Monday, March 09, 2009

"Nothing is more dangerous in public affairs than the influence of private interests"

Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his book The Social Contract, Book III, Chapter 4: Democracy says:

"It is not good that he who makes the law should execute it or that the body of the people should turn its attention away from general perspectives and give it to particular objects. Nothing is more dangerous in public affairs than the influence of private interests, and the abuse of the law by the government is a lesser evil than that corruption of the legislator which inevitably results from the pursuit of private interests. When this happens, the state is corrupted in its very substance and no reform is possible. A people which never misused the powers of government would never misuse independence, and a people which always governed itself well would not need to be governed."

Of which the key point to ponder is:

"... the abuse of the law by the government is a lesser evil than that corruption of the legislator which inevitably results from the pursuit of private interests."

Having just come through a time when our government has evidenced both such evil's... abuse of law and corruption of the legislators... it is worth pondering his view.

Abuse of law has been horrendous. At first blush it seems to be easily the worst of these two evils. And indeed, I think that is true.

However, Rousseau's point here appears to be that the one comes before the other and makes the second not only possible but subsequently impossible to get rid of. I think this is true.

Corruption of our legislature by moneyed interests has weakened our democracy greatly. It has broken down the rule of law. It has led to alteration of our law, tax code, oversight and such to the benefit of the few over the needs of the many. It has created an environment of government for sale and one of power for powers sake in a dog eat dog environment where the idea that he who dies with then most toys wins.

This is where the abuse of law in government comes from, this is what makes it possible. In an environment where the legislature was pure (or relatively pure), where money spoke no louder then poverty, law would be crafted towards the needs of the many not the wants of the few. Government policy would be geared towards the good of all not towards the greed of the few.

The needs of the many require that power be kept in check. Hence foreign wars of adventure and profit for the moneyed class would not be allowed. Principles of democracy would be sustained and advanced at home and would form the basis of foreign policy abroad rather than principles of hegemony and empire.

Hegemony and empire are structures of power. They have no place in the democracy of the many. They exist only in a world governed by the power games of the few. No hegemonic dreams, no glories of empire mean no torture of opponents, no creation of an atmosphere of terror to oppress the masses, no slaughter of innocents, no invasion of the rights and privacies of citizens at home.

Corruption of the legislator weakens the legislature. The strongest branch of government here in America was intended to be the legislative branch. A weakened legislature leads to a power shift towards the executive. There are benefits to a strong executive. However, the executive is by nature a branch of individual power rather than government by the law of the many. And power tends to corrupt. Even the best person in possession of that much power will almost inevitably succumb to at least some temptation of power over law. A lower quality individual will succumb to such temptations quite rapidly and in full. Frankly, they will likely arrive in office having already done so.

So, in attempting to solve the problems we have been experiencing in government it is necessary to take a two pronged approach. The first is what I call the band-aid approach. Immediately apply remedies to the problems at hand. An example of this would be to review all the signing statements and executive orders of the Bush/Cheney administration as well as the Office of Legal Counsel documents, immediately abrogating the obviously illegal, unethical or immoral ones. These are band-aids to stop the immediate bleeding.

The second prong is the most important and that is to get to the root cause and correct it so that such abuses of power do not recur. This means focusing on the legislative branch and the manners in which it becomes corrupted. This leads immediately to the influence of money. Money influences in many ways. In reviewing the McCain-Feingold campaign financing law the Supreme Court recognized correctly that money is like water, it will always find the cracks. This is true but it does not mean that reform, restriction and control are not possible. Quite the opposite. It means that the system needs to be structured in such a way as to best limit the cracks. It also means a constant review and audit of policies and procedures in order to find, monitor and plug the cracks before they break open the dam.

The influence of money is perhaps greatest in the electoral system itself. Most members of Congress are of the moneyed class. Political campaigns are won in virtually every case by the campaign that spends the most money. Consequently politicians spend more time raising money in campaigns then they do talking with the citizens they are supposed to represent.

There are those who argue that campaign finance limitations are unconstitutional. If this is so then this is a clear case where the Constitution needs amending. The influence of money is a grave danger to our form of government.

"Nothing is more dangerous in public affairs than the influence of private interests, and the abuse of the law by the government is a lesser evil than that corruption of the legislator which inevitably results from the pursuit of private interests. When this happens, the state is corrupted in its very substance and no reform is possible."

Friday, March 06, 2009

Sometimes they say stuff that pisses me off

Oh my... Oliver Willis sends me this link from The National Review.

It has long been a trite position of the right wing that those at the top of society are morally superior to the rest of us. It is their breeding, higher incomes, etc that prove their superiority. This is of course pure bunk. No matter how many times over the centuries or how many ways it has been thoroughly debunked it remains as a pet delusion of grandeur for them.

Sometimes though they say stuff that just pisses me off...

"And why is a president who needs them [the affluent] to keep on producing at the prodigious rates both society and the economy require, treating them as if they — not the slackers, the entitled, and the net tax consumers — were the problem?"

The prodigious rates evidenced by the plummeting economy, half-sized DOW, and millions of jobs lost? Including many of their own? The net tax consumers are a good target. Perhaps all the corporations and businesses that receive subsidies, government contracts, and tax breaks ought to be charged a fair share of that. Perhaps the upper tax brackets that received the bulk of the disastrous conservative republican tax give aways that were a large part of the cause of our current problems ought to pay all that money back. And perhaps the author ought to provide some proof for the un-sourced slam about unnamed and unknown slackers, entitled, and net tax consumers?

Oh yes, and speaking of tax consumers... perhaps the oil companies should pay for their own foreign wars and return the six trillion the government has spent on their behalf in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"He calls it as he sees it, with intelligence, intensity, and insight into the unrelentingly hard-working lives of the most productive people in America."

Provide proof please. Most productive people by what measure? And your concluding statement that they will turn to golf instead defeats your own argument. The truly unrelentingly hard-working lives of the low and middle class provide no options for turning to golf as an option.

"No group of people contribute more to their community."

Provide proof for this statement please because there are plenty of working poor and middle class that find time to coach kids sports teams, volunteer for fire departments, train as EMT's, volunteer at hospitals, take meals to shut-in’s, etc. Probably far more working poor and middle class that are the backbones of their communities by doing these things then “working affluent” sitting on charity boards sipping lattes.

"More problematically, he is penalizing their success and giving them very clear incentives to ratchet back on productivity."

No. He is trying to dig the country out of the economic disaster that conservative policy has created. Where else to look then for help then to those that benefited from these disastrous policies? Truly patriotic people would be looking for ways to help out the President in this effort. Similarly, truly productive people don’t need incentives to produce. They do so for the love of it.

"So, what happens when the heart surgeons, dentists, litigators, and people who employ 10 or 20 other people in their mid-size businesses decide that they don't want to pay for the excessive, pointless spending that the president finds so compelling?"

Pointless? Pointless? Learn some economics. He's not just spending money because he likes to spend money. He's spending money to save your jobs, your homes, your economic prospects, your small businesses, your large corporations, your 401k’s and the lives of the rest of us.

"But while we're watching, "working affluent" is a far more useful and less loaded moniker than "the rich," which has overtones of dilettantes, poodles, and yachts."

I agree. "Working affluent" is very a good and useful term. The working affluent are... A) working... and B) affluent. Therefore since they are working they can afford to pay taxes that those who aren't working due to the economic disaster of conservative policies can't and since they are affluent they can afford to pay more taxes then those who are not affluent. The rich yachting dilettante poodles can give back even more. I have no problem with two gradations of "affluent" and "rich" in the tax code. Works for me. That’s how the tax code originally started out. Only the rich and affluent paid.

The bottom line is that thanks to conservative republican economic beliefs being dominant since 1980 exemplified by the "drown the country in the bathtub" views of Grover Norquist and the belief in the moral superiority of industry titans, Wall Street financiers... you know... the Ken Lay's and Jack Abramoff's and Bernie Madoff's of the world... those guys and their unrelentingly, hard-working moral superiority... this country is facing the worst economic situation since the Great Depression of the 1930's.

The money flow has stopped. The banking industry is on life support. Loans can't be had and that means homes aren't being bought or sold, businesses aren't growing or starting, workers of all stripes, affluent and non-affluent, are being laid off, unemployment is at a 25 year high with a record 12.5 million unemployed workers. GM & GE are in the tank. Read that again... GM and GE, the centerpieces of the once dominant American economy are both in severe danger. GE's stock price? $6.74. GM's? $1.47. Banking giant Citigroup? $1.01.

Right now is a time for all Americans to ask not what their country can do for them but rather what they can do for their country. Right now is a time when being patriotic is doing whatever is necessary to get this country back on its feet again.

My parents grew up during the Great Depression and came of age during WWII. They have told me stories of rationing, of walking the neighborhood gathering tin cans and other scrap metal for the war effort. Of living in one town after another criss-crossing the Midwest wherever grandfather could find work. They tell stories of sacrifice for the common good. The common good.

The conservative republican mantra is "tax cuts, tax cuts, tax cuts." I am all in favor of keeping taxes as low as feasibly possible. The fact of the matter is that this country was at its financial, industrial, economic, and productively strongest during the decades following WWII when taxes were sky high, unionization was at its highest, and income inequality was its lowest.

After near 30 years of conservative economic policy income inequality is as high as it was during the gilded age, unionization is at its lowest, the average Americans income growth has stagnated for years, and our financial, industrial and economic strength is down and… taxes are at their lowest in years. America no longer leads due to conservative policy geared towards corporate greed.

Greed is a sin. Economic policy has been run by greed for far too long and we are now reaping the price of allowing it too run unchecked. Making money is a fine thing but it is not the only thing for which humans, society, and governments are made.

The conservative economic agenda has been one of class warfare. During the last couple decades of large increases in American productivity the produce of that increase has gone completely to the very upper class. It has not “trickled down” to the average American. Income growth at the top has been astronomical. The rest of us have experienced no real growth and in many cases loss of real, effective income.

The result? Recession edging towards depression.

High incomes, personal, corporate, wind fall, capital gains, or estate need to be taxed at a high rate in order to sustain a healthy economy. In a healthy economy money flows. Money that flows in only direction stops flowing when it reaches its destination. That is what we are seeing today. Money has flowed only to the top for the last 29 years and now it has stopped flowing.

This does not mean "soaking the rich" or stopping the haves from having enough to invest. It does mean that an extremist view of “tax cuts, tax cuts, tax cuts” and drowning the government in a bathtub are exactly that. Extremist. Extremist in the same way that terrorists and religious fanatics are extremists. And every bit as destructive.

Keep taxes as low as reasonably possible but also as high as necessary in order to ensure income inequality does not get out of hand and in order to ensure that money flows throughout the entire economy. Trickle down is nonsense. Trickle up is the way to go. Raise the level of the many at the bottom. As they spend day to day, jobs are created, goods are produced, small businesses and large are strengthened. Profits increase. And as profits increase incomes of the folks at the top increase as well. This is not socialism as the screamers like to scream. This is simply sound economics. It is also morally sound.

A free market is one with oversight and accountability. A free market is one with known and fair rules. A free market is one that takes into account all costs of production… including environmental costs to water, air and soil. A free market is one in which favored industries do not receive tax breaks and/or subsidies that allow them to profit from unprofitable ventures or to have an advantage over competing industries and products.

The government should stay out of business as much as possible. Fair and free competition can be very productive. However, there are some places where the government is the best or only vehicle in which to solve or nurture societal needs.

The last couple decades have been decades ruled by the sins of greed and gluttony. Sins come about from excess. Excess leads to disaster. We have witnessed the culmination of excessive disaster these past 8 years. It is now time to reign in the excess. Clean up the mess. Sweep away the wreckage. Restructure the economy on sound, moral and productive grounds that benefit all of society and not just the sinful, greedy few.