Tuesday, October 11, 2011

A Modest Proposal for the Occupy Wall Street Protesters

The Occupy Wall Street protests are gaining momentum, despite a glaring lack of cohesion or clarity to their message. If one were to try to boil down the root of all this angst to a cogent statement, it might sound something like this:

The American political system is increasingly serving the interests of corporations and the rich, at the expense of average Americans. The resultant increase in class income disparity is exacerbating this problem, as the rich use their increasing wealth to influence and subvert the democratic process to serve their own purposes.

Fair enough?

That power and wealth tend to concentrate upwards in a society is, and has always been, the way of the world. Maybe I’ve got it wrong, but I sort of thought that one of the primary objectives of our experiment in democracy was to thwart that universal tendency; that is, to disperse power among the populous as evenly as possible, and to foster the creation of a middle class which encompasses most of the citizenry. Such a goal is lofty, audacious even. It is contrary to the very nature of human civilization. But I think it is a goal worth pursuing.

But how can it be accomplished when the rich rule the media, and the media, for all practical purposes, dictate public sentiment? Public sentiment, and hence, political power, is available for a price. This has always been true. It is a problem, however, that was made much worse by the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which basically said that corporations have the same rights as private citizens to anonymously donate unlimited amounts of money to political campaigns.

Rightly, the Supreme Court decides what is constitutionally correct, not what is good public policy. Constitutionally, the decision may be appropriate, but it does perhaps constitute a mortal blow to our democratic process, as well as what might be called a failure of our Founders to imagine such a problem. Alas, the Founders weren’t gods, and hence, were capable of error and short-sightedness.

How can we fix this problem?

Fortunately, we are still a democracy. The real power still rests with the people in the form of votes. The problem, again, is that people often vote for whatever the noisiest thing in their environment tells them to vote for. Very rich people and corporations are capable of making a lot of noise. It is a capability that they exploit. How else does one explain why so many poor people are opposed to corporations and billionaires paying taxes, or opposed to “government regulations” that are designed to protect the very people who oppose them, from corporate misdeeds. These same people, if asked, probably can’t even site a single “government regulation” imposed on corporations, and yet they will rail against them with ferocious zeal. How else can we explain millions of poor people supporting the shrinkage of public programs designed to benefit them, in order to fund tax cuts for the rich?

How can we fix this problem?

There are myriad political and legal measures that would help mitigate the influence of money on policy, but there is one very simple one that would perhaps be the most effective, and, also importantly, be condensable to a neat media sound bite and/or bumper sticker. The bumper sticker I propose is as follows:

Publicly Financed Campaigns Now!

If anyone involved in the protests is saying this, it has certainly evaded my detection, as well as most media personnel, who seem genuinely puzzled by the lack of a coherent message.

There are many ideas about how publicly funded elections would work, but the goals of the various models is the same: Get dirty corporate money out of politics. Why are we not having this discussion in the public forum? Oh yeah, now I remember.

The only losers in such a system would be special corporate interests. It is difficult to imagine that removing misinformation and huge money interests from the sphere of public dialogue would be anything but positive, right? Are Republicans afraid that they won’t be able to form valid opinions based on impartially presented information, and instead, that they need to be bombarded with corporate propaganda to think right?

But what of the Constitutional questions concerning free speech? Surely there are ways to deal with those problems legislatively, if not judicially. What we have now is a system in which the free speech of almost everyone is diminished by the corporate (Wall Street) noise machine. This might be akin to the proverbial yelling of “fire!” in a theater. The voice of the people, the voice of public interests, the voice of reason, is drowned out to make room for the corporate message. Publicly funded elections would diminish the free speech of corporations, while elevating that of every other interest. The greater good would be served.

I hope to see you at the march on October 15th. I’ll be holding a sign that says

Publicly Financed Campaigns Now!

If the only lasting effect of the protests is to bring the idea of publicly funded elections to the discussion, I think they will have been worth it.