Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Damage Done

TRD101: Damage Done

by Michael Maynard

March 6, 2006

“We all damaged”. That line was spoken by The West Wing’s Jimmy Smits’ character, Representative Matthew Santos, in the speech Santos gave at the fictional Democratic convention, to win the Presidential nomination. That line hit home with me because it was unexpected that a politician, even a fictional one, would make that remark.

We are all damaged in varying degrees at various times throughout our lives. We are all damaged. Whether by infirmity, age, genetics, personal misfortune, vagaries and vicissitudes of weather or life, social strata, lack of opportunity due to geographic location, heartbreak, poor judgement, whatever, no one of us is perfect. No one of us is perfect

You may think your invincible. You’re not. You lose your job unexpectedly. Your spouse or child becomes gravely ill. Your parent needs to be placed in a retirement facility. A car runs a red light at an intersection and smashes into you. Your child gets caught with drugs. You become damaged and that damage stays with you the rest of your life.

When one of us is damaged so that their life is endangered or lost, by other than by the grace of God, we are all damaged. We are all damaged. Amongst us, somewhere in the world, could be the next Einstein, the next Pasteur, the next Galileo, the next Mozart, the next Rembrandt. If that person is born in Brookline, Massachusetts, they have a good possibility of reaching that potential. If that person is born in Darfur, they have virtually none.

We are all damaged. In the US, our forefathers ventured forth from across the sea, to free themselves from governmental tyranny, so that they, could reach our potential for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, which they stated were unalienable rights. We band together as a community, as a state, as a region, as a nation, because together we are stronger and more capable of fulfilling that potential of those rights, than we would individually. We band together because we are all damaged individually and joined together collectively, we become whole.

What the character Matt Santos said was a brilliant statement because not only does it show the humanity of the man, and it reminds us of the humanity in all of us. It also brings into the question the philosophy of the roles of all levels of government in our lives. What are the individual and joint responsibilities of the federal government, the state government, the local government, and ourselves as individuals? In modern times, we have gone from the New Deal era of Franklin Roosevelt, to the Great Society of Lyndon Johnson, to slow dismantling of the New Deal and Great Society programs by the Ownership Society of Newt Gingrich, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. Should the social safety net held under us from protection against loss of job, loss of health, low income and aging be pulled out completely or only piece by piece, until so many fall through cracks that the net might as well not be in place at all?

The Democrats, in their infinite disarray and befuddlement, still have an opportunity to engage the debate about the role of government in our lives. What the polls do not show is that the real solid base issue holding up George Bush, IMNSHO, is not terrorism, it’s not directly social issues, it’s taxes. In what has become political policy development these days, right-wing (strategist?, crank? wingnut? all of the above?) Grover Norquist has defined the political debate at every level, but especially national - starve the beast. It is Norquist’s goal to cut the federal government out of all programs, except the most fundamental: national security and military spending. While Norquist thinks he is being smart, what he proposes is really class warfare at its worst and it is hateful.

How the math works is easy. There is X dollars needed top ay for all of the government services the country requires, widely ranging from the local filling pot holes in the road to developing the next generation anti-tank warfare system. What the Republicans have done for political, not public policy reasons, is push the tax base from the greatest tax base, the national income tax system, to the state and then down to smallest tax base, the local, resulting in rapidly increasing property and excises taxes and an expanding variety of service use fees. Ask Governor Mike Riley of Alabama how popular support is for raising the state income tax to provide services to those of us most damaged: the sick, the elderly, the needy, the poor. Ask the victims of Katrina in Louisiana and Mississippi who are falsely being told there isn’t enough money available to help them rebuild their lives.

The corollary arguments to the ownership society are that what is lost in taxes will be made up by private generosity through non-profit organizations and that by outsourcing public services to the private sector, those services will be done more efficiently and more cost effectively. Both arguments are prima facie absurd. Those with the mean-spirited, gimme first attitude that begrudges every dollar paid in taxes are not about to turn around and give the same tax-relief amount to charity. There have been many studies, including recent ones on garbage collection and prison management, that have shown private sector service providers are no more, and often less, efficient and cost effective than public sector providers. When these private sector companies are faced with reducing profits or cutting services, they usually choose cutting services, even if the public’s welfare is endangered. I’ve worked and consulted in the private sector way too long to buy into the myth of the superior efficiency of the private sector. Halliburton, anyone?

We are damaged, as a people, as of today. We no longer band together because mindless listening to those who profit from our separation have made us forget that our forefathers came to this nation to get away from those who separated them for craven, power-mad reasons. We no longer band together because of silly political ideological and geographic reasons, using those reasons as false shields to protect our damaged underbellies from exposure to the truth. We no longer band together because we hide in our mini-fortresses, bored with life, but unwilling to engage the world outside. We are damaged because no longer recognize the hand being held out to be helped pulled up is not the one being asked for a hand out. Nor do we recognize it as someday being our own hand.

TRD101's basics know this: Until there is national dialogue about who we are as a people, and what services we want from our governments, gaining control of the damage cannot be done. The question is whether too much damage has been done for that control to be reclaimed.

And that, unfortunately, is the Real Deal 101 for today, like it or not.

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© Copyright Michael Maynard, TRD101, March 2006.

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