The Simple Solution Myth

The American spirit is defined by a constant quest for freedom from persecution. The most persistent and controversial issues in our country strike at this sense of security. Here are just a few:

Foreign Wars
Civil Rights
Religious Freedom
Constitutional Purity

I left out the War on Drugs, Illegal Immigration, Abortion, and a slew of others. I'd like to discuss them all, but there is only so much room in my tent right now.

All these subjects prod at the underbelly of our need for safety and comfort; our wanting to be autonomous and free from persecution. These issues persist precisely because they are complex and tough to solve. If they were simple problems with simple solutions, they would not be fraught with so much baggage.

I'd like to talk about each of the issues listed, starting with Foreign Wars. As much as I'd like to say that extracting ourselves from foreign engagements is simple and as much evidence there is in the world to at least partially corroborate that theory, my better nature knows better. Sometimes, shit doesn't get solved because shit is hard. Finding something unconscionable and telling it to go away does not always make it go away.

I shouldn't have to say this, but if it's a hot button issue, it rare has a simple solution. In fact, armchair solutions to real world problems often assume policymakers and generals and other leaders have their heads stuck so far up their asses that they don't see the simplest solutions right in front of them.

I'll wager that some do have their heads up their asses, but a lot of others on the ground see these problems and issues for what they are - tough to comprehend and even tougher to solve. I'm not here to solve the problems, but I am here to tell you what I think about each of them, where I think the solution is, and to say that no, it's not as simple as you think.

Non-Foreign Intervention

People try to simplify this issue as one of simply vacating the countries we currently inhabit. After all, most of the countries we invade and occupy don't need us there, right? If we left them alone to their own devices, and let them work out their shit, they would be forced to learn self reliance, and then we could, as Obama likes to say, 'do some nation building back home.' The sentiment is emotionally resonant. Why occupy a country that doesn't want you there? Why not just leave?

Well, the answer is complex because geopolitics is complex. We can question the decision to invade a country like Iraq or Afghanistan, but thinking realistically - that decision was already made. We can't reverse the clock on these decisions, but reversing the consequences proves to be a logistical nightmare. Occupations have consequences. They create relationships founded on dependence and they establish baselines and expectations of support that, when retracted suddenly, can cause whole infrastructures to fall apart, and in some cases, result in chaos.

While it's morally sound to agonize over the United States' insistence on spending money on nation building abroad, it's naive to think that reversing course is as easy as charting one and going there. It's not. Uprooting our presence in countries we've invested in is hard. It takes careful strategy and careful diplomacy. It costs a ton of money. If you invest in a country by occupying it, you must understand that pulling your stake from that country will also cost a ton of money, particularly if war has stunted the changes your country was there to advance in the first place.

I can't even feign incredulity at why the United States hasn't just pulled out of the Middle East. I understand why it hasn't. The leaders of those countries understand why it hasn't. The people there are frustrated and many want us out, and and the people here are frustrated and want our troops home, but the more information you have about the financial and geopolitical consequences of occupations, the high costs of reversing course, the less simple things get.

Add to that the humanitarian roots we've planted throughout the world, and investments we've made that can't be simply extracted by adding more resources to charitable organizations, and you've got a problem whose solution takes up considerably more room than a sound bite.

Taxes and the Role of Government

The tax argument should be a policy argument, but let's get this straight - it is currently a religious argument. It is about the choice between a fact-based or faith-based approach to growing the economy. Unfortunately for the facts, faith has the virtue of appealing straight to the gut, and facts are sometimes inconvenient.

The fiscal cliff you're sick of hearing about is largely to do with expiration of tax provisions at the beginning of 2013. But we all hate taxes, so why not just get rid of taxes completely? What good are they? Why not just grow our economy right out of its addiction to high taxes?

The first answer is that taxes pay for shared resources and opportunities, while resources grown from private capital only benefit a select few. Taxes are necessary because they ostensibly levy responsibility on citizens based on how much they benefit from living here. It is not enough to expect high income earners' philanthropic duties to cover all our charitable necessities.

The second answer is that the alternative to not taxing anyone is spending far, far less on everything. Are there some places where spending can and should be cut? Yes. How far should austerity go? Obviously, austerity, even in extreme cases, is not going to be enough. We overspend, but the act of reigning in spending - much like the act of extrapolating oneself from foreign intervention - is a strategic, cautious endeavor. The best approach is one that embraces compromise - certain spending cuts and certain revenue increases. That a certain major political party has been absolutely unyielding at the suggestion of compromise of this sort should be anathema to them, but low and behold, even after the 2012 sweep, they still control the House.

Competing philosophies in Government argue about the necessity of public funding for projects like roads, bridges, NPR, PBS, public school and library budgets and after school programs. Why not just hand over control to private interests and keep the grabby hands out of taxpayers' pockets? I've heard it said this way - privatizing public resources removes the taxpayer from the unenviable position of paying for things he/she may oppose. I hate taxes as much as the next person - after all, at my age, I likely won't see a return on that 'investment' given the bleak future faced by Social Security and Medicare if our current situation continues.

But consider this: if you trust these publicly held resources to private entities, the everyday citizen loses control over how those resources are allocated. They cease to be, for all intents and purposes, 'shared.' They become someone's property. The Government is a - sometimes very rightfully - maligned bogeyman in matters of civil liberties and taxes, but on paper, assuming disastrously out of control Campaign Finance and Lobby activities are regulated appropriately, Government can still work for us. Private entities, however, these things that fiscal conservatives want to do Government's job for it, don't even have that pretense. On paper, they're just as beholden to a select few as ever. That's their job. For the private market to effectively 'take over from' Government, is, at it's core, to wrest control from the people. Government may suffer from bloat, waste, and corruption, but it is only our apathy toward maintaining the status quo in Washington. It is the very existence of taxes that ensures we continue to have a voice there. We may be a Plutocracy, but for every dollar we invest in shared interests with our fellow citizens, we become a little less of one.

So, assuming that taxes have a necessary role to play, how far should it go? How do we keep taxes from being catastrophically unfair?

Well, for starters, we don't burden the middle class with the brunt of it. The economic expiration date - or the 'fiscal cliff' is controversial because temporary tax cuts enacted during Bush I's reign are set to expire across the board - for middle and high income earners. There shouldn't be an argument about extending tax cuts on the middle class - everyone agrees they should be extended - but for Republicans in the House of Representatives, this so-called 'no-brainer' issue is a bargaining chip toward keeping tax rates low for high income earners as well. Republicans want to link keeping taxes low for high income earners with keeping income low on the middle class. Theirs is a faith-based approach to the value of rich people. Rich people, even those who fire people for a living, are called 'job creators.' The invention of the term 'job creator' was enacted because Republicans needed to find a way to start defending millionaires without sounding haughty. Their strategy worked, and the term 'job creator' has planted the seed in the mind of many a low-information  voter that obscene wealth is almost always benevolent.

The problem is, of course, that tax code already treats different kinds of income earners differently. It treats different amounts of income - payroll, investment, estate - differently. The only thing that would come close to solving the tax issue would be a deep, focused National conversation about the effectiveness of trickle down economics. The Congressional Research Service has concluded, definitely, that it's hogwash, but the emotional volatility of anti-tax sentiment doesn't allow people to think clearly or have a rational discussion. Could taxes be lower? Your view on this may have a lot to do with the kind of work you feel contributes most to society. I feel that the construction workers, the ditch diggers, the teachers, the small business owners (particularly the vast majority of which earn under $250,000 per year) are the real backbone of society. If you feel the oil heir Koch Brothers ability to continue making billions of dollars for private investors will be catastrophically stunted by various small percent increases on their activities in the form of taxation and regulation, then consider who gets hit with those taxes if they don't. You do.

Civil Rights/Gay Marriage

Gay Marriage, like taxes, is a religious discussion in search of a policy discussion. I think that everyone with a strong stance on whether or not non-hetero couples should be able to get married has a moral stance on the issue. It's about religious tradition, it's about fear of a slippery slope down which all manner of coupled permutations could slide. After all, what's next? Toads and frogs getting married? Dogs and their masters? Fathers and their daughters? Polygamist families? What's to stop anyone from marrying anyone, once we open the gate a crack to 'let the gays in?'

The reason I say the 'gay marriage' issue needs to be a policy discussion instead of a moral or religious one is that a lot of these moral quandaries about Farmer John marrying his whole barnyard are rife with logical fallacy. These arguments against gay marriage are purely emotions theorems which are - to excuse the pun - completely divorced from the reality of why gay marriage is an issue. It is an issue because gay couples want representations. This is an issue every bit as much as interracial marriage was just decades ago. This is an issue just as women being allowed to vote was.

Asking a gay couple to settle on a perfectly legally ordained civil union, as opposed to a marriage, is like asking a woman to vote via a special, smaller, color coded ballot to be collected at a separate time and counted in a different way. It's in effect saying - 'we want to include you, but you can't do it like us because that's not the way things are done.'

It's like saying:

*Women - we want you to have this access, but you must go about it differently (prior to 1920 or so, this was the case).

*African Americans - we want you to have access to public water and public transit, but please go about it differently (prior to the late 1960s, this was the case).

*LGBTs - we want you to have the rights we have, but we just want you to go about it in a different way (this is still the case in most places).

As for the fervent religious views on the sin of homosexuality, it's a rabbit hole of ridiculousness. The back-and-forth about how Jesus held his tongue on homosexuality then said offhand that the people who did condemn it - as well as condemn slew of other completely ridiculous things - is a distraction. Then we're spatting over 'right and wrong interpretations' and yes, it's a rabbit hole of ridiculousness, and the 'Bible said no' argument has nothing to do with peoples' rights and dignities and is nothing more than a silly, stupid semantic dance.

I actually think the people concerned about traditional definitions of marriage being changed have a right to their concern. Change is hard. I hated it when MTV stopped showing videos and when the History Channel stopped being about history. I hated it especially when TLC stopped being about Learning. You know what I really hated, though? I sometimes get sad that all my favorite Holidays and Traditions don't mean to me what they used to. Part of that is because I'm older, but it's mainly because living in a free society where demographics and norms are constantly shifting, is all about the change. It's all about adjusting to new paradigms and new ways of looking at the world. And in the case of gay marriage, the best thing about it? It doesn't 'ruin' marriage for us straight folks. We can go right on doing it.

But anyone who says the solution to this issue is as simple as people on either side just 'getting over it' is oversimplifying the strong emotions at play. Nothing is ever so easy as 'getting over it' and moving on.

Religious Freedom

I'll keep this as short as I can. If you are a Christian or Catholic in the United States of America and you genuinely feel persecuted, then you need to have your head examined. If you are, on the other hand Sikh, Muslim, or any number of truly marginalized faiths in this country, then you may find your civil liberties under assault. How so? Just to name a few: prepare to be profiled more often, and prepare to have a much harder time mounting a Campaign for public office, particularly if you live in States like Kansas, Alabama, and Tennessee. Yes, religious freedom is under attack in this country, and it's serious, but the last time I checked, Christians have nothing to worry about, unless not being the sole practicing faith of every citizen in the nation is some twisted kind of persecution.

So yes, Religious Freedom is being touted as a huge issue nowadays, but because of how different States view the separation between Church and State, it's not an issue we are unified on. The solution to getting people to accept a more inclusive society is, like every solution to every problem I've talked about today, a process oriented one. It's not ever, ever a one step solution, but rather one involving lots of exposure to new ideas over long periods of time, lots of long conversation, and above all, patience.

Constitutional Purity

When I think of Constitutional Purity, I think first of its advocates and proponents. I think of Justice Anton Scalia,  Dr. Ron Paul, and Glenn Beck, mostly. I think of those three men - Scalia, fat and greasy in his robes, giving some smarmy lecture; Ron Paul, folksy and near-catatonic, aw-shucking his way through a chaotic landscape of tax free, duty free individualism; and then there's Glenn Beck, his face threatening to eat those fine rimmed glasses he wears to look intellectual.

After I think of these men, I think of what in they're saying, in essence. Not so much the substance of their Constitutional scholarship, but the fact that they don't consider themselves interpreters of the Constitution. They consider themselves mere arbiters of Constitutional truth, for anyone who will listen. Don't listen to us, they are saying; listen to the founders! The Constitution, after all, a document written when the country was younger and bolder and smaller, a document written when much of our slave labor was still on our own shores (as opposed to now, where it is largely offshore and unseen).

Is the Constitution a document that even needs to be interpreted, or is it right there, in bold face, for any pure soul without an agenda to glean from? Well, two hundred-plus years of judicial decision making, and to some degree, legislative interpretation of existing statutes and principles, is enough evidence that the Constitution requires constant interpretation. Not because it, in and of itself, contains immensely complex principles, but because the society around which it was devised to serve is immensely complex and always in a state of flux, sometimes in ways the founders could simply not have anticipated. So, yes, it is a document in flux, but that is not to say anything goes. The Constitution had to be amended to let women vote. We all agree that letting women vote took us one step closer to a more perfect union. That means the original document, prior to the 19th Amendment, was not perfect. How can one take a snapshot of the Constitution just after it was written and see it like many Christians see the Bible - unalterable, immutable, and perfect, when clearly, this is not the case?

...To sum up

As with foreign intervention, as with taxes - issues like these that have clever sounding solutions are almost never simple. Were we to apply these solutions - just leave the countries we invade, just end taxes, just do what the Constitution says - such solutions are never as easy as they sound. The issues would retain their inscrutability and complexity so long as we don't apply thoughtful, resolute, comprehensive pressure to them. Applying a simple solution to a complex problems almost always results in making the problem even more complex. That's tough cookies, but it's the way it is. It astounds me how few people get this. Is is something about the way we have become such a quick fix society, prone to oversimplifying tough issues in order to package them and make them palatable for an audience of consumers? I think so.


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