The Grand Lie

Brenda Cooper @ 26-10-2011

Most of my day-to-day life is good to great. A little too much stress, a few challenges with weight and sleeplessness, but I’m living my dreams about writing and I’ve got a job that pays the bills and leaves a bit extra behind for electronics. I’m usually optimistic. At the core, I suppose I still am, even though today, I am also convinced many of our choices are simply awful. We’ve created a consumer-based economy sustained on blood and lies and seduction: the real blood of wars, and the financial blood of red ink. The lies inherent in bundled financing schemes, in myths that as the rich get richer the poor get richer. Consumers have been seduced into buying more than they can afford and the fabulous entertainment and social networking available today tricks many of us into sitting in front of screens all day. The worst lie – the grand lie – is the myth that this can somehow all be sustainable, and maybe even get better.

Luckily, lies seldom hold up. The economy has no obvious jump-start button this time and if the same trends that held true yesterday hold tomorrow, and get extended, there may eventually be ten people standing on top of the hill holding all of the wealth. Also luckily, people who used to believe the grand lie birthed the Occupy movement. Not that the occupiers know what they want… but they do know – like I do – that something stinks. That while for most of us day-to-day life is fine, or good, or great, we’re standing on sand.

The easy answer is to assume that the government we have is broken. That’s the first place I went. Asking “What new form of government can we help us out of this hole?” and “Maybe we need a new constitutional convention – one for the modern age.”

Please, if you have a good answer for this, offer it up in comments. Revolution might be easier than what I think we need to do.

So, the next place I went? Maybe it’s not the structure that’s broken. Not the core. Maybe the question is “How do we fix the oozing sore spots?”

The Business/Government Marriage: It’s time to separate business and government. There is nothing sustainable about letting big business make policy. Right now, in my home in Washington State, Costco is using the initiative process to try to manipulate liquor sales laws. Business donations to candidates for office has already transformed the playing field in American politics. A government run by big business will not take the long, brave view on much of anything.

We got the churches out of government (mostly). At the time we did that, those were the power structures. Well, today’s power structure is all about global business. And we’ve given them almost everything people have in our democracy except the vote. Make lobbying with money of any kind illegal. Repeal laws that say corporations are people, too. Stop the need for vast fundraising machines (cap funding, fund candidates on the taxpayer dime, only at a much lower level, cap contributions more tightly – this can be done).

Governance: It part of the grand lie that we can maintain the current political boundaries. That it’s okay to ignore starving in Somalia and drug cartels in Mexico. Some key issues need worldwide governance. I say this a few times a year, and the words seem to blow up and fly off in the wind before they get to anyone’s ears. But many countries can’t do their share. Climate change and feeding a population of ten billion are just two samples of problems that need some central authority: a careful one, a nimble one, an authority with controlled power, but with real teeth where it matters.

This is tougher than hell to imagine (especially without war as a means of enforcement – shiver!), but we need it. The Euro (governed by the European center of Central Banks) is an attempt to lay authority with limited power across a number of sovereign nations for a narrow purpose (monetary policy). It’s not clear yet if that should give us hope or not. Maybe not, although my fingers are crossed.

We have the tools. We have more transparency than any society of any size has ever had. We can report on the behavior of politicians and corporations alike. We can take pictures of any atrocity or a triumph and broadcast them around the world in moments. We can move as a group, worldwide. See the Occupy movement if you need a reference point. Or the Arab Spring. Or even the protests in Iran.

We have the resources. Regardless of the fact that the richest 1% have most of the wealth by far, there are a lot of people living where I do, with a roof and a job and a car and some extra after that. Not ‘fund a new company’ extra or ‘invest a million in a stock portfolio’ extra, but ‘crowd-funding’ extra, ‘micro-loan’ extra, ‘do some good’ extra. And some of the world’s richest people are also pitching in. The Gateses. Buffet. Branson.

We have the values, or we wouldn’t be out in the street playing the Occupy game. We want a fairer society.

Now we need to use all of these things we have and make the right choices. Maybe there are a lot of right choices; there’s no universal truth. But we know what smells wrong, and to some extent, we know what to do. See above. Oh, and of course, we need to stop believing the grand lie. It’s not going to get better by magic.

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Brenda Cooper’s latest science fiction novel, Mayan December, is out now from Prime Books. For more information, see her website!

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15 Responses to “The Grand Lie”

  1. atimoshenko says:

    Honestly, I think it is the fundamental structure that is broken, and not just the manifestations thereof. We ought to have a transition that is at least as radical as the transition from monarchy to representative democracy.

    In my opinion, our problem stems from two conditions.

    First, the size of one’s impact, regardless the field in which the impact is to be made, is a product of our effort, our talent, and our access to capital (in the broadest sense of the word – economic, political, social, etc.). This means, very insidiously, that capital is much easier to maintain than it is to acquire, and that this is self-reinforcing. This means that unless capital accumulation is periodically broken up, it will inevitably centralise into an hourglass distribution with a few players holding all the cards.

    Second, we enter the world without capital (and when we die we do not take any remaining capital with us). The question then becomes one of capital allocation. The original solution was inheritance (for all sorts of capital – political with monarchies and aristocracies, social with castes and racism). Indeed I would argue that a lot of social strictures (patriarchy, lifetime monogamy, etc.) were created to facilitate capital transmission through inheritance. The centralisation effect took place with kings gradually coming to own everything and the size of their kingdoms expanding.

    The revolutions of the 18th-19th Centuries lessened the importance of inheritance in politics (though there are still plenty of political dynasties today). The Civil Rights movements of the 20th Century lessened the importance of inheritance for social capital. Economic capital, however, remains fundamentally tied to centralising, atemporal forces – both inheritance and the new solution of the corporation – a person-like actor in its ability to gradually build up capital, but without any limit of a natural lifespan.

    What we need to do is break the means of centralising economic capital and transmitting it across generations, instead distributing capital equally to people at the start of their economically productive lives. This capital could then be used for entrepreneurship or be brought along to one’s chosen organisation of employ (and withdrawn at the end of employment), for a truly employee-owned structure. Moreover, provided the amount of the initial capital injection is large enough, poor people who are poor because they started out life poor (which, I would argue, is the vast majority) would no longer be around and in need of social assistance. Chesterton and Belloc were, in my opinion, quite rightly exploring similar ideas, though their exact suggestions (with a focus on the family) can stand to be improved upon.

    There are other things to tweak when it comes to education (better if parallel with paid work – from a young age – and lifelong), healthcare (focus on prevention), and politics (stop the now-pointless geographical representation and switch to area-of-expertise representation, so instead of electing members of Congress for a district we elect them to handle foreign policy, or domestic economy, or law enforcement, etc.), but the capital access is the biggie.

    Privilege should not be abolished outright, but neither should it be easier to keep than it is to get.

  2. Sam M-B says:

    I’m not sure I have too many good ideas either, but a few that strike me as interesting and not revolutionary (e.g. “New Constitution from Scratch”) are:

    1. remove the cap on House of Representatives and instead allow direct (and/or delegative) democracy in the HoR — powerful financial interests would have to bribe fully half of the people, widening such a scheme to the point where the criminal bribe nature would be obvious and irrefutable

    2. nationwide vote on the president, using IRV (or Condorcet) style voting — this rips the heart out of the typical “divide and conquer” strategy, as we can vote our actual ideals and interests, not having to fall back on strategic “lesser of two evils” style voting — and this could be accomplished fairly straightforwardly by building up state by state approval for how they distribute their electoral votes, much as the “nationwide popular vote” movement is proceeding (but without perpetuating the mess that is a first-past-the-post popular election)

    3. similarly, for the Senate, each state should be able to use IRV (or Condorcet, or approval, or require a simple majority to win, using actual runoff elections) to select their Senators, again removing the two-party wedge/stranglehold

    All three are not terrifically dramatic. The most dramatic might be #1, so as a backup plan, I’d propose:

    A. proportional representation in the HoR instead of districting — particularly in my state (NC) the districts are convoluted and gerrymandered patches of insanity. At a national level, I have much more in common with a similarly-minded person in Asheville than I do with someone across town with whom I share very few values.

    B. using IRV (etc.) to elect Representatives. This is by far my least favorite reform to the HoR of the three, but it’s also the easiest to achieve, as each district (or at least each state) can decide to do this. Barring that, each party can decide to select their general election candidates in this manner fairly easily.

    Lastly, lately there has been an ominous increase in multi-million dollar campaigns in small, nominally non-partisan elections: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/10/10/111010fa_fact_mayer

    Whew. Good luck to us all… (And am I the only person who would like to see the #Occupy meetings end with: “SO SAY WE ALL”? :)

  3. Gregory Lemieux says:

    “Make lobbying with money of any kind illegal. Repeal laws that say corporations are people, too. Stop the need for vast fundraising machines (cap funding, fund candidates on the taxpayer dime, only at a much lower level, cap contributions more tightly – this can be done).”

    In thinking about this over the course of the past few years I am extremely pessimistic this will ever happen. There’s no motive, no incentive for the majority of professional politicians to ever divest themselves of the money that flows through government. I’d love it if a Senator or congressperson the likes of Bernie Sanders was able to make this happen, but it’s too much for one person in such a system. I think the Wisconsin collective bargaining fiasco highlights this dramatically.

    My only hope in a solution to this problem springs from the fledgling strategies of utilizing the tools that the internet and mobile connectivity can offer. If removing big corporate money from politics is improbable, we need to incorporate something completely different to do an end-run around it all. Both Ron Paul and Obama have leveraged small online donations to raise large sums of money; we need to look to something akin to this. Perhaps a free mobile app that tracks congressional debates and meeting schedules of all members of congress. It would alert you to when so and so is meeting with that large corporation that you believe is not serving the interest of the public. It would give you the email and phone number of said congress person so that active citizens could call before, during and after the meeting to relay voter concerns directly focus on allaying that specific lobbying effort. I’m just spitballing and hoping something sticks.

  4. Brenda Cooper says:

    Hi Gregory.

    Yes. I think social media and transparency is the best hope we have. I also think that we need to get the average person to be more aware – so many people seem to have either given up or to be distracted with other things. The Occupy movement is a good sign of awakening awareness.

    I like your app idea.

  5. Gregory Lemieux says:

    Thanks. Btw, I don’t spend much time on Facebook anymore, but I wonder if anyone from the Occupy movement (or related efforts to get word out) has considering buying targeted advertising on Facebook. After seeing stats on how many people are spending time playing Farmville alone, a small ad targeted to those players might help get the word out….

  6. JS Bangs says:

    The one point of yours that I strenuously object to is the creation of an international government. Wherever there are concentrations of power, money comes after it to try to influence that power. If you create an international power center, you’ll basically be begging international money to come and throw around however many billions it takes to get its way with that power. The only reason this doesn’t happen with the UN (much) is that the UN has so little power.

    What I really want is to abolish the nation-state and go back to city-states. But that’s never going to happen.

  7. Chad says:

    The majority of people are very very very reluctant to change and there hasn’t been nearly enough pain yet for the change to occur. Enough pain to create the Tea Party and Occupy, but not enough for them to accomlish anything. Not even enough pain for the Tea Party to fight off being co-opted by the crazies, which Occupy will have to face at some point.

    Plus, more of the boomers need to become old and feeble, so they can’t put up any roadblocks.

  8. Pete says:

    As far as world governance there is the United Nations and NATO, which was a large part of getting Ghaddafi out of power. Not to mention that the UN is usually just a place to make promises that aren’t kept, or it’s results end up being just as bad as the problem–like in the Congo. The UN is also weighted so that the powerful countries end up with more control. ie. China, France, Russia, UK and US hold permanent veto power (so if the committee passes a resolution against one of them they can just veto it). There’s also the World Court, which as far as I can tell is basically symbolic (somewhat like the UN). In summation, there are systems in place that govern globally, they just don’t have much power.

  9. Brenda Cooper says:

    Well, I’m a boomer. :) A lot of us were on the streets or sympathetic last time around in the 60’s/70’s. Tail end, mind you, but I believe we need change… I think we need hope, and big ideas. Thanks to Atimoshenko and Sam M_B for offering good conversation (Sam – these are the right kind of things to tweak the system hard if we can get them through. That’s the hard part). Atimoshenko – do you have links to Chesterson and Belloc, or other links to the idea you present in comments?

  10. Robert Koslover says:

    And here’s an alternative view: http://victorhanson.com/articles/hanson102611.html

  11. Will says:

    BCs sentiments are common. And the desire to dissociate political power from wealth – 1 “man”, 1 vote – has been around as long as a middle class has existed in Western society. A fine ideal but contrary to human nature. Power always gravitates toward wealth, and wealth is increasing more concentrated. (Read the Wiki article on “distribution of wealth” yourself)
    The US Constitution was written with the specific intent of discouraging radical change. It’s writers were too shortsighted to foresee a time when rapid response to rapid change would be necessary.
    And we – the USA, the West, what have you – doesn’t have time to “get it right”. The confluence of the depletion of natural resources, overpopulation, global warming, and the proliferation of WMDs will divert energy from solving problems toward the more immediate need to survive them. It’s going to go Darwinian out there.
    “Sheesh, this guys depressing” Obviously, hope for the future lies with people with more positive attitude than me. In the meantime, I gotta call ‘em as I see ‘em.

  12. Khannea Suntzu says:
  13. Khannea Suntzu says:

    I lived all my life at the subsistence, welfare, disability level. I never ‘overconsumed’ as much as people that couch-surfed at my place from the third world indicated that my consumption levels are not far off from third world consumption levels or general lifestyle.

    I can’t see how my life would have to get much more ‘lean’ than it is. I can’t save on rent, energy or getting clothes – and I’d have less spending power the immediate consequence would be not having money to eat, or not having a roof over my head. Or not having access to rather heavy pain-control medication.

    I will vote fully on laying a reduction of societal savings, and ‘lesser expectations’ somewhere else in society. You can’t take it from my end. If they’ll try I’ll freak out. Reduced expectations on my end will not translate to me starving or being homeless.

  14. Chad says:

    @Will
    “The US Constitution was written with the specific intent of discouraging radical change. It’s writers were too shortsighted to foresee a time when rapid response to rapid change would be necessary.”

    Actually, the writers were prescient. If the consitution had allowed for rapid changes we would be far worse off than we are at this time. The last 10 years would have been far worse with less restrictions.

  15. Chad says:

    @Brenda
    A lot of you might have been in the streets then, but the overall attitude of the boomers changed drastically from the 80’s on. I think Strauss and Howe got the big society arcs correct in their book The Fourth Turning.

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