John Adams said that “we must have a government of laws and not men.” What we have become is a nation with a government of money and not laws or men.
Jim, you have asked me for a big general statement of philosophy, something that can be summed up easily. My sound bite overall message, if you will, rather than just suggesting programs for this and for that, one problem at a time (I don’t think I’ve actually done that, though it seems to be the impression you’ve gotten, so I’ll try for a more general overriding statement here). It’s not complete or exhaustive. I wanted to keep it from getting too long, and to allow an easy summation. I have provided links to support my points.
My text to start is Garrett Hardin’s famous 1968 essay “The Tragedy of the Commons.” If you don’t have time to read the entire essay, you can see a great three-minute summary of the idea of the commons by the brilliant Thom Hartmann here.
I started with the John Adams quote because I think that until we resolve the problem of money, not much can really be done to create the change we need. I think the Republican party has shown that they are a wholly owned subsidiary of the moneyed interests in America (and we have to always remember and constantly remind ourselves that the richest 400 individuals in America have as much wealth as the bottom half of Americans, and that the top one percent has as much as the bottom 90%. And you aren’t in that top one percent if you make less than about $400,000 a year. We have to keep repeating it, because if we don’t, we will be pretending it isn’t the biggest problem we face, and it is. The raging inequality of our society is the biggest factor in all of our problems).
And the Democratic party is a mostly owned subsidiary of the moneyed interests in America. See this great piece in the Times from Mark Bittman if you doubt it. (The fact that the administration appears ready to approve the horrific Keystone tar sands pipeline, when Obama could reject it on his own without congress, just shows that even if he wanted to do that, to do what is right for the country and the planet, he can’t if he wants to keep his job, for he must first, before thinking of the planet or the country, think of those with the money that will enable him to keep his job. And they only care about their profit in the shortest of timeframes.)
At their core, it seems the Republican philosophy is that we are all individuals, in it for ourselves, self-made and self-sufficient, and if you’re rich it is because you deserve it and if you are poor is it entirely your own fault and laziness that have made you poor, and anytime the government helps someone, it is stealing from your pockets to do so. (Of course this goes out the window when disaster strikes; then everyone loves the government, and suddenly isn’t so self-sufficient. See the east coast governors in the wake of Hurricane Irene. They never thought much of government aid or bailouts, but now they’re crying for help. Nothing wrong with that; the federal government should help. They are the only ones who can. You just wish they would admit the hypocrisy of thinking they government should step in only when they are the ones who need help.)
Democrats, at their core, seem to believe that there is a sense in which we are all in this together, and that our best hope is to band together to protect the commons. Unfortunately, as I pointed out above, they are nearly as beholden to the moneyed interests as the Republicans, so this core value is too often muted or even suppressed completely. If it isn’t, they won’t get enough money from those moneyed interests to get elected. (If you are a United States senator, from the first day you are in office, you have to raise about $20,000 a day, seven days a week, for your entire six-year term to have a chance to get re-elected and keep your job.)
At my core I believe in that democratic ideal that we are all in this together. I can’t call myself a Democrat because money has forced them to all but abandon that ideal. And yet it is what we must continue to strive for.
I believe the government should be about protecting the commons, all those things that we share and use together, the environment, the air, the food we eat, our health, our national security, etc. This includes, yes, the national defense, for without a safe country there is no commons. Government should protect the commons and regulate the use of the commons.
The commons are the things we all share, need, and use. They are the things that should not be subject to the profit motive, as that will undermine their shared use as the commons, which belong to us all.
I pause to make clear that this is not an anti-capitalist stance. As Hartmann explains, we don’t want the government making our shoes or our TVs or computers. Those kinds of goods benefit from innovation and competition. We do, however, want the government to regulate the part of the commons that may be used in the manufacture of such items. Corporations should not be allowed to pollute our air and water so they can make a cheaper TV to sell us. For that only helps their bottom line. As study after study shows, environmental regulations save society money. They may hurt a single corporation in the short-term, but overall they save about $30 for every dollar they cost. If we let corporations operate without good regulations, they will profit in the short-term, but it won’t help our overall society. Public health will suffer, and while a citizen may pay less for the TV, they’ll more than lose those savings in what they pay extra for dealing with health problems and pollution; the degradations to the commons caused by letting the corporations operate as though they owned the commons.
Make no mistake; if you say you want to get rid of regulations, or have fewer regulations, it means you want more Deep Water Horizon disasters, more Big Branch mine disasters, more financial crises and mortgage bubble bursting. Yes, corporations made out well in all of these disasters; the country, and certainly the locales, not so much. (It’s interesting that one of the reasons Texas escaped the worst of the housing/mortgage disaster was because they had stronger mortgage regulations than most states. Not that you’ll hear Rick Perry mention that.)
As Warren Buffett recently pointed out in the Times, the whole idea that the rich won’t invest if they don’t have certainty they’ll never have to pay more taxes is complete balderdash. And who among us is entitled to complete confidence that things will never change? How bizarre for the right to claim that as a necessity for business to succeed. And if wholesale privatization and tax cuts on the wealthiest among us was the way to economic success, after two terms of George Bush doing that on steroids, we’d be living in a full-employment paradise. If that is what I saw when I looked around, I’d buy that theory. Of course, that isn’t what we see when we look around.
The commons also includes things that are better done without the profit motive. We have decided police protection, fire protection, public education, law enforcement, national defense, etc. are all worth doing together, and not leaving to each individual to figure out for themselves. There has, however, been a huge push in the last generation to privatize many of these things, to push them out of something we do as though we are all in this together, and letting private corporations do them for profit, because we have been told that is somehow more efficient. But it isn’t. Look at all the private military contractors we hired for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. About half of the American employees in those countries were not military, but private contractors, doing exactly the same thing we used to do ourselves with our military, but now at a far higher cost. Blackwater employees often made three or four times what military employees made, and with far less oversight or regulation to see that they were doing their jobs well.
Closer to home is the issue of privatizing our prisons, which has been a scourge on our country, leading us to have the most prisoners of any country in the world. That is what happens when you make jails for profit; the corporations that run them will do all they can to get more prisoners. They have lobbies always pushing congress for tougher sentences and drug laws. So what you get is not a productive society, but a more divided one, a more unequal one. And taking something that is part of the commons and letting corporations exploit if for profit, at the expense of our culture and society. As an illustrative recent example, consider the case of the former judge of the Juvenile Court in Luzerne County, PA, currently sentenced to 28 years in prison for sentencing thousands of juveniles to unfair sentences in exchange for kickbacks from the private corporation that ran the prison they were sent to. A prison that got paid with our tax dollars for the number of inmates they had. Sure, there is corruption and inefficiency in government as well, but if there had been no profit motive here, there would have been no incentive for this corruption, and the thousands of young people the judge sentenced for his own profit would have a much better chance to contribute positively to our society, to work with each other as if we were all in this together. The fact the judge was surprised by how harsh the sentence was only further illustrates the extent to which those who have destroyed the commons believe it is their right to do so, that they are somehow a better class of people than that riffraff that is the 90% of our country without enormous wealth. It is Ayn Rand’s philosophy taken to its logical conclusion.
When we protect the commons it evens the playing field for everyone, and that is what will truly unleash American ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit. When Republicans (including every candidate running for president) say they want to eliminate the EPA and environmental regulations because that alone can provide business with “certainty,” I ask certainty for what? That they will be free to pollute and destroy the commons, that they will be able to push the costs of polluting the commons onto the people and society as a whole? Why is that something society would want? How does that possibly help the country?
On the other hand, if we protect the commons, we all know there is a level playing field, and ideas and innovation have a chance to compete with money. No one in America is truly or completely self-made, much as they may want to believe they are. The system our country has set up has helped them be what they are, and if we protect the commons and understand that we are all in this together, we will see a blossoming of ideas and innovation that can make us energy independent with clean energy, give everyone the freedom to try their ideas without fear that getting sick will force them into bankruptcy, that can lead us into the 21st century as a leader in the world. When the top one percent holds down the rest of the nation, we are suppressing 99% of our ideas and innovation and possibility. We need ideas from all Americans, we need everyone to work together to make our country great, and the only way to do that is to give people the freedom to know that they have their share of the commons, that the wealthy alone are not free to destroy and use the commons. If we all understand that we are all in this together, we can all succeed. As long as we believe we are all self-made, and that the absurdly rich somehow deserve their money and have the right to use the commons for their own gain at the expense of the rest of us, we will continue on the path of plutocracy that we have been on this past decade.
I prefer to live in a country that is a community, in which we are all in it together.
John Adams quote, http://www.bartleby.com/73/991.html
Tragedy of the Commons, http://www.garretthardinsociety.org/articles/art_tragedy_of_the_commons.html
Thom Hartmann explains the Commons, http://video.answers.com/thom-hartmann-explains-the-commons-516926371
EPA regulations save money, http://www.wwfblogs.org/climate/content/epa-clean-air-regulations-save-lives-and-money-according-new-study
Profits Before Environment, by Mark Bittman, http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/08/30/profits-before-environment/?ref=opinion&nl=opinion&emc=tya1
Income Inequality, http://sociology.ucsc.edu/whorulesamerica/power/wealth.html
Private Military Contractor Salaries, http://belfercenter.ksg.harvard.edu/publication/19402/private_military_contractors_come_with_strings_attached.html
Money in Politics, http://www.opensecrets.org/
Texas mortgage regulations, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/15/opinion/the-texas-unmiracle.html?scp=1&sq=perry%20mortgage&st=cse
Stop Coddling the Super-Rich, by Warren Buffett, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/15/opinion/stop-coddling-the-super-rich.html