Sunday, November 24, 2013

Political Discourse: Labels Are Convenient but Dangerous

Recent discussions on our radio show have reminded me (1) of the importance of saying why I disagree with someone, without rejecting the speaker; (2) that labels are counterproductive; and (3) that economic arguments based on pure capitalism or pure socialism are unrealistic.

One can strongly disagree with someone’s ideas yet feel warmth and friendship toward that person. Two lawyers opposing each other vigorously in court can fly home on the same plane chatting in a collegial way. I always competed vigorously in sports, diving on the floor to retrieve a basketball or banging into walls on the squash court, then shared a joke or a serious conversation with an opponent the moment the whistle blew or the game ended.

Labels – Democrat, Republican, progressive, reactionary, Tea Partier, socialist – are as convenient but dangerous as fast foods. They hinder serious discussion. By labeling, we place someone in a box that might not quite fit, and duck out on a serious conversation in which we examine the experiences and assumptions that have created our unique views. Meanwhile, extreme views called “left” and “right” often find themselves allied: NAFTA: some current education issues; and marijuana legalization have created that sort of alliance.

I'm also struck by the frequency with which people's arguments begin and end with a statement about the superiority of capitalism and free enterprise to socialism or communism – or vice versa.

Fact is, neither exists in anything like its pure form.

Socialism or Communism is in many ways a fine concept: share as equally as possible, minimize private property and economic inequities, and work for the common good. Problem is, it doesn't seem to work. Never has, for any length of time, except maybe in the Indian province of Kerala. Either informal non-Communist black marketeers and corrupt officials take over; or the Communist society recognizes, as China has done at times, that it needs to stir a little more free enterprise into the mix while retaining focus on the common good.

Capitalism is in some ways an ugly concept. Followed strictly, it makes of all our neighbors tools we can use to improve our economic position. We seek to maximize profit, and don't much care if that ultimately destroys our workers, our customers, our suppliers, or our water, land, and air. The single real obligation of those running a big corporation is to maximize shareholders' profits.

Capitalism too doesn't work in the real world. Pretty much all capitalist countries find it prudent and to develop systems to keep retired folks alive and healthy, feed the poor, limit anti-competitive mergers and price-fixing, regulate companies to keep some vestige of purity in our food and drugs, and regulate them some more to protect our environment. We can argue about how to do that, and how much to do it; but you can't name a purely capitalist country. Not even this one.

So let's abandon those labels too.

There's a lot wrong in our country and our world; but brandishing labels like weapons doesn't help identify the problems, let alone help us solve them.

I should add that I share some of the anger I hear in the voices of Tea Party members I talk to. It just seems aimed in the wrong direction.

All politicians are dishonest. The only difference is that for some dishonesty has become a way of life, while others still try to perform their jobs and follow their oaths of office as much as possible. Tea Partiers and I share that view, although we might differ if we started trying to name the politicians who are relatively honest.

But the real enemies are our lust for extreme wealth and the international corporations. Unlike the government – which has some inefficient departments and some corrupt and/or lazy office-holders – corporations’ avowed purpose is to maximize profit, and to free themselves from regulations that could limit profits. Sure, some regulations are stupid; but others form a web of protection we depend on.

The small government ideal would be great if we were still a small, mostly agrarian society with a huge empty frontier. If I traded the eggs my chickens laid for the boots you made, either of us would know whom to confront if the eggs were bad or the shoes fell apart in a month. Each of us could take effective measures against the other if necessary.

Not so when your meat passes through dozens of hands, and the growers, butchers, transporters, grocers, and others are seeking to maximize profit. Some cut corners. Who's to protect us from anticompetitive activities, drugs that are ineffective or even dangerous, impure food, and the like – and who but the federal government can protect our environment? Yeah, government's big; but much of what is does is stuff we need done. By someone working for us, not for a corporation’s profit.

[The above column appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News today, Sunday, 24 NovemberThe radio show is "Speak Up, Las Cruces," which Keith Whelpley and I have been co-hosting at 8-10 a.m. weekdays on KOBE-AM 1450 for nearly three full months.  It's been interesting.  It's a rare chance to try to get community dialogue going on all sorts of issues, and to talk more directly than usual with people who hold widely-varied points of view.  That naturally focuses our minds on how to articulate our views, how to listen to others, and how to identify patches of common ground here and there.]


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