Friday, March 9, 2012

Unequal by Design

In case you just beamed in from Mars, there's an awful lot of bad blood about right now between Americans and their government. While the reasons for this are varied, one major factor is that we have a shocking number of decent citizens who have played by the rules and worked hard, who now find themselves either without a job or working their fingers to the bone in dead-end employment for a smaller and smaller piece of the American pie. These people can't help but notice that this pie is actually growing very quickly once again, but that that growth is almost entirely reserved for others who are better connected or less ethical than they are. Consequently, and not without some justification, many blame their government. But very few of those who are hurting most have any real sense of the root cause of this disease at the heart of our political system. To compound the problem, those who have zeroed in on the diagnosis are being accused of waging "class war," or trying to kill jobs or undermine the freedoms of "ordinary Americans." The reality is that they're merely trying to win back opportunities for these very Americans and to rebuild a system of responsibility, accountability and broadly shared prosperity that has been systematically dismantled over the past thirty years.

The entities that have brought about this massive unraveling claim to be operating on behalf of businesses and commerce at all levels, but the changes their influence has wrought have channelled an accelerating majority of our growth, in increasing wealth, advantage and preferential treatment, to those at the very top of the income distribution. The parties that expend the most resources on framing our national narrative are well aware that if you say something loudly enough, and repeat it sufficiently often, it can very easily achieve the status of truth among a passive electorate—even if truth bears no relation to it at all. Today, we find huge and angry swaths of the society who have been convinced that the very government programs that are keeping them afloat—and that could, if wisely built upon, help them move beyond mere subsistence—are actually their worst enemies. In a grotesque parody of thoughtful protest, many of these citizens now get themselves up in colonial garb, fasten disposable beverage infusers to their clothing and accessories, and take to the streets to declaim their bizarre received wisdom of indignant slogans and nostrums: sentiments that undermine the few remaining features of their social architecture that actually redound to their benefit.

When we say that we live in a nation of laws, we're essentially paying lip service to the fundamental constitutional principle inspired by John Locke (whom our framers rightly admired a great deal), namely that the individual is free to do anything except what's forbidden by law. Any complex contract or legal system can be gamed; all you need is a sharp eye for holes you can shovel money or unfair advantage through, and a regular dose of bad faith. But once these holes are identified, they should be closed. That's one of the most important and under-appreciated roles of the legislative branch.

Our financial royalty currently spends (literally "untold") billions on lobbying, both to keep existing holes open—called "policy drift"—and to create new holes. This spending constitutes their most successful investment to date in terms of their bottom line. Often, these new holes are ostensibly promoted for other reasons that seem unexceptionable at first glance, but on closer inspection it becomes apparent that they license behavior that rigs the framework to the advantage of those who promote them. These loopholes pay massive dividends to the people who spend the money to create them or keep them in place, but they also undermine the social contract in insidious ways. When both your threadbare framework of rules and your lax regimen of enforcement preferentially rewards "legal cheaters," what message does that send to those who are trying to play fair? I think we can sum it up in one word: "Suckers..." It doesn't take a Nobel Prize-winning economist to point this out, but few seem to listen even when they do.

As citizens, our job is to do our homework and keep close tabs on this process, then use the ballot box to make sure the grifters don't take over our country. But who has the time, the education or the discipline for that task when we're too busy working overtime to keep our families healthy and fed? The tiny minority that the game actually favors can afford to pay handsome salaries and benefits to the professionals who tilt the table on their behalf. And we have more pressing matters to address in our discretionary time—like figuring out who the Antichrist *really* is, or discovering where Lindsay is blowing lines this week, or making reproductive decisions for women we've never met. Genius, I tells ya...

The question of whether or not we can retrieve our country from the clutches of organized money remains very much up in the air at the moment. The dollar is a powerful reinforcer; it's not easy to find public servants who are resistant to its allure. It will very much depend on our willingness to tear ourselves away from our trivial entertainment for long enough to fulfill our own civic responsibility to hold our elected representatives to account for whom their legislation legitimately represents. If the framers of our constitution are to be believed, that was supposed to be us. And the people waging class warfare are the ones trying to destroy this compact, not the people trying to uphold it—that's the critical difference. It's time for the latter voices to find a thoughtful audience. You can help make that happen.

1 comment:

  1. This was very powerful stuff! Great writing. Poetic.