A lesson that must be learned again and again

Final exams are over. I can return to normal life or what passes for normal life at least.  My first instinct was to post about President Obama’s announcement of the successful mission to kill Osama Bin Laden.  The truth is…what’s left to say? The shock of the announcement. The celebrations.  The questioning of the celebration.  The details of the mission. Unmitigated curiosity regarding SEAL Team Six. Burial at sea. Stealth helicopters. Race to the border with Pakistani jets. The Situation Room photo. Obama’s approval numbers. And on, and on, and on.  It’s been written.  I am not sure I have anything new to contribute on that.  I do, however, have a somewhat philosophical topic that I wouldn’t mind airing out to Pickle readers.

Practicality versus principles.

It seems to me that when and how each of us strikes the balance between what we believe and what is practical impacts much of our social, political and spiritual lives.  By way of a basic example, today I got gas at Citgo.  Not many people know this, but I’ve had a personal boycott against Citgo for the last 5+ years.  My roommate right after college was named Matt and he and I heard that Chavez, the lefty “dictator” of Venezuela, was largely invested in Citgo.  Citgo gasoline was basically the end product of Venezuelan oil.  On a random Saturday afternoon, Matt suggested boycotting Citgo and I agreed.  (This theory was not well researched, but it turns out we were mostly right – Citgo was not just buying Venezuelan oil, Citgo is owned by the Venezuela national oil company which is  controlled by Chavez.) I’m not sure if Matt kept up with it since we barely spoke about it since and I don’t really think I mention it much in conversation with anyone.  To be honest, I guess I was a little embarrassed both for the size of the boycott (one, maybe, two people) and the fact that the connection to the somewhat comical, mostly ridiculous world leader is indirect at best.  Nevertheless, I maintained my boycott.  Often driving a few extra miles and consciously remembering to avoid Citgos.  Until today.  Today at $4.09 for 87, Citgo was approximately 10 cents below my usual gas station and I caved.  10 cents a gallon? Apparently that’s the price of my commitment.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I’m not trying to over dramatize this.  It’s not a big deal.  But it got me thinking about the battle we all face in life and it becomes particularly relevant in politics – principles or practicality? Some people cannot understand this distinction at all and often propose ridiculous policy ideas that have no chance of working in the real world. (For example, eliminating the IRS. I’m all for cleaning up the tax code. But not surprisingly this idea didn’t get very far.) My point is that I think this is an unanswerable question.  It’s always a balancing act and no one, not President Obama, not Sarah Palin and not even Donald Trump (although it strikes me that he may not have any principles to worry about) gets to live the full expression of their principles.  It’s impossible.  Life is the gray areas.  It’s complex and messy. But that’s what makes our intellectual autonomy and individuality so valuable.  As that Bard would say, that’s what makes life worth living.  Wait, maybe that was George Clooney.

As the title suggests, I get the impression this is a realization that everyone has and isn’t particularly interesting to those readers who have already figured it out and are completely comfortable with the balance they’ve struck.  For me, it’s still really complicated when it comes to politics.  I have certain ideas and beliefs that seem completely principled and correct but do not translate the real world.  Just think of the big things. Would we all like to pay less taxes? Would we like to limit or eliminate our dependence on oil? Would we like to make government more efficient? Yes. Yes. And yes. But each of those policy areas includes trade-offs, compromises and value judgments.  We want to pay less money to the government but we don’t want to lose Social Security, Medicare or unemployment.  We want to limit our dependence on oil but we don’t want to change the type of car we drive or pay more for gas.  We want to make the government more efficient but not layoff government employees.

After a second year of law school, it’s become clear that politicians are not interested in the practical.  They speak in generalities, in extremes and in principles.  The media is an echo chamber of hyperbole.  Despite the fact that we’ve learned the lesson in our own lives – that our principles are a necessary balance with the real world – we are unable to learn it as a culture.  I was trying not to get too David Brooksian on this, but its probably too late for that.

We need to learn the value of practicality.

We need someone to stand up and say, this cannot continue.  We can’t go on having our cake and eating it too.  In the sterile environment of a law school classroom, we speak, think and write in “principles.”  We read cases about integrating schools, right to privacy, sexual autonomy, and the so-called right to die.  In the classroom, it’s simple. 

The court should just… A phrase heard every day in law school classrooms everywhere.  The court should just… We want it to be that simple.  We want a judges like Chief Justice Marshall, like Benjamin Cardozo, Oliver Wendall Holmes, Felix Frankfurter to declare a new value.  Declare the world a better place.

But its not that simple.

How do you turn around a political culture that doesn’t understand consequences?  That’s really my question.  No politician is willing to be the one who delivers the bad news, who cuts back on certain services, or who makes the country take our medicine.  Even President Obama who has done his best to be realistic has found out how difficult it is to change the culture of Washington, D.C.

One thing that would serve our generation well is if we were the generation of realism.  Realistic expectations.  Realistic solutions to complex problems.  Realistic goals.  The threat from al Qaeda did not end the moment Osama Bin Laden was killed.  Similarly, we cannot solve these problems in 2, 4 or even 8 years.  We must look long term and be practical.  If I have to get gas at Citgo to save my family a few cents a week, I’ll do what’s best for my wife.

Just like the old saying, it’s not personal, it’s business.  Well, it’s not ideal, but it’s practical.

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One response to “A lesson that must be learned again and again

  1. Christopher Williams

    Jeremy you make an interesting point. Your question is not simply one concerning principles and practicality, there is an ever more difficult question in this post, how does political culture in general. It is a much asked and difficult question to answer.

    I think by understanding how political culture does evolve we can understand how we can create a political culture that does understand the balance between principles and practicality. For example, Jackman and Miller wrote a book in 2005 that argues that political culture changes with institutions; an institution creates a reward or a punishment for an action, actors change their behavior, political culture changes. This seems to fit with your argument that politicians can change political culture by changing how they act, if we stretch the definition of an institution to encompass those who make up the institutions. However, there are other researchers (most notably Ron Inglehart) who argue that culture changes from exogenous forces, and this changes the institutions. Inglehart argues that the changes in the economy and security of western democracies created a new culture concerned with freedom and say in government in those countries (this is a very simplified version of his theory). If these researchers are correct the political culture of America cannot be changed simply by politicians (acting as institutions) changing, but rather the politicians will change when some exogenous force influence the political culture of America.

    Who is correct, I don’t know, but I thought you might find this interesting.

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