Turning the U.S. Congress Into a People’s Congress
Roles for “the 1%”?1
by Peter Bearse
No matter what the age group, the age-old biblical maxim still prevails: “Without leadership, the people perish.” Yet, lack of leadership prevails, confirmed by responses to polls taken over two decades along with a corollary growing lack of trust in government and politicians. For decades prior, most citizens could look to the topmost rungs of American society for role models and leadership. This is no longer so. Charles Murray has shown that the top 5% are a “hollow elite…America’s new upper class has suffered from a collapse of self confidence…”2
Murray’s diagnosis, however, raises at least as many questions as it answers. How can a group lead with confidence if its foundational values are “hollow”? Occupy indicted “the 1%” for sociopathic behaviors instrumental to our country’s near financial collapse. Murray’s “5%” is more broadly defined to include more of the professional, academic and managerial categories that represent the highest levels of accomplishment in American society, those sometimes labeled “the best and the brightest.”
Yet, there are vacancies of values in their high-valued homes, and not just those due to the Great Recession. The vacancies here represent what Murray calls “The Collapse of a Sturdy Elite Code.” The elements of this code are now viewed as mostly clichés. Yet tried and true clichés represent the distillation of wisdom. According to Murray, the major elements are “two…virtues in themselves -- industriousness and honesty -- and two…institutions through which right behavior is nurtured -- marriage and religion.”3 These overlap or complement four “domains through which human beings achieve deep satisfactions in life…happiness…: family, vocation, community, and faith…”4
When Murray and I were both growing up in the ‘40’s and 50’s, the code for males went “something like this:
To be a man means that you are brave, loyal and true (reminding me of my Boy Scout oath, which also included ‘reverent’). When you are in the wrong, you own up and take your punishment. You don’t take advantage of women. As a husband, you support and protect your wife and children. You are gracious in victory and a good sport in defeat. Your word is your bond. It’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game…”
The code of the American gentleman has collapsed, just as the parallel code of the American lady has collapsed.”5
Instead of an old elite that at least made attempts to uphold old, tried and true values, we now face a new elite that, at best, reveals celebrity or fashionista versions of ’60’s values in dress-up or drag. As Murray shows, these values represent degradation of that which has made our country truly exceptional among the nations of the world. Such values (or are they hardly more than postures?) would be dressed down and publicly opposed by true American leaders, but the new elite do not qualify as such. Instead of looking up to the great leaders of our American past, they look down to hip avatars of Hollywood celebrity or ghetto cultures.
“Degradation” is not too strong a word. Examples of declasse’ behaviors are legion among members of the elite who should know better. One recent example is especially revealing in its “unseemliness.”6 The hostess at “the elegant Brooklyn home of a cultural figure…
pulled Kaitlin (a 22 year-old senior at Columbia) aside and asked if she had ever tried the drug (Molly), which is said to be pure MDMA, the ingredient…combined with other substances in Ecstasy pills. She said that…I had nothing to worry about. And then everyone at the party took it…the drug found a following among the selective crowd.”7
Another great irony of today’s new elite attitudes towards the traditional American values-in-action (VIA) required of true American leaders is that the VIA they actually demonstrate are somewhat a-scientific insofar as they emphasize quick returns, closed systems, and libertarian (libertine? values inconsistent with the science of human behavior. Ironically, the new elite’s VIA could undermine the scientific economic base of their own wealth. Most of the new wealth is generated by science-based technologies that provide the foundations for new technology-based enterprises.8 The fact that most of this wealth redounds to the benefit of a small number of successful technology entrepreneurs is a significant factor increasing the income and wealth inequalities that divide our nation -- a dangerous trend. Recognizing this danger, one of the gurus of the IT-driven new economy, Jason Lanier, has proposed a remedy.9
Still another major irony, according to Murray, is that the new, behavioral sciences are likely to undermine the “intellectual foundations of the modern welfare state” (European version) that is favored by most of the new elite. He writes: “Here are some more examples of things I think the neuroscientists and geneticists will prove (as if they were, for the most part, not already quite obvious)10 …:
Human beings enjoy themselves when they are exercising their realized capabilities at the limit of those capabilities.
Challenge and responsibility for consequences is an indispensable part of human motivation to exercise their realized their realized capabilities at the(ir) limit…
People grouped by (any category), left free to live their lives as they see fit, will produce group differences in outcomes, because they differ genetically…
Regardless of whether people have free will, human flourishing requires that they live in an environment in which they are treated as if they did.”
Whatever findings emerge from the new neurobiological and behavioral sciences, it often helps to look to the past for old lessons thinking that perhaps, after all, “there’s nothing new under the sun.” Indeed; there’s nothing new in negative or skeptical attitudes towards the wealthy. Jesus said: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of god.” St. Ambrose “attacked not the possession of wealth but its use to deprive others of dignity”, arguing for a “healthy circulation of goods throughout the community.” St. Augustine’s view was that
“sins are offenses not only against God but against others we deprive of our good, or goodwill…a share of the common condition. The daily small distribution of goods is not so much a payment of justice…as an expression of one’s need for others, of the ties that bind.”
The latter also speaks to the sin of walling oneself off from the “mediocres” or others of lesser status. St. Augustine’s monastery was “outward looking,” unlike the cloistered orders (and gated communities) of later time.”11
Whether we classify the new class as disingenuous sinners or just declasse’ does not deny that there are exceptions to every generalization. There are outliers in any group. So, too, among those in the upper strata of income and wealth, whether part of the 1%, 5% or anywhere in between. Pointing to the values and leadership shortcomings of billionaires does not, nor should it be thought, to rationalize class warfare. This would be even more destructive than the multi-culti elite’s aping of European critiques of American culture.12 Billionaires are human beings, too, and several genuine American leaders have emerged from the billionaire community. Many others have open minds and may share our concern for the future of the American experiment. Note, for example:
Peter Thiel…”The Pessimistic Billionaire,” founder of PayPal and investor in other IT start ups, offering also a refreshing contrarian, primarily libertarian view on the American political economy and public policy.
Bill and Melissa Gates…Generous pioneers of evidence-based giving and learning to fight disease, reduce poverty, improve education and otherwise improve the human condition worldwide.
George Soros…Though labeled one of the “Trader Titans” by FORBES, Soros is a remarkably public-spirited billionaire who has generously supported the development of open societies worldwide and established a School of Public Policy in Budapest.13
Brunello Cucinelli… “a fashion entrepreneur/philosopher-saint who has asked the question “How do we share the profits” and “is known for rebuilding the town of Solomeo.”14
Russell Simmons…A real, caring human being who has helped provide credit to poor people and financing to a number of good causes through his four foundations.15
Stewart and Linda Resnick…“gave $50,000 each in support of California’s Prop 30, a temporary tax increase for those making above $250,000 a year to benefit public education….$45 million to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for an exhibit space that bears their names…and scholarships to the children of workers on their farms and in the surrounding communities. They donated $20 million to the Resnick Institute at CalTech to support the development of renewable energy and $15 million for The Stewart & Lynda Resnick Neuropsychiatric Hospital at UCLA.
Yuri Millner…trained as a theoretical physicist at Moscow State University -- a billionaire investor who “created the Fundamental Physics Prize, which awards winners $3 million, more than twice…the Nobel Prize.”16
Ted Turner…who showed other billionaires “How Giving Became Cool” and “channeled his money through the United Nations Foundation, where it was leveraged to get other contributions so as to bring $2 billion to finance causes from malaria to polio, from climate change to family planning.”17
Charles and David Koch…contributors to a variety of good causes but recognized primarily for the 10’s of millions of dollars they have devoted to fund conservative political campaigns.
Jeff Bezos…Founder of Amazon, who bought the WASHINGTON POST for cash out of his own (considerable, up to $29 billion) resources, and who has been a major source of support for charter schools.
This tiny, non-random sample of the very wealthy suggests both the promise and perils of big, private money in the public realm. One of the perils -- ownership of major media -- is suggested by a remark of Paul Schervish, sociologist at Boston College, who stated: “The millionaires could be the enemy, or their behavior could lead to salvation.”18 Wrong on both counts. They’re neither an enemy nor a source of salvation. Nevertheless, how they behave henceforth could make a big difference in our ability to fulfill the promise of the great experiment that is America -- especially with respect to their influence on major media.
A strong dose of humility would help. How many of the super-rich understand that even the most enlightened private philanthropy is no substitute for better politics and good government? Why do so many focus their philanthropies on big-ticket projects that carry their name, irrespective of public priorities or numbers of people to be served? More generally, why do so many fail to realize that their lofty, often celebrity, positions in American society carry corresponding responsibilities? -- To exhibit exemplary or at least “seemly” behavior because they are role models -- whether or not they are featured in PEOPLE magazine. What kind of behavior do too many of them exhibit? Consider:
According to FORBES (as of May 6, 2013, p.160), we are now in “The Era of the $100 Million House”. Many other examples of extravagant displays of luxurious over-consumption (e.g., yachts, jewelry, high fashion) can be found throughout issues of the magazine. Where is the leadership, even the sense of direction here, towards a sustainable society?
And three examples cited by Murray:
“television producer Aaron Spellman building a house of 56,500 square feet and 123 rooms…
Henry McKinnell, the CEO of Pfizer, getting a $99 million golden parachute and an $82 million pension after a tenure that saw Pfizer’s share price plunge…
A bonus of several hundred million dollars that a board had decided to award to the departing CEO of a large company as a thank-you gift.”19
Would you say that these exhibit behavior that is “unseemly” according to the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition: “unbecoming, unfitting, indecent”? How about “obscene” -- the reaction of “a successful entrepreneur, an ardent proponent of free markets…” to # 3, above.20
Now, juxtapose unseemly behavior in terms of expenditure patterns with two simple facts. Notwithstanding how some of the elite love to flaunt their philanthropy; overall, in 2011:
“The wealthiest Americans give (only) 1.3% of their income to charity (while) the poorest give 3.2%….(and last year, 2012,) Not a single one of the top individual charitable gifts went to a social-service organization or to a charity that principally serves the poor and the dispossessed.” 21
Note the geographical patterns of where people live, and the growing gaps between the elite classes and the rest of us documented by Murray and others. “Through snobbery elites became a class…Elites build moats and fences…” and they cluster in “SuperZip” neighborhoods, together.22 This is why Murray titled his book COMING APART -- featuring dangerous divides in a democratic republic.
Finally, plug into this picture what we know about campaign contributions and lobbying expenses buying ads and access to influence campaigns and legislative outcomes. Would it be any surprise if, with the whole picture in view, the great American majority were to conclude that the upper echelons of American society were “them”, not “us” and, as such, major sources of the problems of our democratic republic -- that they are acting to empower “them”selves and favor their own interests rather than seeking to empower others (“us“) to work with them to strengthen our republic? Do you, dear reader, have any idea of how f’ing dangerous this is -- if the gap, the “coming apart” revealed by such disparate perceptions should prevail?
So, does the upper tier of our economy, the 1-5%, want to help lead the transformation of our politics, government and economy? Let’s assume that the answer is “YES”, primarily because most of them would like to be highly regarded as genuine leaders of American society -- but also because they would not want to be seen as a potential “enemy” by the great American majority. First and foremost, they can adopt, proselytize and thus return to fashion the traditional “founding values” still held dear by most Americans. Second, they can get behind many of the reform propositions cited in the previous chapter to establish both political and economic democracy.
What else can they do to help? -- a lot more, especially if they agree that the main goals to be served are the two discussed earlier, specifically to:
Broaden the base of American democracy by getting more citizens to “occupy politics”, and
“Change Congress” so that it becomes a “Peoples Congress” (PC).
So that the last shall be first, what can the wealthiest Americans do to help reform the Congress? Let’s assume that the less-wealthy classes have little to contribute but their time, while the wealthy have little to contribute but their money. Here are some to-do’s:
Monetary contributions -- because they can go a long way to help finance:
Establishment of an initial office: to serve as a base for outreach and organization [to be manned primarily by elderly volunteers].
Research: to gather and analyze demographic, elections and other data by Congressional District (CD), on the basis of which a select set of CDs would be identified
Advertising: To make known the Peoples Congress vision, mission and programs, to recruit candidates, volunteers and interns and to print campaign materials.
Internet/Social Media: to establish a sophisticated, interactive electronic network, plus supportive databases, websites, wikis, blogs and email lists.
Personnel: Office manager salary and stipends for select interns, and payments for services to a lawyer who could help establish the PC’s legal form of organization and draft legislation.
Travel & Miscellany: CD office staff expenses to travel to state and national capitols to attend hearings, meet select staff of Congress and executive departments, testify before congressional panels, collect reports and gather other information on issues, Members of Congress, bills before Congress and regulations.
Of course, any and all contributions, however large or small would help to advance the huge challenge we face -- to substantially change the only part of our government commissioned to represent “We the People”, the Congress -- an institution that has proven unable to reform itself. Shadow congressional offices would also be public places where the artificial divides of wealth and neighborhood could be crossed. Imagine a visiting billionaire talking to a poor widow or widower donating her or his time, or to a student intern working on legislation; or to other volunteers, young and old, organizing actions on issues! -- Bridging gaps, melding minds, sharing thoughts, carrying on conversations --getting it together for a change, real change for the sake of political and economic democracy in the U.S.A.
Peter Bearse, Ph.D., October 1, 2013. Comments welcomed. Send in a letter to the editor or to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
1 Derived from a new book by: Bearse, Peter (2013), 1% + 99% = 100%: How, Altogether, “We the People” Can Occupy Politics, Change Congress and Renew the American Dream. Amazon e-book.
2 Murray (2013), work cited, pp. 285 and 287.
3 Murray, Charles (2012), work cited, p. 130.
4 Murray (2012), work cited, p. 255.
5 Murray (2012), work cited, pp. 288-89.
6 This old-fashioned term, used by Murray, is actually quite seemly. It is coordinate with “code.” It is unseemly to violate a code of permissible, values-based behaviors.
7 Aleksander, Irina (2013), “Pure, but not So Simple,” in the “Sunday Styles” section of the NEW YORK TIMES (June 23). See FORBES magazine’s regular features on billionaires, the WALL ST. JOURNAL’s “Mansion” sections, or other “Sunday Styles” presentations for other examples.
8 One may well ask “Why.” I suspect that it is because entrepreneurs are focused on business-building technologies, not the beauty of science or how science and values intersect. How many of them have read Bronowski’s little gem of a book, SCIENCE & HUMAN VALUES?-- Very few, if any, I suspect.
9 Rosenbaum, Ron (2013), “What Turned Jaron Lanier Against the Web? -- The digital pioneer and visionary behind virtual reality has turned against the very culture he helped create”, SMITHSONIAN magazine (January). Also see: Lanier, Jason (2013), “Fixing the Digital Economy,” NEW YORK TIMES (June 9).
10 It’s increasingly recognized, as did Greider with respect to cancer and other concerns, that “the un-credentialed public sometimes “knows” things before science does.”
11 Quotes in this paragraph are from Wills, Gary (2012), “A Masterpiece on the Rise of Christianity,” NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS (October 11)
12 See Gill. A.A., and B. Brill (2013), “America the Marvelous”, VANITY FAIR (July), who write: “At any liberal-establishment dinner table in London, say, or Paris, the U.S. will figure as a big, fat, dumb child.”
13 See FORBES magazine of April 15, 2013, p.56, and Soros, George (2011), “My Philanthropy,” NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS (June 23).
14 As reported by Nalley, Richard (2013), “Life by Design”, FORBES LIFE
15 As reported by Elliot, Hannah (2013), “the enlightenment of russell simmons”, FORBES LIFE.
16 With respect to both the Resnicks and Milner, see “Follow the Money: Billionaire Pet Props,” FORBES (Nov. 5, 2012).
17 Kristof, Nicholas (2012), “How Giving Became Cool,” NEW YORK TIMES, OP-ED (December 27, 2012).
18 Quoted in Wood, Graeme (2012), “Who are the Millionaires?: Little unites them other than that they are tax targets,” NATIONAL REVIEW (December 31), p.30.
19 Murray (2012), work cited, pp.291 and 293.
20 Murray (2012), work cited , p.293.
21 Stern, Ken (2013), “Why the Rich Don’t Give,” THE ATLANTIC (April), pp. 74 & 75.
22 Quotes from Khan, Shamus (2012), “The New Elitists,” NEW YORK TIMES (July 8). Khan used “moats and fences” to refer to the residential patterns of the elite of the earlier “gilded age”, then writes: “Our modern omnivores have filled in the moats and torn down the fences.” He is mistaken, as Murray shows. The new elites are still building counterparts of the old “moats and fences” to form enclaves of their own.