Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Middle Way - As Applied to Washington

The legend is that as Buddha had realized that the path of asceticism, which uses pain and renunciation as a way to defy the body, was not allowing him to attain the enlightenment he sought. A barge passed on the river, on whose bank he was sitting. A musician was on the barge playing a lute. Buddha realized that if the string of the lute was pulled too taut, it would break. If it was too loose, it would not sound. It was that balance in the middle that allowed the string to sound its note. From that point on, Buddha endorsed the path of 'the middle way.'

In Washington and across the country today, the middle way is really the road less taken. People are pulled to the left and right. For instance, on the topic of banking and corporations, those on the right tend to think they provide a needed service in providing stability to our economy and provide jobs for millions. As such, they should be entitled to some economic perks from the government to encourage them to continue to provide these services into the future. Those on the left have seen the incursion of bank and corporate money into the political system, and have seen that the perks provided to them by the government have been abused and turned into unethical, parasitic practice that has funneled money from the bottom of the economic food chain to the top. The reality is that both are correct. The right sees the solution to the problem in allowing more freedom for the banks and corporations to have more freedom to be innovative in increasing the wealth of the country. The left would like to see the banks and corporations fall to their knees and yield to community banks and industries. Neither is a very productive solution.

There is a person who has epitomized the middle way in Washington the past few years, and that person is Barack Obama. Because of his centrist views, he is under attack from the right for being too liberal, and sometimes for being too dark-skinned. He is under attack from the left for being friendly to banks and businesses, and not being liberal enough. The reality is that his middle way probably saved capitalism.

In very general and sweeping terms, the right of the country likes to look backward, viewing the past as a more simple and friendly time. If we could only go back to the 1950s, or the 1890s, then life would be as it was, and things would be better.

The left, on the other hand, wants to re-invent the wheel. They would like to get rid of all the systems in place that create unfairness, and replace them with bold, new ideas that, in their minds, create a more balanced society.

I, personally, fall more in this liberal camp, but I see the value of the center.

Barack Obama propped up the existing banking system with bail-outs (of course these bail-outs, one should remember were initiated by George Bush, and the idea came from Henry Paulson, the former Goldman-Sachs exec. who was the Secretary of the treasury at the time) saying that the American banking system was "too big to fail." He also saved the auto industry in the US. These things were not bad things unto themselves, as one can only imagine the strife that the whole country would feel if the baking system did fail and millions upon millions of people lost everything. The anger comes from the fact that the bankers took these big hand-outs, and just continued the practices that created the problem in the first place. Their bonuses are bigger than ever, they still gamble on peoples' misfortunes, and they continue to find places to extort people for fees and increased interest rates. That is what the Occupy Wall Street movement is upset about.

The middle way is also about compromise, and President Obama has compromised well in many, many instances. If we look at the example of the debt ceiling, Obama worked with both sides to try to broker an agreement while the right refused to accept that cuts needed to be balanced with revenues. A striking thing he said during his TV appearance when he was trying tom pressure congress was something to the effect that the people had sent a strong message in the recent elections that they wanted deficit reduction, but that it needed to be done wisely. That is one of the first times I have ever heard an elected representative talk about supporting the wishes of the people that were contrary to their own.

Obama has always said that he considers himself to be one of the 'blue-dog conservadems.' However, the media, and the nation continue to paint a picture of him as a radical liberal who is either too liberal, if you are a Conservative; or that he is not supporting his Progressive Liberal base, if you are on the left. These are labels that have been put on him by others, while he has never wavered from being a moderate with more liberal social opinions and more conservative economic opinions.

The times that have worked well in this country, politically, have been when the moderates were in control. People like Bob Dole and George Bush the Elder were strong, centrist legislators who were practiced at the art of compromise. They were people who put the needs of the nation first. Even Ronald Reagan, a radical conservative for his time, had many instances of compromise. This really changed when people like Newt Gingrich came to Washington, and refused to budge. He created a toxic environment of division. He refused to compromise, and refused to put the needs of the nation first.

Since that time, Washington has been made up of too loose and too tight strings, and it has not been able to create music. we continue to be driven farther and farther apart, and, in the last couple years, the Legislative Branch has all but ground to a halt with its inability to compromise and find the middle way.

The solution is that we need to fill elected offices with people who are willing to be diplomatic, compromise and work together to find creative solutions to our problems. If we continue to send people who are from the extremes, we will basically have to bury our democracy.

The Framers on whose vision this country is founded never wanted a party system. They wanted a chamber of free-thinkers who supported the wishes of those who elected them. The Constitution itself was developed as a compromise of two plans - The Virginia and New Jersey plans. One of these plans called for a congress made up of a specific number of representatives from each state, regardless of population. The other called for a congress dictated by the population of each state. The resulting compromise created the two-chamber house, which, when it is working, is a better solution than than either plan alone.

This country was built upon the idea of the middle way, works best when operating in the middle way, and needs to be there.

As much as I would love to see a country that has universal healthcare, a more fair distribution of wealth, and generous entitlements for the sick, elderly and unfortunate; As much as I would like to see a country built on small, community businesses and banks, and have strong regulation on our economy; I also am aware that I, like everyone else, has to be willing to flex my utopian ideas to allow the ideas that best serve the masses to take hold.

It is high time for us to make music once again, and all tune our strings to the middle way.

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