Observations from the Kitchen Table

February 23rd, 2011

by Jane Thomas

Maybe it is time to think more creatively about ways to make our government more responsive to the people.

Observation #1

Countries run on two simultaneous tracks: an economic track and a political track.  On the economic track the two extremes are capitalism, where everything is privately owned, and communism, where everything is state-owned.  On the political track the two extremes are pure democracy, where everybody is involved in making all decisions, and autocracy, where decisions are made by a single entity (be it one or a very few).  All countries function on both tracks simultaneously, somewhere between the two extremes of each.  No country lives indefinitely at either extremity.  Why?  Because the extremity is only a theoretical point, not a functional point.  Nothing is static:  All countries continuously move along the two tracks between the extremes of each.  Needs and circumstances continually evolve, causing this movement.   Also, movement along one of the tracks is likely to cause movement along the other track.  The actions of one impact the other.

Over the years, we have given the various stages of movement and the constituents or activities that led to the movement names and/or labels, which makes our history somewhat confusing and has created contradictions.  But when all is stripped away, the labels are meaningless.  It is just the normal movement that results from changing circumstances of the constituents.

Observation #2

Many of our citizens seem to lack an understanding of the basic power sharing systems for governments:  unitary, where a central government is sovereign; confederate, where the local governments are sovereign; and federal, where sovereignty is shared by central and local government each with defined areas for dominance.  Our national government functions under a federal system, sharing power with state governments and central government.  Our states are unitary systems with the dominant power in the hands of the state government.  In our country’s early history, we tried to function under a confederate system with the dominant power in the hands of the states.  This was the government under the Articles of Confederation.  We replaced that system with a federal system under the current Constitution.  Any of these three systems might be democratic or autocratic; for example, both Great Britain and China are unitary.  A unitary system simplifies the lines of control.  A federal system always experiences tension between the national government and the state/local governments.  A confederate system is always challenged by the need to reach agreement among its various members in order to make any national decisions.

In point of fact, our federal system has evolved since its original founding.  Far more power now lies in the hands of the central government.  Like it or not, our federal system has been diluted by the tax codes, mobilization, communication and rapid transportation.  Not to panic, our federal system is still very viable — it is just not functional in the form in which it was originally envisioned by the founding fathers.  And, that is as it should be.  Political systems should be fluid to meet the ever changing needs of their constituents.  Political systems and economic systems constantly evolve in response to the circumstances of any given period.

Observation #3

People’s attitudes are a result of their perceived interests.  Dr. Phil tells us that an individual’s perception is that individual’s reality.  I would disagree.  I think there is a difference between perceived interests and real interests.  Arianna Huffington says, “What people want, or think they want, from moment to moment and what they need long term aren’t always the same thing….” (How to Overthrow the Government, p. 73) Perception changes with knowledge, whether experienced or learned.  With modern means of communication, our perceptions may easily be shaped, even indifferently to our real interests.  In this case, our perceived interests may not be our real interests.  But, where Dr. Phil and I do agree is that people act based upon their perceived interests, regardless of the validity of how that perception was shaped.

Observation #4

The movement along the economic and political tracks results from the conflicting perceived interests of the constituency.  In a subsistence living circumstance in an underdeveloped, agrarian setting, the people prefer a government that will leave them alone.  However, as soon as they begin to produce surplus, thus moving into the cash crop status, they begin to develop an interest in the actions of the government — desiring the government’s actions to be favorable to their perceived needs.   As commerce becomes more industrialized, businesses desire a government that will create circumstances for them to expand and prosper.  It is very normal for business to keep production costs as low as possible.  On the other hand, it is in the interest of workers to make a living wage and to be able to meet their daily needs while saving for the future.  It is only normal that the goals of the various perceived interests will be in conflict.  These differences and the pressures they place upon the economic and political systems move them along the tracks one direction or another.  When industry, in an effort to control production costs, becomes too abusive to the workers, the workers fight back until they finally gain the lead.  However, once in the lead, they push until they become abusive in the sense that they increase the cost of production beyond the equitable level, in which case, the industrialists will respond by finding cheaper labor, automating, moving industry overseas, whatever it takes to lower production costs.  In truth, there is a happy medium, but how do you reach it?  Instead, we just push the car along the track moving first one way and then the other in an endless effort to fill the needs of the conflicting goals of the constituencies.

~ ~ ~

So, based on these observations, where are we today?  Economically and politically we are being dominated by the business interests.  Arianna Huffington probably hit the target dead on when she wrote, “It’s time to realize that our government is no longer merely ‘influenced’ by corporate contributions—for all practical purposes its every move is predetermined by them (Wall Street)…. It’s well past time to acknowledge that the two-party system is bankrupt, that the very process by which we elect our leaders has been seriously compromised by the influx of special interest money.”  Almost a decade before Huffington wrote about the failure of the political party system, William Greider tried to call our attention to this situation in his book Who Will Tell The People? : The Betrayal Of American Democracy. In 1992, Robert Reich (Secretary of Labor) was struggling to call the nation’s attention to the growing uneven distribution of wealth and its accompanying by-product of business dominance over the legislative and electoral process.

Maybe it is time to think more creatively about ways to make our government more responsive to the people.  This country has been in the hands of big business before and what it bought them was demonstrations and ultimately unions — who in their own capacity became as abusive as the businesses.  Of course, at the moment, we are seeing the growth of a third party (as we have seen in the past, these little parties spring up), the Tea Party.  Although the Tea Party spouts a variety of missions, in truth, they are basically advocating a strict constructionist policy which we all know is no longer a viable approach to our government.

We choose to function under a political system that responds to the pressures of the majority.  As long as the goal of gaining wealth supersedes the goals of exercising character, the general policies swing toward advantages for the big business sector.  Business prefers a set of rules that protects its interests.  The very process by which they protect their wealth poses disadvantages for the workers.  In a perfect world, business owners would recognize the value of their workers and initiate policies that would appease, even help, their workers.  And, in a perfect world, industry would be more cognizant of the role their workers play as consumers.  But this is not a perfect world and it is the business of a business to make a profit.  They should not be faulted for the tactics they use, if the workers are willing to tolerate them.  But eventually, as wealth gets less evenly distributed and the majority begins to feel hopeless and abused by business, they will rebel in some form — be it organizations, demonstrations, or votes.

There are some very creative ideas afloat for revisions in the government structure and process:

  • Campaign Finance Reform has so far successfully been eviscerated almost to the point of extinction.  Yet, it is a viable concept that could be revived.
  • Using a lottery to select the members of the House of Representatives:  Jonathan Swift, Irish cleric, political pamphleteer, satirist, and author, wrote in 1726 in Gulliver’s Travels, “Providence never intended to make the management of public affairs a mystery to be comprehended only by a few persons of sublime genius, of which there seldom are three born in an age: but they suppose truth, justice, temperance, and the like, to be in every man’s power; the practice of which virtues, assisted by experience and a good intention, would qualify any man for the service of his country, except where a course of study is required.”  Should we look for a way to return the lower house to a citizens’ body?
  • None of the Above on the ballot:  Nevada has allowed voters to select “none of these candidates” in all statewide races since 1975.  There is no legal consequence if “none of these candidates” gets the most votes.  Instead, only votes for named candidates are counted for purposes of determining a victor.  Still, “none of these candidates” gives voters a chance to officially record a protest vote, which can certainly put candidates on notice as to their popularity.  At the national level, Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich) sponsored legislation in 1997 to place a “None of the Above” line on the ballots of all federal elections.  If NOTA received more votes than any of the candidates, a new election would have to be held.  The bill died for lack of support.
  • Removal of the Electoral College has been discussed for decades.  It is probably the primary reason for Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s (NYC) decision to decline to run for President as a third party candidate.  Would moving away from the two party process to a multi-party process be detrimental for our political system?
  • Pairing of public-private support, dynamic leadership, and individual involvement are the solutions promoted by Arianna Huffington’s How to Overthrow the Government. Huffington emphasizes that “Leaders identify needs, bring the constituents awareness, and prepare them to accept solutions…If we’re to remake America, we’ll need leaders who can inspire citizens to do more than get out and vote.  We’ll need them to tell us what we may not want to hear.   And, we’ll need them to remind us that the social problems we’re facing cannot be solved without our participation, and that our responsibility as citizens begins with ourselves — but does not end there.”  Huffington cites Doris Kearns Goodwin, “The job of a leader is not simply to reflect current opinion but to challenge it, move it forward and shape it” to support her argument.

As I observe the insanity of watching this Congress working with a budget that has some minor areas of spending and four giant expenditure areas (interest on the debt, Department of Defense, Health and Human Services, and Social Security) put their solutions on the table for dealing with the national debt, I can only chuckle.  In order to cut the interest on the national debt, we must touch the other big three.  Yet they have just passed a tax bill that protected the rich and increased the national debt, are trying to repeal a bill to help our citizens access health care even though the OMB has advised that repealing the bill will add to the deficit, refuse to means-test Social Security and Medicare, and repeatedly say that Defense spending is off the table.   So, we move a bit closer to the end of the track that is theoretical only, but not functional.  Enough movement will alienate enough of the people that movement will begin the other direction.  It would be nice if we could find a point where it would serve all of our people, but, alas, our interests are continually in conflict.  But our political system is not in crisis — it is merely in flux.  When the distribution of wealth gets too unequal, when enough people feel disenfranchised by the system, and when people get sufficiently tired of being told by the ideologues that criticism is unpatriotic and that tolerance of other concepts, ethnicities, and religions is anti-American, we will begin to move the other direction.  Political systems are always evolving, as are economic systems.  We are simply on the move along the tracks.

Jane Thomas has a B.A. in Political Science from Oklahoma State University and a Master of Letters from Kings College, University of Aberdeen, Scotland. She has taught at the high school and college levels in the US, Thailand, and Scotland. She’s now an archivist and does research on terrorism and disaster recovery.


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9 Responses to “Observations from the Kitchen Table”



  1. Claude Thomas Jr |

    First I am a firm advocate of the multi-party system and bringing the House of Rep back to a “citizen” body. I think the multi-party system would force the return of moderate and reasonable people in both houses and do away with the polarized extremes we have now. For many many years Congress(both houses) had a majority of moderate conservatives and liberals with only minorities to the extreme right and left… now we have the opposite… a multiparty system would force a return to the former.

    One idea that should be presented to the American people for debt reduction, would be to write off the debt. More than half of the current deficet is owned by the American people, Congress has borrowed these monies from Social Security… most Americans do not know this… simply present this to the people, pass laws to prevent it from happening again, and write off the debt. Pass a balanced budet amendment that has provisions for unexpected spending ie., disasters, war, police actions and put a cap on the amount that can be borrowed without consent of the people. Problem solved. We cut our debt by well over half, this stregthens the dollar against world currencies as well as protects the future of the Social Security and Medicare systems.

    the view from my kitchen table


  2. Tom Carter |

    Interesting thoughts, Jane. A few points:

    U.S. states are not sovereign in political or legal terms, the Tenth Amendment notwithstanding. Sovereignty has been defined in different ways at different times, but basically what sovereignty is politically and legally is pretty clear. In the most basic terms, a sovereign nation state has a defined territory, controls its borders, is the supreme lawmaker within its territory, exercises a monopoly over the use of power on its territory, conducts foreign relations with other nation states and international entities, wages war when it deems it necessary, is recognized as sovereign by other sovereign nation states, and is subservient to no other entity. Citizenship is also another indicator; American citizens are citizens of the United States and of every state, while they are only residents of a specific state and can change that state residency at any time. U.S. states have never been sovereign, except perhaps for a brief moment between the end of the American Revolution and the adoption of the Constitution. Perhaps the most telling test of the concept of state sovereignty came in the 1860s, when it was made very clear that states cannot secede from the union.

    To say that the U.S. should “go to a two-party system” doesn’t really mean very much. There’s nothing in the Constitution or law that says we have to have a two-party system, or any parties, for that matter. What we actually have are two major parties, and other parties are perfectly free to participate in the process. On almost every ballot there are usually three or more parties shown — Democratic, Republican, Libertarian, Green, etc. The most important factor in the development and continuing dominance of the two major parties is the structure of the federal government, mirrored in state governments. Perhaps most important is that the presidency combines the roles of head of state and head of government, and he exercises power independent of the parties in Congress. To encourage the growth of a multi-party system, it would be necessary to separate the two roles (as they are separated in most countries with multi-party systems) into a president (head of state) who is reponsible to the people who elected him and a prime minister (head of government) who is responsible to the legislature. That isn’t going to happen.

    Whether we should do something about the electoral college system of electing presidents and vice-presidents is a perennial source of discussion — usually for a brief period after each election, particularly if the election was close. Without going into all the details, suffice to say that an informed discussion of the issue always runs smack into concerns about the law of unintended consequences. The electoral college system encourages candidates, parties, and citizens to behave in certain ways, all of which are well understood. But if we changed to a nation popular-vote election (there is none for any office in the U.S. at this time), profound changes would follow. We don’t understand what those changes would be very well, and it’s possible to envision results that would be pretty negative.

    On many of these issues — the two-party system, the electoral college, the methods of electing senators and representatives, etc — it’s useful to remember the wise warning, “Be careful what you wish for.”


  3. Jane Thomas |

    Tom,

    Then how do you explain our Native American sovereign nations? Sovereignty can be both recognized and limited.

    I hope everyone understands that the creative ideas mentioned in my article are not mine, but merely a collection of some that are currently afloat. In no way am I personally an advocate of the Parliamentary, multi party system. I do like the None of the Above idea. And, I like the lottery idea, although I think it would have to be very carefully constructed. Leadership seems to be a concept of which our elected officials have in only miniscule amounts. I think the Electoral College has been the primary limiting factor in holding us to the two party system as it functions today. That was never the intent of the writers of the Constitution, rather it is an evolutionary process of implementing the Constitution.

    Jane


  4. Brian |

    One idea that should be presented to the American people for debt reduction, would be to write off the debt. More than half of the current deficet is owned by the American people,

    So everybody that owns T-bills and the like…they’re just left holding the bag? And what do you suppose China and the other foreign bond-holders might do in response? What happens to people approaching retirement age in this country who have placed a significant portion of their nest egg in “safe” investments like Treasuries?

    No, the result of this would be that the federal government couldn’t borrow money again for a very long time, even in an emergency. Who would loan it the money? The only option at that point would be a massive inflation of the supply of currency.

    Congress has borrowed these monies from Social Security… most Americans do not know this…

    No, the money was not “borrowed” from social security. Read the Social Security Act: the monies appropriated under the act may be placed in the general fund.

    We like to make-believe that the double-ledger accounting for SS funds makes that inconvenient fact go away, but it doesn’t.


  5. Claude Thomas Jr |

    While I am not an economist or financial genius… I recognize the fact that the monies taken from SS were monies paid into the system by the citizens and there for we hold the note so to speak. I agree there would be some fall out from the elimination of this debt. However, the rewards would be evident, no more debt service for these monies, a substantial reduction of debt (real or paper trail) which would by simple debt / income ratio improve greatly the ability of the US to borrow in times of crisis. I think it is simantics … funds may be placed in the general fund vs. borrowed…. the monies paid into the SS system are to be used for that purpose…that is the intent of the act.

    Does it hit the richest 2% of US citizens.. most likely… does the reward of decreasing debt along with responsible spending in the long run improve the status of the US yes and that is the message to all… long term improvement of our fiscal state.

    the opinion for this kitchen table


  6. Tom Carter |

    Jane, the word “sovereign,” when used to describe the sovereignty of nation states, has a specific meaning and certain characteristics which I listed above. That’s the definition that’s intended when states claim to be “sovereign,” and that claim is wrong because it fails most of the tests for sovereignty. Same for Native American tribes. In these terms, it’s not possible to be partially sovereign any more than it’s possible to be partially pregnant. If it were, you could, for example, describe a local school board as “sovereign.”

    There’s a good discussion of the status of Native American tribes here: “The federal government recognizes tribal nations as ‘domestic dependent nations’ and has established a number of laws attempting to clarify the relationship between the federal, state, and tribal governments.” A better word to describe this situation would be “autonomous” or, more accurately, “semi-autonomous.”

    Claude, Brian is right. You’re advocating that the U.S. government default on its debt, and that would be an economic calamity of horrendous proportions.


  7. Brian |

    Claude, from the SSA’s own website (The preamble to the Social Security Act of 1935:)

    An act to provide for the general welfare by establishing a system of Federal old-age benefits, and by enabling the several States to make more adequate provision for aged persons, blind persons, dependent and crippled children, maternal and child welfare, public health, and the administration of their unemployment compensation laws; to establish a Social Security Board; to raise revenue; and for other purposes (emphasis added).

    Money collected under this act may be used for any purpose under the sun and is not reimbursable to anything, including the imaginary “Social Security Trust Fund.” Read Helvering v Davis.

    You also said

    However, the rewards would be evident, no more debt service for these monies, a substantial reduction of debt (real or paper trail) which would by simple debt / income ratio improve greatly the ability of the US to borrow in times of crisis.

    If the US government defaulted on its current debt, it wouldn’t be able to borrow a wooden nickel for a generation or more. If you were one of the people that lost a majority of his retirement because of this default, and the government wanted to borrow money from you, you’d probably tell it to go do something to itself which is physiologically impossible.

    Most of the people invested in treasuries as well as the stock market are not the wealthy. The wealthy may have more money in stocks and treasuries, but a default will affect far more in the middle class than it will the wealthy. Further, when you consider that most wealthy people protect their wealth not in the stock markets or treasuries but in rental properties (commercial as well as residential), you surely must realize that by going after “the rich,” you’re hurting them but little, and the ones who can least afford it, much. It is the classic “cutting off one’s nose in order to spite one’s face.”


  8. Claude Thomas Jr |

    ok I bow to the better informed, so I ask the question Tom and Brian, what do we do? At the current levels of debt that is about $50,000 for every man, woman, and child in the US to pay that debt. We have a government that is fiscally out of control and has been for years and years. How do we make our government live with in it’s means, provide the necessary programs and pay off the debt?
    You can’t pass a balanced budget law without provisions for crisis, war, etc.
    Social Security is supposedly untouchable
    Defense Dept. is supposedly untouchable
    The two largest percentages of our budget “cant be touched”
    Many people will say foreign aid should be cut but that is such a small percentage that it would be ineffective to reduce spending significantly.
    we give tax incentives to corporations that move jobs overseas
    we give subsidies to corporations that net billions in profit every year..
    Trickle down theory doesn’t work…. as we saw with multi-million bonuses paid to the very people that cratered the economy.

    we are functionally bankrupt, we borrow from peter to pay paul and wonder why we can’t keep up with our debt.

    Claude


  9. Tom Carter |

    Claude, the answer to our problem of deficits and debt is painfully simple and almost impossible to implement politically. We must have more revenue, and we must reduce spending. Why is that impossible?

    Conservatives’ knees start jerking any time raising taxes is mentioned. They automatically respond that reducing taxes increases revenue, either ignoring or ignorant of the fact that this may be true over the long term. But the problem has to be dealt with now, in the very short term. After our financial house is back in some kind of order, we can begin that tired debate all over again. Wealthier people should be taxed somewhat higher than they are now, and the Bush tax cuts should not have been extended for them. The middle class will have to pay more. And the people who pay no income tax at all, almost 50 percent of all earners, must pay at least something. Beyond those basic steps, lots of other actions can be taken that would increase revenue.

    Liberals’ knees likewise start jerking any time anyone says something about reducing entitlements. Medicare must be tightened up, Medicaid eligibility should be more restricted, and Social Security should be modified to save money — increase the eligibility age, increase significantly the maximum earnings on which FICA is paid, etc. Spend less federal money on education since it doesn’t seem to do much good, reduce or eliminate most agricultural subsidies, and stop giving away money to support things that will go on anyway — public broadcasting, the arts, non-critical research, etc. Nothing, including Defense, should be off the table. There should also be a serious crackdown on fraud and waste.

    If politicians can’t be responsible enough to do their jobs, then the people have to throw them out and get some new ones. If not enough people can figure this out and we can’t raise taxes and reduce spending, bye-bye America.


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