Sunday, October 19, 2014

Who wants immunity from the consequences of their actions?

There's a meme floating around on Facebook. It looks like this:

The man in the image, if he's not familiar to you, is Dick Cheney. You know, former senator and vice president of the United States under President Bush. Yeah, the *second* Bush.

This post isn't so much about the criticisms that are leveled at him. I've already written articles about Iraq and the financial crisis, and plenty of pixels and ink have been spilled worldwide on the topic. Most of us are already familiar with the consequences of those events and a tiny fraction actually profited from those events. But here, we see a man who has profited immensely from the two wars he helped to foment, despite popular opposition to the same.

This is a man with compensation that is so completely disconnected from performance, that it's amazing that he managed to keep it - that there was no clawback. As I write this, I now understand better why anyone needs to make more money beyond a comfortable living. In fact, it's not a need, its a desire. That desire is for more power. Beyond the point of living in a decent house, having retirement paid for, fantastic health benefits, being able to pay every bill and still have money left over at the end of each month to sock away in retirement, what else is there to want? The only remaining thing I can think of is power.

But there is something else that comes with power that few people notice or are willing to discuss: insulation from the consequences of their actions. I think in policy discussions of governments around the world, and particularly here, we need to look more closely at immunity from the consequences of policy decisions.

With Dick Cheney he was fairly immune from the consequences of his policy actions and proposals. War is a result of public policy decisions here in the United States. Who bears the brunt of that decision? Certainly not Dick Cheney. The poor who could not find decent jobs outside of the armed services did. The poor who could not afford a college education did. The Iraqis who lost nearly a million lives did. Dick Cheney? He made a boatload of money.

Cheney already had enough money to be fairly immune from the consequences of his actions before he became vice president. The money he made from the wars is just more insulation, more power. In other words, if Cheney is ever prosecuted for war crimes, he can hire a rock-star legal team to mount a meaningful defense to any charge that comes his way. If he's busted for drunk driving, it's not likely that he will see the inside of a cell. If he shoots his friend with a shotgun while hunting, he still won't see any charges - maybe it was an accident, but no one knows if Cheney said he was sorry. He's got the money to pay for the accident and any legal defense required.

Dick Cheney is just one of our so-called leaders that is most visible. There are many others seeking that same insulation and not all of them are in government, but because they have money, they have a voice in government that can be heard above the din of popular protest and uprising across this country, both online and in the street.

So while the people at the top complain about how welfare decreases the incentive to work, or how Social Security should be abolished in favor of private retirement plans, or how Medicare and Medicaid should be abolished, they are quiet when it comes to their own immunity from the consequences of their policy decisions.

Let's be fair. Everyone wants immunity from the consequences of their actions to some degree. That's why we buy insurance. We buy car insurance because we've made a decision to buy a car and understand the risks involved in driving that car. We acknowledge that we may not be able to assume all of the financial responsibility for the risk of driving a car. Insurance is a way to spread the risk among many people, and we're all better off for sharing the risk.

As we saw in the financial meltdown of 2008, the wealthiest among us like to call themselves "capitalists", but they were not willing to assume all of the risk, so they went to the government for help. Did they buy insurance? I don't know. We do know that the people running Wall Street, faced with imminent financial ruin, were not willing to accept the consequences for the actions they took in their part of the financial meltdown of 2008.

Leading up to the 1980s, we had very progressive taxation. That progressive taxation did a fairly good job of limiting extreme accumulations of wealth like we see now, in the hands of a few people. Consider that 85 people own half of the wealth in the world. Everyone else owns the other half. Those 85 people are supremely insulated from the consequences of their actions. They can buy their way pretty much out of any mistake they make. Even if they faced financial ruin, after selling their assets, they will still have plenty of money to live comfortably, they will never be homeless. But these same people can make policy decisions and lend their support to the same, that can cause pain and suffering to millions if not billions of people.

This is what progressive taxation is about. It's not about taking from people what belongs to them, as some conservatives want us to believe. It's about acknowledging the risk associated with allowing too much wealth to accumulate in too few hands. It's about acknowledging that once you allow extreme concentrations of wealth accumulate in any democracy, you're creating a very high risk of losing that democracy.
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