Thursday, April 17, 2014

Here's something to think about the next time you vote

Could we be living in an oligarchy? An oligarchy is a society where only the super rich have any influence on public policy. Worried about the environment? Nothing is going to happen unless the wealthiest among us are willing to do something about it. Worried about Social Security? Hey, if the wealthy don't need it, it will be cut to ribbons if the oligarchs want to cut it. Consider yourself lucky if you even get anything after paying taxes for it.

Average citizens don't get to decide who runs for office and who wins. We think that the decision was made in an election. The decision of who gets to run and do well in the primaries was made long before the election by the oligarchs. Lawrence Lessig was the first to publish clues about the problem of oligarchy. He says we live in "Lesterland", a place where 0.05% of the people get to decide who runs and wins elections.

A recent study confirms that America is no longer a democracy. The study has conducted a detailed analysis of more than 1700 issues to compare influence of the government by business, individuals and grass roots organizing. The finding? If you're wealthy, and you happen to own a very large business, hey, you're in the club. Set theory says that everyone else is not in the club.

I see our representatives inviting ordinary guys like you and me to come to the town hall when they're in town. I used to have the idea that I could go there and ask a few pointed questions to help influence policy, to let them know that they represent me. But the evidence is growing larger to show, rather decisively, that they don't represent me. The town halls are all for show as far as I'm concerned.

Now I understand why I get these bland, uninspiring letters from Congressmen in reply to my communications with them. They can't do anything for me. Their hands are tied by the people that bankroll their campaigns. Now I see that their Facebook pages are just for show, too. They want us to feel engaged, but they're not really doing anything for us. They're still thinking about their benefactors while they pretend to take average citizens seriously.

We used to be a democracy. Average citizens used to have influence over public policy. We can see it in our history. The civil rights movement is a great example, with people like Rosa Parks. But today, what do we get? Edward Snowden? A contractor who made off with classified data and released it to the media. He has done a great deal to educate us all about how our government thinks about us, so don't get me wrong. But if we want social change, we may have to do better than that.

This is a good reason for high marginal tax rates like what we had in 1955. This is also a good reason for effective taxation of corporations. When the wealthy have real limits on the amount of money they can accumulate, they have real limits on the amount of influence they can impose on government. High taxes can be used to support society, no doubt. Canada, Finland and Norway are fine examples of that. 

I'm not so sure that the high tax rates of the previous century were imposed just to raise revenue. I think their original purpose was to limit the influence of the wealthy over government so that everyone can have a say in how government works. You know, like a democracy.
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