Friday, July 29, 2011

Post No. 172: What’s Personal Responsibility Got to Do with the Debt Ceiling Impasse?

© 2011, the Institute for Applied Common Sense

We once read an article suggesting that despite his technical brilliance, director Martin Scorsese never achieved the full recognition he could have (from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) because his films always had an edge. The author suggested that what gets to the Academy each year is a film which explores the depth of the human condition in a universal way.

We saw a film yesterday which took us to a whole new place in terms of appreciating this issue, and reminded us of the importance of personal responsibility in our dealings with our fellow human beings. Imagine a film with the power to potentially unite people. (We also appreciate the potential of images to divide.)

The film is The Band’s Visit, an Israeli film. It is the story of an 8 member, police, ceremonial orchestra from Alexandria, Egypt, which has been invited by an Arab cultural league to play at an event. Upon their arrival in Israel, they promptly get lost, and end up in some out-of-the-way locale in the desert, far, far from their intended destination. Dressed in their formal, Carolina blue uniforms with gold spaghetti on their band hat brims and epaulettes, they drag their instruments and suitcases on wheels across the desert. They encounter a woman who runs a diner, and who confirms that the area is removed from civilization.

Realizing that they will not be able to return that evening, the band members allow the restaurateur to make arrangements for them to spend the night in her apartment, the apartment of a friend, and the restaurant itself. It’s during the time spent together that evening that the film takes us on a truly fascinating, human journey.

There are lengthy periods of silence, where the participants cannot communicate with one another due to language difficulties. They periodically exchange furtive glances accompanied by distrust and discomfort. However, they all gradually connect in simplistic, human ways – enjoying a familiar song, asking about family, seeing a new-born, and by just sharing "stuff." In fact, stuff gets so basic that you almost think that the forty-something restaurateur and the reticent, formal, tightly wound sixtyish leader of the band (whose wife died 3 years earlier) are going to end up in the sack together.

The next morning, they realize that they all have become the richer for the experience, and quietly question the tension which has existed for so long between Arabs and Jews.

In thinking about the film, we wondered whether nations and their political and military leaders really drive wars and tension, while ordinary citizens stand on the sidelines. It made us examine whether we ordinary citizens are really in control of our lives, and our nation’s destiny. For many years, the citizens of our nation have questioned whether our leaders have our best interests at heart, and whether we are headed in the right direction.

Over the past several months, we have noted an increasing pessimism on the part of our readers, and an air of resignation. With the budget and debt ceiling impasse currently enveloping Washington, ordinary citizens seem to be watching a new form of sport on ESPN, while our leadership plays strip poker.

Somehow and somewhere on the continuum, individual, personal responsibility ultimately translates into collective responsibility as a nation of people. Somehow we have to do more as ordinary citizens to figure out those commonalities of interest which bind us, and set aside those issues which divide us. Because our leaders apparently have not done so.

There is one other point which we should make – music plays an important role in the movie. In several instances, it is a song which the minstrels and the desert dwellers share which exposes their bonds.

Back in 2005, while “cruising for chicks” in a soon-to-be defunct Border’s Bookstore, we ran across a copy of Einstein’s Violin. Upon opening the work of the Conductor of the United Nations Philharmonic, we discovered that the Father of the Theory of Relativity was a fairly accomplished violinist. The author goes on to discuss how the physical attributes of music have the ability to affect the social interaction of humans. After all, we are all just a mix of protons, neutrons, and electrons.

Next to Einstein’s Violin was a copy of Classical Music for Dummies. We once again saw references to the universality of music and how it had bridged divides in many instances over human history.

You all should go out and rent this one, or figure out how to download it. It is film making at its very best. Check out any of the reviews and what they have to say.

Perhaps if we all contacted our elected representatives in Washington and asked them to view the film, we might get an agreement on the debt ceiling issue.

But that’s not science – that’s science fiction.


  1. I was watching a WH press briefing (Carney) briefly and caught a couple of questions and answers before my tolerance for drivel gave out. It seemed to me that one side being portrayed as the "problem" because it had a firm position was the actual problem. After all, if one side says it won't accept something and, therefore, the bill won't pass that half of Congress how is that different saying it won't accept the opposite something and, therefore, the bill will not pass that half of Congress?

    Yet, I find myself in a quandary because I believe that sticking to one's principles is more important than compromise so that "something gets done."

    Compromising one's principles is not good. Yet not being willing to compromise is also not good.

  2. Douglas:

    You raise a very interesting point. It's it the elected person's principles which are paramount, or the "collective principle" of the people who the elected person represents.? How can any elected officials accurately establish, if at all, the principle or principle in application when he or she is elected to office, when it arguably is a multiplicity of factors?

  3. Small Footprints:

    Welcome back. It's been a long time. We missed you!

    The accuracy / truthfulness of the information is definitely an issue, and not one which we are really sure how to address. Even if we choose a particular media outlet which we "trust," it may not be accurate, but rather feeding us what we wish to believe, or what fits within our worldview.

    Just today on CSpan2 Book TV, there was a program about how we construct beliefs and convert them into truths, particularly in connection with religion and conspiracy theories.

    We look forward to seeing you with more frequency.


  4. Thank you, Inspector ... it's good to be back. Thank you, also, for the link ... I gave up TV some time ago (part of that untruthful info. thing) but perhaps they will add the program to their video library. Enjoy the rest of your weekend! :-)

  5. One of the problems of a large nation with a diverse population trying to maintain a representative republic. When a representative is elected by such a large number of people, there will be countless opportunities for conflicting desires and principles. What is the "collective principle(s)" of, say, Dade County in Florida? Yet, they have at least one representative who supposedly represents their interests.

    I don't have the answers. Like you, I just have questions.

    Just because one significant political minority says another significant political minority is the problem doesn't make it so.

  6. Debt ceiling ... as long as the two sides are more interested in winning the argument than doing what's right ... we'll never get anywhere.

    The question is "What's right?"

  7. They apparently feel that winning the argument is in their best interests. Interestingly, one of the groups might look like heroes years down the road.

  8. That often happens. Of course, only to some people. To others, they will always be "devils". It's hard to overcome some effective demonization.

  9. Independent Cuss wrote:

    "If a couple cannot manage their own finances, and cannot agree upon whether to borrow more money with which to pay a bill before its due date, then their credit rating suffers. Why should the U.S. government any different?"

    From a conceptual point of view, we agree with you Independent Cuss. However, from a pragmatic perspective, we recognize that the extrapolation of certain principles from individuals, to groups, to governmental entities is far more complicated.

    (BTW, we heard a prominent economist say that while it is reasonable to expect states to balance their budgets and live within their means, it is unreasonable to expect a federal, national entity to do so. The economist also mentioned that this type of discussion revolving around "balancing of the books," is relatively recent in terms of human history. There are currently certain options, employed in the past, that simply are not available to an "enlightened" country such as the U.S.)

    While it is acceptable for individuals to discriminate along various lines, it is more nebulous in connections with groups, more potentially problematic for private entities, and definitely prohibited (by the Constitution) for those acting "under color of authority" or what constitutes "state action" by government entities. Because there are certain repercussions associated with individual or family action, it does not necessarily follow that the same principle is applicable to other groups or entities.

    But we feel ya.

    BTW, as long as we have wars, we'll always be in the hole. There is little accountability associated with them, virtually no profit, and nations have a tendency not to discontinue them when they are drained financially.

  10. BTW, as long as we have wars, we'll always be in the hole. There is little accountability associated with them, virtually no profit, and nations have a tendency not to discontinue them when they are drained financially.

    What an interesting thought. Unfortunately, it is historically inaccurate (to be kind). Wars were once (and always) fought for profit.Quite a bit of profit, too. Certainly, war is a huge gamble. After all, a country that loses a war tends to lose everything but, if it wins... well, that's an entirely different thing.

  11. They are not profitable today Douglas. They have not been profitable for the U.S. for a long time.

    You are correct that at certain times in the 19th Century and backwards, they sometimes led to profits; however, countries don't do the types of things now that they did during war in an earlier time. Arguably one potentially profitable aspect NOW is the use of U.S. private subcontractors to perform reconstructions and security functions. Then those entities theoretically pay taxes, which inure to our benefit.

    If we are incorrect in this regard, please provide us with something which suggests that wars have been profitable in recent times.

    In your response you indicated that they are ALWAYS fought for profit. Please advise us of the profit derived from any of the following: The Korean War, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

    If you are suggesting that foreign countries make a profit these days, we'd be glad to entertain that information also. We know that profits are derived by some rebel groups in certain countries, like that associated with blood diamonds and such. But we are not aware of a profit being derived from other current wars.

  12. You misunderstand me, Inspector. I did not say they were always profitable. But they were historically waged for that purpose. Even then, many were not initially profitable but proved to be so later. Wars are expensive gambles. You make a mistake in thinking that it is only recently that non-governmental agencies profited from war. They have always profited. Mostly by the making of arms and armor but also by supplying troops with basic necessities of life (clothing, bedding, food, buildings, training supplies, etc).

    There is not enough room in a reasonable comment (or even a single blog post) to explain this in sufficient detail.

    Our most recent wars were waged for reasons other than profit (regardless of what the Left believes about "blood for oil") but to protect existing alliances of trade and diplomacy. But, as in all wars, there are those on the periphery who do seize the profit opportunities that wars offer.

  13. The context in which this issue was raised was the debt ceiling for the U.S., and all of the talk about a nation spending more than it takes in. We contend that the defense department is not a profit center. Additionally, if we could quantify the value of the human lives lost, that would add more to the loss.

  14. Actually Douglas, the better way to deal with this is to examine the economic statistics in Paul Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. He has this type of economic information in his book, and it has been a few months since we last perused it. (To be honest, the book is rather difficult to read since it is thick and contains lots of economic statistics.) When we are next in the library, we will try to remember to look up the expenditures, income, and net profit on various wars involving various countries.

  15. In that context, I totally agree. The defense department is not a profit center. Few governmental departments are. In fact, I cannot think of a single one. Not since the days of kings and empire.

  16. Statistical analysis is subject (all too often) to personal bias. One must be cautious in evaluating such. I am sure you are sufficiently cautious.

  17. I would like to add one more thing on this subject (supporting my position, of course): post-WWII ushered in the Age of America. We profited first from the war before we entered it and then profited from its aftermath... even as we helped rebuild those countries we brought to ruin in the waging of it. We followed that, unfortunately, with a less profitable (for us) war in Korea and then, doubly unfortunately, the one in Vietnam.

  18. Those of you who are fans of classical music should check out Charlie Rose on PBS today or tonight. Two conductors of note are interviewed.

  19. At Noon EDST today, C-Span2 Book TV will air a book discussion featuring the author of "Debt: The First 5,000 Years"


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