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Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Purchase System

A force of immense power and remarkable quality.  Experience of victory without equal demonstrated in the world time and again.  Seasoned veterans of economic and great world conflict.  An elite group full of pride and confidence and arrogance, and it has much to be arrogant about.

As a social institution, it is a study in paradox.  Unique coats of arms honor family accolades which recall an era of bygone royalty.  A creature entirely of lawmakers, its traditions are cherished.  The common people take pride in its achievements, but at the same time its power is deeply feared and kept in check. 

More paradox.  Its individuals are highly and professionally skilled.  They go about their business as both a science and career.  But they cultivate high society with a casual air.  And in most cases they acquire their status by purchase at a high cost, the higher the title the greater the cost.

Over the generations, this “purchase system” is condemned as “organized incompetence and institutionalized corruption.”  But its purpose ensures that those of status have a “stake in their society and are not dangerous to its institutions.”  The purchase system keeps the social institution “firmly in the hands of an aristocratic governing elite, who control most of the wealth and power of the nation.”

Structurally, a final paradox lies in the fact that this social institution is “both bureaucratized and decentralized.”  For that reason, there can never be a coup in the land of America’s mother country.  The British military proves itself time and again in the twenty plus years preceding the 1776 American Revolutionary War, fighting on five continents and defeating every power that stands against it.  All in all, it’s an impressive, efficient set-up.

And as with many of its other time-tested institutions, America adopts the economic component, if not the military structure, of the British purchase system.  America’s wealthy class seems to be firmly in the hands of an aristocratic governing elite, controlling most of the nation’s wealth.  And with wealth in the purchase system comes power (see cartoon).

The good news?  Thankfully, the wealthy class has, thanks to the purchase system, a critical stake in its society and consequently is not seen to be dangerous to its other institutions.  A revolution from above seems unlikely.

But there is bad news, too.  The startling graphic is that the 400 richest Americans possess more wealth than the bottom half (150 million) combined.  At the same time, wealth disparity which is already at record historical levels continues to widen.  Equality of opportunity for the masses of the unknown upon whom the strength of the nation derives --- essential to keeping the American Dream alive --- continues its decline in lock step with the shrinking middle class.

Newcomers, especially, are perhaps hit the hardest, their opportunity to achieve a realistic level of prosperity by any reasonable measure effectively foreclosed.  The 2016 US presidential election is still more than one year away.  But the issue of wealth disparity frames the coming debate, as the third great crisis in our nation’s history comes into full view.

A campaign ad for one of the political candidates strikes a chord of provocation in direct terms:

Which side are you on?  Are you on the side of ordinary people struggling to put food on the table, send their kids to college, live with some dignity --- or are you on the side of millionaires and billionaires whose greed has no end?

Sometimes --- in real life --- we are left with little alternative but to make choices and take sides.

-Michael D’Angelo

Friday, July 17, 2015

Steer or Drift? (Part Two)

(Editor’s note: This is the second and final segment in this two part series.  The first segment explained how the founding fathers provided the ship (our federal government) with a precise yet sophisticated steering mechanism.  Given a record level of wealth disparity in society today, the problem devolves to one main consideration: whether to steer the ship --- or simply to drift.)

In the present context, the promise of economic freedom and prosperity has exhausted its supply of natural opportunities.  Its redemption, attempted unsuccessfully by T.R. in 1912, fully 100 years ago, may prove to be beyond the patience, the power and the wisdom of the American people and their leaders.  But if the promise is not kept, democracy, as it familiar to us, will no longer exist.

What a wage earner needs, and what the interests of a democratic society require, is a constantly higher standard of living.  If it is to earn the wage earner’s loyalty, a democracy must recognize the legitimacy of his demand, and make the satisfaction of it the essence of its public policy.

Many say we have passed the point of critical mass where the drift of indiscriminate individualism requires the increasing control of property in the public interest.  A more scrupulous attention to federal responsibility naturally follows the concentration of corporate and individual wealth, dedicated only to the further proposition of perpetuating its gains.

Unless American independence emancipates itself from its traditional illusions, its spirit vanishes.  Perhaps the American people understood this if only instinctively by the 2008 election, choosing to seat a leader who has begun a new chapter in the process of steering once again.

But it doesn’t necessarily have to be either all steer or all drift.  The two principles can and should peaceably co-exist, working together if not always in perfect harmony.  Each, however, must make a legitimate concession to the other.  Both the individual and national interest must sacrifice their extreme elements for the joint benefit of individual distinction and social improvement.  The two principles must become subordinate to the higher principle of human welfare.

However, it can be expected that the privileged classes will be hospitable only to those reforms which spare their privileges.  But their privileges cannot be spared, to the extent that rational ideas may achieve any decisive influence in their political life.  The consequences would be the cultivation of contempt for intelligence, the excessive worship of tradition and complacent social subserviency.

It would be intriguing to view the vexing problem of inequality of opportunity through the lens of human welfare ahead of any other legitimate interest.  The goal would secure the benefits of the existing organization, while casting the net of opportunity over a larger social area.

Conservative principles, traditions and national history require only the gradual alteration of adverse social conditions in the name of progress.  Perhaps a people can best exhibit its common sense so clearly as to be contemporary without breaking the ties of historical anchorage.  To move too suddenly by uprooting any essential element of the national tradition would come at a severe penalty, as ordinary citizens discovered when they decided to cut slavery out of their national composition.

It is assumed the people wish to escape the need to regain their health by means of another surgical
operation.  They must then consider carefully how much of a reorganization of traditional
institutions, policies and ideas are necessary to achieve a new, more stable national balance.  They must also consider that any disloyalty to democracy by way of national policy will in the end be fatal to national unity.  In steering the ship toward meaningful equality of opportunity to complete our great unfinished business, seldom has so much been at stake.

-Michael D’Angelo