Monday, April 28, 2014

On Tipping Points

Two years ago I wrote up a ten-part series, entitled ‘The Loser Generation,’ that dealt with the issues of the 25-30 bracket. Two years have gone by, and it seems like everyone is now interested in what I was back then: campaign finance reform.

In 2012 Citizen’s United was already two years old. Robert Reich wrote ‘Supercapitalism’ back in 2007, and ‘Beyond Outrage’ had just hit the kindles. Still, campaign finance seemed far off. The 2012 election ended up being the most expensive in history, and the candidates didn’t exactly make it a priority.

Perhaps it was the recent McCutcheon decision, but I doubt it. All of a sudden everyone’s talking campaign finance reform. Elizabeth Warren has a book (‘A Fighting Chance’). Justice Stevens has a book (‘Six Amendments’). There are multiple movements: New Hampshire Rebellion, The American Anti-Corruption Act (affiliated with Represent US), the No Labels movement… Perhaps some people realized there was political capital to be gained by re-enfranchising the American people.

Meanwhile I’m still ruminating and talking to people about my own movement, the one proposed two years ago, the Legislative Party. This notion is that we target the worst offenders in campaign finance and lobbying, and run identical candidates in their districts who will pledge to three things:

1) Get rid of money's corruption in Washington: no more lobbyists
2) Create a constitutional amendment to ensure all candidates get equal finances
3) Undo the Supreme Court's argument that money is speech

This would re-level the playing field, I think. Simple to list, but difficult to achieve when the game is already so terribly stacked against us. However, the reason why I came up with this in the first place, is because I fear the consequences of a non-legislative, non-peaceful change in this country. Campaign finance reform must change.

But the story is a deeper one. Reich started to grasp at it in last year’s documentary, ‘Inequality for All’. Now, on bookshelves in English, we have Thomas Piketty’s new tome ‘Capital in the 21st Century’ saying the same thing that Warren is arguing for as a Senator, and Justice Stevens is lamenting in his musings on the Constitution: The inequality between wealthy and poor is so vast, and so unfairly stacked, that we’re in a state of crisis, a necessary watershed confrontation.

Income inequality is a predictor of happiness, and we have some of the worst inequality in the world. Yet we also have achieved a ‘Brave New World’ level of complacence and apathy. Are we, as Neil Postman predicted some thirty years ago, “entertaining ourselves to death”? We rank 192nd in equality, of 196 countries, bottom of the list. Not surprising, then, that we were ranked 105th in happiness in 2012.

How much more will it take? Americans are miserable, looking for distraction, and middle class wages stagnated five presidential administrations ago, not only with no recovery, but with serious losses. Education is far more expensive than it used to be. Entry-level jobs pay less than they did in the 70s, even with a degree. Food is more expensive. Gas. But not only has the middle class lost purchasing power, the whole class has shrunk in comparison to the economy. In 1970 the middle class made up 70% of the U.S. economy. Now it makes up only 45%. And to be very clear, that is not the ownership of wealth. If the middle class owned 45% of the wealth, we’d be fine. What it means is that the middle class is responsible for 45% of the nation’s wealth, which is disgusting given how little of it we hold. America’s middle class, once the best-off in the world, no longer holds that distinction.

If you break it into quintiles it gets worse. According to data from 2009, these images show wealth inequality:

That’s not good. That’s bad.

1% own 40% of all the wealth in this nation. The bottom 80%, including the entire middle class, owns only 7% between them.

Money, therefore, can’t be speech. Not only is it totally inequitable, but it’s also illogical. Money ≠ Speech. If it did, then some people would have the right to more "speech" than others, a falsehood that is self-evident. If you, or anyone, value the Constitution and First Amendment rights, then they should not support that money is speech. No one person gets more of a say than anyone else.

Some have argued that this middle class decline is due to the shrinking numbers in unions, and it certainly is a clear correlation, if not causation. Not only has the decline of unions exactly matched the decline in middle class purchasing power, but studies have shown that states with higher proportions of union membership also have a stronger middle class. Pretty compelling data, and in-line with the likes of Warren and Piketty, who consistently have said that companies do not look after the middle class, but only the CEOs. Anyone who remembers the 2007 crash knows that Wall Street, and America’s businesses generally, are not in it for their workers. If they were, why would entry-level wages be so much less now than they were 40 years ago? Why would the middle class, responsible for driving the economy, not be better recompensed for their labor?

How else can we make money, if not through labor? We could invest, sure – but the bottom 50% of Americans account for only .05% of the nation’s investing. You can’t invest if you don’t have the cash in the first place, and with the rising cost of living, that means we can’t put our money in the market. It used to be a safe bet to put your money in your mortgage, but since the nosedive housing took in recent years that’s no longer a safe bet, either, in fact it’s quite risky. And the chance to be a homeowner, again, requires capital at the start, which is increasingly hard to come by.  About 60% of Americans own homes, unchanged for 50 years, and worse than much of Europe. Housing isn’t going to fix this problem, even if it made sense to invest in housing in the past.

I sincerely hope all three of these make sense someday. I want labor, investing, and home ownership to be aspirations as well as secure means of getting ahead. But for now they either aren’t viable or aren’t paying off.

What now?

The Legislative Party is still on the table. But Americans are, according to statistical polls, actually losing faith in democracy. This is an election year, and people are more bitter than ever. From the Huffington Post:

“Half say America's system of democracy needs either "a lot of changes" or a complete overhaul, according to the poll conducted by the AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. Just 1 in 20 says it works well and needs no changes.

“Americans, who have a reputation for optimism, have a sharply pessimistic take on their government after years of disappointment in Washington.

“The percentage of Americans saying the nation is heading in the right direction hasn't topped 50 in about a decade. In the new poll, 70 percent lack confidence in the government's ability "to make progress on the important problems and issues facing the country in 2014."”

This goes right along with disapproval ratings. Obama’s around 45%. About the same for the Supreme Court. Congress? 13%. Yet the call for a third party is at all-time highs of around 60%.

But if voters are apathetic (and they are – the U.S. ranks 139 out of 172, just below Togo) then what will get them to the polls? And if, as the polling points out, most Americans think drastic change is needed, then why is apathy so high? The obvious solution is that people don’t think their vote can make a difference anymore. Even if they went to pull the lever, the distinctions between candidates are negligible – they both are “party hacks” “Washington insiders” or “corporate pawns”. To get Americans interested in politics, they have to see real differences. And in the era of big money, really, what are the differences?

So we face a paradox. Without campaign finance reform, Americans won’t go to the polls. And if Americans don’t go to the polls, there won’t be any campaign finance reform.

We have yet to see if the movements bubbling up for 2014 and 2016 will amount to anything. If they do not, we have three choices:

1)      Legislative Party
2)      Slow decline as Americans blithely give up their freedoms and democracy
3)      Chaotic, painful revolution

For me, the answer is obvious. 

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