2018 Thanksgiving Newsletter
In the United States, the fourth Thursday in November is designated as Thanksgiving Day, a national holiday. Days of thanksgiving were variously celebrated in the colonies from very early times, but the national holiday we celebrate today was proclaimed in1863, in the midst of the Civil War, by President Abraham Lincoln. It is fitting that we take time to remember the many blessings that each of us enjoys, even in the most dire circumstances.
What we consistently fail to do is to recognize the misery that our actions may be causing for others. While individually, the way we live our lives may be exemplary, our collective circumstances often derive from less than benevolent actions take on our behalf by political and economic leaders. One need not look very deeply to see the absurdity of the present world order that is based on perpetual war and struggles for dominance among national and supra-national elites. When one considers the marvelous technological advances and the vast amounts of material wealth that humans have been able to produce, it is clear that no one in this world should need to live in squalor. Yet, vast numbers of our brothers and sisters around the world lack the barest necessities to live a dignified life, much less the resources needed to realize their full potential. Still others are being terrorized, bombed, detained and persecuted through no fault of their own.
The hard question for me is, “How am I complicit in all of this, and what can I do about it?”
While driving in my car I often have the radio tuned to the local NPR station. A couple days ago I happened to hear an episode (Ep. 356) of the popular Freakonomics program, this one titled, America’s Hidden Duopoly. The discussion was about the American two party political system, which is in essence a duopoly of political power. Many Americans have long lamented the fact that they are often required to make a choice between “the lesser of two evils.” Third parties come and go by none has ever gained enough support to offer anything but “a wasted vote.”
Is there some other way in which the problem can be addressed? One initiative mentioned in the interview that seems to hold some promise is Unite America. Their motto is Country Over Party and their focus is on “building a movement to elect common-sense, independent candidates to office who can represent We, the People – not the party bosses or special interests.” The way they propose to achieve that is through their “Fulcrum Strategy,” that is “focused on electing independent candidates to narrowly divided legislatures, like the US Senate, where they can deny both parties an outright majority and use their enormous leverage to forge common ground solutions.” The argue that it would take only 4 or 5 independent Senators to swing the balance of power.
Hmmm, that itself is a tall order, but it just might work. Another initiative that looks promising is World Beyond War.
David Brooks is a familiar figure on the PBS News Hour, where he has for years been providing political commentary alongside Mark Shields. I can’t say that I’ve been all that impressed with him, but after a friend referred me to a presentation he gave at the 2018 Pacific Summit earlier this year I came away with a different opinion. I find Brooks much more impressive and insightful as a social philosopher and historian. He articulately and entertainingly provides an assessment of our present sociopolitical predicament. I recommend that you can view that presentation on YouTube.
Still, I have a little different take on the situation, something that no one else seems to be seeing. Arnold Toynbee is quoted as having said, “Civilizations start to decay when they lose their moral fiber and the cultural elite turns parasitic.” That is the situation we find ourselves in today. Our political leadership has let us down. When the power elite works to dominate and exploit us, when they can no longer be trusted to tell us the truth, when they fail to act on behalf of peace and the common good, what is there but to revert to tribal identities and find common cause with those whom we know and trust? While pundits and politicos decry the rise of “populism,” I see it as a natural response to the failure of the power elite. Populist actions are not always tainted by racism, sexism, and scapegoating. We need to rebuild society from the bottom up, starting with the people around us, then branching out to form alliances and coalitions. But if we are to end up with something better than what we wish to replace, our actions need to be open-hearted and beneficent. With good will toward all, perhaps it is possible to have a populist revolution that is peaceful and advances the causes of social justice, economic equity, individual liberty and human unity.
The American Economy Is Rigged
In a recent article, Joseph E. Stiglitz, former chief economist of the World Bank, argues that the American economy is rigged and outlines a few things that we can do about it.
Stiglitz begins his article by saying:
“Americans are used to thinking that their nation is special. In many ways, it is: the U.S. has by far the most Nobel Prize winners, the largest defense expenditures (almost equal to the next 10 or so countries put together) and the most billionaires (twice as many as China, the closest competitor). But some examples of American Exceptionalism should not make us proud. By most accounts, the U.S. has the highest level of economic inequality among developed countries. It has the world’s greatest per capita health expenditures yet the lowest life expectancy among comparable countries. It is also one of a few developed countries jostling for the dubious distinction of having the lowest measures of equality of opportunity.”
He then explains how economic inequality and political inequality are mutually reinforcing, each growing in response to growth in the other. When the super-rich are able to make the rules, they can rig the game to become ever richer. He concedes that “There is no magic bullet to remedy a problem as deep-rooted as America’s inequality. Its origins are largely political, so it is hard to imagine meaningful change without a concerted effort to take money out of politics.”
Stiglitz outlines a number of measures that could achieve that but all of them require legislative action. That seems like a “catch 22.” If the political machinery is so thoroughly in the hands of the economic and political elite, how is it possible to use the political process to change the status quo? I have long argued that, in view of that political reality, the only viable strategy is to design and deploy innovative monetary and financial systems that enable us reclaim “the credit commons.” By decentralizing the control of credit, it is possible to reduce our dependence upon bank borrowing and political forms of money. This is not so far-fetched as it might first appear. For details of how it can be, and is being done, see my article, Confronting the power elite.