America’s Future – Gerrymandering

This is a companion post to “America’s Future – Continued”. It represents my expanded thoughts about Gerrymandering, one of the core existential threats to our democracy that I outlined in that earlier post:

Gerrymandering:  Gerrymandering has been a corrupt political power strategy in American politics for more than 200 years. It happens every ten years when a new census requires redistribution of Congressional representation among the states in accordance with relative changes in population counts. Gerrymandering is the process of drawing district boundaries to advantage one political party over the other and is exercised by both political parties, always with the intent of subverting the collective will of the people. The practice effectively allows political parties and Congressional politicians to choose their own constituents instead of the other way around. The strategy is named after Elbridge Gerry because as Governor in 1812 he signed a bill to redraw Massachusetts district boundaries to benefit his own political party; the shape of one resulting district was said to resemble a salamander, thus that name stuck.

In most states the political party in power in the state legislature draws the Congressional district boundaries.The goal therefore is always to design the state’s Congressional districts such that the voters likely to support the party out of power are mostly concentrated in as few districts as possible (packing), and/or alternately, to draw the districts so that minority party voters are distributed so broadly across districts that they have little influence on an election’s outcome (cracking).

That process was always seemly, but with the advent of big data and modern computer modeling the in-party can generate district boundaries with precision down to the precinct level. Using detailed voting history and these “cracking and packing” strategies they can control the majority of Congressional districts in a state regardless of the overall preference of the voters. That makes the practice very dangerous for democratic governance. Though the Supreme Court has had many opportunities to rule against this form of corruption they have so far declined, except in a few rare cases where racist motives were blatant and undeniable.

Besides being undemocratic gerrymandering produces a Congress that does not represent the collective will of the American people, but reflects the most extreme elements of the two political parties. That makes compromise nearly impossible on any issue where even small but significant differences of opinion exist. From its very beginning gerrymandering always made the Congress inefficient, often ineffective, in doing the people’s business. But with today’s sophisticated political machinery we are rapidly reaching the point where everything is politically contentious and nothing really useful and important can get done.

There are reasonable solutions to avoid this undemocratic practice. Congressional districts could be eliminated and candidates for Congress could just all run on a statewide basis. A better alternative would be for nonpartisan or bipartisan commissions to be established to draw the district boundaries along pre-agreed rational guidelines taking into account existing local governance boundaries and regional intra-state economic conditions. Other redistricting arrangements could also be found that would produce much more democratic results than what we have now. The Congress has the constitutional authority to set the rules governing how federal elections are conducted. But we have to have the will to refine our institutions and eliminate this corruption. For long term national democratic viability gerrymandering must be eliminated as an acceptable political strategy.

America’s Future – Money in Politics

This is a companion post to “America’s Future – Continued”. It represents my expanded thoughts about Money In Politics, one of the core existential threats to our democracy that I outlined in that earlier post:

Money In Politics:  Unfortunately, monied interests control much of our federal governance, especially the legislative branch as it relates to national finance and economics. Both of our current political parties have become beholden mostly to the wealthiest Americans because they have the money to influence (in some cases virtually control) who gets elected. And through corporate interests and other legal vehicles, wealthy Americans and even foreign investors effectively dictate much of the tax code to favor themselves; and their lobbyists often ghost-write federal legislation to support those same financial interests. With the Court’s help the wealthy and corporate interests have finally succeeded in even further corrupting our democratic processes for their own political and economic benefit.

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In 2010 the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Citizens United vs Federal Election Commission that the free speech clause of the First Amendment prohibits the government from restricting independent expenditures for political campaigns by corporations, other non-human legal entities, as well as Super Political Action Committees (Super-PACs) established and organized by wealthy individuals for the specific purpose of political fundraising and spending.

The concept of corporate rights is based on the idea that corporations and similar legal entities are people within the context of the Constitution. It is certainly true that for social, political, and economic stability a corporate charter must grant protection for certain fundamental legal, business, and property rights. However, corporations as a class of entity exhibit no national loyalty or any of the responsibilities of United States citizenship. They are beholden to their owners who are as likely to be foreign investors with an abiding interest in monopoly and autocracy as much as they might be in American democracy.

The idea of rights of personhood for corporations in the constitutional context is absurd. The founding fathers were quite familiar with the power of corporations to corrupt the political process. They knew that such entities lacked both political and national loyalty, and that they used their enormous economic and political power to promote their own mercantilist interests. In fact the founders were painfully aware that the monopolistic objectives of the British East India Company and its political influence over Parliament and King George III was a proximate cause of the American Revolution itself. It is unthinkable that those same men would have been willing to give corporations freedom under the new Constitution to manipulate democratic governance for their own purposes. Clearly they saw the rights and authority accruing to corporations to be a function of that entity’s charter, not memorialized in the Constitution. But even if they had wanted to protect certain specific rights of corporations within the Constitution they would have documented them. Yet there is not a single mention anywhere in the Constitution of even the word “Corporation”.

But suddenly, with that one Supreme Court ruling in 2010 the entire political campaign finance landscape shifted. Now there are no limits on how much money public and private corporate entities can spend to influence political campaigns. They can spend directly or through Super-PACs, or if they don’t want the public to know who they are or what they are doing they can set up non-profit 501 (C) corporations through which they fund their political activities; those corporate entities are not required to identify the sources of their contributions.

Of course proponents will say that there are other national laws that limit foreign agents’ interference in national elections; and it is true, but that only works if we know who they are. Through these 501(C) corporations and other  “dark money” channels the Federal Government, and we the American public, would not even know if Russian oligarchs, Chinese business entities, or non-state foreign actors are funding campaigns for or against particular candidates. The only legal requirement any of those entities have is that they must not contribute directly to a candidate or coordinate with that candidate’s official campaign. Of course many of the organizers and managers of these Super PACs, non-profits, and LLCs already have long standing business and political relationships with the candidates they are supporting; only fools can believe that there is no coordination.

As a result of all of this, wealthy Americans’ and corporate money has driven the cost of elections beyond the reach of most candidates for national office who must depend on grassroots donations. Generally, only candidates endorsed by the wealthy through these Super-PACs, other political money mechanisms, or are already “bought and paid for” political minions have much chance of election. Sadly, beginning in 2010 these legally corrupt vehicles and strategies have been fully endorsed by the Supreme Court. Unless, or until, we get unlimited money out of the electoral process we will never return to healthy democratic governance.

America’s Future – Economic Inequality

This is a companion post to “America’s Future – Continued”. It represents my expanded thoughts about Economic Inequality, one of the core existential threats to our democracy that I outlined in that earlier post: 

Economic Inequality:  We have extreme and growing economic inequality within our electorate. The top 1% of Americans earn close to twice the earnings of the whole lower 50% combined. Even worse, that same 1% has more wealth than the total wealth of the lower 90% of Americans. The gap is continuing to grow, mostly because of unequal tax policy, which is substantially controlled by the wealthiest Americans and their business interests.

The influence over tax policy exercised by the wealthiest Americans through their political minions inevitably leads to favorable tax treatment for them while increasing the tax burden on poor and middle class working people. However, there are limits to the capacity of the working class to fund the needs of the local, state, and federal governments. The resulting unequal and unfair tax burden just cannot raise enough revenue; that ultimately starves the federal government of funds to meet basic societal needs such as public infrastructure, environmental stewardship, healthcare, education, and fundamental scientific research. Similarly, a myriad of other critical social and economic programs that keep the US competitive in the world community and meet the needs of its own citizens suffer.

But these wealthy Americans have an explanation for why they should get special tax benefits. It’s called “supply side economics”; the concept was introduced to the broader public in the 1980 Reagan presidential campaign. The idea is that investment by wealthy people is the ultimate driver that stimulates growth in the economy. So if they get preferential tax treatment they will build and spend, the entire economy will grow rapidly, tax revenues will increase, and that economic growth will “trickle down” to the working class who in the end will be the real financial beneficiaries. Even I believed that in 1980. But after trying it three times, all under Republican administrations, I can say unequivocally that it has not ever worked as advertised or intended. It does reliably produce two results you can always count on however; it substantially increases economic inequality, and it dramatically increases the national debt.

The level of economic inequality that the supply side economic strategy has created over the past 40 years manifests itself today in electoral unrest in a variety of ways that at first blush seem to be unrelated; however, racism and white supremacy, anti-immigration, xenophobia, even voter suppression efforts are all directly driven or exacerbated by the stagnation of real working class wages over the past 4 decades. The recognition of economic inequality associated with the belief that ones economic condition is limited by benefits or opportunities afforded to others less deserving is a powerful drug, especially when exploited by political opportunists. Regardless, virtually every outward expression of political discontent or rage if traced to its source has the economic condition of the working class as one of its primary roots.

Until the Reagan era limiting economic inequality was a core element of federal tax policy. It worked relatively well until it was dismantled in the 1980s and replaced with supply side economics. The implementation of that economic philosophy fostered an entire new industry of legal tax evasion strategies for the wealthy. Today, most wealthy Americans pay significantly lower tax rates than the working class, and through smart business manipulation many pay nothing.

For a long term stable society tax policy must be revised to address inequality; a much more progressive tax system must be re-implemented and include equal tax treatment of all income regardless of source. And we must reverse some of the worst inequalities that have already severely stressed the poor and middle working classes over the past 40 years. If we don’t do these things, political unrest will continue toward more progressively more extreme destructive and undemocratic ends.

America’s Future – Systemic Racism

This is a companion post to “America’s Future – Continued”. It represents my expanded thoughts about Systemic Racism, one of the core existential threats to our democracy that I outlined in that earlier post: 

Systemic Racism:  Long term systemic racism is still entrenched in our American society. While less overt than decades ago, it still limits African-Americans from exercising the full extent of the privileges of being American that their white counterparts enjoy. And black children today still suffer from the residual economic limits imposed on their parents, grandparents, and generations before them. They also deal with much more subtle ongoing racial discrimination, no less destructive but harder to pinpoint and fight. Unfortunately, most conservatives seem bent on exercising plausible deniability even of racism’s existence; they call it a liberal fiction. More recently, but especially with the advent of the Trump Administration, we are also beginning to see white supremacists along with xenophobes, homophobes, ethnic and religious bigots, and other hate groups crawl out of the political sewers and become openly active again.

Brutal treatment of black citizens by police has been present but mostly successfully hidden or denied for generations. Now with the ubiquity of cell phone video, we are forced to face a mountain of evidence that demonstrates that it is still with us and far worse than we want to believe. The proliferation of cell phone video and social media has shone a bright light on abusive behavior toward various racial, ethnic, and immigrant classes. At the same time the dramatic spread of unregulated social media has become an attractive and primary venue for white nationalist, anti-Semitic, ant-immigrant, and other hate groups; extremists are free to spread political abuse, disinformation, and lies of all sorts, so far with little cost to themselves.

Racism and white supremacy have been with us since our founding. They were memorialized in our original Constitution. Even the surviving records of discussion and debate around the adoption of the Second Amendment demonstrate it had little to do with protecting the people from a tyrannical government. It was much more about Constitutional protection for white southern planters who wanted the right to use armed militias against potential slave rebellions. We are not likely to solve the societal problems that causes racism any time soon. However, with the advances in video technology, social media, and big data, it is clear there is still far too much evidence of systemic racism for us to ignore.

Sadly, many Americans in general, and conservative politicians in particular, are unwilling even to admit we have a serious racism issue. Most recently, Republicans have started a national effort to spread disinformation about a 40 year old academic concept called Critical Race Theory (CRT). The core idea of CRT is that race is a social construct, and that racism is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice, but also something embedded in legal systems and policies. One can debate that issue, and we should. But Republicans go farther. They promote the idea that there is inherent danger in even teaching our children the truth about the role race has played in our history and how it relates today, much less take even baby steps toward addressing it.

At the end of World War II the GI Bill provided returning soldiers low cost home loans and funds to get a college or university education. That should have been a great equalizer for many returning black soldiers. But white politicians made sure that program was designed to generally exclude black soldiers. Call it reparations or whatever you like, but it is time to do something like the GI Bill for the black American descendants of slaves whom we continue to abuse through white focused economic and social institutions. As a society we must step up to the reality of our continuing racism and do a much better job of addressing its legacy than we have been if we are to remain a liberal democracy.

In this piece I am addressing abuse of African-Americans. However, we have a different but continuing equally abusive national relationship with Native Americans. I lay down a marker here on their behalf, but will leave that for another discussion.

America’s Future – Fiscal Policy

This is a companion post to “America’s Future – Continued”. It represents my expanded thoughts about Fiscal Policy, one of the core existential threats to our democracy that I outlined in that earlier post: 

Fiscal Policy:  We have a dangerously high and growing national debt, with deficits forecast to increase by at least $1 trillion every year for the foreseeable future. That is a fiscal time bomb we must deal with soon. Even with the best of intentions and most sincere political cooperation, along with reality based economic planning and decision making, re-establishing sound fiscal management will be very difficult. It requires hard choices in taxation and spending policies as well as a significant level of education for and buy-in from the electorate.

Our existing fiscal irresponsibility has mostly been possible because the United States late in World War II led the effort to define and implement rational international economic and monetary policy. Through its ongoing leadership over the last seven decades the US has generally been (until 2008) a source of international economic stability and a safe haven for financial investment. As a result of that long term stability, we still enjoy the lowest interest rates in the world, and the dollar is the primary reserve currency in global transactions today. Nothing protects our favored nation status though except continuing stable performance. Of late our divisive political situation is beginning to stress that.

In the last couple of decades we have begun playing a dangerous game with periodic political brinkmanship threatening to default on our debt obligations. We are again facing that political and economic catastrophy as I write this. That will eventually catch up with us and lead us to a diminished position in the view of the international economic community; and one actual default, even if only for a few hours, would likely create international panic and probably change the global financial equation indefinitely. Suddenly, we would be seen as economically unstable by the world’s financial institutions. It might even endanger the dollar as the primary reserve currency in financial transactions as well.

But even if none of that happens immediately, after a while (some years perhaps, but soon) our real or perceived political instability as well as our mounting debt load will begin to limit our economic growth. And interest rates are not going to remain as low as they have been for the past dozen years. Future borrowing will become more expensive as existing federal debt matures. That in turn will lead to substantially larger federal debt service expense going forward. As debt continues to grow and debt service expenses grow, less federal revenues will be left to spend on other legitimate domestic financial obligations.

It is clear that during the Covid pandemic balancing the federal budget can’t be the economic priority. However, left unchecked, continued deficit spending at the rate it has been over the two decades before the pandemic, or any level near or above our GDP growth rate, will threaten our longterm national economic stability. Unfortunately addressing and fixing the root cause of this threat can’t happen in today’s political environment.