Tag Archives: citizen’s united

Privatizing Theocracy

privatizationThe strategy is clear. Privatize as much of the government as possible and exempt those privately run services from Constitutional protections.

If we do not wise up, we could gradually privatize our way to theocracy.

Conservatives love privatization. Regardless of where they lie on the not-so-wide spectrum from capitalist to libertarian, they all share a foundational belief that the private sector does everything better than publicly run counterparts. To them, it is self-serving economic dogma that a hard-nosed, self-interested, profit motive is somehow inherently superior to a sincere mission to serve the public good. Therefore everything that can be privatized should be privatized.

Of course, there is no actual proof of any such inherent superiority. Sure, some privately run companies can be more efficient than governmental programs. But many are not. For every inefficient, bureaucratic, slow-moving government agency, one can point to dozens of disastrous, failed, bankrupt, unresponsive, and socially irresponsible private companies with obscenely overpaid corporate leaders.

Moreover, the primary function of private businesses is not to serve their customers with the best possible goods and services, but to extract maximum profit for shareholders and executives. The idea that competition always optimizes to result in the best possible services at the lowest possible price is a convenient fiction. Private businesses actually optimize to extract the highest possible profit by providing the cheapest possible services. Their fiduciary obligation is not to serve the public good, but on the contrary it is to pass off as many of their harms and risks as possible onto the public sphere.

It is simple math. All else equal, a well-run private company simply cannot provide better services than a well-run governmental agency because the private company must extract maximum profits. And it is a lie that government agencies cannot be just as well-run. In fact, our Conservative leaders know this, which is why they work so hard to make the Post Office and other services fail so that they can justify privatizing them.

Further, there are some public functions that are simply incompatible with the profit motive, these include things like health care. I am not against all private business, but I am against private businesses running essential social services that fundamentally conflict with their profit motive. I wrote a blog on the conflict between profit and healthcare (see here). And we have all seen how well has privatization worked for prisons.

This fanatical push for privatizing everything from military service to social security in order to extract private profits has been bad enough. But now, with Citizen’s United and Hobby Lobby and the dominance of Church-friendly executives in public office, we should clearly see another terribly dark side of privatization – the synergy of privatization and religion.

As more and more government services, from social services to education and beyond are privatized, those new “public service” companies can then exert their growing independence to reject governmental policies and even Constitutional protections to inject religious beliefs into those services. Rather than serve the general public good, rather than adhere to restrictions put in place to ensure the public good, these newly privatized services can now exert their “religious freedom” to limit those services in accordance with their religious beliefs.

The Religious Right has been frustrated because they have been thwarted in their efforts introduce prayer and intelligent design in schools. Their new strategy is focused on privatizing education so that they can “teach” whatever they wish to larger numbers of children. By simultaneously asserting religious rights of conscience for these private companies, they can do an end-run around the Constitution.

As another case in point consider hospitals. We used to have a lot of public hospitals. But we have allowed private, for profit hospitals to take over without requiring them to provide the same level of service to underprivileged populations. Increasingly, churches are assimilating all of these private hospitals and refusing to offer essential services that they feel violate their religious beliefs. The New York Times recently highlighted this (see here).

Now duplicate this same strategy to privatize every government service with an ideological or profit interest. If the greedy and the religious can remove all such operations from governmental oversight, then the protections of our Constitution become moot. How can the Constitution protect us with nothing remaining under its jurisdiction? The Conservatives want less, not more of the regulations that would be required.

Make no mistake. This trend toward theocracy by privatization will continue to accelerate unless we understand the following:

  1. Private corporations do not really do everything better, and some essential public services are fundamentally undermined by a profit imperative.
  2. Private companies must not be allowed to claim personhood and religious liberty in order to abdicate ethical responsibilities and circumvent Constitutional protections.
  3. Political leaders must not be allowed to be complicit in this theocritization by intentionally destroying working public services and by putting in place governmental structures to assist in privatization and the expansion of religious exemptions.

For further reading I recommend a previous blog entitled Why Wall Street Loves Trump (see here).

Jefferson’s Grand Nightmare

ThomasJeffersonThomas Jefferson was our Einstein of social and political science. He had an uncanny ability to understand human behavior and to envision what would ultimately grow from the seeds being planted in his times. Because of his visionary insight he fought for many years with his contemporaries, including his protégé Madison, to convince them to adopt several key provisions into our new Constitution. In fact he threatened to dismantle the effort to build a new nation if they were not included. He was adamant that a nation without these essential protections would be worse than none at all.

The first was Separation of Church and State, for without that protection he foresaw that our secular freedoms would inevitably be corrupted into a Theocracy. Jefferson would probably be relieved to see that we still do protect our wall of separation and that it offers some protections against Theocracy, but he would probably still be shocked and disappointed at the extent to which religion has succeeded in subverting or bypassing that wall.

The second thing he insisted upon was a ban against a standing army, for he feared that a standing army would only ensure perpetual war and war-profiteering. On this Jefferson would most certainly be horrified and most gravely disappointed. We do have a standing army that is only in principle under the command of a “civilian” President. In truth his worst fears in this regard have been realized with our huge standing army and the almost irresistible profit motive that ensures unending warfare.

The third thing Jefferson fought for was protections against corporations, for he saw that without very strong protections, our nation would inevitably be coopted into a Corporatocracy to serve the interests of corporate enterprises. He feared that these ravenous “wolves at the door” as he called them would eventually devour the government.

Jefferson did win this battle – for a while. The founders explicitly and deliberately never used the word “corporation” in the Constitution because they feared that merely by mentioning the word, corporations would be conferred with some status. For our first 100 years or so, most States had extremely stringent laws in place to prohibit any political action whatsoever by corporations. In fact, until as late as 1950 some states still had laws on the books forcing companies to disperse completely every 20-40 years to prevent them from amassing too much power and wealth that could corrupt the government.

When did the protections Jefferson put in place all fall apart? The root is the 1857 Dred-Scott decision that essentially said that people could be property. This resulted in the Civil War and the Civil War had the horrible side-effect of creating a monstrous gun industry (and a gun-culture) in America as the government cranked out untold numbers of guns that eventually ended up in the general population. The second corporate behemoth that was created by the Civil War was the rail industry as President Lincoln pumped huge amounts of money into rail to mobilize his war effort. These newly giant corporations helped win the war, but also became corporate monsters with new-found wealth and appetite for more.

Unsatisfied with accepting the corporate restrictions that had held corporate influence at bay since the Constitution, the rail industry started to direct its wealth into politics in an explicit effort to dismantle corporate restrictions on political influence. In the 1875 Santa Clara County vs. Southern Pacific Railway case, the claim was put forth that the 14th amendment protected companies as persons. The court explicitly ruled that “it made no ruling” on this assertion. However, in a published headnote the reporting journal “mistakenly” said that it did so. This was completely erroneous and absolutely non-binding, but yet law students to this day believe that personhood for corporations was actually part of the ruling.

It all went horribly wrong from there. A subsequent court cited this mistaken report as precedent and conferred rights upon companies as persons, even though no such precedent existed. By doing so, they set an actual binding precedent that impacted dozens of subsequent rulings leading right up to our most recent one which essentially gives corporations unlimited and unfettered power. Citizens United gives them such power that the dictates of corporate greed now arguably overwhelms any other institutional force working on behalf of the social good.

And the irony is that even the citation in the 14th Amendment used to justify this claim of personhood in Santa Clara County was false. Throughout that section, the authors of the Constitution refer to “natural persons” to explicitly exclude corporations. In only one little clause, they omitted the word “natural” totally by mistake, and this omission has served as the ultimate Constitutional basis for all of the rights of personhood that corporations have won.

Citizens United was a horrible, horrible decision based on a tragically comical sequence of false legal precedents. If Thomas Jefferson were here today he would most certainly be crushed to see that the wolves are no longer at the door, they have the run of the house.

There are only two Constitutional remedies for this corporate subversion of our government. The first is for the Supreme Court to reverse itself and all previous rulings. The second is for a Constitutional Amendment to simply insert the word “natural” into the Constitution where it was meant to be. That would perhaps force the Court to reverse itself.

I am glad to see Jefferson is not here to see his worst nightmares for our nation come true. But none of these alone are the Grand Nightmare I refer to. Jefferson’s grand nightmare would be the truly horrifying synergy of these three anti-democratic forces working together; religious zealotry fueled by corporate power and greed wielding the power of a huge standing army.

Government by Jury

We all know it.  Our democratic government isn’t all that democratic. It is inherently corruptible by the influence of big money – obscenely so since the Citizens United ruling. That big money necessarily compels our legislators to work for the short-term interests of wealthy individuals and big business, rather than for the long-term common good.

The most common response to this reality is resignation. Well yes, our system may not be perfect, but it’s the best we can do. How defeatist and unimaginative is that? We certainly could do a lot better if we only had the will to do so. We could enforce far stronger conflict of interest rules for our legislators – the same sort of rules we already enforce for judges. Oh we nip around the edges, passing token campaign and conflict of interest regulations, but nothing that would fundamentally reduce the river of big money flowing into government like a raging river. But we could.

And there are more fundamental things we conceivably do. Just brainstorming here, but I’ll offer one such idea. Feel free to use it if you ever start your own country or overthrow a government.

juryMy form of government would be a “Jurist Democracy.” In my Government by Jury, legislators would propose legislation but could not pass it. To enact their proposed legislation, lawmakers would function as advocates, arguing the cases for and against the proposed legislation based on their own ethics, or their constituents, or their financial backers just as they do now. A non-partisan judge would preside over a Legislative Hearing and ensure that all evidence is vetted and all rules are followed. Once both sides have presented their arguments and their expert witnesses, a jury of ordinary people would retire to discuss and rule upon the proposed legislation. Jury selection would be conducted just as it is for criminal cases. The citizen-jury would decide whether a strong enough case had been presented and would make the final decision on whether the proposed legislation should be passed into law. Teleconferencing could eliminate previous geographical limitations.

No claim of a panacea is made here. Certainly this system would be neither perfect nor foolproof. Games could still be played by the legislators; horses traded, bribes offered, and so on. We would have to be assiduously vigilant to prevent or punish malpractice and jury tampering. But we know how to do those things.

And these corruptions will happen in any system. The key difference here is that at least we have removed the final decision from those who are most directly corruptible. If the legislators cannot convince twelve reasonable citizens that their legislation is good for the country then it does not deserve to be made into law. I for one would be much more confident that twelve impartial citizen-jurors would on the whole make better decisions than career politicians.

And I don’t buy the argument that citizen jurors could not understand the issues involved sufficiently to render intelligent decisions on complex issues. That sounds a lot like medieval priests who maintained that they alone could interpret the word of god for the common man. In fact I have far stronger concerns about the impartiality and expertise of professional lawmakers (many of whom do not even believe in evolution), and trust that if a bill cannot be explained to reasonably smart people is it probably too convoluted to pass. This idea that a bill is too complex for ordinary folk is mostly just used as an excuse to make our government less transparent and more susceptible to the disastrous impact of small print obscured within intentionally complexicated legislation.

This Government by Jury would be far more democratic because it would directly involve large numbers of citizens directly in the process of governing. I for one at least, would be far more willing to put my faith in the good sense and civic-mindedness of 12 random individuals than in professional legislators who are saturated in conflicts of interest starting with keeping their jobs and their positions of influence within the system.

It is pretty much impossible to put forth any idea that has not been thought of before. In his article called “Government by Jury” (found here), Stephen H. Unger from Columbia University discusses this general concept in greater detail and provides additional references. His suggestion is to conscript citizens into some longer period of service. I suggest that legislative jurors could be recruited only to decide one piece of legislation with minimal modifications to our current system. We recruit juries to make decisions in criminal and civil cases of comparable complexity. To recruit them for longer periods of service would include fewer citizens, would be much more logistically difficult, and would introduce more possibility of the very sort of corruptions that we are trying to avoid.

Ideas such as these should be discussed more often, more openly, and more seriously. They help stimulate real innovative, out of the box thinking rather than restricting ourselves to ideas that do not disrupt the current dysfunctional status quo. Merely raising and discussing proposals like this makes it more likely that legislators will consider more substantive conventional measures to improve the integrity and effectiveness of government.