Thursday, September 29, 2016

Revolutionary Changes We Should Consider

I'm always obsessed with a book, and right now it's So You've Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson. The phenomenon he's exploring is the return of public shaming, via the internet, for the first time since the inglorious days of stockades, those brutal tar and feather, torch and pitchfork days. (Though their hats and wigs were cool, at least.) The two main reasons for the return of public shaming are outlined by Ronson: it's easy to be evil - to hate a stranger with the internet feeling so anonymous - and false indignation mixed with instant mob hi-fives is a drug like no other.

I would've added another reason: people are finally starting to process how ripped off they've been by our economic system. But how do you hold billionaire C.E.O.'s accountable when they've consolidated power to the degree they have? We don't know where to begin, so we turn on each other.

My last post was all about the revolution we don't need: the Trumpening. Thank you all for the 200+ views. Because of the resulting conversations, I've done a lot of thinking about the changes we might want to consider. This will be an exercise in reckless speculation, in the hopes of having more civil conversation. I've got Republican friends. I hate their philosophy, but I love them personally. I have reason to believe they feel the same about me. The return of civil disagreement is the first revolutionary change I'm trying to start in my own circles. The others below would require voting for the right kind of candidates, pressuring them once elected, and probably a good deal of civil disobedience in many cases.

Make the Senate more like the House:

Wyoming has just over 500,000 people. California has over thirty million. There is one Wyo-man (Wyomian? Wy-woman?) Either way, for every one person in Wyoming there are sixty people in California. The way the Senate is set up, the one person in Wyoming has far more influence over our government than the sixty people in California. I know our founding fathers set up Congress so one house was based on population and the other had two Senators regardless, but they also set up the system so that we could amend the rules based on need. The difference between the most populated colonies was far less than sixty to one in their day. (450,000 in Virginia vs. about 25,000 in Georgia) We would be more of a democracy if we balanced the Senate.

This might not mean making the Senate exactly like the House, but there has to be a way to figure out how to make it more fair. One senator representing one million Americans regardless of state lines might be the right ratio. Or maybe it should be one per half-million, so Wyoming and other small states can still have one senator just for them. Either way, it isn't fair to California, Texas, or New York that such a large portion of America is punished for living where lots of people want to live. The Senate can still be the more elite half of the legislature without giving such a disproportionate voice to the states with the fewest people.

Publicly financed elections with low spending ceilings:

This would accomplish a few necessary reforms. For one, we'd have more people with less money in our government. Our government has very little diversity in terms of professions and wealth, featuring far too many wealthy lawyers. While there are obvious advantages to lawyers becoming lawmakers, it also stands to reason that humans should be part of the discussion as well. (That's anti-lawyer humor, har-dee-har! Easy target but I couldn't resist...) Empathy comes from experiencing what the other's life is like. Laws that benefit the rest of us will probably have to come from the rest of us.

Making our politicians cheaper to buy would also limit the amount of influence wealthy individuals, foreign entities (terrorists, for all we know under Citizens United), and corporations could have on our elections. This would help to end the vicious cycle of government by and exclusively for the rich.

The Maximum Wage:

Speaking of tar and feathers and torches and pitchforks...I love bringing this one up with my Republican friends just to watch their heads spin. For those of you who embrace deregulated capitalism as our national religion, I know this is a hard sell. You'll call it communist or socialist or fascist depending on your mood.

The thing is, other very sane countries are considering it. Switzerland, those icons of neutrality, will vote on it in November. It works by linking the highest legal wage in the country to the minimum wage. (The wealthiest C.E.O. in the country can only make twelve times minimum wage, or whatever ratio is agreed on.) Then the rich become advocates for the poor, because they now have incentives to use their government-influencing superpowers for good instead of evil.

Of course, we would have to let go of one of our most cherished lies to make this happen. We would have to let go of the idea that everyone is either rich, or will be rich one day if they think of the right idea or work enough overtime, or something. The number one indicator of how much money an American would make used to be our education level. Now it's how much money our parents made. This is in part because of laws the rich have sold us on. I'm not saying great ideas or rags-to-riches stories don't happen. They do, and they're lovely. We make adorable movies about them for a reason, though: They're really fucking rare. The idea that we'll all win the lottery soon is the very thing stopping us from living far less stressful lives. With a Maximum Wage, you'll never live a life like a party rapper, but you'll pay your bills on time, have a few weeks vacation a year and money to travel with, and find yourself far less angry as a result.

The Swiss are embracing the Maximum Wage because they know it will benefit everyone, including the rich. When there is very little poverty in a country, there is very little crime, and even the rich get to breathe a sigh of relief. All that money our wealthiest people spend on doomsday prep and alarms and firearms could be staying in their pockets. Every country decides to fight poverty or fight the poor. For the last thirty years, we've chosen to do the latter, and look at all the rage that has created. We aren't obliged to keep making the same mistake.

I realize I lean left, and by modern standards I might as well have sunflowers growing out of my sideburns while I strum Woodie Guthrie ditties, but we haven't really given the left much of a chance in this country, at least not economically. In the last forty years, while we were making revolutionary social gains for every minority group, we were still violently doubling down on unfettered capitalism. Perhaps the lesson of the Reagan and post-Reagan political era should be that social justice can only advance so far without economic justice following. Advancing one while neglecting the other just leads to an imbalance, a stretch, and a rip if we let it go too far.

Giving one party time and a majority:

George W. Bush had a sympathetic legislature for the first six years of his presidency. Between Katrina, the odious changes to bankruptcy law, the Iraq war, infrastructure disinvestment, and the crash of '08, I would argue the results were terrible. Bill Clinton and President Obama each had a sympathetic legislature for the first eighteen months of their first terms before voters chose to elect Republican majorities in the midterm elections. Part of this is that liberal voters (especially the youngest of us) don't vote in midterms. Another part is that people complain about government gridlock, but they are also comforted by the idea of balance. Balanced government worked to a certain degree in the mid-eighties and late nineties. It doesn't work right now, I'd argue, because our right wing has been taken over by anti-government radicals intent on proving that government doesn't work by being the very thing that makes it fail.

That six-year window during the Bush administration showed us something. It showed us the results of prolonged, conservative-majority government. You can argue it was wonderful if you want. I disagree, but that's fine. There was something refreshing about seeing what would actually happen to the country if the philosophy was permitted to be translated into laws for an extended period of time.

What if we gave another party a chance like that?