Democracy?

When I was younger, I was told by the adults who had influence on my life that if I worked hard to earn a degree and find a career I would be able to find success within the fabric of the American social framework. With their words in mind I earned a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, and double endorsements on my teaching license. In other words, I spent at least ten years in the university system in order to earn the magic degree that would lead to a comfortable life. Based upon the available inferences of what I was told in my youth, now that I have worked my ass off for multiple post-graduate certifications, I should be able to find employment adequate enough to cover the expenses that occur in life so long as I am putting in the effort to do so. After all, I made sure to earn two degrees and I am only a few credits shy of having earned a double master’s.

And yet, today I find myself married with a young son and my family is not only living paycheck to paycheck – with two working adults in the house we are finding that we are unable to pay for our current living situation. It’s not like we are living an extravagant life; we live in a townhouse, drive cars that are at least eight years old, and rarely go out (much to my wife’s chagrin). In addition, while my wife has reduced her hours at work (so that we don’t have to pay for childcare that we can’t afford) I have picked up two extra jobs. I work at least 65 hours per week, and my wife works at least 15. In essence, we are working enough hours for two full time jobs and yet we continue to find ourselves falling short of the financial demands that come with living in the United States. The worst part of all of this is the fact that together we earn above the median household income in the US ($55,775 in 2015, according to a government site I found in a wikipedia citation sections) – which means that more than half of the country is worse off than we are. And yet, I can’t slow down to help out the people below me because I am too busy going to my next job, or doing everything I can to find another way to earn a few more dollars so that my son won’t know how difficult life really is right now for my wife and I. Another problem I am having is that I teach basic economics to eighth graders, and I can see through the bullshit that both of our country’s beloved political parties keep spewing using the curriculum that should be basic to everyone who has been through the eighth grade before.

Circular flow is economics 101; in terms of production, households own all of the resources, and businesses must pay households for the resources they provide in order to produce goods and services. Once the households are paid for their resources, they spend their income on products to provide the businesses with profit which is, in turn, spent on obtaining more resources for production. In theory, the figurative flow of money should look like a river – a strong flow of money between households and businesses with the occasional canal to allow government to insert themselves and provide public goods and services. However, the current state of the circular flow is dismal, to say the least. Consumers are still buying products left and right; in fact, we have to continue to buy products because not only is the market saturated with our wants (or the things that we would like but can do without if necessary), but it is also filled with the things that people need like food, housing, transportation, and drinkable fluids. With only two other entities in the circular flow model, that leaves only two other possible reasons for the reduction of our circular flow from being a strong figurative river to a weak figurative creek: the corporate businesses (as in not small businesses, who I consider to be grouped with the households as they usually have to purchase supplies/resources from the aforementioned larger corporate businesses) and the government.

Consent of the governed and limited government, on the other hand, is civics 101. In theory, the government is limited in action to only the things that the people give it permission to do and therefore it cannot simply do whatever it wants to. Within the last twenty years, these two fundamental principles of United States government have been circumvented so spectacularly that people are either unaware or apathetic to the fact that their beloved democracy has become something more like a republican plutocracy – where the citizens are given the chance to vote for candidates that have been carefully vetted by political machines who report directly to their wealthiest beneficiaries. Just so you know, the reason this is a problem is because the government is supposed to be working for the benefit of all of the people of the United States, not just the wealthy ones.

It is no longer fair to the people of the United States to call our country a democracy, because if we were still a democracy then governmental decisions would be based on the will of the people. But if you look at the current state of the federal government, it is not hard to see that this is not the case. In the House of Representatives, if a state has a large enough population they are able to split their representation into districts. This is supposed to make it so that states with larger populations have representation in the House that is proportionately equal to the size of their constituency. After all, how would it be fair for a state with a smaller population like Alaska to have the exact same number of representatives as a state with the largest population in the US (California). However, thanks to the practice of gerrymandering it is almost pointless to run against an incumbent in any given district because each district is drawn in such a way that the political party in control will continue to remain in control regardless of the actual actions of a given politician. In effect, this has shown that so long as the representative in question toes the party line they are pretty much guaranteed to be re-elected. The people of their constituency will vote for them because of the party listed next to their name, and all they have to do is stay out of headline making trouble.

In the most recent election I had literally one choice on the ballot for my representation in the House of Representatives as a result of the gerrymandering of my state. I could have voted for him, as he is a member of the political party I endorsed as a younger, less cynical man. Instead, I voted for comedian Craig Ferguson; because he is a Scottish immigrant who has been through the naturalization process and I figure that his experience of becoming an American citizen gave him more knowledge of the principles of the United States Constitution than those who are supposedly the stewards of our beloved founding document. To be perfectly clear, a system where only one choice for representation is presented, regardless of the basis (in this case the pointlessness of running a candidate against the party in control), is inherently not democratic (I know this because I studied democratic theory to earn my first degree, a B.A. in Political Science with a minor in History). But you had better strap in because the view only gets worse from here.

There are four hundred and thirty five representatives in the House of Representatives. If we are equating congressional houses to the parliamentary system from which they came; then the House of Representatives is the American equivalent to the House of Commons in the British Parliament. The Senate is the American version of the House of Lords (if you are unsure of the difference, think about the connotation of the word “common” and how it would relate to the connotation of the word “lord”, that should tell you all you need to know about the hierarchy of the two houses). In the past thirty years, the cost of running for a seat in the Senate has risen proportionally with the cost of running for the presidency (President Obama and John McCain together spent about a billion dollars in 2008, then President Obama spent over a billion dollars to win in 2012, and it is unclear how much President Trump actually spent last year as he used his various economic entities to launder government oversight from any campaign donations he received – and don’t buy the lie that he didn’t accept donations, the only people who do accept his explanation are at best naive and at worst just as corrupt as a person would have to be to accept money from anyone who will give it while claiming to be “self-funding”). In effect, this makes it so that it is almost impossible to run for office unless you are wealthy, or at least rich, prior to running (for reference, in my mind “rich” people have incomes of anywhere between $250,000 and a professional athlete’s salary  while “wealthy” people have the potential to earn more than a billion dollars in a five year period).

As we covered before, if the median income is around $55,000 then that means that over three quarters of the population of the United States are pretty much financially incapable of running for federal political office. Keep in mind, this doesn’t mean they absolutely can’t, but if running for political office is a race then most people in this country would find that their starting line is at least a mile behind their more financially well off opponents. And this doesn’t even cover the benefits our political benefactors have given to themselves in the past few years through partisan influenced court decisions, executive acts that grow the power of the presidency in order to circumvent checks and balances, and bad legislation passed as a result of the pressure of playing the political “game” that affects all of our lives.

Consider the Supreme Court case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, where the court decided that the government cannot limit political expenditures by corporations (both non-profit and for-profit), labor unions, and other associations. In effect, they said that since corporations and similar associations are recognized in the economy as “people” it would be a restriction of their first amendment right to freedom of speech if the government were to limit the money that they could donate to a given cause since that money is their form of “speech”. At the time that the decision was handed down, people were afraid that it would give corporations so much political power that the will of the people would be drown out (since we as individuals are only allowed to give $2,500 to a given candidate). How this has gone into effect is actually more nefarious than simply giving the power to the corporations.

Today, Political Action Committees (one of those “associations” whose speech is their money) have become slush funds where the wealthy elite can give as much money as they want to any political cause/candidate that they want; essentially giving those with large sums of money the power to outright buy a political candidate’s influence. And when Senators and Representatives are discussing issues and legislating, whose benefit do you think they care about more: the people who individually provided the votes for them to get into office, or the wealthy elites who paid for their entire campaign including the duplicitous advertisements (which are changing their overall message from “here is why you should vote for me” to “here is why my opponent is bad” at an alarming rate) and propaganda that allowed them to garner public support?

This is, in effect, the textbook definition of plutocracy. Government officials are selected by those with wealth to make decisions according to their wishes. The true power in our country lies in the hands of the wealthy, not the people. According to the fundamental principles I teach to eighth graders, the governmental system as it is set up today is inherently un-American. The fact that they are still calling it a democracy, and implying that they work for the general citizenry of the United States, is a slap in the face to a general public that for some reason still trusts at least half of the people they put into office.

But our political elites aren’t just puppets of the wealthy, they are consistently working to cement their space in the social fabric above the general population (which is ironic since the stated purpose of our government is that it is “by the people, for the people” yet they are working to place themselves above “the people”). Recently, healthcare has been a huge issue to many people in the US. Some people prefer the Affordable Care Act that was passed under President Obama, while others would prefer the new health care act that the Republican congressional leadership has been attempting to pass (it has been mistakenly called “Trumpcare”, modeled after the ACA’s label of “Obamacare”, but the Republicans have been promising a law like this since before Donald Trump announced his candidacy). The most important thing to consider in the new bill, however, is that while our congressional leadership is trying to cut funding for programs that benefit the poorest members of our society because it costs too much money to provide adequate healthcare for poor people (and veterans, but that’s a different part of the budget), they have made sure to retain those same services for themselves and their families. In other words, they will have built in insurance for expensive medical procedures that the rest of us will have to pay for out of pocket if we can’t afford to pay hundreds of dollars per month… out of pocket.

I grew up being told about the wonders of democracy. The liberty it provides, the equality it promotes, and the happiness the citizens experience as a result. However, as a result of tricky economics and shady legislation our liberties are quickly dissipating. Thanks to the Citizens United decision and gerrymandering I see growing economic divide, not economic equality. And as for happiness, its hard to be happy when you spend most of your time barely scraping by while doing your best to shield your child from your family’s true economic situation. From what I learned in college, democracy is a wonderful system. It really would be nice to live in one.

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