Archive for the ‘true north’ category

Running Without The Lights On

November 2, 2015

Congress’ single digit approval rating did not just happen. It has been earned. The reasons for this dishonor, however, are not always clear or as simple as a few bad Senators or Representatives. The malaise of Congress reflects underlying changes in America itself.

Congress has always been about conflict followed by compromise and “horse trading”. These are the keys to avoiding outright fighting and ultimately dissolution of the Union. And special interests are not a new phenomena and probably are as old as time itself. In fact the American political process, including the Constitution, is built upon respecting minority views against the tyranny of the majority. So what’s so wrong with today’s Congress?

IMO, one cannot determine what is wrong if one only looks at Congress. The Congressional malaise runs far wider and deeper in the overall American fabric than one might quickly imagine. Here’s an opinion.

Around the 1960’s or 70’s, following the building of “oh so many” Levittowns, the American growth engine began to slow down. There were simply too few new frontiers which needed to be settled, bridges to build, and other infrastructure to established. And there were many other countries who wanted to settle their frontiers by themselves. This made it more and more difficult for American industry, broadly speaking, to “export US know-how, goods, and services for profit. With less total profit flowing into America, the growth of US per capita wealth slowed.

A shining plus for the US is its free and open society built upon a wild west mentality. Under this psyche, shared growth and shared wealth was scoffed at in favor of the “best and brightest” garnering as much as they could manage. Never the less, wages and productivity gains were shared far more fairly than today.

The American social change process has taken place slowly and much of it out of the public eye. For example, the average family income has stagnated while productivity gains have flowed mainly to the wealthy and higher levels of management.
Institutions of higher learning have forgotten (despite their claims otherwise) their main task of “educating the whole person” in favor of attracting students (read tuition income). Slowly America produced more and more bright engineers and scientist who could invent and build but thought little about any social fallout. Business graduates learned to run businesses well but when confronted with profit at any cost, chose the options which benefited themselves the most. Lawyers and too many doctors put themselves in the light of personal profit rather than justice or medical “do no harm”. And just as sad graduates from community colleges and general university degrees entered the outside world with few skills and little or no appreciation of what has occurred before.

Elected officials (who were also products of these same educational institutions) began to envy their private sector counter parts who were earning eye popping remunerations and wondered, “why not me”?

Lobbyist filled the need when legislators began to expect larger contributions “for their campaigns”. The private sector saw an opportunity to make even more wealth by spending more through lobbyists and direct campaign contributions. Life was good.

The media also evolved. While there was plenty of demand for entertainment and sports, media companies suddenly discovered they could market and make money from news shows. Major media enterprises quickly began to appreciate the money politicians and political parties were willing to spend on advertisements aired or printed by these media companies. Hmmm.

The country has slowly moved to a rudderless (morally and ethically) educated class leading the private and public sectors. Chief Executives have become comfortable earning 300 or more times as much as their average employee increasing this ratio by a factor of 10 from the past. Is this so wrong?

If one is honest and realistic, one realizes the problems we see today have existed before and today simply differ by matters of degree. Wealth accumulations has always driven American leaders and American leaders have always tried to set up rules (laws and regulations) so that their interests were favored. Legislators write the laws and the special interests have always tried to gain their favor. But there is a difference.

Higher education, business leaders, mid-level executives, professionals, Wall Street types, and the holders of old money all are operating with a defective internal compass. Too many see the world as a zero sum game and see their mission as to accumulate personally as much as possible. Rather than look at the long term or what historic events teach about today’s decisions, this broad cross section instead chooses to take first and ask about consequences later.

Congress’ pendulum has certainly drifted to far from center, this is true. So have so many other American institutions. For Americans it is difficult to look at other mature, slower growing countries and examine what they have done to ensure life is better for everyone. Democratic socialism is the term used to describe most of Europe, Canada, and Japan. In these countries, the national wealth is shared in a way that the bottom groups can live with dignity.

Democratic socialism is not a cure for what ails America today. Rather, when our citizens say no to “me first” American society and bring the balance of wealth distribution back to models like the 50’s and 60’s, the utility of Democratic Socialism to lock in these gain will become clear. And then, America will choose Universal Health Care, National Retirement Plans, and Universal public education through college.

The only question in my mind is how much worse things have to become (like a dysfunctional government, wide scale bankruptcy over college loans, unaffordable medical care, a broken infrastructure, and an even starker separation of the haves and have nots before change begins.