A Few Thoughts On Some Of The Questions Voters Want Presidential Candidates To Answer
The Atlantic asked its readers to suggest questions that the Presidential candidates should be asked during the debates, and then compiled a list of thirty-two most popular ones. Some of those questions were particularly interesting, so I thought I’d jot down some of my own thoughts on these issues.
Can you describe legislation which you think would be good for the country if only it could be legally enacted, but which is unconstitutional?
Yes. But for the First Amendment, I would really like it if we could curtail lobbying activities by religious fundamentalist organizations and make their members (or those closely affiliated) ineligible for public office. Hell, I’d make them ineligible for any government job, be it senator, janitor or postal clerk. I would also like a law that would require any public official to publicly acknowledge the separation of church and state, and swear that he or she will uphold the Constitution even if it conflicts with his or her religious or moral beliefs. Of course, a law that’s unconstitutional probably can’t be good for the country in the long run (though not for the reasons that a religious fundamentalist would articulate).
Wade Michael Page, Nidal Malik Hasan, and Robert Bales were either currently enlisted or military veterans. The rate of suicide by veterans is at an all-time high. As the commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces, what specific steps would you take to deal with the mental health crisis affecting our soldiers and veterans?
With respect to Page, Hasan and Bales, I believe it’s a massive mistake to automatically chalk up what they’ve done to mental illness. As I’ve written previously in my post about Anders Breivik, reflexively characterizing a mass murderer as someone not in his right mind is our society’s way of avoiding facing the truth about political and religious extremism. By invoking this defense mechanism, we make ourselves feel better, but we also make ourselves less safe, because we fail to analyze how things like background, personality and certain political triggers come together to radicalize normal, rationally thinking people. If we get some idea about that, maybe we can take steps to counter radicalization. If instead we offer counseling and Prozac to people who feel they should open fire on a crowd in the name of their god, we will continue to see incidents like this with increasing frequency. It is ourselves we should heal, our own fears we should face. Psychiatry is not a very good tool for addressing social, economic and political problems.
Likewise, I reject the idea that suicide is primarily the result of a mental health problem. Sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t. Plenty of rational people commit suicide, and it’s less about “a permanent solution to a temporary problem” and more about being the only avenue for taking back control over one’s fate. What are our veterans coming home to? Those who claim most vociferously to “support the troops” express that so-called “support” by giving increasingly lucrative contracts to private firms, while slashing the benefits of our veterans.
Medical care provided to them and their families is supposed to be top-of-the-line, but in reality, it is abysmal. Did you know a doctor need not be licensed in any state in order to practice as an attending physician at a VA hospital? I once represented a surgeon who was stripped of his license to practice medicine in New York for falsifying medical records (which he did in order to save his lying ass in the course of an internal investigation for performing a particularly risky surgery that was probably unnecessary). No other state would license him after this. But a VA hospital was more than happy to hire him as an attending. As if shady, underqualified staff wasn’t enough, patients who seek treatment from the VA system are put through a bureaucratic wringer over and over and over, in a way clearly designed to discourage people from availing themselves of the benefits to which they are entitled.
Add to this the fact that while the military generally pays little, at least at the bottom, the costs of reintegrating into civilian life are skyrocketing — and I am talking about actual money costs here. Tuition rates are famously growing even while incomes are stagnating, and overpriced for-profit diploma mills (which Republicans favor) fleece veterans like there is no tomorrow. The economy is in the crapper, and the unemployment (real, unmassaged numbers) is probably somewhere around 20%.
So when you come back from the battlefield injured and reduced to penury, and those who are supposed to take care of you give you an endless run-around, you might just start thinking about killing yourself. Particularly if you have access to a firearm. And once again, by telling ourselves that suicide is strictly about mental illness, we avoid acknowledging the economic realities that veterans face. The solution, therefore, is first and foremost remove all these incentives to suicide.
In your job as POTUS, you will be responsible for managing one of the largest annual budgets in the country. I am curious how you would manage one of the smallest. Pretend for a moment that you lived in Oregon where the minimum wage is $8.80/hour. Imagine that you are working full-time for minimum wage. Your annual income, before taxes, would be $18,304. This would give you a monthly salary of $1525.33 (again though it would probably be less as no taxes have been deducted). If you were so lucky as to find an apartment for $650/month and rode the bus to and from work everyday, that would leave you with $787.83 for ALL of your expenses. How would you manage that budget? What would you do, if anything, to get assistance?
Well — I have experience with poverty. Based on that experience, I must reject out of hand the idea of going to some church and relying on its charity — which is what a prospective POTUS is expected to say, I presume.
There are, however, some ways to stretch the dollar. One way is to eat less. Not just cheaper, but less.
Have an AC unit in one room only in the summer, and in the winter, keep the temperature in your apartment cool, while wearing scarves and sweaters indoors.
Shop for clothes at flea markets and Salvation Army stores. Scour circulars for sales. Don’t bother with manufacturers’ coupons — they are a rip-off.
Don’t have a car.
Don’t have cable. If you need to use the Internet, you can do so for free at your local library (no thanks to you, Republicans).
Don’t have a landline. Who needs one these days, anyway?
Call your grandmother and get a crash course on herbal medicine, because obviously, you won’t be able to afford medical care.
Make sure your kids take advantage of those free school lunches all year round.
Check what your neighbors deposit on the sidewalk on trash collection days. Sometimes, people throw out perfectly decent furniture, just because a dog peed on it, or someone died on it, or it’s infested with bugs, or something. I’m sure those are all problems you can take care of; after all, you do have to be resourceful.
That’s all I can think of, for now.
Government serves as a risk-sharing mechanism. Our tax dollars are pooled to protect individuals and communities against unforeseen catastrophes be they medical, environmental or financial. Is this an appropriate function for government? By what principles should the appropriate breadth and subject-area of this risk-collectivization be defined? Are there specific areas where the government is providing “too much” insurance? Are there areas where it is not providing enough?
First of all, yes, it’s an appropriate function of the government to protect its citizens from catastrophes. And of course, it’s a balancing act. When New York’s former Mayor Rudy Giuliani ran up a huge tab putting homeless people in hotels to the tune of $150 per room, per night, for the purpose of pulling those hotels out of bankruptcy — that was an example of the government being overprotective of businesses (run by people who aren’t even New York residents) at the expense of the public (since the enormous debt ultimately increased the burden on everyone and exacerbated poverty across the board). Similarly, when the government engages in dubious military adventures for the purpose of lining the pockets of certain “friends” with lucrative contracts, it is being overprotective of business, and underprotective of people — many of whom have to die or become maimed, and many others have to see their tax bill go up and their services slashed, just because some corporate big shot “deserves” a fourth vacation home. We see the same problem when the government bails out financial institutions with the consequence of bringing a sizeable proportion of the citizenry to near-ruin.
What specific lessons does experience in business provide? Which of these pertain to the office of the president?
I believe no skill is useless, but I disagree with the popular wisdom that business experience makes a person particularly qualified to administer a country. A country isn’t like a chain of pizza restaurants, and thus the correct approaches to running those things are completely different. Citizens are not employees, nor are they customers. You can’t fire them. You can’t throw them out of your shop. They can’t really fire you, either. They are people who are under your authority, who have entrusted you with their safety, welfare, their very lives. The position of a statesman is more like that of a fiduciary than a businessman, and so I would say someone who has worked in a fiduciary capacity in the past is more qualified to serve in government than someone who ran a purely commercial business.
The goals in operating a business and operating a country are different, too. The Declaration of Independence is instructive on the subject of the purposes of a government. The government’s role is to promote and protect certain inalienable rights through its general police power. The goal of a business, by contrast, is to make a buck. I don’t see how those two are at all similar. How would operating the United States at a profit would even look like? Are large numbers of Americans going to get laid off from their citizenships and put out?
Not too long ago, New York’s Mayor installed someone by the name of Cathleen Black as the New York City Schools Chancellor. Black had never taught a single day in her life, had never run an educational system, never worked in a government agency and had absolutely no qualifications or experience in the education field. Her “relevant experience” consisted of running a magazine, where she had made a reputation for herself as a “tough executive”. So the Mayor thought, “What could be better than having a tough business woman run our schools?”
Thing is, public schools are not a for-profit business, nor should be. Black’s short tenure proved to be an unmitigated disaster, and she resigned in disgrace after a little more than three months on the job. Of course, her supporters might say that she had been sabotaged by certain “insiders” in the Department of Education. But you know what? One of the indispensable qualities of a leader is being able to, you know, lead people, make them trust you and want to follow you. If you can’t bring people under your command to feel that way about you, then it isn’t a job for you. The stakes, and the power relationships at play in a business enterprise and in a political system are completely different. At the very least, a minimally qualified politician should understand that
Also aren’t Republicans saying the government shouldn’t meddle in business? If so, doesn’t the idea of running the United States as if it were a business contradict that principle?
What is your position on establishing an independent, nonpartisan commission to investigate the authorization and use of forms of torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment in counterterrorism efforts?
I am not crazy about commissions. They consume a lot of money and resources, do a lot of wheel-spinning and ultimately produce tomes that no one bothers to read. And nothing changes. In the long run, making the government more bureaucratic by setting up innumerable investigative committees leads to illegal conduct becoming less visible, not more. This is in no small part because the usual thing is to set up a commission and then promptly wash our hands of the whole affair.
Does every law-abiding citizen have a right to food, a right to shelter, a right to education and a right to healthcare provided by the federal government? Otherwise stated, does the U.S. government owe each person a house, a meal, a college degree and the healthcare they require?
It is in everyone’s interest to provide needy citizens with sufficient aid to be adequately fed, housed, reasonably healthy and at least minimally educated. Poverty and hopelessness lead to crime, political instability and religious extremism. Thus, in the long run, huge crowds of hungry, homeless, chronically ill, illiterate people make life unpleasant and dangerous for everyone, even the rich.
The government should invest in its citizenry. That doesn’t mean everyone should have a free college degree, but people with a particular aptitude for academic or technological work should have their education paid for. Maximizing the use of talent benefits everyone by promoting technological progress, the sciences and the arts.
Read the biographies of the greatest thinkers and creators of history. Notice a pattern? Picasso’s father was an artist. Einstein’s father was an engineer, and his mother was likewise highly educated. Mozart’s father was a musician. Had Mozart been born in a peasant’s family, he probably wouldn’t have become one of the greatest composers of history. Even if he had, he wouldn’t have had his father’s connections to get jobs that ensured that his compositions were heard; we never would have heard about him. There would be no “Marriage of Figaro”, no “Requiem”, no “Great Mass”. And that should lead you to a scary thought: how many incredibly brilliant people, how many Mozarts, Picassos and Einsteins are lost to humanity because they are boxed into pre-set roles by their socio-economic backgrounds? A modern, humane government should give such people a way to pursue their talents, and it should give them some freedom to fail. Life will be better of all if we do so.
Sometimes democracy promotion and combating Islamic extremism go hand-in-hand but they can also come into conflict when newly democratizing nations elect Islamist parties. In those cases how should the United States reconcile competing policy objectives? Do the security interests of the United States call for subordinating democracy promotion to counter-terrorism?
Democracy promotion and combating Islamic extremism are apples and oranges. They don’t go hand-in-hand. One big mistake that people make is associating democracy with humanism, liberalism, and generally nice things. The reason for that mistake is a short-sighted, culturally ignorant assumption that people all over the world, given a chance, would want to be exactly like … Americans or other Westerners; that they have the same values; that they have the same goals in life.
A democracy isn’t necessarily a liberal one. All a democracy is, is a system in which the citizenry — or, rather, I should say, the electorate — has a lot of latitude in fashioning the kind government that will promote its values. Some electorates have Islamic fundamentalist values; so given a chance to operate as democracies, they elect parties most likely to promote and implement those values. That’s all.
Every candidate talks about broadening the tax base and eliminating preferences in the tax code. One of the biggest preferences, the home-mortgage interest deduction, distorts housing markets, unreasonably prefers owner-occupied housing over rental housing, and costs taxpayers hundreds of millions in foregone revenue. In the interest of making the tax code fairer and balancing the budget, would your administration support ending this wasteful tax expenditure?
Let’s not beat up on the middle class, okay?
I wouldn’t characterize the home-mortgage as “one of the biggest preferences”. The biggest preference, in my opinion, is distinguishing “capital gains” from “ordinary income”. This is a distinction without a difference — and it makes no sense to tax people more for actually working, while taxing them less on funds that passively flow to them, with no labor contribution of any kind. THAT is the biggest preference, designed to make the rich richer by drastically reducing their tax liabilities — and it is one that should be eliminated immediately.
There are a few other preferences that I have issue with. A bunch of corporate dudes can go to Vegas, drink themselves silly and hire strippers — and deduct half the cost, because that trip is a “business expense”, you see. But if a working-class single mother pays for a nursing degree, she does not get to deduct any of the cost (just the interest on school loans, up to a certain level of income), because the cost of even vocational education is treated as a “personal expense”. I am sick of ordinary taxpayers buying corporate executives yachts, villas, and exclusive retreats while being denied the most modest of breaks. Except, of course, the home-mortgage deduction.
You know what? Let’s eliminate the deduction on all homes that don’t serve as the owner’s primary residence, how about that? But I’d take care of all those other things, first.
If you had to propose just one amendment to the Constitution, what would it be?
Why, one to supercede that shameful Citizens United ruling, of course.