Monday, December 19, 2005

Returning to Los Angeles

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Unfortunately, I won't be able to post anything for a little while. I'm returning to Los Angeles and have been rather busy getting prepared, hence my absense from your blogs. Everything should be back into full swing after the holidays, until which time I plan to enjoy Christmas with my family here in England before I say goodbye to them for a while.

I love everything about England. Living abroad for a prolonged period really gives you a completely new perspective on where you grew up. The people here are so down to earth, good humoured, and a lot more fun loving than they realize. They are also cynical and pessimistic as hell... which doesn't necessarily bring out the best in people, but it certainly keeps their feet on the ground. London is vast, brimming with history, as multi-ethnic as anyplace on earth, and as exciting and colorful as any big city. The soccer is great too, which I'll miss very much indeed. It will always be my home.

It's been a difficult period in my life. I left my job and returned to focus on writing, and all I really have to show for it are these protracted political rambles below. Sometimes things don't work out the way you hoped they would, and maybe I'm not cut out to be a writer, which remains my dream. When it comes to life generally, in spite of the many thoughts and feelings that weigh me down, I'm still not sure what I really want to say. Maybe being back in the US again will give me a chance to get involved in something appropriate.

It'll be nice to see my doggy again, be forced to smoke outside bars and restaurants (ughh), eat decent Mexican food, and enjoy the sparkling lights downtown while driving on the freeway. Also it'll be nice to have to tip every single human being that ever serves me anything...(what's up with that?) and better still: Lost, West Wing, ER, Apprentice, Survivor... yey! I'm so tired of downloading episodes via limewire and slowing down my internet connection.

Anyways, I doubt anything will change on this blog, although I've noticed since getting my powerbook back that this design doesn't work so great on Mac's.

I hope you all have a great Christmas, eat lots of food, get rat-arsed drunk, while enjoying the company of those you love. I hope also you get to give and receive some great prezzies. I'm off to see how I can avoid travelling Air France which appears to be the best flight available for me. The french can fly planes right? I wonder what kind of food they serve on a long haul flight...

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Fighting Poverty

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In response to my previous post, "Is Greed Good?" discussing the social benefits of free, unrestrained enterprise many people made very pertinent points about the contrasting reality of those that "immorally" get left behind. I've been thinking about it a great deal... I can't deny that a free market society doesn't equate automatically to a perfect meritocracy. I can't deny that the American dream isn't an ideal ubiquitously accessible to every child regardless of race or creed. I can't deny that in the real world, there are real people living in isolated communities, segregated frequently along racial lines, riddled with poverty, crime, unemployment, and inadequate access to basic services.

I have a policy suggestion. I'm no expert, so forgive me the basic impracticalities of my argument. There just has to be a better way to deal with the chronic difficulties that blight equality of opportunity in free market societies. Difficulties that, in my opinion, are unethical to ignore under the banner of convenient abstractions like "personal responsibility" and "welfare dependence."

I believe in individuals. A flourishing society is built bottom up, and not top down, like "supply side" theorists aggressively proclaim to be an absolute truth. When you empower an individual with an education, self-esteem, opportunity, freedom, and role models he/she can aspire to follow, you create an engine for economic growth and social progress that is unsurpassed. That is what makes the United States the most vibrant, diverse, thriving, and dynamic nation on the face of the planet.

RESIDENT PARTICIPATION
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A friend of mine works for a company that is involved with trying to regenerate local government housing in the UK. Here in Britain we face different manifestations of the same societal symptoms: huge tenement, council owned housing estates isolating fractured communities that are descending into violence, poverty, and crime. I grew up on one such estate in London, although to be fair, our problems were comparatively tame compared to the drug dealing, gun crime, vandalism, and violent street muggings that some people have to deal with on a daily basis. After I left in 1995 things seemed to get a little worse.

My friend's company facilitates a scheme called "Resident Participation." Local government decentralizes the maintenance of its housing to resident committees (Co-Ops), who receive a large portion of the area's allocated budget, plus get extensive training, and have to meet a basic criteria: A majority of residents must vote to approve the scheme and a significant percentage must participate on a regular basis.

The results are extraordinary:
Resident committees employ their own staff to clean up their condom and needle ridden stairways.
They employ repairmen to be on hand 24/7 to fix broken plumbing or heating problems that afflict elderly pensioners in the winter.
They pay for a Concierge to control access to their estate.
They install CCTV cameras to move drug dealing or gang violence elsewhere.
They evict violent residents
They set up youth centers and play grounds to pre-occupy their children.
They develop IT training schemes to help some of their unemployed residents acquire basic skills to apply for decent jobs.

Click for an official and comprehensive review of the scheme
What resident participation shows is that the only people that can effectively confront systemic social problems are the individuals involved who understand the situation intimately. They know what its like for their kids to journey elevators stained with urine and empty beer cans. They know the unruly minority that terrorizes the law-abiding majority. They know the reasons why their teenagers turn to vandalism and gang violence, and they know exactly what kind of alternatives might lead them in a different direction. When you give individuals the responsibility, power and togetherness to improve their quality of life, suddenly you'll find they're prouder, more responsible, more capable, and invested with a personal incentive in what's at stake.... it's quite a stark contrast to an unelected bureaucrat or a local government official.

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I don't think the lesson from this scheme is specific to government housing, I think the reasoning behind its success is far more fundamental.

When John Edwards talked of "Two America's" there was a reason why he resonated. If we want individuals to take personal responsibility... and I know many people on both the left and right are angered by the ways that they think the poorest fail in this regard... we have to recognize that government has the opportunity to endow upon individuals the power to make a difference in their lives. Even if that difference is small, even it just amounts to a cleaner street, or a scheme for local kids... It means and promises more for the future that it was enacted directly by those who stand to personally benefit. And, it isn't just another socialistic government program... with Resident Participation the co-ops disconnected themselves from local government allowing them to raise money privately and transfer their housing stock to private investors, giving them much more flexibility to make further improvements. Clean, crime free streets means that house prices go up, it means that the area attracts shops, businesses, and jobs... it means that self esteem is raised, and kids have role models that aren't criminals to aspire to. But, what it really comes down to is that individuals have ownership of their community. They bear the responsibility and they have the knowledge and power to make a difference.

I'm not an expert, and I'm not saying a scheme like this can cure poverty. I just believe in progress for the sake of progress. When was the last time you heard a Senator talk about fighting poverty? Worse - when was the last time you heard a Democratic Senator talk about fighting poverty? Like I said in my previous post, free markets, and a liberalized economy doesn't mean we need to do nothing but hope enough scraps fall down from the most successful earners so that everyone who struggles can survive. Lifting people up helps stimulate the economy, too. Helping the long term unemployed get back into work helps stimulate the economy. Like I said... when you empower an individual with an education, self-esteem, opportunity, freedom, and role models he/she can aspire to follow, you create an engine for economic growth and social progress that is unsurpassed. In an age of "value" politics, it would be nice to see some politicians getting back to that old fashioned value of helping those less fortunate to help themselves. It seems like a Christian value under a considerably greater threat than the celebration of Christmas.

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Thursday, December 08, 2005

Is Greed Good?

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Gordon Gekko: "The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms, greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge, has marked the upward surge of mankind. And greed, you mark my words, will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA."

Those words were written satirically by Oliver Stone in “Wall Street,” his damning portrait of the 1980's and I don't doubt the validity of his parody. Even those on the right recognize that consumerism as a cultural force in society assails our most basic communal ideals; our traditions, our standards, and our societal bonds between each other.

When I walk into a shoe store and gravitate towards a Nike trainer is it because I intrinsically need that shoe or the specific elements of its design? Or maybe, is it because my predisposition towards Nike, and my recognition of its consistent brand elements, fuel a desire that has been cleverly manufactured via an emotive and long standing marketing campaign?

Isn't that true of a great deal of what we consume? As somebody who has worked in PR and marketing I recognize that everything from candle stores, to fast food, to popular music isn't simply driven by our natural proclivities as consumers. The dirty secret of Capitalism is not that it impoverishes huge sways of the population, but that the fabric of our societal needs and desires are cleverly coordinated by the "manufacturing of demand."

And yet, while I look around the areas where I grew up and see an entirely different world than the one I knew as a child... devoid of active local communities and thriving small businesses, I still recognize the inherent truth of this quote from Churchill:

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"The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings; the inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of misery."

I recognize that the rapid progress we have made over the past few decades is primarily fueled by enterprise, or, for lack of a better word, greed. The rise in standards of living, cures and treatments for disease, and an individualized world where we retain more, and not less autonomy to determine our own destiny... is a direct result of the freedom's we acquire from a liberalized economy. We increasingly have the autonomy to make our own decisions about our careers, about whether we attend college, and about when we get married and have children. We have earned the internal fortitude to determine our own faith, lifestyle, and political inclination in a way that transcends the traditional social constructs of the past.

I know now that even though I'm 26 I can still effectively be anything that I want to be. I can come up with a business plan tomorrow and search out investment... I can go back to school and gain qualifications to pursue a myriad of occupations. This wasn't the case for my parents or their parents.

From a philosophical perspective, if we recognize that happiness is an individual endeavor that we undertake for ourselves and not a utopian ideal that government provides... we recognize that freedom and opportunity is absolutely essential to our ability to realize our dreams... freedom and opportunity that isn't as manifestly abundant in other nations with alternative modes of governance.

Just consider these three benefits of free enterprise that we take for granted:

1) GDP per capita in the United States is considerably higher than most other nations especially when you take into account the cost of living (PPP). Planned economies that are heavily taxed, regulated, and that subsidize their industries have stagnant growth, higher unemployment, and a relatively poor standard of living.

2) Technological and medical advancements have transformed our lives. Within seconds you can surf online and connect to somebody on the other side of the world. Within hours you can be cured from diseases that 50 years ago would have killed you within days.

3) The interdendence of the global economy promotes peace and freedom. Most nations now depend so heavily on the respective economic successes of their neighbours. Just look at Russia and China or check out this story from Dubai about the way commercialism promotes freedom.

I'm certainly not arguing that free markets equate to a perfect meritocracy, and I believe that government should be involved in rectifying the inequalities and inadequacies of the market. But, in my opinion that involvment should serve to protect our primary and most effective force for progress and prosperity: free, unrestrained enterprise. The benefits for us all far exceed any alternative method of governance, or as Bill Clinton adeptly said, "the era of big government is over." As always, let me know your thoughts :).

An interesting aside which I will explore further in a future column is whether a liberalized economy endowing us with greater self-determination is consistent with the rigid brand of Conservatism that seeks to constrain our natural progress as individuals, freely determining our own value systems, religious affiliations, and expressing our sexuality in ways that are not consistent with our traditions. Perhaps via the force of progress that Republicans stimulate with their economic theories, they create the instability and fear of uncontrollable change that makes some of their aggressive social values that try to constrain progress so appealing.

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Monday, December 05, 2005

Palestine and the "War on Terror"

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I just watched a documentary where a journalist embedded with Hamas toured the Israel/Palestine borders with militants and their political figureheads. It painted a stark, terrifying picture of a brutal conflict that is spiraling further and further out of control.

One of the highlights was meeting an individual patrol militant, a young man in his early twenties who spoke emotively about the murder of members of his family:

Each and every night he kisses his mother goodbye because he might never see her again, a rather large, smiling woman who sheds a tear as she clutches her son tightly... and then, carrying his machine gun he ventures out onto a patrol carrying missiles and bombs. He loves his gun... with his gun he has protected civilian Palestinians, and helped "liberate" them in the Gaza Strip.

At one stage on the patrol, within a mile of the Israel border, three members of the Palestinian Authority emerge trying to discern whether the militants intend to launch missiles into Israel. Assured that it is a purely defensive mission, they leave laughing happily amongst each other. The Palestinian Authority members are outmanned, out gunned, and have absolutely no authority whatsoever. Neither do they have a political constituency.


The parallels between Hamas and the support the IRA retained in N.Ireland is profound. Election after election is being delayed by the Palestinian Authority because Hamas representatives are projected to win. Hamas is the only effective security force for Palestinian citizens… it provides social work, healthcare, and financial assistance for victims of Israeli bombing campaigns and other forms of persecution. Just like Catholics in N. Ireland had no other place to turn than the protection of the IRA, Palestinian civilians feel exactly the same way. At one point in the documentary a released Hamas prisoner returns to his town, greeted by thousands of celebrating men, women, and children.

The role of Hamas in Palestine is fundamentally informed, not by Islamofascism, or the hatred of the United States, but by their violent conflict with Israel, in which both sides bear some responsibility. The root cause of the terrorist threat we face in the west is not the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and it would be naive to reach that conclusion, but the catalyst, and political fuel for Islamic terrorism begins and ends in Palestine. That's where the infrastructure and political ideology justifying violence and homicide spreads from. The problem for peace and progress is that the leaders of Hamas are cynically capitalizing on the weakness of the Palestinian Authority. Why are we not funding this legitimate government properly? Why are we not providing them with everything they need to assert their authority?

N.Ireland proves that deep seated hatred informed by decades of conflict is irresolvable. Paisley and Adams detest each other as much today as they did in early 90's or 80's. But, via the political process, and the commitments to ceasefires and the laying down of arms, the circumstances that future generations will be born into will be different... a child in 2020 will not grow up with bombs and persecution. The deep seated hurt on both sides can only be healed within that context by future generations.

You cannot defeat Hamas. You cannot kill every Hamas terrorist. The more you kill, the more innocent people get hurt, and in the long run the more terrorists you create. You have to establish a functioning political process and show people that their grievances can be far more effectively expressed and resolved without the need to resort to violence. But, for this to be effective we have to think beyond moral absolutes, sacrifice absolute justice, and give people reason and security to lay down their arms.

Because, in this picture below, it is the weaponry and commitment to violence ... not the expression of faith… that we are at war with.

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The Road to the Whitehouse

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Comments: McCain has a considerable lead amongst registered Republicans in the polls, but George Allen has all the momentum, and it's hard for me to believe that McCain will be able to overcome the difficulties he encountered in 2000. Wesley Clark and Joe Biden just fall short on the Dem side. I'm not sure whether Clark will run with Hillary Clinton in the race, considering he will be hoping for a cabinet post if she wins, and it's hard to envision, at this stage, Biden being anything other than what Dick Gephardt was to the 2004 race: a passionate, aggressive voice, without any real substantial appeal.

The point of this post is that I'm interested in what you think. Republican and Democrat, please vote in the poll and let me know your thoughts on the potential candidates in my comments section :).

Who do you want to win the 2008 Presidential Election?
  
Free polls from Pollhost.com
C-Span videos:
Hillary Clinton, Mark Warner, George Allen, Evan Bayh, John McCain, Mitt Romney, Russ Feingold, Newt Gingrich.

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