Choke Points Pt. 1

 The American family Gazette

 Volume II, 1009

Part I of II

 

In an earlier post this month I commented on an article by Eric Alterman in The Nation magazine.  Therein he raised the issue of “choke points” in politics that inhibit, or negatively affect, the workings of democracy.  I believe he’s right; they exist, and merit more than passing comment or acknowledgement.  They merit correction or, if they can’t be corrected (Constitutionally, for example), at a minimum neutralized.  I’d like to pursue two of these; the issue of money in politics, which he pointed out, and that of ideology in politics, which he didn’t.  Both of these, among others, seriously influence and affect the outcome of the activities of our society.

I’ve written some about the need to achieve a different outcome in America, and that outcome is determined today by, primarily, government actions (like it or not).  Also, that the goal, or motivation for desiring a different outcome, is to rebalance—to bring into closer harmony, or equilibrium—the major interacting components of our society.  That a preponderance of Americans believes we are out of balance is evidenced by repeated polls wherein respondents overwhelmingly agree with such statements as, “America is headed in the wrong direction” or “America is on the wrong track.”

Now, if this sounds like some kind of lofty philosophic or academic ivory towers exercise, think again.  It’s up-close and personal. We’re talking here about the kind of place we all live in; is it to be a good society (and yes, that’s judgmental) or one that fails in our expectations of what a good society is, or should be; about just how we treat and are treated by the government that is supposed to represent our interests, the business community that is supposed to provide us the economic opportunity we need just to live our lives in something more than marginal economic and social conditions and insecurity as to a future to continue to do so, as well as the general health of our communities.  These are pretty down-and-dirty situations we all face.  If, as so many of us seem to believe, America is headed in the wrong direction, or is on the wrong track, it behooves all of us to  be aware of what is going on, why, and what we, individually and collectively, can and should do to rein in this out of control freight train.  So, let’s continue here with as clear an understanding of the potential personal impact of this “wrong direction” situation as possible.  In the end, it’s not something that just the “other fellow” can make right.

I have also stressed that within society the political system is that segment that draws together or integrates all the others.  Within the political system, decisions (rules, regulations & laws) are made that are binding upon the whole of society. What transpires in the political arena is the deciding factor in the kind of society we shall live in, not only today, but for years to come.  If there are features in our society we’re not happy with, it’s to the political system we must look to correct them. And as citizens and voters, we, all of us, is a part of our political system, or at least have a say in it.

Now this good advice raises some tough question:  What is a good society?  How are we to know when (if) this is achieved? Who is to judge? Let me take a stab at answering these all important questions. I’ll approach this using the concept of Balance—with a capital “B”—that I highlight in The Gathering of the Clan:

In our country, Balance exists when (1) the private capitalistic economic sector (business) feels          it’s able to pursue its aims with a minimum amount of outside interference; (2) when government, in its role as representative of the people, feels that the results of capitalism, in the broadest    sense,   are distributed equitably enough among the people, and (3) the people, through their vote          at the ballot box, concur with the government’s assessment.  When all this happens, America is a healthy, happy, prosperous nation.  America is in an acceptable necessary and rightful Balance.

 This sounds nice, but is such equilibrium, such a balance of interests, ever reached and sustained for any period of time, you might ask?  Probably not.  But that’s not the key issue.  It’s the goal, the better tomorrow we strive for.  And so long as this Balance is generally perceived as acceptable for the moment, and that we as a country are moving in the right direction—which is towards it—(on the right track, so to speak) most of us are inclined to go with the flow and continue working toward this perfect if unreachable goal.  Why?  Largely because of self-interest.  Because we’ve been led to believe that in so doing we stand to see our personal social, and economic fortunes improve and our country prosper: prosperity we should all be entitles to share—some more than others, certainly, but generally enough to go around.

So, by this definition of Balance, I contend that it is both an adequate and satisfactory description of a good society.  This answers the question of what a good society is. It is a society satisfied with itself. How do we know when this is achieved, and who the judges are: “the people, through their voice at the ballot box.” In the last analysis, the only one competent to judge society is the collective voice of the people comprising it. And in a representative democracy, we do so in the voting booth, in accordance with the rule of law.

Now, someone is going to challenge that my criterion for judging a “good society,” Balance, as defined above, is too narrow.  They will point out that it speaks to just economic issues. They’re wrong.  Balance —with a capital “B”—speaks to a broad range of possible issues: “… the results of capitalism, in the broadest sense, are distributed equitably enough among the people …”   Here we are speaking of “the results” as the outcome, the consequences, the harvest, what follows from, what grows out of or what arises from a capitalistic business/economic model. These would include in addition to pure economic (monetary) results such matters as working hours and conditions, provision for social & economic security, personal & community improvement, education, and environmental considerations.  This civic listing is not intended to be exhaustive, simply indicative.

But wait, this same critic will reply; all these qualifiers or responsibilities I mention are not inherent in capitalism, or naturally the responsibility of capitalism.  How can you justify burdening capitalism with these responsibilities, these apparent cost-of-business add-ons? What will it do to prices, to competition? Well, let’s look at it from the other point of view. Who stands to benefit the most—not perhaps exclusively, but the most— from a society wherein those that provide the support for capitalism, workers and consumers, consider that they are fairly treated and not  as some impressed workforce for the sole benefit of capitalists?  Who stands to benefit from a well educated, law abiding workforce?  Which sector of society is most liable to be careless with (or have the biggest impact on) the environment? How do we deal with those not able to, or no longer able to, provide for their own upkeep?

No, not right, my critic will continue.  If you lumber capitalism with all these costs and responsibilities, you will simply kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. You will destroy the very basis of capitalism, which is to encourage private sources of capital to accept reasonable risk and invest with the expectation of a good return; a profit. It will cost jobs, and your tax-base will shrink. Then, where will we be?

With quite some evidence to support me—the trend to foreign outsourcing considered—I counter that, it hasn’t happened, so far. Over the past hundred years, or so, in an effort to “Balance” the unequal forces between capitalism and the people, governments have instituted rules regarding competition—anti-monopoly— oversight, work-hours and working condition regulations.  We do have capitalism financially support, to some degree, social and economic security.  We do provide business tax incentives for many community investments and other social objectives deemed deserving. This we, the people and perhaps at least some factions of capitalism, have considered not only desirable, but necessary, although admittedly, business ownership as a whole has resisted most of these balancing efforts.  And, from their point of view, understandably so.  Why should they have their costs increased, or their profits reduced for the benefit of others? In their view, that amounts to a restriction on liberty.  Why?  Because in the end, it is also in their best interests; their profitable interests. In the end, I will speculate, that in a good society the risks to capitalism are minimized. Just consider the profitability of capitalism in our country today, even considering “all those rules & regulations” that government has imposed upon them.  Capitalism is alive, well and over-all nicely profitable!

It is pertinent here to point out that the face, if not the nature, of “capitalism” has changed.  Early on, businesses and companies were started by and managed by ownership.  “Stock companies” became more common in the late nineteenth century, spurred along by the legal fiction of the corporation. Today, almost all “big business” Is professionally managed, not ownership-managed. So what? So the viewpoint of “management” tends to be short-term driven. Short-term business results too often take precedence over the longer view that an owner-manager might consider. That most often translates into investing for anything other than short-term profits is frowned on.  There tends to be less feeling of loyalty to the firm and of the firm to the community than to the success of the professional manager.  This may not be true across the board.  But it is significant enough to make a general feeling of responsibility to staff, the community and even the stockholders somewhat more subordinate than it probably was in times past. As some have put this, in far less words than I have used here, capitalism has become “mean.”  Something “mean” merits watching. And while it sounds good, self-policing, or self regulation makes capitalism its own judge and jury.  That may be good for capitalism, but questionably so for those with whom it interacts.  Who is left to do the job? The Free Market? That is capitalism! So, probably not, today.

If you answered “government”, go to the head of the class!  Think about it:  not only who or what is left to the job, but isn’t that the job of government, to make the rules and regulations that “govern” our society, all of our society?  Of course it is. Capitalism is a monolithic but hydra-headed structure.  It is huge and powerful. It is influential in the political sense.  And to a good degree, it should be as it is an important institution in our society; the locomotive that pulls our economic train. But anything that big, that powerful (too big to fail?) and that influential merits some control that provides boundaries, and oversight that provides feed-back on how it’s behaving.

Okay, I can hear some saying, if this is the case for business, why not for the government? Talk about a big, powerful institution, government certainly fills that bill. Well, it does have oversight. We call it election times. As government needs to be the oversight committee for capitalism, the people need to be the oversight committee on government. And just who is over-sighting the people here? Our political system should be. That this approach to “full-coverage-oversight” may not work all that well in today’s world does not mean it is not a good approach to what is needed.  It just means that conditions have been manipulated to such a degree that it doesn’t work as we would like or as well as it should. Hence, that “we are headed in the wrong direction” feeling. We are out of Balance—with a capital “B.”

So, how do we fix it?  How do we bring our society more into Balance; how do we more closely approach being a good society than we appear today? The first thing is to recognize and acknowledge the problem: we are out of Balance! The next thing is to determine the cause, or more probably, the causes. For the rest of this polemic, I want to focus, as I said above, on two of what I consider primary causes, or choke points, of our imbalance: Money and ideology in politics. And as I have written extensively about money in politics, or more appropriately about of the cost of politics earlier here, and elsewhere—see specifically Chapter Twelve of the Book— I will but briefly comment on that situation here.

Today, capitalism, as an institution, generates a lot of money (and in this sense, professional associations, such as lawyers, accountants, doctors or plumbers —unions— comprise part of this institution). Likewise, electoral politics, as an institution, requires a lot of money.  These two institutions appear to have “found each other:” a need (demand) and a supply.  Now to assume that this arrangement is either altruistic or eleemosynary on the part of capitalism is in the first instance naive and in the second to deny the profit motive of capitalism.  Business does not spend or invest for nothing!

Likewise, at base, the political recipients of this capitalistic largess no doubt accept, consciously or otherwise, that there is a price for it, stated or unstated. The consequences of this mutual relationship are such that the power and influence of money is competing with the power and influence of the voter for the loyalty of our elected politicians.  As such, we are asking them, our elected officials, to serve two masters, which means one is going to get subordinated to the other in most cases. It doesn’t take much from what we see and hear today to assume the worst in this connection. Thus, the power of money appears to be negating, or neutralizing, the power of the ballot box. And from all appearances, reflecting on the ever increasing amounts of money being spent on campaigns & elections, it is getting worse. Representative democracy cannot long survive as a dependable, credible servant of the public under such a situation. It’s a little like the old joke about two wolves and one sheep voting on what to have for dinner. That kind of democratic majority rule is not a good model for effective, fair representative democracy. Point sufficiently made here, I hope.

The other critical issue, and the one I want to focus on next, is ideology in politics.  And if you think the issue of money is a hard one—and it is— just wait until we get into this one!

 

Thomas Richard Harry
September 2010

 

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