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Saturday, April 15, 2017

Values In Conflict: can Democracy survive?

It seems to me that so much time has been spent ridiculing and blaming Government and Politics for our fate that we have missed an important target for defining our present situation.  While “government” has failed us in some ways, it has been true to our ideals when it has taken on major concerns like retirement and long-term care for Seniors; access to special health care services for children and adults with special needs or challenges.  Government often shines when it handles natural disasters and national emergencies.  Government has demonstrated over and over that well-trained police and firemen can handle the most difficult situations.  Hospitals, public clinics, neighborhood health care centers do their jobs every day to heal and save.  Social Security (along with its health insurance components – Medicare and Medicaid) has enabled millions of Seniors to escape the debilitating poverty known to senior members of past generations.  There are many examples of government working to assist and to enhance the lives of ordinary people.  Government is not always “the problem.”  We have missed the target by aiming at government alone.  Even so, we cannot take government reform and re-structure off the table because ours is a system of governing that always demands renewal and reform to make it possible for greater citizen welfare, protection, benefit and involvement.

I am, however, increasingly concerned with the undemocratic system that has invaded government and accessed its structures as tools for spreading its own propaganda and its own ‘principles’ and modes of operation.  I believe the more important target for grievance, sometimes our condemnation, and certainly for continuous oversight is the private sector of industrial, for-profit services and financial speculation– CAPITALISM writ large! 
In effect, because of its purpose, mission and aims, industrialization/capitalism is always attempting to better its chances of success and profit by ever more intrusive and nefarious means.  Capitalism is not entirely known for its ethical behaviors, but for its manipulation of money, of property, of profit, of its labor force and of any entity that attempts to control its over-reach.  Industrialism/capitalism is not built on the same value structure that enervates democracy.  A very brief and generalized comparison of how much the systems differ in beliefs and values (ethical considerations), may serve to focus our attention.
CAPITALISM/                                                                                             DEMOCRACY

PROFIT is the overriding concern;  success is strong second/            Life, liberty and welfare or happiness of all are overriding concerns

Uses & manipulates all aspects of operations for profit/                   Follows constitutionally-based legislative process to make laws that protect and defend the People and the nation; uses system of checks and balances

Treats Labor as expendable commodity; parts of profit equation/  Encourages and rewards people who initiate, create and produce; provides education, opportunities, incentives for well-being of all

Sees consumers as targets of manipulation, having few rights/       Treats people as sovereign;
                                                                                                                       possessing equal rights under law

Mission: to acquire money, property and status /                  Mission: to seek liberty and justice for all

Motive: enhancement of wealth of company and stockholders/      Motive: enhancement of the people’s rights, dignity, equality, opportunities and welfare

Seeks freedom from restrictions of business practices/         Empathizes a balance between liberty and responsibility; regulates society to enhance not deny well-being and happiness

Is organized and structured to enhance profits/                      Organized to enhance life, liberty and pursuit of happiness or well-being

Demands company loyalty/                                                         Encourages love of country; shown by  taking mutual responsibility for maintaining ideals and welfare of all   

Places material success and acquisitions above Law/             Places the Law above the desires and status of individuals; reforms laws that discriminate against or de-value the rights and liberties of any cohort

Believes people are endowed with privileges based on status/   Believes people are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among them life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.

Believes that government oversight and regulation is anathema/    Believes oversight&enforcement of just laws are necessary to equitable provision of opportunities, rights, freedoms, justice

Asserts that government is society’s main ‘problem’/     Asserts that government of, by and for the People is the basis of a stable, responsible, just, dynamic and productive society  

There was a time, in its early stages, when industrialism/capitalism was built on an entirely different set of values – Protestant Christian values primarily.  Attempting to reclaim these ethical foundations, author Max Weber “drew a sharp line between capitalism and greed.”  Capitalism was based not on a desire to get rich, but on self-discipline, methodical effort, responsible stewardship, sober devotion to a calling and to a rational organization of life.
As one author (identified below) commented: “Weber’s ethical vindication of capitalism now seems to apply to an altogether different world.”  And then adds, as an example: “Finance is an ‘industry’ where innovation is hard to distinguish from rule-bending or rule-breaking; where the pay-offs from semi-legal and illegal activities are particularly high; where the gradient in expertise and pay between firms and regulatory authorities is extreme; where revolving doors between the two offer unending possibilities for subtle and not-so-subtle corruption; where the largest firms are not just too big to fail, but also too big to jail, given their importance for national economic policy and tax revenue; and where the borderline between private companies and the state is more blurred than anywhere else, as indicated by the 2008 bailout or by the number of former and future employees of financial firms in the American government.”  We have allowed the two realms to mesh to the extent that business interests now exercise major control over our ideals, our loyalties, our freedoms, our activities, our thinking, our habits, our institutions and our form of government.
 
What is surprising and disturbing is that we are not taking a substantial amount of time to discern and act upon this takeover.  We tend to overlook the contradictions and anti-democratic values inherent in capitalism, and are prone to a dangerously na├»ve point of view: that privatizing government functions is equivalent to a solution for operating smoothly and efficiently, and the ultimate answer for bettering our lives and liberties.  The years 1929 and 2008 stand as beacons of truth and reality in that foggy world of thought.   The more government relinquishes regulatory control of business enterprises, and allows those entities to control government, the worse off we are as a nation, thrown right back into the swamp of greed, short-cuts to profits, inadequate and unsafe products, and lack of inner controls to regulate bad practices like polluting our environment, insider trading, selling of unprotected and under-valued stocks, bonds and financial products.  Every time we listen to the snake-oil salesmen who promote “deregulation” we experience damage to our society and to our Republic.  

Checks and balances are at the core of our democratic system and yet we abandon that concept every time we buy into “privatization,” “deregulation,” and “government needs to be run like a business.”  What’s wrong with businessmen taking over government is epitomized by the accession of Donald Trump to the highest office in our nation.  His lack of knowledge of history and of governmental functioning; his authoritarian values, actions and behaviors are destructive of democracy and we will find it out too late if we allow this maniac to continue in office for a full term.  He, like many of his ilk from the business world, are not interested in the values of our democracy; they are interested in making money, and so far, the Donald has allegedly made millions from his candidacy and from his machinations in office.  This businessman is robbing our wallets and our purses. Trump Towers and Mar-a-Lago alone are cleaning up on hosting foreign dignitaries and special meetings and conferences, and the Russian connection may someday be known for what I believe it to be – an economic windfall for Trump Enterprises.  But, that’s enough about Donald Trump -- the plutocratic oligarch who continues to define the moral bankruptcy of Capitalism.  

Let us bring in someone who knows a whole lot more about this subject than I do.  “How Will Capitalism End?” is the name of a book of essays by Wolfgang Streeck.  Streeck is the Director of the Max Planck Institute for Social Research in Cologne, Professor of Sociology at the University there, and an Honorary Fellow of the Society for the Advancement of Socio-Economics.  In one review from the Times Higher Education, there is a comment that Streeck’s essays “will be at the center of social research for years to come.”  The book claims that after years of ill health, capitalism is now in critical condition.  Growth has given way to stagnation, inequality is leading to instability, and confidence in the money economy is evaporating.  According to one review, “the marriage between democracy and capitalism, ill-suited partners brought together in the shadow of World War II, is coming to an end.  Ours has become a world defined by declining growth, oligarchic rule, a shrinking public sphere, institutional corruption, and international anarchy” and he senses there is no political entity capable of rolling back the effects of this situation.   In his opening chapter, Streeck identifies five areas of “disorder” that he says herald the demise of capitalism.  Let us explore these from the viewpoint of values and how they do not, and have not, worked well for democratic society.  

Disorder #1:  Stagnation
Although the author cites several reasons for decline and stagnation, it is not my purpose to delve into economic theory nor economic statistical analysis in any substantive way.  My purpose today is to compare and contrast the values exhibited by capitalism and democracy. 
Streeck says that one of the major factors in the decline and stagnation of capitalism as a system is in the realm of ethics.  He cites de-regulation – removal of restrictions on corporate behavior – the circumventing of whatever rules were left, the ever-increasing inequality associated with the disproportionate growth -  especially in the banking sector- and the consumptive excesses of rich capitalist societies as contributing factors in the struggle to find more profit amid fewer new markets. 
He goes even further to suggest that natural resources are running low because of the excess demand of industries on those resources.  Inevitably, he brings up the matter of the “unavoidable degradation of the biosphere” as a serious breach of ethical consideration involving the “collective good.”  In other words, competitive production and consumption, plus the capitalist principle of infinite expansion, are colliding headlong with the finite supply of natural resources.  “No one seriously denies that the energy consumption patterns of rich capitalist societies cannot be extended to the rest of the world without destroying essential preconditions of human life” (perhaps he hasn’t met the deniers of the Trump administration, or those in the Congress!).

Streeck does not fail to include the critical denuding of the labor movement in his list of factors.  He avers that the making of labor into a commodity of industry has undone prospects for labor reforms and made employment itself much more precarious for a growing share of the population.   Hours given by families to employers have increased while wages have lagged behind productivity advances, most dramatically in the U.S., he indicates.  Destruction of trade unions “ha(s) caused residual unemployment of 7 to 8 per cent as the new normal.  Moreover, global mobility enables employers to replace unwilling local workers with willing…ones” at minimal cost in wages. 
“Capitalism without opposition is left to its own devices, which do not include self-restraint.  The capitalist pursuit of profit is open-ended, and cannot be otherwise.”  His description of the imminent future of the stagnant economy that looms ahead is somewhat forbidding, as he indicates that the struggle for survival will “become more intense.”  Rather than restoring protective limits rendered obsolete by globalization, “ever new ways will be sought to exploit nature, extend and intensify working time, and encourage what the jargon calls ‘creative finance’, in a desperate effort to keep profits up and capital accumulation going.”  Victimization, not only of Labor, but of many ordinary citizens is a profound probability.
Disorder #2:  Plutocrats and Plunder
There is no indication that the long-term trend towards greater economic inequality will be broken any time soon, or indeed ever.  Redistribution to the top thus becomes oligarchic: rather than serving a collective interest in economic progress, it turns into extraction of resources from increasingly impoverished, declining societies... The bond which tied the profits of the rich to the poor is severed, cutting the fate of the economic elites loose from that of the masses.”
This is a description of what has been happening for at least the last 30 years (since Ronald Reagan) and probably much longer to the extent that the rich have always been involved in restraining the poor fearing the takeover of their property and riches by an unruly mob of the unwashed and uneducated.  In these times, the rich have not only reduced the redistribution of their wealth through government deregulation and budget-cutting, they have embarked upon the nefarious enterprise of stealing (extracting) money from the (many) taxes paid by the middle class and working poor, increasing privatization of government functions through government contracts and lowering corporate and individual tax rates, but also by stashing their cash in off-shore bank accounts free from tax collection.  Now too, Streech points out, there are growing indications that because of the transnational character of fortunes, the super-rich are beginning to exit from their home countries to live in more (economically) hospitable environs.

I would caution that the two most potent upcoming means of Plutocratic plundering will be contained in items that are often too boring and daunting for the public’s taste or attention.  One is the 2018 Federal Budget which Trump has already revealed, but which Congress will surely amend (not necessarily in the best way).  Second, is the ‘reform’ of the Tax Code, which Mr. Trump may (or may not) get to before the summer recess.  Both items continue to be prime targets for private sector manipulation, and many of the provisions contained therein are the results of just such continued manipulation by the private sector Plutocrats.
Disorder #3:   Underfunding and Privatization

“Foremost among the causes of this shift (from the tax state to the debt state to the austerity state) were the new opportunities offered by global capital markets since the 1980’s for tax flight, tax evasion, tax-regime shopping and the extortion of tax cuts from governments by corporations and earners of high incomes.  Attempts to close public deficits relied almost exclusively on cuts in government spending....  As income gains accrued increasingly to the top 1 per cent, the public domain of capitalist economies shrank, starved in favor of internationally mobile oligarchic wealth.”
The mantra of lowering spending on government programs for the middle class and those living in poverty to “balance the budget” and to “lower the deficit,” has escalated in the 2018 Trump budget to an austerity level.  19 departments and 61 programs are being cut dramatically, and many will simply be eliminated.  At the same time, the rich corporations involved in defense and munitions will reap extreme profits under the many new contracts made necessary by the $54 billion dollar increase in the Defense budget. 

Privatization is being carried out “regardless of the contribution (that) public investment in productivity and social cohesion might have made to economic growth and social equity.”  Streech warns us that this austerity for the poor and enhancement of the oligarchs is another indication that “the economy of the oligarchs has been decoupled from that of ordinary people, as the rich no longer expect to pay a price for maximizing their income at the expense of the non-rich, or for pursuing their interests at the expense of the economy as a whole. 

Once again, the ethical dimension comes through the talk about economics.  We are being told in no uncertain terms that the rich are using government to separate themselves from any responsibility for the less fortunate in our democratic society.  There is no social contract left.  There is no mutual responsibility for each other.  There is not one nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all.  There is brokenness, there is division, there is segregation. There is no longer a United States.  What there is constitutes two quite separate approaches to human endeavor and humane behavior.  The ethical foundations of Judeo-Christian scripture and religion are cast aside.  The basis of the Old Testament tithe for the poor has been lost; the golden Rule has been tarnished; the Prodigal Son cannot come home; the Good Samaritan turns his back on neighbors; and the role of the Judeo-Christian God as “Protector of the Poor and the Innocent” has been stripped of its power.   
But those scriptures, and those religions, also have a warning for the oligarchs who wish to control the universe: “to whom much is given, much will be required” and “Woe to those who enact evil statutes, and to those who continually record unjust decisions, so as to deprive the needy of justice and rob the poor of My people of their rights"(Isa. 10:1-3) (see my Post of 12/24/2016 for much more)

Disorder #4:  Corruption

“Capitalism’s moral decline may have to do with its economic decline, the struggle for the last remaining profit opportunities becoming uglier by the day and turning into asset-stripping on a truly gigantic scale.  However that may be, public perceptions of capitalism are now deeply cynical, the whole system commonly perceived as a world of dirty tricks for ensuring the further enrichment of the already rich.  Nobody believes anymore in a moral revival of capitalism... it has more than ever become synonymous with corruption.

 It is at this point that some disagreement must be launched at the author (the book was published 21 days after the election of Trump and may not have been able to consider implications about the electorate).  Public perception of capitalism is apparently not quite as astute as Streech makes out.  The electorate that put Trump in office were immune to all the disorder within capitalism, and within the complicated life of this candidate.  They first touted him as a savvy businessman who would bring some order to what they conceived as disorder.   Instead he has brought nothing but disorder and chaos.  One of his many failings is his constant mind-change on policy which provokes a disorder of some magnitude amongst other countries.  Witness his recent bombing of a Syrian airbase from which Syrian planes took off to chemically annihilate innocent civilians.  This is in complete denial of his campaign rhetoric that eschewed any more involvement in Syria or other countries of the Middle East, except to annihilate ISIS.
In fact, as I have written before, Trump-backers, disconnected from reality, excused whatever he said or did in favor of a more authoritarian leadership style, most likely honed within the confines and influence of his capitalistic Trump Enterprises. His 2018 budget is the epitome of anti-social contract and anti-care for the less fortunate of this nation.  His attitudes toward nations and people are grounded, not in a Christian ethic of concern given without expectation of reciprocity, but in a capitalistic mode of competition, winning at all costs, and denigrating one’s rivals so that they appear to have lost or to have capitulated to a superior power. 

The followers of this wrongly-principled man include a cohort of Labor unions and their members, who obviously do not recognize, or perhaps do not understand, the enmity of capitalism and this specific capitalist toward the Labor movement.  Nor can they be aware of the imminent future of growing unemployment as capitalism increasingly seeks to employ technological means to replace humans at jobs that can be done by artificial entities.  These unions will have their day of reckoning, as did the traffic controllers under Reagan, when they will be thrown under the bus.  The wind-up for that throw has already begun in the Trump budget for 2018, and by his hiring freeze imposed upon certain departments of the federal government. 
Disorder #5:  International Anarchy

“Global capitalism needs a centre to secure its periphery and provide it with a credible monetary regime...when a centre was missing, and different powers aspired to take on the role, (it was) a time of chaos, economically as well as politically.”
Streech is talking here about the role that Great Britain played until the 1920s, and the United States played from 1945 until the 1970s. The period in-between and the period after the 70s are times of instability of which he speaks.  “Stability in currencies, backed up by a global banker of some integrity, is essential for trade and capital accumulation.  It is also essential for regimes on the periphery to allow and condone extraction of raw materials.”  And so, we come to the period at hand, about which he states:

“Contemporary capitalism increasingly suffers from global anarchy, as the United States is no longer able to serve in its post-war role, and a multipolar world order is nowhere on the horizon.  While there are (still?) no Great-Power clashes, the dollar’s function as international reserve currency is contested – and cannot be otherwise, given the declining performance of the American economy, its rising levels of public and private debt, and the recent experience of several highly destructive financial crises.  The search for an international alternative... is getting nowhere.”
He does mention our military might and isolationist trend as making the U.S. a reluctant leader in terms of becoming involved outside our borders, but again misses the point that the new “Leader of the Free World” is not reluctant to bomb another country’s infrastructure if that is what he thinks is needed to make him look strong.  We have regressed to “pre-emptive strikes” as policy.

We are in the realm of ethics once again, and we must discern the difference between capitalism and democracy.  Is global leadership based on strength and violence or on humanitarian efforts to address the needs and concerns of other populations around the globe?  In other words, as Streech suggests, are we the perpetrators “of sophisticated means of violence (special forces used for personal assassination; drones capable of killing almost anyone anywhere; supporters of torture and confinement in a worldwide system of internment camps; users of comprehensive surveillance mechanisms applied to potential opposition anywhere we choose) in order to inspire confidence in the United States as a ‘global enforcer’ of oligarchic property rights, and as a safe haven for oligarchic families and their treasure?”

Or, are we a nation dedicated to the advancement of human rights and human dignity, called to be “the Leader of the Free World” by supporting collaborative efforts through the UN to bring relief to countries suffering from disease, lack of resources like foods and grains, devastating natural disasters, and viral epidemics?  (will we stop paying anything to the UN and NATO as has been suggested?).  Are we a nation dedicated to world order based on peace and justice and non-violence (except in extreme cases where it is the last resort)?  Are we a nation called to be wise and prudent in our dealings with other nations by constitutionally mandating our Senate to ‘advise and consent’ to treaties, and by giving Congress the responsibility of declaring War?   It is eminently questionable that our President should have the assumed power of declaring any police action, skirmish or military offensive without the advice and counsel of this deliberative body.
Except in terms of a defensive response to an attack, it is, in my opinion, a travesty of separation of powers to allow a dictatorial premise to undo what the Founders gravely instituted for just this reason:  the President is not a King or dictator; he most assuredly should consult, and take with utmost seriousness the advice he receives from the separate but equal  legislative body— the Congress -- before taking any offensive warlike action against any nation or movement, and should, in most cases seek a declaration of war when this nation’s security is at risk.  It is a question of political process, but also a question of shared leadership and of ethical behavior.
Concepts like “Leader of the Free World” or “making America great” or “America First” have moral implications, but are not ethical concepts.  Capitalism per se has eschewed its original moral base – it is an amoral system built upon secular principles and concepts that often border on the immoral and the illegal. 

In contrast, Democracy has a basis in moral principles in almost every sphere of policy and operation, because democracy is built upon an ethical/moral base of people’s welfare and of human rights that help to ensure well-being.  However, it is abundantly clear that those democratic principles can also be disordered and corrupted by the acceptance of dubious principles from other areas of life, such as economics and capitalism.   Thus, the marriage of capitalistic and democratic principles is like a flawed road full of potholes and dangerous intersections.  But the acceptance by democracy of the amoral and immoral outcomes spawned by capitalism is a disorder and corruption that can no longer be tolerated (just as capitalism finds the “intervention” of political regulations to be intolerable).  It is past time to separate the two systems by removing the influence of capitalist currency and over-arching access from the halls of legislators and regulators, from the committee hearings and special meetings; from the parties and ‘conferences’ sponsored by capitalists seeking favors, delays, subsidies and inside information.  Yes, equal rights of access must still apply, but unequal amenities and unethical practices along with political control must be stifled and in most cases eliminated. 
The disordering and corruption of our democratic system by the Donald Trump’s (Koch’s and Abelson’s) of this world must stop. The conflicts of interest of this office-holder – and his whole nepotistic and Wall Street-based operation – must end.  Impeachment must be considered -- let’s not deny it.  His very presence in the oval office is an affront to our system of governance, to our democratic values and our moral foundation.  In 85 days, he has fashioned for himself the makings of ‘high crimes and misdemeanors!” – as were his Russian-enabled election his monetary ties to Russian oligarchs, his appointments of “administrative de-constructors” and the use of his position to make money through his facilities like Trump Towers and Mar-a-Lago Resort.  The latest foray into Syria is also, in my estimation, a violation of the right of Congress to declare War unless there is an imminent threat to our nation (there wasn’t).  Moreover, his lack of complete divestiture means that he can – and undoubtedly does -- use his position to make money on stocks he or his family own in companies like munition-makers.  It has been reported that Trump owns stock in Raytheon, the maker of the missiles that now must be replaced (at $60 million total!) because of his decision to rain them down on that airfield in Syria! 

Democratic values (of, by and for the People) and Capitalism’s principles (do what it takes to build profit) do not mix.  They are incompatible and we must stop trying to pretend otherwise!

Postscript:  I do recognize that this comes across as a general indictment of all business and capitalistic enterprise.  Not so. There are many incidences when consultation and collaborative actions with business leaders and representatives is inescapable and totally necessary, but control over the process is not theirs to possess! This Post is, rather, an explanation and illustration of certain concepts and beliefs held as inviolable by corporations, financial entities and Big Business that are in conflict with the values of democracy.  Whether small business persons or all business enterprises accept and act upon those ethically questionable beliefs is not for me to decide; their words and actions reveal their commitments.  My point is that our government can no longer support the promulgation, acceptance and practice of their principles, in lieu of constitutional principles, as the basis of governance.  We must expunge their anti-democratic principles from our political and governmental structures, policies, behaviors, laws, and from all activities that affect the People, especially our elections, our legislation, and judicial decision-making.  This is not about placing blame; it is about what we are called to be, and about the necessity of continual renewal and reform of the processes of our representative democracy in accord with our constitutional principles and values.