Thursday, January 19, 2012

More Government or Less Government? Democrats or Republicans? How About Both-And? Obama, you listening?

Americans are engaged in a great debate. Should the government take an active and larger role in solving our problems, or, should it step aside, pay off its debts, and give people and the marketplace greater scope?

This debate has polarized and paralyzed both the national dialogue and the collective will to deal creatively and boldly with challenges facing our country, and the world.

Distrust and dislike of a central government was layered into the very fabric of our country’s beginnings. But in the over two hundred years since that time we have granted to the federal government powers one would be hard pressed to suppose the founding fathers had in mind.

So in essence we have come to a crossroads: not only in the sheer size and complexity of the challenges we face but in whether we continue on the trajectory of big government leading and protecting us all or whether we go on alone.

My spiritual teacher, Swami Kriyananda, has inculcated in me and thousands the idea of “both-and,” rather than “either-or.” So I’ve come to approach issues with an eye to see how two things which, on the surface seem incompatible, might, in fact, be two sides of the same coin.

On the one hand, the issues we face collectively — such as energy sources (their cost, their impact, their availability), ecological degradation and sustainability, terrorism, trade imbalance, excessive public and private debt, decline in the quality, affordability, and accessibility of education, cost and access to affordable health care, just to name some of more obvious ones — require national (and even international) consensus and will to address on the level and with the magnitude sufficient to enable change, while, on the other hand, our central government is more or less bankrupt, inefficient, and by definition, heavy handed because so big and so tangled with special interests.

In addition, many people, left and right, recognize that creative solutions come from individuals or small groups of people working cooperatively together. Government-imposed one-size-fits-all ends up pleasing no one and annoying everyone.

We are hard upon the horns of a dilemma whose origins lay in the shift of consciousness taking place on our planet today. (I say “today” but this has been an evolving and shifting process: two steps forward, one step back, another step sideways.)

We see the debate spilling into the very symbol of the level playing field towards which this shift is moving: the internet. Control and censorship of the internet by governments of east and west (north and south) is attacking the heart of the freedom of information and self-expression symbolized by the internet.

We see in the U.S. Congress the paralysis resulting from a minority holding a majority hostage. In other circumstances based on democracy the fear is that the prejudice of the majority tramples upon the legitimate interests and rights of minorities!

A new paradigm is needed if the deadlock between the power of institutions and the freedom individuals is to be broken. I’m not saying there’s some silver bullet here but the shift in consciousness will continue and if wholesale chaos and destruction and suffering is to be minimized (it will not likely be avoided), something must “give.”

In the “Occupy” movement taking place around the world we see this struggle quite visibly: we see how a small number of people have the power to bring down an entire government; we see how entrenched institutions respond brutally to protect their interests with no regard for the rights and safety of individuals.

The bigness that is rich and powerful is, for its very bigness, vulnerable. Great changes in world history have always been initiated by small groups of people whether in science, the arts, religion, business, or politics.

How then do we accommodate the bigness that is needed to solve big problems and the individual initiative which is the real source of creative solutions? One way of expressing the both-and principle as a solution is see and support what is in fact a reality: the steady move away from competition and towards cooperation. Cooperation requires the willingness and ability to see reality from another point of view other than your own. It is the ability to see that self-interest can be expansive and that “narrow self-interest” is, indeed, just that: constrictive and self-defeating. It is the ability to think long-term and not just short-term.

America is at the cross roads of long-term vs. short-term. And solution is both-and, because what is good for us long-term is in fact good for us short-term. We here complaints that responsible ecological behavior is bad for jobs and that unsustainable ecological policies and practices is bad long-term policy. We need to learn to think more expansively than that. We can look for the job potential, for example, in industries and jobs related to sustainable practices. That idea is not new but it has been slow to be accepted, thus far.

Much of the impulse for big-government solutions would be transmuted if smaller groups (governments, business, organizations, and individuals) would participate in cooperative solutions, with some latitude to creatively apply the general solution to their own environments or regions. In this way government doesn’t necessarily have to get “bigger” but work “smarter” by working together with others.

National policy on, say, health care can achieve broad consensus and direction at the national level, setting overall goals and parameters but leaving the next level of particulars to the next level, presumably states. In many ways this has been going on for years, but not necessarily consciously, consistently or with harmony.

But while all of this thus far seems sensible (I hope it does to you!), what defeats progress in the realm of the body politic is the heat of self-interest generated by the desire for re-election and the popularity and money-driven process we call democracy.

Now I’m not about to suggest a benign dictatorship, so just relax. But our body politic needs leaders who will re-affirm the importance of dialogue, compromise and respect for differing views.

I don’t care for the fact that a vocal minority in Congress, strident with their own and evidently unrealistic and impractical ideology can hold the nation hostage in the face of such challenges and crises. But I don’t know enough about the details of the elective process or congressional decision making to suggest anything meaningful.

But I do sense that there is a large body of citizens who find the paralysis frustrating and the negativity distasteful. To citizens of intelligence and goodwill who want to see our country express its fundamental ideals and creative energy there is the “strong arm” of voting and participatory action that can flex its economic and idealistic muscle in steering the political debate towards compromise and positive action.

While I’ll never be a presidential advisor, and while I have the luxury of an opinion without the responsibility of bearing the consequences of it, I would, if asked, suggest our current president (President Obama) be the magnanimous one to make whatever concessions are necessary to pass legislation appropriate to the national issues we face.

If the public finds the result weak-willed he can obviously blame those who diluted his own stated goals and objectives in order to accomplish the compromise. The naysayer minority can crow if their modifications achieve success as they claim. But if not, they will have to take the blame. And if it works, we should all rejoice, for that is process we call democracy.

Someone “up there” has to act like a grown-up. Someone has to act in a mature way. Let re-election be based on those who serve national not merely local or narrow self-interests. If I am defeated because I didn’t bring back enough pork, then, g-darn-it, I don’t want your vote or the job!

This leads us to what motivates those seeking public office: again, we have to return to our ideals: public service, not self-interest. Why have we for so long tolerated or winked at the unethical and often immoral behavior of people in power? Is it because they “buy us off” with pork?

Ironically, here is both-and again because serving the public interest is, and I believe provably can be, the means by which our representatives can find themselves elected time and again. It’s the down and dirty pork politics that causes the voters to waffle and throw the bums out and replace them with new bums.

None of this can happen without inspired and moral authority and leadership. As distant as that may seem, there are many such individuals in our country. They are simply not recognized or supported. And where does this come? From the grass roots. This is where faith groups and similar groups of people with high ideals should speak and act.

You can see that it is a “vicious” (or “victorious”) cycle: leadership effects individuals and individuals draw out quality leadership. Yes, you guessed it: both-and.

It’s like thinking big with your feet firmly on the ground. Stand tall and you can for miles. It’s not that difficult but we need to have “eyes to see, and ears to hear.”

For much of our country's relatively brief existence, we've made the cultural error of holding fast to the mantra of self-interest (think Adam Smith) but seeing it too literally and too narrowly. The idea that each person acting out of self-interest is some kind of self-adjusting “mechanism” bringing the greatest good to the greatest number is flawed unless we understand that “self-interest” means “expansive” (or “enlightened” and intelligent) self-interest. Both-And.


Nayaswami Hriman