Democracy took some time to arrive in our nation. The founding fathers were all white men who were property owners, and it took them more than a century before non-property owners, non-whites and women were allowed to vote.
Today, however, our nation is going through a radical period of transition into another type of political structure: a plutocracy—a government or state in which the wealthy class exercises power by virtue of its wealth. Although our nation still describes itself as a representative democracy, the signs of plutocracy are all around us.
This past year for the first time, more than half of our Senate and House members were millionaires (with an average net worth of more than $7 million). This helps explain the lack of understanding and empathy characterizing the growing gulf between these "representatives" of the people and the ones they are supposed to represent. The net worth of 40 percent of those in the latter group is now zero since their income and other assets are far exceeded by their debts. Rep. Darrell Issa, a California Republican and chair of one of the House's powerful oversight committees, whose net worth is $464 million, has been leading the battle against the Affordable Care Act's effort to provide coverage for those who have been shut out of the health care system. Issa has also been helping to defeat all restraints on Wall Street bankers.
Another segment of our nation's government under plutocratic influence is the Supreme Court. Four years ago the Supreme Court in its Citizens United case ruled that money is a form of free speech and that corporations can spend as much money as they want to influence political campaigns and elections. Believing that this ruling opened doors to the buying of elections by multinational corporations and has brought great harm to our democracy, a national movement has been initiated to reestablish the basic American premise that money is property and not speech. Sixteen states and more than 500 cities and towns have already called for an amendment to the Constitution that gives the U.S. Congress, state legislatures, and local legislative bodies the authority to regulate political contributions and expenditures. What gives this concern special urgency is the fact that conservative billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch have already set up a far-reaching $400 million network of politically active nonprofit tax-exempt groups that cloaks its donors, and is prepared to get involved in the politics of every state.
A striking example of the inequality and huge income gaps in the corporate world can be found at Wal-Mart. Its CEO, Michael Duke, is retiring from his top position early this year. At the company's annual meeting last year, a Wal-Mart employee denounced him for his $20.7 million paycheck. Researchers calculated that he was making $6,898 an hour, 779 times the $8.86 average Wal-Mart wage.
Corporate profits are now capturing more of the nation's income than they have for more than half a century. At the same time, the portion of our nation's income that goes to employees is the lowest it's been in nearly half a century. Wall Street greed and criminality caused the crisis of 2008, but government efforts since then have concentrated on rescuing banks and on boosting stock market performance and other forms of profitability for corporations. A recent study has showed that the top 1 percent of earners has captured 121 percent of income gains since 2008, while the rest of the country fell behind. The top 10 percent's share of income is the highest it's been since 1917.
As Dean Baker reminds us, inequality did not just happen, it was deliberately engineered through a whole range of policies intended to redistribute income upward. Cuts in the top marginal tax rates, persistent unemployment, the weakening of unions, and special federal, state, and local subsidies for corporations have all contributed to this growing inequality.
It's a national disgrace that 46.5 million Americans are living in poverty today, the largest number on record, and that at 21.8 percent, the U.S. has the highest childhood poverty rate of any major country on earth. Psychologist Daniel Goleman in a recent article wrote about social status and empathy. It seems that the richer and more powerful a person is, the less empathy he or she is likely to have for people who are lower in status.
It remains to be seen whether the American public could have any success at this point in trying to stop our nation's ongoing transition into a plutocracy. Journalist Chris Hedges suggests one idea for consideration: "We can wrest back control of our economy, and finally our political system, from corporate speculators only by building local movements that decentralize economic power through the creation of hundreds of publicly owned state, county and city banks."
He goes on to write, "The establishment of city, regional and state banks, such as the state bank in North Dakota, permits localities to invest money in community projects rather than hand it to speculators. It keeps property and sales taxes, along with payrolls for public employees and pension funds, from lining the pockets of speculators such as Jamie Dimon and Lloyd Blankfein. Money, instead of engorging the bank accounts of the few, is leveraged to fund schools, restore infrastructure, sustain systems of mass transit and develop energy self-reliance."
What do you think about that idea?
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This column by local writers is dedicated to the theme that the lion and the lamb can and must learn to live together and grow in their relationship toward one another to ensure a better world of peace and justice. Opinions expressed in "Lion and Lamb" columns are not necessarily those of the Crossville Chronicle publisher, editor or staff. For more information, contact Ted Braun, editor, at 277-5135.