Sunday, August 8, 2010

Checks and Balances, Part II

Last week I discussed the balance of power between the people and the government. Here I reveal how a coalition of sub-populations cutting in an entirely different direction (connecting selected people with powerful segments of government) can become destabilizing -- possibly even undemocratic (dare I say dictatorial?).

First, I must confess that I still remember something from college physics. Trust me; this will actually be relevant.

Envision a metal object in the shape of the letter "U" with an internal groove, so that a metal ball placed inside will roll up or down but not fall off the edge. Because of gravity, the ball will inevitably settle at the bottom of the "U" unless it is disturbed by an outside force pushing it up one of the sides. However, the gravitational force will oppose the outside force, resulting in a "stable equilibrium."

Turn the "U" upside down, however, and imagine placing the ball on top, perfectly balanced so that the forces pulling to the left and the right are exactly equal. The ball will remain at rest -- until any force disturbs it. In this configuration, gravity is destabilizing; once set in motion, the ball falls precipitously, and unless something exists outside the system to remedy the situation, it falls permanently off its previously stable perch. This is an "unstable equilibrium."

While the analogy may not be perfect (they rarely are), the societal counterparts to this old physics lesson should be reasonably obvious and at least mildly instructive. The American way of life has a built-in inertia ("gravity") that tends to produce equilibrium -- at least in the long term. The principle of stare decisis formalizes this, incorporating the concept that courts (especially the Supreme Court) should not overturn previous decisions without overwhelmingly convincing rationale. Equilibrium is also evidenced by such expressions -- representing, perhaps, the "conventional wisdom" -- as "don't rock the boat" and "if it isn't broken, don't fix it." The tendency to re-elect public officials in perpetuity -- often in the face of evidence that would easily justify a change -- may also be considered relevant evidence.

So far, the system has worked fairly well. Extremism is generally not tolerated in this country, and "political mistakes" are often corrected. Witness, for example, the reversal of sedition laws (multiple times!), the eventual repudiation of legal segregation, etc.

The question before us now is whether our system of stable equilibrium is in danger -- and I maintain that it is.

The wealthy and the powerful have and always will have a vested interest in controlling the functions of government that can either assist or hinder them. As long as a balance of power exists between these entrenched interests and the "general welfare" -- either through a sense of justice among elected officials regardless of political affiliation or through a distribution of control as a consequence of fair elections -- then a stable equilibrium will be maintained. But if the wealthy and the powerful are successful in gaining overwhelming control, along with the election machinery required to maintain that power in perpetuity, then "the people" will have only one recourse -- the decidedly destabilizing recourse of revolution.

According to the Los Angeles Times (8/2/10, p. A1), conservative organizations (thanks in part to the recent "Citizens United" decision of the Supreme Court) are preparing to spend up to $300 million on the elections that will take place this fall. Given that this money will be spent selectively in key races and that people are known to be influenced by political advertising (especially when the real source of the money is concealed), $300 million is a scary number.

Just suppose (and granted this is a worst-case scenario) that Congress eventually falls into the hands of people who lower tax rates on wealthy individuals and corporations to next-to-nothing and raise tax rates on the middle and lower economic classes. Suppose further that government programs to help the poor (food assistance, for example) are dismantled, partially because they would no longer be affordable and partially because of philosophical opposition. Suppose further that the election machinery falls into the hands of partisan-oriented public officials who use their positions to influence the outcomes. (You say that already happened? Forget Florida in 2000 and Ohio in 2004 -- old news!) Suppose further that regulatory machinery and anti-trust laws are eliminated, allowing corporations to raise prices on essential products, thereby in effect taxing (yes, I said "taxing") the common people to guarantee a continuing flow of money that would perpetuate their omnipresent, self-serving, multi-million dollar political messages.

Does this irreversible condition strike you as a recipe for disaster? But what stands in the way of it actually happening? Unfortunately -- at the moment -- not much.


  1. The suppositions you present are almost laughably implausible taken piecemeal. Taken jointly, they don't stand a snowball's chance in hell, regardless of corporate money. Few things to keep in mind:

    Historically, the largest non-candidate spenders in elections are not corporations, they are labour unions. The rules for corps and unions are identical, both before and after Citizens United, so I expect to see no change in that proportion. And labour unions oppose almost everything on your list.

    SNAP is a trivially tiny part of the federal budget. In fact, the budget can be understood as follows:
    20%: Military
    20%: Medicare/Medicaid (mostly medicare)
    35%: Social Security
    3%: Interest on the debt
    22%: All other programs.

    The SNAP program is almost a rounding error, so is welfare. Unemployment insurance is somewhat more significant, but also not a very big amount.

    Cutting the deficit means slashing at least one of: medicare, social security, or the military. They are 3/4 of the government.

    Why would repeal of antitrust cause essential products to have higher prices? Which industries are at near-cartel status at the moment, with a small number of players who can collude, no small businesses who can compete, and no way for new businesses to enter?

    Election rigging beyond a trivially small number of votes is very easy to tease out statistically by the way, or else has to involve a massive conspiracy, so I don't buy that any substantial number of votes can be misallocated without massive consequence, and neither party is stupid enough to try.

    I think you're being paranoid here. Very little is likely to change. Republicans will win some seats in the fall, Congress will be largely ineffective, and we'll have few if any laws change.

  2. My experience as an executive tells me that it's a lot easier to fix problems while they're "small" than after they grow to massive proportions. So just exactly what would be wrong with taking preventive action -- to ensure that my "worst case scenario" never happens -- is beyond me.

    Election rigging is not trivially small. It clearly tipped the presidential election in 2000, and arguably again in 2004. It regularly did so in Chicago under the first Mayor Richard Daley, spawning the well-known maxim "vote early and vote often" -- that is, assuming you haven't already died, in which case someone else probably already cast your vote for you.

    As far as cartels are concerned -- examples are laughably easy to come by. (I like that word "laughably," by the way; nice touch, Peter.) How many major book publishers exist in the WORLD -- six; that's why they are referred to in the publishing world as "the big six." Try getting cell phone service from somebody other than Verizon, AT&T, or Sprint. Try getting a computer operating system that isn't dependent on either Microsoft or Apple. In Southern California, a huge share of the grocery business is owned by Safeway (Vons), Ralphs, Stater Brothers, and Albertsons. Even the private trash collection business is dominated by two local companies. If I want cable high-speed Internet service in my house, I can use...precisely ONE company! (And how many are there, nationwide? Perhaps a few.) Antitrust is not a problem?? Give me a break.

    If I'm paranoid, I have a lot of good company. And if a little paranoia will prevent my worst case scenario from occurring, I'm all in favor of it.

    Anyway, thanks for reading and commenting. Wow, a healthy debate, based at least partially on real facts! Take notice, U.S. Senate!