The 1-percent Problem

How Americans Can Save Themselves From Plutocracy

The theme of most political and social commentary is that things are more complicated than you think. For once, I wish to write that things are simpler than you think. This concerns two matters at the core of the present American political crisis.

The first is that control over the government has passed all but completely into the hands of business corporations. The country has become a plutocracy. This has occurred because corporations are the principal supplier of funds essential to the election of federal officials—the president and the members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, and through them, the members of the Supreme Court and the rest of the federal judiciary, all of whom are nominated and confirmed by the elected officials of the executive and legislative branches of the government.

As all, or nearly all, Americans understand, the nation’s constitutional system rests upon a theory of differences of opinion and interest among the citizenry finding expression in the election of presidents and legislatures that reflect public opinion in all its diversity. This diversity in the elected Congress and in the choice of successive presidents is expected to produce an overall system of balanced powers and interests, each of the government’s three branches contributing to checking the excesses of the others and of the government as a whole.

What has never before happened has been the seizure of power in all three constitutional branches by a single outside interest group. Corporate business, notably the banking and financial industry, which is now the most important component in the American economy, effectively controls the Republican and Democratic parties, as well as the national news media, whose main preoccupations are national politics and the national economy.

Now for the simple answer to this phenomenon that is destroying American democracy. The unprecedentedly enormous sums of money required to run for federal office in the United States today go to purchase television and radio time. To gain high office in the United States it is essential to be a multimillionaire (literally) or to have a billionaire sponsor. Labor unions were once in a position to underwrite a limited number of candidates. Today, the unions have been so weakened that their financial power is no longer any match for that of business and industry.

The simple solution is to ban paid political campaign advertising in broadcast media—as it was banned in 1930s legislation that originally regulated radio’s use of the public airways.

Next, every broadcaster or cable or satellite operator in the United States that carries news and political discussion should be required to provide equal time to the major political parties and candidates (again, as required in the past). The broadcasters would naturally object that this is federal seizure of their principal asset: broadcast time. The principle of eminent domain might be applied, but the easiest way to deal with this objection would be federal payment for the time.

I spoke of a second source of the American crisis to which there is a simple solution, but to impose it would require a conversion of the hard hearts and biased minds of a sizable part of the community of professional economists (at least that part of it educated at the University of Chicago since World War II), as well as a near-revolutionary change in how the American government currently functions (see above). The crisis is easily described as the 1-percent problem. One percent of the U.S. population now takes nearly a quarter of the nation’s income.

This is caused by the consensus decision of the economists and business schools to define profit as the sole criterion of corporation efficiency and public (and civic) worth. The automatic consequence of this has been the deindustrialization of the United States, the export of its manufacturing capacity, massive unemployment, poverty levels with no modern American precedent, and the moral corruption of American politics.

Allow me to cite the October statement of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace on the current norms of the market economy. Certain structural aspects of our economic thought and practice, it says, have aided and abetted “selfishness and collective greed.... These are an economic liberalism that spurns rules and controls...a system of thought, a form of ‘economic apriorism’ that purports to derive laws for how markets function from theory, these being laws of capitalistic development.”

The statement goes on to say that being should have primacy over having. Ethics should precede economics. A moral appreciation of the dignity of the person and the solidarity of the human community must be empowered in public life to guide and regulate the dynamics of economic markets. The economic miseries of our time trace to our generation’s failure in this regard.

How do you change the system, you may ask? We changed it before. What we have now was not the economic and social system the United States possessed during the twenty-five years that followed World War II. What we have now has actually proved to be a colossal failure for the United States and the rest of the developed world.

© 2011 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

Related: Justice & Economics, by the Editors
When Is Self-interest Moral? by Daniel K. Finn

Published in the 2011-12-02 issue: 

William Pfaff, a former editor of Commonweal, is political columnist for the International Herald Tribune in Paris. His most recent book is The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America's Foreign Policy (Walker & Company).

Also by this author
Greece Trap

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads