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Saturday, April 7, 2012

A Few Thoughts on Politics...

After my News Fast (see prior posts), I've had to draw upon my own experiences, and conversations with others, forcing me to step outside of my former, hard won political prejudices.

As a result,  I'm not sure that my views have changed all that much, but I think I have become a better listener.

I'm certainly not the first to observe that the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street are essentially pissed off about the same thing: the creeping feeling that, in our national politics, we are becoming less of a representative democracy, and more of a Third World banana republic, where imperious elites (of the Big Government and/or the Big Business variety, depending who you ask) are intent on chipping away at our rights and our wallets.

So if these two groups can have some overlap, maybe there is some "common ground" for political discussion.

Much debate about our national politics centers around the US Constitution, so I am starting my inquiry there.

Drawing upon conversations with other people, a bit of my legal training, my past study of history,  pop culture (by watching the John Adams miniseries on HBO, and Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations and The Layover) and some common sense, I've come up with a few ideas:

The US Constitution is not holy writ sent down from a fiery mountaintop.

The US Constitution is a treaty among several different independent states (In fact, it was typical in the Founders time for folks like Thomas Jefferson and John Adams to refer to Virginia and Massachusetts, respective, as their "country").  Each state agrees to give up some of their own sovereign powers to a central federal government for roughly three general purposes:

1. Common national defense and security

2. Remove trade barriers among the states, and set some national standards, to create a national market for goods and services.

3. Establish a national baseline of individual civil rights for US citizens by guaranteeing equal protection of the law (people get treated the same under the law regardless of race, religion, national origin, etc) and due process of law (the government cannot deprive you of your life, liberty, or property unless they give you notice, a hearing, right to counsel, etc. Also, it considers whether there are some areas of our lives that the government cannot interfere with, regardless of notice, a hearing, right to counsel, etc.)

Beyond these three general purposes, it was expected that public health, morality, and welfare would be taken care of by the individual states, the theory being that these standards vary based on culture, geography, and region, and therefore the states are in a better position to pass laws on these topics.

I'm sure we could argue about the details of the above three principles. In fact, I think we are supposed to -- these were all left very broadly cast, and our forefather's assumption was that citizens would be competent to use free speech, reason, and debate to sort out the details on how to fulfill these goals.

However, I think we have been laboring mightily against the reality that, aside from these common principles of mutual benefit, we really are, in many ways, still a collection of different countries, each with its own culture, priorities, and morals. This diversity is, overall, a good thing, I think. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously referred to each state being a "laboratory of democracy", in which various ways of living can be explored.

I have lived in New Jersey almost my entire life, and while I have not traveled extensively, when I do and I am asked where I am from, my first thought is "New Jersey". And plenty of other people feel the same way about their own state.

So maybe the constant attempt to turn everyone into a "Real American" (as various parties and groups define it) is causing too much strife.

Anthony Bourdain, the travel and food writer, speaks often of how his experiences in various countries have opened his mind and broken him of his Manhattanite superiority complex toward his fellow Americans. Now, when he visits places and meets folks in the US that he used to dismiss as "hicks" in "flyover country", he says he now views them as he would citizens of a foreign country, and now sees the richness and complexity of their culture, even if he would not want to live in that culture.

So I am trying to do the same, and appreciate the richness and complexity of other viewpoints. So perhaps if states want to pass laws I don't agree with regarding same sex marriage, abortion, contraception, medical marijuana, unions, creationism versus evolution,  and sex education, while I don't have to like it, perhaps I can view it as another "laboratory of democracy" working through  a few experiments....

On the other hand,  I am not made of stone.

As a citizen of New Jersey, I am fortunate to live in, like California and New York, an affluent state. However, by most estimates New Jersey also has the worst return on investment on tax dollars (about 62 cents on the dollar) sent to the Feds v. Federal largess returned to New Jersey.

And I note that the states that have the culture, values and morals that I most disagree with, seem to have the best return, upwards of $1.50 back to their state for every federal tax dollar they pay.

While liberals will say its only right that the more affluent help out the less affluent, conservatives will point out that we should not subsidize bad choices. And I can't help but suspect that some of the troubles these states have requiring more federal dollars are a result of many of that state's policy choices, and are not directly tied to national defense, a national market, or civil rights.

Perhaps, instead of financing other states' bad policy choices via federal taxes, states like New Jersey could provide loans directly to these states. Even with the low, low interest rates prevailing, we could certainly make back a few percentage points, a "vig" if you will.

And if any of the borrowers welch,  New Jersey has many, many folks with experience in "debt collection".


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Often cited, but rarely actually read - Links to US Constitution text is below:
http://www.usconstitution.net/const.html
http://constitutionus.com/

Info from Tax Foundation on States "Return on Investment" on federal taxes 1981-2005:
http://www.taxfoundation.org/research/show/22685.html







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