Honor in Office

Average Citizen Critical but not a Critical Thinker

By Gus Nicholson

Publisher: This article originally appeared at Denver Examiner
Date: 12 June 09

The other day I got an e-mail from my friend Jerrol LeBaron in California. He told me he is trying to get a movement going in that state that would require integrity of its legislators. It seems he's deeply concerned that good laws don't have a chance of passing because none of California's legislators reads them. They're guilty, he says, of something he calls "political malpractice." Sound familiar? They're too busy, he continues, trading votes, earmarking funds to benefit campaign contributors, backdoor politics and not reading bills to know what they mean or what the ramifications of their passing are. He claims these offenses are at best malpractice and at worst illegal. Nationally, we know these practices as pork barreling, hog-trading and cajoling. First things first; he's set up a web site: http://www.honorinoffice.org .

Now I know my friend, and he's a very fair guy and a real go-getter, the founder and owner of a successful business. For him to suggest this sort of thing means he's getting pretty fed up with the current and previous crops of politicians that have brought California to its economic knees. So, what does this have to do with Colorado, you ask?

How different do you think we are here? Our experience with California politicians is actually pretty direct. An amendment to the state constitution can be put to a vote in a relatively simple way. The constitution requires a majority of the electorate in a public election to decide to add something to it and only a few thousand signatures to get the proposed amendment on the ballot. That's why Colorado often finds itself the trial balloon for lobbying groups from California and other states "testing" the viability of such issues as budgetary restrictions, medical marijuana, euthenasia and gay rights and marriage before they run a really expensive campaign in their more populous backyards. Fortunately, our state has several safeguards.

The first and most important is the requirement in the state constitution for a balanced budget. That's right. There's no deficit spending without voter approval. A recent amendment, the so-called TABOR Amendment, added in 1992, ironically, by a California immigrant and Republican legislator from Colorado Springs, goes further and requires any indebtedness be voted on by the eligible voters in the state before a law can be passed sanctioning it.

It seems ours, being a frontier state with a "citizen-farmer legislature" designed the whole state lawmaking process around Colorado's growing seasons. After crops were harvested, there was brief respite, then state legislators went to the capital to deal with the issues of a growing and increasingly complex society, arguing through our usually cheery winters for and against various issues of interest and importance. The session ended in the spring in time for them to get home and plant their fields, tend their livestock and manage their own affairs before turning around and doing it all over again. This fairly common sense approach may be the most fundamental reason why this state, despite the numerous challenges facing us and our fellow Americans, is relatively better off than many other states.

This isn't to say, we don't have our problems and differences. But, the operative phrase is "common sense." And for common sense to work, some elements must be added that activate it. The first is critical thinking. The kind that asks, like Captain Kirk did near the end of the Star Trek movie where they journeyed to the center of the galaxy in search of God, "What does God need with a starship?" before handing over the keys to an oversized gnome with a beard. With the emphasis on success as measured by standardized tests and proficiency in math and science, it's hard for all but the most adroit teacher to instill in his or her students the concept, let alone the application, of critical thinking. Another is the elimination of words like "hate" and "fear" from any political debate. It would be great if we could eliminate the labels "liberal" and "conservative" while we're at it. Especially, since those have really become disguised epithets first, and second, used as labels, they have confused us. Can anyone really say, for instance, that the Bush administration operated within a conservative agenda? While socially, the answer would have to be yes, fiscally, the facts show the answer to be a resounding no. Leaving office, that administration left behind the largest government bureaucratic growth and national deficit in our nation's history.

Closer to home the laws and amendments in our own state that were designed to reign in spending and prevent us from digging ourselves a fiscal hole, like Washington seems to enjoy doing, were put up by both liberal and conservative-minded legislators. And cleaning up the laws currently on our books that conflict with each other and our constitutionally stated goal of a balanced state budget and efficient government seems to have fallen to the Democrat-controlled legislature and a Democratic governor. Those "darn liberals" are the ones trying to restore a rational and consistent adherence to the constitution's mandates. The question is, could we live without the labels that, as far as I can see, no longer accurately reflect who these politicians really are and what they stand for? It might take a generation or two. But, I think, the confusion, accelerated by a population devoid of critical thinkers, will bring us to it eventually.

Gus Nicholson , the author, is the Denver Political Buzz Analyst for Examiner.com, the new online newspaper.

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