Saturday, January 12, 2019

A Silver Lining?

The ongoing shutdown of most federal agencies may have a silver lining after all.  Since before Christmas nine of 15 Cabinet-level departments have been essentially closed or forced to operate with reduced staff, leaving 800,000 federal employees unpaid.  The consequences for the public are proving to be enlightening.

For forty years we have been bombarded with political rhetoric about an overbearing government intruding into every aspect of our lives and undermining our innovative spirit. Ronald Reagan gets credit for initiating the onslaught, famously saying, “Government is not the answer.  Government is the problem.”  And Bill Clinton piled on in his 1996 State of the Union address declaring the “the era of big government is over.”

Deregulating and making government smaller has been the almost universal message of both Republicans and Democrats. The shutdown, however, is offering a broad array of opportunities for ordinary Americans to gain new insights as to the role of government in our everyday lives.  It may lead to a reassessment of such political pontificating.

As result of the shutdown’s impact on the Food and Drug Administration inspections of our food supply and evaluations of proposed drugs for combating disease or chronic illness are restricted.  The Agriculture Department is hampered in monitoring the safety of our meat, poultry and egg production. Also, subsidy payments to farmers suffering losses as result of the trade conflict with China are on hold and agricultural statistical data needed by farmers for future planning is not available.

A variety of services supporting US business and trade activities are on hold or have been significantly reduced.  For example, the Commerce Department has suspended collection and publication of data related to our domestic economy and international trade.

Access to the National Parks and the Smithsonian museums in Washington, DC, have been restricted and in some cases eliminated.  A few states concerned with the impact on tourism have actually taken over park maintenance.  Since a significant source of park funding is visitor fees, the shutdown is a double whammy. 

The quality of our air and of our water supply are at risk because funding for the Environmental Protection Agency has been suspended, and protection for consumers from monopolistic and other fraudulent business practices cannot be provide without appropriations for the Justice Department.  Failure to fund the Securities and Exchange Commission limits oversight of the stock market and prevents approval of new corporations.

Landlords who rent to tenants receiving rental assistance from Housing and Urban Development will not be paid while the shutdown continues and the processing of home mortgages for many middle income Americans will be delayed.  The impact of the shutdown on the Internal Revenue Service means fewer audits and more revenue losses to tax cheats.

Ironically, even though the stated objective of the standoff is “border security,” some of the most severe reductions in governmental services are being imposed on the Department of Homeland Security.  Employees in the Coast Guard, Border Patrol, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Transportation Security Administration, US Citizenship and Immigration Services and Federal Emergency Management Agency are all impacted by the shutdown.  Most are still working but without pay and unable to provide a full range of protections. 

Significantly, DHS has furloughed, meaning they are not allowed to work even without pay, nearly half of the staff of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.  So much for keeping an eye on terrorists sneaking across the Southern border.

When the US was founded it consisted of thirteen states with a total population of less than 4 million occupying 865,000 square miles. New York City was the country’s largest city with approximately 33,000 residents.  Charleston, SC, was the fourth largest municipality with roughly 16,000.  In the primarily rural society of 1790, self-sufficiency was an important and achievable value.

Over 320 million people live in the nearly 4 million square miles that make up the US today.  That includes the 50 states, District of Columbia and several territorial “possessions” (which as advocates of self-determination we try to ignore).  New York City is still the largest city with more than twice as many people as lived in 1790’s America.

There are still rural areas, but most Americans today live in cities or suburbs in close vicinity of urban centers. Rubbing elbows with our neighbors sometimes causes friction, but it is unavoidable.  Under the circumstances the concept of “small government” is a dangerous and mindless illusion, and economically, self-sufficiency is no longer an option, much less a value.

Just how interwoven government’s responsibilities and services are in our everyday lives is being revealed in the shutdown.  Effective and representative government is clearly essential to our right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness in the modern world. Maybe we’ll remember that when the next election rolls around.    

Friday, December 21, 2018

What’s a Job Worth?

It is one of the most vital questions in a capitalist economy, and it’s almost always defined in money terms. In the not so distant past there use to be some occupations in religious or nonprofit organizations that were measured according to other standards. Today, virtual every job carries a monetary value and the gap between those at the top and those at the bottom has never been greater.

There are various estimates of this gap, but it’s generally accepted that the average private company CEO today receives well over 300 times the pay of the median American employee.  Some 50 years ago the typical CEO made 20 times what the median worker did.

This gap did not develop overnight.  It’s been in progress for some time, and it has a cumulative effect.

In 1980 the top one percent of Americans shared about eight percent of national income, while the bottom 50 percent received 18 percent.  In 2010, the one percent at the pinnacle of our economy enjoyed over 20 percent and the bottom half’s share plummeted to 12 or 13 percent.

Corporate leaders, their wealthy allies and their servile panderers in politics and the media argue wages and salaries in the US economy are set by the “market.”  Whatever the “market” will bear is what any job should pay. 

This answer portrays the “market” as some mystical, disinterested entity functioning beyond the control of human actors.  

Adam Smith, the father of capitalism, in his The Wealth of Nations begged to differ:

What are the common wages of labour, depends everywhere upon the contract usually made between those two parties (workman and master), whose interests are by no means the same.  The workmen desire to get as much, the masters to give as little as possible…

Smith also recognized who enjoyed the advantage in these negotiations:

It is not, however, difficult to foresee which of the two parties must, upon all ordinary occasions, have the advantage in the dispute, and force the other into compliance with their terms.  The masters, being fewer in number, can combine much more easily; and the law, besides, authorizes, or at least does not prohibit their combinations, while it prohibits those of the workmen…In all such disputes the master can hold out much longer….Many workmen could not subsist a week, a few could subsist a month, and scarce any a year without employment…. 

This has been the age-old story of modern capitalism.  A major objective of FDR’s New Deal was to restore some balance in this struggle by putting government’s hand on the scales in favor of workers, but in recent years, the natural advantage of management Adam Smith noted has been weaponized with an aggressive legislative and judicial agenda to undermine the collective bargaining capabilities of American unions as well as to make it more difficult for them to obtain financial support from the workers they represent.

A prime example of how distorted the struggle has become is the long running battle over increasing the federal minimum wage. The last time it was adjusted was 2009 when it was set at $7.25.  Obviously, it has lost significant purchasing power in the interim.  In fact, the federal minimum wage had its highest real value in 1968, when it was $1.60 per hour, $11.65 in 2018 dollars.

Under the circumstances, the argument for an increase to $15 an hour seems reasonable. On an annual basis that works out to $31,200, approximately half today’s median household income for a family of four.  Payroll and Medicare taxes would reduce the $31,200 to less than $29,000, by no means a luxurious living.

Why in America should anyone willing to work be paid less than $15 an hour?  Why should any employer expect someone to work for less? If an employer cannot pay a “living” wage, why should the job exist?   

The US has a $20 trillion economy.  Approximately 205 million Americans are in the workforce meaning a per capita national income of about $60,000.  Obviously, things are out of balance when so few  of those dollars flow to workers in the lower wage range.

It is a constant dilemma of capitalism that individual companies generally view labor only as a cost, but for the overall economy, workers are also consumers.  So a viable economic system needs to recognize that duality and the consequent importance of insuring that jobs are available and accessible to all willing workers. 

Some American companies have sought to escape that dilemma by outsourcing its workforce needs and extending its marketing reach abroad.  This has been particularly true in the tech industry.  But recent conflicts with China should be a wakeup call for this strategy, and a reminder that a major source of strength for American capitalism is this country’s commitment to representative government and the rule of law. 

Income inequality weighs heavy on the American economy today and is having a corrosive effect on the concord among our citizens undermining the willingness to find common ground on a host of issues beyond those strictly related to salaries and wages.  It is past time to rein in excessive executive compensation and share the fruits of American prosperity with workers at all levels.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Can We Ratify the Equal Rights Amendment?

The longest serving member of the South Carolina House of Representatives has vowed to seek ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) when next year’s legislative session begins.  Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, Democratic minority leader of the SC House, apparently knows the odds are against her in gaining approval to add the guarantee of women’s rights to the US Constitution.

It was on December 10, 1923, that the first attempt was officially made to enshrine such protection. Two Kansas Republicans, Senator Charles Curtis and Rep. Daniel R. Anthony, Jr., introduced an ERA proposal to Congress that day, ninety-five years ago.  It went nowhere.  By the way, Anthony was the nephew of Susan B. Anthony.

Not until the 1970s did the ERA make any significant progress.  In 1971 the US House of Representatives approved the amendment by a vote of 354-24.  A year later the US Senate followed, voting 84-8 in favor.  However, two Democrats, NC Senator Sam Erwin and NY Rep. Emanuel Celler, two old white guys, succeeded in attaching a seven-year ratification time limit, a seldom used caveat.  Therein lies the challenge Cobb-Hunter must address.

Initially, the time limit did not appear an obstacle. With Hawaii leading off, 22 states ratified the ERA by the end of 1972.  Another eight gave support in 1973 and three more followed in 1974.  At this point the ratification process began to stall and only two additional states, North Dakota (1975) and Indiana (1977) voted for the amendment before time ran out. Indiana was the 35th state to ratify.  Thirty-eight are necessary.

In general, opposition to the ERA has not been straightforward---women do not deserve equal rights.  That would be easily rejected by most Americans.  Instead, arguments have been more deflective, perhaps not maliciously so, but still diverting attention from the true purpose and effect of the amendment which is simple in language but comprehensive in intent:

Sec.1. Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex. Sec.2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article. Sec.3. This amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification.

Antifeminist icon Phyllis Schlafly epitomized early naysayers arguing the ERA would eliminate gender-specific privileges for women, such as dependent wife Social Security benefits, separate restrooms and exemption from the draft.  She called her campaign STOP ERA, STOP an acronym for “Stop Taking Our Privileges.” More reasonable opponents, including some labor organizations, expressed misgivings about the ERA’s impact on protections for employed women regarding working conditions and employment hours.  

I must admit my initial attitude towards the amendment was wary. I was not opposed to “equal rights for women,” but it seemed they already existed and did not need reinforcement by constitutional amendment. But during the latter stages of the ratification campaign a student in my American National Government class at USC Spartanburg wrote a position paper on the ERA.  She laid out the case that protections women enjoyed were legislatively granted and were not only limited in scope and application but could be withdrawn by congressional whim or narrowly interpreted by judges.  Her arguments were so cogent, I became a supporter.

Events in recent years have reinforced the vulnerability to discrimination women face in today’s US economy.  The Equal Pay Act passed in 1963 purportedly abolished wage disparity based on sex, but in a 2007 decision, Ledbetter v. Goodyear, the US Supreme Court denied the plaintiff relief because she failed to file her grievance within six months of the first discriminatory salary decision even though Lilly Ledbetter had no way of knowing about the ongoing disparity until years later. 

In January 2009, President Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act overturning the decision but doing nothing for the former Goodyear employee.  Nor did it discourage the US Supreme Court from ruling in 2011 against 1.6 million women employees of Wal-Mart who were alleging gender discrimination in pay and promotion policies and practices. In Wal-Mart v. Dukes the court claimed the plaintiffs did not have enough in common to constitute a “class.” 

There has been progress in reducing bias against women. Women participate in the military, they are increasingly found in leadership positions throughout society and their numbers in the US Congress just got a considerable bump up. Ratification of the ERA would reinforce these advancements.  

As for the ratification time limit, the 1992 decision of the US Congress to adopt the 27th Amendment, which had been pending before state legislatures since 1789, is sufficient precedent for removing the ERA’s deadline.  Two states recently ratified the amendment in anticipation of possible congressional action; Nevada in March 2017 and Illinois in April 2018.

For twenty years South Carolina has been among the ten worse states for domestic violence; four times the worst.  In 2016, the last year for which there are statistics, SC ranked sixth.  How delightful it would be if SC were the state to push the Equal Rights Amendment over the top.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Voting in America Needs Help

Another election day has passed.   Democrats have taken control of the US House of Representatives, while Republicans have strengthened their hold on the US Senate.  This likely means continuing gridlock in Washington, but the size of the turnout indicates more Americans are paying attention and are willing to seek change at the polls.  Issues concerning legitimacy and fairness in our election processes, however, remain unanswered and must be addressed because they endanger our democracy.

Since the US Constitution grants individual states significant authority in determining how and by whom  public officials at all levels of government might be chosen, we do not have a unified election system, but 51 different essentially autonomous systems.  This worked reasonable well in the early days of the republic, but as the nation’s borders expanded and as our population has become more mobile, the wisdom of a purely state-based system has become more and more problematic. Several issues require action.

First is the matter of gerrymandering electoral districts for representation in both the US Congress and in the individual state legislatures. Not a new problem, but one that has been exacerbated by new technological and polling tools allowing collection of massive voting data which enables precise partisan gerrymandering.   

North Carolina and South Carolina reflect this new phenomenon.  In the former the overall congressional vote in 2018 was nearly equal, but the GOP won ten of NC’s thirteen seats, a 77 percent edge.  A Democrat pulled off an upset in the SC congressional district that includes Charleston, in part because the Republican candidate favors off-shore oil drilling, an anathema to coastal residents.  Still, with 55 percent of the overall congressional vote, the GOP won five of SC’s seven seats, a 71 percent advantage.  Representation in the two state legislatures is similarly distorted by partisan manipulation.

Second, the 2013 decision of the US Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder eviscerated the 1965 Voting Rights Act that required states with records of discriminating against minorities to obtain from the US Department of Justice “preclearance” for any changes in election laws or procedures before implementation.  Almost immediately the covered states, and some others, initiated a wide ranging set of laws and procedures designed to suppress voter participation. 

On the surface some changes appear reasonable.

The archaic voter registration process needs reform.  Communication among the states is lacking which results in some voters being registered in more than one state.  But there is little evidence voters have taken advantage of this situation; certainly, not sufficient to justify the purging of millions of voters from registration lists that has happened since 2013. In Georgia alone, 1.5 million voters were stricken from the voter lists.   

At the same time the US Census Bureau estimates there are 245.5 million Americans ages 18 and older, but fewer than 160 million are registered to vote.  Maybe registration reform needs a different focus.

Requiring a form of photo ID has some merit, but not everyone drives a car and can take advantage of the Motor Voter Act, nor has every state implemented that law aggressively.  Furthermore, there is not uniformity as to acceptable photo IDs.  Many exceptions obviously reflect a bias against certain groups such as minorities, students, the elderly and the poor which cannot be justified.

Finally, the act of voting itself needs improvement.  There is no uniformity among the states regarding ballot design, early voting, absentee voting, mail or online voting, much less the type of electronic voting machinery used.  Given the national focus of elections today, the lack of common standards and schedules contributes to voter confusion and discouragement, which in some states may be the intent.

Stories of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential contest raised public awareness of vulnerabilities in electronic voting equipment.  Possibilities for hacking exist at several points in the election processes and not just by foreign entities.  Although South Carolina does not use machines that provide a paper trail and allow for postelection audits, most states do.  However, few states conduct regular audits and the chaos in Florida and Georgia this year confirms the lack of attention to voter tabulation.

Americans cannot tolerate continued incoherence in our election processes.  We cannot ignore threats to legitimacy and fairness until the next election cycle.  Nor can we reasonably expect the individual states to craft a more harmonious and equitable system, but the US Constitution recognizes that reality.  Article IV, Section 4 of the US Constitution guarantees every state a “Republican Form of Government.”  Whether or not you define “republican” as “democratic,” it still means “representative.” Also, the 14th Amendment indicates if the right to vote is denied, “or in any way abridged,” the representation of that state shall be reduced proportionately. 

The authority for reform is there.  Congress must find the will to act, or our democracy will remain endangered.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Our Rights Carry Responsibilities

The headlines continue to occur with sickening frequency.

            “Florence shooter struck 7 officers, killing 1, as they attempted to serve search warrant”
                        (Greenville News headline, October 3, 2018)

“Charlotte buys bulletproof vests to protect firefighters”
                        (Charlotte Observer headline, July 27, 2018)

            “York Co. detective dies at hospital following Tuesday’s shootout.”
                        (WCNC, January 18, 2018)

These headlines confirm that gun violence in the United States is not a distant threat.  It may not be right outside your door, but it is getting close and closer.

We have grown accustom to the sad stories.  Fifty-eight gunned down in Las Vegas.  Seventeen slain in Parkland, Florida.  All are followed by calls for prayers and condolences, but little real action occurs to enhance gun safety. 

Following the Parkland shooting, the Florida legislature did ban bump stocks, which ironically were used in the Las Vegas shooting not at Parkland, and it raised the age for purchasing a rifle to 21.  The age restriction has produced a court challenge from the National Rifle Association.

Given the constant spate of mindless gun violence, common sense would assume that government at all levels in the US would be mobilized to address the challenge. In fact, the opposite is occurring. 

Ten states have passed legislation allowing school districts to arm teachers and other staff members, including Texas where in May a shooting at Santa Fe High School left ten people dead.  School “resource officers,” frequently a euphemism for “armed guard,” are being increased in many states, although some, like South and North Carolina, are hesitating because of the cost. Some people are bothered by the idea of having more guns in schools.  

Many states have also liberalized laws related to carrying firearms in public.  At the federal level the US House passed legislation requiring all states to accept concealed carry permits from any other state regardless of how lax the latter’s requirements for such permits. So far, the US Senate has refused to go along.

No attempt is being made to address the fundamental problem---the excessive number of firearms available to the public in the United States without any idea of who has them, how lethal they might be, or under what conditions they are being secured.  And the problem will likely intensify in the future. US weapons manufacturers produced less than 3 million firearms in 2001, but in 2016 they produced 11.5 million.

The National Rifle Association and its gun industry patrons have convinced our political elites that “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms,” granted in the Second Amendment to the US Constitution prohibits imposing reasonable restraints on who has access to firearms or what firearms will be accessible to the public.  That is an extraordinary interpretation of a “right.”

In any rational political system, but especially in a democracy, a “right” carries with it the responsibility to see that your “right” does not impinge upon other rights within the community.  Your freedom of speech for example does not allow you to slander your neighbor, nor does freedom of the press allow your local newspaper to libel you.   

Does your right to bear arms not include the responsibility to insure that the firearms you possess will not fall into the hands of someone who might use them to harm others or maybe him or herself?  Does your right to bear arms, approved in 1791, not include the responsibility to restrict some particularly lethal firearms from being available to the general public.

Does your right to own firearms without any restrictions outweigh the right of youngsters to a safe educational environment or the right of your fellow citizens to attend a movie, a concert, or a sporting event without fear?

There are legitimate reasons for individuals to have firearms.  Hunting and sports shooting are both established elements in American culture, but neither would be burdened by background checks or registration nor do they require automatic weapons.  Although statistics question the effectiveness and wisdom of having a firearm in the home, it is an understandable desire that could be accommodated and made safer with a few weapons modifications.

Uncontrollable access to firearms makes no sense in a civilized community. There is a proven correlation between the number of firearms circulating in a country and that country’s rate of gun-related deaths and injuries.

Civilian gun owners in the US possess 40 percent of the approximately 857 million firearms in the hands of civilians worldwide, more than one for every American no matter his or her age. In 2016 the US rate for violent gun deaths was 3.85 per 100,000 people, by no means the highest among all countries---think El Salvador and Honduras. The US ranks well above countries of similar socioeconomic status.  Canada for example had a gun death rate of 0.48 in 2016.

People cannot be secure in a society where no one is capable of controlling the use of violence within that society.  How are laws enforced?  How are norms for reasonable behavior established and maintained?  How do people live without fear if there are no restraints on access to or use of instruments of lethal violence? How does democracy survive?

Saturday, October 6, 2018

"Anonymous" Is Not a Trust Builder

Our news media today, whether print, broadcast or social, seems to thrive on “anonymous” sources. While this may be necessary in some cases, the recent spate of articles, news reports, even books, based on unidentified sources have not been helpful.  

Even during my few years as a professional journalist, I always have been a bit skeptical of information from individuals who insisted on anonymity.  Still, as a realist about how the world works, I understand the need to resort on occasion to secret informants. But habitual employment of anonymous sources does not build trust, and the American media is already suffering a significant loss of trust among the public.

A recent poll by Gallup reveals the scale of this loss.  In answer to the question about their level of confidence in a list of institutions in American society, 40 percent of respondents indicated very little or no confidence in newspapers and 45 percent said the same of television news.  The only institutions that received comparable negative rating were the Presidency (44 percent) and Congress (48 percent).  Maybe there is some correlation.  

Providing accurate information in a timely fashion has always been the first mission of a free press in a democratic society. How well the free press does its job impacts significantly the trust enjoyed by other key institutions that are dependent upon reliable and relevant information produced by a free press.

In the modern media world of talk radio, cable news and the Internet, however, being first with a story seems often to override considerations of accuracy and relevancy. This circumstance may have played into the decision of the New York Times to run the recent op-ed essay by “Anonymous.” 

Perhaps not a wise determination.

There should be good reasons for wanting to protect the confidentiality of a source. Is the source providing information or insight not accessible by any other means? Could the revelations by the source open the door to corroborative information? What are the motives of the source? Does the source likely face significant retribution?  Could the source be seeking revenge for some slight? Is the information a diversion in order to mislead or distract?

Although the New York Times asserted that publishing the essay anonymously was “the only way to deliver an important perspective to our readers,” it is not clear what that “perspective” might be. The author, “a senior official in the Trump administration,” makes special note of Donald Trump’s “amorality,” and assures readers that the president’s “worse inclinations” are being restrained by senior officials in the Trump administration.  We have read and heard such comments frequently over the last year and half. The essay does not contain any new information or insights regarding these conditions.

It is obvious that “anonymous” approves of the policies Trump advocates and wants his administration to succeed---“many of its policies have already made America safer and more prosperous.” He (or She) labels “effective deregulation, historic tax reform and a more robust military…as “bright spots.”

While critical of Trump’s erratic leadership approach, “anonymous” wants to assure the American public “there are adults in the room.” At the same time the author takes the news media to task for casting these “unsung heroes in and around the White House” as “villains.”

After declaring the existence of “a two-track presidency,” the essay describes the dysfunctional nature of current US foreign relations, and refers to “whispers within the cabinet of invoking the 25th Amendment.”  Again, there is no new information or insight.  Apparently, the public should feel comfortable relying upon unidentified senior officials who are actively conspiring to undermine the administration, although not openly.

An anonymous essay by a senior official in any administration carries significant hazards for the author.  One by a senior official in an administration known for its dysfunction and headed by a president known for vengeful retribution seems extraordinarily perilous.  Does the message from “Anonymous” identify goals that might warrant the apparent risks?

This “senior official” could be simply suffering from a slightly guilty conscience or wanting to justify staying on board an administration stumbling towards disaster.

There is a possibility that the essay was designed to mislead or distract.  Some comments that stirred the president’s ire: “thwarting Mr. Trump’s more misguided impluses” and “insulating…operations from his whims…;” surely were not crafted to allay Trump’s paranoia. Neither was the special reference to Senator John McCain, who Trump considered a great antagonist.

In fact, after the essay appeared, a number of Trump’s senior staff rushed to reconfirm their support of his agenda and leadership style. It would be ironic if the decision of the New York Times to publish the “Anonymous” essay enabled Trump to elicit a reaffirmation of support from his senior staff at the critical midpoint of his term of office.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Selfishness Is A Dangerous Vice

Selfishness has always been a prominent, albeit unattractive, human characteristic.

The French political theorist Alexander de Tocqueville, whose seminal 19th century work Democracy in America is still widely read, wrote extensively about selfishness:

“No vice of all the human heart is so acceptable to it as selfishnesss: a despot easily forgives his subjects for not loving him, provided they do not love each other.  He does not ask them to assist him in governing the state; it is enough that they do to aspire to govern it themselves.

In Tocqueville’s view, however, Americans had overcome the evil of selfishness through its free governmental institutions, especially at the local level where citizens came to recognize the necessity and benefits of working together.  One wonders what he might conclude in today’s atmosphere of hyper partisanship, for in the 21st century selfishness has expanded its reach and depth and threatens America’s democracy.

Synonymous with greed, one of the original seven deadly sins, selfishness is usually thought of in relation to concrete or tangible things such as money or property.  However, it is manifest in other realms as well, generally where access to wealth may be an enabling factor such as the desire for power and control in politics, economics and social status.  Racism and xenophobia, or disrespect for those who are poor and do not enjoy the privileges of class or profession are also manifestations of selfishness.  

The Powell Memorandum has been a major contributor to the ratcheting up of selfishness in American society.  Entitled “Attack on American Free Enterprise System,” the memorandum was drafted for the US Chamber of Commerce in August 1971, by Lewis J. Powell, at the time a Virginia corporate attorney.  Still accessible on the Internet, it was a call to arms for the nation’s business sector. 

Powell, who a few months later was nominated to the US Supreme Court by Richard Nixon, argued for strong and broad measures to counter the influence of virtually every other sector with an interest in the country’s economic life---unions, consumer groups, college campuses, pulpits, the media, intellectual and literary journals, the arts and sciences and politicians. His proposed counterattack was swift and sweeping.

By 1978, the number of corporations with public affairs offices in Washington had grown from 100 in 1968 to over 500.  Only 175 firms had registered lobbyists in Washington in 1971, but by 1982, nearly 2,500 did.  Today, there are approximately 12,000 “registered” lobbyists in Washington, DC.  Of the 100 organizations that spend the most on lobbying, 95 consistently represent business according to a 2015 article in The Atlantic magazine.

The Powell Memorandum also precipitated an explosion in the growth of US think tanks.  Funded primarily by corporations and wealthy individuals, these “expert” organizations produce research studies and policy proposals generally supportive of corporate views on a variety of subjects.  By 2009, a study by the University of Pennsylvania identified nearly 400 think tanks in Washington, DC, but only about twenty percent of the think tanks in the US as a whole. 

Despite their role in influencing legislation and shaping political opinion, these organizations enjoy tax exempt status under the IRS code.  Donors to those claiming not to be an “action organization” (501c3) also receive tax deductions for their contributions.  While donors contributing to those openly engaged in lobbying and political activity (501c4) do not received tax deductions, their identity is sheltered. 

Inexplicably, individual citizens who contribute directly to political organizations and candidates receive no tax deduction and their identity is publicly recorded.  The result has been a decline in the role of political parties as arbiters of major governmental issues.

Changes wrought by the business sector in the media field have also had a negative impact on American democracy.  Removal of restrictions on ownership of broadcast and print media led to the elimination of the “fairness doctrine” for broadcast media and to an unhealthy consolidation of both broadcast and print media. Locally owned and controlled in the past, media outlets enjoyed a much highly level of public trust than today.

The Internet and the subsequent rise social media has filled the resulting void, but not always in a good way.

In the nearly fifty years since this selfish approach to governance was initiated income inequality in America has exploded, public and private debt have intensified, worker rights have been diminished and health care access has become problematic for many of the poor despite obvious medical advancements.  Granted the assumption has always been that various interests in American society would naturally prioritize their own concerns.  But for nearly a half century now corporate interests have sought and gained almost total dominance.

Business interests deserve respect and protection, but this kind of absolutism is helping to break down civility in America’s politic arena. Whether the issue is gerrymandering, judicial appointments, funding for education and health care, taxes or voting restrictions, the domination of corporate interests outweigh all other interests.  Relentless selfishness by any significant group within a country undermines the trust democracy requires and risks its existence as a viable republic.