Society's Tool for Outlawing Corruption and Promoting Integrity
I know folks from our former church and similar churches, who work with Haitians, supporting a long-term reforestation project that has seen 15 million new trees planted and grown, and several watersheds reforested. The US side of this project is called the Haiti Reforestation Partnership; the Haitian side is called CODEP, for Cooperative Development Project.
It's an inspiring track record in the midst of a country that barely has a nickel's worth of government. No one picks up the trash, so trash just gets burned. The air stinks. And no one takes care of the roads. Rains come, rains on denuded hillsides turn into flows of mud, and most bridges get washed out. The hills that have been reforested by CODEP release the rains more slowly and the water stays clear. The bridges remain intact. The local farmers who've pulled off the magic of reforesting their hillsides watch with pride as Nature tests them, and indirectly applauds them for having done well.
But they are not the nation. And the nation has not been as successful as the farmers of CODEP. As the saying goes, "If you really believe that you'd be better off without a Government, go live in Haiti." It's how you'll discover just how necessary, and valuable, a decently run Government actually is.
It's a useful reminder to the rest of us. America works because we have always believed that competent nations require competent governments and benefit in thousands of ways from that competence.
Americans, led by our government, fought World War II both in Europe and in the Pacific, forcing Germany to surrender on the war's European front, forcing Japan to surrender on the war's Pacific front. And then America, using its Government to do so, brought its GIs home, passed the GI Bill, and sent millions of returning GIs to college, all at the same time. Those were crowded years on American campuses. I know. My dad had just become a college professor at the University of Denver and I was still a little kid. Four of us - my dad and mom and my sister and I - lived in a tiny butler hut apartment, and all the families we knew were every bit as squeezed as we were. But it was worth it. All those GIs were being given the college years they'd been promised. Government mattered, and under its guidance, America began its journey of Prosperity Capitalism. The American Dream was real. Working Americans at all income levels benefited from the country's rising economic energy.
But then in the 1970s, this nation's One Percenters grew restive. They personally disliked the Prosperity Capitalism economy FDR had authored, in which Government protects working Americans by holding in check the greed of the One Percent.
And so the One Percenters put their propagandists to work. Multi-millionaire beer baron Joseph Coors gave Ronald Reagan a five minute daily spot on the radio, much like Paul Harvey's radio show of the same period, and assigned Reagan a simple mission. Start trashing "Government." Convert America's feelings toward Government from trust and respect to feelings of mistrust and disdain.
In other words, Coors and Reagan had a plan. Fool Americans into thinking "Government is always bad" so that Government can be forced to unleash the One Percent. It was time to bring Prosperity Capitalism to an end, ditch the American Dream, and get on with the serious business of turning millionaires into gazillionaires.
The Private Sector Economy had been a source of rising wages and shared prosperity for three decades. Those were the years that put the Private Sector's bright side on display, its honorable side, its patriotic side.
Coors and all the other gazillionaires of his stripe were tired of the virtuous principles that Government compelled them to live within. They may have been awash in Temptation, but, "Dammit, Government Regulations are Preventing Us from Turning Temptation into Corruption. This Honorable Capitalism Nonsense Has Got to End."
Well, I'm putting words in their mouth. Or, more accurately, I'm attempting to convert their private thoughts into plainly spoken words.
They were more than ready. Coors and Reagan were front men for a generation of ravening financiers and industrialists. Capture the Government. Corrupt the Private Sector Economy. Leave America's wage earners behind. Enrich the One Percent at breakneck speeds. It was Coors' mission, Reagan's mission, the One Percent's mission.
But everything hinged on getting the American people to turn their backs on Government. For quite a long time Americans generally had seen Government as their protector. Those of the One Percent were desperate to fool America's working people into forgetting just how valuable an ally Government had been.
The Coors-Reagan strategy worked. It wasn't hard to find stories of overworked regulators mishandling the issues that came across their desks. It wasn't that hard, fifty years after the start of the Great Depression, to suggest that yesterday's principles were no longer necessary.
It should have been harder. A Democratic Party that had truly appreciated the distinction between Prosperity Capitalism and Enrichment Capitalism would have fought back. It would have said just what I am saying here. Capitalism is efficient and innovative and a generator of prosperity, but Capitalists are human, they are susceptible to Temptation, and when the nation's top capitalists are permitted to yield to Temptation, the economy they give us is one of gross Corruption.
"To keep Capitalism safe and healthy," the Democratic Party could have said, "Government will always have to regulate the appetites of America's top Capitalists."
But the Democrats didn't say that.
And so the Coors-Reagan coup against Prosperity Capitalism succeeded. The American Dream was put into a deep slumber. Enrichment Capitalism took over as "The New Normal." And legions of propagandists would pretend that we were ever so much better off for letting the greedy rich become as rich as possible, devil take the hindmost.
Told retrospectively, it's a relatively simple story of the American people being swindled by clever propagandists.
Now it's time to undo the central misunderstanding this propaganda campaign has driven into the American consciousness.
"Government" isn't inherently bad. In fact, given the inherent corruptibility of our private sector's top capitalists, "Government" is the only tool we have that's strong enough to prevent the Rich from trampling the Poor.
There is a lesson here. It is, in fact, the central lesson in the American story. America's higher potential can never be realized in an America whose economy no longer functions as an engine of progress for the entire American workforce. Enrichment Capitalism isn't the tool of national progress that it pretends to be. It's simply a tool for aiding and abetting the corruption of the super-rich. It serves its clients. What it does not serve is America.
America's higher promise cannot be realized when its politicians have sworn off all those vows of honesty they might once have made, in order to become the willing enablers of the very wealthy. They prove their fealty by echoing the message of their masters and declaring that "Big Government" is always "The Problem."
Reaganism - as an ideology - helped cause the death of the American Dream. Or, more accurately, the willful murder of the American Dream.
So why is it that Tip O'Neill didn't blow the whistle on all this? Why is it that Bill Clinton didn't blow the whistle? Or Al Gore? Or Barack Obama? Or Hillary Clinton, for that matter? And why is it that Bernie Sanders still hasn't gotten the story straight? Or that Elizabeth Warren hasn't gotten the story straight?
It's because the good guys have never set themselves the high bar that ought to be the price of admission into the National Democratic Party. The Republicans will always be the Party of the Wealthy. And so Republicans have an inherent interest in slandering the role of "Government," always and forever.
And the Democrats shouldn't settle for the role Conservatives want to put them in, as the "Social Liberals who don't know anything about Rich Guy Capitalism."
The Democrats, instead, now have to be the party that recasts Government as the essential tool for ensuring the Systemic Integrity of our Capitalist Economy and our entire nation.
It is the inherent corruptibility of our Private Sector Capitalist Economy that forces Government into the role of being America's Integrity Watchdog.
And since that's the role Government has to play, America's liberals have a whole passel of responsibilities they need to step up to. As Democrats, they have quite a mission to fulfill. They have a civilization-saving historical role to play. They have to be the Party of Honorable and Effective Government. They have to be the Party that enforces Capitalist Integrity. They have to be the Party that champions Prosperity Capitalism. They have to be the Party that Restores the American Dream.
And, to do all that, they have to be the Party that reaches out to grassroots Americans of all persuasions; they have to be the Party that says, "we want you to know how we see things. But we also very much want to understand what's worrying you.
"Government is an art form, a necessary art form, and because we believe in Government, as an essential tool of our democracy, we have to believe in listening to the American people. All the people. All the time."
History's assignment to the Democratic Party is both sobering and uplifting. It is for the Democrats to be "the Party of Government," to be "the Party of Capitalist Integrity," and to be "the Party of Prosperity Capitalism." It is also for the Democratic Party to be the Party that opposes for America a culture of abusiveness, favoring instead for America a nurturing culture.
We Democrats are now the inheritors of Lincoln's tradition, and because we are, we therefore embrace his words from the Gettysburg Address. "Government of the people, by the people, and for the people."
Why is the Democratic Party of today nowhere near the standard I'm defining here?
There's nothing I say here that's outside the aspirations of America's better angels.
What's different is the imaginative reach. The thinking patterns of Democrats have always been incremental. Accept the system we have inherited and then improve on it.
But now that the world's industrialized powers - including America - have it within their means to destroy Nature's carrying capacity and jeopardize the Earth's ability to support a healthy humanity - incremental habits have become dated.
If humanity is to survive on Planet Earth, we reformers will have to set aside our habits of incrementalism and teach ourselves to see the challenges of a better future in fully systemic terms. We Democrats. We Americans. We liberals, in whatever meaning that word might have.
Our teachers have failed us. Show me the economist who says, straight up, that capitalism is both innovative and corruptible. Show me the economist, or the political scientist, whose straight-up message is that curbing the inherent corruptibility of the capitalist sector is Job One for the President, for the Congress, and for the Courts. And, indirectly, for the American People.
The message that all of them ought to have given the rest of us is simple. Capitalism is remarkable, but capitalists as individuals are exposed to massive levels of temptation and are perpetually corruptible. So Government's job is always to protect capitalism, as a system, while always curbing the corruptibility of its capitalist chieftains.
Which in turn means that the job of Congress is to curb the corruptibility of the nation's capitalist chieftains.
Which in turn means that the job of the American people is to elect legislators who are prepared to curb the corruptibility of the nation's capitalist chieftains.
Which in turn means that the job of the Supreme Court is to support curbs on the corruptibility of the elites, in order to protect the integrity of America's long-run mission. And in order to protect the very survival of Planet Earth as a human-friendly place for the whole of the human race.
But without that logic on full public display, who in the Democratic Party will ever get the message? The Democrats, alas, persist in being a party of incremental thinkers, thinkers who can't be bothered to develop a systemic message about America's higher and better future.
It's such a regrettable failure. If the party's leaders cannot rouse themselves to the need for a systemic message, how are the members and volunteers of the Democratic Party ever to get the message? One of the central missions of the people's party will always be that of curbing the appetites of the corruptible and voracious rich, but who will know, if Tom Perez and Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi never get around to saying so?
And because the nation's economists never figured it out, and because the Democrats, as the current heirs to Lincoln have never figured it out, and because folks who run for office have never properly explained it to the American people, the American people haven't figured it out either.
Oh, yes, a few socialists think they've figured it out. But they haven't. The problem isn't capitalism, per se. It's the corruptibility of capitalists. The inherent but preventable corruptibility of capitalists - that becomes the central challenge to our Government in every generation. FDR rose to the challenge. It will always be the role of the people's party to rise to that challenge.
Always. In every generation. Because - and we can count on it - every single generation of capitalists will crave a corruptible Government and the restoration of Enrichment Capitalism.
And every new generation of Americans will have to say to them, "Come on, boys, just hang it up, will you? PLEASE!!! We're trying to run a nurturing America here. We're not interested in your cockamamie schemes to convert our nurturing America into your abusive America. So start acting like honest neighbors, and stop behaving like crooked jerks!"
And the propagandists of capitalist corruption will say, in response, that "Markets are smarter than Governments." But that's not the point. Eric Beinhocker - almost alone among commentators on such matters - notes that the issue isn't really the behavior of markets, it's the social psychology of powerful firms. Companies of great size and/or great wealth will always have an inherent tendency to breed cultures of arrogance at the top, and even though some of them will have honorable leaders, far too many of them won't. They'll experience Temptation. They'll say "Yes" to Corruption. And that's precisely why Government will always need to play the role of American capitalism's anti-corruption cop.
We humans have known this for a long time. A very long time. That in situations of great opportunity, we will experience intense temptation. Because we're human. And if no one stops us, we'll embrace temptation to the point of corruption. Those who wrote the Old Testament knew this. That's what the story of David and Bathsheba was all about. Temptation ripening into corruption. It's been part of humanity's story for as long as our forebears have been creating organizations and amassing wealth. A long long time.
So how is any nation, including ours, to solve the problem of keeping Government honest enough to fulfill its mission of keeping our wealthy Capitalists honest as well?
Solving the honesty problem has to begin with the political party that's in the role of playing defense against the ambitions and the corruptions of the super-rich.
The Democrats have to acknowledge the inherent corruptibility of America's capitalist elites. Its fund-raisers may not care for that, but it has to be done. Not till it talks openly and frankly about the inherent corruptibility of the nation's capitalists can the Democratic Party then move to the topic of how to keep its capitalists honest, and, in doing so, keep our Capitalist Economy honest.
And then, beyond that, to the topic of how to keep Government honest. The only way for us to find real solutions to this is to make sure, first, that we have named the real problem.
Let's start by describing what we already know to be true.
Wealthy conservatives take what I will call the Venus Flytrap approach to winning power and corrupting the system. Seduce. Paralyze. Devour.
Propagandists like Reagan, and Fox, and Trump, and Gingrich, and dozens of others are all in the Seduce America business. Scam the American people into believing that Capitalism is inherently honest and that Government is inherently crooked. So that they will elect crooks to public office, Senators and Congresspeople dedicated to the mission of protecting American Capitalism's dark side.
Then, with an army of pawns in public office, paralyze the system. Send thousands of lobbyists over to Capitol Hill to "help" their favorite Senators and Congress Members write the laws that will pretend to regulate corrupt companies without actually doing so.
And put fierce right-wingers into the nation's federal courts, so that companies who screw their workers will always be immunized against liability.
Paralyze the writing of the laws. Paralyze the functioning of the "justice" system.
And, finally, in the coup de grace, Devour. Freeze the wages of working Americans. And eliminate all sorts of taxes on wealthy Americans.
That's the environment that Dark Capitalism will always try to create. The environment that the nation's Pro-Corruption Party will perennially champion.
And so that's the challenge that the nation's Anti-Corruption Party has to take on.
How is it to keep its own office-holders from turning into sellouts?
The Democrats will have to begin by building a fierce commitment to a Government of Integrity and a Capitalism of Integrity, not just in its own ranks, but across the nation, in every precinct. An America of Integrity fulfills its higher promise. An America of Corruption loses its way and in time, Mother Nature shuts down on us and our civilization perishes. It's a fierce clash of principles, with not just America's survival in the balance, but the Earth's well-being and the survival of all humanity. The greater the public commitment to the party's mission, the more accountable the party's elected officials become.
But it's not just a battle over integrity. It's a battle over the fruits of economic growth. Democrats have to revive the American Dream. The job market has to be revived. Foreign trade has to be honorable - America shouldn't import goods if the workers overseas have been paid starvation wages; America shouldn't import goods made by companies that don't adhere to high environmental standards.
Wages have to rise for all Americans, at rates that keep pace with the productivity growth of the American economy.
And Democrats have to eliminate all the tax-free looting that Wall Street's corrupt egotists see as their prescriptive right.
At the same time, Democrats have to prove that all those capitalists who belong to the honorable side of the nation's capitalist economy can look forward to a bright future. An honest game has to work well for all its honest participants.
Revolving door bribery has to outlawed. Yesterday a Congressman on the public payroll, today a lobbyist making three times as much, and serving corporate America - that has to end. Leave Congress and you shouldn't become anybody's lobbyist for at least five years. You don't get to play in the crooked corridors of Washington's Venus Flytrap network.
What have I just done? I've just focused on what Washington would call "inside baseball."
But the best way to protect the integrity of government is to bring the American people on board. Create programs that put the American economy once again on the side of the American people. And enlist the American people in the crusade for an America of systemic well-being. A nurturing America. An honorable America. An America that rises to its responsibilities, and in so doing, an America that earns its higher freedoms.
Create an agenda that delivers government of the people, by the people, and for the people. Deliver an economy that delivers the American Dream, that delivers rising wages.
And deliver on the technology front. America's technology portfolio should be in the hands of honest corporations that won't wreck the climate, that won't poison the oceans, and that won't poison the American people.
Deliver on the health front. Diets that promote poor health and a declining life expectancy may have their seductive features, but every food producing company in America should, before everything else, be in the healthy foods and healthy people business.
Spotty integrity isn't enough. The Democratic Party needs to enlist all of us in a campaign for an America of wraparound integrity.
So integrity - looking ahead - isn't just about catching public officials in the act of cheating. Trump likes to fire government officials who blow the whistle on cheaters in the Trump administration. That has to end, but integrity for America has to be a much deeper principle than we might now envision.
"Government" is the tool by which today's Americans works out our responsibilities for America's healthy future. It's a tool that calls on us to begin by posing problems. And asking questions. An honorable Government consults the people it serves, and it moves forward best when its purposes have been evolved by an engaged public. When Government serves the mission of helping us achieve a nurturing America, when Government serves the mission of helping us achieve an honorable Capitalism, when Government serves the mission of advancing our character - much as we would expect it to do in our small towns, where everyone knows everyone, where neighbors keep faith with neighbors - then we can truly speak of a Government of Integrity. It's not just an integrity of rules. It's about the integrity of the American Journey. Which, I think, is what Lincoln hoped for when he called on us to create government of the people, by the people, and for the people.
Lincoln was speaking from the Gettysburg battlefield. It wasn't a site for talking about rules or regulations. Lincoln was invoking the journey of the heart that a caring nation embarks on, and doing so in much the same spirit that smaller communities regularly embark on their own journeys of the heart.
"Government" is the tool by which our nation reins in the inherent corruptibility of our capitalist elites and the Capitalism Sector they run. But it's also the tool by which we as a people figure out how to realize our higher promise. It needs to be the tool by which we expand our own decency.
That - too - is the sort of comment one never gets from economists.
But it is the sort of comment we would have gotten from Lincoln, so let's lean into the promise of our nation, honorably and with warmth, and thrill to the accomplishments that still lie ahead.
Steven Howard Johnson