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Saturday, June 25, 2016


Disrupting the disruptors

by Tom Sullivan

A long piece at Washington Monthly is worth your attention. Barry C. Lynn and Phillip Longman examine ten ideas for giving power back to the people of this country and for creating an economy that serves us. A lot of us are pretty damned tired of the arrangement where we serve the economy.

"Populism With a Brain" draws on the tradition that arose in response to the First Gilded Age. The principles that drove policy then — and have been sorely eroded since the 1970s — might be re-applied to the Second Gilded Age today:

These first Populists drew upon a political philosophy with roots back to the American Revolution. Part of this tradition is familiar—a belief that government must be run by the people. Populists called for direct election of senators and led the push for referendums and initiatives to bypass corrupt legislatures. But another part is largely forgotten—that the people are sovereign over the economy and have a responsibility to structure markets to promote the common good.

This was the “democratic republicanism” of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. It holds that, just like political power, economic power must be distributed as widely as possible. Thus, the Populists focused much of their energy on combating efforts to monopolize commerce and natural resources, especially land. They also closely studied how to govern large corporations, and strongly supported unionization of workers and farmers to counter the power of concentrated capital.
Eroding the power of concentrated capital has been central to Bernie Sanders' campaign. The reach of the financial sector and its power to remake government into one of, by, and for the corporations has been evident since the 2008 financial meltdown, yet too little has been done to bring it too heel. Even Sen. Elizabeth Warren's crusade to forestall further corporate wilding has been little more than a speed bump from Wall Street's perspective. What Populists sought was to prevent the concentration of that power by disallowing monopolistic concentrations of power in the first place.

In particular, the turn away from this Populist tradition and towards a preference for efficiency, they suggest, has led us to yet another Gilded Age in which people are no longer viewed as citizens, but as consumers:
In this tradition, breaking up monopoly has little to do with promoting efficiency or better deals for consumers, and everything to do with protecting political equality, self-government, and democratic institutions. As Brandeis explained, “The doctrine of the separation of powers was adopted . . . not to promote efficiency but to preclude the exercise of arbitrary power.” The way to “save the people from autocracy,” he said, is precisely by building “friction” into the system.

Over the following decades, these principles guided how Americans distributed economic power and protected industrial liberty. Despite wave after wave of technological change, concentration declined in almost every realm of the economy.

But in the 1970s, a small group of intellectuals—some, like Alfred Kahn, with roots in mainstream liberalism; and others, like Robert Bork, with roots in conservative Chicago school economics—systematically targeted the achievements of the Populist tradition. While anti-monopoly laws remained on the books, they were reinterpreted in ways that defeated their historical purpose. No longer would the aim be to promote economic and political liberty. Instead, according to guidelines enacted in 1982 by Ronald Reagan’s Justice Department, big corporations would be allowed to get bigger so long as they did not immediately hike prices to the “consumer.”

In retrospect, the evidence is close to irrefutable that adoption of this philosophy of “efficiency” unleashed a process of concentration that over the last generation has remade almost the entire U.S. economy, and is now disrupting our democracy.
No kidding. Read Lynn's and Longman's article for the skeleton of an agenda for defanging the fat cats. If it doesn't get discussed, it won't have a prayer.