In 2008, I voted for Barack Obama. The economy was quickly falling apart as a direct result of malfeasance in the financial industry, the current administration was waging wars for the benefit of the oil and defense industries, the environment was being destroyed by short-sighted megacorporations, and the health care system was so broken that, although I paid for health insurance, I lived in terror of being bankrupted by a medical emergency. I was optimistic that President Obama would solve these problems.
After watching four years of the political equivalent of autoerotic asphyxiation in Washington, absolutely nothing has improved. With the exception of the fact that health insurance companies are no longer permitted to cancel your policy if you get sick, things have only gotten worse. This has taught me a very valuable lesson: just because something is a good idea doesn't mean government should – or is even able to – be in charge of it. Take three examples: the environment, human rights, and the economy.
I consider myself an environmentalist. It infuriates me that our air, water and food have been poisoned to such a degree that our society is now grappling with epidemics of cancer and birth defects caused directly by the toxins in our environment. When I hear about the EPA being “threatened” by conservative candidates, my gut reaction is to fear that things will only get worse. But what I've realized is that it CAN'T get any worse! Under the watchful eye of the Environmental Protection Agency, our environment was completely poisoned and plundered. They failed at their job. It is only because consumers have begun to rise up and demand organic and non-toxic products that companies have started to produce them. If the EPA failed so miserably, why should we continue to give money and power to a bureacracy that did such a terrible job? Because things might be even worse without it? That's a terrible argument! Like most government entities, the philosophy behind the EPA is to continue doing more and more of what hasn't worked. And, of course, this doesn't even get into the fact that the US Government is the biggest polluter in the world.
Let's move on to human rights. If there is one thing the government should do, even by the most conservative definition, it is to maintain the rule of law and deter the initiation of force against any person. Without government oversight, the theory goes, American businesses would be like Chinese sweatshops, exploiting workers in slave-like conditions. But guess what, they always did, and they still do! You can't live in this country making minimum wage, or anything close to minimum wage. The cost of living is just too high. Look at a 30 year-old construction worker, working all day every day, and barely making enough to buy food and pay rent. Do you think it's going to ever get better for him? No. Someday, he'll be a 50 year-old construction worker, with bad knees, a bad back, and maybe a hernia. He'll be making even less money, and there's no way for it to ever get better for him. America has the lowest upward social mobility of any developed country.
The government has utterly failed to protect the American worker. The only organization that has ever improved life for workers were the trade unions, which are private entities. Under unionized manufacturing, American developed a thriving middle class. Of course, they became so powerful that they bled the companies they worked for dry with the unsustainable debt of pensions and healthcare, but the meddlesome hand of Uncle Sam is very evident in those crises as well.
Finally, the economy. We had ten (count 'em, ten) different agencies regulating derivatives, the exotic financial instruments that caused the economic crash of 2007. All of them completely failed to discern or stop the crisis. But it doesn't stop there. Our financial regulatory agencies have NEVER stopped ANY crime. They only step in after the damage is done, collect a “fee,” from the offending company, and then go away again. Nobody at the big banks is ever prosecuted. Do you know what it's called when someone commits a crime and pays the authorities not to put him in jail? It's called a bribe! Anytime you read an article about the financial industry, just replace the word “fine” or “fee” with the word “bribe,” and it will make a lot more sense.
The financial regulators, just like the EPA bureaucrats, our elected officials, and the rest of the public sector, sit in their offices and enjoy good salaries and excellent benefits, while those of us in the private sector foot the bill. At least in theory. In practice, nobody is footing the bill because the government is spending trillions of dollars more than it takes in, and funneline more and more of our tax dollars into interest payments on debt to big banks. The national debt – fifteen trillion dollars and counting – has become so huge that there's no way we'll ever be able to pay it back. Like Greece, Italy, Portugal, Japan, and anyone who continues to use a credit card without ever paying down the existing balance, an ever-increasing percentage of our money will go to “service the debt,” forcing us to pay for benefits that “we” (meaning those in the public sector) already received. That's the brutal thing about interest: you're paying, but you don't receive anything.
The struggle in this country has been framed by the media in terms of “inequality.” The “99%” vs. the “1%.” But it's' not about inequality, it's about injustice. Inequality comes from the bottom up, so to speak; some people work harder, are more talented, are better connected, or are just plain lucky. Therefore, we're going to have inequality. I don't think most Americans have a problem with that. But injustice is different. Injustice comes from the top down. Injustice is inequality that is perpetrated by the system.
Injustice is taking money from taxpayers and giving it to banks to clean up their “toxic assets.” Why are the assets toxic? Because the “assets” are mortgages that people could't pay. It would make sense, then, that if when the government gave money to the banks, it should have been credited to the mortgages that people owed. The assets wouldn't have been toxic anymore, the people would have gotten a second chance to get their finances in order, and the real estate market wouldn't have tanked precipitously. But no, that would have been unfair, unAmerican. Well, yes, it would have been. But then what do you call giving billions of dollars to banks – essentially paying off bad mortgages - WITHOUT helping the people that owed those mortgages? Does the fact that it only helped the banks make it right? What kind of morality is that? It's not altruism, and it's not even enlightened self-interest, it's just corruption and cronyism, plain and simple.
Injustice is sacrificing thousands of American lives and billions of dollars to wage endless wars, so that oil companies and defense contractors can make record profits. After World War I and World War II, the government cut its spending by one-half and two-thirds, respectively. Within two years, millions of returning soldiers had found jobs and we had less than 5% unemployment. But now, we have endless wars, endless government spending, and endless unemployment.
Injustice is a public sector that enjoys excellent healthcare, at taxpayer expense, while stimying any attempt to make healthcare more affordable for the private sector. Is that fair? Is it moral?
Injustice is lawmakers calling a piece of legislation “The Patriot Act,” and using it to gut the Constitution that they all swore to uphold. How is it patriotic to betray the principles on which this country was founded?
Injustice is creating secret police agencies called the Department of Homeland Security and the Transportation Safety Administration, and allowing the agents of those organizations to do anything they want, to any American or any visitor to this country, with absolute impunity. You don't want to be groped, searched, or body-scanned? Then I guess you better stay home. Who cares if billions of dollars stop flowing into America because it becomes so onerous to travel to the Land of the Free that foreign tourists take their money to more hospitable countries, like Russia? At least we're more secure, right? No, not really. I don't know anyone who actually believes our homegrown Gestapo has made us any safer, and we all know full well that they've made us a whole lot less American.
Injustice is spending billions of dollars to subsidize a fossil-fuel based energy industry that poisons the air, water and soil, and a nuclear energy industry that creates radioactive waste that will be harmful for thousands of years, while confiscating patents and prototypes (in the name of “national security”) for inventions that could provide free energy to millions.
Injustice is fabricating a War on Drugs – a prohibition identical in every way to the failed prohibition on alcohol – and using it to imprison a higher percentage of citizens than any country in the world, to forbid farmers from growing legitimate products like industrial hemp (let alone cash crops like marijuana, which by any definition is less harmful than alcohol), and to give police forces broad powers to seize and auction off the property of anyone accused of being involved with “drugs.”
Injustice is developing weapons, internment camps, and military training drills specifically designed to be used by the government against the people.
Injustice is a court system in which Federal judges are appointed for life, are totally unaccountable to for their actions, and can use “civil contempt” to imprison anyone, at any time, forever.
Like many Americans, I didn't know if Barack Obama could fix this country or not, but I wanted to give him the chance. He has failed miserably. He has failed, the same way the EPA has failed to protect our environment, like the SEC and its ilk failed to protect our economy, and the Department of Homeland Security has made our homeland much less secure in every meaningful way.
When I was a teenager, I thought of growth as a sort of metamorphosis: over time, a person changes into their final form, whatever that might be. But as I've gotten older, I've realized that growth is a process of distillation, not fermentation. You don't change into something else, you just become more and more who you already are. The same holds true for government. No matter whom we elect, no matter what “reforms” are introduced, the nature of government is to absorb power, absorb money, and act in its own short-term interest.
The battle for our time is not the 99% vs. the 1%. It is between an increasingly powerful public sector – of which the energy, defense, financial and medical industries are for all intents and purposes full-fledged branches, and an increasingly desperate private sector. It is a battle in which one side has the money, the weapons, and the Law, and the other side has nothing.
It is a battle, my friends, we have already lost. The only question is, what comes next?