Fourteen million Americans were unemployed in May, many since last year. Millions more work full-time yet live in poverty, often juggling multiple jobs to make ends meet. All the while, corporations rake in record profits with minimal rehiring, and government is focused more on deficit reduction than job creation.
This disconnect between public need and public policy is causing widespread and utterly unnecessary suffering. Why isn't our government serving us, and what can we do about it?
Though no single cause explains our predicament, the central problem is plutocracy. But no politician will bring the change we need; to revive the promise of America, we the people must challenge Citizens United as united citizens, committed to equal opportunity and popular sovereignty.
As our nation's wealth has become concentrated in the hands of corporations and billionaires, they have gained disproportionate political power, with which they manipulate public policy to advance their private interests. An elite few enjoy obscene luxury, while millions lead impoverished lives of quiet desperation.
President Eisenhower warned against "the acquisition of unwarranted influence" by "the military-industrial complex." Today the military has become just one sector of the industrial complex, while a wide range of other businesses have gained vast economic and political clout, the fossil fuel industry not least among them. The mercenary motives of military contractors and oil companies in Iraq turned out to be the main cause of mass destruction there. Dick Cheney's energy task force, convened to draft US energy policy, consisted mostly of meetings with oil executives, including BP, which ignored safety regulations with impunity for years, culminating in the calamitous spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
The economic crisis of 2008, from which most Americans have yet to recover, was dangerously exacerbated by deregulation purchased by the big financial firms, which paid economists to advocate policies favorable to their balance sheets and legislators to enact them. Larry Summers - who promoted financial deregulation at Harvard, oversaw it in the Clinton administration, made millions from the firms that benefited from it, and protected them from its results as President Obama's director of the National Economic Council -- is emblematic of what Charles Ferguson calls "an extraordinary and underappreciated scandal in American society: the convergence of academic economics, Wall Street, and political power."
Unfortunately for ordinary Americans, the scandal pervades many disciplines and domains. As Paul Krugman wrote in the New York Times:
Scientists willing to deny the existence of man-made climate change, economists willing to declare that tax cuts for the rich are essential to growth, strategic thinkers willing to provide rationales for wars of choice, lawyers willing to provide defenses of torture, all can count on support from a network of organizations that may seem independent on the surface but are largely financed by a handful of ultrawealthy families.
Notable among these are the Koch brothers, who with their huge political outlays have bought the freedom to pollute. Owners of an enormous oil-based conglomerate, they have spent staggering sums to support fossil fuel industries and politicians who serve their interests, and to oppose environmental protection. "There's no one else who has spent this much money," said Charles Lewis of the Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan watchdog group. "They have a pattern of lawbreaking, political manipulation, and obfuscation. I've been in Washington since Watergate, and I've never seen anything like it."
With ever-fewer exceptions, the media have become concentrated in the hands of global conglomerates, Murdoch's News Corporation, which owns Fox News, among them. In addition to abundant free airtime for Tea Partisans and million-dollar donations to conservative groups, until recently Fox News had many Republican presidential hopefuls on its payroll. After political analyst David Frum remarked that "Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us, and now we are discovering we work for Fox," he lost his job at the American Enterprise Institute. Apparently, in the world over which Fox presides, one can say anything, no matter how demonstrably false, about Obama, but a candid word about Fox is forbidden. In related indifference to the facts, corporate cutbacks have left remaining staff under pressure to produce without adequate resources for real investigative reporting, so many resort to presenting "fair and balanced" debates, "even if one side is the entire scientific community and the other side is a bunch of lobbyists." Fortuitously, the quest for profit dovetails with the political agenda: as Fox News' audience grows, so does skepticism about climate change. Meanwhile, we reach record temperatures and lose lives to extreme weather with increasing regularity.
The sacrifice of public welfare on the altar of profit has become the prevailing modus operandi. While Obama's health care reform helps many who were previously uninsured, it also secures the insurance companies' choke-hold on our health care. Pharmaceutical companies race to put new drugs on the market, often without adequate testing or by hiding adverse effects. Food conglomerates concoct most of what Americans eat from highly processed ingredients with low nutritional value, their assets growing along with our waistlines and health care bills. Even after creating the housing bubble and being bailed out by taxpayers, financial firms continue business as usual.
The disastrous rise of misplaced power foreseen by Eisenhower is upon us. Though some dedicated souls are already mobilized in opposition, the forces driving us toward a Third World America will not be stopped by any individual's courage or resilience, nor by the considerable power of social media; we need systemic change. This will require a national movement, people standing up for their rights not just in Wisconsin, but in Washington and across the country. Even politicians with the best intentions won't enact the reforms we need unless they face more pressure from the street than the boardroom.
As Obama once said, change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. So here are five (giant) steps we can start on right now:
If the millions of unemployed join with organizers, we can harness enormous energy and talent to generate momentum for the change we wait in vain for a politician to deliver.
2) Get corporate money out of politics
We need campaign financing that compels politicians to respond to the public rather than corporate donors. This means the Fair Elections Now Act or its equivalent. Before the 2012 elections, we should let candidates know that our votes are contingent on their support for public financing of campaigns. (http://fixcongressfirst.org/)
3) Reform and regulate corporations
As individuals we don't stand a chance against these superhuman entities deemed "too big to fail"; but together, with a government no longer in their thrall, we can cut them down to size, repeal their supposed status as persons, and reassert our authority over them.
With collective resolve and ingenuity, we can balance the best interests of the citizenry and the corporate bottom line -- enabling socially responsible companies to stay in business and their employees to earn a living wage, while preserving our environment for future generations.
4) Put people to work
Corporations are sitting on enormous piles of cash, while millions of people have no way to support themselves and their families. At the same time, schools are crumbling, bridges collapsing, parks and libraries closing. A new WPA would put people to work across the country, rebuilding, educating, retrofitting and developing clean energy sources for a sustainable economy.
5) Keep the pressure on politicians
If we want democracy in America, we must do more than vote on Election Day. In addition to rights, citizenship entails a responsibility to participate in the political process. Making change happen is hard, and politicians will need our vigilant support to get it done.
Impossible? It will be if that's our attitude. The moneyed interests are active, determined, and powerful. Corporate politics are making a mockery of equal opportunity, the pursuit of profit undermining the pursuit of happiness.
However much reason there may be for pessimism of the intellect, we must cultivate optimism of the will. If a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world, imagine what the majority of Americans can do.
Let's get to work.