Putting OWS to Work
Hey, OWS! Yes, There’s a Problem. We Agree. Now What?
OWS, like them or hate them, has done something that the Tea Party, like them or hate them, also tried to do. They both pointed out that our system has stopped working for most of us. But OWS hasn’t done something that the Tea Party did: the Tea Party proposed a solution. It was a bad solution that would have solved nothing, but it was clear, it was defined, and it fit on a bumper sticker. OWS doesn’t even have a bumper sticker solution. This is not to detract from what OWS has accomplished. OWS did for liberal John Q. Publics what the Tea Party did for conservative ones: they got them engaged, got them involved, got them thinking about national policy. OWS falls short of the Tea Party in that they have no clear call to action (there’s a call to camp, I guess, but…) But OWS transcends the Tea Party in that OWS has people thinking about national policy rather than national personalities.
There are no darlings of the OWS movement, no favorite son candidates to out-liberal the incumbent Democrats in the next congressional election, no OWS demagogues to capture the spotlight (and get co-opted by the very forces they’re trying to oppose). There are only ideas.
This is actually a Good Thing.
If we can ignore the loudmouth ideologues on both the Left and the Right, and focus instead on real solutions for real problems, we might be able to accomplish something.
Not all the Ideas are Good
In fact, a lot of the proposed OWS demands circling the interwebs are even dumber than the cut cut cut plan the Tea Party wants. Immediate employment for all? Yeah, that’s practical. Immediate forgiveness of all debts? That’s a bad idea for too many reasons to go into in this space. There’s even a proposed demand to criminalize home-schooling, as if home-schooling were an actual problem. Unfortunately, that’s the kind of thing you get when a bunch of people with more passion than brains get all riled up. (Yes, liberals suffer from that problem just as badly as conservatives do!)
So What’s Your Alternative, Jeff?
Fair question. The way I see it, we have a few problems in the US that can be dealt with if we have the courage to identify them and political will to fix them. The problems are, in no particular order:
Surprised? If you’ve read my other political commentary, you probably didn’t expect me to say that federal regulations are a problem, but they are. The answer is not to scrap them altogether, though. The problem isn’t that federal regulations exist. The problem is in the way they get written and enforced.
Regulations are generally process-oriented rather than results-oriented. Let me explain. Joel Salatin, an organic farmer from Virgina, tells of how a food inspector tried to close down his chicken sales because he didn’t slaughter the chickens in a plastic-lined room with the required ventilation. Rather, he slaughtered his chickens in an open-air abbatoir on his property, and delivered the chicken to his customers immediately afterward. Mr. Salatin was able to demonstrate that a whole chicken sold in a supermarket has an astonishingly high bacteria count, but his chickens had a bacteria count approaching nil. But the regulators still forbade him from selling his chickens. Joel’s reasoning was this: If I can get a bacteria count of zero by dunking the chicken in the toilet, isn’t that better than getting a bacteria count of 200 by following these stupid rules?
Regulations are usually written not by the people who are looking out for the average citizen, but by people looking out for the corporations being regulated. Should Tyson be writing the regulations for chicken-processing? Should Lehman Brothers be writing financial regulations? Should lobbyists be writing lobbying rules? Should politicians be writing campaign finance laws? (I really can’t see a way around this last conflict of interest, though.)
Lastly, regulations are not consistently enforced. The Deepwater Horizon had several known safety violations before it exploded last April, but those safety problems were not addressed, partially because regulators did not insist upon it.
If we’re going to regulate something, the regulations must be both meaningful and consistently enforced.
This book explains why process-based regulations make no sense, while results-based regulations would better serve the public interest.
Opacity in Campaign Finance
Yes, corporate personhood is a bit of a problem, but it’s not the most important one. The main problem is that it’s so hard to figure out whose pocket a given politician is in. Stephen Colbert has pointed out how easy it is for monied interests to hide their political electioneering (more on that below). This isn’t limited to national elections. There are monied interests working to influence everything from zoning laws in rural Michigan to school textbook selection in Texas. This has to be fixed.
Crumbling, Antiquated Infrastructure
Remember the huge blackout in the northeast and part of the midwest in 2003? Yeah, that shouldn't happen in the USA. Remember the bridge that collapsed in Minnesota a few years back? That shouldn't happen either. The US has the 2nd most internet users in the world, with about 79% of our population online. Sounds pretty good, but 79% puts us in 23rd place, behind Slovakia, South Korea, and the Falkland Islands. Even worse, many of our internet users are still plodding along on dial-up. As of June, 2010, only 27.2% of Americans had a broadband connection (17th place, with Malaysia in first at 64%). The internet thing doesn’t pose a danger to life and limb, as widespread blackouts and collapsing bridges do, but it’s still a problem.
This Blackout was Caused by a Tree Limb
There Was No Earthquake, No Bomb; the Bridge Just Collapsed
So What Do We Do About it, Smart Guy?
Glad you asked. Here’s how we can fix these problems.
Total Financial Transparency
Every elected official or candidate for office must be required to fully disclose not only who contributed to their campaign but also the amount of their total cumulative contributions. That basically means I can’t skirt the law by making many small donations: a thousand hundred-dollar donations equal $100,000.00 next to my name on the candidate’s “Contributors” list. An important part of this reform is the abolition of the 501 c 4 corporation’s ability to accept secret donations, and then spend that money on political ads and campaign contributions. Stephen Colbert explained how these work very well. (I’d embed the vid for you, but apparently I’m not allowed.) Functionally, a 501 c 4 corporation is a political money laundromat; a festering cancer permeating our democracy. The only cure is surgical excision.
This same transparency rule must also apply to any political advertising. It’s not enough for issue ads to say “paid for by Americans for Growth” or whatever. The ultimate source of the money, before it was laundered, must be easily and quickly identifiable.
Now, understand that this means that Citizens United gets to go ahead and make their feature-length anti-Hillary Clinton commercial. That’s okay. But they would also be required to list the entities that funded the film, and the amount of money they provided. That means, for example, if a movie gets made that purports to be a documentary about Herman Cain’s indiscretions with coworkers, we will all know how much money George Soros, the AFL-CIO, and Berkshire-Hathaway put up to produce it.
This doesn’t take anything away from monied interests’ ability to use their money to say whatever they want. But it does remove their ability to say what they want without attribution. If AT&T wants people to vote for Rick Perry, say, that’s okay. But they can’t pretend that it’s not AT&T telling us to vote for Rick Perry.
I expect that once corporations experience the backlash from their customers who don’t like the particular candidate or issue that the corporation is supporting, the corporations will choose not to fund candidates as a matter of policy.
Wedge Shut All Revolving Doors Between Regulatory Agencies and Corporate Offices
We need to make it illegal for a federal regulator to accept any kind of compensation, gift, bonus, remuneration, or gratuity from any entity that his agency oversees. This prohibition would take effect from moment of the regulator’s employment in the federal regulatory agency, and would remain in effect for a full ten years after the regulator’s separation (whether resignation, retirement, or dismissal) from said agency. This would prevent (or at least make less likely) deals between corporations and regulators to soften regulations, lessen fines for—or entirely overlook—violations, or otherwise let the corporation break the rules in exchange for gifts, vacation packages, the promise of future employment, etc. I would further prohibit employment by a regulatory agency of anyone who worked in the industry regulated by that agency within the past twenty years. This prohibition would prevent industry insiders from becoming regulators and improperly favoring their associates.
It would also prevent (or at least make less likely) regulatory agencies declining to investigate and prosecute securities fraud.
Make Regulations Results-Oriented Rather than Process-Oriented
For our chicken farmer example, the regulations should be geared toward a low bacteria count on the finished product (a result) rather than the method used to slaughter the chicken (a process). Regulation would be enforced by occasional bacteria tests. A single test with an excessive bacteria count would mean a more comprehensive survey. If a pattern of excessive bacteria counts emerges, the operation would be shut down until it can demonstrate that it has fixed the problem by achieving consistently low bacteria counts.
For a financial institution, rather than set a leverage limit, I would require the institution to retain at least 51% ownership of all loans it issues. This would mean that a lender won’t be able to profit from writing a risky loan, and then offload the risk (and make more profit) by selling the bad loan to an unsuspecting third party. Forcing the lender to retain ownership of any debt it issues will make use of the lender’s own sense of self-preservation to keep it from creating and selling toxic investment instruments.
We Did All This When We Were BrokeClick thumbnail to view full-size
Rebuild and Upgrade our Infrastructure
We need to take stock of our railroads, power grid, and highways (both physical and informational), and do what needs to be done to make the US the world leader in transportation, generation, and information.
We need to turn our old power grid into a state-of-the-art smart grid that won’t collapse as it did in 2003. Power generation ought to be clean, renewable, and decentralized. We need to repair and upgrade a lot of our interstate highway system for road traffic, and upgrade our railroads to a high speed rail system for both passengers and freight. We need to provide broadband internet access to all citizens All of these programs are doable in a country that's financially strapped: we did a ton of public works projects in the middle of the great depression. When we were done, we had the Triborough Bridge, Grand Coulee Dam, the Overseas Highway in Florida, Griffith Observatory in California, Merritt Parkway in Connecticut, LaGuardia Airport in New York, and our farms, ranches, and country towns were able to connect to the electrical grid--this was considered a technical impossibility just a few years before!
If the United States was able to accomplish all of this—with 1930s technology—in the midst of a worse recession than we are experiencing now, then we can accomplish these more modest goals today and still be prepared for the possibility of war with an aggressive expansionist foreign power if such a threat should materialize.
The new robust infrastructure will make travel, shipping, and information-exchange much easier, attracting and facilitating commerce. The people who do the work will have jobs (and income to spend) to buy the stuff that drives our economy. When the projects are finished, the newly robust infrastructure will fuel a newly robust economy that can absorb the newly skilled and experienced workers. Some will remain to maintain the new infrastructure, to prevent it from falling into the embarrassing state of disrepair in which we now find much of it.
All of these goals are within our reach, right now, right here. We could start today. All we lack is the political will to accomplish them.
And Another Thing:
Finally, I would amend the constitution (not something I take lightly!) with the following proposed amendment:
Under United States law, the term ‘person’ shall refer only and exclusively to a single human being.
Corporate personhood is a relatively minor part of why and how monied interests have co-opted our government, but it has become a symbol of the public's loss of confidence in American governance, a sign that the government of the people is no longer for or by the people. If we can end this legal fiction, I predict that more people will reengage in active citizenship, and our collective confidence in the US will begin to come back.