Of Budgets, Priorities Reclaiming the Basis of Civilization
In a time when stupidity is promoted to protect the venal dictatorship of the 1% I find myself having to explain the basics of civilization to many who missed or were sheltered from the basic lessons of history. Fortunately, aside from publishing the Blue Collar Review I have a regular monthly column or two locally.
My newest contribution in this ongoing effort is entitled
Of Budgets and Priorities --
Reclaiming the Republic and the Social Contract
Governments are an invention of humanity going back to the New Stone Age between 12,000 and maybe 15,000 years ago. When we moved from nomadic hunting and gathering to agriculture, we settled into villages and city states which needed order and mutual protection. The social contract that is the basis of government evolved from family and clan loyalty and from the need for mutual responsibility and cooperation that made life possible for us as a species. Dictatorships aside, the basic idea of government was, and has remained at its root, mutual security. This meant that the strong looked after the weak, that everyone had food and water and that everyone was responsible for contributing to the common good and for defending against threats of aggression. These values basic to the idea of government are enshrined in the Preamble of our own Constitution; “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity . . .” Though the interpretation of the social contract and the inclusiveness of all, especially women, African-Americans and the working poor, has been at issue throughout our national history, these are the values that brought many of our ancestors here – those who had a choice.
The primary powers of the nation state, beginning with the late 18th century break from Monarchy, were: the creation of roads and basic infrastructure, establishing and maintaining essential communication via the postal service, a common defense and the collecting of taxes to cover the cost of these government services. What to do with that public money has expanded as necessity dictated. Roads and modern infrastructure cost more, we have electronic communication, more advanced medicine and education requirements and ecological threats to public safety. As our society evolved from agrarian and craft-based to industrial and urban, dependence on wage work became the norm creating new problems. The mutual support of the extended family needed on the farm gave way to the smaller nuclear family because workers had to be more mobile. Issues including work place injuries, job shortages, growing personal debt and living beyond employability created strong popular movements demanding worker rights and basic social guarantees, resulting in worker's comp, unemployment insurance and Social Security.
The collection and use of public money continues to be a hot-button issue on state and national levels. The original idea of government would imply that public money be invested in that which benefits our common security and the public good. Yet, this has increasingly been affected by the power of corporate influence.
The influence of corporate power on public policy really took off after the Civil War with the ascendancy of the Robber Barons. President Lincoln once said he feared the rising rich more than he did the Confederacy, writing, “I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. ... corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed.” The “Guilded Age” that followed his assassination brought home the truth of his words. It was rife with corruption and scandal from the rise of Tammany Hall's bribery cronyism and redistribution of public money to outright fraud and the diversion of funds allocated for Congress to Railroad companies.
In 1886 a ruling by the Supreme Court in the Santa Clara case was purposefully misreported to twist the meaning of Fourteenth Amendment, giving corporations the rights of “a natural person.” As Richard Robbins writes in his book, Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism, “Thus corporations were given the same 'rights' to influence the government in their own interests as were extended to individual citizens, paving the way for corporations to use their wealth to dominate public thought and discourse.” The reality is that the Supreme Court ruled no such thing in 1886. It was a fiction created by the court’s reporter in contradiction to what the court actually said. There is a note to this effect in US National Archives by the Supreme Court Chief Justice of the time explicitly informing the reporter that the court had not ruled on corporate personhood in that case.
The present is a continuation of the past. The fiction of corporate personhood was strengthened by the Supreme Court in the Citizen's United Case by justices, particularly Clarence Thomas, who had ties to the plaintiff in the case. The ruling affirmed not only that corporations are people but that money is speech. That money talks seems to be unfortunately true in a system corrupted by it, which brings us back to that old fight over the spending priorities of public money.
The ongoing Congressional Budget struggle is a case in point. The Congressional Progressive Caucus has put forth a budget plan called The People's Budget that would increase the minimum wage, strengthen the rights and safety of working people, eliminate corporate tax loopholes, repeal Reagan era tax breaks for the wealthiest, reduce bloated defense spending and allow refinancing of student loans at lower interest rates, among other things.
As the CPC states in this budget plan, “The People's Budget fixes an economy that, for too long, has failed to provide the opportunities American families need to get ahead. Despite their skills and work ethic, most American workers and families are so financially strapped from increasing income inequality that their paychecks barely cover basic necessities. They earn less and less as corporations and the wealthy continue amassing record profits. It has become clear to American workers that the system is rigged. The People’s Budget levels the playing field and creates economic opportunity by increasing the pay of middle and low-income Americans. More customers and higher consumer spending advance American businesses, not tax cuts and relaxed regulations. The People’s Budget drives a full economic recovery by creating high-quality jobs and reducing family expenses, restoring the buying power of working Americans.”
The Economic Policy Institute analysis of this budget model concludes that, “The People’s Budget would increase spending on job creation and public investment measures by $528 billion in calendar year 2015, $454 billion in 2016, and $354 billion in 2017, relative to CBO’s current law baseline. The associated boost to aggregate demand would be enough to substantially reduce labor market slack, taking into consideration lesser economic headwinds from raising additional revenue. The People’s Budget would increase revenue by roughly $61 billion in calendar year 2015, $419 billion in 2016, and $632 billion in 2017.” At present, over 50% of House Democrats support this progressive budget plan.
Then there is the Budget pushed and recently passed along party lines by Republicans. As expected, the GOP budget is based on a failed neo-liberal economic model guided more by ideology and short-sighted corporate interests than by citizen interests. It would result in a $4 trillion in revenue loss over a decade that would have to be offset by spending cuts. Social safety net programs like Medicaid and SNAP, (or food stamps) are targeted for cuts. Where the Progressive Caucus budget would eliminate the economically destructive sequester cap, the Republican budget maintains it. It pushes austerity for you and I while maintaining tax breaks and subsidies for the wealthiest.
As the populist Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont stated,“At a time of massive wealth and income inequality, the Republicans apparently believe that the richest people in America need to be made even richer. It is apparently not good enough that 99 percent of all new income today is going to the top 1 percent. It is not good enough that the top one-tenth of one percent today own almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. Clearly, in Republican eyes, the wealthy and the powerful need more help. Not only should they not be asked to pay more in taxes, the Republicans believe that we should cut tax rates for millionaires and billionaires. At a time when almost 20 percent of our children live in poverty, by far the highest childhood poverty rate of any major country on earth, my Republican colleagues think that maybe we should raise the childhood poverty rate a bit higher by cutting childcare, Head Start, the Child Tax Credit and nutrition assistance for hungry kids. In other words, this budget is more than just a very long list of numbers. The federal budget is about our national priorities and our values. It is about who we are as a nation and what we stand for. It’s about how we assess the problems facing our country and how we resolve them.”
That last line gets to the nitty-gritty of the issue of priorities and the role of government. As I wrote before, the reason governments exist is to protect the common security of citizens. Money collected from citizens through taxes is, our should be, required to serve the common good. Europeans understand this, paying more than we do in taxes, but getting much more social and economic security for their investment.
The power of corporate influence is key here. From the Republican budget, written largely by ALEC, the Kochs, and the Fossil Fuel industry to the larger global influence of multinationals in trade agreements like NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, corporations are becoming unelected governments. As recently revealed by Wiki-Leaks from a leaked draft, the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal, as written, will dramatically expand the power of corporations to use closed-door tribunals to challenge and even supersede domestic laws including environmental, labor, public health, and other protections. Global corporations are becoming supranational governments, buying politicians, writing laws and dictating domestic policy not just to countries like Greece but to the U.S. – if we allow it.
Corporate influence is increasingly undermining and replacing the original purpose of government based on the citizen security with a system of serfdom, enforced poverty and global destruction. I am reminded here of what was written in our own Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the People to alter or to abolish it.”
At issue is, who is being represented, in short, whose government is this? We still have the power to take back a Representative Republic of, by, and for the People from those who would cede it to the self-serving tyranny of corporate dictatorship. Together, overcoming the false divisions of phoney partisan politics that we are cynically fed, we can insist that details of trade agreements like the TPP are made open to the public and that we have a say. We can unite demanding budget priorities that put People before Profits. Together we can target and defeat corrupt politicians who prioritize private interests and corporate agendas over the common good. We can support the Move to Amend effort demanding legislation that overturns corporate personhood, instituting electoral reform and anti-corruption laws that remove the money influence from politics. Our future, our real security and our freedom are ours to defend or to squander. The time to act is now or as Rep. Alan Grayson says, "Pucker up and kiss this country goodbye".