Time for a Conversation about Change
The recent presidential election in the United States (and Brexit in the UK and similar movements elsewhere) was a clear referendum for change. Candidate Trump ran on a platform of change and received the vote of nearly 1/3 of the eligible voters. Senator Sanders also advocated strongly for change and many of his supporters were part of Secretary Clinton’s votes, also adding up to nearly 1/3 of eligible voters. The largest section of eligible voters however chose “none of the above” by staying home, enchanted with neither the status quo nor the changes being offered. When you consider the rhetoric of the candidates and the vote (and non-vote) totals it is difficult to escape the conclusion that change was the real winner.
Oddly enough however the exact nature of the change people want and candidates offered has never been defined at even a high level. Candidates focused on policies they would enact or change but the fundamentals were not discussed. President Trump, bless his heart, has presented one view for change in the United States since being sworn in. His approach has its supporters and its detractors. But he lacks a proper mandate because we never had a chance to consider multiple change options. Instead he has encountered tough resistance at a time when the people should be most optimistic about his vision.
Whether people agree or disagree with the new administration, far more than anytime in recent history the people are united in demanding change. That makes this a truly significant moment. So it has come time now to stop complaining about “rigged systems” and a lack of voice in public policy and instead to start developing and proposing solutions and alternatives to address those issues. To make the most of this time we need a national (an international even, as the human condition is shared by us all) discussion about just what sort of change is needed and wanted by “the people.” We need to define just what we expect from government and work out different approaches that meet those expectations. This effort should be inclusive and respectful. It should seek out different voices and aim to understand and accommodate different perspectives. And it should abhor violence of any sort at all levels, realizing that only violence by the people can defeat the people’s will when united.
We should answer first whether we truly want “government of, for and by the people.” Government has always, throughout history, served first some privileged elite or another who enjoy special wealth, security, opportunity and freedom because of their birth, wealth or connections. Have we limited the options we consider in the past because government by and for the people is impossible? or too risky? always framed as an attack on those presently in power? I would assert that it is only because no sincere effort has been made and that the time is ripe for it. But others might disagree.
We should then answer just what are the basic principles for which a government should serve the people. For me these are maximizing Freedom and Opportunity for all citizens, and therefore denying the ability of some small segment of the population to leverage a special power position to achieve greater Freedom and Opportunity for themselves and their friends at the considerable expense of others. But others might disagree.
I suspect there will be much agreement on the answers to these basic questions, both from what we consider the “left” and what we consider the “right” today. Therefore they can serve as a foundation to return to whenever later discussions become more difficult and heated. Defining in more detail just what the terms mean (in my case Freedom and Opportunity) will be the first test where the need to stay calm and open-minded will be called upon.
We will then have a yardstick by which to measure our current systems, a shared vocabulary about which to talk about what is and isn’t working today. With this groundwork and knowing specifically what isn’t working, we may finally be able to come up with some astonishing new ideas for how to not only give voice to the people, but also to empower them and leverage our great diversity to solve any and all challenges we might face as a species.
In the lengthy text below I chronicle my attempt at the above exercise, as an example. As a supporter of the ideal of “government of, for and by the people” coined by Abraham Lincoln, I provide a brief summary of the struggle in the United States by the people throughout the country’s history to be heard by their government. I define in a bit more detail my concept of maximizing Freedom and Opportunity for everyone. I provide a high level review of the shortcomings and flaws inherent in our current systems (both political and economic). And then taking Freedom and Opportunity as my driving force imagine what a people’s government might look like in considerable detail.
Even if you disagree with my conclusions completely (or more likely especially if you disagree with it completely) your voice and your action are needed now. Spread the call for a discussion to all your friends, and your enemies too. Broadcast it on all your social media channels and organize meetings to brainstorm on these questions, but also how best to get together a large-scale conversation. An early priority in spreading the word will be to find the people who are most capable at putting something like this together.
Don’t doubt that this is possible. Don’t believe the politicians about all that divide us. Falling prey to it serves the politicians but even more so prevents us from making real meaningful change in areas we all easily agree. Don’t doubt that you are important to success. You have a voice in this process and it all begins with you spreading the word. It fails if you don’t.
A Brief Background of the Struggle
When! Before the present epocha, had three millions of people full power and a fair opportunity to form and establish the wisest and happiest government that human wisdom can contrive?
Such regulations, however, may be better made in times of greater tranquility than the present, and they will spring up of themselves naturally, when all the powers of government come to be in the hands of the people’s friends. At present it will be safest to proceed in all established modes to which the people have been familiarised by habit.
— John Adams, Thoughts on Government, April 1776
There have been a handful of instances in United States history where the people (in contrast to its leaders) have been broadly skeptical about whether the government truly operates in the best interest of the governed. At these times people sensed that the system was focused on the interests and the needs of a tiny minority who benefited disproportionately from control over land, wealth or connections to the right people (referred to as the “elite” below). Throughout most of history, the government would offer benefits to the people only when doing so also benefited those at the top. This doubt that the government truly served the people existed at the founding of the country. It was there at the beginning of the 1900s. It was back again in the 1960s. And there is serious skepticism now again in the 2010s.
Elites competing for power in the new country
Going back to the beginning, many of the early colonies started out with “utopian” ideals for a land where people could lead themselves. But they had to struggle against funders back in Europe who demanded a high profit return for their investment, unsympathetic to the unique and unexpected challenges the settlers faced just to survive. Soon people had to protest to England for relief in some colonies against the abuses of homegrown colonial elite. At the end of the 1600s Philadelphia and Boston competed with each other and bested even European cities in raising and maintaining the lifestyle for even the lowest of its citizens. They invested in education and regulated business to avoid exploitation of labor and consumers — referred to at the time as “oppressing.” But by the middle of the 1700s hereditary elite had developed both in the South (powered by slavery) and in the North.
Northern elite served as tax collectors to enrich themselves. And merchant elite kept duties charged on goods for themselves. These fees were intended to go to Britain to support military protections and failure to convince the merchant to pay these forward compelled the British to tax the people directly. When the people protested against the colonial elite’s abuses their movement (most famously the Tea Party protests in multiple cities) was infiltrated by the colonial elite and turned against the British instead, leading ultimately to a war that no one wanted.
The colonial elite had to quickly seize control over the war effort from the militia to avoid people seizing control after the war. But George Washington himself saw profiteering and lack of support from colonial elite as the biggest obstacle to victory as the war progressed. It was only thanks to French efforts, part of their aristocracy’s continuing competition with British nobles, that independence was achieved.
In the chaos after the war which saw colonial elite competing among themselves for local power and influence, the people made significant progress. They established protections for the people in Bill of Rights in several states and advanced ideas of rule by and for the people. After a few years watching the people gain power however, the elite gathered to discuss a new federal constitution. The consensus was that the government should be designed in such a way as to protect the rights and privileges of the elite. For starters, like in England, representatives in government would be chosen from and by people of wealth and property. It was argued that people who did not have property were not independent of mind to vote responsibly. James Madison also pushed for a government where change would be slow and difficult.(1) Any movement for change that might challenge the privilege of the elite would have to pass through a nearly impregnable maze of government offices where the elite had significant advantage.
The constitution was wildly unpopular. Most people saw it as yet another government designed for the elite and it was only through a massive propaganda campaign (including a concerted effort to silence publishing by the opposition) and a fair amount of trickery that it was finally passed. To the dismay of James Madison, who imagined it was the landowning elite that the government would serve first, Alexander Hamilton took advantage of the reputation of George Washington to make the global bankers an integral part of the economy and the focus of government policy-making. But he took his power too far for a freedom-loving country. After people started to protest a new tax that fell almost exclusively on a large segment of unrepresented farmers, Hamilton had Washington lead troops (the only time a sitting President has) to suppress them. The event inspired many to join democracy clubs which were taking ideas from the early stages of the French Revolution. But when the French Revolution turned against the French people, Hamilton leveraged fear to introduce new laws making it illegal to speak out against the government and the ruling party.
Hamilton’s abuse of power came at a time when the right to vote was expanding. New western states, desperate for people, offered less restrictive voting requirements to attract new settlers. As the original states adjusted their voting rights to compete a backlash against the banking elite reduced their political dominance and brought an end to Hamilton’s Federalist Party. It took the banking interest some time to infiltrate the opposition Republican Party, but since the banking industry was now intertwined with the working of the country they had much leverage.
With the Republican Party increasingly in the hands of the wealthy northern elite, people looked for an alternative. It was a situation that a new elite, a political elite, was willing to exploit. It would be an easy matter to win the vote. They didn’t even have to keep any of their election promises to clear the low bar set by candidates serving the wealthy, some of whom refused even to speak to the non-elite let alone address any of their issues. Unlike the Republican Party, which craved power as a means to advance pro-wealthy agenda, the new Democratic Party craved power as a means to wealth and privilege for themselves. These two parties operating at the exclusion of other options made for some rather bleak choices on election day: choosing between the party of the elite and the party of the power-hungry.
Meanwhile the southern landed elite struggled against the moral weight of the source of their power and privilege, slavery. They were the perfect companion to the burgeoning industrial elite in the North. From the southern plantations the North could get cheap cotton for a new cloth industry and moral cover for their own abuses of labor. As bad as wage slavery was — a point the southern slaveholders and abolitionists made from time to time — it was not nearly as revolting philosophically as traditional slave labor.
Ultimately the privileges of the southern slaveholders were unsustainable under the force of a global retreat from slavery. Desperate to hold on to their privilege, the slaveholders struck out at the federal government, trying to deny it any power so that it never would have the power to impose human rights in the South. Maintaining the “peculiar institution” was costing the country its reputation globally and preventing it from building the infrastructure it would need to compete in the industrializing world. But insisting that the federal government was the problem led to a dilemma: people in the South started to think about breaking away from that government. After repeatedly playing the secession threat card to get what they wanted, the South’s bluff was eventually called. A horrific war ensued after the secession, costing the lives of way too many non-elite on both sides before ultimately resulting in the defeat of the slaveholders’ cause.
The northern capitalists descended into the south to exploit the cheaper labor and extract what wealth there was to be had. But even though slavery was ended (blacks had been recruited on both sides toward the end of the war so emancipation was unavoidable), the southern elite were still useful to the northern capitalists because of their experience keeping the southern poor in check. Eventually people realized that the northern elite were just as bad or worse (at least for the poor whites) than the old southern elite. With only the choice between the two elites, the poor whites registered their anger with the capitalist elite by returning the southern elite to political power. Once in power the southern elite moved quickly to suppress the new voting rights and economic opportunities of the black citizens.
Government for and by the wealthy
Because the Democratic Party had been implicated in the madness leading up to the Civil War they had difficulty at the polls after the war and the capitalist elites’ Republican Party enjoyed over fifteen years of nearly unchallenged dominance. The timing was perfect, coming as the capitalists were trying to build an industrial complex that would give them overwhelming power over people’s lives. Control over the government at this time meant they could use government positions (including the President itself) to reward people loyal to the elite. As a result corruption ran rampant.
The Republicans presided over a substantial transfer of wealth from the poor to the wealthy. For example with no regulation to protect consumers and labor, the railroad tycoons (who were granted rights and land to build railroads because of their connections) were able to charge extortionate prices and invest in practically no safety precautions to rake up enormous profits. They would protect these profits from wrongful death and injury lawsuits by immediately siphoning profits away from the corporation in the form of dividends. It was a way for the railroad owners to reduce their risk, by transferring it to the consumers. When the people’s protest vote against the abuses of the capitalist elite again brought the Democrats to power, only the worst corruptions and abuses were brought under control. The government slowed down its handing out of tax money to the wealthy elite but they did very little to interfere with the capitalists’ exploitation of labor and consumers. The wealthy elite’s control over the economy continued.
Entering into the 1900s people were fed up with all the exploitation. After a period of massive increases in the number of trusts (collaborations among the wealthy to exploit consumers) between 1897 and 1904, the government finally started to feel pressure to eliminate the worst forms of corporate abuse. It was slow going, as the constitution mandated, but by the 1912 election three out of the four candidates were “progressives” calling for more consideration of the needs of the people. They combined to receive 77% of the vote.
During the progressives’ brief rise in influence they managed to push through weak banking reform, more significant tariff reform (shifting some of the cost of government that served the elite to the wealthy themselves) and an attempt to push back the trusts (previous laws designed to fight trusts had instead been used to deny labor the ability to stand together against the might of corporations).
World War I brought an end to this brief period of government for the people. The war made people especially susceptible to nationalism and a call for self-sacrifice. It was enough for the elite to push back the threat to their dominance. The final nail on the coffin of government for the people came during Prohibition. When the government tried to impose morality on a freedom-loving population there was, unsurprisingly, a massive backlash. Consumption of alcohol in New York City, for example, actually increased. With casual flaunting of the ridiculous law also came organized crime. The elite grabbed onto the desire for security and used it to return to power. It was a lesson they would carry with them into future challenges from the people.
The wealthy elite enjoyed an incredible resurgence. It wasn’t quite as good as the second half of the 1800s, but they were once again given free reign over the government and economy. As just one example, Andrew Mellon, the second wealthiest man in the world at the time, was made Secretary of Treasury from 1921 until 1932 where he fought for tax cuts for the wealthy elite.
As happened time and time again greed soon gripped the country. Bankers and business owners discovered that it was much easier to inflate the value of companies artificially than produce quality products that appealed to consumers. Before long the country was awash in fake wealth. And once a few people started to pull their fake wealth out of the system to convert it to real wealth the whole system collapsed.
These crises happened on a regular economic cycle of boom and bust. And each time the government jumped in to protect the wealth of the elite, including securing the position of bankers who were, as always, largely responsible for the mess. Meanwhile the people took the brunt of the crisis. They were the relief valve for the wealthy elite. Whenever a crisis hit, the industrialists could cut headcount in their companies to control costs, leaving the social costs of the country’s labor pool to fall squarely on the government (which typically refused to step up). Part of the problem was that economic crises were as good for the highest of the wealthy elite as economic booms were. The crises gave them a chance to silence the demands of labor, cull unwanted newcomers from the rolls of the elite and consolidate ownership of the country’s industries at ridiculously low cost. For them human suffering also had a strong positive side since it made people more desperate for work and therefore willing to work for less.
Eventually however the people were simply pushed too far. Everything they had worked so hard to provide for themselves was taken away from them by the careless greed of the capitalist and banking elite. Sensing a growing electoral backlash, Republican President Hoover (who was so wealthy himself that he was donating his presidential salary to charity) relented and began some small-scale infrastructure projects ahead of a presidential election to try to help people and win votes. It wasn’t enough and the Democrats were returned to power.
Realizing that the people were reaching the end of their patience, the government finally started to invest in infrastructure projects across the country. Since the wealthy elite were content to wait out the economy, it was only the government that could be relied upon to jump start the economy, getting people working (and therefore spending money) again. The investment in infrastructure improved the country’s standard of living and started to push the unemployment rate down, with a brief relapse when the government tried to cut programs and the Supreme Court challenged the constitutionality of helping people.
With the coming of World War II, the capitalist elite finally came out of their shell and started to invest, confident that the war meant high profits and low risk for them. And once again the nationalist euphoria of the war was easily leveraged by the elite to return to power.
Like the French Revolution had been useful in creating fear of farmers (and their demands for an end to elite advantages) so too was the Russian Revolution valuable for turning the middle class firmly against the working class (and their demands for fair wages and safe working conditions). In fact, Communism seemed custom-made for the capitalist elite in the United States. When Lenin took over Russia he claimed (and may have believed) that he was doing it for the workers. They didn’t introduce a workers’ government however, but instead simply replaced the capitalist and landed elite with bureaucratic or party elite who enjoyed special privileges by virtue of their connections and willingness to bend to the will of the party. Even though it was failing to hear the complaints of labor for dignity and fair wages that allowed a few men to usurp political and economic power, the global capitalist elite managed to turn this around. They suggested that giving in to even the most reasonable demands of workers would lead to a Soviet-style totalitarian regime.
The United States and the Soviet Union soon developed a nearly perfect symbiotic relationship. Each used fear of the other to demand compliance and sacrifice from their populations, allowing regimes that would have otherwise succumbed to pressure from dissatisfied citizens to survive. The capitalists characterized Communism as dehumanizing and a threat to individuality. But by prosecuting (as Communist) anyone who did not fit a narrowly defined list of behaviors, the capitalists were also suppressing individuality. People were afraid of standing out as unique and different so they presented an outward appearance of compliance while struggling to control their humanity and individual identity. As a result, the number of professional psychiatrists doubled during the course of the 1950s.
While small segments of the population had started to rebel against conformity, the election of 1960 did much to release pent up individuality and humanity. In order to defeat the Republicans, John Kennedy ran with a strong dose of hope, a powerful weapon against the fear the Republicans were offering. Driven by the independent money and personal ambitions of his father, Kennedy inspired people to believe in themselves and the country again.
The Kennedy administration, true to Democratic Party practice, was fairly moderate once in office. They didn’t want to alienate any potential campaign donors with aggressive policies. The greatest legacy left by President Kennedy was hope. He inspired many to civic-mindedness and he inspired his successor, Lyndon Johnson, to take up the cause of ordinary people. Johnson ran for election on the suggestion that the United States had the potential to become a “Great Society.” A major part of this effort would be a so-called “War on Poverty,” to capture people left to fall through the cracks. It included early education opportunities, young adult training for careers, support for schools and colleges, a US-focused version of the Peace Corps, health insurance for elderly (Medicare) and poor (Medicaid), and medical research to reduce costs of healthcare. But Johnson also fell for the fear offered by the Republicans. And soon President Johnson’s War on Poverty was overshadowed by his war on Vietnam (theoretically part of the stand against Communism) as he cut spending on the former to pay for the latter. It was a wildly unpopular move that cost Johnson much of his electoral support.
With Johnson tainted by the war and with the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. the Democratic Party was in shambles. This allowed the Republicans to return to power. They awakened the segment of the population which had given in to the demand for conformity in the 1950s during the election by running on a promise to return to “normalcy.” For the Republicans that apparently meant an aggressive attack on protestors demanding fair treatment for a broad range of different minorities. And with the support of the Republican base, they were able to use more violent suppression tactics that eventually wore down the will to protest of most people. Giving up, many would-be protesters turned to “sex, drugs and Rock and Roll” to escape the hypocrisies of the United States government and society.
Having achieved the acquiescence of the public for violent oppression of protestors, the Republican government next sought support for their version of the War on Poverty. Their tactics were simple. Government policies drove increasing numbers of people into poverty and desperation. Desperation led to increased crime and drug abuse. Soon the middle class was demanding the government do something (anything) about the crime problem. So as people got poorer the government got more power to fight crime. Soon the prisons were filled with people the economic and social systems of the country had forced into desperation.
Having turned such a large portion of the population against them, the Republican Party was nervous. They saw enemies everywhere and assumed the Democrats would find some way to come to power and punish them for their abuses. While the Democrats were not yet strong enough to launch a successful campaign to defeat the Republicans, the paranoia of the Republicans was. Ahead of the election the Republicans broke into Democratic campaign headquarters to steal campaign secrets. President Nixon had the investigation delayed until after the election but when his efforts became public he was forced to resign.
The Republican scandals opened the door for a brief reprieve from the Republican attack on people. The country elected a Washington outsider, former Georgia governor Jimmy Carter. He ran against the Republican’s clear allegiance to the wealthy elite, saying in his nomination acceptance speech: “Too many have had to suffer at the hands of a political and economic elite who have shaped decisions and never had to account for mistakes, nor to suffer from injustice.”(2) In office Carter was committed to an open and transparent White House. He was hardworking and unpretentious. He didn’t have much patience with lobbyists and people trying to persuade him (with donations) to act contrary to the public interest. But Carter didn’t understand economics any better than previous presidents. His idea to improve the economy was to increase corporate profitability by weakening labor safety and consumer protection laws. On top of that he tried to balance the budget by cutting social services. Like so many politicians over the years he failed to realize that he could not balance the budget on the backs of the poor. It was the working class as consumers and wealth producers that drove the economy.
Where Carter really stood out was on foreign policy, at least in the early days of his term. He encouraged a human-rights-oriented foreign policy, calling USSR and South Africa — among others — to task for violations of human decency. He also tried to encourage the country to live up to high human rights standards and to serve as a model for the world. He suggested that the Cold War could be fought not with aggression but by winning the ideological debate between Democracy and Totalitarianism. At a speech at Notre Dame in 1977 he argued that “Being confident in our own future, we are now free of that inordinate fear of Communism that once led us to embrace any dictator who joined us in that fear…. We can no longer separate the traditional issues of war and peace from the new global questions of justice, equity, and human rights.”(3)
The country’s past aggressive foreign policy came back to haunt the country at the end of the Carter administration however, dramatically contributing to the President’s defeat in the 1980 election. Events started to spiral out of control when the US-backed, capitalist-friendly regime in Iran fell in 1979. A religious leader took charge of the country, setting up a theocracy.
This was the context for the elections of 1980: deteriorating relations with the Soviet Union, diminishing concern for the working class, hostages in Iran and a resulting oil crisis that pushed inflation and interest rates to new heights. To take on Carter the Republicans nominated Ronald Reagan, to the surprise and dread of much of the country. Early in life Reagan had been a registered Democrat, a supporter of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and in favor of a fair tax plan for the working class. But after he was hired to host the General Electric Theater television program his wealth increased dramatically and he slowly lost touch with ordinary people. Eventually he was fired from the program when his views became too extreme. As governor of California he spoke about violent suppression of student protestors (calling for a “blood bath”(4)). By this point Reagan was viewed as not much better than a tyrant, like so many of the dictators the US had supported over the decades.
Reagan took a play from deep within the Democratic Party playbook, telling people what they wanted to hear with empty but energetic rhetoric that made few concrete promises. To a country struggling to make ends meet he promised to lower taxes. To capitalists he promised to dramatically increase the size of the military to feed the defense industry and to defend the interests of capitalists abroad. To people concerned about the country’s long-term future he promised to balance the budget without addressing how he could do this with tax cuts and out-of-control military spending. To appeal to the religious right looking for greater conformity and a return to the traditional values from before the 1960s Reagan downplayed his record as California Governor when he supported abortion rights, homosexual rights, women’s rights and the environment.
With the two rather miserable options most people stayed home on Election Day. Only 54% of the eligible voters cast a vote which meant that Reagan’s eventual win came with just 27% of the eligible voters.(5)
With the election over, Iran released its US hostages. Having kept an eye on the election campaigns they recognized that the outcome could not have gone better for them if they had arranged it themselves. It was hard to make the United States out to be the enemy of the Iranian people with someone like Carter as President. Reagan proved to be a much better tool for Iranian nationalism.
Once in power the administration removed government objection to massive mergers, allowing the power of consolidated wealth to be used more forcefully to push salaries down, consumer prices up and quality down to funnel enormous profits to capitalists. Reagan expanded deregulation of banks, leading to more risky investment decisions assured that if anything went wrong the taxpayers could bail them out.
To provide additional profits to the rich, Reagan once again transferred environmental costs of industry back to the public. When a new pamphlet was educating workers on the dangers of cotton dust to textile workers, Reagan “solved” the problem by having the pamphlet destroyed. In his inauguration speech Reagan had said “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” In office he was showing quite clearly the sort of government he wanted to eliminate and the sort he aimed to maintain.
To support the Capitalist elite further Reagan imposed an economic philosophy that mystified most of the country’s economists so much that many people called it “Voodoo Economics.” The plan called for massive tax cuts for the wealthy accompanied with much more modest cuts for the rest of the country. Reagan tried to convince the country that money given to the wealthiest people would “trickle down” to the poor through increased spending and job creation. Without actually putting more real money in the hands of actual consumers his plan called upon an age old Capitalist trick, making sure people had access to easy credit. The economy could grow on the debt of the working class. Reagan, set on transferring as much wealth to the wealthy as possible, ignored a warning from his Department of Commerce showing that lowering corporate taxes would in fact result in a steep drop in capital investment.
The fortunes of CEOs and capitalists increased fabulously under Reagan, and they showered him with praise. At the start of Reagan’s term a CEO was already making an outrageous forty times more than an average factory worker, but by the end of the decade the CEO was making 93 times more.(6) The approach was essentially killing off the large market in the United States since few people would be able to buy the products sold.
With support from the public for a global confrontation with Communism, Reagan quickly returned to the practice of supporting any of the world’s autocratic regimes willing to favor US capitalists and oppose Communism. He sent advisors and intelligence agents to help rulers in El Salvador and Guatemala, and tried to reverse the electoral outcome in Nicaragua by supporting rebels intent on overthrowing the government. It was all a little too much for Congress which denied the administration funds to continue to support the Nicaragua rebels, putting Reagan’s operations there in jeopardy.
Without Reagan’s aggressive rhetoric and military build-up against the Soviet “threat” it is very possible that the Soviet Union would have collapsed. They gambled heavily to try to provoke the United States — in Africa, against Israel and then finally by invading Afghanistan — and this put a lot of pressure on their internal systems. With the United States acting like a serious threat again the Soviet Union had what it needed to press its people further. Reagan was so perfectly suited to the needs of the Soviet Union it is difficult to imagine he was not working with them (although, to be clear, there was no evidence of this).
1983 was a particularly terrifying year. For starters it was the year that the President announced his plans to militarize space, developing weapons to defend the country from orbit. In September of 1983 the USSR shot down a South Korean airliner which had accidentally flown into sensitive airspace, killing all the passengers. In addition to 268 other civilians the plane also carried a US Congressman. Then, with relations extremely tense and trust at an all time low, the Soviet Union registered a false positive on a US missile launch. It was their turn to realize, despite the Republican’s anti-Soviet rhetoric, that it wasn’t a real attack and save the world.
Meanwhile the administration pursued a muddleheaded strategy with Iran. On the one hand they supported Iraq’s autocratic ruler Saddam Hussein in his war against Iran. On the other hand they sold arms to Iran in hopes that they would agree to use its influence in the region to convince guerrilla groups to release US hostages. Iran didn’t help much but they did appreciate the weapons. Since the operation was a secret the Reagan administration was able to squirrel away the profits from the weapon sales to help support the war in Nicaragua. It wasn’t until the official government in Nicaragua shot down a shipment of arms to the rebels that the country found out what the government was doing in its name.
As the Reagan administration became more aggressive against the world it didn’t take long for the world’s peoples to respond. Finding no avenue open to protest US exploitations some resorted to terrorism again. It was clear that the policies were not making the world safe for Democracy. Dictators that the US was not supporting directly were getting legitimacy and recruits from the fear and hatred of the United States. Democracy was in full retreat.
Before long Reagan’s tax cuts and out-of-control military spending ballooned the budget deficit. To put this in perspective during the Vietnam War the United States ran an agonizing deficit of around $25 billion. Reagan’s deficit during peacetime (not considering the Cold War as wartime) was around $200 billion.(7) The increased debt served capitalists in two ways. First the interest on the debt was another way for the government to transfer the wealth of the country to bankers and investors worldwide. Second it put pressure on the social programs, which tended to be the first to be targeted in government cutbacks. Serious poverty remained good for creating both fear and a desperate labor force willing to accept almost anything for a poor paying job.
It wasn’t long in fact before Reagan did make cuts to Social Security and welfare. To reassure people that the country was not going backwards the administration insisted once again that private charities and churches would take care of poverty. Back in the real world however it was clear that private charities weren’t keeping up as the number of people living below the poverty line in the United States increased by 25% from 1979 to 1983.(8) It was no surprise that Reagan chose to prove the greatness of the United States with its military instead of by the standard of living of its poorest citizens.
For the Republicans ever since the War on Poverty proving oneself worthy of office meant funding law enforcement and prisons. As a result more and more of the country’s citizens ended up in prison, particularly after the government started a broad attack on drug users. Whereas in 1974 the US inmate population was still under 300,000, by 1980 that number was 540,000(9) and by 1985 it was up to 743,000.(10) After 1976 when the Supreme Court ruled that states could return to executing criminals Republicans competed with each other on who sent the most people to their deaths. Falling through the cracks in the United States economic system had dire consequences.
By the end of Reagan’s first term the country was fed up with his tactics. Whereas in May 1981 Reagan’s approval rating was at 68%, by May 1982 it was down to 42% and had slipped to 37% by February 1983. By 1984 an IRS poll showed that 80% of the country believed that “The present tax system benefits the rich and is unfair to the ordinary working man and woman.”(11) This wasn’t “our taxes are too high,” this was more like “if the country needs a military to protect the interest of capitalists, the capitalists should pay for it themselves.”
After Reagan left office, George HW Bush as President offered more moderate policies and approaches. Meanwhile work began to improve Reagan’s legacy. Republican campaigners suggested Reagan played a role in bringing about the end of Soviet rule in Russia instead of highlighting how he extended its life while at the same time making the whole world quake in fear over the potential of nuclear Armageddon. Much was made of the modest tax cuts for the middle class, ignoring the more significant tax cuts for the wealthy and the painful contributions of the cuts to the public debt. It was only under President Clinton that the budget was finally balanced, until George W Bush came to power and busted it again.
More recently, money has become the key to election success for candidates, especially after the Supreme Court ruled that money is speech, ignoring somehow that means that some citizens have a lot more Freedom of Speech than others do. This has contributed to the push of politics and policy further and further again to the support of the wealthy, not only from Republican but also from Democrats as well. They both now need to cater to the needs and desires (not always expressed) of wealthy campaign donors.
The result has been growing unrest across the country again, about a government that completely fails to serve the people. We saw it in the Occupy Wall Street movement, demanding more reasonable policies and protections against greed of a few destroying the economy and livelihoods of the majority. We saw it too in the Tea Party movement, so desperate to end government support for the wealthy that they accept Republican commitments to end government programs that support the people as a first indication of a shrinking government.
But despite attempts by politicians to divide us, there has rarely been greater agreement on fundamental principles. Both sides want people who are willing to work hard to have opportunity and be rewarded for that work. Both sides want to live in a country and world where they feel safe to believe what they want to believe and live how they want to live. To put it succinctly, most of us want freedom, opportunity and the pursuit of happiness. Few people want someone else to monopolize or limit opportunities, to take more than their fair share.
The main difference, then, is in who each group thinks is the most significant threat to their values and freedoms. The left focuses on the privileges and powers — both inside and outside the government — afforded to corporations and the wealthy elite. They call for more transparent and honest government working for the people instead of for the wealthy. They see the government as the best and only tool to balance out the enormous structural advantages enjoyed by wealth in the country and world’s economic system. Those on the left then are therefore willing to tolerate some in government taking advantage of their position in order to have a mechanism to regulate abuses in the economy. In contrast, the movement on the right is encouraged by the wealthy, who actively push people to fear and distrust the government hoping to achieve greater freedom to exploit the country’s people and resources. Those on the right highlight the obvious inconsistencies and flaws in our political model to make clear the risks the government poses. As a result many on the right want to shrink government, while many on the left want to increase the size of government and regulation as the only apparent check on the power and privilege of the wealthy — imperfect as government is.
Actually both are right in their pointing to abuses by elite. There are people who benefit disproportionately from their connections and positions. These elite not only take opportunities away from others but also shrink the total size of the “pie” (total prosperity) available for everyone. Conventional wisdom appears to be that we have to choose between ceding more freedom to exploit to the wealthy and permitting a governing elite to take hold. Yet there are — there must be — other options that we have been heretofore unable to see clearly through the fog created by current elite-dominated economic and political systems desperate to stay relevant despite pressure from the people for greater fair play and freedom.
The Current Systems
If we take offering a voice for the citizens and maximizing Freedom and Opportunity for all as our goal, our current economic and political models do not score high. The political system is run for and often by those at the top. But that is nothing compared to the opportunities to exploit the people offered in Capitalism, especially with government out of the way.
The United States is suffering through a crisis of trust. The Capitalist economy is built on the assumption that every person looks out for themselves, taking advantage of any available opportunity to improve one’s own position. People are warned not to trust anyone and are frequently punished for putting too much faith in others, particularly those offering financial or product advice which could lead to personal and national economic ruin. Companies can be trusted to maximize profit but that is hardly reassuring when deciding which products to buy. And then there is the government. There exists the mythology that the government operates “for the people” but it has seldom given much reason for the people to trust that it has their best interests in mind. Since Nixon’s scandals and the continuing attack on the working class, it has been a dark time. Even the country’s religious leaders are difficult to trust since they have proven willing to manipulate faith for their own purposes. When people don’t know who to trust — when even “experts” are found suspicious — then anyone can manipulate the people. The horrors after the French and Russian Revolutions can be attributed to this sort of crisis of trust.
What do we want?
Many people seem to have resigned themselves to the fact that no government can serve the people, so the only option is to minimize it so it cannot do much harm. Yet there remains the myth that the United States has a “government of, for and by the people.” That myth may yet be elite rule’s undoing. It may give the people the confidence needed to develop and propose a government that actually does serve the people. And it can point us directly to what we should be expecting from government. Beyond government of the people, what is it they say the United States is? The Land of the Free? The Land of Opportunity? Wouldn’t it be something if the government were committed to maximizing Freedom and Opportunity to all its citizens, not just enabling those at the top to monopolize both at the expense of the rest of us?
But there is a problem with agreeing to the definition of terms. What “opportunity” could be promised and advanced by public policy? Is it that everyone should have a fair opportunity to comfortably provide for themselves and their family? Would it include the opportunity to be proud of what one is doing, making a real contribution that is well-suited to the passions, interests, and talents of the individual? Could this sort of opportunity possibly be provided in a society? Capitalist economists insist that it is impossible. Despite the mythology that the country is the “Land of Opportunity,” the United States struggles to offer everyone a decent opportunity in life. There are simply too many advantages given to people with wealth. Wealth is power and power brings opportunity. This naturally limits the opportunities for the rest of the country. Ideally, success should not be measured relative to others and success should not be achieved by tearing others down.
“Freedom” is no easier to define than “Opportunity.” In his 1940 State of the Union Address, Franklin Roosevelt had an interesting angle on Freedom, one that continues to have meaning. First he offered two conventional freedoms: Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Worship. But then he introduced concepts that were truly innovative for the time, inspired by Depression-era politics and economics. He suggested that people should have Freedom from Want and Freedom from Fear. The latter is particularly relevant today as fear is oftentimes used as a political weapon of manipulation. Roosevelt had combined the traditional concepts of Freedom with the basic precepts of Opportunity.
Then what can be done with competing freedoms, when the freedoms of one person interfere with the freedoms of others? If everyone were completely free to do whatever they wanted, that would be anarchy. This clearly takes the idea of Freedom into sinister territory, where murder, thievery and survival of the fittest (as defined very narrowly) would be the norms. Despite the stark similarity between this concept and the hard-line Capitalist ideas for an unregulated business environment in which everyone is left to fend for themselves, I can’t imagine many people would advocate for this. While Freedom and Opportunity are easy ideals to agree on as general concepts, the details will no doubt prove more difficult.
The current political system
“Democracy” would be high on most people’s list of expectations for any government in the United States. But what does it mean to people? At its core is a government that is held responsible to, representative of and works for the people. But few people want a requirement or expectation that everyone be actively engaged in decision making on all issues, so-called “Direct Democracy.” Most people don’t have enough interest or knowledge to make a helpful decision on most issues. And there is a rational fear of what a majority without deep knowledge on all possible issues would do with that much responsibility. Instead people tend to prefer having someone they can trust to represent them in discussions. The original framers of the Constitution asserted that the elite could be such trustworthy representatives. In practice however this has been far from true, something the contemporaries of the framers knew from the very beginning. An essay written during the time when the Constitution was being debated entitled “The Use of Coercion by the New Government” signed “A Farmer and Planter” explained with surprising clarity the undeniable connection between wealth and power, lamenting the lack of mitigation in the proposed Constitution:
Aristocracy, or government in the hands of a very few nobles, or RICH MEN, is therein concealed in the most artful wrote plan that ever was formed to entrap a free people…. Does not riches beget power, and power, oppression and tyranny? (Anti-federalist Papers №26)
The US government rarely seemed to act as if it represented the people. More perks and rewards in office came by serving the interests of the wealthy minority than those of the majority so that is where most politicians put their energy. And as campaign funding became critical to election and reelection the priority further tilted toward policies that favored people and organizations with money to “donate” to a politician’s cause. The way the system works in practice means that even those who might enter office to serve the people would need to satisfy upper class constituents in order to stay in office. The resulting lack of genuine representation is something that frustrates potential voters to the point that many decide to stay home on voting day. They simply don’t see the point in participating in the charade.
In practice the two political parties put much more effort into fooling the voters than understanding them. Tactics and slogans are tested and explored until the right cocktail of words and imagery is hit upon to sell a candidate to an electorate. Nationalism and fear are some of the more common and destructive tactics, creating and expanding animosities both within and outside of the country instead of finding ways for different viewpoints to compromise and get along. Fear of Great Britain, France, Spain, natives, slaves, new immigrants, Mexico, Canada, Germany, farmers, labor, Communists, the Soviet Union, Muslims and the poor have all taken their turns. Candidates who communicate a commitment to a strong defense against these threats to “our way of life” win elections despite the fact that these defenses typically mean denying liberty and opportunity to large swaths of the US population. Time and time again the people have conceded Freedom and Opportunity in exchange for a sense of security from threats that the country’s leadership had created or made sound much worse than they actually were.
Despite being such a fundamental requirement, the ideas and logic of representation are poorly formed. It is difficult to imagine that people living in the same geographical area all really hold the same basket of ideas and preferences. Yet it is expected that a single representative could represent all the diverse opinions and views of hundreds of thousands (up to millions) of people on all topics. If 51% of the people in a person’s district view things one way and 49% the opposite way there is no one to represent the large minority. Worse yet, if 51% of the people think issue A (social issues, for example) is most important in choosing a representative, then that would drive their voting decision. But the person best suited for that issue would also represent them on issue B (corporate tax policy perhaps), even though only a tiny minority might share that representative’s views on that issue. It is this dynamic that the political parties and ruling powers skillfully exploit to push through policies contrary to the interest of the majority.
Without sincere representation debates in Congress are often shallow, more for show to appear to be engaged than a real discussion of the needs and interests of different constituencies. It isn’t about how to accommodate different perspectives with the minimum of trouble and compromise for all sides, but about how to provide the greatest value to those with the most influence. A Congressperson can “buy” votes on something that is important to his or her wealthy constituents by promising to support a bill or project that is important to another Congressperson’s wealthy constituents. If the cotton industry wanted government subsidies to pad their profits and the defense industry wanted increased spending on weapons procurement they both could take from the people’s tax revenues by working together and supporting each other’s bill. These are not compromises on the issues between divergent sides on the same debate; these are agreements across multiple issues where the representatives of the wealthy conspire to take as much as they can from the people.
Even if real representation could be achieved, there are issues with Democracy in theory that cause difficulty in practice. The guiding principle of Democracy is the rule by the majority. Between two different options the choice that receives more than half the votes is the one that is pursued. This however can be quite oppressive to those in the minority. In the United States the Bill of Rights is the primary defense against government abuse and is needed to shield minorities from the worst assaults by the majority. But it can only do so much.
The myth alone that the United States has majority rule creates a great deal of animosity and anxiety. Those in the majority are anxious to push through their agenda quickly and forcefully while in power for fear of losing it someday. The nature of Democracy encourages people to be more aggressive in pursuing their agenda and less considerate of other people’s viewpoints. Furthermore, to secure their position those in power often change the rules in their favor. They find ways to game the electoral system including limiting voting rights and realigning districts to make sure they retain their power. Such is the fear of Democracy. People feel in order to avoid being its victim they have to manipulate it.
Meanwhile, those in the minority feel a sense of helplessness. It makes people desperate to find some way to achieve a majority. Ironically, since the system is so poorly representative even groups clearly in the majority feel that same sense of helplessness, imagining themselves outside of the majority and becoming just as desperate to gain control.
If a group is unable to achieve a national majority they often attempt to exploit (sometimes even manufacture) state or local majorities and then push to move decisions to those local jurisdictions. It is a way for local elite or other anxious interest groups not powerful enough to compete on the national stage to exploit the gears of Democracy to impose their values and interests on local populations. The call for “states rights” has often been used this way. And for most of the history of the United States there were few protections at the state and local level since the Bill of Rights in the Constitution did not extend to the action of state governments until 1925. Before then people had to rely on the often weak state constitutions for protection, making them prime targets for exploitation and abuse.
The myth that states make sense as homogenous political districts goes back to before the country was founded. The southern slaveholders needed a political jurisdiction where they could continue to impose their will on slaves and other free whites without interference from any larger political body. To justify these local jurisdictions and the transfer of decision making to that level the ruling elite had to convince everyone that the people in one state had more in common with each other than they did with people in other states. But it wasn’t true beyond those at the top in the colonial days and it isn’t true today. Cities versus rural is a much stronger predictor of political opinions than New Jersey versus New York, or Oregon versus Washington. The country is diverse.
However even today, some people argue that a majority should be able to impose its way of thinking on a minority in violation of basic rights. For example it has been argued that if a majority in a state, county or town wishes to introduce religious services or iconography into their government institutions they should have that right. They feel they should be able to ignore the principle of separation of Church and State if a majority agrees. What they are missing in their reasoning is that once such majority rule is allowed complete authority it could be turned against a group just as readily as used by them. It had happened before. In the first half of the 1800s the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints was growing and chose a Missouri location as their central base. They called for a migration of the faithful, making the locals living there nervous. It looked certain that soon the new immigrants would outnumber the earlier immigrants and be able to impose their religious, moral, social and legal beliefs onto people outside of their faith. To prevent this outcome the earlier migrants fought back. They attacked the towns the Church had established and intimidated their residents until they had to flee the state. They felt they had to resort to violence to avoid the implications of Democracy.
But despite the tendency of states and “states rights” to be abused, there are a few cases where individual states actually led the federal government in improving human rights and expanding freedom. Women’s right to vote, for example, evolved exclusively from state action as western states (starting with Wyoming) started to experiment with offering women the right to vote. Although the states have their detractions, a place to incubate new progressive ideas and to put pressure on the federal government to move forward has tremendous value.
The current economic system
It is difficult to disentangle the political system from the economic system. Capitalism gives power to the wealthy which can in turn be used to corrupt any political system. Despite the right to vote expanding to people without wealth and property, companies and the wealthy manage to remain in firm control by leveraging increasingly larger sums of money to help their favorite candidates “campaign” and manipulate voters. With more money politicians can use increasingly sophisticated techniques to convince voters to fear the latest threat or submit blindly to nationalist and patriotic rhetoric. It seems no form of government could be safe as long as so much economic power is wielded disproportionately. In order to get a real chance at freedom and opportunity, it is clear some sense has to be made of Capitalism.
The basic assumption of Capitalism is that people pursue their own interests with all their energies at the exclusion of other concerns. The core principle is that humans are fundamentally selfish and greedy. Capitalism therefore proposes a system in which everyone is equally empowered to pursue their own personal agenda with the struggle between competing interests resulting in a fair and balanced outcome. If a buyer and seller are both looking out for their own interests negotiation between the two of them would be a balance between what the seller wants for the item and is willing to part with it for and what the buyer is willing to pay for it. The more people who want to buy an item (the demand) the higher the price goes because the seller has more options. The more of the item that is available (the supply), the lower the price because the buyer has more options.
These theories in Capitalism fall apart pretty quickly in the real world. It turns out that people are more social and less overwhelmingly selfish than assumed, different levels of sympathy and kindness between two sides of a negotiation can upset the balance. And both sides of a trade do not have access to the same set of information as expected for Capitalism to produce a balanced outcome. In a simple example, if one person is buying a car from a classified ad he’d know the make, model and year of the car and would be able to compare the price of this car with other similar cars available from other sellers. But the seller might know that the engine is about to give out. Assuming the buyer is no car expert, he’d be dependent on a mechanic to be able to spot a problem with the engine to evaluate any adjustment to the value of the specific car. With this imbalance Capitalism rewards — sometimes quite extravagantly — people for their ability to deceive and manipulate others. If someone can be duped into giving up their money then it is earned by the duper. Far from fostering a sense of collaboration and community it pits everyone against their neighbors making it safe to trust no one.
In order to remain competitive and avoid being swindled at every turn people need to be experts in a broad range of topics. This is completely impractical for most if not all people. Yet there is typically someone around to exploit anyone’s lack of perfect knowledge. Fortunately the government stepped in to bridge some of the gap. If the government didn’t regulate the quality of food or medicine, for example, each citizen would need the ability, knowledge and the equipment to test quality before they buy in order to ensure they aren’t getting tainted product. But the government can only do so much to mitigate the deceptions encouraged by real world Capitalism particularly with the capitalists campaigning heavily to limit the government’s regulatory capabilities. Meanwhile the weight of those regulations designed to trap dishonest operators hamper the ability of honest small businesses to operate.
The rules of supply and demand that apply for goods also apply to labor. Capitalists cannot effect the demand side much, except for during the occasional economic crisis. But they have several ways to leverage their wealth to increase supply and diminish the negotiating power of labor to get lower wages. Capitalists have invested heavily in automation to decrease their reliance on low-supply (and therefore costly) skilled labor and push more people into the unskilled labor pool. The gains from introducing automation went therefore predominantly to the capitalists with lower costs and greater profits while the costs — which manifested themselves in increased crime of all types, drug use, destruction of families, etc. — were picked up by the society.
In the early days of industrialization in the United States capitalists advertised in other countries spinning incredible stories about opportunities in the United States in order to encourage immigration. The resulting immigration put massive downward pressure on wages and made life miserable for millions. As global transportation improved companies and capitalists increasingly shed their loyalty to a specific country and went shopping for the cheapest labor. There are often enough labor savings in moving an entire manufacturing operation to a developing country where people are willing to live with less (often next to nothing) to cover the costs of the move. For the United States this means that after the capitalists went to all that effort to bring (literally) boatloads of people to the country to lower labor costs they then abandoned the now enlarged population leaving people without any way to make a living. While admittedly making the costs of goods lower, global labor competition dramatically changed the supply and demand equations and the balance of negotiating power in the favor of capitalists.
Countries started competing against each other to persuade capitalists to set up their businesses and provide jobs for their citizens. For those countries like the United States that are not willing to invest in education it becomes a bidding war to see which country is willing to provide more tax breaks, lower wages, lower concern for environment and least of all the best infrastructure. And it isn’t just the countries that compete. States within the United States also compete with each other, pushing up the profits to capitalists and down the wages for everyone. It is truly a world for the capitalists.
On the other side of labor negotiations, employees are almost completely powerless against the oppressive weight of the free labor market. Someone who is living paycheck to paycheck (often just barely) can’t move and can’t improve his or her skills since training costs money. They become slaves to whoever is willing to hire them as unskilled labor at whatever price they are willing to pay. The more people that are desperate for work the lower the pay. Eventually the pay got so low that families were forced to put their children to work to get by. There is nothing in Capitalism to counter the ever-increasing imbalance between rich and poor and ensure that the basic requirements of the labor force — food, shelter, clothing, health and a minimum of dignity — are satisfied. Government again eventually was compelled to step in, to subsidize the income paid to the labor pool through support for the poor. Although paid to the individuals these really are subsidies to the corporations who can get labor without having to pay the full costs for it.
Making matters worse, Capitalism disconnects people from the impact of their decisions. It allows people to take and take without considering what all that taking is doing to others because it is desperate surrogates doing the actual taking. Middle-class managers on orders to improve profits push labor costs lower, compromise safety, jeopardize quality and damage the world’s environment. Political operatives needing wealthy support to remain in their positions push increasingly extreme measures in support of those with the most money already. Often these measures are taken without the support of the wealthy they were intended for.
To balance the power of employers, the employees tried to unite together in unions and negotiate as a group on wages, working conditions and layoffs. This proved successful at times but is difficult to sustain when work becomes extremely scarce during economic downturns. As people become more desperate for work capitalists are able to break apart unions and put in protections against their forming again. Always anxious about staying competitive capitalists have little choice but to take every opportunity they can find to break up unions and restore their complete control over labor negotiations.
Even consumer purchases which people feel they have control over are heavily manipulated by big business through advertising and the cultural pressure to consume that advertising creates. It is true that companies look to develop products and services that they can sell to people. This is how it is possible to argue that Capitalism is democratic. The problem is that it is not a very direct representation of the people’s will. It involves a great deal of unnecessary risk for the capitalists, which is why they demand high profits when they got it “right.” And it creates a strong tendency toward products that can be sold at high profit-margins often through deception instead of ones that people genuinely want or need and offer maximum value to them. Often as much or more money is spent on marketing and advertising to convince people that they need a product than in discovering and addressing real needs. Somehow more money is being spent on making pointless widgets than on making sure everyone has food, water and shelter. The priorities are completely misaligned.
Capitalists acknowledge that there is no mechanism in the economic system to meet the basic requirements for everyone willing to work. Instead, they argue that churches and charitable organizations would fill the void in order to keep people from being pushed into crime and revolution by starvation and desperation. It is quite an admission: a system that assumes that people are selfish has to rely on people’s giving and generous nature to avoid total collapse. It is also an enormous weight that is being placed on churches. While definitely consistent with the image of Christianity (and other faiths) as a caring and compassionate faith (an image often tarnished by religious leaders anxious for political power), the reliance on churches to prop up the economic system limits funds for and distracts church leaders from their mission to serve the spiritual needs of their followers. To make matters worse it is typically the poorest churches hardest hit, not those with wealthy contributors. It is the poor who are asked to dig deeper to help assist the poor.
Under Capitalism life is tolerable for the poor in good times. For most people there is work to do and money to cover the basics. However during the regularly recurring economic crises it can get horrific, completely inhumane. People see a government bending over backwards to save the bankers while showing no concern for the rest of the country’s population. In fact those in control often blame the poor and middle class for the crisis even though it is almost always the bankers’ desperation and greed that cause the problems.
From a Capitalist point of view, there is nothing undemocratic or elite-dominated about the economic system. In theory anyone can set up their own business and make the sort of decisions critics say are limited to the elite. Anyone can hire who they want at whatever rate they agree upon. They can put them to work inventing or building whatever product they want. They can buy natural resources and use them as they see fit. They can treat their immediate environment according to their own needs as long as they are within existing laws. And they can use their wealth to pay for lobbyists and buy-off politicians to change laws to make their way easier. One of the many problems with this argument is that many people don’t have any money left over to do any of this, they can only just survive. And those at the very top have so much more money that they can do so much more of these wealth-generating activities, giving them more power, freedom and opportunity. Capital is the only barrier to entry, but the poor distribution of wealth means a tiny minority has enormous power while the majority can do little more than accept it.
Even though the world is run for and by the wealthy, many of them are still miserable. In the United States they are taught that the secret to happiness is the accumulation of wealth. So they push themselves (or are pushed) into often inhumane careers that do not satisfy or make use of their passions and interests. They too are being denied the Opportunity promised by the nation. Even when they get to the point where they can buy anything they want — many are so rich that they don’t even have to buy things, companies gift them things in order to win an implicit endorsement — they are not happy. For those thinking back on a life building their wealth from modest beginnings their happiest days were typically early on when they were just starting to build their business and still vowed to be different, to care about customers, employees and the community. They are under constant pressure from competitors, society and shareholders to exploit more and more. By the time that they reach the peak of their “success” they are riddled with guilt over what they have done to people to get there. Fantastic justifications and rationalizations are devised to help them cope with their guilt, but these can only mask their guilt. Meanwhile trickle down theories and pro-business policies tied with continued suffering in the country make the wealthy out to be villains (in movies and television even), vilified by people who are growing fed up by their privilege and sense of entitlement. And to top it all off for the wealthy, there is the anxiety of possibly losing everything on the next venture. In their drive for ever greater wealth they take risks with the country’s resources and live in constant fear of potential upstart competition. Many even engage in illegal action to suppress any competition from rising. This anxiety pushes them to more extreme actions and makes it impossible for them to truly enjoy their lives and privileges.
While people accept that there are aspects of Capitalism that violate the country’s principles of Freedom, Opportunity and anti-Elitism they also insist it does produce a good amount of prosperity (in between the downturns) and creates a great deal of prestige for the country (along with a lot of bad will). It is also fairly stable. Even with the regular and excruciatingly painful collapses, the country has managed to sustain a dramatic wealth disparity without serious unrest. It may therefore be hard for many to imagine there would be another alternative compelling enough to risk trying.
There must be an economic alternative that puts the people in charge of their own lives and the market for goods and services. But even getting the money out of politics does not make the government work for the people so a new government of the people is still required. Solutions with broad appeal that offer something for everyone to be hopeful about are needed.
Most people take Capitalism for granted. Communism is the only alternative any one ever talks about in the mainstream and that concept has been completely corrupted by the Soviet Union, making it a dead issue. As a result so few people in the general public ever really ask what they should expect from an economic system. To make any progress something has to be done to break from that pattern where the economic spectrum is viewed solely along an axis between just two of the many potential economic models (most as of yet undiscovered).
The focus should remain on Freedom and Opportunity. And with that focus one of the baseline requirements that most people can likely agree upon is that the economic system should be able to satisfy the basic living requirements of people willing (and typically anxious) to work. Few people could challenge (successfully) that having enough food to eat, water to drink, healthcare against common risks, and shelter from the weather are necessary pre-requisites to Freedom and Opportunity.
Another principle is the need to reward and encourage work. After decades of propaganda there exists an unshakeable belief that people have a natural inclination toward laziness and therefore need a stern push to work. Whether that is true or not in a country that has always put a high value on hard work, it is clear that the economic system should account for it. Despite all its claims to the contrary Capitalism seems to provide only a tenuous connection between hard work and compensation. There are some nasty and physically devastating jobs that pay next to nothing, requiring those in them to work vigorously just to get by. And there are plenty of opportunities for the wealthy to make ridiculous sums of money with no work. Capitalism actually discourages work at both ends of the wealth scale. People born into incredible wealth can afford to live a life of privilege and leisure if they so chose. Profits from investments of their massive fortunes are enough to live on comfortably so instead of working themselves they let their money work. On the other end, many people have the will and drive to work entirely beaten out of them. There simply is no hope in it, no opportunity to improve one’s lot. In a few cases (far fewer than the wealthy want people to believe) some people even give up looking for work and accept government support for as long as they can get it. The system stole their self-respect and gives them no reason to care.
Tracking with the themes of Freedom and Opportunity the next goal would be to maximize a person’s control over one’s own destiny. In Capitalism too much depends on the family someone is born into and who one knows. Too much of one’s life story is written at birth. Furthermore, business ownership is too highly valued to the exclusion of employees who make businesses successful. Similarly, the ability to sell (ideas, skills, oneself), either honestly or more commonly through manipulation and deception, is disproportionately valued. And Capitalism also distorts people’s career choices away from their passions and toward careers that offer the greatest financial rewards. It is not uncommon for people to become lawyers or doctors for the money and for great teachers to leave their profession because they can’t afford to keep teaching. The economy motivates people in the wrong direction. If Freedom and Opportunity are to be important and if the country is to leverage its diverse population for maximum social value then the economy should account for a large variety of skill sets and specializations. The economy should leverage people’s talents, passions and interests to produce the highest possible benefit for society as a whole. This comes back to the notion that if the nation is going to be great its people have to be great.
Capitalists argue that the public interest is transmitted through the free market. But looking at the large compensation disparity between bankers and teachers, the latter providing an overwhelming social good that requires significant specialized education and knowledge, sheds light on what the “invisible hand” actually rewards. It is clear that Capitalism rewards people who create the most wealth for the most powerful. That should strike anyone who is anti-elitism. Here is a small group of people who enjoy significant advantage in the society at the expense of everyone else.
Reducing people’s receptiveness to alternatives is the fact that there have been some experiments, both in small-scale communities and in whole countries, with discouraging results. Perhaps most damaging were the experiments in the mid-1900s in government-controlled economies. Even though they were ideological enemies (playing off each other for political power) the models used by Fascism and Soviet Communism to control the economy are surprisingly similar. In both cases it isn’t the invisible hand exploited by the elite but the government that determines what was going to be produced and by whom. The main difference between the two systems was which elite received special privileges, wealth and (limited) power. In the case of Fascism the capitalists continued to receive the profits from manufacturing even though the risks were clearly taken over by the government. In the case of Soviet Communism it was the bureaucratic elite (Communist Party members) who enjoyed a privileged position in the society that included extra wealth and more freedom.
There can be little doubt that the Soviet regime dramatically improved the country’s economic position in the world, driving through an industrialization that would have been much more difficult if a totalitarian regime weren’t forcing people to make sacrifices for the “good of the country.” The same economic spark could be seen in Fascist Germany and Italy. But both Soviet Communism and Fascism suggested that a strong, totalitarian regime was necessary in order to operate a managed economy. Furthermore they seem to prove that such governments cannot act in the interests of the people and do not allow for the sort of individuality that I feel should be an important objective for people in the United States. Even though Soviet Communism and Fascism hardly exhaust the possibilities and potential of a managed economy, it is a complete non-starter in the United States. Simply put, the country has invested too much of its psyche into the ideological war with the Soviet Union to even entertain a serious discussion on a managed economy.
Throughout the years a number of utopian communities have experimented with different social and economic systems too. Most of them however were largely agricultural in their focus and involved — and often demanded — a great deal of uniformity among its members. These experiments along with the haunting example of uniformity in Soviet Communism firmly established in people’s minds a connection between equal opportunity and mindless homogeneous drones. No system can be considered that does not allow for maximum expression of personal individuality, this is a higher level priority than strictly imposed equality of opportunity.
Another radical alternative should be considered, although only briefly. With all the trouble and obsession caused by money some wonder if there is some way to do without it entirely. Could a society in which everything is free work? Consumption would drop dramatically since there would be no reason to accumulate things as a means to demonstrate success. Everyone would “buy” what they want and need instead of getting obsessed with having more than anyone else. The idea however can be quickly discarded as too risky and too impractical for people used to a Capitalist society. People’s instincts are simply not wired for it. Plus there are some resources whose scarcity is obvious. With no structure to the economic sphere to manage the scarce resources it would be possible for one person to take control of all the resource and essentially hold everyone else hostage while dolling it out to the advantage of a limited segment of the population.
One of the more contentious issues could be around compensation. Could and should it be used to encourage people into different careers? Anyone truly concerned about Freedom would object loudly to the idea of someone or something pushing people in a particular life direction. Capitalism claims that through the free market of labor people are compensated more for careers that provide more value to society. In reality however the Capitalist free market is like the political system: it is easily taken over to serve the elite instead of the people. Instead of compensating people doing the most good it gives the wealthy a plausible cover for taking enormous sums of money for themselves with only a tenuous connection to public good. In theory this myth of Capitalism providing greater rewards to those who provide greater value to the community sounds appealing; in practice it just invites abuse and causes a great deal of hardship.
The idea of varying compensation based on the value the work provides to society is a demand-side approach to the question of value. The question it tries to answer is what society demands more. But there is also virtue in exploring the question of value from the supply side: how could a system improve the quantity and quality of effort people put into an economy? It seems natural to assume that if people are doing what they want to do, what they are passionate about, then they would be better at it and put more sincere effort into it. More total value would be created by having people do what they enjoy as long as it provides enough value to society to justify the doing in the first place. In fact any system that didn’t deny opportunity to work to people willing and anxious to work would be a significant improvement on the supply-side. Instead of aiming (and failing) to maximize public good a system could maximize personal choice and personal opportunity. This approach would align with the goal of maximizing Freedom and Opportunity but presumably it would increase total value of the output as well. This assumption seems less tenuous than the assumption in Capitalism that the free market values work appropriately. Theoretically, an economic system could make it more likely people would end up doing something they enjoyed for work. The challenge then would be to make sure that what people wanted to do as work actually resulted in a product or outcome that had some value to the public.
These ideas of supply-side drivers for value maximization seem to be pointing to something that will be fairly unsettling for many in the United States: a fixed hourly wage regardless of work. I’d think it would have instant appeal to many humanists, who consider the value of any person is the same by virtue of their humanity. But it is much more difficult for others to accept. A long list of objections has to be overcome before this idea can achieve broad appeal.
For starters some careers require specialized training. Doctors, for example, have to put themselves through very expensive and time-consuming schooling in order to be able to do their jobs. If there were no financial reward for making that personal investment then it would put a real strain on the number of people willing to go into those fields. If the driving force behind the economic system is to encourage people to go into fields consistent with their passion and interests then something would have to be done to balance out this disincentive. The solution is simple enough however. The cost of education is already factored into the prices paid to doctors. It could be included in compensation right from the start instead of asking each individual to advance the money thereby limiting the people who could and would enter the profession. Studying and learning a profession could become part of the profession, paid for just as any other part of the job would be. People would be paid for the time to increase their value to society, just as they would be paid to make other contributions to society. The advantage of this approach is that it practically guarantees that people entering professions are doing so out of interest in that career and not for the money. Doctors are a great example for why this is important. After all, who would want to go to a doctor that is only in it for the money? Much better would be to have a doctor who cares about his or her work and sincerely wants to help.
The next challenge is how to fill particularly unpleasant jobs. If everyone were encouraged to pursue their passions and interests of course there would be many jobs that no one would want. There needs to be some way to encourage people to take these least wanted jobs. In Capitalism, the positions were filled because people need to work. For not having what it takes to fill other jobs they get stuck in these unpleasant jobs and typically receive sub-standard pay as additional punishment. No one could reasonably suggest that everyone would be guaranteed a chance to work in their dream career, even in this new system. The goal is simply to remove obstacles, disincentives and distorting incentives not intrinsic to the career and to offer a more level playing field for people to compete for jobs. People who cannot compete successfully for other jobs would still end up in these jobs. If they did well there then they could work their way up to something more to their liking. There is no need to pay them less for the work on top of it because the unpleasant jobs would present sufficient incentive for people to work hard. If they were satisfied in the “unpleasant” work then even better, they would work contently there.
Another advantage of this proposed plan over the traditional Capitalist system is that paying the same rate for all jobs adds urgency to improve working conditions at the least pleasant jobs. In Capitalism these jobs and the people who work in them receive little attention. It is more cost effective to ignore complaints of faceless employees whose life issues can be kept out of sight of decision makers than to “fix” the jobs. If the idea of a single hourly rate goes through then suddenly there would be greater urgency to improve the efficiency of these jobs instead of filling them with desperate workers whose forced silence masks real problems in humane working conditions and inefficient use of human potential. The real costs of the work would surface, costs that are shouldered by the society in Capitalism instead of the employers.
While many people might worry that everyone would be competing for prestigious careers that include advanced education, others might be convinced the opposite would be true, that simple jobs requiring little attention or exertion would be where the greatest competition would occur. The debate itself reveals the most likely solution to the problem: diversity. Just as different people worry about the two different extremes, the diversity in the population would likely lead to a reasonable distribution of interests in different jobs. The ultimate solution is of course competition, for both extremes. Whereas qualifications would drive competition for prestigious careers, people could also compete for “simple” jobs as well. With the greater flexibility in work offered by the new scheme jobs that require a lot of sitting around waiting for something to happen might be tied together with more rigorous manual labor jobs. Competition for the simple jobs could be based on who offers the most compelling pairing with another part-time job. Competition would encourage innovation instead of a race to see who out of desperation would accept the smallest compensation to do the work.
Obviously this economic system would require a rethink about how people find and are chosen for jobs, particularly if people are going to start offering to pair up different part time jobs together in creative combinations. The process used to match talented individuals to open positions today is woefully inefficient and terribly demoralizing. It seems less designed to make sure the best person ends up in a job and much more about robbing people of their individuality and making sure anyone looking for work knows it is the corporations that are in charge of the country. With all the efforts capitalists put into expanding the supply of labor there are typically scores of applicants, sometimes hundreds, for each open position. This is both dispiriting for candidates and a nightmare for hiring managers. The whole process encourages candidates to exaggerate and mislead. Meanwhile employers are skittish about sharing information with candidates lest it land in the hands of competitors or be used in a lawsuit against the employer after hiring someone else. It is made worse by the fact that people desperate for work apply for anything they can and try as hard as they can to sound like a good fit in order to secure the opportunity. Hundreds of applications are dwindled down to a few candidates on the basis of the applications or resumes so it is critical to get those just right (often without knowing much about what the job requires). Then the hiring manager has to decide who to hire typically based on just a short interview. This often comes down to superficial differences that have little connection with talent for the position. Since the interviews are essentially selling one’s talents disproportionate advantage goes to people with selling skills, even for positions that would have no use for such skills. Given the absurdity of the process many times the whole mess is by-passed through connections. If a candidate knows someone close to the hiring manager and who could make introductions it provides a shortcut to hiring that is impossible for someone who isn’t similarly connected to compete against.
What is needed in the new system to help individuals navigate a complex world of opportunities is someone to serve on the side of candidates to balance out the human resource expert operating for the corporations. They could serve as the individual’s champion and coach in order for everyone to have the best possible chance at finding the right opportunities. Such an approach would also help facilitate the placement of the best qualified for positions. A network of employment offices designed to actively and aggressively find opportunities for people — and when appropriate even engineer them by actively looking for investors for ideas and ambitions — makes the most sense. They would be empowered to help people discover and pursue their career interests therefore making them substantially different from the poorly funded (but often equally well-intentioned) programs attempted today. The pressure to find matches between people and opportunities would be high since in a country promising maximum opportunity something has to be found for anyone willing and interested in working, even if the opportunity offered is only a stepping stone to something better if the person works hard at it. The resources available to these support services would have to be up to the challenge, including intimate connections with investment sources to drive new ventures.
None of this however addresses the real engine of the economy: the flow of money. In Capitalism money typically comes from banks and is directed by a tiny segment of the population (the capitalists) based on their instincts on where the most money could be made for themselves and their investors. To compensate them for this “risk” a large portion of the gains from that investment goes back to the capitalists and banks. The whole banking and investment infrastructure is therefore huge and extremely complex. It takes a large number of people to make it work and since banking is so critical to a working economy many of them (particularly in the higher echelons) are paid extravagantly. It is an enormous hidden tax just to keep the system working. An alternative to the bankers and investors is needed in the new system. Someone has to make decisions about where money is spent.
Many of the concepts of the free market and flow of money from Capitalism can be brought over, with some critical refinements of course. Consumers would choose what they buy just as they do now, allowing for the complete expression of personal preferences. Freedom in fact would be even greater than in Capitalism because there would be less incentive for corporations to sell products people don’t want or need and buying power would be more evenly distributed. Those purchases would sustain manufacturing and services as they do in the Capitalist model. One of the key differences with Capitalism is that employees would not be punished for being in a job that is no longer necessary. If people stop buying something, the people who worked in making that product would be relocated, using the services of the employment offices already mentioned. Training, if necessary, would be part of the new job and every effort would be made to put or keep the person on a career path consistent with their talents and interests. Everyone has a social and personal interest in this outcome.
How decisions about where to allocate limited resources (labor most especially) would be made differently than in Capitalism however. Profit motive would not drive such decisions. It rewards people too heavily for manipulation and exploitation and is intended as a compensation for individual risk taking that we are targeting for elimination. All that anxiety isn’t necessary or productive. If the problem with Capitalism is that too few people are deciding where to allocate money used for research, development and community improvement, the solution would be to find some way to distribute investment decision making among everyone. A “democratic” investment model is called for. It means taking the investment money typically controlled by a small minority and distributing those decisions among the entire population so that they can make decisions directly instead of having their interests interpreted (and corrupted, not always maliciously) by capitalists. It would also eliminate what we view today as “taxes” paid to the government. People would therefore not have to pay for something they did not fully support.
The key to the plan is keeping the investment money separate from a person’s earned consumer money so that it can only be used for investing. This money isn’t intended as a reward for hard work but instead as a weighted voting mechanism for citizens to provide direct input on how the country’s limited resources will be allocated. Money truly becomes free speech, speech that is evenly and fairly distributed. People would choose how they want to use the money, from fixing up the local park to funding research on fuel-efficient cars. Investment capital would then pool until enough is accumulated to work on the project with any excess left over after completion returned to investors distributed proportionally according to how much each person contributed — a very simple equation. The days of complex investment schemes involving teams of financial wizards with complex algorithms would be over. If people want something they can make it happen on their own.
To many used to Capitalism this idea might sound like a lot of extra work for the ordinary citizen, distracting people from their lives by transferring responsibility from a few individuals to everyone. Some way is needed that would allow people as much detailed control as they desire without posing a serious burden to those who don’t want to involve themselves too much. Thus reenters the capitalists, with a twist. Instead of investing in specific projects which may require detailed understanding and a great deal of research to choose between competing options, individuals could instead invest money through new-style capitalists, each working toward a particular outcome. There may be, for example, capitalists who focus on improving specific neighborhoods. They would meet with people in the neighborhood and aggregate the wishes of the community to decide how best to direct the money invested with them. There may be capitalists charged with improving water quality who might therefore direct their money toward specific research and development projects. All capitalists would be answerable directly to the people however, a dramatic shift from the old Capitalism. Any money they managed would be part of the public record, its purpose clearly stated. If people don’t like how someone is directing the money, the money would simply flow to a different capitalist who shares more people’s vision. The capitalists would of course get paid by the hours they work just like everyone else without any extra compensation derived from their position of trust. They would be taking no unusual personal risks for which additional compensation could be demanded. And with the capitalists in place people could choose to invest with them or directly into projects, the Freedom would be theirs.
Another challenge to be resolved is how people save up money in order to afford more expensive items. In the Capitalist system people who can afford to put away a portion of their income for later use trust their money to banks guaranteed by the federal government. They can wait until they have enough money saved up or borrow money from the bank (at substantial profit for the bank) if they can’t wait. The only substantial difference between how things would operate in the new system would be that interest in the Capitalist sense would not be earned since income is to be derived from work not from control of money. To save money one simply would shift money from one’s consumer account to one’s investment account. When people want to make a big purchase they could reclaim that money from the investment account. When saving they would have more say on public investment projects, when spending from the savings they would have less. This was a new type of Freedom and personal choice.
One of the most disturbing features of Capitalism is that when there is not enough work it creates a very serious crisis. It is difficult to imagine anything more absurd. Imagine in a domestic setting you find yourself with no household chores to do during a long weekend. Would it be a problem? No, you’d enjoy the extra time to relax or otherwise come up with some new way to improve things in your life. It should not be any different in the public arena. With the idea of currency tied almost entirely to labor and practically no way to avoid spending the money (either as a consumer or as an investor), it is essentially impossible for a community to be completely devoid of projects that people interested in working could do. If everyone has the consumer goods they needed then the money would flow to community projects or research or some such investments. It may require some shuffling of people but that would be easily done when training and education became part of the job.
It is a fairly straightforward matter to estimate how much money is spent on research, development, setting up new manufacturing, and community improvement projects annually in the country to determine how much voting power each person should be provided. Trickier of course would be the transition, how to handle all the wealth people had “earned” in the old Capitalist system. But this is a complication for a later time, first are questions of theory and ideals about the final desired outcome.
The last major piece that is missing in this new system is determining prices. In Capitalism pricing is determined by the free market. Sellers only sell at the price they are willing to part with the item and buyers are only willing to pay what they think the item or service is worth to them. The system not only offers opportunity for manipulation by controlling information it also allows for control over supply to raise prices. An example of this occurred with the robber barons in the second half of the 1800s. Companies gained a monopoly on a valuable resource and leveraged their position to push up the price. The government had to step in and break up companies in order to prevent them from exploiting their position, killing off the potential for positive collaboration in the process.
When you don’t have to provide profit incentives for companies to invest in what the people want pricing can be driven from costs alone, a much simpler model. For most products the total labor costs required to make an individual unit would make up the bulk of the price. Because research, development and manufacturing startup costs would be paid for from the investment funds the price wouldn’t include these factors. One of the advantages of this pricing system — in addition to its simplicity, stability and predictable nature — is that the pricing could also factor in environmental impact costs associated with manufacturing and distribution. In traditional Capitalism it is most commonly just the poorest in society who pay the full environmental and social impact of products. In the new model those who want the products would pay. This extra funding could then be directed toward remediation and research. Likewise, pricing could also reflect scarcity of non-renewable resources like oil, with the extra money going toward research and development for alternatives. No longer would there be a forced choice between maintaining the environment and maintaining the economy.
There are some very interesting implications of this new pricing approach. Products for which prices today are made largely of research and development costs would drop dramatically. The actual manufacturing costs for most medicines, for example, can be measured in cents per pill. What forces the price of healthcare up are development, marketing and profit cost implications. An even more extreme example would be computer software. What is the cost of distribution of software to your computer? Thanks to the Internet it is only the cost of the server from which you (and millions others) download the software. The cost of software would become negligible, greatly enhancing productivity.
Something new is taking shape, something we might call “Democratic Capitalism,” since it maintains so many components of the old system but makes it much more democratic in the sense that the people are much more in charge of how things are done. The new economic model puts a strong emphasis on free choice: in purchasing, in investing, in how many hours worked, and in what career to pursue. The new system should also be more responsive and more efficient, cutting out the hefty “tax” capitalists take today in the way of profits. A system that encourages collaboration and community instead of competition and manipulation could be an exciting one to participate in. Trust could resurface. Everyone has a fair chance at success. As an added bonus the plan also seems likely to improve the value from the work people want to do, taking advantage of people’s passions more strategically to increase the competitiveness of the country.
Democratic Capitalism would make corruption of the political system much more difficult and the ill-gotten rewards much less attractive. With that said however the economic changes don’t address the fact that the current political system is not capable of representing the diverse opinions of the United States or handling compromise sincerely.
The two-party system suggests there are only two types of people, leaving lots of room for manipulation. To end the stranglehold of the two parties and open the door to new parties proportional representation should be considered. Typically in proportional representation each party submits a list of candidates in an election to fill multiple seats. For example, if a state were to use proportional representation to fill its legislative house any party could register a list of representatives and voters would vote for the party they prefer. Seats in the legislature would then be apportioned according to the percentage of votes received. So if a pro-environment party got 15% of the vote, they would get 15% of the seats available, taking that many names off the top of their list of names.
This approach has several practical implications and drawbacks however. First, people would vote for a party instead of individuals. It would be a significant change for the country that has gotten used to trying to size up the virtue and character of individual candidates. Next, it would be difficult to manage federal elections through the states using proportional representation, particularly for Senate. With just two seats to fill the proportional system simply doesn’t make much sense. Proportional representation also tends to be less stable. Depending on the issue at hand different alliances need to be made. Such alliances can be particularly tricky for single issue parties. Representatives from a pro-environment party would have difficulty deciding how to line up on a social issue that has no environmental impact. Such shifting alliances could cause a change in leadership in the government creating uncertainty. Proportional representation also would not solve one of the core issues: voters would still be required to choose a single candidate that best fits their interests on all possible topics. The same person would represent someone for religious rights issues and for decisions about federal spending and taxes. Proportional representation was therefore open to many of the same sort of abuses that the current system suffers from.
Fundamentally new ideas are called for and so, taking a step back, the purpose of government should be reevaluated. From Reagan’s inaugural speech the suggestion that government is the problem continues to persist. But in reality government itself isn’t the problem. The problem is the way the current style of government works, and how it became corrupted by traditional Capitalism. In 1833 James Madison, writing to an unknown correspondent, might have summoned up the matter as well as could be done: “It has been said that all Government is an evil. It would be more proper to say that the necessity of any Government is a misfortune. This necessity however exists; and the problem to be solved is, not what form of Government is perfect, but which of the forms is least imperfect.”
Many of the functions of government required in a traditional Capitalist society go away. Restraining and regulating abuse by corporations is hardly an issue when the profit motive for abuse is eliminated. The government would also no longer be needed to fill in the gap between what Capitalism provides and what humans need in terms of basic living conditions.
Where some form of government is needed is to provide a channel and tools for different interests to resolve differences of opinion. This might include such local decisions as where to put a new park to national issues about how to accommodate diverse views and needs in the education system. Clearly for this purpose a strongly representative system reflecting the true interests of the people would be required in order to live up to the demands of the people.
Conventional wisdom suggests that in order to achieve real representation a very strong public participation in government would be required. The constitution set up what Abraham Lincoln later called “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” It did eventually give people the ability to operate as a sort of check on the government through elections but only after the right to vote expanded slowly and painfully. It was however made intentionally difficult for the people’s will for change to be realized and it did nothing to ensure that the people were properly informed about the issues to make intelligent decisions in their own interest. If economists have difficulty figuring out the best path forward during an economic crisis, it would be practically impossible for ordinary voters to figure out which candidate’s plans would serve them best. And the difficulties are much greater for issues that a voter doesn’t care much about but is still asked to chime in on through voting. That arrangement takes public participation too far, taking into consideration the opinions of people who have no stake in a topic.
It is difficult to imagine people want to be experts on all matters political any more than they want to be experts on all matters related to the things they buy. They don’t want to have to evaluate complex plans for fixing a broken economy any more than they want to learn how to test milk or beef to be sure it is safe before buying it. We want experts we know we can trust handling these issues in our interest so that we can focus on what we do and want to do. We want someone who could — if asked — explain patiently why what they are doing is going to help us. Those criteria obviously knock the current representative system out of the running. Representatives in the current model more commonly tell voters what they want to hear instead of proposing realistic plans and then act in the best interest of only their wealthy constituents instead of all their constituents.
But there may yet be inspiration from the current system. There are places where people actually are represented faithfully and reliably. The answer is a bit surprising. It seems clear that lawyers and lobbyists, two groups with poor popular appeal, actually do typically provide fairly sincere and passionate representation. When someone hires a lawyer it is very common to have faith that the lawyer would navigate the complicated legal terrain in the client’s best interest. The lawyer earns that trust despite typically coming from a completely different background from the client. The reason they have such a bad reputation is that they have become tools of the wealthy since their advantages are for purchase. If everyone has equal access, maybe the judicial branch and the courts could be the basis for a government. If sufficient power could be given to discontented citizens it would be a powerful check on government abuses and remove much of the hopelessness people feel above their role in public policy, all without increasing their responsibility or expectations placed on them.
This is meant to be “government by the people” so it should be the people who initiate government. If ever anyone has an issue with how things are being run they could initiate a “reconsideration.” To get things started a person would hire a “lobbyist.” The word seems a better match than “lawyer,” particularly since lawyers would still be needed to handle legal issues between individuals while the old style lobbyists would quickly fade away. A professional pool of lobbyists could develop with different reputations. People could also appoint someone from their own interest group or even serve themselves if they prefer. When evaluating a lobbyist for the job however it wouldn’t matter much if a person shares the group’s views but whether he or she has past experience learning and respecting other people’s views and whether the person demonstrates passion in pursuing compromise in the best interest of the group that initiated the action.
To keep the number of frivolous actions to a minimum and in keeping with the pay for what you use philosophy, the person or group of people initiating the reconsideration would be responsible for paying for the time of the lobbyist plus any additional incidental costs. Since it would typically be a public decision that was sought the funds for the lobbyist would likewise typically come from the person’s investment funds, not his earned consumer credits. Unlike the current system where lobbyists and lawyers work almost exclusively for the benefit of the wealthy this would be a level playing field since no one would have more investment capital to spend than anyone else to bias the results.
Typically the first step for the lobbyist would be to figure out what other interests would be involved in the “case.” A permanent third party service could be set up to analyze the issue to determine what other distinct interests need to be considered. A provisional lobbyist would be assigned to each of those interests. The nature of the case would determine if these extra lobbyists would be paid for by the interest group that initiated the case or by the additional interests being represented. It wouldn’t be right for people to have to pay to defend their interests against random challenges, but if they also had something to gain they might then be expected to take over the funding. In rare cases the third party evaluators might determine that the group that initiated the case was the one who had been wronged and therefore expect the other party to pay for the initiator’s case.
Once assigned the lobbyist next would estimate the number of people included in the interest group. Depending on the interest group these estimates could come from census reports or may require significantly more creative or elaborate techniques. The idea isn’t to determine who has the largest group and then simply rule in their favor however. This isn’t majority rule but instead a search for compromise between competing interests. Having a sense of who is involved in an issue however could impact the lobbyist’s next steps and ultimately affect the sort of compromises that would be practical and reasonable.
In addition to consulting experts in the topic under discussion the lobbyists then would go out to talk with a sample of the people they were representing. The purposes of these outings would be two-fold. First is to build a portfolio of information about the topic and the interest group. It would be important that the lobbyist fully understand what the group wants and needs in order to feel treated fairly in the society. Secondly, if the topic strikes a chord with the people she encounters they could contribute to the case funds. If the case ran out of funds, it would be put on hold until new funds are available so there would be a real incentive for people who care about the topic to contribute.
The lobbyists would then come together to negotiate a compromise. This type of compromise would be a dramatic change from what passes as compromise today where elites meet with other elites and agree on how they would exploit the non-elites. At the core of these conversations would stand the basic principles of the country: maximizing individual Freedom and Opportunity for all types of people and views as long as doing so didn’t impinge on someone else’s freedoms and opportunities.
Open to the public and with transparency strongly valued, anyone could attend the meetings of the lobbyists but only the lobbyists would have a voice in the negotiations. Throughout the discussions however the lobbyists would remain keenly interested in getting all possible insight so would be sure to make themselves available to anyone with new ideas or perspectives to share. In the end all sides would be motivated to find a compromise acceptable to all interest groups in order to avoid having anyone initiate a new reconsideration, a black mark on the record of the lobbyist.
Once a decision is made the decision would be released in a full report proactively to all funders, another benefit of providing funds. The report would also be available to anyone upon request. If any group affected by the decision were unhappy with the final result they could submit a new reconsideration and start the whole process all over again. The key to this arrangement and what is substantially missing from the current system is a clear and direct explanation of the decision and how it met the interests of the groups and honored the core principles. Each year everyone would also receive a report telling them which decisions they were counted in, to close the loop.
The system would provide for a more accurate and realistic representation, by making it representative by topic and tying the responsibility of the lobbyists directly to the people. It also, conveniently, addresses the question of states. Since the geographic scope would be determined on a case by case basis, whenever states made sense they would be used, when they did not they could be ignored.
This new representative model would allow people to become active when they need to be but otherwise trust that the government — what little there is of it — would not fall into the hands of an elite. The people would become firmly and decidedly the check on government abuse.
Something for everyone
By staying away from traditional party and ideological labels and constantly returning to core principles, the result is something that can appeal to different people differently.
For example, the political and economic systems discussed above satisfy both the people arguing for small government (influenced by Reagan) and those who advocate for controls to prevent abuse by elites. Institutions and organizations that would fit the current notions of “government” are difficult to find in the new systems and what can be found are very close to the people. But this is done without giving the country over to the elite but instead by addressing at the source issues that government is otherwise needed to regulate. The motivations and rewards for corporations and capitalists to manipulate and exploit people are practically eliminated.
Likewise the new economic model keeps many of the concepts and tools that capitalists believe so firmly in while addressing most of money’s corrupting side effects. Money is still at the heart of the economy, the primary tool used to influence decisions of all sorts. The free market concept is expanded and democratized. Individual choice is maximized while encouraging and motivating people to make individual choices in harmony with a larger community as a way to make their money go further.
In the social and religious realm, the Christian community can take comfort in the fact that their representatives on religious issues would no longer be tied with the party of the exploitative capitalists. Their voice will be heard more clearly and more constructive conversations will result. By overturning the principle of majority rule and replacing it with a more complete and sincere respect for different views and faiths their freedom to worship is safe even if there were somehow a major shift in the beliefs of the people from one generation to the next. The change would allow churches to focus on spiritual matters and their followers instead of worrying so much about what the rest of the country is doing. Meanwhile, non-Christians also can take comfort that they would no longer be represented on social and religious issues by people advocating a Christian agenda.
No doubt optimism that change can be achieved in the United States will be limited. The constitution is a big obstacle, having been designed to prevent such fundamental change. Yet there remains the popular sense that the country and its people are special and have an important role to play in leading the world to a better form of government and society. It is a notion that goes back to the country’s original colonists, to the Pilgrims, the Puritans and the Penns. It got invoked as part of the defense of the constitution. In Federalist Papers №10 James Madison wrote:
But why is the experiment of an extended republic to be rejected, merely because it may comprise what is new? Is it not the glory of the people of America, that, whilst they have paid a decent regard to the opinions of former times and other nations, they have not suffered a blind veneration for antiquity, for custom, or for names, to overrule the suggestions of their own good sense, the knowledge of their own situation, and the lessons of their own experience?
The goal is to break from the current stagnation imposed on the country by its current form of government which makes change — or even the suggestion that change is necessary — difficult to achieve and sustain. Once freed it is hoped that the country could continue to move forward in search of the “more perfect union” promised in the preamble to the current Constitution.
While working toward a goal that can inspire much emotion and passion we must remain committed to keeping the rhetoric respectful and about systems instead of an attack on individuals. Most important is keeping any form of actual violence completely out of the discussions. This is about ideas and ideals not about getting any sort of justice from people who may have benefited from the systems either by luck or even through direct manipulation or exploitation. It is about creating new rules to live by not judging people’s past actions by new standards. The worst crime of Capitalist leaders is self-esteem which is obviously no crime at all. They believe that they deserve just as much privilege and security as any elite did throughout history, and then they take advantage of the rules of the game to achieve it.
In most cases, it is safe to imagine people act sincerely in ways they think are best for the country. They believe that power and wealth are genuinely best if limited to a few “worthy” hands. Even Alexander Hamilton, who introduced the tight dependency by the government of the bankers, wasn’t acting out of evil intent when he raised the power and influence of them. He acted out of self-interest to some extent (no crime in that) but also in his belief in a strong elite class. As Franklin Roosevelt said in 1932: “It is not necessary for us in any way to discredit the great financial genius of Alexander Hamilton or the school of thought of the early Federalists to point out that they were frank in their belief that certain sections of the nation and certain individuals within those sections were more fitted than others to conduct Government.”(12) Thomas Jefferson himself, one of Hamilton’s nemeses, acknowledged that slavery was morally wrong but not only demonstrated himself incapable of ending it in the nation he helped form but also in his own personal life. Even great men are powerless sometimes against the forces of their society. There is no reason to punish them or their modern equivalents. It would be better to exert one’s energies on reforming the society and its systems that encourage such thinking and behavior.
Keeping the debate from becoming violent and directed at individuals instead of ideas is something that will help us stand out from the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution. Restoring order after these movements got out of hand gave a small minority an opening to hijack and pervert the ideals of the people to their own purposes. If ever things turn violent the movement is over and our discussions would fall prey to the same abuses of those revolutions. Whenever a disagreement starts to get heated we should take a step back and start from the principles again. As long as people can agree on basic objectives (in the above I propose Freedom and Opportunity) that are at the heart of anything the country does then we always have some place to retreat back to. When people do disagree with these foundational principles the conversation should get interesting rather than heated. Many valuable ideas and innovations can evolve from these disagreements, they help anticipate future issues and deal with them in advance.
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- Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States (New York: HarperCollins, 2003) 557.
- Philip Jenkins, The Decade of Nightmares: The End of the Sixties and the Making of the Eighties America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006) 101.
- MJ Heale, The Sixties in America: History Politics and Protest (Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 2001) 105.
- Zinn, 611.
- Zinn 424–425.
- Philip Jenkins, The Decade of Nightmares: The End of the Sixties and the Making of the Eighties America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006) 182.
- Jenkins 212.
- Jenkins 136.
- Jenkins 237.
- Zinn 581.
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