Thursday, April 7, 2011

God Save the President?

The British system of government distinguishes between a Head of State and a Head of Government. The Queen is the Head of State and as such, she presides at State banquets, receives foreign dignitaries, and officiates at ribbon cutting ceremonies, generally smiles, and waves at the masses. The Prime Minister is the Head of Government and as such sets budget priorities, decides foreign policy, directs the Armed Forces and leads Great Britain on a practical level. The Prime Minister has to role his/her sleeves up and does the dirty work of politics, the dirty work of governing. Unlike the Queen, who is above all that and simply presides graciously and serenely as a paternal/neutral mascot.

In the United States of America, the President is BOTH the Head of State and the Head of Government, at least until Barack Obama assumed the office of President. Take the current budget crisis that threatens to shut down the federal government for example. Democrats on Capitol Hill are frustrated that the President only became directly involved in budget negotiations this week. Democratic members of Congress feel that he needed to be in the fight a few weeks ago.

All of this is déjà vu with Obama; remember the Health Care Public Option fight? In his State of the Union address before both houses of Congress, Obama gave away “Single Payor” even before the battle for Universal Health Care began. Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had to do the dirty and hard work of governing, i.e. pushing the legislation forward. Only at the last-minute after the idea of a Public Option had been scraped and even modest Health Insurance Reform seemed doomed, did Obama deign to become directly involved and get his hands dirty.

The same can be said of DADT, ENDA and now DOMA. ENDA could have been passed and become the law of the land by the 111th Congress, if Obama had pushed for it. DADT could have been repealed last summer, if Obama had pushed for it. Instead, his subordinate, Secretary of Defense Gates argued before the Senate Armed Services Committee to postpone repeal until another redundant report on repeal was issued on 1 December 2010. Conveniently, that report would come out one month after Mid-Term Elections in November. DOMA was declared unconstitutional by Judge Virginia Phillips, yet Obama (until very recently) directed his subordinates at the Department of Justice to fight to defend DOMA in the courts. Obama would prefer to appear for a cameo shot at a signing ceremony after all the “politicians” have hammered out a “done deal,” a deal that is politically popular in the polls and “safe.”

Compare/contrast with how Republicans govern when they control the Presidency, e.g. “W” and the invasion of Iraq, Gitmo, the Patriot Act, etc. After his Election in 2004 “W” famously said, “I have political capital and I intend to use it.” Obama prefers to remain serenely above it all, the great reasonable compromiser who will listen to both sides and negotiate a “reasonable settlement” acceptable to both parties.

Obama is, like Queen Elizabeth II, an outstanding Head of State. He delivers inspirational and moving speeches. He possesses a commanding public presence that projects confidence, strength and poise. He, like a young Elizabeth II, is attractive and, like the present day Elizabeth II, is dignified. Like the Queen, Obama fills the room and fills hearts with hope in the face of adversity.

The problem for both Obama and for the Americans that voted for him is that in the United States, being the Head of State is only half the job. On a practical level, it seems that in the 2012 Election Americans will have a choice between a Centrist Republican and a Right-wing Republican for President. Now, who benefits from such a voter choice?

The real winners, yet again, will be the Corporations that fund (bribe) politicians. These Corporations view social issues as an entertaining distraction meant to draw voter attention away from the need for an effective energy policy, finance reform, universal health care and a foreign/military policy that represents the interests of the American people and not of Multi-national Corporations.


Joe said...

Even though I voted for Obama (both in my state primary & in the general election), I had a feeling he'd be just another corporate-loving Dem (a la Bill Clinton). The people he appointed to his economic/financial team (Larry Summers, Timothy Geithner, etc.) just confirmed my suspicions. They are the guys who had a hand in getting us into this BIG financial MESS in the first place.

People are fooling themselves if they believe that the Dems are the Party of the People. A minority of them are, but most have succumbed to money from both corporate & ultra-wealthy donors, either as much or nearly as much as the Republicans.

The SCOTUS decision in Citizens United was the final nail in the coffin. Our democracy is doomed. We are ruled by corporations (even though "multinational," they're really American corps with "subsidiaries" in foreign countries in order to avoid paying taxes) & by the uber wealthy who are so consumed by greed that they'd destroy the middle class (let alone the poor) to accumulate even more wealth. Alas, the people have the numbers (i.e., votes) to change how things are, but the majority are either too stupid or ignorant to realize what is happening. The "mainstream media" has been no help, but in the age of the internet, there are no excuses for the continuing dumbing down of America.

Father Geoff said...

Dear Joe,

Sadly, your statements are correct. That begs the question, “What can I do?” Benjamin Franklin, when asked what form of government had been established in America, famously said, “A Republic, for as long as you can keep it.”

Corporations may not take away our vote/power unless we give it to them. In his book, “The Secret History of the American Empire” John Perkins offers the following advice on page319-320:

“Thank God our forefather back in the 1770’s didn’t say ‘Oh, the King of England? He’s too powerful…I can’t do anything about him.’”

“We honor their generosity, their willingness to make sacrifices. We too must be courageous. And generous [and make personal sacrifices].”

“Individuals make a difference. I know it is easy to forget the corporatocracy spends billions every year trying to convince us that we do not make a difference, except when we buy Product A or Brand B. But we all understand that people impact people.”

Each of us needs to become better informed and to share what we know and learn with others. You are correct about the Internet; however, it is merely a tool, how we use it, or fail to use it will make of it either a tool for liberation, or merely a modern toy. Beyond the Internet, whatever our position is within society may also be used as a tool for liberation. If anyone else has suggestions, please share them.

Tal said...

Fr. Geoff, I think you've spoken honestly when you describe Obama as something of a wall flower, especially on issues that as a black man and constitutional law scholar, I would have thought essential to him and worth his political capital.

I must, however, confess that I am somewhat glad that much of his agenda has been stymied by his lack of energy. In the interests of full disclosure, I am a libertarian in principal, who believes in the importance of keeping government strictly within its express constitutional limits, and that means out of our homes and pay checks, unless and until such intervention is proven essential.

My reason is simple: when we trust government with our morals and the fruits of our labors, we empower it to dictate what shall be, to set the status quo, and to determine winners and losers. Inevitably, that result will attract those who wish to control outcomes to abuse the system for their own purposes. And that means those with the means to access government will monopolize it and develop themselves into an aristocratic class, as is happening in this country.

Is it any surprise that those vested interests who generally succeeded under Bush have continued to do so under Obama?

From GE to Haliburton, Bank of America to Goldman Sachs, these parties have used the political system to convert our wealth into their wealth, transformed into vast fortunes through stock options and other exemptions provided under law (and which arose in the first instance through a misguided effort to limit direct forms of compensation to corporate executives).

I want to be clear: I am not anti-government. In fact, I believe that an organized and stable system of government is essential to our freedoms. Nor am I against the government exercising its authority in various areas, especially in preventing the formation of monopolies and anti-competitive behavior; setting estate taxes to prevent such accumulations of wealth as would be dangerous to our republican institutions and Constitution; prohibiting serious negative externalities; and, when appropriate, promoting positive externalities.

But I believe first and foremost in the essential and central importance of individual initiative and responsibility, and avoiding the unintended consequences and imbalances that result when government is resorted to as the means of taking and controlling.

I realize many on this blog (and perhaps even yourself) have serious disagreement with my point of view. But then I believe in the importance of debate and an exchange of ideas, which sadly is all too lacking in our now largely tribal system of governance.

Father Geoff said...

Dear Tal,

A professor lecturing in a course on Ancient History told our freshman class, “Since records have been kept, humanity has attempted to devise a form of government that will protect us from ourselves. To date, no such form of government has been devised.”

This is true, because anything that the human mind can devise, the human mind can defeat. Having been born in pre-revolutionary Cuba and had relatives tortured and killed both by Batista and Castro, I am no fan of dictatorships. I appreciate your apprehension regarding a too powerful government that can subjugate its citizens. A short read of twentieth century history illustrates several such horror stories. However, I do not believe that a dictatorial government is presently as probable in America as the sort of Robber-Baron Corporate hijacking of government that was stopped by President Theodore Roosevelt about one century ago.

Government does have as a legitimate and necessary function to protect citizens (and our form of democracy) from powerful wealthy interests that would undermine the Republic for the sake of unbridled greed. Sadly, history is also littered with many such examples. The recent ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in Citizens United reverses nearly a century of jurisprudence in America and constitutes a far greater and real threat to Jeffersonian Democracy than anything Obama could ever do.

Tal said...

Hi Fr. Geoff, thanks for responding!

I never meant to imply that dictatorship is this country's natural path. I believe the devolution of the Roman Republic offers a better model, when an aristocratic class utilizes government to accrue resources and power in violation of constitutional norms.

With an acute understanding of the failure of the Roman Republic, our Founders devised a system that prohibited government from over-concentrating power in any one class or constituency (thus division of powers and our federal system), the idea being that such an approach would stymie efforts to use the government and public resources to promote private success to the detriment of the body politic.

The first blow to the Founder's system was the formation of political parties, which provided an extra-constitutional method of achieving a level of concentrated power and influence that the Constitution had sought to prohibit. (Thus your history professor's observation.)

As to the current troubles, I think "greed" proffers too limited an analytical model. Rather, I suggest that the problems we presently confront arise naturally when the government becomes the means of selecting winners and losers (as opposed to private initiative and action in the marketplace), because then the government forces everyone to vie for government patronage.

Consider, for example, what happened after Senator Hatch (R-Utah), decided in 1998 to use the Senate as an opportunity to advantage Netscape, a Utah company, major backer, against Microsoft. Microsoft had essentially stayed out of politics until that date. But Netscape, which was feeling the competitive pinch, used its political connections to threaten Microsoft's very corporate existence. ( Microsoft learned its lesson and began buying political allies and influence, an undesirable result.

Thomas Paine aptly noted "That government which governs least governs best." That concept, replete throughout the limited powers afforded government under the Constitution, has promoted a great and unique society. Thus, I am wary of great government initiatives. Inevitably, such initiatives attract those who would influence them to their ends, increasingly because they must. And we, the 'benefited class,' naturally yield to those interests when we accept the benefit. (See, e.g., Medicare Part D.) In so doing, we give up our independence as individuals, both politically and economically, which will lead, in time, to stagnation and failure. (See, Roman Empire).

Tal said...

I also want to respond to your observations on the Citizens United case. I believe that case presents a difficult issue.

The question is whether McCain-Feingold's prohibition on any corporate entity, for-profit and non-profit (including Unions), from making any electioneering-communication within 60 days of a general election was in violation of the First Amendment. The First Amendment provides, in pertinent part, that "Congress shall make no law [...] abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." Those rights, of course, become most acute during election season, because political speech is accorded, for good reason, the highest form of protection.

The rights of speech, assembly and petition, can legitimately be accomplished (and often most effectively) through the formation of corporate entities. That being the case, and given the absolute right of citizens to form any particular combination they may think fit to accomplish their purposes, the law quite rightly prescribes that any government intrusion upon these rights must be subjected to strict scrutiny, the highest level of scrutiny possible under law.

Simply put, I agree with the majority that the absolute 60 day blanket prohibition on all political free speech and action as mandated by McCain-Feingold was not the most limited and careful means to obtain its objective.

Does this decision create troubling questions about, for example, GE or Bank of America indirectly funding political movements. Yes, and there the dissent had a good point. But that was not the question presented, and as Justice Kennedy correctly noted, the 60 day prohibition could conceivably have been applied to newspapers, blogs and other "media" which fell within the over-broad definitions supplied by McCain-Fiengold.

Congress is free to try again on deriving a more careful and limited enactment. But I think we should all be wary of supporting legislation that, while promoting a desirable objective, employs unconstitutional and even dangerous means to obtain that objective, which will ultimately prove injurious to our freedoms and rights.

Joe said...

Dear Father Geoff,

Speaking from personal experience, it is difficult, if not impossible, to educate many about what is happening to our country. I was in a Toastmasters club. After hearing one member rail against socialism, despite the fact that she & her husband were in the military (arguably the most socialist institution we have in the U.S.) & thus received the benefits that go with military service (free room, board, healthcare, etc.), I gave a speech about what a boogeyman socialism had become, how it was misunderstood (there is no one type of socialism), & examples of socialism in our own nation. I also gave a speech about the increasing imbalance in the distribution of wealth in the U.S., the reasons for our economy tanking (bad deeds of the banking industry, corporations sending jobs oversees, etc.), & the way the powerful have covered up the big scam by pitting groups against each other (i.e., encouraging hatred of LGBT people, Muslims, illegal immigrants). And after hearing another member saying how bad an idea it was to allow same-sex couples to marry, I gave a speech about the trials & tribulations of gay people.

However, I don't think I had the least bit of positive effect on these people. The lies perpetrated by the "mainstream media" and, unfortunately, from church pulpits, is too difficult to overcome. Ignorance is too formidable a foe.

Renshaw said...


I understand what you are saying, but I have to take some umbrage with regards your remarks about Queen Elizabeth II. She is hardly a mascot.

The monarch of the United Kingdom reigns but does not rule as in the medieval sense. The unwritten constitution calls the monarch to a very specific role: to advise, to give consent and to warn. Her Majesty, the Queen, has met with her Prime Ministers who act on her behalf in forming the governments, since she assumed her throne. Her first Prime Minister was Winston Churchill. Every man and woman who has succeeded him has remarked that her advice, her experience, her knowledge of world affairs, her nation, the Commonwealth, etc. were/are invaluable to them as they worked. Many of the other government officials who have worked with her in the past have made similar remarks.

The monarch rises above politics and, is therefore, beholden to no one. She is not controlled by any party, corporation or individual. Some political scientists have remarked that she represents the people to the government more, sometimes, than the members of parliament who can get caught up by the political process.

No law becomes law without her signature. And while she has never refused to sign a passed bill - she has, from time to time, requested that a bill be considered for more time and possibly reworked. This is a most sensible, nay civilized, method of working out complex laws.

It irks me when the Queen is reduced to something laughable. We Americans need to do our homework before making comment on that monarchy. We chose not to have one, a most democratic thing to do. But the people of England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, et. al. have chosen to retain her as Head of State and Sovereign.

I don't mean to go so off topic, but we can criticize our own president without having to demean another country's monarch! In other words, we don't raise ourselves by demeaning others. This is a lesson that homosexual individuals know too well!

Father Geoff said...

Dear Renshaw,

I believe that it was George Bernard Shaw who wrote, “England is a Democracy masquerading as a Monarchy, and America is a Monarchy masquerading as a Democracy.” Simply watch CSPAN’s live coverage of the House of Commons and then, watch CSPAN’s live coverage of Congress and you will instantly appreciate the wisdom and truth of Shaw’s statement. Honestly, I think we might be better served by a Parliamentary single house system.

As to the role of the monarch in the English system, the present day form of monarchy would be horrifying and unrecognizable to Queen Elizabeth I, or King Charles II. My use of the term “mascot” would probably be understood as an understatement by either of those previous monarchs. I intended it, not to demean Queen Elizabeth II, but as a hyperbole to underscore the missing piece of “head of government” in the present Presidential administration.

It is my heartfelt hope that President Obama is able to translate into law and public policy all of the “hope and change” that Candidate Obama so eloquently expressed. I do not say this in a derogatory manner, but sincerely hope (for us all) that he can incarnate the “Hope” that was his campaign slogan and was the reason that so many of us voted for him in 2008.