Laslo Boyd: My Thanksgiving Wish List

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By: Laslo Boyd 

Thanksgiving for most people is about more than overeating and watching football games. It is a time to acknowledge the things for which we are grateful. Family and friends are usually at the top of the list in a holiday that emphasizes community and togetherness.

For a day, or even a long weekend, we focus less on the things that divide us. It’s a distinctly American holiday without the fireworks and patriotic songs but with a deep recognition of the benefits that we enjoy as citizens of the United States.

Increasingly, however, the spirit of community that characterizes Thanksgiving is missing from our politics and interactions the rest of the year.  The first item on my Thanksgiving Wish List for 2014 is the hope that we as a nation can regain a greater sense of common purpose and togetherness. Too many of our political disagreements revolve around who wins and who loses, ignoring the possibility that there can be shared victories.

It’s certainly true that “rugged individualism” has been a strong part of the American success story, but it’s never been enough by itself. We can argue about the appropriate role of government, but we should never forget that our gains as private citizens have benefitted greatly from the investments that we made together through the efforts of governments. Canals, roads, and harbors were early manifestations. We call that “infrastructure” now. Those needs are just as important today even as we neglect investing in them in the name of “smaller” government.

What that last phrase generally means is that some of us don’t like the idea of paying taxes for the benefits that we all share. Politically, that has led to a curious hypocrisy in which groups oppose government programs that benefit others while insisting that their own benefits are sacrosanct. Critics of the Affordable Care Act are happy to keep receiving Medicare even as they continue their protests against what they insist on calling “Obamacare.”

A related problem to the loss of community is the overwhelming emphasis on the short term at the expense of the long term. Politicians seem entirely focused on the next election while corporate leaders are driven in their decisions by the next quarterly report. This country has not yet full recovered from a financial disaster precipitated in large measure by big banks willing to do anything to maximize short-term returns.

Congress today is the epitome of an institution overwhelmingly governed by immediate political calculations. The spectacle of the attempt to get approval of the Keystone XL Pipeline to increase Senator Mary Landrieu’s chances of winning re-election in Louisiana is a particularly blatant but not at all unusual example.

A stunning example of the danger of focusing exclusively on the short term is the decision in so many states to cut funding for public education. It’s the most shortsighted and damaging step we can take in terms of the health and viability of the nation.

When you put those two factors together — emphasis on individuals rather than community and on short term over long term — you get the dysfunctional politics of today. I don’t have a recipe for overcoming those tendencies, but I can at least include that hope on my Thanksgiving Wish List.

In addition to changing those large trends, I have a few other equally unlikely wishes for the future. I have nothing against people who are wealthy but I think they could be just as happy with a bit less wealth so that the less fortunate could have a bit more. CEOs don’t need to make 350 to 400 times the compensation of the average worker. We don’t need to keep cutting federal income taxes on the wealthy, which are already at historic lows.

On a related issue, I wish that we would find a way to reduce the domination of money in politics. At this point, our system of government is getting to be less a democracy and more a plutocracy. The people who benefit from the current system aren’t about to change it. The question is whether voters will ever use the power of the ballot box to reassert their control over elected officials.

Speaking of voters, the most distressing part of our current political system may well be the effort of some officials to make it harder for people to vote. We already have a shockingly low turnout in most elections, but that hasn’t stopped some from instituting measures whose only goal is to disenfranchise political opponents.

Fighting hard for your view is one thing. Bending or changing the rules should offend and disturb anyone who cares about our constitutional system.

I could add all sorts of other wishes. For example, why won’t supporters of the Second Amendment acknowledge that we have a serious epidemic of firearm violence that could be lessened significantly by a few measures that increase safety without trampling on their rights? It’s yet another example of caring only about ourselves at the expense of the broader community.

If I allow myself to really get on a roll, I might as well also hope that facts and science are used to resolve differences on public policy issues rather than ideology and narrow self-interest. Or that we learn to disagree without feeling the need to demonize.

At this point, I’m beginning to feel like Charlie Brown. The chances of my wishes being fulfilled are about as likely as Charlie actually getting to kick the football. That’s not going to stop me, however, from hoping that these wishes come true or from continuing to write about them.

As the authors of the Constitution so eloquently put it, their goal was to establish a “more perfect union.” We’ve still got a long way to go even as we give thanks for the many good things that we do have in this country.
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Laslo Boyd's professional experience includes serving as education advisor to the Governor of Maryland, Acting Secretary of Higher Education, senior administrator in several higher education institutions and university professor.  His work in political campaigns has involved strategic communications, public opinion polling, and development of position papers.  Dr. Boyd has consulted for a wide range of clients in higher education, government, and business.  He has provided political commentary and analysis in both print and electronic media.