Monday, August 1, 2016

Presidential Races: Who Do I Really Want to Be?

I've written recently about why I hate watching politics in Presidential election years. Now that we've gotten past both major party conventions, I expect things to get worse, not better. Choosing a President every four years brings out the worst in us.

I won't make comparisons to past years, or suggest that this is getting worse over time, because I really don't know. I have a general gut sense that every election cycle is worse than the one before it, but I can't tell if that's really true or not. I don't trust my memory of past elections, because I know I will remember the parts that fit the narrative I want to tell. So I'll leave it to someone else to see if there's a trend line here.

As I've been assiduously avoiding the conventions, I've been trying to figure out what it is about this whole mess that bothers me so much. I think I may have stumbled on an answer. I'll probably come up with a better one in future years, but this is the best I have right now.

Let me start with a basic premise: the experiences we undergo, the things we invite into our lives, the streams of information and conversation we pay attention to, all have a tendency to take us either closer to or further away from our "best selves". I know this concept has been cliched and corporatized, even mocked Stuart Smalley-style, but the basic idea is there. We all have, to borrow Lincoln's phrase, "better angels of our nature". We also have demons. Nearly every culture across human history has some way of expressing this basic truth, whether it's through Yin and Yang, or Paul's struggle against himself ("I do the things I don't want to do"), or the Tao, or the inner Jihad of Mohammed.

So let me begin from this point: the things I do, the choices I make, the conversations I have, should push me towards being a better person rather than a worse one. If I'm lucky, those same conversations and choices will help those around me be better, too - not to become better people (certainly not to be more like me!) but to tend towards better versions of themselves.

What does a better version of me look like? This should not be a surprise. Virtue suggests we should talk less and listen more. We should be more sympathetic towards others, not less. The virtues of justice, patience, kindness, humility - these are not new inventions. In the words of the Colossians, we are to "seek the things that are above." (3:1)

Here I begin to see why this year's Presidential campaign is so difficult for me, and why I am avoiding it as much as possible. And since I'm talking out myself here, I'm going to frame this in the Christian tradition, which is the one I'm most familiar with and the one in which my faith lies.

In their letter to the Colossians, Paul and Timothy lay out what "seeking the things that are above" means:
But now you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. (3:8-9)
Or this from the Gospel of Luke:
 ‘But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. (6:27-28)
Does this sound like politics today?

These are not obscure, cherry-picked verses from odd corners of Scripture. They are, as almost all clergy will agree, at the heart of the Christian gospel. To reject these things is to reject Christ.

Both major candidates claim the mantle of Christianity, as do a great many of their followers, supporters, and staff. Yet anger, malice, slander, and abusive language are everywhere. No one wants to do good to those who hate them.

Trump stood in front of microphones the other day and claimed that he wanted to hit speakers who criticized him. How this man can claim to be a Christian I have no idea.

When someone stands in front of a microphone (whatever the color of their skin) and yells "All Lives Matter!", that's not meant as a philosophical statement. It's meant with anger and malice, which is why the crowd roared. It was not delivered in love, but in hate.

Political operatives will say, too bad - this is the way the world works, this is what it takes to win elections. I'm not an expert in political tactics, so I can't say whether that's true or not. What I can say is that, for me at least, the process of experiencing an election makes me a worse person. I would go so far as to say that it has that effect on a lot of people, perhaps on all of us. If that is true, then we are degrading ourselves as a people every four years (to say nothing of what happens in between), and doing so with great gusto and delight. It's not clear that there is any political outcome in the near term worth such degradation.

People will say, "this is necessary," but all that really means is, "I can't imagine it being any other way". Leadership does not have to be divisive, and we don't have to reward the loudest and angriest voices. What would a different kind of conversation look like? I recently came across this interview, which offered interesting insights:
Trump: Tribune of Poor White People
This is from a source and a point of view I wouldn't ordinarily listen to, or even hear of. It's not a perfect piece, but it's a good reminder that the "other" people out there are people who think of themselves as good, who are trying to make it as best they can in the world, and who need to be listened to and taken seriously - especially because they are poor. Most of Jesus' ministry was directed at the poor and the powerless; we should do no less.

This kind of cross-boundary dialogue is not typical. What I see instead are liberal friends insulting conservatives as morons, idiots, and racists, and conservative friends insulting liberals as traitors, liars, and thieves. I see everyone issuing existential threats about what terrible things will happen if "they" win - as if "they" were an alien invasion, not a fellow group of human beings. Elections are not opportunities for discussion or even debate, but simply shouting matches where we remind people on our side of all the great reasons we have to hate the people on the other side. As the subject of the interview linked above puts it, "The November election strikes me as little more than a referendum on whose tribe is bigger".

After the election, though, we all still need to live together. We aren't voting on whether to divide up like Slovakia and the Czech Republic, where we get to go our separate ways. If we want any of the things we claim to want - peace, prosperity, justice, life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness - we have to work together to secure these things. Yet our process of transitioning from one government to the next makes working together impossible. Small wonder that we're not getting what we want.

Conservatives: the answer to the brokenness of politics isn't "defeat all the Liberals".

Liberals: the answer to the brokenness of politics isn't "defeat all the Conservatives".

The only real answer to all conflicts is the hardest road. As Abraham Lincoln reminded us, the best way to destroy an enemy is to make him a friend. Or perhaps we should remember the words of Lao Tzu many centuries earlier:
When two great forces oppose each other,the victory will goto the one that knows how to yield. (Tao Te Ching, Ch. 69)
So there it is: I hate watching politics because the more of it I experience, the worse I become. I strongly suspect that is true of most of us. This is not to say that I can't make distinctions among candidates, or that when the time comes I won't cast my vote. But I can wait until November to do so. In the meantime, if I really want to make the world a better place there are so very many other things to do than pay attention to, much less engage with, the sewer that is our political process.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Trade and the Presidential Race

Much to the surprise of many policy wonks, international trade has emerged as a major issue in this year's Presidential campaign. The surprise comes partly because at this point, it's amazing that any issues can grab attention from the mud-fest that Presidential campaigns have become. But it's also surprising because for at least two generations there has been broad bipartisan consensus on trade policy. We argue over details, as we did during the Cold War, but in general we have understood the broad thrust of strategy: more and freer trade.

Donald Trump has broken that consensus by convincing a group of voters that their troubles (real, perceived, or some of both) are because leaders in Washington have been signing "bad deals" in international trade. "Free Trade", which used to stand beside mom and apple pie as inherently good things, is now used as an epithet. In short, trade has become a real political issue.

This is unfortunate, because both sides are at least partly wrong on this issue - although one is more wrong than the other.

Trump's position on trade is almost completely wrong. He frames international trade deals as zero-sum exercises in which one side always wins and the other side always loses. Apparently he slept through the classes at Wharton in which he would have learned that every economist going back to Ricardo and Adam Smith agrees that international trade increases wealth for both sides. Indeed, economic exchange - whether across or within borders - is how the human race has managed to create as much wealth as we have, which is a pretty impressive amount. If all economics were as Mr. Trump describes, we'd still be bartering with rocks and hunting our dinner daily with sharp sticks.

Moreover, government trade deals are not business deals - they create the conditions under which business deals are made, which is not the same thing. This is not to say that governments can't agree to bad terms - that's certainly possible. But it's relatively rare. And the overall effect of increased trade - backed up by every shred of international economic evidence we have - is that more trade increases wealth. Less trade means less wealth. This isn't debatable, and it doesn't get more true just because Mr. Trump gets louder and angrier when he says it.

What is true is that the benefits of that wealth can be unevenly spread - and this is where the "establishment" (Democrats plus what used to be the internationalist Republican party) drops the ball. All changes create differential effects - in Mr. Trump's terms, winners and losers. NAFTA may create more jobs net in the United States (most evidence says this is true), but that doesn't mean that some people in the US won't lose their jobs to competition in the neighboring countries - just as some Ohio jobs may get destroyed because we have "free trade" with Indiana and Alabama.

The consensus approach, the one championed by Bill Clinton when he pushed for a NAFTA negotiated by his Republican predecessor, was that government would step in and help those displaced by change. Put more bluntly, government's role would be to redistribute some of the wealth created by trade to make sure that those hurt by shifts in the economy could recover and get back to where they where, maybe even be better off. Clinton sold this as part of his "Bridge to the 21st Century" argument, and for the most part people bought it.

This is the piece missing, so far as I've heard to date, from Hillary Clinton's rhetoric. The internationalist establishment is right that trade creates more wealth. But they need to acknowledge that it also causes pain for some people, pain that needs to be mitigated by making sure that the benefits of the new wealth are shared around.

Over the last 20 years, freer trade has created vast amounts of wealth in the United States. Unfortunately, at the macro level that wealth has been concentrated in the hands of the few - largely, New York financiers, most of them well-known to Mr. Trump. As someone who claims to "understand the system," Mr. Trump should understand all of this. His rhetoric to date suggests that he doesn't.

Abandoning trade is not the answer - we will ALL be worse off for it, and Mr. Trump is not going to "bring jobs roaring back to America" by tearing up trade deals. Right now, the Clinton campaign doesn't have the whole answer either. Secretary Clinton needs to reach back into her husband's toolkit and bring back the "bridge". Because in the end, the election isn't about whether you're right or wrong in reality. It's about whether people think you can solve their problems.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Enemies in Politics

Below is the text of the invocation delivered yesterday at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, OH:

When I wrote yesterday that I generally hate Presidential election politics and wouldn't be watching the convention, this is exactly why. In the eyes of this pastor - and, one can infer, in the eyes of the Trump campaign, since they have issued no denunciation - the Democratic Party is the "enemy" which must be "defeated" in order to "unite" the country.

This is just shy of calling for a politico-religious holy war. Democrats can only be "defeated" in the sense that they may lose some elections. Whoever wins in November, there will still be tens of millions of Democrats in the United States. How do you propose to "unite" the country once you've declared them the "enemy"?

This is terrible, awful, horrible on so many levels. It's bad politics, it's bad theology, it's bad liturgy. That this man would be invited to give such an invocation, and that these words would not be immediately denounced by the party that invited him, is proof positive that, for the Republican Party as it now stands, politics is no longer about trying to make the country better. It is war, a war against their fellow Americans.

I still choose not to be afraid of a Trump Presidency. And I choose not to be afraid of this man and his words of division and hate, uttered in the name of God. But I am saddened beyond my ability to express that our public square, our most visible civic spaces, have become the playground for hatred, division, and strife. I imagine sometime in the next few days someone at the RNC will refer to Democrats as "cockroaches", and the imagery will be complete.

Wake me in December.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Why I Hate Election Politics

We are entering the thick of the Presidential election season, and I hate it. The Republican National Convention opens today in my state (thankfully, up at the other end), and I will not be glued to my TV set watching. I intend to watch as little as possible, and to read only such news coverage as is necessary to follow the basic outlines of what's going on. Unless the convention doesn't nominate the Trump/Pence ticket, and unless there is significant unrest outside the convention hall, none of the rest of it matters.

The reason why I come to this conclusion, and the reason why I hate watching electoral politics in the United States, is that we have abandoned all pretense that elections are actually about anything other than tribes. This is not a comment about the two candidates this year - we've been speeding down this road for some time. I will write separately about why I think the two presumptive nominees are actually different, but that's a topic for another day.

For now, what bothers me so much about the whole mess is the extent to which elections have become an exercise in emotion-driven identity politics. This is true for nearly all people and across pretty much all issues. We want very much to think that elections, and politics in general, are about ideas, about figuring out what's best for the country. But very little that has been said over the past year, and nothing that will be said from here on forward, is really about any of that.

What we're really engaged in is a collective effort at ego protection, wishful thinking, and massive cognitive distortion brought about by emotion-driven biases. I feel Paul Ryan's pain. The poor guy actually has some ideas and wants to have a conversation about them, but nobody else wants to join in - including and especially his party's own nominee. Most Democrats have long since written Ryan off as a stooge for nefarious Koch Brothers schemes, or as simply hopelessly ignorant.

The same can be said, in spades, of Republican responses to Hillary Clinton, all of which boil down to "she's a horrible, untrustworthy human being who is the worst person to ever walk the earth". She, too, has ideas she wants to talk about - goals and plans and policies that she thinks are important. Like Ryan, she's a policy wonk. But the race from here on out is about the theological question of whether she's a demon disguised as a human.

We want so very much to think that we're an Enlightenment society, that reason and argument and logic and evidence are what matter most. But in reality, we have left that past behind (if it ever existed), traded for a modern version of the Hatfields & the McCoys. People have pointed out, with some justification, that Trump is neither conservative nor Republican, and that Hillary (until seriously challenged by Bernie Sanders) wasn't much of a liberal Democrat either. Things are so scrambled up that nobody remembers what we're really fighting about anymore. And what does it matter, as long as my side wins?

Limited government? Sure, except for ongoing wars and regulating sexual politics. Oh, and more police and prisons. Immigration reform? People are all over the place. We're tying ourselves in knots over race relations. And everyone wants more and better jobs. Forget trying to have a reasonable discussion about climate change or GMOs.

When confronted with this, most of us will blame the other side. We, of course, are the reasonable, rational, sane people. It's those other idiots who are insane, stupid, or bent on America's destruction. If only they would be reasonable, everything would be fine. But since they won't, well we really can't have a dialogue, can we?

All of this is confirmation bias and wishful thinking, not just sprinkled on top but thoroughly baked into the entire cake. Yes, we have reasons for voting the way we do. But what we really don't want to face is that most of those "reasons" are rationalizations tacked on the back end. They are the monkey riding the tiger and claiming that it's steering.

All of this is painful to watch and painful to participate in. Yes, I have preferences, and I believe there  are differences of kind (not merely of degree) between the two presumptive candidates (more on that later). I also believe that process is usually more important than outcome, that they way in which we go about seeking solutions has a great deal of impact on the kind of solutions we get, and that the process we are currently using - the scorched-earth, your-side-are-all-traitorous-thugs approach - is making things worse, not better.

So although I study political conflict for a living, I'll not be watching much this week or next. Nor do I think that the effect of the conventions will be positive on the American body politic. I'll try to spend my time instead reminding myself that there are no Democrats and there are no Republicans - there are only people. Gonna be a tough few months for our humanity.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Who Is My Neighbor? We're Better Than We Think

With all of the difficult news of this past week (and, indeed, this past year), many are asking whether we are coming apart. There is so much anger, so much fear, so much hatred splashed across our headlines and televisions and newspapers every day. We feel more divided than ever. People are dying. And pain, it seems, is everywhere.

In the midst of this, I was witness this morning to a sign of how far, even in the midst of our brokenness, we have already come. I am attending a conference this week in Savannah, Georgia, in the very heart of the Old South. This is a part of the world that has seen much bloodshed and heartache, a place where the economy once ran on the backs of slaves, a place (like all places) with its own particular history of division and tribe and race.

In the midst of the city stands a church, Christ Episcopal Church. Founded in 1733, it bills itself as the "Mother Church of Georgia", being the first congregation of the Church of England founded in the Georgia colony. It may well be the oldest established congregation of Christian worship in the state. Its current building was built in the 1830s and then restored after a fire in the 1890s. John Wesley once served as its rector. It is a place steeped in history.

In that space on a bright, hot summer morning I saw black and white worship together. I listened as a white man, the very embodiment of the racial patriarchy that governed the clergy as well as other aspects of Southern society, preach about the Good Samaritan. He quoted the words of the current Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church - a black man - reminding us that God is a God of compassion for all, and "all means ALL".

I then witnessed as a black woman, another priest in the very same church, celebrated the church's holiest sacrament, proclaiming the words of institution of the Holy Eucharist, the bread and wine which we all shared.

And I was struck by the both the beauty and the ordinariness of the moment. This was a congregation at prayer as they do every Sunday, doing things they do week in and week out. There was no sense of revolution, no sense of their life together being somehow radical. And yet, barely a generation or two ago in this very same place, this very same service would have been extremely radical. It would have inflamed passions, ignited arguments, spurred anger and yelling and harsh words - maybe even violence. Today, it's just a part of the fabric of life in this community.

So for those tempted to despair at recent events: take the opportunity to look around with a sense of history. See where we are today, the things we regard as ordinary that not so long ago seemed out of reach. Give thanks for what we have achieved together, the everyday victories of love and community. In the end, the darkness doesn't win. As Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us, the arc of history is long but it bends towards justice - and, let us hope, towards peace and love as well.

Friday, July 8, 2016

How NOT to Deal With Our Broken Society

Less than 24 hours after someone shot a dozen Dallas police officers, somebody already wants to blame the President:

"Political correctness" has become a dog whistle term - not defined so much as it is used as an identity symbol to mark the boundaries between tribes.

If you really want to resolve the issues behind the recent violence, blaming the President is a meaningless act. It will turn away millions of people whose cooperation you need to help solve the problem. It further alienates, further divides, further inflames anger and hatred. It is a pointless gesture in every way - except one.

When we are faced with difficult circumstances, it is natural to want to "circle the wagons" - to fall back within our own tribe, the people we can "really trust", and shut the rest of the world out. Gestures like this meme are designed to circle those wagons and make those on the inside feel righteous. Who cares what those outside the dome thing? We feel better, and that's what matters.

If we lived in a world of small, self-sustaining microeconomies this would be OK. But we don't - we live in a highly interconnected world where most of what we enjoy about our lives is sustained only because we can get along and cooperate with each other.

It doesn't matter what side of the issues you're on - everyone can contribute to a solution, and indeed all of us must. These are complex problems with many points of view. If you really care about making things better, don't build walls - start conversations. Find the points of common value and build on those. Assume that the people you're talking to are people, not cardboard cutouts. Remember that everyone is some mother's son or daughter.

I expect the name-calling and the shouting and the yelling will continue, of course, magnified by all of our various media streams because shouting carries the day. But shouting will not solve our problems. Only talking will. Does anybody want to talk?

More Death, More Brokenness

More shooting. More violence. More death.

It has been a terrible week - not so much in terms of absolute numbers (with the number of annual firearm deaths in the US well north of 10,000, seven or so more doesn't really move the needle much) but because we are forced to confront them. We cannot look away. Most gun homicides and shootings in the US are invisible, often buried even in the local media, so we can pretend they're not there. This week we don't have that luxury.

More grieving. More spouses and partners left to put shattered lives back together. More children sobbing for their parent who they will never see again.

That the victims this time were police is a particular loss. Whatever else may be true of policing across the United States - and it is clear that there are a LOT of problems - police officers have tremendous potential for positive impact. They are role models. They intervene when no one else will, when someone is on the wrong track headed to destruction, and sometimes they turn those people around. And yes, they save lives. How many lives would these officers have impacted had their own not been cut short?

Early indications - and they are VERY early - suggest that the Dallas attack was in some way retaliation for the deaths of black men elsewhere at the hands of police. We know there are a few whites who, like Dylann Roof, would like to ignite a race war. It would come as little surprise to learn that there are a handful of blacks who feel the same. Time will tell whether that story fits the facts or not.

Rather than analyze or explain this specific event, all I can do is look at this in a larger context. I wrote yesterday that the world is broken, and that brokenness hurts. One of the greatest dimensions of that brokenness is our belief, held to the core of our bones, that violence solves problems. Those who carried out the attack in Dallas, whoever they were, decided that violence was their best option to create the world they want. Police officers who shoot first and ask questions later make the same decision, whether they think about it or not.

Of course race is an issue, in powerful and complex ways. There are no simple solutions to that problem - the chief of police in Dallas, for example, is black, which does not seem to have made the issue go away. Diversity among police is important, but it is not the cure-all.

But violence - that is the one thing that unites us. Our faith in the gun, in the efficacy of killing. In the right circumstances we cheer for killing for revenge, for "justice" (by which we mean far too often retribution), even for redemption. We exalt and celebrate those whose job it is to kill. Soldiers and armies may be a necessary evil in this world, but that doesn't mean that we should glory in the fact that we still have wars. Regardless of party or which side of these debates you're on, we almost all share a core belief that violence is a useful thing, a good thing. We only disagree about the appropriate targets.

This is where I think we need to reconsider. I mourn for the loss of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. I mourn for the loss of Brent Thompson and the other officers who died yesterday, whose names have not yet been released. I mourn for all of them, and grieve with their families, because it is clear that none of this violence is good. It is all brokenness.

If I knew more - if they weren't made invisible by our indifference - I would mourn for the thousands of others shot and killed each year in our country. If we examined their cases as closely as we examine the few that make it into the headlines, we would probably conclude that some were "justified". The suspect attacking a police officer with a knife. The criminal firing at civilians. We can easily call to mind these narratives, where the "good guy with a gun" saved the day against the "bad guy".

But we should mourn for the "bad guys" too - not only because Jesus told us clearly to love our enemies, but because when we hate and revile these people and cheer their deaths, we do so in the dark. We do not know them, or their histories, or how they came to be where and who they were. We judge in almost complete ignorance, knowing nothing about these people and yet absolutely certain of our moral righteousness in calling their death "justified". We're glad they're dead.

In my career I have attended many graduate ceremonies, and have heard a couple dozen speeches. None has ever been as good as the speech given at my own graduation from college 25 years ago by then-Yale Law School Dean Guido Calabresi. In his address he told a series of stories, one of which went something like this:
My third story also concerns someone in Italy, and also at the risk of someone's life. It concerns a farmer on some of our lands in Italy whom I went to see after the war. He had had the reputation that during the war he had hidden at the risk of his life allied servicemen who had been caught behind German lines and were escaping. Jews who were escaping from the Nazis. All the people on the right side of that conflict who were in trouble. But he had also the reputation that the moment things changed in 1944-1945, he hid the Germans who were running away. Now it wasn't at the risk of his life but when they came through, he hid them as well. And I went to see him because I was very young and I thought that this was terrible; that this was someone who did not understand the difference between right and wrong, that he couldn't distinguish between hiding people who deserved to be hidden and hiding criminals. I already sounded like a lawyer, I guess. And when I went to see him, I asked him and he said, "Politics, politics, I don't know anything about that. I don't know anything about those things. I don't care about them. When they came here, when they were running away, each one of them was in trouble. “Erun tutti e figli di mamma” -- They were each the child of some mother somewhere."

Each of us is some mother's child. Each of us is a child of God. What we do with our lives - good things, bad things, heroic things, terrible things - none of those things changes what we are.

When we cheer for violence, when we decide that this group of people needs to die, that those people over there deserve to be killed, we ignore this reality. We divide ourselves up and set upon each other with a zest and a zeal unknown almost anywhere else. We are one of very few species on the planet that kills its own, and we are far better at it than any other.

As we mourn and grieve for the lost, I hope (or wish, for hope is hard to find) that we will find the courage to talk about the things that really matter. One of those things is violence - our addiction to it, our beliefs about it, our misplaced faith in its power. We cannot heal ourselves through others' deaths. But until we really start talking, nothing will change. Tomorrow, and next week, and next month, and next year, more people will die by the hands of their fellow humans. And we will mourn again.