Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Episode 81: The Small Government Paradox

The notion that “the government which governs least, governs best” is a widely held belief in conservative circles. The idea is a smaller government with less regulation is a more efficient system that will build an economy and trickle down wealth from the top 1% to the bottom strata of the socio-economic pyramid. I do not disagree with the theory entirely, yet time and time again, it is evident that in practice, this political philosophy does not work in practical applications

In layman politics, we tend to view “trickle down” economics solely from a dollars-and-cents standpoint. This is the source of middle class frustration with the “trickle-down” theory: most people never see any tangible benefits of the system, tangible meaning a couple extra zeros in their tax return. If we dive beyond the superficial meaning of the phrase, the trickle down system does to some capacity, work. Take for instance, cell phones. There was a time when only the elite were able to own PDA cell phones like Blackberries. Now everyone and their grandmother own an iPhone. We take it for granted that millions of dollars of investments by regular folk have paved the way for the downsizing of cell phones, and creating a market that drove down the prices of phones and its services.

Unfortunately, this economic model only works in isolated cases. When we apply the idea of small government – one with fewer regulations – to a mass scale, the model becomes broken. The primary reason why small government doesn’t work is because somewhere along the line, being a politician transformed from being a civic duty, to becoming a job, to ending up as a business venture. Elections are no longer about message, agenda, or policies; it is about building a brand. Take for instance, the special election in Massachusetts. Conservatives are quick to chalk up the victory of Scott Brown as a sign of failed Democratic policies, the rising influence of the conservative/libertarian tea bagger movement, or a repudiation of Obama’s agenda. Scott Brown won because he is a better brand than his opponent. Brown ran as the inexperienced, but energetic, charismatic, lofty ideologue. Sound familiar? A hint: it is the same brand message that helped Obama win the White House. As in fashion, one moment you’re in, the next moment, you’re out. Inexperienced lofty ideologues are in.

If there is one thing we can agree on as a nation no matter your political persuasion, it’s that America has lost its path, focus, and vision. We are flying by the seat of our pants double blindfolded. Part of the reason our country has lost its path is because of brand name politics. When politics transformed from civic duty, to becoming a job, to ending up as a business venture, the only part of our democracy we actually control is the process of electing our CEO – err, politician. After we vote someone into office, that politician is on autopilot for as long as their term lasts, barring a major scandal. While on autopilot, their message, agenda, and policy is dictated by the special interest groups that invested into the winning candidate’s election. Obama’s brand for example, which is seemingly stronger than Nike, was largely funded by the people. Middle-class people. Middle-class people who are part of labor unions and federal and state institutions. The auto bailout makes a bit more sense now doesn’t it? Thus when we vote, it makes more sense to focus on the candidates political contributors and not the slogans, rhetoric, or town hall speeches. No matter what any politician says on the stump, they are at the mercy of their investors, just like any other business. Thus, the only politician one could hope to trust, is one who paid for their own campaign out of pocket.

America has, over the last few decades, slowly transformed into an aristocracy. Three hundred million people are being controlled by fifty senators, four hundred thirty five representatives, nine judges, and one president. Add in governors, state senators, and the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies and America truly and mathematically is run by the top 1% of its population. Hence the problem with small government ideology: small government causes its citizens to surrender its sovereignty to the top 1% of our population who never has, never intended to, and never will have the best interests of its constituency at heart. The only thing that motivates businesses, and consequently politicians, is money, and an incentive to make more money. The irony is the democrats and republican citizens often go to such great lengths to disturb the political process with incessant bickering, slander, and non-cooperation, while the top 1% continues to profit off our own fears and ignorance. In other words, republicans vehemently defend the very people who are destroying the American freedoms they hold so dear, while democrats ignorantly contribute to the political machine via government expansion that destroys their own “agenda.”

The solution to the problem is not clear cut. Nor will it be solved any foreseeable future as it requires a great many people to surrender the power they enjoy. However there are a few ideas I hypothesized that would at least be a step in the right direction. First, we must abolish special interest funding in political campaigns as well as special interest lobbyists. Obama has pledged to do this, and it is indeed an empty promise, for he is just as connected to the political machines as his conservative adversaries. Second, we must limit the number of terms any politician can serve. The politicians most deeply and inextricably intertwined with the political machine are those who have been in office for decades. We need to put the “public” back into public service, and extricate the private sector out of politics all together. Then perhaps there is a chance we can once again reclaim our democracy.