Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Host Family lessons

During the last year of my Peace Corps service I lived with a host family. My family lived in a small city near an international border. Ethnically they are Tatar - a people who are historically Muslim and are originally from a homeland surrounded by the Russian state. This meant that they had to be resilient in the face of frequent provocations lobbed at them by their more numerous Christian neighbors. My host family was small and consisted of a mom, a host brother, and a host sister. Each member of the family reacted to their reality as a Tatar living in Central Asia in a post Soviet world in their own way. The way they transitioned into their new reality is instructional to us all as we enter a world in which our religious, linguistic, and political affiliations are gradually marginalized by the forces of globalization.

My host mother was a hard-working woman who was born and raised in the Soviet Union. While I was living in her house she worked on top of a steep hill at a Soviet-era hot springs resort. At the resort she served as the librarian. She lived to see the stabilization after World War Two and eventually a period of relative comfort and calm. She also lived to experience the stagnation that gradually sapped the union of confidence, and solidarity. It was the prior period of relative comfort and calm that she appreciated and was nostalgic for.
The war was over, Kruschev denounced Stalin, Gagarin went to space, and for a time it seemed like the Soviet Union might be a tolerable place to live. I still remember her, stirring a big pot of barley or rice over a gas stove that barely generated heat, saying longingly; ‘oh how we use to live!’ Her desire was for calm and organization. Negotiating the black-market and all the other unknowns of the post Soviet world was just too much.

My brother also lamented the collapse of the Soviet Union. We use to lift weights or watch TV and he’d talk about how Russia had been the glue that had kept everything together. His general belief was that Russia represented the forces of progress, materialism, and technology and stood against chaos and mysticism. Whenever I would come home and share a story about how something insanely dangerous or amazingly inefficient happened, he was unsurprised. “Of course it was that way”, he’d respond, “without Russia and Russians Kyrgyzstan lost its way.”

Then there was my host sister. She speaks Kyrgyz, Uzbek, Tatar, Turkish, Russian, and English. She is endlessly curious about the world around her and adaptable. She would come home and speak Russian to her family, English to me, say hi to the neighbors in Kyrgyz or Uzbek, then get up the next morning and go to her private school to study Turkish. I never had any real political conversation with her but if I had asked about nationalism or patriotism I’m not sure if she would have had any strong opinions. She is undeniably international and proud to be a multi-lingual Tatar in Kyrgyzstan.

It has been almost 6 years since I left my host family in Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyzstan has limped along, ousted the grizzled and corrupt leader it inherited from Soviet times, and my family moved North to the capital city. It now seems clear that my host family’s perspectives are not aberrations unique to life in Kyrgyzstan. Here in America I know people, like my host mother, who are remorseful as they loose the stability and familiarity of times passed. I know people like my host brother who react with concern to the exotic and unfamiliar traditions that are taking root around him. And I know others like my host sister who thrive in the new openness and diversity.

Comfort with diversity and interconnectedness are important tools to absorb the huge seismic changes caused by globalization. It is becoming more and more obvious that what happened in Kyrgyzstan and how members of my host family reacted isn’t so much about the collapse of the Soviet Union as it is about living in an increasingly post nation-state world. The challenge we’re all facing, no matter what country we live in or our ethnic or religious affiliations, is that certain political and economic ideas are becoming common features of more and more countries. The once unique characteristics of our economic and political system transcend national boundaries and our ability to interact with diverse and distant people is increasingly possible and easy.

The question we’re all left with, therefore, is what is the use of political lines across maps when the reasons we required them are increasingly irrelevant? The uncomfortable feelings my host mother and host brother felt were because the rug of political and patriotic familiarity was pulled-out from under them. The sense of opportunity and curiosity my sister felt came as she emerged from the constraints of political and national obligation. What they experienced, and what I suspect what everyone is experiencing no matter where they are, is how, like my host mother, brother, and sister, they will react to these changes.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Forget what we did yesterday and listen to us today!

Monday I was assigned two appropriation bills and told to be ready to advise my boss on them. The House will pass 12 appropriations bills this year - each worth billions of dollars. This might sound like a lot but the vast majority of the money that the federal government manages is already locked-up as interest that needs to be paid on the debt or entitlement programs that need to be funded. The rest of the money is discretionary spending that is found in these appropriations bills. Within these bills is the juicy 'pork' that we often hear about. It is this pork, or earmarks as they're more appropriately known, that demonstrates a member's political might. Political might of course means the ability to bring money back to a member's district.

The process and rules of determining how a member will get the ever-diminishing portion of discretionary spending back to their district is what I have been listening to all day. It is the rules that are currently being debated and criticized that will determine how a member will get earmarks back to the district. As a stated goal of the new democratic majority is to eliminate earmarks, there seems to be a collective 'oh shit!' reaction by members as they squirm to navigate the new, more difficult path to bring the bucks home. What is more remarkable to me, however, are two larger themes.

The first is the general level of hypocrasy by the minority. 'Openness', 'transparency' and 'what the American people want' are being used especially liberally today. The Democrats have stated as one of their primary objectives the elimination of earmarks. This would mean that pork money would probably be switched to formula or competitive grants. This would mean the end to an era of hooking folks in your district up with grants and contracts. I am a bit conflicted by this idea because perhaps a benefit of being elected should be to have the trust and ability to bring money back home to your district. Maybe a benefit of seniority should be to have the ability to bring more money back to your district. With the elimination of earmarks money would be put into programs that constituents would have to compete and apply for rather than lobby their representative to receive. Furthermore, these programs, that would be administered by a department or agency, would add further oversite, rules, regulations, red-tape and bureaucracy.

There are positives, of course. The cronyism and 'hook-ups' would probably diminish. It is in this very general context - the positives and negatives - that the real, unspoken conversation over the past couple of days has occured. I am not the strongest in my procedural understanding of the tactics and consequences of this whole back-room conversation, and that technocratic minutia is not how this discussion is being framed. Publicly tt is for openness and transparancy and for the interest of the good, hard-working American people - barf.

It is also interesting to listen to the minority speak as vestal virgins guarding the flame of democratic virtue. The performance they are producing is one of total 'shock and awe' - they breathlessly ask how the democrats could consider exercising the power they won in the last election. They act as if they didn't have secret committee meetings the last congress and close the door on those who weren't part of the 'coalition of the willing'. I guess hypocrisy only means something if people actually REMEMBER examples of double-standards. And, in this age of Paris in jail or another road-side-bomb, do people actually remember what happened a year ago??

The other aspect of this whole debate that is interesting is how this debate is a reflection of the dismal fiscal reality of the federal government. Obviousley hypocrisy is an element in this observation as it is fascinating to hear Republicans lecture the Democrats how to be responsible financial stewards of the people's money. The larger issue, however, is that the consequences of misdirected priorities are finally starting to catch-up with us.

Last year, during my previous life as different cog in differnt cube in differnt federal agency, I had a great colleauge who really took the time to bring some persepective to what we were doing as federal employees. He said; 'Yeah, a lot of people hate the government and that they have to pay taxes but just take away some of these programs and see what people will say then.' It took me awhile to understand what he meant, but I've come to understand that only the government can perform certain social functions. If we got rid of the assistance programs that my colleauge and I were administering for postsecondary education institutions who would fill that gap? What if things get so tight because of tax cuts, the war, and Homeland Security spending that all those programs that people currently take for granted, yet don't really notice, don't get funded?

Stagnation and social strife come when priorities get out-of-whack. We didn't make the Soviet Union collapse - it collapsed from the inside-out because of misdirected priorities (Afghanistan, the command-economy, military spending, nepotism, etc). The fiscal situation we are presented with runs the same risk as being a similar cancer that could metastasize across the country. Should we cut education spending to build a border fence? Should we decrease highway funding to enhance Homeland Securies ability to gather 'intelligence'? Should an emphasis on security and defense outweight assistance and regulation? How the government spends its money, and perhaps how much money it has to spend, is a clear reflection of national priorities.

That is it for now. I'm going to go back to C-SPAN now and envy members' ties.