On the Need for Big Structural Change

Big Structural Change

Elizabeth Warren has staked her campaign on the need for “Big Structural Change” and her point is well taken.

Our government has been captured by major corporations and the wealthy.  They exert huge influence behind the scenes, on everything from government regulations, to writing legislation, to the make-up of the court system.

Moderates argue, in effect, we just need to defeat Donald Trump, tweak some policies here and there, and everything will be OK.

Except that long before Trump took office, everything was far from OK.  Trump is merely the latest manifestation of a larger structural issue that undermines the foundation of our democracy – the undue influence of money in politics and a consequent tilt toward Oligarchy.

Joe Biden has it right in this sense – it would be nice to go back to some bygone era when legislators were willing to compromise, to reach across the aisle and come to agreement even on highly contentious issues like busing.

Memo to Joe: bi-partisanship and collegiality in Congress disappeared decades ago as politics grew from a public service vocation into big business: When money and lobbyists started flooding Washington in the 1980’s and 1990’s.  When actors like Newt Gingrich and, more recently Mitch McConnell, began setting a much more partisan agenda effectively dictated by big money interests.

The other problem is that once big corporations and the wealthy take control it is extremely difficult to regain control and restore democratic processes that truly represent the will of a majority of people and not just special interests.

Bernie Sanders has a point:  It will take something akin to a “political revolution” to bring about real change and to pry the Oligarchs from the levers of power.

So how do we fix it?  As Democrats we need to stop arguing incessantly about the minutia of public policy and start talking much more about the overriding issues of our time including the outsized influence of money in politics.

That starts with full disclosure of all political contributions to candidates, labor unions, Super PACs or any organization engaged in political activity.  Full transparency is an absolute cornerstone of democracy.

Then, we should tighten laws so that Federal officials and legislators, after leaving government service, are prohibited from going to work for the very people they are charged with regulating.

And we should fix the electoral system so all people have an equal vote, starting with abolishing the electoral college and fair and non-partisan re-apportionment of congressional districts after each census.

And let’s acknowledge that bringing about real structural change is challenging and stop pretending that all we really need to do is defeat Donald Trump and everything will return to the way it was in the good old days.

It is not going to be that easy; we have a lot of hard work ahead of us.

A Government Captured by Corporations and the Wealthy

US Capitol with Sale Sign

The Republican tax bill passed the Senate Budget Committee on Tuesday along straight party lines.  The legislation now goes to the full Senate.  It is one of the most disastrous pieces of legislation ever to be introduced in Congress, and yet it looks increasingly likely to pass the Congress and be signed into law.

The bill contains huge tax breaks for corporations and wealthy individuals while it hammers the poor and middle class.  Instead of stimulating economic growth, as Republicans claim, it is much more likely to hurt the economy over the longer term by exacerbating income inequality.

How did we get to this place where legislation of such immense importance and negative effect now seems likely to pass the Congress along straight party lines?

Well, you can blame Republicans and Democrats alike who have so contorted the budget process as to allow major legislations to pass on party line votes, instead of the 60 votes needed to ensure bipartisan support.

Or, you can blame the corporate media which is busy “reporting” on Donald Trump’s latest tweets – and totally out of its depth on most complex issues including taxation and the economy.

You can even blame the Democratic Party establishment which is mostly content to simply oppose Donald Trump rather than advance a coherent policy agenda of its own.

But if we are going to play the blame game, let’s get to the root cause: big money, mainly corporations, have so completely “Captured” the U.S. Government and they are now advancing legislation that clearly benefits them at the expense of the American middle class and the U.S. economy as a whole.

How do they do it: well, for one thing, they take advantage of court rulings such as Citizens United, and a lack of public disclosure requirements, thanks to Republican opposition in Congress, that allow corporations and wealthy individuals to operate out of public view while spending huge sums to lobby the government and influence elections.

Perhaps we should heed the words of Jeremy Grantham, a British born financier from Boston.  Grantham is a bit of a legend in financial circles, having predicated the last two financial bubbles in 2000 and 2007.  Here is Grantham quoted November 6, 2017 on the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal:

“The U.S. form of capitalism has lost it way.  The social contract was previously in good shape.  Corporations looked after their employees.  They were more paternalistic.  Great pension funds were starting up.  The CEOs were increasing income alongside their workers.  CEOs earned more than 40 times workers.  Today that number is 350 times, and the system has gone to hell.  Keynes, Schumpeter – and Marx not to mention—thought, by their nature, corporations and capitalism would overreach simply because they could.  Corporations would use their advantages to get more power and more money.  Their share of the pie would increase, and cause society to push back.  Sooner or later there will be pushback.”

Well said, Jeremy.  But the time for “pushback” is not sooner. It is certainly not later.  It is now.

Oh when, oh when, will it ever end

Arise and fight!

Ever hopeful

God save our Nation once again

 

The Gorsuch Confirmation, Polarization and the Hollowing of the American Middle Class

The tragedy of the Gorsuch nomination is not that he is a conservative, an “originalist” who believes in a literal interpretation of the Constitution, although that will certainly add to the polarization in American politics.

The bigger tragedy is that Republicans employed the “nuclear option.”  Led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate voted along party lines to repeal a long-standing rule that required a 60-vote super-majority to confirm a Supreme Court nominee.  The rule was designed to ensure that nominees to the highest court in the land have bi-partisan support between the two major political parties.  Sadly, that has come to an end.

It is just the most recent example of how polarized and dysfunctional U.S politics has become.  Why? Two reasons stand out:

  • Excessive money in politics, and
  • Economic stagnation and the hollowing of the American middle class.

A tsunami of money has flooded U.S. politics in recent years.  It has been enabled by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens’ United ruling in 2010 that money is effectively the equivalent of free speech – and limits on political contributions are an unconstitutional infringement on that speech.  Today, there is so much money in politics that it has created an oppositional culture in which negative advertising and attack ads, rather than constructive dialogue, are increasingly the norm.

At the same time, also in response to Citizens United, legions of corporate lobbyists are flooding Capitol Hill and executive agencies.  Many are former elected and appointed officials “double dipping” on government pensions and benefits.  In seeking to curry favor on issues such as tax and regulatory policy, they are promoting narrow interests frequently at odds with what is best for the country as a whole and the American middle class.

The rise of social media has added to the polarization, encouraging people to communicate almost exclusively with others who think as they do.  The mainstream media continues to focus primarily on the back-and-forth of daily politics – largely ignoring the bigger picture – the reasons why politics in the U.S. have become so dysfunctional.

Meanwhile, on the economic front, growth has slowed, good paying middle class jobs are increasingly scarce, wages have stagnated for decades, and working people are finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet.

What does all this portend? It is not just the economy that is bad shape; American democracy itself is in peril – and we, as citizens, need to take action.

Exactly what action to take is not entirely clear.  It is not easy to take back a government that corporations have “Captured”, as Senator Sheldon Whitehouse put in his book of the same name.  Nor is it easy to restore the economy so it works for everyone, not just corporate interests bent on paying as little as possible in taxes while promoting their narrow interests.

But how about this for a start – let’s vote out of office those who use social media to distract people’s attention while they advocate almost exclusively for more tax breaks for the rich, or others who absolutely refuse to engage in constructive, bi-partisan dialogue.

Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell – see you at election time.