Modern capitalist democracies are comprised of four pillars: industry, labor, regulatory framework and social safety net. For the system to operate effectively, all four components must be in balance. It is widely recognized that since the early 1980’s, the U.S. political economy has moved out of balance – toward industry, with all other prongs in retreat. Regarding labor, union membership is in a four decade decline. Collective bargaining rights have been under attack in multiple states. When the U.S. worked to reconstruct Japan in the aftermath of WWII, it insisted on forming strong unions to counterbalance corporate power – a far cry from the prevailing domestic governmental philosophy. With regulation, this generation has seen the repeal of Glass-Steagall, relaxed antitrust enforcement, the inability of the federal government to pass meaningful regulations to address climate change, and the neglect of the moral hazard associated with entities that are “too big to fail” (the 2008 JP Morgan Chase takeover of Washington Mutual was especially ironic in this regard). Finally, with respect to the social safety net, the federal minimum wage is stuck at an appalling $7.25/hour (leading to local initiatives like Seattle’s that seek to raise this by more than double, which I support), and pension plan benefits – in both the public and private sectors -- have been subject to downward revision. Meanwhile, corporate scale and profitability continue to increase. And increased corporate leverage in the political process has enabled tax avoidance schemes that allow a number of large corporations to pay no tax whatsoever.
The implications of this out-of-balance system are profound. U.S. middle class wages are stagnant. Income inequalities in the U.S. are higher than they’ve been for any society in human history, and these income inequalities are useless for economic growth (according to economist Thomas Piketty). Furthermore, the recovery from the Great Recession has been slow relative to historical precedent.
A fundamental problem is that our institutions are reinforcing, rather than ameliorating, this fundamental imbalance. Elections are increasingly influenced by corporations, affluent individuals, and interest groups, rather than the electorate. The Supreme Court permitted expanded corporate influence with its Citizens United decision, and then did the same for affluent individuals with its McCutcheon ruling. Regarding this external influence on political campaigns, Ross Hunter (Democratic State Representative from Washington State’s 48th Legislative District) recently stated: “It’s too bad we are in a world where campaigns are no longer controlled by the candidate.” Moreover, political districts are increasingly gerrymandered to ensure single party dominance. This diminishes meaningful political debate and leads to the election of a body of highly polarized legislators that engenders gridlock. The paucity of substantive dialogue is exacerbated by media consolidation that reduces the number and breadth of writers to inform the public policy debate. In short, at just the time that society needs a robust and substantive policy debate amongst its political candidates in order to address its imbalanced political-economic system, it becomes nearly impossible to find. My personal theory (admittedly speculative) is that the resurgence in recent years of interest in the lives and writings of the Founding Fathers is a direct reflection of this yearning for compelling political debate between candidates that is so lacking in our times.
The hollowing out of our civic institutions is, in turn, reflected in the increasing political disengagement of the citizenry. As Jefferson repeatedly admonished, an informed electorate is a prerequisite for the success of a republic. As citizen influence is replaced by interest group influence in the political process, and as the quality of political dialogue erodes, the electorate becomes less inspired, less interested and less informed. This, of course, facilitates the trend toward further disequilibrium in our political-economic system. In my view, the appropriate response to shallow political advertising is not to scoff, but rather to be concerned for our democracy because segments of the citizenry have become sufficiently disinterested and uninformed as to be susceptible to such ads. In the prosperous 1950’s Hannah Arendt (and others) warned of the threat to the western republics from their citizens becoming increasingly enraptured with material gadgetry and decreasingly focused on the hard work necessary to sustain their democracies. This appears to have been a prescient insight.
In summary, our political economy is becoming increasingly out of balance, with an over-emphasis on industry and an insufficient emphasis on its other dimensions. This imbalance is facilitated by our political institutions, which elevate interest groups and subordinate citizens. And this reflects itself in an increasingly uninspired and uninformed electorate. That is, our challenges serve to reinforce and perpetuate one another. The U.S. political economy is in a vicious cycle, and numerous visiting speakers to Seattle (from Joseph Stiglitz to David Cay Johnson to David Stockman) warn of the threat that this dynamic poses to our democracy.
This leads to the critical question of how to reverse this pattern. Here, there are two schools of thought. One school holds that these threats are systemic -- that the system itself will need to be changed. The second school argues that the aforementioned challenges can be met via a series of momentous policy reforms. While it is far beyond the scope of this article to try to contribute to this debate, several observations seem clear. First, our political and economic system is immersed in a number of troubling trends. Second, reversing these trends will require structural changes, not just incremental adjustments. Third, to implement these structural changes will require a change in approach that is based on substantive dialog and consequential policy proposals. In my view, candidates that do not develop and articulate clear positions to address these issues indicate a lack of awareness of the magnitude of our challenges.
My campaign is focused on utilizing a direct, substantive approach to develop policy proposals calling for structural reform. For a description of my legislative priorities, please visit the “Campaign Objectives” section of my website.
- John Stafford