Friday, February 3, 2012

Riffing on Podcasts

The other night, I was listening to a few podcasts, and they've gotten me to thinking.  (I know, scary). 

On the Ben Howe Show, actor Adam Baldwin did an excellent interview on his career, his politics, and how life goes when you're a conservative in Hollywood.  He made a really good point when discussing the politics of rank and file people:  they just want to go to work, have a life, and get on with it.  Politics may come into it every so often, but for the most part, they have better things to do.

He articulated something that I have felt for a long time.  To be honest, until a few years ago, I was pretty apolitical.  I was Republican out of habit, not out of some deeply held belief in the party.  I decided as a teenager that the R's had more in common with me than the D's, and never really took the time and energy to re-examine that conclusion.  I paid attention to politics during election cycles, but I had other things to worry about the rest of the time. 

I suspect that that's how most of the people considered the base of their party work.  They get up, go to work or school or whatever, take care of their kids, go to bed, and do it all over again the next day.  Every once in a while they take part in some kind of political activity.  Every couple of years, they take a few minutes to see who's running on their party's ticket, and if they're excited enough, they go to the polls.  It takes something catastrophic, like the Great Depression or Jimmy Carter, to get them to pay more attention and maybe switch to the other party or no party whatsoever.

The key to electoral success is in convincing the minority of people who are not aligned with either party to come over, getting the people in your own base excited enough to get involved, and maybe convincing some of the rank and file from the other side of the equation to switch, if only once.  I've only seen that happen twice in my lifetime, in 1980 and in 2008.  Both times a charismatic  candidate was able to energize the base, capitalize on dissatisfaction in the squishy middle of independents, and carve off a few of the people who would normally vote for the other side.  Both candidates were assisted by a struggling economy and a less than stellar opponent. 

Anyone want to take bets on how that equation will look in November?

Bryan Suits took a few minutes of his radio show to discuss a leak at the San Onofre nuclear plant.  I guess that initially there were reports that there had been an incident, but no leak of radiation.  Later, authorities reported that there had indeed been a small leak.  Mr. Suits took them to task for saying anything until they knew something for sure, and how their lack of candor or common sense might cause someone to believe that things are much worse than they actually are.  He also mentioned the series of escalating reports out of Fukashima after the Japan earthquake last year.  That one was of course much worse than a small leak at San Onofre, but the authorities seem to have followed the same playbook of either downplaying problems or making rosy reports based on sketchy information. 

Now, don't get me wrong.  I believe that nuclear power plants in one form or another are probably the best way to go in order to generate electricity.   They don't pollute much, the waste they do create is easily contained and localized, and they seem to be pretty dependable.  My problem with the nuclear power industry is that they tend to step on their schwanz every time something bad occurs.  First they deny that anything happened, then they paint a rosy picture, then they fumble finger their way through telling us what really happened.  Someone ought to slap the next person who thinks that telling us what we want to hear about nuclear power issues is at all helpful.  If they'd been at all good at being honest and transparent in the 1970's, we wouldn't be bickering over how to keep power plants that are almost as old as I am up and running.

Suits expands on this by saying that things like that are examples of why so few people trust information from the government.  It follows a pattern of obfuscation, minimizing, and ass-covering that we've seen out of the government for decades. 

By now, you'd think that people in authority would know better than to lie or even shade the facts.  The truth eventually comes out, and every time we learn we've been misled, our trust in those who are supposed to be working for us goes down a little more.  Want to know why conspiracy theories are so popular in our culture? I think it's because we've caught our government out in half-truths and lies so much that now a lot of us are willing to believe that it's capable of trying to do just about anything. 

Finally, Dan Carlin did an episode about class in the United States.  He took issue with Rick Santorum's recent assertion that there are no classes in the United States.  Carlin went on to discuss how not only are there economic classes in the United States, but it is becoming harder and harder for someone from the lower economic class to move up into the middle or upper class, and the middle class is getting squeezed down into the lower class. 

I tend to agree with Carlin. 

There have always been economic and social classes in our country.  Our founders were wealthy 'gentlemen' in an age where that distinction came from breeding, economics, and education.  Our country has always had a way to move from one economic strata to another, either better or worse.  The difference here is that the government and members of upper classes aren't supposed to be doing the things that make it impossible to move up in the world and keep those at the rarefied levels from sinking down into the middle or lower classes.  If you are born into the lower class, no-one in this country should stop you from being hard working, brilliant, lucky, or a combination of these things and raising yourself up.  Is it easy?  Heck no, it's not.  It never has been.  The Waltons, Vanderbilts, Asters, and all the rest can all trace their families wealth back to a common ancestor who started out much poorer and worked his butt off to amass wealth.  Nothing says that in 100 years that there won't be a wealthy Gates or Jobs clan who can point back to their early 2000's ancestor as the one who worked hard. 

What I am seeing, however, is that the motivation to do better and the knowledge that it is even possible to do better is drying up in our lower economic class.  The motivation to keep yourself out of the poorhouse and to put food on the table evaporates when someone else is making sure there's a roof over your head and food in your belly. 

Additionally, the main way that Americans can move up in the world, education, is becoming something of little value.  Even the most motivated families can be stymied in a quest to get a good public education, and the cost of a good private education has become so prohibitively high that few people of the lower economic class can even consider it.  Until we reform/rebuild the American educational system to concentrate more on educating children in safe, disciplined, and well-staffed schools than on indoctrinating them in broken down, chaotic work programs for union teachers, upward mobility in the lower classes will continue to only happen to those gifted with artistic or athletic talent or those willing to break the law in order to make money.

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