Friday, July 20, 2007

Why Don't We Solve Problems?

Feeling discomfort, fellow citizens? Do you feel a mild pain in the Congress and bloating in the White House despite unappeased hunger for competence and forthright leaders? Does the news cause belching, nausea or heartburn? You need a therapy with a low risk of sexual side effects.

In a recent post my fellow blogger Jen asked "What does keeping people homeless do for our country? What benefits exist by choosing to allow this to continue?" The same could be asked about every pressing social and economic need -- there are many and deepening since this century began.

Jen spoke from a ground-level on-the-front perspective I don't have. I was drawn in by her comment that she and her colleagues work tirelessly to help the homeless and "one day we pull our head out of our asses and wonder what has happened, why no difference has been made." Her head, in my opinion, has been in a much more savory place than she believes.

The problem is that there's always a dichotomy between doing and policymaking. My perspective as an active observer of the policymaking process is very different. While I know someone who knows many of the homeless people in my city by name, I prefer to deal with homelessness by reporting on policy and its undergirding.

So here's the wonk wannabe short answer to Jen's question: homelessness, the millions who have no access to preventive health care, the millions more who are getting a deficient education, the millions who are losing jobs to India and China and so on, all of it, is part and parcel of the way we do things in this and other countries -- in brief, the system.

Homelessness was huge in the 1930s, retreated in the 1940s through the 1960s, began to climb as a counter-cultural phenomenon and a side-effect of Vietnam (ever notice how many are [black] veterans?) and became ubiquitous again when Ronald Reagan essentially gutted the public mental health system.

Much the same cycle can be seen with respect to manufacturing and other well-paying jobs and the state of education. In the matter of health, Harry Truman proposed a plan that would have put us on a par with Britain's excellent system of socialized medicine (I lived there), but the American Medical Association and the pharma industry blocked it.

In the 1920s we had an excellent clean, non-polluting system of electrified rail transport in many large cities. General Motors bought out the transit systems and transformed them into a diesel-guzzling combustion-engine only, second-class transport for the poorest. Now you can swim on the polar ice cap.

The top 1 percent of our socioeconomic ladder, which starts at a lower dollar figure than most educated people think (download this), control well over half of the nation's assets (this is wealth, not just income). They are in a position to make the vital decisions; if anyone benefits from the present state of affairs, they do -- and since George W. Bush seized power, they have, beyond belief.

What's the problem? We have a formalized civil and political democracy, but we completely lack democracy in the economy.

Unless you work in a union shop, you essentially work in a dictatorship in which whoever owns or runs the workplace can essentially control your life for whatever portion of your time you are selling. Similarly, unless you are a millionaire (what am I saying ... a billionaire!) and you can afford to buy votes in Congress, the voice your vote gives you is probably about a tenth of its relative demographic weight, which is small enough already.

What do the powers that be gain from homelessness? Very little, directly. But indirectly every homeless person is a walking advertisement for what can happen to you if you choose to rebel at the workplace or the ballot booth.

The system runs on the anxiety that if you do not keep your place on the rat-race treadmill, you will fall behind. Moreover, the pace of demands -- or speed of the treadmill -- increases all the time; they keep convincing you to buy homes, cars, iPhones that we simply "must" have. If you stumble or -- heavens forfend! -- fall, it's your fault and you don't deserve help (see this post).

So the first thing that strikes me as individually actionable is to remain strong, serene and unrattled. Opt out in small ways and eventually you'll manage things that are large. Reconsider the plans you made, the things you thought you needed.

The second thing we can do for this society is to rediscover the meaning and value of solidarity, as a community of purpose and feelings.

In this I am often envious of women, who tend naturally, it seems, to intermingle and support one another in a very altruistic, yet most often practical way. Men are more often lone wolves who live in distrust of one another -- for good reason.

Women in the helping professions -- including human services, Jen -- are often ridiculed by the conservative attempt to suppress altruism in the name of fighting so-called "political correctness." To unstintingly encourage ("good job") and see the positive in other people ("we are all special") may sound cloying to those who would rather think about themselves, but at the heart of it is the key to our collective salvation from the mire of death, war, famine and pollution -- the four horsemen of the false freedom of conservatism.

As Benjamin Franklin warned at the signing of the Declaration of Independence, "We must all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately."

Thirdly, I think it is necessary for the more wonkish among us to trade places, even on a temporary weekend basis, with the hands-on helping professionals -- and vice versa.

There ought to be some kind of community service requirement for the vast army of political aides and consultants who are behind the politicians -- I would exempt the politicians on grounds that to them it would become a mere photo-op. Aides in Congress who think a tax break will really be meaningful for poor people ought to know some.

Similarly, the doers don't get off scott-free. As a professional observer, I often attend conferences in which people who genuinely do good all year round attempt to discuss the problems and the solutions. The naivete is charming, but no wonder the conservatives have been winning. Folks in the field need to do the occasional congressional internship (a state legislature or city council internship would do) -- or at a policy research and advocacy group -- to see just how many eggs have to be cracked to make policy omelet.

Change takes both study and action.

Recently I attended a meeting at which I found someone who seemed to combine the best of both worlds: meet Minnesota Sen. Tarryl Clark (D-Dist 15), a former executive director of the Minnesota Community Action Partnership, elected to state office in December 2005.

She has experience in nonprofit poverty assistance. When she got into office, instead of grandstanding she went and dusted off a set of socioeconomic goals that had been adopted and promptly shelved -- and she insisted on having the law followed. She's so well liked -- and frankly, impressive -- she was elected majority leader.

Here's a relatively new face to watch: someone who has hands-on experience and shows a keen grasp of policy as well.

The present time is seeing a surge -- to use a phrase in favor at the White House -- of people coming together to challenge the status quo in a comprehensive, coherent and united way -- a surge against everything Bush stands for: more and more of the worst of the worst.

In the final analysis, the best answer for why we don't solve problems is that we don't collectively have the will to do so.

We like our things and the imaginary status they convey. We really think that work redeems us instead of merely being a way to survive and just occasionally express meaning. We really have bought the myth about individuality to the disregard of our essential need for one another.

We need to begin caring for all of us, together.
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