Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Is Democracy for Sale?

I have been invited to participate in a panel designed to examine the above question. I am looking forward to the discussion. The following is a draft of what I intend to say in the 10 minutes allotted to me.

The Koch Brothers
David C. Korten writes on the first page of The Post-Corporate World (co-published by Kumarian Press, Inc. and Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 1999), “under capitalism democracy is for sale to the highest bidder.” Many, if not most of us, would agree. Billionaires and large corporations spend unlimited amounts of money to influence elections at every level and they send armies of lobbyists to state houses and to Washington to “assist” in writing legislation. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has come under heavy criticism recently for what many consider nefarious political dealings. But the Koch brothers, who present themselves to the public as proponents of democracy, have said they will stand with the heretofore relatively secretive ALEC. Members of my state legislature who are identified as members of ALEC have likewise refused to publicly disassociate themselves from ALEC when asked to do so. Instead they seem to be asking, “What’s the problem?”

While there are many ways that a person could reply to that question, let me offer two. First, I think that the legal status of corporate personhood—which is a cornerstone of personal and corporate wealth and power—is dubious. In the case of Munn v. Illinois (1877), the U. S. Supreme Court said in effect that a private company making money from the public is subject to public regulation. Nine years later, in the case of Southern Pacific Railroad v. Santa Clara County (1886), the Court reversed itself and said that corporations are persons entitled to all the rights, privileges and protections of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Thom Hartmann reports in Unequal Protection: the Rise of Corporate Dominance and the Theft of Human Rights (Rodale, 2002) that before the trial began, the Chief Justice simply informed the attorneys that in the opinion of the Court corporations are persons. The remark was written into the official Court record and the deed was done. Corporations became persons by judicial fiat. The personhood of corporations rests on a weak foundation, even though it is supported by more than a century of case law. Today there is a movement to amend the Constitution and declare definitively that corporations are not human beings entitled to the same rights, privileges and legal protects of mortals. This will be a long and hard fought battle, which, if won, will do little to stem the flood of money poured into politics by billionaires. Still I think it’s a fight worth having and a victory worth winning.

Second, I think we're not taking responsibility to exercise our rights as citizens of a democracy. To take responsibility, there are at least four steps that we can take today that will change our conversation about the future of democracy in the United States.

To begin, we must stop blaming unions and start supporting them. I do not pretend that unions are without fault. But I do contend that we will not preserve democracy without strong unions. Unions have been at the forefront of the struggle against rising corporate and unchecked personal financial power for 150 years. President Obama’s “favorite theologian” Reinhold Niebuhr, a founder of the school of political realism, said democracy depends on strong unions that can balance the power of strong corporations. On this score I fully agree with him.

Next, we must create new ways to frame the conversation about wealth and poverty. The World Council of Churches (WCC) has offered the constructive proposal that we establish a “Greed Line” to balance the “Poverty Line.” The Greed Line is created by a matrix of income derived from non-wage sources, property holdings, and a cluster of other factors. The WCC also published Alternative Globalization Addressing Peoples and Earth (2006). It is a valuable study guide that raises many critical issues in readily understandable ways. Reframing the conversation is absolutely necessary if we are to preserve democracy.

Another thing we can do is show greater respect for the rights of indigenous people, among others. The United Nations Commission on Human Development is doing important work on human rights. The U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People is a somewhat controversial document because it does not accurately and fully embody the views of native people. But it does remind us that indigenous people have rights, and if we are serious about preserving democracy, the voice of American Indians must become a welcome and respected part of the conversation. As I write this, the morning news carried a story about the vast amount of alcohol the Anhauser-Busch Company is selling to members of the Pine Ridge Reservation without regard for the prohibition passed by the tribal council. As a result, one-fourth of the babies born on the Reservation will have fetal-alcohol syndrome. The level of alcohol-induced death and violence on the Reservation will not decrease as long as corporate profits are valued more than people’s lives and well-being. 

Finally, we must change the way we think about the economy. Economist Amartya Sen argues in On Ethics and Economics (Blackwell, 1987) that a market economy separates ethics and economics to the detriment of both. In a later book, Mis-Measuring Our Lives: Why GDP Doesn’t Add Up (The New Press, 2010), coauthored by Joseph Stiglitz, Amartya Sen and Jean-Paul Fitoussi, the authors propose a value-based way to measure the performance of the economy. The true measure of the health of the economy is not only the bottom line; it must also be the welfare of the people and the health of the environment.

Is democracy for sale? Today we must conclude that to a great extent it is, but it need not remain so. The human, social and environmental cost is simply too high. 

Rev. David Hansen, Ph. D.

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