Saturday, January 30, 2010

This is going to sting a little

I knew very early in my life that I would suck as a politician. My mother told me. Success in politics means getting elected and re-elected, more than it means legislating in the best interest of constituents. I used to rant on and on about the illegal fishing village that blighted what could have been a scenic view of Hunts Bay along the causeway that connects Portmore, St. Catherine with Kingston. I could not understand why the powers that be could not, or would not, level the shacks that presented traffic and health hazards and keep the inhabitants from returning. (As it turns out, the fishing village was finally moved in late 2009 to allow for highway construction.) My mother tried at the time to explain please-the-people politics to me, but it did not make sense to me that government would act against people's long term best interest to win political points in the short term. Surely, it was a just a Jamaican thing.

When I worked with a utility in a large United States municipality, I was confused when raising rates was weighed in the context of losing votes, even though the money was needed for federally mandated capital improvements. Politicians and bureaucrats made an assessment that more votes would be lost by raising the rates, than by continued poor service, and federal fines. Surely, it was just a local government thing.

For better or for worse, the Obama administration has made implementing health care reform the idée fixe of their first year in office. As the debate has raged on, dissenters muddied the waters, raised unwarranted fears, then said they could not vote for a health care bill their constituents don’t support. Because of the price tag and complexity, the health care bill was a hard sell to begin with. Rather than engage in intelligent discourse about its merits and the possible immediate and long term benefits to the American public, politicians pandered to the party line and to the short-term, mis/uninformed whim of constituents. As President Obama pointed out in Wednesday’s State of the Union address, the health bill has never been good politics. Taxes, economic incentives for businesses, increased utility rates, reduced bus routes are other things that are often not popular with the public, and hence not good politics.

It must be a quandary for the best-intentioned politicians: how do they do what is best for their constituents – even when voters do not realize it is for their own good – and still win votes. For politicians whose only intention is to maintain their clutch on power, access and benefits of office, there is no such conflict. It is the electorate that must make the difference. We must become educated citizens who understand that sometimes long term gains must be prefaced by some discomfort. Immediate gratification should not be the driving incentive for supporting or opposing policy, or politicians. Our representatives must be required to show substantive long-term solutions for their time in office, not just feel good bits that leave problems unresolved. We must grow up.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The price of politics

The success of a company is determined by how much it makes. The success of CEOs, boards of directors, and entrepreneurs is measured by profits. A corporation's sole reason for existence is to make money. It is to be assumed that any and all their actions are underlined by that singular motive. Even so called good-will gestures by corporations are aimed at maintaining a positive public image, which has direct profit correlations. It is not a large leap to see that the choice a company makes to financially support a politician's election campaign will be made to serve its bottom-line, not the general good of the American public. It is true that those two goals may be one and the same on occasion, but invariably where there is a choice to be made between the two, a company will choose profit - as it should. Companies make political contributions to be able to have access to politicians and to shape policy that ensure their future profitability.

The Supreme Court's ruling on January 21 that allows corporations to spend limitless amounts of money in support of political candidates undermines the democratic process. There is a reason millions of dollars is poured into advertising for elections. Those are not wasted dollars; voters are in fact influenced by the messages that bombard them over and over again in the months and weeks leading up to an election. As we saw in the last presidential election, even after ads are pulled for inaccuracy or inappropriate statements, they continue to influence what people think about the candidates in a race. The general public is far more likely to see and get information about the candidates and the issues from a commercial, than from a credible news source.

When a corporation is allowed to invest in the election of a candidate, they are, in essence, being allowed to buy the public's attention, and votes. Candidates may now find themselves running against large corporations with deep pockets and endless resources. Will any candidate be able to match the dollars to get his message out adequately if his opposition is supported by a corporation, let alone entire industries? To assume that letting companies inject millions into election campaigns does not come with the expectation of reciprocity is to put more faith than most of us have in politicians, and to expect corporations to not act in their own financial best interest. What will the inevitable return on investment for the corporations mean for the good of the American public?

The only good thing about the Supreme Court's ruling is that the public will get to see more clearly who is up for sale.

Monday, January 25, 2010

For whom the death knell sounds

Was it arrogance that caused the Democratics to lose the Massachusetts seat held by the late Senator Ted Kennedy for almost 50 years? Did the party not realize that hard economic times and scepticism about health care reform has faded the state's blue tradition? Whatever the reasons, President Obama and the Democratic Party now find themselves without the protection of a filbuster majority as they try to push ahead with controversial legislation and attempts to fix the economy.

It seems particularly ominous that Scott Brown won in a special election to represent a state that mandated universal health care in 2006 (with Brown's vote and support), by promising to vote against a similar national health care plan fought for by his predecessor. The late senator must be rolling over in his grave. Sitting parties are always vulnerable when the economy is doing poorly, and the Obama administration is also faced with a voting public who did not necessarily agree with the bank bailouts and are disgusted by the obnoxious bonuses being mete out in the financial industry. They have also been frightened by misinformation and confusion about an expensive and cumbersome health care plan. With mid-term elections coming in November, and the economic forecast still showing rainy days ahead, Democrats have a tough row to hoe if they want to maintain their tenuous majority.

Many of the people who handed out buttons, made phone calls from party offices across the country, and wept in the streets at the prospect of electing the first black president, have now gone back to their politically inactive lives. The excitement is all over and the waggonists have abandoned the work that needs to be done. While President Obama's election mobilized the political right, democrats on the Hill and on the streets rested on their laurels despite the big issues at stake. There has been no uprising to defend the things upon which President Obama campaigned and won, such as healthcare reform and economy recovery. There has been no answer to the Teabagger movement; no animated, angry left.

To be true agents of change we must go beyond turning up to elect the president. We must be educated constituents that understand large global and national issues. We must be able to understand how larger issues connect to our quality of life - our jobs, taxes, housing, and health. Every election - municipal, state, federal - is important. Every issue is worth our attention. We cannot be so lazy as to hold a president to campaign promises, without providing the support needed to accomplish them.

Massachusetts is behind us, but there is much ahead to lose or to accomplish. What we do next will sound the death knell for real progress, or the rallying cry towards a truly historic period of American history.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

West Indian in America

For us football is actually played with your feet, and many of us would rather watch Manchester United on television than the Dallas Cowboys. We don't quite get baseball, but fully get that a cricket match can go for days. We are more likely to serve cornmeal pudding or rum cake, than apple pie for dessert. We know tea is not necessarily from a bag, but could be cocoa, chocolate or anything hot and in a mug. Our recollections and longings are peppered with references to 'back home, and around countrymen our speech takes on a distinct cadence as we relax into the rhythmic hybrid of homeland dialect and broken English. We are West Indians in America.

According the Census Bureau's 2000 report on the foreign born population, approximately 2.8 million people from the Caribbean live in the United States. That number does not include U.S.-born children of Caribbean immigrants who consider themselves West Indians, or those the Census Bureau did not reach due to some missing immigration paperwork. It is also not hard to believe that many more people from the islands have emigrated to the United States over the last 10 years.

We come to the States in pursuit of prosperity, education, and sometimes love. While we predominantly live in big metropolitan areas, there is a West Indian to be found in every corner of the United States. We are lawyers, doctors, nurses, teachers, accountants, chefs, administrators, engineers, and politicians. You name a job, a West Indian is doing it - and maybe on double shifts.

While most of us are happy abroad, we know a truth that many people living back home are reluctant to believe. Life in the United States is not all bliss and Kellogg's corn flakes. Those of us who grew up in the islands often miss aspects of our life back home - regardless of how difficult that life may have been. It is not unusal to hear West Indians pine for the more relaxed pace of the Caribbean.

For many West Indians, living in America also presents moral, political and spiritual considerations that were untested in our usually conservative communities back home. Creation vs evolution, gay marriage vs domestic partnership, affirmative action, and race relations are most often items for the overseas, rather than local section of our home country's newspapers. We have not established ourselves as a voting bloc, like Hispanics for example, quite likely because our views are splintered. Those who migrated in the 70s, and 80s are likely to be conservative, particularly about fiscal issues, gay rights, religious liberty, and abortion. Younger immigrants and the children of earlier immigrants are likely to have more liberal views.

Though we sometimes experience racism, without the historical prospective of the periods of the Jim Crow South, and the Civil Rights Movement, West Indians often have a more optimistic view of race relations. For example, affirmative action and reparations are issues on which African-Americans and West Indians don't always agree. In fact, West Indian emigrants often experience prejudices from African-Americans, largely due to differing points of view on social and political issues.

Over many decades West Indians emigrants have become part of the fabric of this country. With Haiti's desperate situation in the news, concerns about an influx of Haitians seeking refuge in the United States are being raised. Discussions about border security, immigration policy, and illegal immigrants are constant, but now with the attention focused on Haiti I am increasinly uncomfortable. I am one of the outsiders many born-Americans want to keep out. The discussions of illegal entry intermingle with proposals for putting limits on people emigrating to the United States and the resentment of some is not difficult to see.

Despite all the challenges and sacrifices, we make our lives here. Our tax dollars and our hard work help to build this country. Our children are born here. We leave our lives behind in the countries of our birth, and most of us will never go back. We are naturalized citizens, resident aliens, out of status permanent visitors. We are West Indians in the U.S.A.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Citizens of the world

I have missed living in South Florida more over the past week than I have at any other moment in the 18 months since my family moved to New Jersey. The contrast between life in South Florida and life here in these Northeast suburbs has been amplified by the earthquake in Haiti on Tuesday, January 12.

In the days immediately following the quake I went about expecting to hear discussions about the disaster in Haiti, about local relief efforts, about the need for volunteers to do something...anything. The silence was deafening. I looked around for signs at the local library, fire department, high school, and churches showing prayer and support for Haiti. There was a glaring absence of any. A whole community, it seemed, was some how collectively unaware, or collectively choosing to ignore the plight of a neighbor. I know things were different in Miami.

A week after the earthquake, some e-mailers and callers into the National Public Radio show Talk of the Nation made the apparent detachment of my neighborhood seem generous by comparison. One writer lamented everyone's political correctness, arguing that with more than a million Haitians already living in the United States we should not be letting in anymore. Others questioned how much aid should be given to a country which cannot seem to get its act together. Even people who seemed to want to say the right thing sounded patronizing: "I live near Little Haiti (in South Florida) and they are quiet, and smart, and creative."

Today the concept of a global economy is apparent from the moment we put on our underwear in the morning. Social networking websites make it possible to connect with people everywhere and anywhere around the globe. Travel, migration and the Travel Channel give everyone opportunities to expand their cultural references. Despite all that, ignorance, hatred, irrational fears and indifference are still evident in the idiotic spoutings of the likes of Pat Robertson, in the apathy of entire communities towards the distress of others, and in our unwillingness to let go of racial and cultural stereotypes.

Thankfully, as the world continues to shrink it will become increasingly difficult for those who see the world in terms of 'us and them', or who prefer to turn a blind eye, to maintain their view.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Are you supportive or destructive?

It is still early January and the ink is still wet on those New Years' resolutions. What did you do when your friends and family shared their resolutions with you? Did you roll your eyes when your overweight girlfriend said she's resolving to lose 50 lbs.? Did you chuckle when your chain-smoking brother said he would quit smoking in 2010? Did you remind your sister that she said the same thing last year when she mentioned she would be going back to school this year?

You can play a supporting or destructive role in helping others achieve their goals. Every snicker or unsupportive word has the potential to kill somebody's dream. Several studies have shown that social support can be key in weight loss. I'm willing to bet that theory applies to other goals as well. We all do better if we feel supported by those we love.

If you think a goal or resolution is unreasonable, then offer guidance - not criticism. Say to your friend, "Weight loss is often difficult to plan, why not resolve instead to see a nutritionist to learn about healthy eating, and to do some form of exercise for at least 30 minutes every day."

If you are tired of hearing your sister talk about going back to school to get her Master's, help her make tangible plans. Ask her if she has already decided on a course of study and a school; and for a specific date by which she will complete the application process.

If you have no faith that someone can or even intends to accomplish a goal or keep a resolution, then don't say anything.

Your words can carry so much weight for those who love you and value your opinion. You can be responsible for encouraging someone to achieve, or be responsible for stepping on and shattering their goals. Which one are you resolving to be?