where is the leadership to deal with all this?

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And A Progressive New Year!

This is the final Speak Out California post for 2007. We’re taking the rest of the year off to celebrate all that we have to be thankful for. And we wish everyone a healthy, prosperous and progressive year ahead!
2007 has been an … uh, interesting … year for progressives. There was…progress (sorry – a little progressive humor for the holidays,) and there was disappointment. At the very least I think we all have a better understanding of the effort that will be required to restore our vision of progressive, citizen-oriented policies in the state and country. While recent elections have shown clearly what the people want, overcoming the corporate-backed conservative stranglehold on our political process is an ongoing struggle.
In the coming year progressives can expect a tough election season. Progressives have the people, the right ideas and policies, along with truth, justice and the American Way on their side.

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Yes, but how do they do it with a straight face?

The fact that the U.S. EPA refused to grant California a waiver so we can initiate our own air emissions standards is really no surprise to anyone who has watched this administration ignore science, our legal system, common sense and the Constitution. Whether waterboarding, abstinence only education, refusing to fund “No Child Left Behind”, illegally issuing wire taps without court order, or refusing to honor validly issued subpoena from Congress (to name only a very few of this administration’s scofflaw attitude), it is the audacity and mendacity that is so astonishing. It makes one wonder whether the right-wing extremist P.R. firms have a class in how to lie with a straight face, perhaps calling it something like “How stupid do we think the American people really are?”
The chutzpah is endless—with the President today in his own press conference exemplifying it with astonishing ease. But the lack of embarassment or apology is what really takes the cake. And when EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson claimed that the reason for the waiver denials is that and I quote here: “The Bush administration is moving forward with a clear national solution, not a confusing patchwork of state rules.” , that really takes the cake.
A clear national solution??? Nothing clear about said solution. Nothing national about it. And in fact, no solution identified either. Besides which, Bush doesn’t even believe in global warming. Is it a “national solution” of denial or just plain old deception that this administration is trying to foist on a not-so-unsuspecting public?

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IS Greed Good?

“Greed is good.” That line from the 1987 film Wall Street shocked the country with its blatant articulation of the 1980s-era Reagan philosophy of greed. Twenty years ago it was still a shock to civilized people to hear such a vulgar statement promoting self-interest over community. From the movie,

The point is, ladies and gentlemen, that: Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right; greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms, greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge – has marked the upward surge of mankind and greed, you mark my words – will not only save Teldar Paper but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA.

Greed used to be considered one of the “seven deadly sins.” Religions warn against its harmful effects on people and the greater community. Buddhism warns that greed is one of the three poisons. W.Jay Wood wrote in Christianity Today,

Greed is an inappropriate attitude toward things of value, built on the mistaken judgment that my well-being is tied to the sum of my possessions….Greed alienates us from God, from our neighbor, and from our true self.

But twenty years after being shocked by the promotion of a “Greed is good” philosophy much of the public instead buys into the consumer culture of greed and self-interest over public-interest. How has this change come about?

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Things Change When We Realize WE Are the Government

Have you ever heard the song that goes, “This land is your land, this land is my land, this land was made for you and me”? The lyrics to this song make the point that the United States belongs to you, and that you are the government.
The Constitution of the United States and of the State of California begin with the words, “We, the People…” because here the people are the government. And it is time we all realized it.
Last week I wrote about the way we think about our government.

Ronald Reagan liked to say “Government is the problem, not the solution” and, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’ ” … [But] the Constitutions of the United States of America and of the state of California both begin with the words, “We the people.” So “we, the people” are the government. …When you think about it this way, it makes the things Ronald Reagan said sound contradictory. How can we, the people be the problem? How can it be scary that we, the people are here to help each other?

Our government is US working together to take care of each other. This is a monumental shift in the way many of us have come to think about our relationship with our government. Government is not some “them” out there, like the conservatives want you to think – government is you, and me, and all of us in this together, for each other.

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Do Taxes ‘Hurt’? Is Government Bad?

As I read my Monday morning (Oct. 1, 2007) San Jose Mercury News a headline jumped out at me: “Cigarette tax would hurt poor“.
How often do we hear that taxes “hurt” or “punish” one group or another? How often do we hear that taxes are a “burden on the economy” or “cost jobs?” How many politicians talk about providing “tax relief?”
George Lakoff, of the Rockridge Institute writes that this language “frames” taxes as an affliction:

For there to be “relief” there must be an affliction, an afflicted party harmed by the affliction, and a reliever who takes the affliction away and is therefore a hero. And if anybody tries to stop the reliever, he’s a villain wanting the suffering to go on. Add “tax” to the mix and you have a metaphorical frame: Taxation as an affliction, the taxpayer as the afflicted party, the president as the hero, and [people who believe in government] as the villains.

This anti-tax rhetoric results from an anti-government worldview that is pushed by conservatives, in which they portray our government as some kind of enemy of the public. Ronald Reagan is famous for sayings like, “Government is the problem, not the solution” and, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’ ” The constant use of negative framing like this to describe government and taxes leads regular people to think about their government as a negative, malevolent force. We have been hearing this drumbeat for so long, and with so little pushback to counter these ideas, that many people just accept that this is the way it is.
But are taxes really an affliction? Is government really a negative force in society? Let’s step back from the affliction frame for a second and take a different look at the idea of taxes and government.

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