Mitt Romney

Individualism vs. collectivism is a false choice

Hurricane Sandy

Hurricane Sandy

Some people say the 2012 presidential race was a contest between worldviews. On one side is the collective view (represented by President Barack Obama), and on the other, the idea that the individual succeeds on his or her own (promoted by Mitt Romney).

Think of the sound bites we had on these themes - from Rep. Paul Ryan's admiration for ultra-individualist Ayn Rand to Obama's reminder that business people didn't "build that" by themselves. They had a country behind them.

Superstorm Sandy, as if on cue, blew in to provide us with daily reminders of how we need each other. Driving past a recently bisected tree that had been blocking my daily commute, I know: I didn't cut that.

Neighbors have been checking on one another's well-being. Even in the heat of the close presidential contest, leaders of opposite parties returned to civility. Perhaps New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican who considered challenging Obama, understood that he might need the White House - whether it's inhabited by an R or a D.

In "The Social Conquest of Earth," published earlier this year, naturalist Edward O. Wilson argues that humans evolved as we did precisely because we have strains of both individualism and collectivism. Wilson, who has spent years studying ant colonies, updates the idea that the fittest individuals survive. In fact, groups in which individuals sacrifice for the good of the collective have, over millions of years, won out. "Selfish individuals beat altruistic individuals," Wilson writes, "while groups of altruists beat groups of selfish individuals."

Groups that are willing to share, to withhold individual rewards in order to further the growth of the collective, emerged from the evolutionary contest to become modern humans.

But we've retained characteristics of both, Wilson says. We are forever stuck in between selfishness and generosity. If we were all-out collectivists, we would cooperate robotically, like ants. As extreme individualists, humans wouldn't have formed societies where we specialize in healing, finding food and building shelters.

It's that tension of being stuck in between that played out in the presidential election - and will continue to bedevil us. What's the right place on the spectrum? Does it change after a hurricane?

Individualists say that when people are free to act in their own self-interest, society benefits. This philosophy promotes hard work and worries about creeping totalitarianism.

Collectivists point out the many things we accomplish together that we wouldn't do singly - efforts that spread the cost over many people and even many generations: medicine, the university system, roads and airports, our judicial system, arming a military, fighting fires.

People who hold the collectivist view fear that job creators want an excuse for greed and special tax treatment.

The great thing is that we don't have to choose between these views - no matter what you heard on the presidential campaign trail. Science argues for some of each.

So, what's it to be to lift us out of the Great Recession? Other catastrophes, like the Great Depression, have catalyzed collective solutions. We emerged with the Social Security Act and the GI Bill and a sense that we're in this together.

It's been difficult over the past several months to feel a sense of fellowship, however. I purposely didn't vote for either candidate in my Assembly district yesterday because I thought they made false, destructive claims about each other.

So, I'm glad it's the day after Election Day. Let's set aside fake choices and use all of our abilities to move on.

This essay was first published in Newsday.

Obama, Romney should call for campaign spending cease-fire

During the Democratic National Convention last week, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel performed a neat campaign pirouette. He "resigned" as co-manager of President Barack Obama's re-election campaign, and took on a fundraising role with the pro-Obama super PAC called Priorities USA Action.

The shift exploits a nicety of Federal Election Commission rules, which don't allow coordination between super PACs and candidates (wink, wink). But with close advisers like Emanuel moving between camps - and the same is true for Republican super PACs - this FEC distinction is a fig leaf.

Emanuel can now court big donors for ever-larger sums. As campaign co-manager, his wooing by necessity bumped up against the federal giving limits: $2,500 per election to a candidate or $30,800 a year to a national party committee.

Emanuel described his new role as having a lot of "one-on-one conversations," and The Washington Post reported on Wednesday that he had obtained a seven-figure commitment to donate to the super PAC.

Presidents and top aides have always courted wealthy donors, but the stakes are higher in this election because the dollar figures are so much bigger. The Center for Responsive Politics predicts that the 2012 election will involve spending of about $6 billion, compared with $5.4 billion in 2008.

What do you suppose mega-donors are going to want as a return on their investment? The whole idea of limiting donations to a campaign was to curb any one person's influence on government.

The Republican super PACs have been raising money far more effectively. The two leading GOP groups - American Crossroads, co-founded by Republican strategist Karl Rove, and Restore Our Future, which is specifically supporting Mitt Romney - had raised $137 million through July, compared with $47.5 million for three Democratic super PACs: Priorities USA Action, House Majority PAC and Majority PAC.

Emanuel told PBS interviewers on Wednesday night that he was not going to allow the Democrats to be out-matched in fundraising if he could prevent it. And that's the problem. This presidential campaign has morphed into a financial arms race, and both sides have little choice but to match each other warhead for warhead.

Of course, we may never know what big donors gain from government, because we may not know who those donors are. Super PACs must disclose donation amounts, but individuals can remain anonymous by setting up intermediary corporations. The Disclose Act would have required super PACs, unions and other groups to reveal names, and donations of $10,000 or more, within 24 hours, but Senate Republicans blocked that legislation in July.

Democrats had held the high ground on this issue, and Priorities USA Action has refused to accept anonymous donations. Obama himself, in an interview last month with the website, discussed mobilizing support for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United, the 2009 Supreme Court decision that gave rise to super PACs. But until the game changes, Democrats appear resolved to play it as it lays. Obama made a similar call in 2008, when he opted out of public financing.

It's not realistic to expect either side to unilaterally disarm. But what if the candidates agreed to ask outside groups to limit expenditures? In the hotly contested Senate race in Massachusetts, Republican incumbent Scott Brown and Democrat Elizabeth Warren are doing this effectively. We're now in a presidential arms race; in the future, let's follow the arms-treaty model. The two sides can negotiate a pullback from mutually assured destruction.

I can't imagine that TV ads or even a few dozen fliers would sway my vote. I'd be more impressed by a presidential candidate who stood for sanity on campaign spending.

This essay was first published in Newsday.

Candidates must give their version of moonshot

Mitt Romney's mention of the late Neil Armstrong during the Republican National Convention on Thursday raised cherished images for Americans of a certain age. Those of us who remember the Apollo 11 days can still recall that excitement and sense of purpose. We're nostalgic for it now.

No one would look to the 1960s as a united decade in our history. But as Armstrong took those first steps on the moon in 1969, it became clear that a bold commitment by President John F. Kennedy had driven us forward.

Today, we are drifting through a prolonged economic valley and a divisive presidential race. Commitment to another bold goal would target our energies and revive our faith.

In his convention speech, Romney presented his version of shooting for the moon: creating 12 million new jobs. His five-point plan to reach that goal includes North American energy independence by 2020, school choice, rewritten trade agreements, a reduced deficit, and lower taxes and costs for small businesses.

It will be crucial for President Barack Obama to similarly paint his vision of the path forward during the Democratic National Convention, which opens this week.

It's hard to overestimate what a gamble Kennedy took, as a new president in May 1961, to promise a man on the moon "before this decade is out." At the time, many of the necessary metal alloys and technologies hadn't even been invented.

He intended to prove the United States' cultural and military superiority to the Soviet Union. Just a month earlier, the first cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, had orbited the Earth. But the machismo of beating an opponent to conquer this so-called last frontier wasn't the only thing that was so important about Kennedy's promise. It was also having a clear goal that for many years inspired our imagination with a sense of national mission - and, after 1969, with a national identity.

We had done it first.

Where is our national identity today? U.S. astronauts must now hitch rides on Russian spacecraft to get to the International Space Station, and the United States may be outraced toward certain space goals by the Chinese.

But these developments should be cause for celebration. The United States has matured enough in space exploration to share frontiers with scientists from around the world. If globalization has its faults, then shared scientific advancement is among its bright promises.

Obama's goals for NASA are probably too far distant in time to offer much of a unifying purpose. He wants to send a crew to a near-Earth asteroid by 2025 and have an astronaut on Mars by the 2040 decade. Far-off deadlines won't force the sort of compressed technological advancement we achieved from the original space race.

Among the side benefits of that era are the ability to screen for breast tumors, defibrillate hearts, track hurricanes and ocean fish, grow higher-yielding crops and pay at the gas pump with an ATM card. A nearer, more tangible goal is needed to propel similar innovation.

It's not enough for Americans to come together around a negative, as we did after the tragic Sept. 11 attacks or the hunt for Osama bin Laden. We need to agree on what we want to accomplish.

We could commit to making our public schools so good that we stem the flight to private. Building big infrastructure projects to create jobs. Reducing mortgages to reflect the current market and prevent foreclosure. Matching young people with careers that allow them to become productive and independent.

The list goes on, and we won't all agree what should be on it. But it's certain that the prize of the next presidency depends on how each candidate imagines the next footprint on the moon.

This essay was first published in Newsday.