Sunday, December 27, 2015

Back to the Future, But Not Too Far!

We are a country that is obsessed with the future, with facilitating the next phase of our “progress.”  In the process, we have lost our collective, our societal mooring to what has made the United States a great social and political experiment.  

As I’ve noted in previous posts, our society is dysfunctional in many respects.  But there are two central problems.  One is that virtually all political power is now in the hands of major corporations and the rich; they call the shots in Washington, not the people.  The other is that these same actors, as well as many average citizens, seem to have no concern for the welfare of their fellow citizens, and in the case of corporations, their workers.

One can place a band-aid here, and another there.  But that will not change any of the basic problems that we are facing and which are pulling the United States down from its great potential.

I have therefore argued for a revolutionary change in attitude and perspective on the part of our political parties and citizens.  This revolutionary change is not to something “new,” some utopia, but rather back to ideals and standards that served this country well and made it strong during the 20th century.  

In the first 125 years of our country’s history, things were pretty much a frontier-style free-for-all.  Each person for himself.  People who needed help generally weren’t helped, and those who were on the make pretty much got away with anything they tried.

But at the turn of the 20th century, the country took a progressive turn in its politics under Republican President Theodore Roosevelt.  The government and people saw that things had gotten out of hand and that there was massive inequality in power and wealth in the country.  Because such inequality did not square with our founding ideals, there was a realization that government needed to become a more active player to insure that the average citizen wasn’t exploited, and that power was more evenly distributed.

Thus, during the first 20 years of the new century, the progressive income tax was introduced, the robber barons were regulated, massive holding companies like Standard Oil were broken up, and workers were given the right to unionize.  And women were finally given the right to vote.  

As I state in my book, We Still Hold These Truths, a social contract developed that gave practical shape to Lincoln’s famous, “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”  There was an increasing emphasis on a balance between rights and obligations, between business interests and the public good, with each person contributing to support the government’s efforts to level the playing field, each according to his ability.

Following the 1929 stock market crash and the resulting Depression, government saw the need to increase its role both in providing a hand to those in need (for example, the enactment of Social Security) as well as regulating the excesses of big business (for example, the Glass-Steagal Act).  In the mid 1960s, Medicare was enacted together with a host of measures to further improve the balance and fairness of our society. 

Congress also passed major civil rights legislation in the 1960s, although it must be said that while these laws resulted in certain improvements in their lives, the basic standing of most black Americans in our society and the conditions in which they lived and were educated were left virtually unchanged.  And they were still frequently subject to various forms of both institutional and private discrimination.  (See my posts, “The Mirage of Civil Rights,” and “Our Failed Economic/Social/Political System.”)

But I don’t want to overstate my case.  Needless to say, throughout these progressive periods, there were plenty of people, both in Congress and in the populace, primarily Republicans, who were against both measures to regulate business and efforts to increase government spending or other efforts to help those in need.  Even during the Depression and its immediate aftermath, there were people, and not just the rich, who literally hated FDR!  In 1932, the height of the Depression, Roosevelt only got 58% of the popular vote when he ran against Hoover, although he swept the electoral vote.

In this regard, it should be noted that regardless of the huge changes shown in the electoral vote map, indicating landslide years, the popular vote has never been a landslide.  For example, in 1972 when Nixon got 96% of the electoral vote, he received only 61% of the popular vote.  Likewise, when FDR got 98% of the electoral vote in 1936, he got only 62% of the popular vote.  The country has historically been quite divided.  

Then along came Ronald Reagan, the same man who had campaigned vigorously against the enactment of Medicare, who as President famously said that, “Government is not the solution to the problem.  Government is the problem.”  Reagan didn’t invent a new movement.  He just gave voice and a popular face to deep feelings that have always been held by a large percentage of the voting population, legitimizing those perspective.

The fervency and bitterness of these feelings grew and deepened over the following years, culminating in the Tea Party movement and the current crop of Republican radicals (they should not be referred to as “conservatives”) in Congress.  What they, led by the billionaire Koch brothers and others who back them, want is nothing less than a return of this country to its 19th century ethos, when it was each man for himself, without any interference from or help by the government, of course with the exception of Social Security and Medicare from which most of them directly benefit.  Unfortunately, they don’t see the irony in this.

What I am calling for is a return to the 20th century ethos (Reagan excepted) of balance and social responsibility plus a changed attitude towards black Americans.  

This is not a soak the rich movement or class struggle.  It is a movement that seeks a return to the ethos where we are all part of a society, that recognizes that many people are born into situations that place huge obstacles in their attempts at pursuing the American dream of happiness and equality, and that those who have made it, who have benefited from the system, have a responsibility as citizens to help the government in its efforts to assure that all have true equal opportunity.  

In this regard it should be noted that for most of the income tax’ existence, the highest tax bracket ranged from 60 - 94%, dropping down to 50% during the Reagan years.  So the current top rate of 39.6%, and even the various suggested increases, are historically low.  It should also be noted that regardless of the tax rate, the rich have always remained rich.

Nor is this an anti-business movement.  The health of our economy and of the businesses that make it prosper are of critical importance to the well-being of all Americans.  Business interests must always have a significant place at the table.  But we have learned all too often that it is nevertheless not true that what is good for corporate America is good for all Americans.  Thus there must be a balance between the needs of business and the greater public good.  Maximizing profit cannot be the sole goal of a responsible corporation in a democracy.  

For example, the New York Times just reported that corporate lobbyists working with their friends in Congress (on both sides of the aisle) inserted a provision in the omnibus spending bill that just passed that continues a tax loophole that benefits casino and hotel owners as well as major Wall Street investors to the tune of $1 billion.  That is to say that our tax revenues will continue to be reduced by that amount from what they otherwise would be.  That is unconscionable.

Nor is this a big government movement.  I for one feel strongly that government should be as small as it can be while executing the functions that are its responsibility.  There should be no holy cows.  Every aspect of government must be justified by the purpose it serves and its effectiveness.

What I seek is simply government of the people, by the people, and for the people … all the people.  Not government of the people  (they do still elect), but by corporations, and for corporations.  Which sadly, is what our government has to a large extent become.

The citizens of this country deserve better.