By John Lawrence
On Thursday April 16, there was a panel discussion at San Diego State with the title: Crisis in American Democracy: Answers Beyond the Two Party System.
There were three people on the panel representing three political parties. The Socialist Equality Party was represented by Mr. John Burton. Dr. Matt Zwolinski spoke for the Libertarians, and the Green Party was represented by Dr. Ellen Brown.
The promo said: “The content of the event will be a debate about their solutions to the problems facing American Democracy today.” The event allowed 15 minutes per person for initial discussion. After the initial discussion, the event was open for public comment and questions. Then there was time for closing statements and rebuttals from each speaker.
After the initial introductions, Dr. Matt Zwolinski spoke first. A political philosopher by trade, he pointed out that he was not a member of the Libertarian party. His stated goal was a search for truth. Libertarianism is a model, in my opinion, far removed from the real world. Some of its goals are noble such as anti-war. Some of them are shared by most other enlightened parties and some are unrealistic. Libertarianism is a philosophy about what the state should and should not do. It shouldn’t manage the economy. Government should play the minimal role of keeping peace. It should not control what people drink, smoke or who they have sex with.
This most parties would agree with in principal at least. We should be free to live our lives however we see fit as long as we honor the rights of other people to do the same. Libertarians are champions of the free market as if one really exists or ever really existed in the world.
Well, who isn’t against war? The problem is this is a doctrinaire position. Some wars are necessary, for instance, the Second World War. Should Hitler have been allowed to take over Europe and kill all the Jews? Decidedly not. However, other wars are unnecessary, for instance, George W Bush’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan which destabilized the whole Middle East and led to immense misery for many in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. Ultimately Bush’s wars have their legacy in the rise of ISIS today which is inflicting even more misery.
Zwolinski said “Free markets are something to be aspired to, not as conservatives maintain a lost treasure of our utopian past”. He even maintained that class struggle was necessary to create and maintain free markets. That was quite a stretch as far as I’m concerned. It’s one thing to aspire to a world in which nobody is ill housed, ill clothed or ill fed. Quite another to make the free market your dominant goal.
Libertarianism is basically a model of a perfect world, one in which, even if it could be attained, says nothing about providing for those who cannot provide for themselves. It’s a cold model devoid of sympathy or empathy for anyone incapable of playing the free market competitive game, one in which the inevitable winners will hold economic sway over those who are ill equipped to play in the big leagues. He closed with the rallying cry: “Workers of the World Unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains.”
Next up was Ellen Brown, champion of the public banking movement although in the role primarily of speaking for the Green Party on whose platform she ran for State Treasurer in the last election. She noted that our winner take all political system makes it virtually impossible for third parties to win especially in light of the fact that it takes big money to participate in the political process today.
In Europe, where they have proportional representation, it is possible for third and fourth parties to gain seats in national legislatures. The American Constitution, methinks, needs an upgrade particularly in view of the political gridlock which it manifests today.
Ellen maintained: “The American system is not a democracy but a plutocracy.” It doesn’t respond to the will of the people but to the will of those with big money. In Greece and Spain third parties came out of nowhere to win in the polls and elect a third party President. But here in the US, if you can’t afford TV ads, there is no way to get elected even at the state level. However, she got 6.6% of the vote and this opened some doors for her. She has had some meetings with the State Treasurer so that’s an opening for her pet project of establishing public banks at the state, municipal and district level.
According to Ellen Brown, there is hope for electing third party candidates on the local level. Richmond actually elected a Green mayor, Gayle McLaughlin. Chevron, the largest corporation in Richmond, used their Big Money to fight her election all the way, but to no avail. In her time as Mayor she got a very sizable tax settlement from Chevron. She has also gone up against the Big Banks with her plan for refinancing underwater mortgages in the city. She can do the will of the people by going up against big corporate interests because the Greens don’t take any money from them.
Big money is in control of government so how are you going to get the laws changed to get money out of politics? In 2008 Goldman Sachs was a major contributor to the Obama campaign. In 2012 they switched to Romney and were a major contributor to his campaign. Other major contributors to Presidential campaigns were mostly billionaires including local billionaire Irwin Jacobs who contributed to Obama.
Ellen asserted that we have delegated the power to create money to the privately owned banks. Money creation is a function assigned to Congress by the Constitution and should be a government function, not a function of Wall Street. Banks create the money supply so they have the power to control the political system.
The Federal Reserve is privately owned by the Big Banks so its policies bailed out the privately owned Wall Street banks, but have not benefited the people. Wall Street got bailed out; Main Street got sold out. If we take back the power to create money, we could do things like infrastructure development and student loans at reasonable rates.
The Bank of North Dakota, the only public bank in the US, survived the Great Recession because it has the power to create its own money which it loans out to students and local enterprises at low interest. If cities did the same thing, they could use revenue deposits for the benefit of the local economy instead of for the benefit of Wall Street bankers. The current US society is debt based in the sense that economic activity is fueled by private debt: student loan debt, mortgage debt, automobile loan debt, credit card debt. Public banking means that economic development need not be fueled by debt creation.
For more on public banking which has been extensively covered by the San Diego Free Press click here.
My first impression of John Burton was that of an old line Marxist: Workers of the World Unite. You Have nothing to lose but your Chains. At first I thought this is a tired old slogan. Does it have any relevance in today’s world? Then I thought: Yes it does. Most of the jobs in today’s economy are service jobs – fast food workers, retail workers. McDonald’s and Wal-Mart are two of the largest employers in the US and in fact in the world. All those workers are working in menial, minimum wage jobs which hardly pay the bills. Most of them are on some kind of Federal or state assistance as well.
Walmart had 2.1 million employees as of 2012, third largest in the world after the US Defense Department and China’s People’s Liberation Army. By 2013 Walmart was number 1 with 2.2 million employees spread all around the globe. Yum Brands, parent corporation of Kentucky Fried Chicken, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut, was number 2 in the US with McDonald’s third. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that those occupations with the most job growth in the next decade will be those that don’t require a college education. Such jobs as personal care aids, nursing assistants, janitors, food preparation/servers and retail salespersons are high on the list.
So the mantra “Workers of the World Unite” is indeed applicable in today’s world. If they formed a union over all job classifications, they could wield a considerable amount of political power.
After disparaging the charges against the Atlanta teachers caught up in a cheating scandal, Mr. Burton went on to say that the real criminals are the financial parasites who have manipulated the market creating phony mortgage bundles that crashed the market in 2008. Those criminals have never spent a day in jail and the government bailed out their wealth while the American people have not been bailed out. How could justice be so skewed?
Where is this coming from? His party has a theory and concept about this: fundamental Marxism. Their position is not about reform, not about ideas. They think that the problems originate in the very foundations of society.
They reject the libertarian position because it’s impossible to live autonomously in the modern world. You have to interact with society in order to eat. How are you going to get your housing? We exist in incredibly complex relationships. Political parties are the expression of these relationships in society. That’s their starting point.
These complex relationships are precisely why it would be inadvisable if not impossible, contrary to Burton’s position, to bring the whole house crashing down and start all over again from scratch. It’s been tried before with negative results, and in a national security state like the US, it is not likely to get very far.
What Burton’s party wants to do is to understand and articulate the position of the vast majority of people, the working class, those who live from paycheck to paycheck as opposed to the capitalist class which lives on the return on investment (ROI) which comes from ownership of the means of production. They are against private ownership of the means of production.
Socialists are for government ownership of the “commanding heights” of the economy – such things as energy, telecommunications and the highest of all – banking. This is the commonality with Ellen Brown’s position. Another possibility is a more democratic distribution of the ownership of wealth as opposed to the Marxist position that all wealth should be owned collectively by the society with all the participants in that society being workers.
Thomas Piketty in his book Capitalism in the Twenty-First Century pointed out the unequal distribution of wealth in the world today. If private ownership of wealth were more equally distributed, there would be no need for government to own all the wealth.
Ownership of telecommunications by the government creates freedom of speech and mass propaganda problems so I don’t think that would work in the US. Our political liberties, such as they are, are important. Government ownership of the distribution of electricity, however, might be a good idea since it is a part of the national infrastructure just as interstate highways are. The energy infrastructure needs to be integrated nation wide in a super grid, particularly if we are to replace fossil fuels with renewables.
There was a lively presentation of ideas from three different viewpoints followed by a lively Q&A session after the three speakers gave their initial talks. All in all a productive two hours with some interesting questions from the audience. It was an exercise in free speech which is what colleges should be all about. Thank you San Diego State.