Saturday, February 23, 2008

OMTS's Political Platform

In response to many reader requests that I articulate my own positions on the major political issues in contemporary America, the following essay is an outline of my views on some of the most important challenges the country faces in 2008 and beyond. These positions are my own and in no way seek to mirror either political party's platforms. There will be no reference to the positions of the current candidates, and I have limited my discussion to 10 major issues and tried to keep my takes clear and relatively concise. The format is much more philosophical than empirical in most cases. Feel free to email me if you have any specific feedback or would like to join my political campaign:

1. Military and Foreign Policy:
America is in a difficult position: We would like to lead the world and spread our view of the fruits of democracy, yet we are mired in a financial crisis in which we borrow money from China to fight a war in Iraq, and we conduct business with horrible countries such as Saudi Arabia because we refuse to stand up to oil companies and begin seriously reducing our dependence on oil, foreign or domestic. We love our version of democracy but fail to appreciate that our reckless foreign policy has created a hatred for America that is so visceral in some parts of the world that democracy backfires. See how well democracy has worked for us in Iraq, Iran, Gaza, and Lebanon, just to name a few. People seized their democratic rights and voted for anti-American radical regimes that pose a greater threat to global peace than those they replaced. Such is the profound failure of the Bush-Cheney doctrine. In addition, America simply does not have the resources or the military forces to police the world with ground troops. A small force of 170,000 in Iraq has stretched our military to the breaking point. Think about that. In a real war--Germany in WW II--we put a million men in the country to stabilize it, but as I said, that was a real war, one where all draft age men served: boxers, professional football and baseball stars--everyone. We had 16.3 million men fight in that war, which lasted less than four years precisely because we were serious because we had to be. It wasn't an "everyone go shopping and let the poor kids fight" war that characterizes Iraq. It was the real deal. My relatives were there--a lot of them. In the 1940s Joe Louis was the heavyweight champion of the world, making up to $400,000 a fight. He gave up 4 years of his prime to enter the military, which was segregated, for a $21 a month paycheck.
Our current military is completely unprepared for any type of protracted ground war; however, what I support is the continued expansion of nuclear weapons, which are, quite frankly, the only reason we are living in relative peace and prosperity: Countries fear us and that is a great thing. The U.S. needs to invest significant money(the current 4% of GDP or around $500 billion budget is about right for now, after we cut out this ridiculous Iraq War) to protect and defend our country and interests from the forces that seek to destroy us, whether it be Russia, China, the Middle East etc. The problem with the military budget is the tremendous amount of waste and fraud. This department is screaming for real leadership. It needs to be streamlined and money should be allocated for useful purposes: soldiers' pay, health benefits, advanced weapons systems etc., yet the vast sums of money the DOD receives are not enough to provide basic medical(60,000 injured in Iraq) and disability benefits(224,000 have filed claims to date) for men and women who have been permanently damaged in this pathetic war? That's a crime. (Stats from Linda Bilmes, Harvard University, 2-13-08)
We need to negotiate from a position of strength and that does not come from ground forces: We do not--and will not--have the ground forces to match up with those countries in a conventional war, so we have to possess and continually develop weapons of mass destruction that will serve as a profound deterrent to any leader who may want to attack us. We are a country with 6% of the global population, so policing the world is simply not possible, and even if it were, would American citizens be willing to send all of their sons and daughters into the military for extended deployments all over the world? I think not. I wish the world were a place of peace and love, but the facts are very clear:
The history of the world is one that is awash in blood and warfare, so we have a choice: We can develop cutting-edge technology and weapons systems or wait around for the 21st century Hitler to show up. The pacifists are living in some kind of romantic novel world, and they are dangerous; I wish people would simply live and let live, but as a student of history I cannot find a single time period where that was the case, for it does not exist.
The changes that need to be made relate to the waste and corruption that defines the military machine, the one Eisenhower warned about 50 years ago. Spending and contracts need to be on the public record and examined by Congress. Therefore, much as it pains me to see such huge amounts of money spent on national defense, the fundamental truth is that it's probably the most justifiable use of our tax money. I would institute a policy that all immigrants will sign up for 4 years of military service as a requirement of U.S. citizenship and all native-born Americans will serve as a condition of significant college financial aid. Anyone who doesn't want to fight to defend this country is free to go live somewhere else. It's a big world. The biggest problem this country faces is simple greed. People want to enjoy the fruits of our society but are unwilling to sacrifice; they leave that to the sons and daughters of other Americans, usually the less affluent of course. In times of war, ALL 18-25 year-old men and women would be drafted. Period. There would be no exceptions for rich, cowardly losers such as Bush, Cheney, Clinton etc.

In terms of foreign policy, limited isolationism needs to be our policy in the sense that we simply do not have the money or forces to intervene in every perceived moral issue. Otherwise, we would have hundreds of thousands of forces in Africa for the next 100 years, but we tend to adjust our moral vision when poor black people with no oil are victims of genocide. We need to negotiate and expand diplomacy but should try to avoid military involvement except through NATO or a new more effective world force. Other countries need to step up and fight--and pay for--these wars that are in their backyards and potentially affect them much more than us. It's insulting that Americans pay billions every year to protect countries that offer no substantive
support to our social or economic systems. I would cut foreign aid drastically and clearly define our strategic allies and interests(Japan, Europe, Israel, moderate Middle Eastern countries etc.) and let them know that they will pay for our protection and support, both in financial terms and by providing troops.

2. Budget and Taxes:
The tax system needs to be adjusted at least to pre-Bush rate levels and loopholes need to be closed. We should not go to a national sales tax or this idiotic "fair" tax. The current system is flawed but this basic idea works: If one makes more, one pays a higher percentage. However, the lines need to gradually increase so that someone who makes $150K is not in the same rate as someone who makes $10 million. That's the problem with the current system. We need to give significant tax relief to all families making less than $200K, which in many areas is really middle class. In addition, the tax form needs to be simplified. Raising taxes continually is not the answer.
We need to return to a pay-as-you-go government. Social Security, Medicare and other social programs are threatening to bankrupt the country, so we need to address the fiduciary connection between what people pay into the system and how much--if anything--will be there when they retire. Currently, this system is all very nebulous for most Americans. They need to know exactly how much they will receive if they retire at a specific age so that we can begin pushing people to save significant amounts for their own retirements. Most Americans will be living in poverty without adequate health care if they do not assume responsibility for their own old age. That the reality: This government can only provide a very basic safety net, but we need to have a discussion about what role the government should have in our lives and how much people are willing to pay for that support. It seems obvious that a livable amount of income and basic health services are worth paying for so that our rapidly aging population does not enter old age in dire straits, unable to afford housing and medical care. That is not the type of society most of us envision, but it takes huge sums of money to cover all Americans over the age of 65. That is why we are facing a potential financial crisis that is truly unfathomable. We need to prioritize our values and create a realistic budget and tax structure that will enable us to provide the services and social programs that we need, while also stressing the need for individuals to assume responsibility for their own lives and futures. We need a balanced perspective that will require difficult choices, but it can and should be done, for what is the alternative?

3. Health Care:

First, this nonsense about our health care crisis needs to be addressed. We have a health care crisis because we have a health crisis! People are obese, smoke, don't exercise and wonder why we are in a crisis. When was the last time a politician had the guts to address the real issue? They talk about the care crisis but not the health crisis. People need to change their habits or no health care system is going to help them. That's the bottom line. Having said that, let's look at the facts: 47 million Americans do not have health insurance. One-third of them make over $50,000 a year, 7.3 million have family incomes over $75K, and 25% are 25-34 years old. The fact is some people simply do not want to purchase health care, perhaps because the cost is so high: The average annual cost for insurance is $4,479 for an individual and $12,106 for a family. $41.4 billion in health care was provided last year but not paid for, mainly because free-riders went to emergency rooms without insurance etc. federal law requires that people are treated at emergency rooms(NY Times 2-23-08)
There are several potential solutions:
1. Do nothing. People who have good jobs will have health care, those who don't are on their own.
The uninsured go to emergency rooms
2. Add a tax on all income(like the Social Security deduction) and force people to buy into the system to cover everyone. People do not have a choice whether to pay into the system.
3. Force people to buy insurance on their own and fine them if they do not. Massachusetts has a variation of this type of plan. They require individuals with incomes of over $31,200 and families with income of over $63,600 to purchase insurance. Otherwise, they face fines that started at $219 but will rise to as much as $912.

My plan would be to offer significant tax breaks to companies that provide health care for their employees and offer a government-run program at a reasonable, subsidized rates for lower income Americans to have health care that transcends emergency room services. People could sign up for a payroll deduction that would enable them to receive a health care card that would be accepted by doctors and hospitals. Basically, a government run HMO, not too different than Medicare, only all Americans who need it would be covered if they choose to enroll. I would not force anyone to enroll, and people who chose not to and decided to be "free riders" would face the same type of credit issues that people who do not pay their mortgages face. They would receive emergency care in all cases, of course, but their failure to pay for the services will result in a significant credit penalty. This incentive will lead most people who can afford insurance to either purchase it on their own or sign up for the government program . People who have insurance on their own or through their jobs would not be affected except for the fact that their premiums will probably decrease because there are fewer free riders. A 2005 study found that hospitals and doctors raise their fees so much to compensate for the losses from uninsured patients that it adds 8.5% to the cost of the average premium(NY Times 2-23-08).

4. Immigration
The idea of deporting 12 million illegal immigrants is ridiculous, so what can we do? First, we need to seal the border, not simply talk tough. Republicans have long opposed this because of the pressure from big business for a constant supply of cheap labor, but since this has become such a polarizing issue, it's time to look for solutions.
1. People who are here illegally need to have the opportunity to step forward without the fear of deportation, perhaps leaving their legal immigrant children behind. They should be given the chance to apply for citizenship, paying a fine that is double the cost of becoming a legal citizen, and they should have to go to the back of the line in terms of the timeline for achieving legal status. In addition, all immigrants need to learn English and show a willingness to participate in this society. Mandatory military service for immigrants will help filter out individuals who are motivated to come here simply to get paid and not to help build the country.
2. All illegal immigrants who commit felony crimes or have criminal records need to be deported immediately. We have serious crime problems as it is and cannot justify spending millions on illegal criminals. This is a simple process.
3. Drivers licenses, college financial aid, and government IDs should NOT be issued to illegal immigrants. Once they are identified they should be given the humane options of following the steps outlined in #1 or leaving the country. I encourage people to look at the policies some of our allies have. Try to get into Mexico through their southern border and see how tight their security is; they do not want anyone coming into the country from Central America, yet they talk about American discrimination. There is nothing wrong with a country closely monitoring who comes in and out of the country. 9-11 was the result of legal immigrants who should not have been here in the first place. We should not allow anyone into this country who may reflect the views of regimes who want to attack us. This is common sense stuff. If people come here and initiate radical anti-American groups, they should be deported immediately. Otherwise, this country will face the type of destruction from within that is currently spreading throughout Europe. Who needs it? This country is plenty diverse as it is and needs to take steps to increase the number of productive, taxpaying citizens who will help us expand our technological and economic edge in a world economy.

5. Education
Education needs to be funded at a rate that will enable us to compete with the rest of the world. The public education system needs equity, as some schools are funded and others are in a state that resembles a third world country. I personally have taught in schools with window fans in 105 degree heat and 6 buckets to catch water from leaking roofs during the winter. Kids who are not really interested in school are still perceptive; they can see what we think of them by the schools we give them. The message is clear: You're poor so you don't count. That's the reality of many schools in poor areas, and it's a disgrace. Period. How are we going to increase our middle class without solid public schools? Notice this is not about paying teachers more; it's about basics: books, facilities, technology, qualified teachers and personnel. Many schools are hopelessly underfunded and kids pay the cost. Take California, which will be ranked 46 out of 50 states in per pupil spending after the current cuts(we are currently 43rd, $2000 below the national average, which is shameful in a state this wealthy). We like to think we're a progressive state but lurking below that nonsense is the shocking reality that we are really just the West Coast Mississippi.
A college education should be available to all students who qualify, regardless of their financial situation. We need to have a variety of loans and grants that will enable all students to attain a college education. Public service requirements can help some students, while simple low interest loans can help others, but the message has to be clear: If you earn high grades you will be able to attend college. That is a promise America needs to make to all high school students in order to provide real hope and a chance to increase our dismal high school and college graduation rates. If we can spend $15 billion in Iraq for nothing, we can certainly invest that much in the future of our own children in this country, children whose parents pay for these pathetic wars and foreign policy bribes to dictators and leaders who share none of our values. It's time to reassess our own values and budgetary priorities. An educated population is the reason we are not living in huts, and if this country wants to lead in the future we need to address this situation immediately, before the other advanced countries pass us by, as they have in so many other areas, such as health care.

6. Criminal Justice:
We need to increase the penalties for violent crimes and immediately release all inmates convicted of non-violent drug offenses from prisons and relocate them to less expensive programs. This number is up to 50% of some states' entire prison population! What a profound waste of money. We talk about the need to build more prisons, but it's all a big lie perpetuated by prison guard unions and right wing politicians. We have plenty of prison space; we simply are wasting it on individuals who could be better served in a different setting. Murderers get out in 7 years so we can keep the crack dealer in prison for 20. That does not reflect the values of most Americans, who want to be protected from robbery, rape, murder etc., not necessarily from drug dealers, who can be treated in much less expensive facilities than state and federal prisons. Let's put those individuals into work camps, halfway houses, and electronic monitoring and save prison space, which costs as much as a Harvard education, for people who really need to be in prison, not just punished. If we make these changes we can keep violent criminals in prison for their entire terms, which would have a serious impact on recidivism and incarceration rates. People would think twice before committing an armed robbery if they knew for certain they were going to do 20 years in prison, not 1 or 2 and then probation. That's not the case now. We have a revolving door system because of the failed war on drugs. We need to protect people from each other, not regulate what they do to themselves. If someone drinks or smokes pot on his couch, that should not be a crime. If he gets in a car and drives, that should. This is common sense, so let's introduce some sanity into the system.

7. Energy Policy
Global warming is almost certainly a reality, but my position is that it's irrelevant, for what bad can result from recycling and creating fewer greenhouse emissions and other pollution? Really, what is the downside of creating a cleaner, better environment for our children? Again, common sense goes a long way. We need to develop cleaner burning fuels because the world's supply of oil is finite, and as countries with over a billion people (China, India) begin to develop their economies, the demand for oil will increase exponentially until it is gone. Wars have and will continue to be fought over oil because our entire economy is oil dependent. We need to begin addressing that now, since Bush ignored the chance to do so after 9-11 because he was born in bed with the oil companies and has never left their side.
The obvious alternatives are wind, solar, electricity, and nuclear, although there will certainly be new sources of energy to emerge as they become economically viable. Capitalism will demand that we diversify our choices, but government needs to take the lead, not follow the oil companies' demands, as Bush has. Change in this area can be accomplished if it is undertaken in a public manner that allows conversion time and tangible results for consumers. This is an area where leadership is essential, for most Americans really do care about the environment, but they are not extremists and are reasonably suspicious of much of the current science simply because they perceive the alternatives as inconveniences. If and when gasoline goes up to $10 a gallon they will come around, and perhaps that is what it will take.

8. Abortion
Theologians, scientists, philosophers, lawyers, and of course, the least qualified--politicians-- have debated the question of when life begins for centuries, so I have no intention of looking like a fool by trying to make the definitive statement on such a divisive issue; however, as it relates to public policy, reasonable laws need to be enacted.
First, religion has no place in the development of laws. I fully support an individual's right to practice any faith and live his or her life in a way that reflects a specific set of beliefs, but in no way should those beliefs be foisted upon the rest of us. Religion has a place in society and has made many people's lives better. I fully understand that, but religious differences are the core issue in most of the current conflicts on this planet, and not too many Americans want to live in the types of repressive theocracies we see in the Middle East.
We are generally a tolerant people and make laws that protect the rights of all individuals. Laws should reflect values that are accepted by the overwhelming majority of a country's citizens. Abortion is an issue that has no common consensus and that is why a person who kills a woman who is seven months pregnant will be charged with two murders but would most likely not be charged with two if the woman were seven weeks pregnant. There is a strong sense of ambivalence in a legal sense. No one is really comfortable establishing a legal definition of when life begins. We know that potential life begins at conception but we certainly would not charge a woman with murder if she drank alcohol or did some other reckless activity and caused a miscarriage when she was 4 weeeks pregnant and unaware of the fact. Is that a case of manslaughter? I think not. However, a woman who is eight months pregnant would receive much more scrutiny and perhaps even criminal charges. Why is that? Because people simply do not know when life begins, but they do know that the 4 week tiny cluster of cells is nowhere near the same thing as a viable 35 week fetus. That is common sense for all but the most ignorant of our citizens.
Abortion is not something that anyone should take comfort in, and in no way should it be some type of default birth control for people who refuse to use birth control for whatever reason. I understand people's opposition to abortion, and I respect their views if they are consistent: These people who say it's OK in this case and that case(rape, incest etc.) are hopelessly ignorant, for if you feel that abortion is truly killing an unborn child, you would have to be against it in ALL cases. Period. We do not murder the children of rapists or molesters in this country, nor do we kill a child because it poses a threat to the life of its mother. The unborn child did not commit a crime. That's not how our justice system works, so if one truly opposes all abortions, I respect that position, though I disagree with it, but once someone starts talking about exceptions he or she simply highlights his or her hypocrisy and ignorance.

My position is a simple one: Abortion should be legal and without restrictions for all women over 18 years old through the first trimester(12 weeks). Most abortions, thankfully, take place well before the 12th week, but after the 12th week abortion should be illegal unless a doctor deems it necessary because of the mother's health or the viability of the fetus. Children under 18 must have the consent of a parent or guardian.

9. Death Penalty

Again, religious arguments have no place in this discussion: I have heard plenty of the dueling "eye for an eye" and "thou shalt not kill" crowd to last a lifetime. In essence and theory, I support the death penalty. However, I cannot support it in its current form, where in recent history every person on Death Row in California was poor enough to qualify for a court-appointed lawyer. America cannot have a justice system that is so blatantly biased against the poor, who not coincidentally, are often minorities. The death penalty either needs to be given to all individuals who are convicted of first degree murder or no one at all. I fully support the execution of murderers as long as there is an adequate multi-stage appeals process and the penalty is imposed on rich and poor alike. I do not foresee that happening any time soon, so I support the current moratorium on executions until these issues are examined and resolved.

I know that there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the death penalty is not a deterrent to crime, and I fully understand that most murders are crimes of passion committed by someone who knows the victim. However, the fact remains that some crimes are so atrocious that the person does not deserve to live out his life at taxpayers' expense. Individuals who rape and kill little girls, serial killers, criminals who kill in the commission of robberies, gang murders, premeditated murders--these individuals have no valid reason to continue living. They need to be executed, as they offer nothing in the way of value to our society. I'm no bleeding heart who feels that everyone has something valuable to offer society. I had a machine gun held to the back of my head during a robbery and had one of my students arrested for first degree murder during one of my lectures. Perhaps everyone does have something to offer, but sometimes individuals make the decsion to throw away the "better angels of their nature" and embrace the base animalistic instincts that characterize the human condition, so while I value justice for everyone above all else, part of that responsibility is imposing just sentences that match the crimes, and occasionally the only possible sentence that comes anywhere near matching the severity of the crime is for the criminal to lose his life--usually in a much more humane way than his victim left this world.

10. Science and Technology

America needs to remain on the cutting edge of technological and scientific developments, as this is the foundation of an advanced, progressive society. We need to embrace science as a means by which we can confront health issues and help the rest of the world. As we have started to do in Africa, we can lead the world in helping poor countries develop vaccines and treatments for AIDS and other deadly diseases. We need to aggressively expand funding for a myriad of scientific endeavors in all areas, from energy and medical to advanced computer programs. We need to encourage children in this country to commit to a rigorous science education, and we need to back it up by provding schools and universities with the same types of resources the Department of Defense receives. We need to draw the line between superstition and science and fund innovative ideas such as stem cell research. Scientists have been attacked for centuries, some even murdered for suggesting ideas that all but the most ignorant now accept as fact. Are we a society that is content to believe that thunder is a reflection of God's anger and that evolution is just a "theory"? Will we also begin rejecting gravitational "theory" or the germ theory of disease? Let's hope not. Let's continue the traditions of inquiry that have made this country the great place that most of us know and love, and let's develop 21st century generations that boldly move us into the future through the process of investigation, trial and error, that is the foundation of science and the core of technological advancements. Let's dare to dream big, and more importantly, let's do the hard work that will enable us to continue to develop our scientific imaginations and intellectual foundation so that we can continue to discover more about this miracle that we call life. As Einstein said, "Imagination is more important than knowledge," so let's tap that great potential of the human mind and move bravely and confidently in the directions of our dreams.

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