It’s Time to Change the Conversation

The United States is in a strange place right now. With the inauguration of Donald Trump, it seems like every conversation has become political and many people are living in a state of permanent distraction.

On the right, considerable gloating could and can be heard about the changes that are supposed to come and the over throw of the old system. As the opposition grows more vocal, so do the growls of retaliation from the administration and its supporters. A sense of discomfort is settling over the right as they realize they have no mandate and less support than they thought.

On the left, the election results were met with disbelief and wailing and gnashing of teeth. It was concerning to hear people say that they could not function in their daily lives. If the results lay them out, then how will they be able to take the hits that will come? Now people speak of resistance and with cautious hope that occasionally dips back into despair. Meanwhile, a riptide of violent talk and action is starting to filter through the left. People talking about (and actually) punching Nazis and trying to establish their violence bona fides from their history of fighting at punk concerts.

At the center of it all, however, remains one constant topic — Trump himself. This central position is what gives him so much power. By becoming the locus of all the efforts, energy, and attention, all the moves become his. Everyone else is reduced to reaction. So, he is setting the tone and the agenda for the entire country. He runs the conversation.

It is time to change the conversation.

The president is not the only political actor in the country. The Federal Government is not the only political actor in the country. Yet the reactions point to an ugly truth that maybe no one wants to hear — perhaps the left really has become to dependent on the government.

What should the conversation be?

Instead of making everything about Donald Trump, we need to start thinking about the issues facing our nation and our world. We need to start with facts and data, identify the problems, and begin working on the solutions. Since the federal government is no longer going to be of much help, it is time to find state, local, and private solutions to problems we face. There will be some federal battles to fight.Those are important, but for this discussion let’s think about the things that can be solved.

With the Democratic party unable to provide leadership, the resistance will be local.

We are starting to see some signs of this. For example, in Massachusetts, there is a bill that would require the state to get all of its energy from renewable resources. At the same time, Governor Charlie Baker, a republican, has said that if the Affordable Care Act goes away, then he will work to reinstate the previous universal coverage bill in Massachusetts that the ACA was based on (also known as Romneycare).

Money Magazine took a look at 17 programs that the Trump administration wants to cut and calculated that the cost per American citizen is $22.36 per year. This includes funding for things like the Corporation for Public Broadcasting ($1.37), the National Endowment for the Arts ($0.46), and the Minority Business Development Agency ($0.11). All of these are worthy programs, but given the amount in the budget, maybe it is time to remove them from the political football field. This way, instead of being kicked around, they take the loss of federal funding, use it as a call to action, and build up their own private endowment. Call it an “Ice Bucket Challenge for the Humanities.” We can get people to kick in a little extra. I realize that not everyone can afford to donate — the battle cry of the left whenever someone suggests that people should do some of their own funding — but it becomes a case of from each according to his/her ability, to each according to his/her need. What would it cost to cover five Americans? About $111.80? I’ll cover myself and four others.

Yes, private funding can be fickle (so can government funding). But really, the question now is what do we value, and are we willing to support it, whether through our state and local governments or our own efforts.

The point of these examples is not the examples per se. It is that solutions exist, and they don’t need Donald Trump or the federal government to bless them. Maybe by changing the conversation, we can start to prevent some bad things from happening by creating sustainable, smaller scale solutions.

What Are the Limits of Markets

What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of MarketsWhat Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets by Michael J. Sandel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Anyone who is interested in in the shape and direction of our society should read this book. In What Money Can’t Buy, Michael Sandel provides an interesting counter-point to the market fundamentalism that dominates our society today.

In the United States we have been encouraged to let markets solve every problem, but there are limitations to the market. What Sandel asks is whether or not puttting something up for sale devalues it. Using examples including human blood, time, and civic involvement, he answers that selling something can cheapen it.

This can be a difficult argument to make, because we all value things like education and community involvement differently. Still, Sandel gives examples of how valuing things with money can actually lead to counter-intuitive results.

I think the underlying thought is that if you pay someone, providing an ancillary or outside incentive for what should be done because of its intrinsic good, then that person could be induced to do the opporite if a sufficient incentive were offered.

We live in an era of market-fundamentalism, which is just as powerful as any other kind of religious fundamentalism. Economists have pushed politicians and popular discourse to think of everything as being valued only in dollars and sense. It leads to economists saying things like “price gouging is good” after disasters.

The book covers issues like naming rights, line jumping, and sky boxes. Is it right to selll advertising on cop cars? Is it right to sell advertising space on our own bodies?

There is one aspect of these kinds of questions that I don’t think Sandel adequately covers. He never talks about where markets fail. Although a market theoretically should cater to the desires of people, it can’t cover needs and desires that aren’t recognized. Markets also do not always allocate things efficiently or fairly or produce the best option. The proliferation of bad pop music is an easy example. Food deserts are another example of a market failure. Sandel talks about the moral failrues of markets, but I think that more discussion about technical failures of markets would have strengthened this book.

Nonetheless, in reading Sandel’s book, there is an underlying assumption that there are things that are good and right. All is not relative in Sandel’s world, and it is not in ours. “In adition to debating the meaning of this or that good, we also need to ask a bigger question, about the kind of society in which we wish to live.”

I think everyone should read this book and think about what kind of society we want to live in, especially as we go through a round of elections where this discussion is being brought into sharp relief. Buy a copy or visit your library and get one. The questions in this book are some of the most important we face, and this is a side of the discussion that is too seldom heard.

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