Friday, September 18, 2015

Just Words

Donald Trump summed up the latest Republican debate best:
We were discussing disease, we were discussing all sorts of things tonight, many of which will just be words. It will just pass on. I don’t want to say politicians, all talk, no action. But a lot of what we talked about is words and it will be forgotten very quickly. 
Amen to that.

The thing that puzzles me most about contemporary politics is the weird disconnect between what gets talked about and the actual problems in the world. The Times:
Despite an abundance of serious issues to talk about, nobody offered solutions to problems like child poverty, police and gun violence, racial segregation, educational gaps, competition in a global economy and crumbling infrastructure. On looming disasters (the changing climate) and more immediate ones (a possible government shutdown over, of all things, Planned Parenthood), the debate offered no reassurance that grown-ups were at the table, or even in the neighborhood.
Much of Republican politics has long been a fact-free zone, and we saw more of that in the debate. Carly Fiorina threw her hat into the crazy ring with style, claiming to see things in those Planned Parenthood videos that are not there, and then saying we should forget about negotiating with Iran or Russia and beef up our military presence in the Middle East and Poland. Everybody but Trump subscribes to the orthodox position that cutting taxes on the rich is the best way to increase economic growth, despite the complete lack of evidence that this is true. On the subject of CO2 emissions and climate change, we get a barrage of evasions and assertions spewed forth with a Zen indifference to whether any of it is true or self-contradictory. Marco Rubio said yet again that a carbon tax would destroy the economy, which is simply ludicrous.

All I hear from Republicans is 1) cut taxes on the rich; 2) fight everybody until they all surrender; 3) end abortion. What else is there besides rhetoric?

On the Democratic side, there are plans, but I confess to feeling no confidence that the things Bernie Sanders is proposing would really fix our troubles. For one thing his ideas about raising taxes don't come close to paying for his ideas about spending more money. As my readers know I am a supporter of single-payer health insurance, but I do not believe Congress will pass such a bill in my lifetime, since only a minority of Democratic legislators supports it; what is the fallback plan?

More deeply: would things like universal preschool and more subsidies for college tuition really reduce inequality in America, or help the middle class get ahead? I doubt it. As it happens I support free preschool, which we could well afford and might do some good. But I have serious doubts about the wisdom of making college cheaper for millions of people, since I think that in America millions of people already go to college who shouldn't. If we have more money to spend on higher education I think we should direct it to community colleges and training programs, so that people who don't want to go to 4-year colleges don't have to. Why is it a good idea to spend hundred of billions to enable more students to take classes they hate in subjects they don't care about?

Everybody I know, including the Republicans, is queasy about the huge role Wall Street plays in the economy these days, and about the general shift of wealth from manufacturing to finance. But who has a rational plan for taming this monster? Is there a way to limit the reach and power of Wall Street that still allows it to play the central role that our sort of capitalism demands? Is there some alternative form of capitalism that doesn't demand hugely powerful, centralized markets? I know that on the populist left there is a loud cry to "restore Glass-Steagall," the old law that separated commercial banks from retail banks. But commercial banks don't even exist any more in the form that Glass-Steagall regulated; look back to the 90s and you see that many of the Congressmen who voted to rescind the bill did so because it had become effectively useless anyway. If the law were restored all that business would shift into hedge funds, or offshore.

The good things that are happening in America right now are only tangentially connected to the office of the Presidency. We are shifting from fossil fuels to clean energy at a remarkable rate, and while I wish the government would do more to promote this, it is not really necessary. The people have started to police the police in a serious way, thanks to smartphones and increased awareness of the problems. Sexism and racism are slowly declining; gay people are rapidly gaining acceptance; decaying urban neighborhoods are being made into great places to live.

I find myself seized by a vague indifference to the current election. I will certainly vote, and I do think there are important differences between Democrats and Republicans. But I have no sense that anyone in politics or out has the answers I am looking for. How can we create a world that is more equal without drowning ourselves in bureaucracy? Where will the jobs of the future come from? Is it possible to promote marriage? How can we help children in single-parent homes? Can we design schools that encourage exploratory learning while still teaching ordinary kids the essential skills? Who should go to college, and what should they learn? How can we promote a tolerant society in which people are decent to each other, without stifling free expression? What does good health care mean, and how should we provide it? When is military force helpful, and how should it be deployed? Who should go to prison, and for how long?

Still waiting for a politics that takes serious questions seriously. But not expecting it.

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