Experience as a Teacher

If Kierkegaard was right, life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards, so we all have a problem. Experience is a great teacher, of lessons that probably won’t apply in the future. Oscar Wilde was a bit more pointed – “Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes.” Wilde doesn’t address the future at all. Everyone makes mistakes. They’ll make more. Experience is just a fancy word used to dress up nothing much, but C. S. Lewis thought otherwise – “Experience: that most brutal of teachers. But you learn, my God, do you learn.”

Lewis was wrong. Some learn, and some don’t. What have we learned here today, children? Yes, don’t stick that metal fork in the electrical outlet – but of course some kid, carefully listening to the teacher, will wonder about that. Does that blinding flash and big zap that knocks you on your ass happen every time? Are there exceptions? Even grade school kids know there are exceptions to most every rule, which is what makes English spelling so hard after all, but there’s more. Does that only happen to some people? They’ve seen classmates get away with things no one else would get away with, so maybe if you’re sufficiently cool, and lucky, you won’t get zapped. Those who think that way are the ones who later stick the metal fork in the electrical outlet anyway, and get zapped, but even then there’s always a doubt. Maybe they didn’t do it right, so they’ll try again. Never give up. Experience only teaches them they’ve not tried enough times, even if there was no point in sticking that metal fork in the electrical outlet in the first place. The only point was to see what happens, and when the unfortunate happens, time and time again, it’s always time to try one more time – unless they’re dead. Teachers hate when that happens.

That’s why teachers give those little lectures about what we’ve learned here today, and that’s why President Obama just gave his own little lecture:

Well, last night, I signed legislation to reopen our government and pay America’s bills. Because Democrats and responsible Republicans came together, the first government shutdown in 17 years is now over. The first default in more than 200 years will not happen. These twin threats to our economy have now been lifted. And I want to thank those Democrats and Republicans for getting together and ultimately getting this job done.

Now, there’s been a lot of discussion lately of the politics of this shutdown. But let’s be clear: There are no winners here. These last few weeks have inflicted completely unnecessary damage on our economy. We don’t know yet the full scope of the damage, but every analyst out there believes it slowed our growth.

We know that families have gone without paychecks or services they depend on. We know that potential homebuyers have gotten fewer mortgages, and small business loans have been put on hold. We know that consumers have cut back on spending, and that half of all CEOs say that the shutdown and the threat of shutdown set back their plans to hire over the next six months. We know that just the threat of default – of America not paying all the bills that we owe on time – increased our borrowing costs, which adds to our deficit.

And, of course, we know that the American people’s frustration with what goes on in this town has never been higher. That’s not a surprise that the American people are completely fed up with Washington.

Yep, they know what happens when you stick that metal fork in the electrical outlet, to see what happens, which is what this seems to be about, because “there was no economic rationale for all of this” – just an attempt to see what would happen politically, and in the end, nothing changed. Obamacare wasn’t defunded. It wasn’t touched, really. The simple continuing resolution to fund the government for the next three months, at current levels, as no one can agree on anything, was passed, reopening the government after sixteen days of shutdown, but that could have been passed three weeks ago. The debt-limit was suspended, rather than raised, but still allowing us to pay our bills, avoiding economic chaos and the collapse of the world’s financial systems, without any laws being repealed or anything else the Republicans had said they wanted. The whole thing was pointless. What have we learned here today? Threatening pain and chaos, hurting as many Americans as you possibly can to get what you could not get through elections or legislation or in the courts, was a stunningly bad idea. Learn from experience:

To all my friends in Congress, understand that how business is done in this town has to change. Because we’ve all got a lot of work to do on behalf of the American people – and that includes the hard work of regaining their trust. Our system of self-government doesn’t function without it. And now that the government is reopened, and this threat to our economy is removed, all of us need to stop focusing on the lobbyists and the bloggers and the talking heads on radio and the professional activists who profit from conflict, and focus on what the majority of Americans sent us here to do, and that’s grow this economy; create good jobs; strengthen the middle class; educate our kids; lay the foundation for broad-based prosperity and get our fiscal house in order for the long haul. That’s why we’re here. That should be our focus.

Put down that metal fork. Back away from that electrical outlet. Pass an actual budget, and the farm bill that’s expired, and do something about our immigration policy, or lack of one, and above all, stop whining:

We hear all the time about how government is the problem. Well, it turns out we rely on it in a whole lot of ways. Not only does it keep us strong through our military and our law enforcement, it plays a vital role in caring for our seniors and our veterans, educating our kids, making sure our workers are trained for the jobs that are being created, arming our businesses with the best science and technology so they can compete with companies from other countries. It plays a key role in keeping our food and our toys and our workplaces safe. It helps folks rebuild after a storm. It conserves our natural resources. It finances startups. It helps to sell our products overseas. It provides security to our diplomats abroad.

So let’s work together to make government work better – instead of treating it like an enemy or purposely making it work worse.

That last bit about providing security for our diplomats abroad was a low blow, but Obama is pretty tired of hearing about Benghazi. Republicans cut funding for embassy security everywhere almost in half a few months before our ambassador and three others were killed there. You can’t have it both ways – but that nasty dig aside, this was the usual teacher-lecture. Think about what we’ve learned here today.

It was more than that too. Slate’s William Saletan thinks Obama was taking his new political weapon out for a spin:

Obama noted that before the shutdown, the economy was recovering, and the deficit was falling. The fiscal standoff changed all that: “Every analyst out there believes it slowed our growth.” Obama rattled off the damage: families going without paychecks, home buyers and small businesses unable to get loans, consumers cutting back on spending, CEOs reporting that the fiscal anxiety had “set back their plans to hire over the next six months.” Even the “threat of default,” said the president, “increased our borrowing costs, which adds to our deficit.”

Today, this litany of laments looked like simple compassion from the president. But over the next year, it can serve as an excuse. If economic growth or deficit reduction isn’t where we’d like it to be, Obama can blame the shortfall on the “Republican shutdown” or the “Tea Party shutdown.” He’d be following in the footsteps of his predecessor, who spent three years after Sept. 11, 2001, blaming economic disappointment on the damage done when “the enemy hit us.”

The Republicans, bending to the will of the Tea Party crowd, handed him a weapon. He’ll use it, and use the fact, that because of what the Republicans did, the world now thinks we’re all fools, which weakens us, and people missed government too, even after only sixteen days without much of it:

Congratulations, Tea Party. In the midst of Obamacare’s glitch-ridden debut, you did the one thing that could make us love our government: You took it away and held it hostage. Don’t expect any thanks from the president you helped.

Why would he thank them? There was that blinding flash and big zap that knocked them on their asses. He patiently explained how such things happen, every single time, but if they’re going to do this again in January and February, to see what happens, wondering if there might be exceptions to every rule, then that’s their problem.

Some learn from experience of course, but then, and Dylan Scott notes at Talking Points Memo, some don’t:

For a certain block of House conservatives, the ones who drove Speaker John Boehner toward a government shutdown and near-default against his will, the lesson of the last few weeks isn’t that they overreached. Not that they made unachievable demands, put their leadership in an impossible position, damaged their party’s position with the public and left a deep uncertainty about whether the GOP conference can recover and legislate.

No, what they’re taking away from the 2013 crisis is: They didn’t go far enough.

They aren’t angry with Speaker John Boehner for ultimately capitulating to Democratic demands. They’re frustrated with their more mainstream colleagues who put him in that position.

“I’m more upset with my Republican conference, to be honest with you. It’s been Republicans here who apparently always want to fight, but they want to fight the next fight, that have given Speaker Boehner the inability to be successful in this fight,” Rep. Raul Labrador (R-ID) told reporters Wednesday. “So if anybody should be kicked out, it’s probably those Republicans… who are unwilling to keep the promises they made to the American people. Those are the people who should be looking behind their back.”

The outside lobbying groups say so:

“I think we’re going to see a drumbeat out there that our spineless leaders caved,” Norm Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, told TPM. “If we had held on, we would’ve defaulted, but it wouldn’t have made any difference. Obama would have caved, and we would have gotten what we wanted.”

Obama decided long ago never to cave again. That only made things worse, and he said over and over that he wouldn’t cave again, ever. He’ll negotiate on anything and everything, any old time, but not under these threats to hurt as many Americans as possible, and cripple the economy, then destroy it, worldwide. He just won’t do it – and the hardline Republicans decided he was lying then, and they obviously think he’s still lying now. They seem impervious to actual experience. In his little teacher-lecture he also told them if they want to get rid of Obamacare they should go win a few elections. They don’t seem to get that either.

Some Republicans don’t feel that way, as Politico reports here:

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell says he will not allow another government shutdown as part of a strategy to repeal ObamaCare.

McConnell (Ky.) told The Hill in an interview Thursday afternoon that his party learned a painful political lesson over the past 16 days, as its approval rating dropped while the government was shuttered.

He said there’s no reason to go through the political wringer again in January, when the stopgap measure Congress passed late Wednesday is set to expire.

“One of my favorite old Kentucky sayings is there’s no education in the second kick of a mule. The first kick of a mule was when we shut the government down in the mid-1990s and the second kick was over the last 16 days,” he said. “There is no education in the second kick of a mule. There will not be a government shutdown.”

Forget the metal fork in the electrical outlet metaphor. The mule metaphor works even better and there’s also this from Robert Costa’s full National Review interview with McConnell:

MCCONNELL: Well, for one, we’re not going to do this again in connection with the debt ceiling or with a government shutdown. Look, it’s unlikely the Democratic Senate or Democratic president will do much on Obamacare. We did a minor little income-verification thing, an anti-fraud thing, but beyond that, it’s unlikely. That’s the bad news. The good news is that it’s front and center for the 2014 election. Of the things we can predict for 2014, Obamacare will be front and center, especially in the red states where we could pick up seats.

No government shutdown, no threats about the debt ceiling and economic Armageddon, just an attempt to win more seats, to get things done by the normal processes of a representative democracy? You learn, my God, do you learn.

The interview ends with this:

COSTA: One last thing: What’s your take on Senator Ted Cruz, who led the “quixotic venture”?

MCCONNELL: I don’t have any observations to make on that.

That might be because of this:

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) said Thursday that he would not rule out pushing the federal government to shut down again in order to defund the health care law.

“I would do anything, and I will continue to do anything I can, to stop the train wreck that is Obamacare,” Cruz told ABC News when asked if he would block government funding in order to take down the Affordable Care Act.

McConnell has been in the Senate for decades. Cruz has been there for eight or nine months. They disagree. They have two different levels of experience, and Cruz had said he saw a victory here:

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) on Wednesday blasted members of his own party after he said that they wasted a “remarkable victory” by making a deal with Democrats to re-open the government and avert a default on U.S. debt by raising the nation’s credit limit.

At the same time Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) was on the Senate floor telling Republicans that it was time to move on, Cruz was elsewhere in the Capitol lashing out at his colleagues.

The timing was carefully arranged, and he did define what he meant by victory:

“Months ago, when the effort to defund Obamacare began, official Washington scoffed, they scoffed that the American people would rise up, they scoffed that the House of Representatives would do anything and they scoffed that the Senate would do anything.”

“We saw the House of Representatives take a courageous stand, listening to the American people, that everyone in official Washington just weeks earlier said would never happen,” he continued. “And that was a remarkable victory, to see the House engage in a profile in courage.”

Then the Senate flaked out, just when they were winning it all. It’s a damned shame. And then he picked up a metal fork and headed for a nearby electrical outlet… Someone should have reminded him of what Carl Sagan once said – “They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright Brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.”

This is the Republican Civil War everyone is talking about. It’s not about ideology. They all believe the same thing – the less government the better, the social safety net and all that regulation of everything that started with FDR and was goosed up by LBJ, who added all the civil rights stuff too, must go, and taxes should be low, especially taxes on those who make it big, because the Makers shouldn’t have to support the Takers and all that. They do disagree on tactics – some believe in threats of vast national pain and hostage-taking, while others have some experience with how that really pisses off the public – but what they really disagree on is the usefulness of experience. Is it that empirical evidence that this or that tactic makes things far worse, not better, doesn’t matter? Some say no, it does matter, while others say that whatever failed miserably might work the next time – you never know. Have a little faith.

Rod Dreher sees the problem here:

Can the Tea Partiers’ beliefs be falsified? I don’t think they can be. I mean, is there any evidence that could convince them that the fault here lies with themselves, in the way they conceive politics, and in the way they behaved? It sure doesn’t look like it. In that sense, they think of politics as a kind of religion. It’s not for nothing that the hardcore House members stood together and sang “Amazing Grace” as the impossibility of their position became ever clearer. They really do bring a religious zealotry to politics.

There’s nothing new here however:

It was like this on the Right before the advent of the Tea Party. There has long been a sense on the Right that the movement must be vigilant against the backsliders and compromisers, who will Betray True Conservatism if you give them the chance. Again, the religious mindset: politics as a purity test. In this worldview, a politician who compromises sells out the True Faith – and faith, by definition, does not depend on empirical observation to justify itself.

That leaves the empiricists out in the cold, and as the Atlantic’s Molly Ball notes in her long item on this odd little civil war, this may leave them out of the party:

On his radio show recently, Glenn Beck urged his listeners to “defund the GOP.” Sarah Palin has threatened to leave the Republican Party; Rush Limbaugh calls it “irrelevant.” The Senate Conservatives Fund has targeted mainly incumbent Republican senators for defeat. Erick Erickson, one of the right’s most prominent commentators, wonders if what’s coming is “a real third party movement that will fully divide the Republican Party.”

Conservatives have declared war on the GOP.

Tired of feeling taken for granted by a party that alternately panders to them and sells them down the river, in their view, Tea Partiers and others on the right are in revolt. The Republican Party itself is increasingly the focus of their anger, particularly after Wednesday’s deal to reopen the government, which many on the right opposed. Now, many are threatening to take their business elsewhere.

“Conservatives are either going to split [from the GOP] or stay home,” Erickson, the influential editor of RedState.com and a Fox News contributor, told me. “They’ll first expend energy in primaries, but if unsuccessful, they’ll bolt.”

They don’t need the party anyway:

When Beck made his appeal to “defund the GOP,” he told his listeners to stop giving money to Republican committees and give to FreedomWorks instead. “We kind of agree,” Clancy told me. “Giving to the party committees is wasted money, because they’re just incumbent-protection clubs…. Sometimes you have to beat the Republicans before you beat the Democrats. Just because they’re ‘our guys’ doesn’t mean they’ll be our guys when it counts.”

FreedomWorks and groups like it are also heavily funded by a small group of billionaires with big grudges. A new third party, born from this Tea Party crowd, would have a thousand times the financial resources of either the Democratic Party or the Republican Party, which may be the future of American politics, a point not lost on the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza:

One of the reasons Boehner is such a weak Speaker is that he doesn’t have the carrots and sticks that his predecessors previously used. The House banned the use of earmarks, which were a traditional tool to keep recalcitrant members in line. In a four-trillion-dollar annual budget, a few million dollars here and there to lubricate the gears of Congress seems like a very small price to pay if it would create a more productive legislative body. Indeed, last night Mitch McConnell, or someone working on his behalf, won a couple billion dollars for a dam project in Kentucky, which seems like a decent outcome if it helped prevent a default.

The political system could also benefit if the national parties, which can act as moderating influences in elections, were allowed to spend more money on individual campaigns. The current system, under which party contributions are capped, has empowered special-interest groups and ideological factions like Heritage Action and Club for Growth, which constantly thwart the leadership of the GOP. If the parties were more powerful funding vehicles for members of Congress, a leader like Boehner could exercise more control over his conference, which would allow him far more room to negotiate with Obama: he’d be able to make concessions and know he could deliver the votes.

That would be nice, but that’s not the way things are headed. The chump-change of three or four eccentric billionaires is what matters now, and they seem to find that those who think that experience isn’t really a good guide in decision-making quite useful.

There’s only one answer here. Forget the teacher-lectures about what we have learned here today. Child-proof America! Start with eliminating the debt-ceiling. At the same time Congress authorizes spending, make them authorize the way to pay for it. There are probably other things like that, but the concept is simple. Cover the damned electrical outlets. Some learn from experience, some don’t.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to Experience as a Teacher

  1. Rick says:

    Yes, I guess it would be a nice thing to see a third party in there, screwing things up even more for the Republicans. After all, two feckless Republican parties is certainly better than one, especially for the Democrats.

    And, in fact, while Erick Erickson is no real dummy, he has to know that this is not what those millionaires have in mind, and not something they will easily want to fund. Did he not notice the Koch brothers trying to distance themselves from all this business in the last week?

    The main problem is, of course, that these so-called Tea Party people have worked themselves into a lather over the way the country should be, and they’re frustrated that they can’t just make it happen, because the “American people” don’t agree with them. Still, they’re pretty convinced that the so-called “American people” are not really the “American People” at all, but actually just a bunch of minorities and people on welfare and illegal immigrants whose votes are being manipulated by Obama and the Democrats.

    So they strike out, in both senses of the term — that is, they “lash out” in anger; after all, why should they care if it hurts their country, since their country no longer exists, it’s been taken over by a domestic enemy force? And they “strike out”, in the baseball sense of the term, because not even acts of desperation seem to work the way you’d think they would.

    I’m still just trying to get into the heads of people who, like my old high school friend, Mike, who went on to fight in Vietnam, and was last week seen on Facebook, wearing his Army uniform, proclaiming he’d be heading for the “Million Vet” march in Washington. Afterwards, he bragged that he saw broken barricades being thrown onto “Obama’s front lawn”, and congratulated the guys who did it. Although he said he went there to complain to folks of “both political parties,” he also whined that Obama said he “WOULDN’T NEGOTIATE!”, and predicted that’s all history would remember him for.

    “Negotiate? Negotiate what?” I heard myself asking. “Negotiate the terms of surrender of the American Constitution that he swore to uphold and defend, and which he now finds him defending, to my surprise, from the attacks of the likes of you, Mike?”

    I realize all that is happening is an act of desperation, but I’m still trying to figure out the thinking of a guy who is presumably proud of fighting for his country, but who is now giving aid and comfort to those who are attacking it.


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