I can still hear Carl Sagan’s voice saying it in those old documentaries. He was talking about stars, of course. Today, we think of dollars. Billions and billions of them, swelling our national debt, mortgaging the futures of your children and mine. I get almost physically sick when I dwell for too long on what has happened in the sordid mess our national economy has become. I’ve written about it many times before, but I’m doing it again today in my New Mexico Independent column.
The catalyst this time was the announcement of the banking “stress test” results. The very idea of the government “stress testing” private businesses would have been unthinkable not long ago. But so would the idea of the government bailing out failing companies, owning large chunks of private industries, hiring and firing CEOs, dictating executive pay, interfering in bankruptcy proceedings, and strong-arming private companies (I mean actually private companies, who aren’t in hock to Uncle Sam) into accepting however much on the dollar the President thinks they ought to accept.
The government and corporate worlds have become interpenetrated in a way that would have appalled our Founding Fathers. So what? some say. They lived in a simpler time, with an agrarian economy, and they could not foresee the intricacies of modern finance, and the changes in government that it would require. Maybe so, but the solutions we’ve come up with so far are not working. We may be more sophisticated and savvy than Adams and Jefferson, but we are surely no wiser.
In my column, I made the radical proposal of a new constitutional amendment to begin the fight to undo the unholy mess that corporate raiders and complicit politicians have made:
It’s been a long time since our Constitution has had a new amendment. I think the time has come, however, for an amendment to end privatized profits but socialized losses. The profit part I have no problem with. If companies are successful, more power to them. Let them reap their rich rewards, after paying a fair share in taxes. But when the going gets tough, I don’t ever want to see millionaires coming hat in hand to Congress to beg for my tax dollars to negate their losses. It’s not only shameful, it’s un-American.
Such an amendment — which I realize is utopian and will probably never come to pass — would be only the beginning, however. It would have to be followed up by a Balanced Budget Amendment, an idea that’s been around at least since the 1980s. I realize this is probably never going to happen, at least not without a cataclysmic depression or some other national calamity, anyway.
Our political system is so deeply, thoroughly corrupt that I believe it is incapable of genuine reform. Too many politicians in both parties have been bought and paid for by myriad special interests with millions of dollars at their disposal.
And don’t tell me that campaign finance reform is the answer. Anyone who thinks so is hopelessly naive. The rich and the ambitious will always find ways to circumvent such laws. The McCain-Feingold limit on individual contributions accomplished only two things: 1) it turned candidates into money-grubbing mendicants with their hands perpetually outstretched, and 2) it made the DNC and RNC, which are not subject to the limitations, far more powerful than they have ever been. Trying to legislate away the symbiosis between money and power is a fool’s game.
Too many politicians are driven by one goal, that overrides all others: getting re-elected, and for most, someday being elected to an even more exalted office. Almost every Congressman dreams of being a Senator, and almost every Senator dreams of being President.
But all men in all times have dreamed of power and sought it with every resource at their disposal. This simple fact of human nature is not enough to destroy a republic. The citizens must be complicit in that destruction, and surely we American citizens are. Election year after election year we return the same army of power-seekers to Washington. We do not hold them responsible for their actions.
Doing so would mean that we actually have to read the legislative reports in the newspaper or on the internet to see how our representatives voted. We would have to read enough background material to understand what that vote means. If we were really conscientious citizens, we would even inform ourselves about who was contributing to our representatives’ campaign funds, and how these individuals and companies and PACs and foundations were connected to the legislation being voted upon.
It’s not just that the vast majority of Americans are too lazy to do this, though a goodly portion of us are. Part of it is that the whole system is too big and too complicated for everyone to keep up with everything that goes on. I try to keep up with it, but there are days I feel like I’m drowning in information, that I just can’t read anymore because I have to cook dinner and do laundry and read to my kids and exercise and feed the dog and buy groceries and pay the bills and make dentist appointments and check the propane tank and water the plants and do all the other things that keep our household functioning.
Most of the people I know don’t even make the effort. They’re either overwhelmed by it all, or simply not interested. And that’s exactly the way the politicians and their big money contributors want it. They want it to be so damned complicated that the average American feels overwhelmed by even the idea of trying to keep up with it all.
Another useful constitutional amendment, as long as I’m setting forth my utopian agenda, would dictate that Congress shall pass no law that contains more than 2,500 words in its text, and that the proposed bill must be made available online for at least 72 hours prior to voting (with an exception for an emergency declaration of war in case our homeland is attacked). That way, every American could read the text of each and every piece of proposed legislation. I’m well aware that an appalling number of my fellow citizens would still not bother, but a lot more would than do now. As an added bonus, it would be awfully hard to hide pork in a bill that’s no more than ten double-spaced pages long.
When I was a naive young lady in school, I was taught that one of the functions of our wonderful watchdog media was to keep an eye on those shifty bastards in Washington so we wouldn’t have to. Obviously, a lot of my fellow Americans were taught the same thing, and thought they could just go about their business, concentrating on their careers, enjoying their time off, being active in the PTA and so forth, while Katie Couric et al. took care of the dull, dreary job of keeping the politicians honest. And we know how that plan turned out.
So why, you may be wondering, if I am so deeply cynical about American politics, do I bother being active in the Republican Party? Why, when my Facebook page says “Power corrupts” rather than “Conservative” or “Republican” where it asks for political views, do I dedicate my time and money to electing Republicans?
Because, as Voltaire said, the perfect is the enemy of the good. Even though a great many individual Republicans are deeply flawed people, and some of them abuse the power with which the public has entrusted them, their philosophy of government is still preferable to that of the Democrats. Think about it: if you’re cynical about government power, and had your choice between an enormous and ever-growing corrupt goverment, and a somewhat smaller corrupt government, wouldn’t you choose the latter?