Big Government: Myths and Realities

In this season of republican primaries there has been a lot of talk going on about how big government is strangling our economy. At the same time we are being told that the democrats are hell-bent on turning the U.S. into a european style socialist/welfare state. It is alleged that innovation and creativity is being stifled by the big government. The republican rhetoric, backed as it is by guns and bible, is rather loud and obnoxious. But that is no excuse to not look at the issue provided we do so with a dose of logic and reason thrown into the mix. Humbly I ask you to lend me you ear (or should it be eyes) and I promise to reveal you the real truth and shed some misconceptions along the way.

All right so the republicans would have us believe that the real cause of our current economic struggles is big government, over-regulation and over-spending being two main facets. It is a clever strategy to employ. Most people in U.S. are habitually suspicious of big government. It is a land of immigrants, most of whom came here to be free. Republicans know how to play on that emotion. Let us look at the issue of regulation first. I am sure there are some government agencies and laws that only have a nuisance value and need to be reformed. We have all encountered government bureaucracy at some point and it is a frustrating experience (DMV anyone?). In fact, government is synonymous with inefficiency. We naturally respond positively to the notion of trimming down the government.

 Be that as it may, we are fortunately not living the Kafkaesque nightmare of forms filled in triplicate to get even a simple task done. You would think that the talk of reining in big government would center around eliminating inefficiencies. Alas, the emphasis is on mindless de-regulation, ostensibly to help businesses. We are already being told to forget that the financial crisis was triggered by a lack of regulation, not because of over-regulation. Environmental regulation is another favorite topic in the regulatory saga; EPA is constantly derided by the republicans. Give me a break, do you know what happens when we do not force businesses to care for the environment. We only need to look at India and China to see the results of that policy. The irony is that the republican majority in the house has been primarily responsible for the inefficient government we have had to contend with for last year or so. It takes months for this current congress to pass legislation that could help the economy. Inaction due to bull-headed ideology trumping practicality passes off as reining in government I suppose. Their stance on social issues is even more hypocritical. Apparently more regulation is better when it comes to gay rights and women’s rights. So yeah, we cannot have people marrying who they want and women cannot have control of their own bodies but businesses can pretty much do anything.

Similarly muddled thinking is prevalent on the topic of taxation and spending. There obviously has to be a balance between the two. From republicans’ standpoint social safety net programs — unemployment, social security, Medicare and Medicaid, are the root of all evil. I will grant that we need to reform these programs. For example, increasing retirement age is something that has to happen, we are living longer on average. But these programs are not to blame for all our budgetary problems. We cannot forget that the two expensive wars, one somewhat justified and one completely unnecessary, we fought in the last decade contributed significantly to our current predicament. Any talk about cutting government spending must include cuts in defense spending in addition to cuts in government spending on social programs.

But I suppose it is too much to ask for lucid and rational thinking from present-day republican leaders. They are too busy chanting slogans given to them by the tea-party faithful. Mitt Romney is the only semi-decent candidate in their ranks and they are desperate to find an alternative to him. They have bought into their own spin to the point that the myth of big government is the only reality they can see. It will all end in tears.

War in Iraq: Folly of Nation Building

President Obama recently announced the official end of war in Iraq, ten years after we invaded Iraq presumably to find WMDs. It is well established now that we acted on wrong information. Moreover, our actions were quite unilateral and even if Iraq had WMDs there was no sign of that country’s involvement in 9/11. Regardless of the lack of justifications for the war we did “liberate” the Iraqi people from Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. We also participated in another recently concluded battle, which ended with Gaddafi’s death in Libya. If you recall Libya did not occupy our collective national consciousness in the same way as Iraq did and will continue to do, mostly because the engagement in Libya was almost “cost-free”. There were two reasons for this. First, we did not act unilaterally in Libya but as part of a broader NATO coalition. Second reason is, and this may be more important, that the NATO forces were actually aiding a popular Libyan uprising against Gaddafi. Iraq war was unpopular both here and in Iraq. Libyan uprising barely registered here and was obviously popular in Libya. Cost of war both in terms of money and human lives was unpalatable to both sides in the case of Iraq, not so with Libya. 

Libyans were very thankful for the help received from NATO. Iraqis on the other hand, happy though they were with Saddam’s capitulation, expressed gratitude grudgingly if at all. The reason is that people anywhere in the world do not like an occupational force no matter how noble and lofty the said force’s aims are. So while the US forces viewed themselves as liberators they were necessarily seen as oppressors by Iraqis. I grant that the Iraq situation was confounded by other political factors (oil, balancing Iraq against Iran, why did we not get rid of Saddam during the original gulf war) and was not a simple case of us overthrowing a dictator. But let us for a moment put aside the cynicism of politics and assume that we actually have a noble aim, untainted by any ulterior motives, of nation building based on democratic ideals. Does that give us the right to attack a country and impose our political/cultural beliefs and values? Are we entitled to tell them we know what’s best for you, you will only thank us later? More importantly, is this approach going to be successful? To answer all these questions we need to view a society as a collection of individual human beings and treat the society as a “super” individual.

One of the more basic truths about human nature is that we do not like unsolicited advice, no matter how beneficial, nor do we appreciate forceful attempts to change our behavior, irrespective of good intentions. Any true change in an individual needs to come from inside. Same holds true for a society. The spark and desire for democracy must start with-in for it to be sustainable. If a country is not ready for democracy no amount of external intervention will help. No wonder we had to stay in Iraq for so long and even after all the effort I am not sure what we have achieved. Imposing our way of life on people who are not receptive to our ideas is never going to work. All we can do is make sure that people everywhere get to see our way of life (in this hyper-connected information age it is going to happen anyway); we have to let them decide on their own that only true democratic ideals form the basis of a thriving society. As a parting gift, I recommend this movie, Manderlay, which highlights the pitfalls in assuming that everyone wants our way of life.

Two deaths and the occupy movement

Two players in world politics died recently: Vaclav Havel, the ex-Czech president and Kim Jong-il, the North Korean despot. Vaclav Havel was a remarkable man who was in the main responsible for ushering in “the velvet revolution”, so-called due to its smooth and bloodless nature, thereby ending communist rule in what was then Czechoslovakia. Havel was one of very few artists to have become the head of state in any country. Given our penchant for the dramatic it makes sense that he is the least known of the two figures. Kim Jong-il on the other hand is rather well-known. He inherited his country’s rule from his equally despotic father and had been single-handedly responsibly for inflicting untold horrors on the people of North Korea. We should be glad that he is dead but his son is ready to occupy the vacuum left behind and continue the politics of oppression. 

You must be wondering why am I essentially repeating what everyone has already read or heard through various news media. The reason as always is that the two events got me thinking about various forms of governments that have been tried throughout our civilized history. These two figures in their own completely different ways did a lot to prove that democracy is the only viable alternative, however imperfect it might be. Any form of government that does not grant full freedom of speech and the right to organize is not a true democracy. Just for that reason alone we should celebrate the occupy movement. You can argue for and against the motives and debate if it was done right ad nauseam but you cannot doubt its legitimacy. It was just a group of people frustrated at feeling left out of the democratic process who were simply asserting the power of the people, which is the very essence of democracy. I will attempt to describe the circumstances leading up to the occupy movement and the varied reactions it provoked. See what you make of it.

Money is power, it always has been so, and it is never going to be equally distributed. The role of the government is to ensure that the weakest members of the society (disabled, elderly, children, mentally ill etc.) are taken care of and that everybody has access to basic necessities such as food and shelter and also to make sure that a system exists in which anyone can get ahead if they try hard enough. Of course government pays for all that thru taxation and it must be so. But it does not mean that we start taking money from the rich and start handing it out to the poor. Anytime we talk about redistribution of wealth we start to inch closer to communism and history shows that it does not work. It kills all individual incentive and breeds a dead society. We are all responsible for our own fortunes in the end and if we start to have a victim mentality that the government needs to take care of us we can kiss good-bye to a thriving society. I don’t mean to sound all self-righteous and preachy on this one but it is an important point that needs to be made. There are far too many people in the country who feel a sense of entitlement and it is because of them that the occupy movement had its fair share of detractors. There is no smoke without fire however and there were legitimate reasons behind the whole movement.

The unfortunate reality of the current state of affairs is that the free market capitalism in this country is degenerating into a deviant form of capitalism that carries with it no risk of failure. The one basic tenet of free market capitalism is that everything is driven by forces of supply and demand, which in turn dictates the profits and losses of any enterprise. Now this system has broken down big time in the nebulous world of financial industry aka wall street. What has transpired there in last few years is nothing short of outrageous. The big banks made risky bets with public money, lost their bets of course and still came out smiling at the end of it all. They had become too big to fail and had to be saved with public money again. It’s as if their actions had no punitive consequences for themselves, only for everybody else. Isn’t this a sweet set-up? In effect the general public provided the big banks with an insurance policy that the banks did not have to pay for. It was a win-win situation for the banks: if their bets panned out they stood to make enormous profits and if they failed their bets were protected anyway. Last time I checked this is completely antithetical to the basic ethos of capitalism; risk must come with its own rewards and failures. Any tampering with those basics necessarily violates the essence of capitalism. I am not saying that the bail-out for the banks was not needed. Of course it was needed, the consequences for the economy would have been catastrophic. But what is also needed is more regulation of the financial industry so as to not let the situation worsen to a point where the whole country is held hostage to the banks’ fortunes. The financial industry as a whole has become far too powerful because of what it specializes in: Money. We need to act to correct the balance of power (driven by money) that has become concentrated in too few hands. Our democracy is threatening to turn into an Oligarchy and the occupy movement was our democracy’s cry for help. And that’s what it was all about.