March 2014
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By Peter Bearse



The Problem

What do you think it is? What’s “it”? Let’s try some of the answers on for size, to see whether and how they fit.

1. Failure of Campaign Finance Reform [CFR]

2. Increasing Inequality and a Diminishing Middle Class

3. Loss of American Industry and a Financial Sector Gone Hog-Wild

4. Increasing Number and Complexity of Problems

5. A Dysfunctional Government, Institutional Failures, Partisan Gridlock and Deregulation

6. Weakening American Values

7. Lack of Leadership

8. Apathy unto Cynicism


1. Failure of Campaign Finance Reform [CFR]

Indeed, campaign finance reform has failed, and not only because of the Supreme Court decision that supposedly opened the floodgates of corporate cash into politics. The escalation of the costs of political campaigns and the increasing influence of big money in politics was already evident before the infamous “Chicago United” decision.

Reformers made two big mistakes by assuming that:

(1) All they needed to do get control of the situation was to regulate the hell out of campaign finance; and…

(2) All that counted was money, ignoring the value of people’s time contributions --participation in a politics that, after all, was supposed to be theirs, not that of the

politically self-interested political “pro’s”, big dollar donors, big media, et al.

What reformers failed to learn from decades of hard, frustrating experience trying to control the game is that money will always find its way. It’s fungible, fluid and the flows are driven by powerful, self-interested people.

Yet, some people never learn. We see coming at us with pithy platitudes some of the same sort of folks still peddling control remedies. The latest version is to push public financing from the national level to state and local levels. As if it hadn’t already failed at the national level. Notice that recent candidates for president have refused to tap the public till. President Obama, for one, ruled against the option after he promised to use it. Since most people who run for office would run even if there were no public financing of campaigns, the latter represents what economists’ call a “dead weight” subsidy. A lot of money that could finance more important or useful programs is wasted. Given the games that get played at government budget-making time at all levels, the amount of public finance to be devoted to elections would be uncertain every budget year and, in real terms would diminish in importance in comparison with private financing. Reformers also failed to solve the much bigger money problem in government -- financing of lobbyists and lobbying campaigns.

More recent CFR-oriented efforts are far more worthy of support. These are those that would amend the U.S. Constitution, such as “Move to Amend.” Even if successful, however, they would still not be able to control the flow of big money into politics. Politics has entered the arena of big business, where only two things count, time and money. If “We the People” are not willing to commit time to participate in what should be OUR politics, then money necessarily dominates.

So, the problem that reformers correctly identified -- that the influence of big money in politics is corrupting -- is one that they have proved unable to solve. Only increasing participation of “We the People” in politics will do the trick. People: Occupy politics!

2. Increasing Inequality and a Diminishing Middle Class

Most of the hot air that’s been vented on these issues may generate a class war if we’re not careful. Most Americans don’t hate the rich -- as long as they earn and deserve their extra gains. Most would like to be rich and, until they saw what went on to generate the Great Recession, believed in the American Dream, which included the opportunity to get rich if you worked hard and played your cards right. Yet, such attitudes rested on examples from the industrial age, like Ford, Chrysler and Carnegie, who made their fortunes by making real things that made a real, positive difference in the lives of millions of real people. Attitudes are shifting as people come to realize that the world’s economy is increasingly at risk from financial machinations that generated the Great Recession, reducing the livelihoods of millions -- machinations that didn’t produce any thing but money to enrich monied players playing with other people’s money.

The middle class was reduced and poverty increased while the 1% appropriated outsize shares of the nation’s income and wealth. By now, the facts of growing inequality are well known and indisputable. The U.S. rates are the highest among the other most wealthy, advanced nations of the world.

What is not recognized are the serious political implications of inequalities. MAKE NOTE! The system is no longer self correcting. Why? -- Because we are caught up in a set of vicious cycles. The main one is rooted in growing inequality. The growing money gaps spell political power gaps in a system where power is money and money is power. So, laws increasingly favor the rich and disadvantage those less rich. This further aggravates inequality. As the late, great Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote: “We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can't have both.” We don’t “have both.” The system is broke, and only “We the People” can fix it!

Furthermore, The political equality called for by our Constitution does not exist in a system where “money is speech”. That means what it meant in an old folk song: “If life were a thing that money could buy, then the rich would live and the poor would die.” In political terms, the implication is ever more clear: If my money allows me to buy advertising to speak, then my voice is much stronger than your’s alone. “One man, one vote is now a myth.” One result is that the Congress has proven unable to reform itself. Big money speaks much louder than the voices of “We the People.” Basic problems are left unsolved. Cosmetic change will no longer suffice to let us muddle through. “Cosmetic change” means what we usually get from congressional campaigns conducted through political business-as-usual: Changes in faces behind and nameplates in front of a minority of desks in congressional offices. For good reasons, CFR has been labeled a lift and a safety net for incumbents.

3. Loss of American Industry and a Financial Sector Gone Hog-Wild

One of the types of financial machinations that has done more than anything else to hollow out the American middle class has been the “outsourcing” of our ability to make things. The loss of manufacturing jobs that pay enough to support a family can be attributed to “financial machinations” because that is the arithmetic used to justify out-sourcing. It is a set of calculations that omit costs not included in corporate decision making, costs such as the loss of community and social costs borne by government (loss of taxes, extra costs of unemployment or welfare, Labor has become a disposable commodity. Humanity is an “externality.”

As the financial crisis has revealed, moreover, the benefits of increasing productivity (due to the substitution of capital in the form of increasingly higher-tech machines for labor) have been appropriated mostly by the rich (those who already own most of the capital wealth). The latter is largely unearned, as already indicated, because the savings are largely invested in financial paper that is increasingly divorced from real investments [e.g., plant, equipment or infrastructure] or real output [products rather than services]. Thus, the “loss of American industry” and a “financial sector gone hog-wild” are highly connected, directly and indirectly.

4. Increasing Number and Complexity of Problems

This is becoming an familiar way to characterize “the problem.” Beware: It can also become a cop-out. Why? -- Because the diagnosis implies an easy solution -- to pass the buck to others to find solutions. Who are these “others”? They are those who may appear to fall into diverse categories but who are essentially similar in being connected to or dependent upon the upper-tier, monied elites -- “others” who do not represent "We the People." They are the “experts”, the “elite”, the “political class”; executives of large corporations, economic “hit men”, high-powered consultants, well-connected lawyers, crony capitalists, academic advisors to government and industry and others among the politically self-interested.

Difficult public issues have always been complex to some degree. It is also true that the networking enabled by internet technology and social media [IT/SM] drives quantum leaps in the complexity of any system. This provides no excuse, however, for cutting ordinary people out of the ways problems are solved that effect their lives and their prospects for better lives. After all, haven’t we learned the hard way that we are not well-served by “the best and the brightest”? Thomas Jefferson reminded us of two key points:

1. “I know of no safe repository of the ultimate power of society but the people. And if we think them not enlightened enough, the remedy is not to take power from them, but to inform them…”

2. “The only answer to the problems of democracy is more democracy, not less.”

Our main sources of information, the mainstream media, are increasingly part of the problem rather than sources of solutions. This is revealed by the books of Robert McChesney, CORPORATE MEDIA and the THREAT to DEMOCRACY (and others), and Ian Mitroff & Warren Bennis, THE UNREALITY INDUSTRY.

There are two major ways to get a hand on complexity:

(i) A major offset to complexity is simplicity. This is most often provided by basic values, old lessons of our own experience, the lessons of history, and/or ancient wisdom.

(ii) Another handle is a rule derived from studies of complex systems: That the variety of tools to solve complex problems of a system should equal the variety in the system.

On the latter, note that the failure to bring “We the People” into the problem-solving process considerably undercuts the rule.

5. A Dysfunctional Government, Institutional Failures, Partisan Gridlock and Deregulation

We are increasingly brought to face very troubling realities. Most obvious is the build-up of unsolved problems, like those of education, climate change, lack of jobs, unemployment, stagnant real incomes, immigration, home ownership, and political apathy. These and others have a common core of roots that have been revealed by the watershed of the financial crisis and the Great Recession it caused. The most fundamental roots are deep in our history. They are rising inequality and declining political participation. These two are also interconnected.

Americans have been such an optimistic people. We’ve tended to slough off long-standing problems in the belief that someone else will solve them or that, somehow, we’ll round the next turn in the yellow-brick road and see the grand vista of the emerald city of OZ straight ahead. We also too often look to quick fixes. This tendency is both fostered and aggravated by lack of information and illusions generated by major media, which are like the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain. Pull the curtain aside and you find a big, fat fraud. Americans are susceptible to snake-oil salesmen. They don’t believe that there are any limits to what we can accomplish as Americans. They may be right; but right now, we’re bumping into some very big, thick walls and high hurdles.

One of the most basic problems affects all issues, and that’s the approach to problem-solving. It’s the tendency to think that we can take one problem at a time, wrestle it to the ground, get it out of the way and then turn to the next. It’s the old salesman’s attitude: If you don’t score at first, just say “next” and move on. But what if the big problems are somehow interconnected or are rooted in a common core of causes? What if the major institutions suffer from institutional arterio-sclerosis and need to be substantially reformed to be able to better deal with the biggies -- not only big problems but those factors who too often stand in the way of problem-solving -- like, politically big money; huge, multinational businesses; a big, overstretched and bloated central government, and world markets.

Institutions, like the problems they face, have deep roots. This doesn’t mean, however, that they are better able to face the problems; rather, the opposite. Institutions built to solve the problems of the industrial age aren’t suited to solve those that now face us in the new, post-industrial, “digital” age grounded upon networked IT/SM and science-based economic development. So, rather than letting ourselves get distracted by media headlines as to what the problems are, shouldn’t we turn out attention to the institutions that are pretending to be the problem-solvers and ask: How do they need to be transformed so they can help us face the problems of the new age?

Then the question arises: Which institutions should we attend to first and foremost? Well, what’s the institution in our federal system that is supposed to be working for “We the People.” The answer here is obvious: The Congress, especially the House of Representatives. Not the President. He’s elected to be the CEO of the federal bureau-cratic establishment. Not the Judiciary -- it’s to see to the conduct of justice and the constitutionality of actions taken by the other two branches of the 3-legged stool that is the U.S. government.

Another problem that’s become all-too obvious is political polarization. The root of this is the same set of two major roots that affects all else: (1) The decline of political participation, and (2) the increasing inclination of the media to play political power gains rather than devote themselves to better informing the American electorate. If you are not part of the political process, and you pay attention to a media that focuses on conflict because it needs to sell paper space and air-time, what the hell would you expect? -- Other than what, in fact, you get: A political process dominated by the extremes.

Implicit assumptions about the roots of our problems are also dangerous. Why? -- Because the longer we fail to recognize and question them, the longer our inability to grapple with problems waxes while we wane. The major one is that our capitalist, market economy is the basic engine of progress and (somewhat like our supposedly democratic institutions) is not to be tampered with lest the vehicle of our economy go off the road and crash. Rather the opposite is the case. Because we forgot the lessons of the Great Depression, we loosened regulations to properly guide or constrain market forces, so the car did go off the road, ran into a financial crash and the Great Recession.

Purist advocates of the “free market” tend to forget that freedom doesn’t come for free. They also draw the wrong lessons from the “victory of capitalism” over the Soviet system. The lessons of the failure of the “shock therapy” prescribed by economist Jeff Sachs might have been enough. Why?-- Because the failure underlined what we could have learned from the father of free markets, Adam Smith -- that they only work well when operating on the legal foundations that prescribe competitive behavior, trust, fair dealing and other basic values and behaviors. Such foundations and values were missing in a system that was under the thumb, first of Czarist autocracy, followed by communist dictatorship.

6. Weakening American Values

Political polarization is also a conflict about basic values and the true drivers and qualities of American character. The Republican American model is individualistic -- a person who is self-reliant, self-organizing, entrepreneurial, patriotic, religious, and honoring the values of liberty, freedom (of free markets as well as free people), family and community (read: small-town, heartland America). As such, Republicans are very skeptical of big government, bureaucrats and other political-governmental types who are inclined to think they know more than us and can tell us how to live our lives.

The Democratic model is not “socialist” as some conservatives claim but just as legitimate a strain in American history as the Republican. Democrats are more likely to give central place to an American who values interdependence with others and sees a need for a bigger government to be able to match the powers of big business (as in the case of environmental issues), but is more concerned about economic forces that he sees as diminishing equal opportunity, increasing poverty, aggravating inequality and undermining our democracy. Democrats emphasize “democracy” over “republic”; Republicans the other way ‘round.

The irony here is twofold. Both parties are:

What are the symptoms? -- Complaints of a weakening in “the American character”, as in increasing narcissism (self-involvement, as in “selfies”), decreasing self-reliance, disregard of the pain and poverty among us, and tendencies to GA/GA (go-along, get-along) behavior preferring SO/SO (same-old, same-old) patterns (like, reelecting Members of Congress for more than 10 years in office).

BUT: What do we also see when the chips are down, as in 9/11, Katrina and other disasters -- We see “ordinary” Americans becoming extraordinary -- reaching out to help others, rebuild communities and pitch-in. That is why the “912” movement started -- to try to keep these values and behaviors alive. This is what American politics and government should also serve to foster. This is what we need to see more of.

7. Lack of Leadership

Many claim that the main problem is that there is a lack of leadership. This is true but what does it mean? Some turn to the Bible to conclude that “Without leadership, the people perish.” This diagnosis is often true but, nevertheless, it does not provide “ancient wisdom” consistent with either American character nor the needs of a new era. Why? -- Because it is grounded on an artificial distinction between “the people” and “leadership.” One reason we were able to defeat the Germans and the Japanese during WWII is that they bought into the Biblical saying; we didn’t. Notice how, when the leader of a company, brigade or platoon was killed, someone would rise up from the ranks to fill in. The same behavior is evident in American politics. Fresh leadership arises from the ranks of “We the People.” The key question is: How do they view the responsibilities of their leadership roles?

Look at some alternative definitions of leadership:

Martin Luther King, Jr.

These definitions fit together and befit our new age. Why? -- Because they are consistent with a democratic view that:

It’s important to keep these in mind as we focus our attention on the Congress as the key institution of concern, for even though the Congress is supposed to represent us, Members are also key to solving the lack of leadership problem. Not only is it important that MoCs exhibit leadership qualities in Congress, each should be a major source of leadership for other institutions in our society -- like the Roman Cincinnatus leaving his plow to serve in public office, and then returning to his farm and community -- like the kind of citizen-leader that we, each of us, can be.

8. From Apathy to Activism

Lack of participation in what should, in a democratic republic, be a citizens’ politics and a peoples’ government, must be recognized as perhaps the most fundamental source of “the problem.” Political apathy is “the enemy from within.” If most of us are emasculated, politically -- apathetic, inattentive couch potatoes or freeloaders, how can we expect a country of “We the People” to be strong. We can’t.

Or can we? The ironic paradox of the American political system is that it turns the American people into a combination of victims and heroes. We can rise from being “ordinary” people when times are good and everything seems to be OK and turn into extraordinary, even heroic citizens overnight when times turn bad and our country’s way of life is challenged. The trouble is that it’s not realistic to expect that “the system” can be saved by ordinary citizens rising up like emergency responders only when “trouble comes to River City.”

Why? -- Because the soft-soap we get from the media during good times puts us to sleep. By not being involved in the political process, we disarm ourselves so much that when the “shit hits the fan”, we’re unable to do anything but bitch to beat the band, distrust our presumed political “leaders,” and threaten to “throw the bums out.” Then another political cycle begins with little or no change -- a game of musical chairs played to the same old tunes. We then become victims. Another reason is that, through our non-participation, we let the political pro’s profit from accumulating the political skills that we’ve failed to acquire, or let go.

The reality is this: Our involvement is not sought, encouraged or facilitated by self-serving political leaders. So, let’s say you take offense at being called a “couch potato” or “victim” -- that you’d like to become active in helping to solve the public problems of your community at any level -- local, state or federal. How do you start? Where to begin? Here’s where lack of leadership is perhaps most telling. Part of the solution to “the problem” is that we need to recast the roles both of both citizen-leaders and citizens. A true citizen-leader is a servant-leader, one who both serves and empowers “We the People.” A true citizen was defined in the fount of democracy, ancient Greece, by Aristotle when he wrote: “A citizen is one who participates in power.” Unfortunately, most Americans do not believe themselves to be so. This is the principal reason why the United States of America, the greatest democratic republic in the world, is now at risk; and “We the People” are ill-prepared to help save it from perhaps irreparable decline. The Roman republic lasted over 300 years. Do we have any solid reason to believe that we will be able to celebrate our tri-centennial in 2076?

Another part of the problem is that the political “realists” among us have turned their presumed realism into cynicism, but cynicism is destructive. Most of them see the same features of political reality in our country as you and I do. Most of the symptoms have already been mentioned: apathy, lack of political engagement, not enough people paying attention to what’s going on; the “system” dominated by big, monied people and interests; the “powers that be” are in control, “we can’t fight City Hall” (let alone state or national authorities), etc. Ironically, in this entrepreneurial age, they forget the entrepreneur’s maxim when it comes to the public’s business and our citizen responsibilities -- that every problem presents an opportunity. And so they throw up their hands in feckless disgust, give up and claim America cannot be saved. It’s gone down so far we can’t even see which way is up. To hell with it!

I will refuse to accept such an attitude as long as I live. Such negativity is both irresponsible and unacceptable to me, and should be as well to you, dear reader. My counterpoints to the cynics mark ways onward and upward and, yes, also back -- by building on the best moments in the past of our democratic republic. These are several:

Always remember, each of us is part and parcel of the great American Experiment” which has made our nation, in the past, appear to be the fabled “light of the world“ and “a city on a hill.” Too often, the “experiment” has been forgotten. We tend to substitute a degraded version of the “American Dream”, as if all we have to be concerned about is how much more we are able to consume and accumulate than others.

What does the Experiment mean? --

This amounts to “American Exceptionalism.“ Some take exception to it. I do not. Nor should you. Let’s hear a cheer for it! Let’s be proud of it. Let’s work to nurture it, one and all!

What we have too often failed to notice in this, our specially American vision and mission, is that one cannot have a government that works “for” the people if that government is not “of” and “by” them. Indeed, that is the prime problem. Our government is not of us and by us. It is a government of “them,” not “us.” Only “We the People” can change that.

Distillation of Supposed Remedies

So, what can we do to revive and renew the great American experiment and the true American Dream? Maintaining a great nation is a lot like nurturing a fine family, house-hold and community? They all work better as long as each (or at least, most) of us assume his or her share of the responsibility of maintenance, nurture, etc. Why, earlier, did I unkindly refer to some Americans as “freeloaders.” Because, to the extent that we do not all take some responsibility for helping to solve the problems of our country, then, necessarily, the burden falls more on those who do take responsibility. Unfortunately, we see the symptoms all about, at all levels, in all sorts of organizations. The shorthand version of the problem is: “Too many chiefs, not enough indians.” Those who are trying to “fight the good fight” are accompanied by too few others. Too many suffer “burnout.”

This is not the way to save our precious republic. If more people do not step forward to “get involved” to “make a difference,” then all bets are off for the future of the Great Experiment. If they do, and more and better leaders also emerge from among them, then we can have renewed confidence in ourselves, our country and the American Dream. Indeed we can, as committed individuals, families and communities.

Lessons from my own life and three books identify a host of problems and suggested remedies. Motivation to come to grips with both problems and possible solutions will always be an ongoing matter of concern. One thing is clear: Most people are not motivated by politics [although if they participated, more would be]. They are impelled by issues that affect the very lifeblood and well-being of the families and communities. A key feature of a new and better politics would be to help folks “connect” the dots between issues that arise at the local, state and national level and the well-being of themselves and their families. Problems like poverty will always be with us. It’s the inability or unwillingness of media types and so-called political leaders to enable us to see, comprehend and understand them AND indicate how we can help in their resolution, that so often leaves us feeling frustrated, angry and helpless.

For most, the basic advisory is to, first, start local! Once you’re paying attention, you’ll find that there are more than one or two problems that need to be faced, dealt with and, hopefully, solved. Pick one. Get involved. Work with others. Deal with it. You’ll make new friends and earn the satisfaction of working with them to indeed, “make a difference” in the life of your family and community.

The Solution.

The solution? Isn’t it now obvious? It’s YOU! -- your willingness to assume the challenging responsibilities of a fully mature American who recognizes that he or she is more than just a “private” citizen. You are a public citizen, too, with responsibilities that extend outwards towards community, state and nation. Yes, you have citizens’ rights in a democratic republic. For example, you have the right to vote. You have the 1st Amendment right of the freedom of speech and of assembly. You have a right to the redress of grievances. You have the right to bear arms. You have the rights of liberty and freedom (etc.).

Yet, for every right there is a corresponding responsibility. If we don’t assume that, and act to fight or or protect our rights, there is danger that they may be diminished or taken away. We have increasingly come to recognize this truth, as we see, for example:

Freedom ain’t free. As patriots of every age have come to learn the hard way: “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.” Or as Revolutionary War General Stark stated (and as is repeated in every license plate in NH): “Live Free or Die.”

The fact that our leaders so often fail to remind us of our responsibilities should be taken as a bad sign -- that they’re more interested in building their own power than they are in nurturing ours. One of the stock lines of candidates is: “Elect me so that I can serve you” but, if elected, most end up being co-opted by the power games played in Washington or state capitols, so they end up serving others and themselves. Too many forget who elected them and what they were elected to do, so that their prime aim becomes getting reelected.

Some political pundits and commentators, therefore, have come to advocate “direct democracy,” whereby “We the People” speak through petitions, citizen-initiated propositions (or local warrant articles) and referenda. These, however, amount to only part of what’s needed to generate what we truly need in greater scope: A revived, high-energy democracy that engages a much higher proportion of American citizens. Truly, as we all know, there are a host of highly complex, indeed “wicked” problems that require the help of representatives and other political or governmental leaders. An overall solution would be a political process that combines both direct and representative democracy.

Propositions to introduce direct democracy may not be sufficient, but they arise from a compelling recognition: That our problems have become so many and so much greater in scope and complexity, that we cannot rely on “the best and the brightest,” even if they were better, brighter and more numerous. It is all the more true that, again: If (as it is) “the system is broke;” indeed, only “We the People” can suffice to fix it. Fortunately, the new IT/SM technologies enable us to get involved in the fixin’ as never before -- not only by getting us into rallies or demonstrations rapidly but through “crowd-sourcing” and the generation of “collective intelligence” or “collective wisdom.” The fact that our representatives are not making good use of the new “high-tech” networking technologies to augment and build such people power is another sign of how far we have to go to be able to solve the overload of unsolved public problems.

The problems are with us, so are the tools to help us solve them. All that’s needed is for “We the People” to recognize that we have the capacity, the tools and the responsibilities to “get involved,” to be part of the solutions, not stand-by as part-generators or aggravators of the problems. A fine State Representative in NH wrote it well:

“WE THE PEOPLE does not mean someone else. It means YOU. The time for fear has passed. WE fund the government; they answer to US. Right now, THEY are making all the rules…We can no longer wait for “someone else” to come along and do this work for us. We must do it for an by ourselves. Because we can!”1 [her caps]

What these imply, however, as suggested earlier, is recognition that our involvement requires the redefinition of both citizen-leadership and citizenship itself. Institutionally, it implies that we forgo our near fetishistic focus on a near-royal, totally undemocratic notion of the Presidency and focus our attention where it truly belongs -- on the Congress, especially the House of Representatives. 2014 -- this congressional election year -- presents a huge opportunity to begin a process to transform the institution. That is the overriding rationale for a movement to generate a CITIZENS’ CONGRESS. Thus, we have now come to the finale:

GET ON BOARD ! The train is moving. We don’t want to leave you at the station.

PETER BEARSE, Founder, economist and author, who invites you and urges you -- but also hopes you will feel compelled -- to join with us.

1 Cormier, Jane (2014), “From the State House: The Camel’s Nose…”, THE WEIRS & THE COCHECO TIMES, Thursday, February 6.