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Monday, June 26, 2017

Restoring Balance And Harmony (Part Two)

(Editor’s note: The first segment of this multi-part series discusses in part how we arrived at the greatest concentration of wealth disparity in American History. In Part Two, that discussion continues.)

Popular government devolves to the national level as the arbiter of important questions due to no particular virtue of the federal system.  However, a unique benefit of local government is that mistakes typically do not imperil national security.  This enables local governments to act as crucibles of experimental democracy.  With local grassroots support, the most successful of these experiments can serve as a model for federal reform.

But national lawmakers, in particular, seem to be crying out for help with the difficult task of legislating transparently in the public interest.  The finger may rightfully be pointed at the corruptive forces of money, used to prostrate honorable public servants from acting in the public interest.  Special interests for private gain have effectively accomplished this through the transformation of legislative office from a position of public trust to an individual prize.  It is said that the main role of a legislator these days is solely to insulate corporations from complying with the laws.  Society’s unrest naturally follows.

Meanwhile, a coefficient of legislative inertia and weakness is to some extent the expansion of executive and judicial power, which is compelled to fill the void.  Left to their own devices, these complimentary branches in a system of checks and balances sometimes overreach into the legislative sphere, throwing the separation of powers into harmful imbalance.  Allegations of imperial presidency as to one branch and judicial activism as to the other foster mutual mistrust, distracting from the primary mission.

It has taken a significant amount of time --- and stealth --- to amass a record level of wealth concentration.  Corruption of the legislative “umpire” has carved out a chasm which appears to be morally indefensible.  This confounds the quest to complete our great unfinished business, which calls upon our economic system to provide a fair shot for the many.

As applied to its lawmaking body, America simply has been unable to come to grips with the self-interest component of concentrated economic power on the human condition.  Put another way, what has Congress, the legislative branch, done to ameliorate wealth disparity and insure a level playing field?  If the answer is “nothing,” then it becomes compelling that something has to change.  Consider it a moral issue which can no longer be secondary.

But no matter how diligently we strive to create a more perfect union, collecting things and changing money remain the great motivation which obscures life’s true purpose. Sideshows in the political process have a tendency to swallow substance, reducing important questions to a partisan, smallness debate on the proper size of government --- not on whether government actually works.

At the same time, entrenched status quo interests spread dollars around systematically, muddying the water so that change becomes all but impossible. To check this, we must move beyond a traditional analysis affixed to economic cycles of boom and bust, war and peace. To progress meaningfully from one stage to the next in an upward course, we must aim higher.

Then how best to do this? One might say, “If the lawmakers don’t perform, throw them out and replace them at the next election with those who will perform.” If only apportioning equality of opportunity more equitably under the law were to be so easy. Those monopolizing opportunity would never agree to change the myriad of laws necessary to do so. And the monopolizers have sufficient power to ensure that these laws would never be changed. Therefore, it is folly to attempt changing these laws through present means.

Rather, the way to end the indignities is to unleash the ordinary citizen’s power to put them to an end.  That power comes from the ballot box.  Consequently, if the ordinary citizen’s vote to elect lawmakers accountable to the public interest is strengthened, the ordinary citizen will then be liberated to do the rest himself.  Do this and equality of opportunity is bound to improve over time.

How then can the ordinary citizen’s vote be strengthened to reasonably check the self-interest component of the federal lawmaker?  How can the ordinary citizen participate more effectively in the management of his and her government?  Put another way, since concentrated economic power rules, how can we limit big money in politics?  How can we re-direct emphasis away from the traditional measure of American success on a strictly material basis, moving the ancient principle of service back to the political center?

(Editor’s note:  Do not despair!  The next segment in this continuing multi-part series considers some practical solutions.  Yes, we can do this!)

-Michael D'Angelo

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Restoring Balance And Harmony (Part One)

(Editor’s note:  This is the first segment in a new multi-part series which begins here today. …)

The Founding Fathers’ plan for the new central government is nearly flawless.  The power of the government derives from the people and is distributed to three equal but independent authorities.  The legislative branch is to make the nation’s laws.  The executive enforces them.  And the judiciary interprets their legality.  By a system of checks and balances, each authority a check on one or both of the others, a separation  of powers virtually ensures that no one individual citizen or branch can amass inordinate status.

Many thorny political issues which simply cannot be foreseen will arise in the future.  But the US Constitution is a remarkably flexible undertaking.  It is said to be a living, breathing, organic document that is built to stand the tests of time that have befallen the noblest efforts of bygone eras.  And despite the predictions of European cynics who consistently predict its demise, the great American experiment in democracy now well into its third century remains a remarkable success by any reasonable measure.

But with praise aside, 21st century America society is not akin to utopia on earth.  Ordinary citizens complain through hardened experience that what was once a land of opportunity is now hardly recognizable as such.  While excuses abound, explanations are not simple.  At present, wealth concentration in the hands of the privileged few is at a higher point than at any time in our nation’s history.  Wealth concentration and monopolistic tendencies do foreclose opportunity.

The numbers tell a chilling story.  The 400 richest Americans today possess more wealth than the bottom half of the US population (150+ million) combined.  This primary economic factor is morally indefensible.  It is apparent that our economic system is failing to provide a fair shot for the many, confounding us from completing our great unfinished business.  As a result, American society is plagued with unrest, imbalance and disharmony.

How did we arrive here is a key question.  And can it be fixed?  In order to answer these questions fully, we must trace the root cause of society’s unrest to the beginning. 

In the Founding Fathers’ vision, the three branches of government are created equal.  But in reality each branch is hardly considered to be on an equal footing.

The Founding Fathers’ familiarity with the British parliamentary system places the legislative branch at the helm of the ship, setting the national course.  Indeed, the Founding Fathers design a sophisticated steering mechanism, meant to be operated by the legislative authority, or Congress.  Execution of the plan depends upon Congress to steer the ship by the making of laws for the public good in its sole and ultimate discretion.

By contrast, the executive branch is viewed as little more than a puppet of Congress, although George Washington places a distinctive stamp on the office.  In reality, the power of the so called President is virtually non-existent. The executive acts merely as a rubber stamp of the proposed legislation passed on to it by Congress.  The executive “veto” power provided for in the Constitution dare not be exercised.

And as for the poor judiciary branch, nobody really seems to know, or care, what the proper function of that branch is actually supposed to be.  Considered the weakest of the three branches, the authority of the judiciary to interpret the Constitution is not yet clear.  Exactly zero cases are decided by the US Supreme Court in its first 18 months of its existence.  So lightly is the Court regarded and slight its prestige that when the government moves from Philadelphia to its new home in Washington, DC in 1800, no provision is made for it to be housed.  Neither is money provided nor plans drawn up.

Andrew Jackson later changes the conception of the executive branch in a high profile manner, putting the executive on an equal footing with Congress.  Similarly, John Marshall defines the judicial branch, establishing itself as the arbiter of constitutional authority and affirming the Constitution as an instrument of the people.  Under Marshall’s leadership, the Court is molded into a major force. 

As the power and stature of the executive and judiciary authorities increase over time, the legislative branch, in turn, begins a slow yet precipitous decline.  Ominous warnings sounded by such distinguished citizens as Benjamin Franklin go unheeded.  And so the wounds to the legislative authority are largely self-inflicted, in a decline that can be foreseen.  As a result, the ship’s steering mechanism is damaged and fractured, with no accountable authority setting navigational direction.  Disharmony becomes the rule.

In the second segment we identify and begin to analyze the specific causes of legislative decline which lie at the heart of early 21st century unrest.

-Michael D’Angelo