Can this government be fixed?

“We are in this period of great anxiety because of economic uncertainty … and that has people worried about their future,” says Dan Glickman, a former Democratic congressman and Cabinet secretary affiliated with the Bipartisan Policy Center. “What they need is confidence building, and what I don’t think they sense from our government system is confidence building. Everything they see is division.”

via Can this government be fixed? Three steps that might help –

But what do people expect when the country itself is divided.  Government, in so far is it is a democratic reflection of the population it governs, is nothing more than a mirror for the turmoil that currently grips the people of this country.  We are facing an economic crisis the magnitude of which we have not seen for many years.  It is no surprise to me that there is a diversity of opinion on how to address the situation.

These differences are easy to paper over when the economy is good and a general sense of well being prevails, but make no mistake, these differences are brought to sharp relief when the harsh light of an economy faltering is shed upon it.  Differences in how we perceive immigration, taxation, public welfare programs and restrictions on capitalist activities, we have been having this discussion since the founding of the country, and will likely continue to have it for the foreseeable future, irrespective of how the economy is doing.

What the economic crisis has done is invigorated these issues with a renewed sense of urgency as people grow increasingly desperate to find a solution to our woes before they become a full blown economic and social disaster.  Added to this is our perceived decline relative to new international rival China.  This adds to the growing hysteria by casting the downturn in a historical narrative of almost biblical proportions.  This fear causes people to see the situation as an all or nothing proposition, as though if they don’t get it right, that there can be no second chances for the nation.

But such a perspective cannot compromise, for any retreat is a surrender of the future of America.  Every issue is a critical battle in the war to save the country, to right the sinking ship and restore it to past glory for future generations.

The problem with this is two fold, however.  First, there is no way of returning the country to how it was in the past.  Too much has changed, both within the country and externally with relation to other nations and peoples.  The rise of the United States was conditioned upon a very specific set of historical circumstances, circumstances that were inherently unstable and would have tended towards a leveling of American power relative to the rest of the world regardless of any particular economic downturn.  The second problem, however, is the more significant one, and that is that the past is not simple as is popularly perceived.

As I noted earlier, the roots of today’s controversy extend throughout American history, and that history can only be understood when seen as a confluence of these multiple perspectives, an admixture of ideologies that simultaneously blend, contrast, and enhances one another. The historical values and traditions that conservatives long for were not possible without the liberal influences of people who sought to challenge the status quo and forge a new path for our nation’s people. And the liberal impulse is rooted in our past, a past which must be built upon, not abandoned, if this same liberal impulse is to be preserved and passed down to the next generation.

We can only hope that these two impulses can once again find people who can hold them while also finding a way to forge a path towards the betterment of the nation. The way forward can only be found together.

Medvedev Fires Russian Finance Minister

Medvedev Fires Russian Finance Minister for Insubordination –

I wonder what this portends for the future of Russian politics.  I doubt it will have any major impact in the immediate future, the elections are simply too near to want to make any sort of shake-up.  But once Putin is securely back in the Presidency for presumably another 8 years, I wonder if we won’t be seeing Mr. Medvedev pushed out of the party in favor of someone who is more willing to go along with the Putin program and not try to establish his own authority independent of Putin.

Boehner Budget Bill

Meanwhile, public head-butting between Democratic President Barack Obama and the Republicans showed no sign of easing. The White House declared Obama would veto the Boehner bill, even if it somehow got through the House and the Democratic-controlled Senate.

For all that, it was the tea party-backed members of Boehner’s own party who continued to vex him and heavily influence the debt and deficit negotiating terms — not to mention his chances of holding on to the speakership.

via Boehner Delays Vote on His Debt-Ceiling Measure – ABC News.

I have no idea how this is going to be resolved. What kind of compromise includes no tax increases in a deficit reduction plan? And that isn’t good enough for the more radical Republicans? I am pretty disappointed that there seems to be no willingness on the part of Republicans to even entertain the idea of a tax increase in the name of fiscal responsibility. This doesn’t seem to me to be a compromise at all, and when you only control half of Congress and the other party is in control of the executive branch, that would seem to demand some form of compromise in order to see something of your goals being met.

I don’t think they are entirely wrong, either. I really would like to see a balanced budget made binding in some fashion, and can even sympathize with the need to cut spending since there is such a huge problem with our national debt. But this can only be accomplished with the cooperation of the other branches of the government. Why not allow some tax increases? It need not even be a 50/50 proposal, but even something like a 70/30 in favor of spending cuts would seem a responsible response to the political and fiscal situation.

And it doesn’t even seem remotely intelligent to me to allow the debt ceiling issue to be reviewed in the middle of presidential elections if it is proving to be this contentious and politicized. It would only invite fiscal disaster as far as I could tell. Push it back to 2013, make it an election issue (whoever wins the election will get to determine policy), but don’t try to get a vote as contentious as this pushed through during the election.

The Socratic Political Theory

You must either persuade [the state] or obey its orders, and endure in silence whatever it instructs you to endure (Crito 51.b)

In these few words, Socrates in Crito summarizes his practical political theory, that to the state is owed complete obedience. Brickhouse and Smith examine this passage with an eye towards those who would wish to circumvent it by proposing exceptions to its seemingly authoritarian nature with examples culled from various passages in the early dialogues.

The first, and most prominent, is the hypothetical situation proposed by Socrates in the Apology, in which he proposes that even if the jury were to acquit him on the one condition that he cease from his philosophical practices, that he could not obey such an order. Their argument against this being in conflict with Socrates political views hinges upon the nature of the hypothetical, namely, that what is being proposed is not a law, but rather a condition of acquittal, and that what Socrates is demonstrating is that given the choice between death and the preservation of his life through unjust means, he would choose death. There seems little need to go much deeper into this example, although Brickhouse and Smith do work through a variety of permutations on this theme, finding fault with each one.

The second example is the case where Socrates recounts his disregard for what he clearly perceives as an unjust command by the the Thirty. Here, Brickhouse and Smith dismiss it as a possible contradiction on the grounds that it would have been clear to all that the Thirty did not carry legal legitimacy and so Socrates would have been free to ignore their commands where he perceives them to be immoral. This appears to be a more specious argument than the first, for it is apparently based on nothing more than the fact that since the Thirty were unpopular with the democratic forces of Athens, they would naturally not be perceived as legitimate. However, this is as much an argument from silence as is the one they seek to dismiss, and is not nearly as uncontroversial as it is portrayed. Consider this excerpt from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on Socrates:

None of the contemporaneous sources, no matter how hostile to the rule of the Thirty—Isocrates, Lysias, Plato, and Xenophon—denies the legitimacy of their election.

The final possible argument against the obvious reading of Socrates political theory is based on Socrates moral principles, that it is never acceptable to commit an injustice, even in response to injustice. The question is how then could Socrates consistently follow his political principles when he as much as admits that there were unjust laws in Athens? (Crito 51.e) Brickhouse and Smith propose that, just as children and slaves were not considered accountable for unjust acts in obedience to their respective authorities, neither was the citizen held responsible for injustices commanded by the state.

Anticipating the objection that this would be the very argument used by those accused of war crimes, Brickhouse and Smith seek to mitigate the argument by pointing to the contextual nature of Socrates political theory, that it is Athen’s laws that are under consideration, and as such his theory cannot be “generalized to other people”. (Brickhouse 5.2.7) However, it would be an odd political theory that could not be generalized, at least to some extent, and one would be hard pressed to believe that Socrates did not, in fact, think his political theories were not in fact based on his moral theory, which clearly are general principles. Finally, their attempt to distance Socrates from justifying war criminals is thoroughly undermined in the very next section when they put the very same words (“only following orders”) into the mouth of Socrates and claim that it has validity as a moral argument.

If we do accept Brickhouse and Smith’s argument, that we have no legitimate exemptions to the Socratic political theory as stated in the Crito, then despite whatever protestations they might make, we in fact do have an authoritarian Socrates, one who is compelled to obey the state in all matters, whether just or unjust. That this is not “blind” obedience does not improve Socrates position in the least, for then we clearly have an individual performing actions which he has clearly reasoned out to be unjust, both to himself and to others. It is not at all clear that such a violation of conscience is superior to unthinking obedience.

It is unfortunate that Brickhouse and Smith felt compelled to spend so much more time on the first example, although perhaps understandable considering the attention the acquittal hypothesis has received, since upon reflection, this was clearly the easiest of the three objections to address. I fear that by being distracted by the acquittal hypothesis, they failed to adequately address the weightier objections which followed. The question of Socrates and the Thirty does not seem to be clearly answered to me, and yet I do feel that in the end, they have made a strong argument for understanding Socrates political theory precisely as it is stated in the Crito. Their attempts to ameliorate the impact of this theory on our moral sensibilities is far less successful, however, and more attention should surely have been paid towards rehabilitating Socrates from the uglier potential consequences of the theory.

Plato’s Socrates by Thomas C. Brickhouse, Nicholas D. Smith
Oxford University Press, USA (January 18, 1996)

Was Socrates against Democracy?

Irwin identifies three distinct claims that are used in support of the conclusion that Socrates demonstrated anti-democratic tendencies. These are:

  1. The prosecution of Socrates was motivated by suspicions of him being an anti-democratic influence
  2. That Socrates in fact had anti-democratic protégés.
  3. That Socrates has demonstrable anti-democratic views.

Irwin then proceeds through each of these claims, reviewing the available material in support of them, and finds all the material to be largely inconclusive at best. The difficulty with Irwin’s approach is that he seemed to make just as much use of this mix of fragmentary evidence and ample speculation to arrive at his own conclusions, including frequent use of silence in the record as demonstrating some point of his, whether it be drawing into question the conclusions others draw (130) or some controversial analogies drawn from the modernity. (135, notes 21, 41) And while I agree with his skeptical approach to claims of those trying to discover an implicit political views from the scant evidence available, he does not seem to convey the same firm grasp that this skepticism would just as easily sweep aside the tentative speculation he puts forward as well.

However, all of this is largely mitigated by the cautionary note Irwin uses to introduce his piece:

These questions are difficult to answer because of the simple fact that we lack the evidence that would justify complete confidence in any answers to these questions…the trial of Socrates, however, has produced an unusual degree of disagreement among modern critics about which evidence is reliable and which is open to suspicion. (127)

In this case, it may seem most prudent to simply adopt the skeptical approach Irwin lays out in the beginning, and acknowledge that “we simply know too little to decide whether the Apology or some other source should be trusted” for its historical veracity. (128) This would free us to accept the text as it is without trying too hard to peer behind the literary curtain. Such speculative straining of the minutiae of historical record available to us is just as likely to lead us to discover our own biases as it is anything of the historical Socrates, and either way, we will be at a loss to differentiate between the two.

T.H. Irwin, “Was Socrates Against Democracy?” in Rachana Kamtekar’s Plato’s Euthyphro, Apology, and Crito Critical Essays, Rowman & Littlefield, 2005,Pages: 127-149

American Politics

I was listening to the radio on my way to work today when I heard a story about the various third parties having a joint rally with Ron Paul serving as a sort of host. I understand what they are trying to do, appreciate what it is they are trying to do, and am even sympathetic toward their goals of opening up American politics to a greater diversity of voices.

However, I have serious doubts about the efficacy of their efforts. It seems to me that they are still approaching the issue of a lack of access for alternative political parties as a matter of function, as though their problem is something that can be corrected by their own efforts. The reality, though, is that their difficulties are structural to the American political scene where the power elite have a stranglehold on the gates to political power, and it is not in the interest of these elite to give this up.

There are the obvious attempts at closing out third parties, from ballot and debate requirements that are difficult to achieve to social pressure for third parties to drop their own efforts to support the main party candidate closest to their own ideological identity (however distant that candidate is from their own goals).

In addition to these, other election rules also make it prohibitive for third parties to run successful national elections. One is the electoral college and the rules that typically surround it. Most states distribute their electors through a winner take all apportioning, this means that even should another party gain a significant percentage of the vote, their elector count would continue to be zero so long as they do not achieve a plurality within that state.

Another is that because the Executive (President and Vice-President, the only two elected positions in the Executive) is a first past the post position, there is no representation of minority parties in the Executive. This provides the voter with a strong disincentive for voting for any but the two largest parties, since only the majority (of the electoral college, not the popular vote) candidate will be in power, and votes for ideologically similar, but smaller, parties will only weaken the majority party for which one has greater affinity.

This was actually amplified by a change to the Constitution (the Twelfth Amendment 1804), since the original structure of the Executive actually encouraged a sort of power sharing scheme in the Executive, where the Vice-Presidency was determined by the winner of the second most Electoral College votes. By creating a separate ballot for the Vice-Presidency, but with all the same structural elements as the vote for the Presidency, the Executive became even more politically unattainable for smaller parties.

Finally, the power, prestige, and visibility of the Executive position ensure that winning the position is a self-perpetuating event. All of the minority parties labor under the veil of obscurity and perceptions of un-viability. The only times third parties have been able to have even moderate success in national elections is at the expense of one of the two main parties (either through the collapse/dissolution of the main party, or else through the co-opting of the main parties identity).

If successful, this move does nothing to change the system, but simply replaces one component with another, but the structure and dynamic of the system remains the same, and the new party will soon enough be molded into the image of the former (if their identity hasn’t already been subsumed into the ideological dynamic, as is likely for any party aspiring to a place in the political dichotomy).

These are the reasons I believe that, except for those located in states where the winner can be confidently predicted, voting for a third party is counter productive for the interests of that person being represented in American politics. The problem is that their weaknesses are fundamentally structural, not functional, in nature, and thus cannot be addressed by the adapting tactics of these parties.

Only by challenging the system, and implementing change, can a different result be realistically expected. The difficulty here is that only those in power have the capacity to make such a change, and it is not in their interest to do so, thus the problem (if one sees it as such) is self-perpetuating, and nothing outside of near revolutionary force (and by this I mean real revolution, and not the neutered definition oft used in political rhetoric by those who in actuality want to maintain the status quo).

We are a country ruled, not be democracy, but by an oligarchy of socio-economic elite. What we vote for are those who have already been vetted and approved by these elite, and our elections serve two purposes.

First, they are sop thrown to us in order to pacify the masses, obfuscating the fact of their grip on power and their actions to maintain and strengthen that position. And they serve as the chessboard of political power, where the elite play out their game for control of the country and its resources. This has been the case since the very beginning and it will continue so into the foreseeable future.

For this reason, it makes sense to concentrate our attention on the two main parties, not because we can expect honest empathy for our plight and needs from their leaders, but because in their political battles, one side or the other may find it advantageous to appeal to the masses and grant some minor concession to them in order to win a political battle against their rival. If we, the public, can somehow convince them that it is in their interest to offer this concession, there will at least be some benefit from what is otherwise an insider contest.

In order for this to happen, however, the electorate must move the candidates beyond issues of character, image, and spin that so typifies the current electioneering. They must insist upon, and force the candidates to address, the issues of actual governance; for it is only here that the interests of the general public are served. This is not in the interest of the oligarchy, and only conditionally in the interest of the candidates (if it helps them win), and you can trust that so long as it is not required of them, they will not move beyond the superficiality of personality and image. We must demand it of them if we are to have any hope of actually leveraging what little power we have in the elitist game.

I have little hope of even this being done, though. The general population is too preoccupied in the aims and interests of the consumeristic lifestyle foisted upon them by the capitalist system and those who control it. The consumerist can hardly be bothered to even vote (it has no direct link to their lifestyle), let alone actually educate themselves on the candidates and the issues at stake.

I am interested in these matters, however, and so I hope to do what little I can, in addition to voting, to push the debate in the direction it needs to go by publishing some posts on the issues and the candidates for this electoral season. I have no expectations for this exercise other than it is what is in my power, and thus within my control. I do what I can, and leave the rest up to whatever principle governs.

What’s Your Political Philosophy?

What’s Your Political Philosophy?
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