Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | November 22, 2011

Distractions are damaging our economy

“Happy is he who can trace effects to their causes.” ~ Roman poet Virgil

“Radical simply means ‘grasping things at the root.’” ~ Activist and author Angela Davis

A few weeks ago, I joined the queue to use self-checkout stations at a local Safeway when a woman wheeled her cart by the line. She loudly told her companion that the people using the self-checkout stations were “union busters” who would be responsible when cashiers were fired. With great effort, I bit my tongue.

I wanted to ask if she refuses to use email because it threatens postal service jobs. Does she shun ATMs because they threaten bank teller jobs? Does she eschew self-service gasoline pumps because they threaten gas station attendant jobs? Does she refuse antibiotics because they threaten leech-harvesting jobs? Does she avoid telephones because they threaten telegraph operator jobs? Does she decline automobile transportation because it threatens buggy-manufacturing jobs?

Man in barn with horse, buggy out front from the Flickr photostream of Boston Public Library

Of course, it’s too late for many of those jobs: Disruptive technology has already improved our lives, increased our efficiency, and, in the process, created and destroyed jobs. The woman at Safeway was directing her anger at the wrong target. Unemployment is often a symptom of a poorly educated workforce. Instead of trying to shame people using life-improving technology, she ought to be advocating for an education system that enables workers who lose jobs due to disruptive technology to get jobs in the industries that disruptive technologies create.

I’m reminded of that Safeway incident by our country’s current economic and political troubles, in particular the US Congress’s deficit super committee, which, as I’m writing, seems doomed to miss its deadline. Whether you’re sympathetic to Tea Partiers or Occupy Wall Street protesters or somewhere in between, we must focus on the root causes of our problems. Like the woman at Safeway, too often we’re distracted by symptoms.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), recently identified many root causes of our deficit:

“This country does, in fact, have a serious deficit problem, but the reality is the deficit was caused by two wars, unpaid for; it was caused by huge tax breaks for the wealthiest people in this country; it was caused by a recession that was the result of the greed, recklessness and illegal behavior on Wall Street. And if those are the causes of the deficit and the national debt, I will be damned if we’re going to balance the budget on the backs of the elderly, the sick, the children and the poor.”

I’d add one cause to Sanders’ list: The undue influence of money on our political system. We should not equate citizen speech with corporate speech and dollars. Our elected officials should not be more responsive to deep-pocketed donors than to constituents, whether those deep-pocketed donors are labor unions or multinational corporations. The problems that Sanders rightly identified were allowed to happen by politicians who were more loyal to donors’ agendas than constituents’ needs.

We know what we must do to fix our economic and political mess. The immediate solution requires raising taxes and cutting spending, including spending on “untouchable” programs protected by both parties. It requires reforming public employee pensions and re-regulating the financial sector.

Long-term, we must create a campaign finance system that doesn’t turn politicians into donors’ indentured servants and pass a constitutional amendment that overturns the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling that equates corporate speech and citizen speech.

Some of these actions will seem radical to ideologues on each end of the political spectrum, but that’s because these actions ignore political platforms and instead “grasp things at the root.”

To the degree that our representatives are willing shift their priorities from adhering to political ideology and pleasing deep-pocketed donors to doing what’s right for this country and its people, we’ll fix our economy.

The distinction between corporate and human speakers is significant. Although they make enormous contributions to our society, corporations are not actually members of it. They cannot vote or run for office. Because they may be managed and controlled by nonresidents, their interests may conflict in fundamental respects with the interests of eligible voters. The financial resources, legal structure, and instrumental orientation of corporations raise legitimate concerns about their role in the electoral process. Our lawmakers have a compelling constitutional basis, if not also a democratic duty, to take measures designed to guard against the potentially deleterious effects of corporate spending in local and national races.” ~ Justice John Paul Stevens’s dissenting opinion on the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling

 

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