Archive for January, 2011

State of the (re)Union

Beasts of burden sat interspersed among circus animals Tuesday night. President Obama addressed a joint session of Congress undivided by the proverbial aisle. Donkeys and elephants, living together, for the moment.

The president offered perspective. “What comes of this moment will be determined not by whether we can sit together tonight, but whether we can work together tomorrow.”

I’ll go out on a limb: Every American wants her leaders to work together for the common good. What follower in any organization doesn’t want that?

To another limb: Most Americans don’t think it will ever really happen.

If cohesion consistently fails to occur; if, for example, entitlement spending continues to barrel us toward bankruptcy, we must ask: “Are fundamentals at play that are preventing purportedly well-meaning people from achieving self-evident goals?”

I’ve argued in this space that the political personalities and discourse of our day are no more extreme and – to use terms preferred by my friends on the left – vitriolic and shrill than they were in the past.

However, I do believe some contemporary forces are at work that prevent progress and cause the blame for inertia to be laid unjustly at the feet of modern rhetoric and old-fashioned hardheadedness.

1. The size of the federal bureaucracy.

Politicians come and go. Bureaucrats live forever. If elected officials find it difficult to enact change, appointed officials make it nearly impossible. The politicians’ adrenaline rushes ride on their staying in office. The bureaucrats’ financial livelihoods ride on it. And there are 2.65 million bureaucrats who would like to keep their jobs.

2. The money used to influence the federal government.

No patriot wants to limit a citizen’s right to petition his government. Still, the billions of dollars that flow through K Street lobby firms are not necessarily helpful in times of needed transformational change. The mammoth resources largely go to protect existing interests in the status quo, not exactly what we need at the moment.

3. The surreal environment of Washington, D.C.

I wrote last year, in the middle of the Great Recession, that D.C. stands for “district of construction.” Federal spending drove continued expansion there even as the rest of the country contracted. The real estate market is just one of many ways that the capital city is out of touch with reality, much less main street America.

Unrefined idea: abandon the district as an historical tourist attraction and build a new capital in the geographic center of the country. Keep it simple, functional and with tools that allow average citizens to have their elected leaders’ ears the most.

Where would such a capital be built? Near Lebanon, Kansas, where the terrain is level and the roads are straight, like we want our politicians to be.

What does “Lebanon” mean? White. As in pure and untainted. In other words, a clean slate.

On speaking minds and losing them

The free speech double standard in American politics is profound. Any bear paying half attention knows that the left can say things that the right simply cannot.

The left can call a population segment poor and needy and be characterized as mercifully sensitive. The right can call the same segment the same thing and be caricatured as obnoxiously insensitive.

The double standard became even more pronounced in the wake of the Tuscon, Arizona, shootings earlier this month.

To some on the left, conservative commentators were complicit in a hate crime. Prodded by a member of the media, one victim’s family member denounced the culture’s “venomous political speech,” insinuating that modern civic dialogue played a role in the tragedy.

No evidence suggests that the perpetrator garnered any motivation from either side of the political spectrum. Evidence does suggest that he was emotionally and psychologically imbalanced, and that he acted on his own volition from his own troubled world.

I don’t disagree that our country could use less talking and more listening. Most human relationships could.

I covet Stephen Covey’s advice: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” And better yet, from the brother of Jesus: “Be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.”

But don’t limit my freedom to speak my mind just because a loon loses his.

As a thirty-something Republican, I grew up in an era when getting a conservative to be confrontational was like getting a four-year-old to burp with his mouth closed. It was virtually impossible.

As a result, my party spent the 1960s, 70s and 80s as a reliable Congressional minority. It wasn’t until talk radio and new media hit in the mid-90’s that Republicans emboldened. Only then did a right-of-center party begin to fully govern our right-of-center nation.

Once conservatives started going head to head with liberal ideologies, they won the political day.

Except for compromised fiscal principles and an elongated military conflict, the Democrat gains of 2006 and 2008 would not have happened. By extension, the uproarious course correction of 2010 would not have been necessary.

Liberals know this. They know that common sense, conservative political speech is remarkably representative of what most Americans believe.

So, liberals don’t go toe to toe on the field of ideas; they attempt to move the goalposts. They don’t repudiate the message; they attempt to silence the messenger.

Hence, their labeling as uniquely novel and dangerously provocative the political commentary that has flowed for generations.

To undermine the compelling content of their opposition, they vilify their opposition’s tone. In truth, it is no more “hateful” than their own and no more heightened than that of public discourse through the ages.

Is brown the new green?

Brownsville is going green. In the words of City Commissioner Edward Camarillo, “We will be known as the green capital of the world.”

Does the South Texas city have Toyota Prius police cars? A solar-powered city hall? Electronic electric bills? Rainwater catchment cisterns on its tanker trucks?

Oh, no. Any municipality could do that stuff. Brownsville has gone where not even Austin has dared to go before. Right to the core of what environmentalists from Al Gore to Alec Baldwin agree is the root of ecological evil: urban tumbleweeds.

You may know them as plastic shopping bags. I know them as dirty diaper tamers. But did we all know that they kill 14 million trees in the U.S. each year? That’s right. It’s there, sourceless, in the preamble of City of Brownsville Ordinance 2009-911-E.

And all this time we thought paper sacks were killing the trees!

Beginning January 1, Brownsville shoppers can’t sack their stuff in non-reusable plastic bags without paying a $1 fee to their city.

Supposedly, the $1 luxury sack tax won’t last forever. Once retailers run out of their existing supplies of bags, they must stop offering plastic.

City customs enforcement agents must be on high alert to snag any sacks at the gates. It’s too bad that smugglers can condense about a million of them into a block the size of a Kleenex box.

That’s ironic, too. How much space do the tumbleweeds actually take up in a landfill? A fraction of a fraction. But this fight is not about making space in a landfill. It’s about making space in our hearts for mother nature.

But would mother nature object if a plastic bag is filled with trash that Tim Teenager would have otherwise chunked out his truck window?

What does she think about the food products packaged in petroleum: bread, tortillas, chips, marshmallows, etc.? And the produce bags? Is their clock ticking? “Honey, I would have gotten some bananas for the kids but I left my potato sack in the car.”

What about the grocery store aisle of plastic bags for sale in all shapes, sizes, colors and smells? Should we go mad at Glad?

I’d like to be a fly on the exterior wall of the Brownsville Home Depot the day it runs out of plastic bags for a buck. The sight of Curt Contractor walking out bagless juggling twenty-seven PVC couplings or, better yet, the burly man walking in with five pink reusable sacks.

My guess is Home Depot will never run out of plastic bags, and the City of Brownsville will never run out of cash from its newfound revenue source. And liberals will have found another harmless scapegoat on which to vent their misguided environmental fury.

Let heads and hearts collide

Microsoft popularized the slogan, “Where do you want to go today?” while advertising its Windows operating system in 1995. Sixteen years later the question remains relevant for Republicans in Austin.

When the 82nd Texas Legislature convenes Tuesday, our party will more securely control more levers of state government than ever before. The stakes are high with a paradox at play: You have a nice view from the top; you’re also a more exposed target.

Pride comes before a fall, not a rise, remember. May we tread boldly but cautiously.

Twice in the last decade Texas has faced a budget shortfall in the double digit billions. Each time voters have selected Republicans to lead the reconciliation efforts. Coincidence? Do woodchucks chuck wood?

Eight years ago, Republicans captured a majority in the Texas House for the first time since the 1870s. 2003 was also the year a sluggish, post-9/11 economy left a $12 billion gap between state spending and state tax revenues. The legislature reduced spending rather than raising taxes.

Texans must have been pleased. Republicans have remained in power ever since, this year with a “super-majority” in the Texas House as the state faces an even bigger revenue shortfall. (The Comptroller hasn’t release her estimate yet, but it’s likely to be $20 billion or more.)

Texans want a repeat of how the 2003 budget deficit was handled. They want the budget hole filled by less spending reductions, not tax additions.

They want a government that is lean and efficient. They want resources left largely in the hands of the people who can create the most good: the entrepreneurs, the inventors, the problem-solvers.

They want collective resources primarily invested to catalyze economic vitality. They want state spending focused more on assets, education and infrastructure and less on services and entitlements.

With that said, it will take the wisdom of Solomon to determine what stays and what goes, as it did in 2003. God bless those decisions.

May the state protect well the most vulnerable citizens among us, the children, the disabled, the elderly, while admitting that there is no equal substitute for competent and caring families and friends. We need fresh insights into how to accomplish such goals.

Texas’ Child Protective Services has traditionally utilized gold-hearted, fresh-from-college social workers, most of them females, to rescue kids from hellacious habitats.

Turnover in those jobs is often high and efficacy is often low, due in large part to the dangerous environments into which workers must go.

Unrefined idea: Send kindhearted retired military officers in to retrieve innocent and needy children from domestic battle zones. Many such retirees are relatively young and would be thrilled to forego one golf game a week for a meaningful service. Salutary social workers could then apply their nurturing once victims are removed.

We have pressing budget and social needs. It’s time to get creative about solutions for balancing both within our means. Let heads and hearts collide! That’s where I want to go today.

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