“If they give it to the poor, they call it a handout; if they give it to the rich, they call it a subsidy.” —Martin Luther King, Jr.
Beneath every issue in American politics lies a deeper one, and nowhere is this truer than with our economy. At this time in our history, our economic system doesn’t serve our democratic values. Instead, the government we founded to protect those values has become an instrument of service to an economic system.
Beginning in the 1980s, an economic perspective which deems market forces our most appropriate organizing principle, began to infiltrate both American politics and American consciousness.
According to this view, the fiduciary responsibility of corporations to serve short-term profit maximization of their stockholders – with no particular ethical responsibility to other stakeholders such as workers, community or environment - began to replace democracy as our primary organizing principle. Advocacy for the well-being of citizens and the planet was now to be brokered by market forces, which alone were deemed the appropriate arbiter of our social good.
This view represented a radical departure from a most basic value in our Declaration of Independence: that, “God gave all men the inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” and that, “governments were instituted among men to secure these rights.” From now on, our government would function more to secure the rights of multi-national corporations to make more money for their stockholders, while We, the People, were to trust that so much money would trickle down to the rest of us that all would be okay.
All has not been okay.
Quite to the contrary, a small minority of Americans - called in today’s nomenclature “the one percent” – has become the recipient of extraordinary government largess, while the American middle class has been decimated. From huge corporate subsidies, to tax breaks for the very wealthy, to deregulation of even the most fundamental protections, to greater and greater permission given to moneyed interests to flood our political system, to the proverbial “revolving door” practice between corporate and government leaders.
American social and economic policy has acted like a vacuum cleaner, taking the majority of our nation’s economic resources and sucking them into the hands of a very few.
It was unreasonable to have expected an amoral economic system to practice ethical largess. Why would a huge multinational corporation - with no particular allegiance to the American worker - feel any remorse about closing an American factory and relocating it in another country? Or fighting an increase in the minimum wage? Or cutting the health benefits of its workers? Or fighting fair labor practices? Or fighting labor itself?
A person with no sense of ethical or moral responsibility is a sociopathic individual, and an economic system with no sense of ethical or moral responsibility is a sociopathic economic system.
Once billions, even trillions, of dollars started flowing within a system that deems itself responsible to no one but its stockholders – particularly when the Supreme Court of the United States has granted to that system the preposterous notion of “corporate personhood” – then a complete disregard of that system for the welfare of the least advantaged and the least powerful among us, and the planet itself, becomes inevitable.
For all intents and purposes, our government has become a handmaiden to a new corporate order – surrendering to those whom President Franklin Roosevelt called “economic royalists.” This is not just an economic debate or even a political debate; it is a philosophical and moral debate, challenging this generation to decide in our time whether or not a, “government of the people, by the people and for the people," shall not perish from the Earth.
Just as an individual can dwell in denial, so can an entire group. Today, the American people are in denial if we think that the existence and perpetuation of our democracy is guaranteed. In order to override the tyrannous effects of an authoritarian corporatism that has now infiltrated the highest levels of our government, we must rise up en masse and elect a new wave of officials deeply dedicated to the democratic ideal.
A system that does not feel, which has no sense of ethical responsibility to people or planet, is a dangerous guide to America’s future. Living for our principles will provide more economic security than living for short-term corporate interests can ever provide. Our government should not be run like a business; it should be run like a family, where taking care of each other, and taking care of our home, are the values that guide us.
Short-term profit maximization, whether for corporations or for the government, is at odds with long-term economic planning. The $2 trillion 2017 tax bill - which gave 83 cents of every returned dollar to our richest corporations and wealthiest citizens - is not an economic stimulus, but rather an economic theft of resources that could have been directed toward genuine economic renewal in the form of a Green New Deal, universal healthcare, better education and free college tuition for those who cannot afford it, cancellation of college loan debt, and equal funding of all public schools.
Every dollar we invest in education, infrastructure, and healthcare helps unleash the spirit of the American people. Everything we do to make it easier for people to create, to work with dignity, to live safely and securely, helps unleash the spirit of the American people. Everything we do to decrease the chronic economic and personal trauma that an unjust economic system has created among millions of people helps unleash the spirit of the American people.
And that is sound policy. The American people have been mentally trained to expect too little from our government, to forget that it is there to work for us and not the other way around. The citizens of the United States have been reduced to saying, “Pretty please?” to forces that would withhold things from us that should be considered basic rights in an advanced society. To those forces, we should not say, “Pretty please.”
To those forces, we should say, “Hell no.”
40% of all Americans are having a hard time earning enough to pay for rent, food, healthcare, and transportation costs, and 62% of Americans cannot be deemed members of the middle class. Such statistics did not come out of nowhere; rather, they were the inevitable result of the systematic movement of major resources over the last few decades into the hands of a very few. Only a few Americans can now easily afford health care, only a few Americans can now easily afford higher education, and so forth. For those of us who make it “into the club” in America, there truly is no better place to live. But not enough people can make it into the club today, and that is an unsustainable reality.
In the long term, we should massively realign our investments in the emotional, social, health and educational wellbeing of children eight years old and younger. The greatest source of America’s future economic vibrancy lies in the entrepreneurial spirit alive in any American kindergarten. Our problem is not that we don’t have enough creativity to fuel our economy for centuries; the problem is that we cap it through under-education and a lack of proactive care for our young. An Economic Council of Advisors should include as many experts in child psychology and education as it has economists.