Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Common Vices vs. the Common Virtues in Public Policy

The Common Decencies and Virtues that humanists claim to promote and encourage include the general categories of integrity/honesty, fairness/justice, responsibility/courage and benevolence/kindness. These virtues seem so universally accepted and admired that they appear to be internalized in most persons – we need no god to tell us that it is good to be honest, kind, courageous and fair. Natural Selection has placed our appreciation of these virtues in our minds naturally. From these decencies and virtues we build a moral system and code of behavior. None of this is a denial that experience, culture and society modify our innate tendencies; it is simply an explanation of the universality of many moral values. It also is not a denial that we innately can also be jealous, territorial, selfish and lazy; most cultures and societies recognize the universal existence of these human attributes but almost always frown on these “common vices,” at least towards those within the society. However, it is from these in-born common decencies (if not totally modified/destroyed by our cultural experiences) that we tend to build our most admirable political views.

We should therefore form political policies, in other words, to realize and express our honest intentions, our good will towards others, our courage and our sense of fairness. Although we can honestly disagree on the ultimate policies due to the incredible complexity of human nature, economics and the uncertainty of the outcomes, we should agree on the following: the use of reason to solve our problems that the Common Decencies and Virtues have uncovered and have made us care about.

Yet it would seem that anything but reason is the instrument of policy making in our country (and elsewhere) and instead, dogma (which depends on dishonesty), ideology and blind faith are the cornerstones of most policy-making.

Consider the major life-changing decisions in the United States that have been made over the last decade:

The Supreme Court’s 100% partisan-line decision to not count allow a count of all of the votes in Florida in 2000’s Presidential Election resulting in the selection a Republican president. Numerous so-called “over-votes” were never counted.

The ideological decision in 2001 to give a tax break to the wealthiest Americans, wiping out the Federal budget surplus, while doing little or nothing to improve the economy over the long run, and more likely, harming the economy.

Medicare Part D, passed in 2003 and effective in 2006, which disallowed the Government from negotiating with drug companies to reduce costs, widening the Federal deficit. This was not a “courageous” decision.

The Neo-Con influenced war in Iraq and Neo-Con influenced abandonment of the War in Afghanistan, again leading to ballooning deficits, and a decade of pointless wars and the attendant misery with negative returns on the so-called “War on Terror”.

The push to outlaw gay marriage and even civil unions as an election ploy in 2004, even though the lives of homosexuals, who are American citizens, would be negatively impacted, and no one’s life would be made better.

The ideologically inspired lax or non-regulation of financial markets which have been notorious for serial failures and serial reckless risk-taking, leading to the recent near financial meltdown.

The torture and un-Constitutional detaining of persons, including American citizens, based solely on the orders of the president.

Not included in the above was the horror of 9-11 itself which was not a choice made by us, but instead a completely ideological and dogmatic action made by religious fanatics, and perpetrated on us.

I am sure the reader could add numerous other policies and actions that in no way reflected integrity, kindness, courage or fairness, but instead only ideology and dogma, inspired by the Common Vices. And now, with a new administration, the trend remains difficult to alter.

The bailouts to major financial (made just before the election) and automotive corporations have again increased the deficit, and although financial meltdown has been averted for now, financial corporations are still “too big to fail” and little or no reform has been instituted to change this fact or the excessive risk taking which is encouraged and rewarded by huge bonuses to executives. Unfortunately big business is able to funnel big money to campaigns which inevitably influences elected officials. Elected officials, who have made being elected a “career” instead of the “public service” it was meant to be, are all too obedient to their benefactors. (Public financing of elections, term limits and a more parliamentary system of legislation anyone?)

Health care reform is another area where the problem is obvious; our nation has the most expensive health care “system” in the world, but it is far from the best. Although one can have legitimate objection to the plans being proposed, what cannot be justified, except dogmatically, are the lies and hyperbole used to defeat all such proposals. A health care system even as socialistic as Great Britain’s has not resulted in their citizens loss of freedoms; yet some opponents of US healthcare reform claim that reform is a threat to freedom; do these opponents of health reform propose to repeal Medicare while they’re fighting for America’s “freedom”? (Never mind paradoxically that one of their arguments against health care reform is that it actually “threatens” Medicare.)

Somehow opponents of reform depict the efforts as both socialistic and Nazistic; yes images of the holocaust and Obama as Hitler are in full view at many protests, as well as the weapons on persons who hold signs that proclaim that it is time to water the “tree of liberty” with blood. Are they promoting the assassination of public officials?

It is also appalling to see how many Americans, spurred on by some of their most dogmatic, ideological and partisan leaders claim it is an abomination to try the terrorists who perpetrated the 9-11 attacks according to the US Constitution! They seem to prefer kangaroo courts also known as “military tribunals” which command no respect internationally and whose decisions have a good chance of being overturned if appealed in a real court. They would be more comfortable with the Iranian system of law than our own.

Lest we forget, on June 30, 2006, “In a landmark decision restricting the president's powers during wartime, the US Supreme Court has dealt the Bush administration a severe blow in its push to prosecute terrorists in military tribunals.

The court ruled 5-to-3 Thursday that Mr. Bush acted outside his authority when he ordered Al Qaeda suspects to stand trial before these specially organized military commissions. The ruling said that the commission process at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, could not proceed without violating US military law and provisions of the Geneva Conventions. "The commission lacks power to proceed," writes Justice John Paul Stevens for the court majority.

President Bush said he would honor the decision in the case called Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, but do it in a way that did not jeopardize the safety of Americans.
"I want to find a way forward," Bush told reporters. "I would like there to be a way to return people from Guantánamo to their home countries, but some of these people need to be tried" in court.” (CSM, 6/30/06, go to .)

In other words, there is no other way than to do it Constitutionally. Partisan Republicans impeached President Clinton for far less of a transgression.
And then there’s simple dollars and sense. Now that we are in a deep fiscal hole as a nation, angry citizens are holding “Tea Parties” to protest the mess we are in. The one problem is; where have they been for all these years? President Obama has been in office for about 10+ months and has passed but one budget in a time of the worst economy since the depression. Spending cuts in that budget would have been universally deplored and opposed. Increasing taxes to pay for the spending? Forget it!

Of course, the budget can be criticized for pork and wasteful spending; but of course, as atrocious as it was, it was nothing unusual. Why the “Tea Parties” now, when the party now in power had left the other party a budget surplus which it squandered over the 8 years it was in power?

Where were the “Tea Parties” when we actually needed them? How do they think we got into the situation we are now in? Did it just happen in the last 9 months?
Going forward, it is hard to see how the Common Decencies of honesty, courage, responsibility and kindness will prevail in our public policies over the Common Vices of dishonesty, timidity, willful ignorance, irresponsibility and meanness. The solutions that many citizens are demanding involve impossibilities: spending more while taxing less, fighting wars without any inconvenience, instituting privilege over justice and having the rule of the jungle prevail over the rule of law.

Although the Common Vices may lead to some form of satisfaction in the very short term, in the long term we will pay for it; we have already. We will continue to pay for it.

In the long run, the Common Virtues are what they are because they promote our well being. If humanity is to thrive, we must reject the Common Vices in favor of the Common Virtues, remembering that there is no guarantee whatsoever that we will do what is best for ourselves. Ignorance and dishonesty don’t need no stinkin’ facts after all, and real courage in our leaders in a rare thing.

Can you picture a leader with Presidential aspirations telling the country that it will be necessary to reduce health care spending per capita if we are to offer health care to all (probably leading to a single-payer system) and meaning that profit margins may have to decrease in the health care industry unless it becomes vastly more efficient? Yet, if one looks around the developed world for evidence, this may be the probable truth.

Can you imagine a leader with Presidential aspirations stating that an increase in taxation and cuts to the defense budget and entitlements are inevitable if the deficit is to be tamed? Exactly where else is the money going to be found?

Can you imagine a leader with Presidential aspirations coming clean on any number of issues, from torture, the deficit, to the economy, etc.? Once again, I’m sure the reader can list numerous items where the voting public prefers to be lied to. Real debate? Forget it; someone might have to say something thoughtful! So lies are what we will get, until there is no choice. This does happen; that is, the situation gets to the point where there is no choice, such as with the end of the Viet Nam War, after Pearl Harbor, or during the Depression.

Unfortunately, if health care reform is passed in its current proposed forms, this issue and the issue of the deficit will not soon go away; it will need revisiting very soon when Baby Boomers age and need more medical care and Social Security payments, and US Treasury interest rates increase, inflation rears its ugly head and we can no longer afford our denial of the facts. Then we will have no choice but to embrace the Common Virtues (such as integrity and honesty) in our policy making and we will have to do the right thing just to survive.

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