Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

19 December 2018

What Makes a Democrat?

[The Last Adult is Leaving the White House. Who will Shut Off the Lights? For how our two parties lost their souls, click here. For the dire portent of Putin’s high-fiving the Saudi Crown Prince, click here. For updated advice on how to drive on the Sun’s power alone, or without fossil fuels, click here. For a 2018 Thanksgiving Message, click here. For a list of links to recent posts in reverse chronological order, click here.]

1. Equality
2. The “common good”
3. Free enterprise restrained 4. Reality and science

    “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”—King James Bible, Mark 8:36

As my last essay showed, both major parties have fallen into the trap described in this biblical quotation. Their lust for power and their leaders’ naked ambition have caused them to lose their souls. They have forgotten who they are and what they stand for. They’ve lost sight of their core values and often have betrayed them.

There’s nothing “grand” about the Grand Old Party now. It stands for little more than an old narcissist’s ego. Its “principles”—if it still has any—can change on a dime with his whim. Its self-rediscovery will come only with Trump’s impeachment and removal, the party’s wholesale reinvention, or takeover by a third party.

But the Dems still have a chance to reinvent themselves. In fact, they may already have started to do so. The effort may have begun with Ralph Nader’s independent run in 2000. Bernie Sanders’ primary run in 2016 brought it closer to fruition.

It’s vital that the process continue and accelerate, for a party must have clear core values. They provide a basis for reasonable compromise with the opposition and a scale for measuring the party’s own progress and success. As our biblical quotation reminds us, winning elections is not enough if you betray your core values and the reasons why you got into politics in the first place.

Core values have little to do with fifteen-points plans, although they may point the way to concrete action and help evaluate it. You should be able to count a good list of core values on the fingers of one hand.

So here’s a list of only four core values that the Democratic Party has stood for, on and off, for most of a century, and someday might stand for again:

1. Equality

Democrats’ highest and simplest core value comes directly from America’s Founding document, the Declaration of Independence. “All men are created equal [and] endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights.” Today we see the word “men” as unlimited by gender, but generic, encompassing all of our human species.

This value is just a nondiscrimination principle. Democrats don’t discriminate against individuals based on who they are or who their ancestors were, or what their sexual proclivities are. Dems care about what people do in the public sphere, or what they do privately to children or non-consenting adults. Otherwise, Dems’ counterpart to equality is tolerance: live and let live.

The word “created” in Jefferson’s credo is key. It implies that we all start out with a clean slate.

Both nature and nurture make us humans perceptibly unequal as we grow, develop, become educated, and experience the rewards and vicissitudes of life. Yet Democrats’ core value of equality doesn’t contradict this or any other reality. What the “clean slate” rule means is that everyone is entitled to equal treatment before the law and by other human beings in public life, insofar as reality allows. There is to be no discrimination, no supremacy in mere identity, no misogyny, no racism, no bigotry, no homophobia, nor any other phobia based on characteristics that have no visible, indisputable and universally recognized practical consequences, like a missing hand or eye or a broken leg.

The inscription atop our Supreme Court building states the same core value another way: “equal justice under law.” The law and our courts are supposed to treat all equally, regardless of who they are or who their ancestors were. That’s also the meaning of the blindfold over the eyes of Lady Justice in the statue.

Among the realities that our law is bound to respect are a president’s lawful powers and Secret-Service protection. But a president who lies is still a liar. If the lie is official and serious, he or she is a still a criminal subject to prosecution and punishment, albeit perhaps not while in office. In important cases, impeachment and removal are options. If a president makes foreign policy based on the hope that a foreign adversary will let him build a hotel in its capital, he is still a traitor, and to be treated as such.

Thus a Democrat has no trouble reconciling the “Right” of freedom of religion with the “Right” of freedom from discrimination based on identity. If your religion disapproves of homosexuals, you have a right not to associate with them in your private life. But if you seek your State’s protection for your business, its property and contracts, you cannot refuse to serve homosexuals in your business just like any other human beings. The same analysis applies to every customer of every gender (including trans), race, religion, ethnicity, linguistic group, and national origin.

We are all the same and to be treated the same except when hard physical reality or lawful distinctions intervene. That simple principle and its direct consequences has made us the strongest, most just and most envied society in human history.

Among the most important “Rights” that this core value of equality protects are democratic and economic ones. The right to vote is most sacred, because it’s ultimately the logical source of all the others.

If you think there’s voter fraud, then you should find ways to detect and punish it. You should not make it harder or impossible for whole identifiable classes to people to vote and hope that, by doing so, you will discourage voter fraud. That’s taking a shot in the dark while discriminating against people by location, race or wealth.

You should not, for example, have 36 polling places in a county of mostly white people and only one in a county of roughly equal population with mostly black people. You should not make it harder for recent immigrants to own property, and you should not put pollution-belching power plants mostly or only where poor people or minority people live. These are rules that Democrats believe and that we need to revive in our nation as a whole.

Likewise we cannot have people of one race incarcerated and shot down in the streets at rates far greater than people of any other race. This is not something to shrug off or lament without action. It’s something to fix with great urgency. It’s a shameful gap between our ideals and our nation’s reality.

A bipartisan bill to reduce draconian sentencing for non-violent drug crimes is now approaching the president’s desk. It’s a good start, but it’s only a start. We need to attack this problem with overwhelming force and attention, as if it really mattered, which it does.

We are wasting the lives and the talents of our young black males by short-changing their education, putting them in prison, and shooting them down in the prime of their youth. There is no excuse for this—no rationale in good policy, biology or science. There is only a four-century legacy of lies, slavery, bigotry, oppression and poverty, which we must start blasting away in earnest.

Democrats believe that black lives do matter, just like all other lives. When we waste them with bad policy, we are spilling the substance of our nation. “They” are us. Once we get that simple truth straight, positive change should follow.

All these rights—voting rights, property rights, economic rights and environmental justice—flow directly from the core value of equality. But pride does not. Nor does any kind of supremacy.

It’s fine for various groups to take pride in who they are, as long as their pride doesn’t morph into delusions of supremacy. But it’s not the role of the state or any government to promote pride of identity, even including pride of traditionally oppressed groups like gays. If you want to strut your identity in public, our First Amendment gives you that right. Government cannot hinder you, but it can’t help either. For too often one identity has strutted its stuff only to oppress or intimidate another. Just think of the Neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, or a few years ago Nazis marching through Skokie, a Jewish suburb of Chicago.

There’s a good rule of thumb for this core principle. It’s not infallible, but it’s helpful to consider in close cases. If you’re just doing what everybody or every other group does, then the core value of equality lets you proceed. If you’re just strutting your stuff, or if you’re asking for special treatment other than to remedy vestiges of past discrimination, you probably shouldn’t be asking for the state’s help.

2. The “common good”

Democrats’ second core value is closely related to the first, and almost equally important. Not only should people be free from discrimination based on who they are and who their ancestors were. They should also have equal opportunity to a good life, the “American Dream.” Whether they clean toilets and make beds in hotels or invent cures for cancer, their lives and happiness matter.

We Americans are all in the same big boat. We sail or sink together. We all matter. The cohesion that derives from that simple empathetic principle is what makes us strong as a nation.

This credo, too, comes directly from our Founding American documents. Our Declaration of Independence states our common belief that everyone has the rights to “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Our Constitution states as one of its primary purposes “to promote the general welfare.” (emphasis added)

Our Founders packed a lot of meaning into that two-word phrase “general welfare.” As educated men of the eighteenth century, they were all familiar with the writings of John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham, the so-called “Utilitarians.” They believed in the Utilitarian principle of “the greatest good for the greatest number” because they understood that making everybody productive and economically secure makes society healthier, stronger and more cohesive. They believed that a society that leaves no one behind would be the freest and strongest in human history. So far, they have been right.

Perhaps our greatest demonstration of these ideas came during and after the Second World War. Two classes of people in our nation had been indubitably legally oppressed. African-Americans in the South labored under a regime of legal inequality called “Jim Crow,” and Japanese-Americans in our West were interned after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in what amounted to non-lethal concentration camps. Yet, however badly their kind were treated, the sons of both of these groups fought fiercely on our side in the War, for the mere promise of the words in our Founding documents. African-Americans fought bravely as common soldiers and as Tuskegee Airmen, and sons of Japanese immigrants fought in the famous 442d Brigade—the most decorated in our entire war—which liberated the deadly Nazi concentration camp Dachau.

After the war, the men and women who had fought so bravely came home from their victory with a new sense of purpose, honor and capability. Their new sense of self-worth motivated the civil-rights struggles of the 1960s. African-Americans threw off the chains of Jim Crow with the civil rights laws. Japanese-Americans got recognition and ultimately small compensation for their parents’ Internment. Women who had learned to work in war factories while their men were away began to contribute to society—and to their families’ economic security—as more than mothers.

It was no coincidence that this explosion of self-worth and societal recognition produced the greatest surge in productivity and economic well-being the world had ever seen. Our GDP rocketed upward. The massive war debt vanished. Our cities and suburbs blossomed with cars, private homes, small businesses and (in warmer climates) swimming pools. Our industry hummed like a fine Swiss watch, and we Americans invented television, high-altitude flight, the transistor, the laser, the integrated circuit, the digital computer and (later) the Internet, among other things. Beginning in the seventies, environmental and workplace regulation made our mines and factories and our industrial cities the cleanest, safest and most liveable of any in the world.

Almost all of this happened while the top rate for individual income taxes was 92%.

Then the right-wing ideologues got to work. Taxes were too high, they told us. Rules and regulations were stifling “liberty” and “freedom,” mainly of the strong and the rich. Regulated capitalism, they claimed, was tantamount to socialism or even Communism, which was still working its evil ways in Russia’s Soviet Union and in China. (They told this lie although no serious politician in America, let alone any major-party candidate, had ever so much as suggested getting rid of private enterprise.) Government, which had won the war and, through its sponsored research, supported all the new science behind this prosperity and happiness, was, they lied, the villain.

“Government is the problem, not the solution,” declared Ronald Reagan. When Reagan became president, he had had the least experience in public office of any president in our history, if you count the military commands of our general-presidents like Grant and Eisenhower. He had no national experience and only eight years as governor of California—a record whose thinness would later be surpassed only by Dubya’s six years as governor of Texas and Trump’s zero years as governor or representative of anything.

Yet these men joined propagandists on Fox and talk radio, plus rabid recent refugees from Communism like Ayn Rand, to make us forget all our Founders’ wisdom. They bid us ignore our Founders’ careful analysis of human government from ancient Rome, through monarchical Britain and Europe, to the European Enlightenment and beyond. They told us to channel our inner selfishness, saying “It’s your money!” They urged us to downsize and “starve” the very government that had made our society the world’s fairest and most egalitarian—and therefore the strongest, most prosperous and most innovative.

Our Founders had taken decades to study millennia of human history and the Enlightenment and condense them into a few shining pages in our Declaration and our Constitution. It was as if the right wing, with Reagan their avatar, had thrown those golden pages all away in favor of a lurid cartoon telling the rich and powerful to “go get yours!”

So far, the pinnacle of American civilization came during the postwar period, before Ronald Reagan told us it was every man for himself. It’s the function of Democrats, as keepers of the Enlightenment’s Flame, to build that pinnacle back, law by law, regulation by regulation, brick by brick, and (if necessary) strike by strike. They can do that by holding to the core value of the common good, the general welfare. No one can do it by giving every advantage to the strong, the rich and the powerful in the name of so-called “liberty” and “freedom.”

To reach that pinnacle again, we do not have to destroy or even wound capitalism or free enterprise. Far from it. Capitalism and free enterprise have proved themselves to be the greatest engines of human progress and prosperity ever discovered. But like a strong stallion or bulls in a china shop, they can break things if not tamed. It’s the function of a democratic society to put them in harness, where their power can serve the common good and general welfare.

One of the appalling things about our species is our tendency to run to extremes. Unrestrained capitalism can be rough on regular workers, to be sure. So what did we do? In the last century we humans tried to replace it with two authoritarian systems made up out of whole cloth. One, called Communism, was a fiction created by two writers (Marx and Engels) as a means to cure the massive oppression of workers that laissez faire capitalism had caused in the nineteenth century. The other, Nazi fascism, tried to curb capitalism by bringing it under the absolute control of thugs.

Neither dreamed-up system worked. Both systems failed miserably, causing cataclysmic wars that killed tens of millions. The battle between Communism and fascism was part of the motivation for World War II in Europe. The battle between Communism and capitalism we call the Cold War, which came within minutes of extinguishing our human species in the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962.

We don’t need any more cataclysms. We don’t need to kill the horse or bulls or (in another metaphor) destroy and replace the machine. We just need to tame, civilize and train the animals, or to govern, adjust and calibrate the machine. We need to improve capitalism and ameliorate its rough effects on workers, slowly, carefully and intelligently, day by day, year by year, regulation by regulation, and strike by strike.

That’s what FDR and his “Brain Trust” did. That’s the kind of system that even Republicans maintained, at least under Eisenhower and into Nixon’s presidency. That’s what our Founders meant by promoting the general welfare and creating “a more perfect Union.” It’s a process, not a war.

As long as our species exists, that process will never end. Its goal will be to tame free enterprise to serve the common good and the general welfare, with emphasis on the words “common” and “general.” That may not seem a transcendent goal for a political party, but it’s the right one. It’s right for Democrats because it’s the essence of “democracy,” from which Dems take their name.

3. Free enterprise restrained

To some, Democrats’ third core value may seem anomalous, even incongruous. Ask the average Democratic voter whether he or she is a “capitalist,” and you will probably get a blank or hostile stare. But ask whether he or she believes in “free enterprise” and you will probably get a grudging “aye.” Ask the same of independent voters and left-leaning Republicans (of which Trump has made more than ever) and the “aye” will become more enthusiastic.

In truth, the two terms are practically synonymous. You can’t have free enterprise without the money (capital) to start a business. And you can’t have “capitalism” without the freedom to start and run a business. So both terms refer to a certain economic “freedom” or “liberty”—the freedom of individuals, alone or with others, to start businesses out of whole cloth, with nothing more than their own ideas and initiative and whatever money they can cobble together, whether from their own savings, their friends’ and relatives’, or organized capital markets.

Thurgood Marshall, the Supreme Court Justice and great African-American bringer of liberty, understood this point. He penned perhaps the most memorable paean to free enterprise to be found in the dusty tomes of Supreme Court decisions. It’s still worth a read by every Democrat and every American:
The antitrust laws in general, and the Sherman Act in particular, are the Magna Carta of free enterprise. They are as important to the preservation of economic freedom and our free-enterprise system as the Bill of Rights is to the protection of our fundamental personal freedoms. And the freedom guaranteed each and every business, no matter how small, is the freedom to compete—to assert with vigor, imagination, devotion, and ingenuity whatever economic muscle it can muster.”
Marshall hit the nail on the head when he compared the personal freedoms enshrined in our Bill of Rights with the economic freedoms protected by our antitrust laws, by so-called “competition law” abroad, and by our Constitution more generally. These economic or “business” liberties are as vital to our success as a people as those that came from our credo of individual liberty, equality and nondiscrimination. The fact that the right wing often emphasizes the former and the left wing the latter should not impede clear thought: both are vital, and both make us Americans.

The main problem is the word “capitalism.” It carries a lot of historical baggage. For Democrats and the left wing, it smells of exploitation, oppression, the last century’s bloody struggle to form and recognize labor unions, and their recent decline under globalization. It carries a whiff of longstanding labor-management struggles, in which workers battle with managers and shareholders over how big a share of the productive pie each will have.

But the term “free enterprise” carries little or no such baggage. It’s a more neutral, economists’ term. No Democrat ought to oppose free enterprise, as long as workers get their fair earned share of its proceeds.

I use the term “free enterprise restrained” for precisely that purpose. It means capitalism restrained by government action and by regulation, including the recognition and enforcement of collective bargaining, to insure that workers get their fair earned share of the proceeds of free enterprise. The terms “free enterprise” and “fair earned share” are more neutral and less loaded than “capitalism” and ultimately ought to prevail in Democratic political parlance. The trouble is that pols and the people often focus so obsessively on the last century’s cataclysmic struggles that they can’t think straight. They forget that workers need jobs, and that free enterprise provides them.

Whatever their tortured history, capitalism and free enterprise are America’s economic system. They’re far too old and established to be challenged as such, or to be replaced with a completely different system. An effort to do that would tear our nation apart, just as Russia did to itself in its 1917 Revolution.

In the last century, Russia and China, along with other nations, tried to replace capitalism and free enterprise with Communism. They gave Communism a fair and free practical trial—Russia for seven decades and China for three. Communism failed in both nations, and both voluntarily abandoned it of their own accord. No one but a fool would repeat those decisive large-scale experiments, which caused vast human suffering and economic dislocation.

The achievements of our system are equally important. Capitalism and free enterprise are directly or indirectly responsible for all our modern creature comforts, from the flush toilet and indoor plumbing to cars, trains, air travel, radio, TV, the Internet, computers, cell phones and modern medicine. Our American system—widely recognized as the world’s most enthusiastically capitalistic—either invented or rapidly adopted all these things and more.

When something is working that well, you don’t smash it and replace it, whatever its discontents; you fix it. That’s exactly what our pols did, including even Nixon, with “regulated capitalism.” They exploited strong, sensible regulation and collective bargaining by workers to produce the most finely tuned job-and-prosperity machine the world had yet seen. Democrats should understand this point and downplay or expunge any criticism, express or implied, of capitalism or free enterprise generally. (It’s OK to identify and fix the many flaws and discontents. That’s what Democrats do.)

A final point is political. Whatever their actual benefits and effects, “capitalism” and “free enterprise” are sacred cows in America. For every voter you might attract by using terms like “socialism” or “Democratic socialism,” you will alienate two more, in part because few Americans really know what those terms mean.

“Socialism” and related words are the kiss of death in American politics. They have been for over a century. Not only do they alienate individuals; they give Fox and other agit-prop provendors carte blanche to confuse the public and to tar and feather Dems. They provide the rope to hang Dems with and can even tie the hangman’s knot.

So Democrats simply ought not use these loaded terms. They should put the word “socialism” and all its many variants (including “Democratic socialism”) in a box. They should lock them away and bury the box. They should bury them deep in the same place where they put the “N-word” for African-Americans and the “F-word” for gays. Then Dems will be forced, each time they want to talk about health insurance (or anything else that requires collective action), to think through what they mean and express themselves with limitation and precision.

That way, they’ll get good at explaining the relevant economic principles so clearly a five-year-old could understand them. Then they won’t let demagogues bury them and their ideas.

Democrats once seemed to understand these basic points of applied philology, but today they sometimes forget. The point is so important that I digress briefly (in a long footnote below) into universal health insurance as an example.

Now that we’ve discussed the fraught “capitalism” part of our Dems’ third basic value, we come to the most important practical question: “what restraint”? Today, it’s not just a matter of environmental and workplace regulation, as it was in the seventies. Today’s corporations mostly rule our day-to-day lives in ways that monarchs did half a millennium ago and that the bureaucratic state did and does more recently.

The problem is that our Bill of Rights doesn’t apply to corporations (or to any private party) as it applies to government. That simple, vital and basic fact of law requires us Americans to rethink, for corporations, all the limitations and rights that took Anglo-Americans half a millennium to work out for governments.

Getting these limitations right will be the work of at least a century. Neither Dems nor anyone else can hope to complete the task in one or even several electoral cycles. But the journey of a thousand leagues begins with a single step, and that initial step is long overdue.

Civilization requires rules of morality and empathy. We cannot let an amoral and unrestrained profit motive determine what fake news and hate mail we receive, what lies about our public and private lives torment us, what Russian and Chinese spies can serve us on our own computers and mobile devices, and what intimate details of our private lives people anywhere, for good or for ill, can use for their own dark purposes. We cannot tolerate these things, at least, and have a real democracy, any more than we can have one when debtors are languishing in prison, poorly paid workers are sleeping and convalescing in our streets, or large sectors of our people are letting their native talents and intelligence go unused for lack of education.

Regulation of pollution, health and workplace safety covers none of these, so we need to develop entirely new fields of law and regulation. And we need to do so with full recognizance of the rights we already possess as human beings and the need to preserve them. If we fail, corporations will rule our lives from day to day, down the smallest detail, by the simple expedient of “take-it-or-leave-it” form contracts that we click to “accept” as we surf the Web. And they will silence our protests with gag orders and non-disclosure agreements, just as Trump is trying to do with the porn star.

Corporations will bind us in their own web of law, which they make themselves, backed by form arbitration clauses that our own Supreme Court has ruled enforceable. They will forge their own legal system, with their own hired lawyer-arbitrators as “judges,” dispensing with juries altogether. Thus they will force each of us, as consumer, customer or employee, to abandon not only all the protection of our American Constitution, but all of the protection of our Anglo-American legal system going back to Magna Carta.

If we let corporations do this, motivated by all the valuable goods and services they provide us, they will have carte blanche to rule us as lords did serfs in the Middle Ages. Our only recourse will be to use government to impose different, better and more humane rules.

When he mouthed his puerile credo “Government is the problem!” Ronald Reagan could not foresee the extent to which corporations would come to rule our daily lives just a few decades on. He had no idea that he was inviting free American workers and consumers to become a new class of serfs.

But we Democrats know today. The Big Five—Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft—among others, have taught us well.

So we have to develop a new regime of human rights for the twenty-first century, one that will restrain the oppression (both willful and unintended) of corporations just as the Bill of Rights sought to restrain oppression by monarchs and even democratic governments in the past. Here are three basic principles that Democrats should consider as they work on that new regime of humanity:
    A. Corporations are not people and have no human rights.
The underlying principle of Citizens United—that corporations are “people” with all their human rights—has a checkered pedigree. It began with the notion that corporations are “citizens” with all the “privileges and immunities” thereof under Article IV, Section 2 of the Constitution. That so-called “Privileges and Immunities Clause” is what knits our nation of fifty sovereign states into a single economic zone. It gives “the citizens of each state . . . all privileges and immunities of citizens in the several states.”

During the our nation’s westward development phase, we grew from thirteen original states to fifty, plus several territories. As we did, it was practically necessary to apply the Privileges and Immunities clause to inanimate corporations. Otherwise, corporate businesses might suffer exclusion or discrimination from state to state merely because they were not created or domiciled in the state where they happened to be doing business.

The Clause knits our federal nation and its myriad businesses into a single social and economic entity. Without it, the states could tax and exclude people and corporations from other states and make a mess of the single economic zone that our Founders envisaged, anticipating the EU by two centuries.

The problem came with the argument that, if corporations are “citizens” under the Privileges and Immunities Clause, they must be “people” under the Bill of Rights because “citizens” can’t be inanimate, let alone legal abstractions.

Although consistent with abstract verbal reasoning, this conclusion made absolutely no practical sense. Corporations are not alive; they are abstractions. Giving them human rights simply elevates the people who own and run them above others, violating Democrats’ core value of equality. The wholly predictable result of this misguided “logical” decision has been skyrocketing inequality, massive corruption, and unwanted intrusion of corporations and their managers into aspects of human life far removed from their natural industrial and economic purviews.

The Citizens United decision that occasioned these results is a legal abomination. It’s a classic example of Jonathan Swift’s dictum that sometimes “the law is an ass.” It belongs in the dustbin of history, along with the Supreme Court’s other vast blunders: Plessy v. Ferguson, which declared “separate but equal” education for some of us adequate in a nation of equals, and Dredd Scott, which kick-started our Civil War by forcing citizens of free states to capture and return runaway slaves. Statistically, Citizens United is even worse: while the white-supremacy decisions oppressed only a 12% minority of us, Citizens United oppresses 99% of us—all but the 1% who benefit from speech more equal than others’.

So one core principle of Democrats’ restraints on free enterprise ought to be somehow reversing Citizens United. Corporations are not alive. They are not people. And even if they seem to represent people, the ones they represent are the ones who own and run them, i.e., the most privileged and powerful people in our society. To give corporations human rights, including separate rights of speech, is to elevate the privileged and powerful even further above the rest, contradicting the first principles of American democracy.

Therefore, corporations should have no human rights whatsoever, apart from those of the people who own, manage and work in them. They should have the same “privileges and immunities” as if they were citizens, so that they can operate in every one of the fifty states as if they were at home. But the people who own and run them should have no more rights as human beings simply by virtue of that ownership and management. Otherwise, we Americans would be living the fiction of Animal Farm, where some were more equal than others. That novel was supposed to be a parody of the old Soviet Union.

There may be a relatively simple way to achieve this desirable result legally. Congress could pass, and the president could sign, a law giving corporations the privileges and immunities of citizens as if they were people, under the Interstate Commerce Clause. (Almost by definition, any corporation requiring those privileges and immunities would be operating in interstate commerce.) Then the Supreme Court, in a test case, could reverse Citizens United as unnecessary for interstate commerce and incorrectly decided, relying on the rule that recent precedents are more subject to reversal than older ones. The old cases on privileges and immunities could remain on the books, impliedly repudiated on the issue of corporate personhood but reinforced by the congressional statute on the issue of privileges and immunities. Then Congress would be free to pass reasonable restraints on corporate speech as such and the misuse of corporate money, especially “dark” money, in politics.
    B. Corporations are not free to disseminate their own or anyone else’s lies.
The most important thing to understand about America’s First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech, is that it doesn’t work against corporations. On the contrary. Under certain circumstances, it can protect corporations’ speech, including lies and fake news, even when corporations are careless (but not reckless or deliberate) in publishing them.

So there is virtually no chance, under current law, that our government, by itself, could stop the flood of lies and fake news on corporate platforms over the Internet by legal action alone. We’re going to have to find some other way.

The problem is not, as in the case of Citizens United, just a matter of thoughtless and mischevious law. It’s fundamental to our system. Our Constitution reflects the supreme value we put on private speech criticizing our government, even when it’s wrong. We believe in a “marketplace of ideas,” in which good and right speech supposedly will prevail over bad and wrong (inaccurate) speech, as free citizens compare both. And we’ve traditionally relied on that “marketplace of ideas” to keep government and our public officials honest.

The problem is that our Founders, who drafted the First Amendment, never came close to conceiving of anything like our Internet. In their time, you had to have a printing press to make a big impact, and only substantial property owners did. Now, using Facebook and other similar digital platforms, anyone with access to a public library—indeed, anyone in the world, even a Russian or Chinese intelligence agent who writes English—can have access to tens or hundreds of millions of American readers, at virtually no cost, and virtually instantaneously. In some cases he can promulgate lies or fake news to large fractions of the American public. As our Senate’s recently released reports of its investigations reveal, that’s precisely what happened in our 2016 elections.

Lies and fake news of this sort overwhelm our legal and practical defenses in three ways. First, they allow massive and instantaneous publication of a kind that never existed in human history before the Internet went live in 1996, just twenty-two years ago. Never before in human history could a single individual (let alone hundreds), with assets no more expensive than access to a public library, put lies and fake news in credible format before hundreds of millions of people with just a couple of hours work.

Second, the lies and fake news confront an American public unaccustomed to (and unprepared by education and training for) massive volumes of propaganda and disinformation. Until recently, propaganda and fake news were something Americans dabbled in as part of rare training in how foreign totalitarian states operate by deluding their “masses.” Now any individual can get in the act, and any American can be its victim or its perpetrator.

Finally, the sheer volume and variety of fake news on the Web can induce voters to “just give up,” concluding that “nothing is real” and “it’s impossible to know anything for sure.” This supine state of mind can lead voters to believe only what they want to believe, regardless of evidence—a point toward which Russian intelligence services have deliberately tried to drive American voters.

To say this phenomenon is an existential threat to our democracy and our way of life would be an understatement. So would saying that it’s a serious threat. Although “soft” and not literally explosive, this is undoubtedly the most serious single threat to our society since our close brush with a mutual suicide pact with the Soviet Union in October 1962. In fact, it’s probably a greater threat to us because we are more vulnerable to it than our rival authoritarian states. Also, the threat is ongoing. It could last for decades or centuries, and it could come from domestic or foreign sources.

Lawmakers quite naturally turn first to the Internet platforms themselves as potential “chokepoints” in this flood of lies. But for three reasons, there’s not much lawmakers can do to constrict the chokepoints besides grandstand, goad and cajole. First, they can’t tell the platforms what to publish or not publish because the whole idea of the First Amendment is to prevent government from declaring what is true.

Second, the ways in which the platforms work are both highly complex technologically and proprietary. Lawmakers do not have the time, expertise or access to information to tell the platform managers, in detail, how to cut the flow. Imagine, for example, what would happen to the Internet if Congress passed a law that every single Internet posting had to be reviewed by a live human being before going on line. That law would ruin the Internet’s spontaneity and flexibility, and the shares of every platform company would crash.

Finally, lawmakers themselves cannot enforce rules or regulations that ultimately would require every Internet posting to be monitored by a person or machine (perhaps an AI). Nor are courts equipped for that purpose. Congress would have to set up a massive regulatory agency to enforce its rules, with necessary staff and electronic connections. That agency would make the NSA—which now monitors a tiny fraction of Internet traffic to thwart terrorism—look like child’s play. Some day the flood of lies may be so daunting as to require such a solution, but we are by no means at that point yet, either technologically or politically.

Beyond second-guessing and goading the corporate platforms, Congress could make some gross and draconian rules. It could shut down the worst-offending platforms, close them to offending foreign traffic, or perhaps close them to all foreign traffic. Other countries, such as China and Iran, have done similar things with varying degrees of success, and we Americans could probably do them quicker, better and cheaper.

Congress also could break platforms up into smaller, more manageable units handling specific subject matter. But enforcing the subject-matter limitations would be almost as hard as enforcing the rules against lies and fake news in the first place. Or Congress could use threats of these expedients as whips to get the platforms’ managers and technical personnel to work harder to reduce the flow of lies. Finally, as a carrot, Congress could grant awards and incentives—or greater privileges, such as licenses to broader use of unused electromagnetic spectra—to those platforms that did demonstrably best in cutting the flow of lies.

The mere enumeration of these expedients suggests that none of them would be a sure or quick remedy. Probably the surest, if not the quickest, expedient would be to harden the targets—the American people.

By its very nature, the disinformation threat requires “recruiting” our entire population to see and credit lies. For our entire population is the intended target, even if only parts of it are targets of specific lies. If the liars and disinformation artists can get our people to believe them instead of our own sources, authority figures and intelligence services—as Trump is doing with a substantial minority regarding the Russian influence investigation—then we as a nation are lost. It’s just a matter of time.

There’s not nearly enough time, and an insufficient legal and practical basis, for coercive action. So our most immediate government action must be hortatory and instructive. All of our official channels must speak with a single voice. They must declare that this is happening, that it’s wrong, that it’s hostile, that it’s extremely dangerous, and that citizens must protect themselves against it just as they once built fallout shelters and accumulated stocks of food against nuclear Armageddon during the Cold War.

Every day, a new bit of specific fake news should be exposed, discussed and analyzed. Schools should teach self-protection against lies and fake news from the earliest possible age, starting as early as seven or eight years, the age of reason. We must harden our children against this scourge like little Spartans, making a game out of it for the younger set.

Here the Democrats’ core value is clear: truth, clarity and wholesale rejection of lies and fake news, both as individual political ploys and cultural phenomena. In order to stay credible, Dems must abjure lies and fake news in their own campaigns—just as Dems recently resisted the temptation to gerrymander in New Jersey. They must press the issue and the initiative relentlessly, using every opportunity for a “teachable moment.” They must bring the fight especially to Republicans (including the President!) who use, exploit or promulgate lies and fake news themselves. They must point out, as is true, that acquiescence in lies and fake news is tantamount to treason to our way of life and our democracy, and they must chide and goad Republicans to take up the cudgel in every way possible.

This is an “all hands on deck” threat that requires a universal, coordinated response. The sooner Democrats are able to goad or compel one, at least among their own party, the safer our society will be, and the greater credit for our cultural survival Democrats will deserve.
    C. Corporate rule must be restrained for the common good.
“Corporate rule” is not the same as capitalism or free enterprise. Capitalism and free enterprise are the processes by which business are formed, financed and grown. They are not limited literally to corporations but embrace sole proprietorships, partnerships and unincorporated associations. In contrast, “corporate rule” is the process by which big corporations and other big businesses are coming to control our daily lives as individuals in a detailed, comprehensive way that even our government never intended or achieved, except perhaps over active-duty military personnel.

I have written several essays on corporate rule, which is rapidly becoming a fact of life of our new twenty-first century (see this one first, then this one and this one). But in the context of politics, some specific examples may be helpful. Three credit-rating agencies for individuals—Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion—determine, in essence, whether anyone in America can get a loan, a lease of property or a car or (in many cases) employment. Their ratings also determine how other corporations price goods and services to individuals.

So these corporations’ acts in the ordinary course of their businesses probably have as much or more impact on individuals’ lives as the IRS’ calculation and extraction of taxes. In fact, if an individual is never audited by the IRS, as most individuals are not, the credit-raters probably have far more impact at more critical times in individuals’ lives, such as buying a house or car or taking a vacation. There is a federal statute, the Fair Credit Reporting Act, that governs these agencies’ conduct, but outside the narrow confines of that statute no one and nothing restrains these agencies but their own internal rules and algorithms, stated in and enforced by their own self-written form contracts.

The same is true of air travel. After numerous mergers, airlines today have an oligopoly of six or so, American, Delta, Jet Blue, Southwest, United, and Virgin America. Because international rules exclude foreign airlines from entirely domestic city-pair routes inside the United States, decisions of these few corporations collectively determine how cheaply, when, how and whether you can fly domestically inside the United States. If you want to fly inside your own country, you have to “play ball” with them under their rules.

I could go on, of course. Passenger train travel is a monopoly: Amtrak. Telephone service is a smaller oligopoly: AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon.

Of course none of these things existed when our Founders ratified our Constitution in 1791. Life was much simpler then, but also much shorter and poorer. So our Founders never conceived how these private corporations today could impact our lives and make them more painful or happier with their internal rules and procedures. In many cases corporations’ internal rules and procedures have more impact on our daily lives than the laws that Congress makes and the regulations under them.

So if you think a moment about how many key aspects of your daily life depend directly on government, and how many depend on corporations and their products, services, rules, regulations and procedures, you will probably conclude, after only a moment’s thought, that corporations govern your day-to-day life far more than government. So much for Ronald Reagan’s breezy dictum that “Government is the problem!”

In addressing this phenomenon, Democrats apply the same core values as they do to government: equality, nondiscrimination, fairness, and a quest for the common good and general welfare. That is, Dems expect that corporations will treat all people equally (accounting only for objective reality), without discrimination, fairly and for the common good. Dems expect that corporations will give all people equal or equivalent opportunities to use their goods and services, will make allowances for low income and low education, and will make at least a good-faith attempt to help those who are poor or needy, or who need special accommodations like the aged, people with disabilities, or rural customers for Internet service.

In other words, Democrats expect that corporations, if not precisely empathetic, will generally follow the basic principles of our society and our culture that make us cohesive and strong as a nation. They will not, Dems hope, simply just cite their self-drafted “take-it-or-leave-it” form contracts, enforce them, and taunt, “Take us to arbitration if you disagree!” And if corporations do that, Dems expect to be able to take them to court, to seek legislative action, or or to modify their behavior with boycotts and other collective action. Dems do not want corporations to replace the Monarchy that our Founders feared and distrusted as sources of high-handed behavior, arrogance, or oppression, whether of customers, potential customers, consumers, or employees.

In our new Third Millennium after Christ, this core value of Democrats will become increasingly important. For just as real secular power flowed from kings to priests in the First Millennium, and then back to kings and on to parliaments in the second, real secular power is apt to disperse from nation-states and their courts and governments to corporate boards and management in the Third.

As the party that cares most about people and least about abstractions, Democrats will have to keep an eye on their moral compass as they surveil corporations and their behavior in the future. For as time goes on, as the technological impact and specialization of corporations supplant the generalized governance of nation-states in controlling our daily lives, the application of Democrats’ values to corporate rule will be essential to preserving those values in our culture and our democracy.

4. Reality and science

Modern science as we know it is about four centuries old. It began in the early 1600s, when Galileo Galilei used his new telescope to verify the heliocentric nature of our Solar System and published his discoveries. The Catholic Church, which had ruled for centuries that our little blue planet is the center of the Universe, threatened him with excommunication until he recanted.

Ever since, powerful people and institutions have been trying to distort, misrepresent and suppress the findings of scientists in their own narrow interest. The whole phenomenon might seem like just another routine example of lies and fake news in politics. But if so, it’s a particularly nasty and important one. It’s the reason why our species has been so slow to address the existential threat of global warming, and it’s why official recognition of the health risks of smoking took about half a century.

Virtually all the progress and innovation that have made our human lives less “nasty, brutish and short” over the past four centuries have come from accepting—even relishing—the findings of science and turning them into useful technologies, products and services to improve our lives. From the sewer systems that shield us from routine epidemics of cholera, through the aircraft and mobile devices that let us travel or talk all over the world, to the drugs and live-gut-viewing machines that immeasurably improve our health and longevity, science has shown the power to make us much healthier, more capable, wealthier and happier.

Yet today we have a modern repetition of the sad history of Galileo. Our scientists tell us, in stark language and overwhelming majorities, that we are heating our planet beyond repair by burning fossil fuels, and that we have maybe a single decade, but no more than a generation, to make it right. Powerful interests, who make money from fossil fuels or just don’t want to change, try to dilute and distort the message to prevent its implementation in policy.

In this case, however, it’s not just our species’ pride as presumed center of the Universe at issue, but our species’ integrity, happiness and perhaps even survival. If the seas’ rise and our heating planet catch us unawares as oil and gas run out, tens or hundreds of millions of us will lead lives of such suffering, displacement and want as those of us in developed nations now have trouble even imagining.

Sanity, psychologists say, is good contact with reality. That’s what scientists give us, for things we cannot see, hear, sense or predict in our individual daily lives. Democrats believe, as a core value, that science is real, that we should support it as much as economic justice allows, and that we should implement its conclusions as quickly and soundly as possible so as to better our lives. That includes both alternative energy to avoid runaway global warming and universal vaccination for “herd immunity” and warding off pandemics.

Democrats would like to follow science in ways as diversely impactful as lowering public rates of heart disease and diabetes by changing our diets and doing more exercise, as fending off near-earth asteroids that threaten to extinguish us as one did the dinosaurs, and as reducing the acceleration of global warming before we ruin our planet for our species forever.

In other words, Democrats believe in studying our Universe, our Solar System, our Planet and ourselves, down to our DNA and internal proteins, in order to make our lives wiser and closer to our hearts’ desires. Democrats believe that doing so is just another aspect of keeping in touch with reality so as to advance the “general welfare.”

The policies that effect this belief are full support for funding of science, including our medicine and space programs, full support for applying the results of science when the private sector can’t or won’t do so, and fully teaching science (including evolution, the foundation of all modern biology!) to the next generation so that it can implement the results and carry the ball of innovation in the future. Democrats recognize science itself, as well as its conclusions and results, as core values that lead to greater human understanding and welfare.


There! That wasn’t so hard, was it? It didn’t require terminal wonkiness, except maybe in discussing health insurance (below). No fifteen-point plans. No pole-vaulting mind changes. Just basic humanity and common sense.

It’s people, not abstractions, that matter to Democrats. How to reflect that they matter is, as always, an issue of reason and practicality. As long as it serves these values in a practical way, any policy can gain support and a evoke a reasonable compromise from Democrats. Tax cuts that overwhelmingly benefit the rich and powerful, like cutting the safety net and practical health insurance for millions, is a hard sell.

Democrats are not the caricatures of social levelers that right-wingers suppose. They do not want everyone to be the same. They do not want all of us to be poor so that none of us can become rich. On the contrary, they recognize that individual achievement and the wealth a free-enterprise system can produce are powerful motivations for education, achievement and advancement. Free enterprise is indeed a superb economic engine.

But motivating talented individuals does not require ignoring or oppressing others. We had plenty of progress, prosperity and innovation when the top individual tax rate, under Eisenhower, was 92%. And we didn’t have a dilapidated national infrastructure in which bridges fall down and buildings in cities explode due to gas leaks. Talented individuals will always find ways to rise above others, both in their consumption and in their production. The trick is to find ways to make their talents useful to all of us, to produce the “greatest good for the greatest number.”

That approach doesn’t require soaking the rich or penalizing the talented. Far less does it require giving up free enterprise, without which there might be no benefits to share. It only requires a bit of empathy and some minor but important economic adjustments, by which the talented recognize how much they depend on a whole and savvy society, with all its laws, private property, infrastructure, education, and the results of earlier discoveries.

No man is an island. Ayn Rand’s John Galt is a clumsy myth, with no resemblance to how the real world works, how real people actually live or how talented people actually manage others. The Democrats’ core values insist only that our society and our policies (1) recognize the worth and the humanity of every citizen and every worker and (2) arrange things so that no one suffers unnecessarily and all are rewarded fairly, but not excessively, for their contributions. To that end, Democrats accept as their credo the four core values of (1) equality, (2) the common good, (3) free enterprise restrained for the common good, and (4) an eye ever on the reality of our lives as revealed in part by science.

Footnote: How words made the sad history of health insurance sadder

Virtually every other advanced democracy has a form of universal health insurance. Words are a big part of the reason why it took over a century for America to cobble together a poor simulacrum of such a system, which a district judge in Texas just declared unconstitutional.

Democrats let demagogues tar a universal insurance system as “socialism,” and even “socialized medicine.” They did so because Democrats are, by and large, better educated than Republicans: Dems look inside the box to see what’s there; they don’t just rely on the label. But many voters just look at the label. So the right wing has made great political hay by what I call “applied philology,” basically name calling and jumping to conclusions (“socialism” in health insurance will lead right to the Hammer and Sickle).

Dems are still struggling to find alternative language to duck the name calling. “Single payer” is both dangerous and inaccurate because no one has ever seriously proposed outlawing private insurance. (That would be like outlawing private enterprise, which in America would be tantamount to killing Christ.) Anyway, no matter how good public insurance is, there will probably always be special private health insurance that affluent people will want to buy, perhaps for specific conditions. And why not let them? If nothing else, high-premium private health insurance might finance leading-edge experiments in medicine that most patients can’t afford and that many might not want to suffer.

“Medicare for All” is a phrase that Bernie Sanders has used. It’s better than “single payer” because it doesn’t imply (falsely) an exclusive, mandatory system. Medicare is also familiar to voters, who generally view it positively. What voter nearing the age of 65, especially one cast on the not-so-tender mercies of private COBRA, doesn’t long for his or her 65th birthday and the chance to join Medicare?

But the “for All” suffix in Bernie’s formulation is problematic for two reasons. First, it implies that people who like their employer-provided health insurance might have to give it up. Second, if you insure literally everyone under a single grand plan, it implies enormous expense, begging the question of how much applicants will pay themselves. (I myself pay over $2,000 per year for my Medicare; that’s still a bargain for what I get, but it’s not nothing.)

In theory, a single public insurer has two enormous advantages over our current part-public, part-private balkanized mess. First, insurance is an odd business: competition doesn’t lower premiums; only increasing the size of the risk pool does. There are so many illnesses, injuries, and infirmities to be covered, as well as so many existing and future treatments, that individual economy begs for the largest pool possible, i.e, everyone in the nation. Second, hard numbers from home and aboard reveal private administrative expenses of 10% to 17%, as compared to public administrative expenses of 4% to 5%. If you add in the private profit that makes private systems go, say 10%, that gives public insurance an expense advantage north of 15% to 22%.

Yet there are problems getting to 100% enrollment. First, some young, healthy people will opt out, and “recruiting” all of them will require some form of coercion, either fines for not subscribing (as under “Obamacare”) or payment through taxes (as in many foreign countries). Coercion through fines nearly killed Obamacare (and may still!), and GOP demagogues have made raising taxes difficult. Second, phasing out private insurance without coercion will require prolonged coordination between the private and public sectors, perhaps decades long. During the transition period, there would have to be some public/private negotiation of revenue and risk-pool splitting, with lots of opportunities for corruption and self-dealing.

Terms like “socialism” and “Medicare for All” don’t help in discussing these difficult and very real issues. They cloud the issues, promote demagoguery, and impede rational discussion. The best that can be done, perhaps, is to describe the goal as non-coercive health insurance with nationwide risk pooling and coverage of pre-existing conditions, and address the real problems in arithmetic or mathematical terms with alternative proposed solutions, all with the math done. Economists will have to work with lawyers and pols to propose various transition systems and calculate their probable premiums, their overall cost, and their effects on existing insurance. The goal is worthy and achievable, but the path to it will be rocky. Using loaded terminology like “socialism,” which has a long, fraught, and mostly irrelevant history, won’t help anyone get there.

The Last Adult is Leaving the White House.
Who will Shut Off the Lights?

With the departure of former General Mattis as Secretary of State, all the adults in Trump’s Cabinet will soon be gone. Mattis is the last of the three sober generals to leave, the others being Kelly and McMasters. Even Michael Flynn, the not-so-sober one, is long gone, fighting for his freedom in court. Rex Tillerson, the only civilian Cabinet member ever to run an organization anything like the size of the federal government, is gone. Even Nikki Haley, a relative ingenue who knuckled down, got serious and learned her job, is gone, seemingly of her own volition, like Mattis.

What’s left among the talented are the kids. Whiz kid Pompeo, with his high intelligence and stint on the Harvard Law Review, has all the solid international experience of five years as a Kansas Congressman and fourteen months leading the CIA. Now he heads State.

With his willingness to support Trump in abdicating our international leadership and insulting our allies, Pompeo may be the nearest thing to Alberto Gonzales, Dubya’s short-lived attorney general, in going along to get along. Remember Gonzales? Presidents who have little or no experience themselves learn quickly that appointees with no experience, and therefore no political constituencies, have no tradable coin but loyalty approaching sycophancy.

Then there are the ones who have no business being within miles of the White House. They include: Steven Mnuchin at Treasury, Betsy DeVos at Education, the eighty-year old Wilbur Ross at Commerce, and Ryan Zinke, now leaving Interior. What do these nobodies have but craven ideology, a history of campaign contributions, corruptibility, and gall?

It’s easy to see why so many people are leaving, whether or not fired. Their boss—our Commander in Chief—is lazy, erratic, willful, capricious, nasty, stupid, venal, vengeful, corrupt, forgetful and incompetent. Competent people can suffer him only so long before they start to go crazy or cross the child’s shifting lines in the sand and are asked to leave.

With Mattis’ impending departure, PBS Commentator Mark Shields described the bipartisan mood in Washington as “panic.” [Set the timer at 3:33] And why not? When the last vestige of experienced competence leaves the leadership of the free world, what good is likely to follow?

There is only one sure remedy: impeachment and removal. There is plenty of evidence to support impeachment already. There will be a lot more as Robert Mueller III divulges the results of his many investigations, either seriatim in indictments or all at once in a comprehensive report.

Democrats will soon have the votes to impeach in the House. What is lacking is enough responsible Republicans in the Senate to rid us of this meddlesome narcissist.

As the world’s economy and geopolitical stability begin to spin out of control, the chief predicate of global order or anarchy will be Republicans’ willingness to put country and species over party. It’s now becoming clear that Democrats’ primary duty is to put them to that test, as soon as possible. A chief executive who takes his cues on policy from the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, and the agit-prop mavens on Fox [Start the timer at 0:44] could drive this nation into the steepest decline of any great nation in human history in a mere two years, let alone another full term.

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