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Sunday, July 03, 2016


Today we have neither

by Tom Sullivan

For too many of us the political equality we once had won was meaningless in the face of economic inequality.
—Franklin D. Roosevelt, Acceptance Speech for the Renomination for the Presidency, Philadelphia, Pa. June 27, 1936
Posts leading up to the Independence Day weekend remind me how, as Roosevelt once observed, economic royalists have again carved new dynasties.

At Our Future, Dave Johnson points to how corporate barons have grown strong enough and bold enough to challenge great nations. And not with conventional weapons, but with legal ones:
A Canadian corporation is suing the us because we wouldn’t let them build a pipeline across our country (seizing people’s property along the way) so they could sell oil to China.

They can do this because we signed a trade agreement that places corporate rights above our democracy. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) would increase by an order of magnitude the companies that can sue us for hurting their profits by protecting the environment, consumers, public health and small businesses.

TransCanada Corporation is suing the U.S. government (us) for $15 billion in damages under North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) rules. The company wanted to build the Keystone pipeline all the way from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico so they could ship oil to China. They also wanted to use “eminent domain” to seize land from ranchers, farmers and other property owners along the way to enable this.

Why can they do this? In 1993, President Bill Clinton signed NAFTA and on January 1, 1994, the United States officially became a party to the agreement. Chapter 11 of the agreement “protects investors” by allowing them to sue governments that pass regulations or laws that hurt their profits. They can bypass the legal systems of these governments and take the issue to “corporate courts” in which corporate attorneys decide if the corporation or the government will prevail.
That is not new, but deserves repeating. Approving the TPP, Johnson argues, will simply take more power and authority from people and hand it over without a shot to transnational corporations. The American Revolution began with "the shot heard round the world." The American experiment could end with the scratch of a pen.

At the American Prospect, Harold Meyerson has a thoughtful piece on how Democrats address the politics of downward mobility. It has taken time for the long-term effects of the 2008 crash to sink in. One pollster tells candidates to avoid using the term "middle class." Too many Americans have fallen out of it:
Last year, a Pew Research Center survey confirmed those Americans’ assessment. The share of income going to middle-class Americans declined from 62 percent in 1970 to 43 percent in 2014, while the share going to upper-income households rose from 29 percent to 49 percent.
In response, Meyerson asks, "Will the Democrats, as they did between 1928 and 1936, and again in 1964 and 1965, redefine their fundamental mission?" Will they, as Franklin Roosevelt did? Just as the Great Depression shaped the perspective of the generation that experienced it, so too has the Great Recession reframed the thinking of Americans 29 and younger. Over 70 percent of those voters supported Bernie Sanders during the Democratic primaries, while over 70 percent of those over 65 went for Hillary Clinton. The capitalism that allowed post-war Boomers a comfortable life in the suburbs has failed Millennials still living with their parents and saddled them with mountains of school loan debt.
Clinton surely understands that, in light of the growing populism of the electorate, her ties to finance have become an electoral liability. While she cannot credibly morph into a Sanders or an Elizabeth Warren, she’d do well to embrace more of their positions—calling for the breakup of the mega-banks, for a tax on financial transactions, for greater public provision for the cost of college. More fundamentally, she’d do well to acknowledge more explicitly the great and growing imbalance of power and income between workers and owners, between ordinary Americans and the economic elite, and to situate her proposals under that rubric.
To do this, Meyerson recommends she "acknowledge the breakdown of a once-thriving economic order, identify the culprits, and propose a solution. Identifying the culprits is the part that does not come naturally to her, but there are moments when simple leadership requires it." This is Narratives 101. She cannot be the hero without first identifying the enemy (as Sanders has). It was not that hard to do on July 4, 1776:
Noting that it was in Philadelphia that Americans had first defined their nation’s creed, Roosevelt equated their break with the British crown with the New Deal’s break with the “economic royalists” of 20th-century America. “Through new uses of corporations, banks and securities, new machinery of industry and agriculture, of labor and capital—all undreamed of by the [founding] fathers—the whole structure of modern life was impressed into this royal service. … It was natural and perhaps human that the privileged princes of these new economic dynasties, thirsting for power, reached out for control over Government itself. … The political equality we once had won was meaningless in the face of economic inequality.” The task before the nation, Roosevelt continued, was thus to equalize both economic and political power. “If the average citizen is guaranteed equal opportunity in the polling place, he must have equal opportunity in the market place.”
Today we have neither. One hundred years after the first Gilded Age, the balance has once again tipped in favor of the royalists who have been among us all along angling for a return to their "rightful" place at the top of the social order. Angling, if not directly, through corporate structures that insulate their great wealth from the so-called Takers — those who might object, say, to having a corporation seize their farmland for its own purposes, or to subjugating government of, by, and for the people to the whims of a new class of resurgent barons and would-be kings.

Roosevelt cautioned in 1936:
For out of this modern civilization economic royalists carved new dynasties. New kingdoms were built upon concentration of control over material things. Through new uses of corporations, banks and securities, new machinery of industry and agriculture, of labor and capital—all undreamed of by the fathers—the whole structure of modern life was impressed into this royal service.
The Appalachian chain they say were once taller than the Rockies before erosion carved them away. So too will the freedoms we take for granted inexorably erode if not vigorously defended from those intent on patiently carving them away so slowly that no one noticed. Perhaps an economic Magna Carta would be in order to reassert the rights of citizens against the claims of the investor class?