Monday, May 09, 2016

Defending the Process

I don't mean to sound Cromwellian but I'm sure feeling the vibe.

Isn't it time we expected our elected representatives to uphold the integrity of the process of government? Isn't it time we noticed the lousy job they've been doing at it?

In his book, The Predator State,  James Galbraith explores how democracy came to be displaced in his homeland, the United States.

Part of it, we know, arose out of America's "bought and paid for" Congress, a legislative body beset by reprobates, brigands and scofflaws. The 2014 study by Gilens and Page (Princeton and Northwestern respectively) demonstrates how the legislative apparatus has been hijacked into service of an oligarchy at the expense of the American people, the electorate.

"Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organised groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence."

"...When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organised interests, they generally lose. Moreover, because of the strong status quo bias built into the US political system, even when fairly large majorities of Americans favour policy change, they generally do not get it."

"...Americans do enjoy many features central to democratic governance, such as regular elections, freedom of speech and association and a widespread (if still contested) franchise. But we believe that if policymaking is dominated by powerful business organisations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America's claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened."

But it's all about checks and balances, right? There's still the executive branch and the judiciary to uphold American democracy, surely. No, sorry.

The judiciary? That myth fell apart when the rightwing majority of the court rammed through the Citizens United case, about as blatant an example of judicial sophistry in service to corporatism as one could imagine. The list goes on.

When the flavour of justice dispensed depends on who holds power long enough to appoint a politically partisan bench of their liking, that's not justice. That's a rigged court.

Well, what about the executive branch? What about it? The White House has become a veritable gin palace from whence even senior appointments are routinely handed out on partisan whim. Galbraith notes that, during Bush-Cheney, industry shills dominated the regulatory apparatus in every major government department.

But there's always the Fourth Estate, the media. No, sorry, that too has gone corporate which often means the public hear what the corporate media wants to report how the corporate media wants it reported. Information loses its currency and is replaced by messaging. The electorate loses its footing. If you can control what the electorate hears, you have a good chance at controlling what the electorate thinks and that translates into influencing how the electorate votes. Bingo!!!

Galbraith explains that the Predator State is a government effectively captured but not for the purpose of dismantling some obstacle to commerce and free market capitalism. Just the opposite. The purpose is parasitic - to control government, expand it where useful, and grow fat on its blood.

As Joe Stiglitz chronicles in, The Price of Inequality, most inequality in America today is neither merit nor market based. It is legislated. This is achieved through an endless litany of tax policies, exemptions, deferrals, grants, subsidies and preferential access to public goods and services either free or at grossly discounted values. Through these "favours" wealth is sapped from the state, taken out of the pockets of blue and white collar wage earners, and trickled up into the pockets of the targeted beneficiaries of these largely little known policies. 

How does all of this square with what democracy was supposed to be. A few quotes from Teddy Roosevelt's 1910 Square Deal speech should suffice.

"In every wise struggle for human betterment one of the main objects, and often the only object, has been to achieve in large measure equality of opportunity. In the struggle for this great end, nations rise from barbarism to civilization, and through it people press forward from one stage of enlightenment to the next. One of the chief factors in progress is the destruction of special privilege. The essence of any struggle for healthy liberty has always been, and must always be, to take from some one man or class of men the right to enjoy power, or wealth, or position, or immunity, which has not been earned by service to his or their fellows.

"At many stages in the advance of humanity, this conflict between the men who possess more than they have earned and the men who have earned more than they possess is the central condition of progress. In our day it appears as the struggle of freemen to gain and hold the right of self-government as against the special interests, who twist the methods of free government into machinery for defeating the popular will. At every stage, and under all circumstances, the essence of the struggle is to equalize opportunity, destroy privilege, and give to the life and citizenship of every individual the highest possible value both to himself and to the commonwealth.

"Practical equality of opportunity for all citizens, when we achieve it, will have two great results. First, every man will have a fair chance to make of himself all that in him lies; to reach the highest point to which his capacities, unassisted by special privilege of his own and unhampered by the special privilege of others, can carry him, and to get for himself and his family substantially what he has earned. Second, equality of opportunity means that the commonwealth will get from every citizen the highest service of which he is capable. No man who carries the burden of the special privileges of another can give to the commonwealth that service to which it is fairly entitled.

"We must drive the special interests out of politics. ... For every special interest is entitled to justice, but not one is entitled to a vote in Congress, to a voice on the bench, or to representation in any public office. The Constitution guarantees protection to property, and we must make that promise good. But it does not give the right of suffrage to any corporation."

"...The citizens of the United States must effectively control the mighty commercial forces which they have called into being.

"There can be no effective control of corporations while their political activity remains. To put an end to it will be neither a short nor an easy task, but it can be done.

"We must have complete and effective publicity of corporate affairs, so that the people may know beyond peradventure whether the corporations obey the law and whether their management entitles them to the confidence of the public. It is necessary that laws should be passed to prohibit the use of corporate funds directly or indirectly for political purposes; it is still more necessary that such laws should be thoroughly enforced. Corporate expenditures for political purposes, and especially such expenditures by public service corporations, have supplied one of the principal sources of corruption in our political affairs."

"...The absence of effective State, and, especially, national, restraint upon unfair money-getting has tended to create a small class of enormously wealthy and economically powerful men, whose chief object is to hold and increase their power. The prime need to is to change the conditions which enable these men to accumulate power which it is not for the general welfare that they should hold or exercise. We grudge no man a fortune which represents his own power and sagacity, when exercised with entire regard to the welfare of his fellows.

"No man should receive a dollar unless that dollar has been fairly earned. Every dollar received should represent a dollar’s worth of service rendered — not gambling in stocks, but service rendered. The really big fortune, the swollen fortune, by the mere fact of its size acquires qualities which differentiate it in kind as well as in degree from what is possessed by men of relatively small means. Therefore, I believe in a graduated income tax on big fortunes, and in another tax which is far more easily collected and far more effective — a graduated inheritance tax on big fortunes, properly safeguarded against evasion, and increasing rapidly in amount with the size of the estate."

That's Teddy Roosevelt speaking, the guy who led his Roughriders in the charge up San Juan hill during the Spanish-American war, who lost his sight in one eye to his favourite sport, bare knuckle boxing. That guy was no pinko pantywaist. A lot of his speech was quoting from Abraham Lincoln. Both of these guys are up there on Mt. Rushmore. They're the real deal. 

But what about Canada, what about us? How would we know how we stack up against other democracies? I'm pretty sure we're nowhere near as degraded as our southern cousins. After all they had to pick between Ted Cruz and Don Trump - Jeebus!! But we're by no means out of the woods either.

During the Harper era it was said, in jest I hope, that Canada was ruled by the 3 CPCs - the Conservative Party of Canada, the Calgary Petroleum Club, and the Communist Party of China. I'm sure that was a joke but not entirely.

China got away with a lot of privilege, special consideration. One feature of Chinese overseas investment is its policy of acquiring businesses that it then controls and operates with Chinese personnel. They prefer to bring their own people in to take jobs in foreign countries. They did that here too. Governments, federal and provincial, let it slip until it triggered a public hue and cry. Then, and only then, did they curb it - a little.

Think the Calgary Petroleum Club doesn't govern? Well, meet the National Energy Board. Go take a look at the executive. It's dominated by industry shills who came from the energy industry and who will return to the energy industry. 

Hmm, let's see - in a conflict between the public interest and the corporate interest, what side will they come down on? Don't ask people in British Columbia. We know. We watched the rigged process of the NEB hearings on the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline initiative. They came out to Vancouver Island for show hearings and they were afraid, holding their due process behind closed doors well removed from the public.

But, of course, Harper's gone and we've got a new government, a new broom, Justin Trudeau. He won't put up with that nonsense will he? Apparently he will. He's kept 12 of Harper's 13 appointees, virtually the entire NEB. It's still an industry dominated board. Oh dear.

And Trudeau is determined to succeed where Harper failed. Trudeau is determined to fulfil Harper's quest to construct a hazmat pipeline to transport hazmat dilbit from Athabasca to "tidewater." Let's just drop this for now and move on to other things.

Some mention has to be made of the Saudi Death Wagon deal. Taking another leaf out of Harper's book, Trudeau lied. He said that all the approvals had been completed by the Conservative government. Now that was not exactly true. It wasn't true at all. There were two requirements dealing with human rights matters and they were rubber stamped by Stephane Dion. The worst part was when Trudeau dismissed these armoured fighting vehicles as "jeeps." 

Enough with the oil, enough with the tanks. What else? Oh, yeah, what about those revenuers, the boys and girls of the Canada Revenue Agency? They still haven't explained that sweetheart deal they did with KPMG and its clients for their tax evasion scheme in the Isle of Man. Nobody was prosecuted, not even the KPMG officials who masterminded the scheme and sold it to the firm's clients. The criminal minds got off the hook. As for the clients, they got "Mulroneyed" - all they had to pay back was the principal and a small bit of interest - not a dime in penalties. Nobody was ever supposed to be the wiser, you see. This was all supposed to be kept on the QT.

Now we're getting a look at how this all works between regulator, the revenue agency, and the regulated, the financial sector giants like KPMG. And we find out how they often socialize, on the private sector's tab. Then we find how senior officers of the tax authority log their pensionable time and then land a cushy and lucrative spot in the private sector, pocketing both a generous government pension and their considerable private sector salary and benefits. 

Regulator meet regulated - oh, sorry, you're one and the same. Now if you can think of a better vehicle for corrupt influence peddling, do let me know. We didn't invent this. It's been going on in America, Japan and other developed economies for a long time.

Suddenly Teddy Roosevelt's warnings from a century ago don't sound historically quaint. We need to heed those messages now. We need leadership that will defend the process, not share it with special interests, not accommodate corruptive forces.

I think it's time for us to take stock, explore the health of our democracy and our governmental institutions, and see what's needed in the way of democratic rehabilitation. We're not in the same sinking boat as the Americans but we do have some dry rot in the transom. You can't ignore it. It won't go away. It will only worsen, by fits and starts. You've got to deal with it and, if you don't, you're finished.


Steve said...

Citzens unitedis the poster child for process over decency.

chris said...

Reagan and Thatcher told us that government is the problem and not the solution. Forty years on a significant seething mass of the people agree. One of my neighbours, for instance, blame all his troubles including arthritis on the evil gummint. As you might guess any money spent on things other than his interests are classified as waste.

I don't go over there much.

Yesterday I read a piece in Vox (h/t Krugman), an interview with Norm Ornstein of, gag me with a spoon, the AEI. worth a read and also applies to your piece below on Oppenheimer's sunny outlook.

chris said...

Forgot the quote:

"Over many years, they've adopted strategies that have trivialized and delegitimized government."

The Mound of Sound said...

Thanks for the link, Chris. It was a thoughtful interview, albeit depressing.

the salamander said...

.. you took no prisoners .. c'est la vie ..

chris said...

More. More depressing.

From that, this:

And from that, this:

"In 1995, after winning a majority in the House for the first time in forty years, one of the first things the new Republican House leadership did was gut Congress’s workforce. They cut the “professional staff” (the lawyers, economists, and investigators who work for committees rather than individual members) by a third. They reduced the “legislative support staff” (the auditors, analysts, and subject-matter experts at the Government Accountability Office [GAO], the Congressional Research Service [CRS], and so on) by a third, too, and killed off the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) entirely. And they fundamentally dismantled the old committee structure, centralizing power in the House speaker’s office and discouraging members and their staff from performing their own policy research."

Well hello Stephen Harper!

Anonymous said...

Good article. It's not only corporatism defiling our democracy, though, is it? Countries try it on as well. We do a merry tapdance of obeisance to the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Our government through the non-oversight of CBSA and intense Israeli government lobbying will no doubt ban a dubious French comedian from entering the country because he has anti-semitic views. I mean we must be protected, n'est pas? Just like George Galloway the UK MP was denied entry in 2009 for leading that food convoy into Gaza, and according to the same Star article "Kenney ordered officials in the immigration department not to renew a $2.1-million contract to the Canadian Arab Federation to provide immigrant language instruction. The government may also scrap a $500,000 contract to help immigrants find jobs when it expires next year." Lovely folk, eh? Not a modicum of mercy there from the primeval ooze crowd for our supposedly wonderful secular multicultural society.

It's also now illegal to have anything but blue sky thoughts about Netanyahu's "government" after the anti-BDS motion was passed by 228 "thoughtful" MPs that would have been more if the NDP hadn't waffled on wording.

Still Marine Le Pen was let in to Canada to blab and yap her right wing hating French views the other month. Let me see. Ah yes. Le Pen supports Israel. Canadians had zero problem ignoring her anyway.

So Donald Trump will be allowed to visit us if he wants to and harangue and vilify us, because he's never uttered hate speech in all his life now has he, and of course, he supports Benny the Yahoo.

CBC Radio reported today on the Israeli policy of destroying the houses of all the relatives of Palestinians convicted of murdering Israelis with an on site report of demolition sounds. Guilt by association and no doubt a breach of International Human Rights, but everyone gave up on that sham years ago. Hey, how did the report that get past the censors? The CPC will have to ask stupid questions in Parliament.

Who runs this country, our home and native land? Hard to tell because of the oligarchic corporate and foreign stranglehold on thought and MSM bullshit we get fed, and of course US, Iraeli and Saudi influence, the latter now on a PR campaign here. It sure isn't the people we voted for, but they're hypnotized anyway. And the rest of us are trained like seals to make appropriate barking noises of approval.

Makes you want to turn to drink.

Unknown said...

"democratic rehabilitation." Exactly right Mound. We also need to start looking at how the Canadian public, maybe represented by a committee or group that the Fed. government is accountable to.No more behind closed doors policy decisions. Full transparancy and citizen involvement. I'm tired of, once our governments get voted in, they go rogue.Mulcair captured the essence of governments hijacking process. He said about Harper "He likes the power, he doesn't like to govern."