Friday, July 29, 2011

Let's get rid of our government, start over with a parliament

That's the case I (probably needlessly provacatively) make in this week's Scripps Howard column.
The debt limit debate is only the latest, greatest manifestation of America's broken politics. For more than two years, President Obama has faced unprecedented Republican obstacles to getting executive branch appointees and federal district judges confirmed. The day-to-day business of government is increasingly going undone because the GOP is happy to obstruct for obstruction's sake.

Why is this the case? Partly because the two major political parties are more ideologically coherent than ever ― there are no more conservative Democrats like Scoop Jackson or liberal Republicans like Lincoln Chaffee in Congress. Politicians are less willing and less able to compromise, for fear the other side will get credit.

The problem is compounded by the divided control of Congress, where Republicans have the House and Democrats hold the Senate. Add the Senate filibuster into the mix and there are simply too many procedural roadblocks to getting even the simplest things done.

Maybe it's time to scrap the system, and start over again with a parliamentary democracy.

As commentator David Frum noted on Twitter recently, ``We're getting a good real-life poli-sci lesson as to why so few other democracies have adopted U.S. separation of powers idea."

He's right: In parliamentary democracies, one party ― or a coalition of parties ― captures control of parliament and appoints a prime minister.

It controls all the levers of government, and is thus responsible for everything that happens (and doesn't happen) on its watch.

It's no coincidence that a country like Britain was able to slash its budget a year ago, while American politicians are still dithering.

Here, politicians spend inordinate amounts of energy figuring out how to deny credit and pin blame on the other side; in the U.K., voters know exactly who is responsible.

Yes, the Founders wanted separation of powers ― but what we've ended up with is an abdication of responsibility. Maybe it's time to toss aside our broken machinery of government and start over.
Ben advocates a return to pre-FDR strict constructionism.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Back from surgery. Ish.

On July 8, I entered Thomas Jefferson University Hospital here in Philadelphia for the second surgery in my Summer of Surgery. The first was a colostomy to relieve the life-threatening diverticulitis inflammation that had brought my gastrointestinal system to a standstill. This follow-up was designed to remove several inches of diseased colon and, if all went well, to reverse the colostomy during the same procedure—making it possible to poop out my butt again, among my most cherished aspirations.

All did not go well.

Turns out a reasonably large section of my colon wasn't just diseased: it had collapsed, and the dead portions fused themselves to my bladder. And in the course of trying to separate live bladder from essentially dead colon, my bladder was nicked with a scalpel blade. A surgical urologist was called; an operation originally scheduled to take three hours or so took seven. The surgeon told me afterwards it was one of the three or four worst cases of diverticulitis he'd seen.

I came home Friday afternoon. I'm in more pain this time—my lower abdomen is basically a shambles, and it won't surprise you to understand how much THAT part of the body plays a nexus for the movement of the rest of you. But I feel more emotionally resilient. Except for one thing: after a week of inconsiderate roommates blaring their TVs without regard for anybody else, I've developed panic attacks when I hear Dr. Phil's voice. This is not nearly as funny as it sounds.

The colostomy wasn't reversed. I have to recover a couple of months from this surgery for that to happen. But I'm kind of back.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Should government do more to encourage marriage and prevent divorce?

That's the subject of this week's Scripps Howard column. It's prompted by news in several states of social conservatives leading legislative efforts to make it more difficult to divorce, as well as the unveiling of a new "Marshall Plan for marriage" by the conservative Heritage Foundation. My 300-word limit only lets me scratch the surface of the creepiness involved, but here's my shot at it:
Let's talk about freedom.

Republicans use that word -- and its cousin, "liberty" -- quite often.

Usually they're talking about financial matters. Individuals should be free from taxes. Businesses should be free from regulation. So it's odd that when the topic turns to marriage, conservatives rush to embrace the kind of nanny-state infringement on adult decision-making they otherwise decry.

What Republicans have failed to do is consider how their supposedly freedom-oriented policies may have undermined marriage in this country. One of the prime benefits of wedlock -- beyond the uniting of two persons in love -- is the economic security that comes from partnering. But such security has been increasingly difficult to come by: America's median household incomes have stagnated since 1980, even though many more households now have both a mother and a father working outside the home. That stagnation is easy to attribute to conservative policies that have steered more money to rich individuals and big corporations at the expense of workers.

In other words: It's much harder to raise a family. No wonder more middle-class Americans are "retreating from marriage," choosing cohabitation or divorce over the increasing economic strains of commitment. Rather than face those factors, though, Republicans would rather clamp down on freedom -- repeal no-fault divorce and require counseling sessions of couples that have already decided they're better off apart.

Marriage is, generally, good. That's why so many gays and lesbians have fought for that right in recent years, and why weddings and anniversaries are so significant to the rest of us. The conservative instinct to protect and promote healthy marriages is a good one.

But activists would be best served by offering carrots -- in the form of tax incentives and other economic assistance -- rather than using the stick of government to force couples to remain yoked. There's no reason to choose between promoting marriage and protecting freedom. We can do both.
Ben, needless to say, is more optimistic than I. Forget about gay marriage, though: I suspect plain ol' marriage marriage is the next front in the culture wars.

Time for my next surgery

I go under the knife again on Friday. It will probably be extra-quiet around here for awhile. I'll post a link to the latest Scripps Howard column today, and after that it'll probably be a week before I get back to a keyboard. If you want to keep up with my progress, or my half-assed opinions about anything else, you can always follow my Twitter feed.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Wall Street Journal's misleading op-ed about defense cuts and China

You know what? I really hate it when op-ed writers deliberately conflate apples and oranges to make the oranges appear to be hordes of Chinese soldiers bent on dominating the world. That's exactly what the Wall Street Journal gives us in an offering from Dan Blumenthal and Michael Mazza. The key graph:
Last year, the Obama administration took the first steps in a $400 billion defense spending cut, ending several crucial programs. The White House has now asked for another $400 billion in cuts. China, meanwhile, has averaged 10% annual spending increases for more than 20 years. As former Secretary of Defense Harold Brown once said of the Soviets, "When we build, they build; when we cut, they build."
Here are the three faulty points of comparison:

• The writers compare China's 10 percent annual increases with $400 billion in U.S. cuts that will be made through 2023. We're not cutting $400 billion out of next year's defense budget—that's the target spread out over the next decade. And you can argue whether that's good or not, but it certainly makes the comparison completely lopsided and completely misleading. That's not fair to the WSJ's readers.

• What's more, that $400 billion in cuts? Not actually cuts, but a cut in the projected growth of spending. The defense budget would still be bigger in 2013 than it is now. Republicans call BS when Democrats pull that trick with entitlement spending; it's just as misleading when applied to the GOP's pet causes.

• What's more, the writers compare the dollar amount in cuts versus the percentage increase in China's military budget. I hate to drag out this chart again, but I have no choice:
Using Wikipedia as a quick reference, we see that U.S. defense spending in 2010 was $685 billion—about 4.7 percent of the national GDP.  China's defense spending the same year $91.5 billion—a 12 percent increase from the previous year's $78 billion, and less than 2 percent of that country's GDP. China has a long, long, long way to go before it's making the same kind of investment as the United States. You wouldn't know that from the WSJ's very misleading comparison.

We need to have a serious national conversation about America's military posture in the world, and how we should approach China as it becomes increasingly confident, capable, and assertive in the Pacific. But that conversation should be grounded in facts. That's not what the Wall Street Journal gives us.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Bag O' Books: 'The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction' by Alan Jacobs

Three thoughts about this book:

• Since my May 1 surgery, I had—until this week—been able to read exactly one book front-to-back: Tina Fey's "Bossypants." It was clever and entertaining, but it took all of an afternoon to read. Everything else I've tried to read the last two months has either been a bit of a slog, or else I've simply been unable to maintain focus. But reading is important to me; it frightened me to think I might be losing my capacity somehow. So when I saw this slim volume at the Joseph Fox Bookshop in Philadelphia, I snapped it up immediately. Maybe, just maybe, I could find my way back.

• A wise choice, because one of Jacobs' chief messages in this book is: "Relax." He eschews reading lists and eat-your-veggies approaches to reading in favor of urging readers to follow their Whim. In Jacobs' hands, this is not a call to dispense with Great Books and devote oneself entirely to Stephen King. He makes it quite clear that one's Whim—he's the one doing the capitalizing—can lead one both to high art and splendid trash, and that one can derive different sorts of pleasures from both. (He's also quite keen on the virtues of rereading certain books.)

• But how does one continue to be a book reader when Twitter, Facebook, and life itself are lurking all around? Jacobs doesn't really offer an answer to this question: Instead, he suggests that it is possible, with some persistent effort, to create a "cone of silence" around oneself—if one chooses to do so. And perhaps he's right: I managed to read this 150-page book in three days. On a long holiday weekend, to be sure, but it was possible. Jacobs' book about the pleasures of reading turns out to be a pleasurable read in its own right.