Saturday, May 21, 2016

What Drives Policy Decisions? - The Theory v The Reality

Since the establishment of representative democracies, the role of government has been to promote and secure the safety and well-being of their people.  As stated in the Declaration of Independence, the first official document stating this concept of government, “That to secure these rights [life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness], governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”  That is at least the theory on paper.

From the beginning, a tactical problem was encountered in that the interests of all the people are rarely, if ever, in agreement.  Added to this complexity are the varied interests of organizations and corporations which, while creatures of the law, nevertheless should also be promoted by government since the law provides for their existence because they are thought to contribute to the good of the whole.  

To deal with this multiplicity of interests, the concept arose of government promoting the greater good.  The question is always whether a policy is in the interest of the people as a whole, or at least not contrary to their interest.  

For example, if a policy is good for wealthy individuals but harmful for the rest of society, then it is not in the greater good.  Likewise, policies that favor particular corporations to the detriment of the public are not in the greater good.  The old saying, “What’s good for General Motors is good for the country,” was debunked many years ago.

However, corporate and public interests are not always at odds.   A policy that favors particular corporations could be in the interest of the people because, for example, it is directly tied to creating jobs or encourages the development of products at a reasonable cost that are needed for the welfare of the people.  

One used to say that policies that promote robust corporate growth are on their face for the greater good because that means more jobs and better wages.  However, in modern times that is not the case.  Policies have fostered corporate growth and profit, but workers have not benefited and even been harmed, either because jobs were sent overseas or because wages stagnated.

Needs and interests are not just competing but are often in conflict.  In its effort to promote the safety and well-being of all, government’s policies need to be balanced so that at a minimum all have their most critical needs met and have the opportunity to prosper.

But what is the reality of government decision making?  While the people do vote for their representatives, it is the corporations through their lobbyists and campaign donations who have control of government.  It is true that Democrats are more attentive to “the public good” than Republicans, but even they are deeply influenced by corporate interests which, while not wiping out their support of various programs or efforts, does often weaken the programs’ effectiveness by lessening their impact on corporations and the corresponding protection afforded the public.

While the influence of corporations has been a recurring issue during our history, it is only in the post-WWII era … remember President Eisenhower’s admonition to beware the growth and influence of the military-industrial complex … and even more so beginning with the Reagan years that corporate influence has become so predominant as to render our representative democracy to a large extent illusion.

To understand the terrible human cost of this development, let’s look at some examples of both domestic and foreign policy.  (Although the Declaration of Independence only deals with the relationship between the American government and its people, these same principles should govern foreign policy decisions by government because ultimately the people are affected.  And also because this is what we say we stand for.)

The most horrendous example in recent foreign policy was of course the Iraq war.  Although the talk was to save U.S. citizens from Saddam’s missiles and the Iraqi people from his tyranny, the reality was that the invasion of Iraq was to enhance corporate interests by gaining control of Iraqi oil and establish a friendly base in that economically and militarily strategic part of the Middle East.  But when we left Iraq, not only had we not gained our corporate and geopolitical goals, but we left a people who were worse off in almost every aspect than they were under Saddam.  

Perhaps worst of all was the impact on our own people.  The war created another generation of severely damaged, both physically and psychologically, young American men and women.  And it had placed such a burden on this country’s finances that it made future needed investment in our people and in our infrastructure almost impossible.

A more recent example where the welfare of a foreign people was not the concern is Syria.  The U.S. has long wanted to be rid of Assad in Syria.  Not for any concern for the welfare of the Syrian people, but because during the cold war and its aftermath, Syria under Assad was in the Russian sphere of influence and not friendly disposed to American interests, both corporate and geopolitical.  So when the rebellion started, we gladly lent some aid, even though the fight was again not so much to better life for the Syrian people but to change who or what group was in power and control.  Certainly, the Syrian people have done nothing but suffer during this rebellion because no one on either of the various sides really has had any concern for their welfare.  

True, as regards the American people, the Syrian conflict has not had much impact because the U.S. does not have boots on the ground and the cost of our “aid” has been relatively modest.  It appears the government has at least temporarily learned the lesson of Iraq and Afghanistan.  And, we have accepted almost no Syrian immigrants, which is a matter I will not go into here.  That burden has been left to Europe.  But the policy approach to the extended Syrian conflict has nevertheless been an unmitigated human disaster.

Domestically, while the impact of a decision-making process concerned more with corporate geopolitical interests than with the welfare of the people has had effects arguably not as dramatic or violent as these foreign policy examples, the effects have been in other ways even more devastating for the American people.

The two domestic examples I will site are the background and aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis and the politics of transportation policy/energy policy/global warming.  Since the Reagan years, when government was declared to be the problem not the solution, there had been a steady increase in the deregulation of business, which regulation had been put in place to begin with to protect the people.  But regulation interfered with business and their profits, and so it almost became un-American.  

One of the hallmarks of deregulation was the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, which had prevented banks from having both banking and investment operations.  Glass-Steagall was passed during the Depression in an effort to prevent banks from diverting bank assets into speculative operations, to keep them free of the manipulative methods and volatility of the investment market … for the good of the people.  Banks had long chafed under these restrictions, and under the leadership of Republican Senator Phil Gramm the act was repealed and the legislation was signed into law by President Clinton, who had many Wall Street advisors surrounding him, in addition to having received massive amount of campaign donations from Wall Street.

The result was the development by the biggest banks of a whole host of unscrupulous and manipulative investment strategies that benefited their bottom line and amassed huge wealth but screwed the public, even including at times their own customers.  When the bubble inevitably burst, several banks and the economy came crashing down and would have entered a severe depression, were it not for the government bail-outs.

Now one might have hoped that in the aftermath of such clear unethical behavior the government would reimpose strict rules on investment banks.  But even with a Democratic-controlled Congress in the Obama’s administration’s first 2 years, it was a fight to get the Dodd-Frank Act passed, and in the end it was not as strong as it could or should have been because of Democrats’ desire to not “unduly” harm banking interests.  The Act has been further weaken by prolonged fights over implementing regulations which have also turned out often to be far less strict than they should have been.

As for the interrelated policies regarding transportation, energy, and global warming, corporations have again been in control.  Transportation policy has always been a function of what is best for those being regulated (auto manufacturers, railroads, airlines), not the people.  The result is a terrible transportation system which is outdated, environmentally inefficient and provides bad service to the public.  Energy policy likewise has been a creature of corporate wishes, for the most part.  Under Bush II, Vice President Cheney even took the unbelievably bold public move of convening a meeting of energy execs to devise the administration’s energy policy.  No one representing the public was present.  The result not surprisingly was a policy which did not protect the interests of the public nor did it even give a nod towards the issue of global warming.

With regard to global warming itself, I will only say that while there has been to-date a confluence of corporate opposition and, given our addiction to cheap energy, people opposition to necessary measures, there is no doubt in my mind that even had there been a strong and vocal majority in favor of such measures, the corporate world still would have managed to water down almost anything that passed.

As I have said at the conclusion of many prior posts, our system of representative democracy is broken.  The reasons are various, but certainly the outsized influence of money and corporations on policy is a major factor.  The system can only be fixed, and the people’s welfare be protected, with a soft revolution in who has power in Congress.