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100 ?’s for Gov’t: What is a socialist government?

April 13, 2013

This is Question 14 from “100 Questions for Government” series

If the fifties were the era when communism was considered a dirty word, twenty-first century America has a similar distaste for socialism. Whenever a politician (usually a Democrat) proposes:

1)   Business regulation

2)   Environmental regulation

3)   An increase in government spending

4)   Programs to assist the needy

5)   Increasing taxes

6)   Gun regulation

7)   Universal health care

they are immediately branded a socialist or there are accusations “we’re becoming a socialist state”. It’s possible the accusers are right, but knowing what socialism is will probably help. The dictionary defines socialism as:

“a theory or system of social organization  that advocates the
vesting of the ownership and control of the means of production
and distribution, of capital, land, etc., in the community as a
whole”.[1]

If this sounds a lot like communism, it appears you’re not far off the mark – a secondary meaning of socialism is a transitional stage between capitalism and communism. Given the poor record of communist states and the United States’ historic conflict with the concept, it’s not surprising cries of “socialism!” are effective ways to rally the voters.

The negative connotations of socialism with US voters appear to have been successfully connected to the issues mentioned at the start of this question, but particularly to “socialized medicine”.

Whether universal health care coverage is a reasonable or admirable goal for a government will be discussed in later questions. However, there is a clear distinction between socialized medicine and socialism – the first is a method adopted by many developed nations to protect the interests of their citizens while the other is a complete domination and control of the economic and social system.

“Most industrialized countries, and many developing countries,
operate some form of publicly funded health care with universal
coverage as the goal. According to the Institute of Medicine and
others, the United States is the only wealthy, industrialized nation
that does not provide universal health care”.[2]

While opponents of socialized medicine may have concerns about the effects, efficiencies and costs of such a system, it is a bit of stretch to compare government involvement in this sector of the economy with a fully blown socialist state.

To add to the confusion, many democracies have socialist parties which have had varying degrees of success at the polls. A worldwide representative body for these parties states on its web-site:

“Liberals and Conservatives have placed the main emphasis on
individual liberty at the expense of justice and solidarity while
Communists have claimed to achieve equality and solidarity, but
at the expense of freedom”.[3]

These socialists suggest they are seeking an effective balance between liberty, justice and solidarity – as they point out, communism is not their goal, or something they find attractive.

Initial Opinion:

Socialism as described in the dictionary, doesn’t appear to have much support, even from modern “socialists”. Dismissing more nuanced philosophies from socialist parties and concepts like socialized medicine through attaching the negative connotations of socialism suggests a tenuous grasp of the facts or a preparedness to spread propaganda.  Socialism is probably not the answer but socialists and socialization may be worth further discussion.


Question 49: How do we get to heaven?

April 9, 2013

One of the great rewards of religious belief is the opportunity to go to heaven. Whether it is an opportunity to live in your own mansion near God’s, some sort of sexual smorgasbord or simply a place of perfection and contentment, it creates an incentive to act in a manner consistent with God’s wishes. Among the big hitters of religion, the primary qualification for entry into heaven seems to be… being a card-carrying member.

If heaven does exist, the rules of entry may be a little more flexible than some believers might have us think. If the qualifications for entry into heaven are based on “membership,” this implies my God of integrity and goodwill values a little ego boost over a merit-based system. Based on the various high profile admissions by religious leaders and institutions in recent times, there’ll be numerous adulterers, pedophiles, drug addicts and embezzlers getting through the pearly gates while good people who picked no religion or the wrong religion wait outside, head downstairs or simply fade to nothing.  In addition, any other beings as intelligent, or God forbid, more intelligent than us, would be excluded simply due to their location in the universe and genetic make-up – this seems a little hard to swallow – particularly if you’re a Gorgon on planet Nebula with an IQ of 378.

If I’m against a “membership”-driven entry to heaven, I’m left with an afterlife where entry is based on merit, or simply open to all life forms with the capacity to access it.

It’s possible our own lack of self-esteem drives belief in the “membership” strategy for entering heaven – we knew a merit based system would kick most of us to the curb and settled for a less taxing process. It also allows forgiveness of our ancestors for small indiscretions like:

a)     Slavery
b)    Suppression of women
c)     The occasional war or genocide
d)    Racism and segregation

A meritocracy would probably see a few less felons make it into heaven but how would God separate the “wheat from the chaff”:

1.      Would there be a certain number of sins before you were excluded?
2.      Would there be a ranking system of sins where starting a war is a regarded as slightly worse than picking your nose in public?
3.      If you didn’t know about heaven, would your good deeds be worth more than those of people just trying to get on God’s good side?

It’s definitely tempting to believe there is a system for weeding out the ingrates who scratched your car, cut you off in traffic or teased you in school, but the reality may be significantly less selective. In addition, instead of being a utopian boondoggle, it’s not out of the question the afterlife could be imperfect, and merely a continuation of our lives in a completely different realm.

Not to belabor the point, but the other issue with a merit based approach to the hereafter is the uneven playing field. What happens if you:

1.     Die before you get to prove you’re genuinely good or evil?
2.     Don’t have the mental capacity to connect with God?[1]

The volume of variables putting large portions of the planet’s population at a fundamental disadvantage seems at odds with a caring deity. Similarly, the oft-presented view of hell if you don’t make the grade seems a little inconsistent as well – you get it wrong for less than a hundred years and are banished to eternal misery? Even the concept of a good performance over a few decades getting you into nirvana seems overly generous on God’s part – shouldn’t there be a few more hoops to jump through?

Conclusion:

If there is a heaven, the rules of entry may be significantly different to our expectations and it may not be as described. The afterlife may just be a continuation of our lives in a different form. It’s probably not the end of our education punctuated with a diploma and a cushy seat in the fluffiest clouds. It’s an opportunity to better understand ourselves and continue to connect with God. One thing is certain, if we live our lives only pursuing a glorious time in the afterworld, we might be missing out on the glory before us.


[1] Some may argue this is my problem!

100 ?’s for Gov’t: Should government be large or small?

April 6, 2013

This is Question 46 from “100 Questions for Government” series

As America’s politicians argue back and forth about what they believe and who’s to blame for stuff they can’t control, there are often accusations and representations about who’s for or against “big government”. Interestingly enough, I’m yet to find anyone who endorses “big government” as a foundation for anything particularly useful. It appears the debate between “big” and “little” can be simplified to two key questions:

1)   What proportion of economic activity should the administration represent?

2)   What should government stick its nose into and what should it leave alone?

Both of these enquiries will be examined in different ways elsewhere in this book, but their combination does merit some exploration in its own right.

Of course, the correct proportion of GDP[1] for government spending versus private sector is influenced by the nature of your political system (e.g. capitalist, communist, dictatorship, etc.) which is primarily influenced by history, and if you’re in a democracy, how your voters feel about how government should interfere in their lives (see the second question above).

Depending on how sticky you feel your government’s nose should be, your opinion of the correct size of government can vary significantly. In 2010, the three lowest percentages of GDP were Burma (8.0%), Turkmenistan (12.3%),  and Guatamala (13.7%) while the three highest were Kiribati (114.6%), Zimbabwe (97.8%) and Timor-Leste (97%)– not really a ringing endorsement of either end of the spectrum. Scandinavian countries, often listed as the best places to live had percentages between 49.5% and 57.8% while Australia and Canada, two other perennial lifestyle favorites, logged in at 34.3% and 39.7% respectively[2].

In the same year, the United States snuck in at 38.9% reinforcing the theory that raw numbers probably don’t tell us anything at all. The numbers only become pertinent when you consider the services offered by the various governments (presumably with the approval of their citizens). Factors to consider would include:

1)   The inability of the US system to provide world leading education with any consistency

2)   The extraordinary burden the US health system places on its economy without delivering the standard of health care achieved by other developed nations

3)   The large amount of money the US spends on maintaining its military supremacy

4)   Economies of scale

5)   How different countries make money

The list could go on for some time but the reality remains the same – each country’s economic and political landscape is so different, determining whether its government is “big” or “small” has to be done in the context of its efficiency of delivery and the services its constituents require.

As I haven’t heard any politicians arguing for an inefficient regime, the argument seems to be about what’s included – if government gets involved in a lot, it’s “big”, if it does less, it moves towards small. No one wants big government just for its size, but some people believe in citizens receiving more fundamental deliverables while others believe there should be less.

Initial Opinion:

There is no dispute – everyone wants “right-sized” government, there just seems to be some contention about what that actually looks like. We know that it is efficient, but what it regulates and delivers for its people seems to be the source of some heated discussion.

The right size of government for your country is your decision alone, but don’t confuse “big” with wasteful – no one’s arguing for that.


[1] Gross Domestic Product – the total size of a country’s economy

Question 28: Can God see the future?

April 2, 2013

This creates an unmatched opportunity for an in-depth discussion of parallel universes, time dilation and Einstein’s theories of relativity… which would require me to understand something about them, so let’s cut to the chase. This is what we know about time travel or accessing information from the future:

1.     We can’t do it right now.
2.     It seems pretty difficult.
3.     Don’t hold your breath.

Of course, God has a few advantages over us – significantly more know-how and computing power, and a non-physical form. If we ever achieve time travel, we can be confident God was capable of it well before us. However, while God may have the ability to wander back and forth along the time continuum, I’m unconvinced there’d be any great benefit or joy in it.

Each day billions of humans, organisms and vagaries of RUTH follow paths involving choice or uncertainty:

a)     Will this human look left or right when crossing the road?
b)    Will this fish swim through this hole shaped oddly like a predator’s mouth?
c)     Will this weather system end up heading north or south?

God could explore the results of each of these “forks in the road” and travel down the 3.26 gazillion[1] different universes these options would create. Unfortunately, this might waste a great deal of effort and take away the pleasure of watching the story unfold. Conversely, God’s ability to be in all places at one time may represent time travel without even trying.

If God can’t, or chooses not to, explore the future, there’s still the potential for using the massive computing power available to calculate the likely results of particular decisions or events. Similarly, if we believe any human has the ability to see the future, whether it’s through intuition, extrapolation or some higher perception, we can feel confident that God could too.

Conclusion:

God probably has some insight into what the future might hold at each moment we face a decision. This awareness would be able to reflect on the physical, psychological, moral and relationship[2] implications before, after and during the decision making process. For those among us driven purely by impulse and instinct, this skill might not be of great value. However, there may be a few people out there who might find this useful – wouldn’t it be great if this was something we could access?


[1] This number was calculated using the JMIU (Just Make it up) formula

[2] Insert any other implications you wish here.

100 ?’s for Gov’t: Who should contribute campaign funds?

March 30, 2013

This is Question 30 from “100 Questions for Government” series

How did this question end up following our brief discussion of terms of government? How fortuitous! The process of financing political campaigns is a highly controversial issue and possibly one of the most convoluted and disappointing aspects of the US political system. I doubt the founding fathers would have been enthused about what it has evolved into. The issues surrounding campaign financing include the:

a)    Amount of time our politicians spend chasing campaign funds

b)   Extraordinary financial advantage delivered to incumbents

c)   Impact of Super PACs on fair elections

d)   Overall loss of vision on this topic

e)    Underlying conflicts of interest and possible look of impropriety regardless of their existence

Our current politicians are asked to make decisions about whether the advantage they receive as incumbents should be preserved, and while there have been some heroic efforts to “right the ship”[1], consistently fail to make any meaningful progress towards a solution reflecting the interests of the electorate. This lack of results was further impacted by the Supreme Court decision to stop any ban of corporate funds entering the political arena[2].

The Supreme Court (in a 5-4 vote) placed much of their decision on preserving freedom of speech, which I agree has to be upheld as one of the underlying bricks in the American ideal. However, to get a clear picture of what’s wrong with the current system, we have to remember government is supposed to be for “the people” and electing officials with an understandable bias towards interest groups that have financially supported them is not a good look.

The election of our representatives should be based on their ability to represent our interests effectively, act with integrity and articulate their ability to do this. To represent “the people” without actual or perceived undue influence from particular individuals or legal entities (e.g. corporations) the following should be true:

a)    If corporations are to be afforded “freedom of speech”, they should be limited in the funds they use in the same way individuals are

b)   “Freedom of speech” should not and does not imply the right to anonymity – whoever speaks or advertises in favor of a candidate should be required to specifically and directly identify themselves an individual[3]

c)   Any advertising supporting a particular candidate should have to be approved by that candidate

While this might “even the playing field” a little further, it still leaves giant issues around the “distraction” caused by perpetual campaigning, the incumbent advantage and the perception of undue influence. I believe an easier path would be strict caps on campaign finance that provided each candidate with a standardized campaign structure that ensured equal time, equal forums and promotion. This would be accompanied by a restricted “campaigning season” so the election cycle was shortened and successful candidates could focus on governing.

This approach significantly reduces any risk of advantage through having more money, and forces every candidate to use their resources wisely (a key skill for the type of government we seem to aspire to) while focusing on issues rather than casting aspersions. A limited campaign period would also significantly reduce the pain and agony caused to the electorate through excessive provision of misinformation the current system delivers.

Initial Opinion:

The only reason campaign finance issues have not been resolved is that the people it most benefits (the incumbents) are the ones making the decision. This is not a partisan issue, I have to believe all Americans want a fair election process that allows voters to make educated decisions about their candidates. Unfortunately, the election process has been overtaken by a survival of the richest mentality when survival of the MVP (Most Valuable Politician) was always the intent. While my suggestions may not be the correct solution, something other than what we have is.


[1] e.g. McCain/Feingold

[3] A company is made up of people – those choosing to promote a candidate or their views should have to identify themselves