At long last, income inequality is becoming a mainstream political issue, thanks in large part to New York Times columnist Paul Krugman and Thomas Piketty, an obscure professor at the Paris School of Economics.
As Krugman describes it, “The big idea of Capital in the Twenty-First Century is that we haven’t just gone back to nineteenth-century levels of income inequality, we’re also on a path back to ‘patrimonial capitalism,’ in which the commanding heights of the economy are controlled not by talented individuals but by family dynasties.” And in assessing the book, he calls it “a tour de force of economic modeling, an approach that integrates the analysis of economic growth with that of the distribution of income and wealth. This is a book that will change both the way we think about society and the way we do economics.”
Krugman concludes his review with this statement: “Piketty ends Capital in the Twenty-First Century with a call to arms—a call, in particular, for wealth taxes, global if possible, to restrain the growing power of inherited wealth. It’s easy to be cynical about the prospects for anything of the kind. But surely Piketty’s masterly diagnosis of where we are and where we’re heading makes such a thing considerably more likely. So Capital in the Twenty-First Century is an extremely important book on all fronts. Piketty has transformed our economic discourse; we’ll never talk about wealth and inequality the same way we used to.”
Now, Krugman has upped the ante with his April 24 editorial The Pikkety Panic, arguing that “..what’s really new about “Capital” is the way it demolishes that most cherished of conservative myths, the insistence that we’re living in a meritocracy in which great wealth is earned and deserved.” Krugman presents evidence to suggest that “conservatives are terrified” and in a panic to try to refute Pikkety’s inevitable conclusions, but failing to find substantive arguments, they have fallen back on name calling. If you can’t refute the facts, then try to discredit the source.
Summing up, Krugman says,
“Now, the fact that apologists for America’s oligarchs are evidently at a loss for coherent arguments doesn’t mean that they are on the run politically. Money still talks — indeed, thanks in part to the Roberts court, it talks louder than ever. Still, ideas matter too, shaping both how we talk about society and, eventually, what we do. And the Piketty panic shows that the right has run out of ideas.”
If that isn’t enough to make the political pot boil over, another newly published academic study, Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens finds that “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence. The results provide substantial support for theories of Economic Elite Domination and for theories of Biased Pluralism, but not for theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy or Majoritarian Pluralism.”
Of course, most activists and even ordinary people have known all that, but now that academia has taken notice and begun to present solid scientific evidence, the pressure on politicians to acknowledge these conditions and act on them will build more quickly.
Scott Baker has provided a comprehensive summary of a very important recent event that featured some visionary thinkers in economics, money and finance. His description begins…
The team of panelists from last year’s Pace University Left Forum panel – reviewed in the March/April, 2012 issue of GroundSwell – reconvened this year on June 8, 2013, minus Kucinich adviser Dave Kelley who was sidelined due to a back injury. The remaining panelists were Dr. Michael Hudson, Dr. Cay Hehner, and Chair Andy Mazzone. The title of this year’s panel was “Wall Street’s War to Impose Austerity.”
Baker follows with his “Abstract” summary…
Wall Street had a record year in profits last year. Bonuses were up and stock prices zoomed. Meanwhile, the productive classes continued to see their wages stagnate as they have for 40 years, while under-reported inflation figures and regressive tax schemes took more of their paychecks, if they could find work. But now Austerity threatens to siphon whatever is left from the bottom to the banking elites. Faux progressive organizations like Third Way in the U.S. are attempting to privatize Social Security to pour billions into Wall Street for further gambling. From Cyprus’ confiscation of up to 70% of bank deposits to Greek pro-recession budget slashing, the road to neo-feudalism continues. Based on Professor Dr. Michael Hudson’s book “Finance Capitalism and its Discontents” and “The Bubble and Beyond”, panelists Dr. Michael Hudson, Dr. Cay Hehner, Dave Kelley, and Chair Andy Mazzone will discuss specific austerity measures that are designed to confiscate, impoverish, and destroy the middle class, while widening the already historic wage gap even further. Learn how the expansive forces of industrial capitalism have been subverted by today’s predatory finance capitalism aided by junk economics and failure to collect the economic rent. What is the rentier class and how does it collect 1/3 of GDP? Is government regulation always wrong? What is the best tax policy? Why the 1% versus the 99%?
Current president of the Henry George School, Andy Mazzone, gave the opening, and after introducing himself as an ex-CEO of a Fortune 500 company, and a trained economist in Marxism, said he now classifies himself as a neo-Georgist — defined as “someone who believes all forms of monopoly should be taxed” while untaxing all forms of earned income — wages, sales, capital. (In previous discussions with Mr. Mazzone, I have challenged this tax-all-monopolies philosophy a bit, relying on my experience in the fast-changing world of Information Technology where I was a Manager of Information Systems for over 2 decades, and where monopolies may last no longer than the next business cycle. I think we get into questionable territory in advocating taxing patentable innovations (though I would agree that patents are too easily granted nowadays). The land monopoly is different, of course, because land, unlike capital, cannot be created by people, is finite, and generally appreciates, while capital goods depreciate and are replaced by newer “improvements,” just as Henry George said over a hundred years ago when improvements came along at a much slower rate.)
Mazzone went on to say that Michael Hudson’s book, “Super Imperialism” basically forecast the current crisis and the financialization of everything, and the subsequent collapse from de-industrialization.
The full report goes on for six pages and includes a number of arguments relating to social justice and economic fairness as well as some essential historical perspective. You can read the rest of it here.
The right-wing politicians want to privatize everything, including our common birthright and your pension funds. They also want to cut Social Security to help balance the federal budget that is bloated by bank bailouts, wasteful spending to support favored constituencies, and imperial overreach. Social Security pays for itself; it does not add to the budget deficit. Watch this recent report from MSNBC.
A recent article by James Howard Kunstler begins: “History has a special purgatory where it sometimes stashes feckless nations punch drunk on their own tragic choices: the realm where anything goes, nothing matters, and nobody cares. We’ve surely crossed the frontier into that bad place in these days of dwindling winter, 2013.”
And concludes: “the rule of law extinct in this country, but so are public figures of principle and credible news organs.”
Read it, and other insightful pieces by Kunstler on his blog.
Everybody warned this would be no ordinary invitation, and they were right. Three hundred metres from Knightsbridge underground station, just a stone’s throw from fashion-conscious Harrods, I suddenly encounter a wall of police. I try to remember my instructions. Look straight ahead. Avoid eye contact. If asked my name, reply with a question. Ask who authorised them to ask. Climb the stone steps. Act purposefully. Appear to know exactly where you’re heading. I don’t.
Through a set of double doors, I’m confronted by more police officers, this time armed, with meaner faces. “Good afternoon”, I say politely, as I edge towards the receptionist. “I’ve an appointment at the Ecuador embassy. Am I at the correct address?” “Ring the brass bell”, grunts the bored-looking man squatting at his desk. A few minutes later, after some confusion about whether or not my name’s on the appointments list, I’m ushered inside. I’m greeted by the personal assistant of the most wanted man in the world. “Julian is taking a call,” says the well-spoken and debonair young man in black-rimmed glasses. “I’m terribly sorry. Please do have a seat. Would you like some tea, or coffee, or polonium, perhaps?” There’s a smile, but it’s pretty faint. I know I’ve reached my destination: a prison with wit and purpose.
The deadpan irony sets the tone of the lunch and dinner to come. The silver-haired “high-tech terrorist” (Joe Biden’s description) appears quietly, dressed in crumpled slacks, a V-necked pullover, socks. He’s relaxed, and welcoming. The quarters are cramped. We shuffle down a corridor into his office, where we occupy a desk covered in laptops and cables and scraps of paper. It’s black coffee for him and tea for me. I offer gifts that I’m told he’ll like. Popular delicacies from down under: a couple of honeycomb Violet Crumbles, chocolate biscuit Tim Tams, a bottle of Dead Arm shiraz from my native South Australia. I know he likes to read. Lying on his desk is a biography of Martin Luther, the man who harnessed the printing press to split the Church. To add to his collection, I hand my pale-skinned host a small book I’ve mockingly wrapped in black tissue paper with red ribbon, tied in a bow. The noir et rouge and dead arm pranks aren’t lost on him. Nor is the significance of the book: José Saramago’s The Tale of the Unknown Island. Inside its front cover, I’ve scribbled a few words: ‘For Julian Assange, who knows about journeys because there aren’t alternatives.’
I’d been told he might be heavy weather. Fame is a terrible burden, and understandably the famous must find ways of dealing with sycophants, detractors and intruders. People said he’d circle at first, avoid questions, proffer shyness, or perhaps even radiate bored arrogance. It isn’t at all like that. Calm, witty, clear-headed throughout, he’s in a talkative mood. But there’s no small talk.
I tackle the obvious by asking him about life inside his embassy prison. “The issue is not airlessness and lack of sunshine. If anything gets to me it’s the visual monotony of it all.” He explains how we human beings have need of motion, and that our sensory apparatus, when properly “calibrated”, imparts mental and bodily feelings of being in our own self-filmed movie. Physical confinement is sensory deprivation. Sameness drags prisoners down. I tell how the Czech champion of living the truth Václav Havel, when serving a 40-month prison spell, used to find respite from monotony by doing such things as smoking a cigarette in front of a mirror. “Bradley Manning did something similar,” says Assange. “The prison authorities claimed his repeated staring in the mirror was the mark of a disturbed and dangerous character. Despite his protestations that there was nothing else to do, he was put into solitary confinement, caged, naked and stripped of his glasses.”
Life in the Ecuador embassy is nothing like this. It’s a civilised cell. After eight months, Assange tells me, the embassy staff remain unswervingly supportive, friendly and professionally helpful. They get what’s at stake. When delivering messages, they knock politely on his office door, as they did more than a few times during our time together. Yet despite feeling safe, Assange feels the pinch of confinement. He says the “de-calibration” (he uses a term borrowed from physics) that comes with “spatial confinement” is a curse. That’s why he listens to classical music, especially Rachmaninov. He has boxing lessons (gloves are on his study shelf) and works out several times a week (“just to get the room moving around”) with a wiry ex-SAS whistleblower. The need for variety is why he welcomes visitors and why, judging from the long and animated conversation to come, he’s desperately passionate about ideas.
Assange begins to enjoy the moment. Nibbling a chocolate biscuit and sipping coffee, he springs a surprise. “Truth is I love a good fight. Many people are counting on me to be strong. I want my freedom, of course, but confinement gives me time to think. I’m focussed and purposeful.” It sounds implausible. Entrapment wounds; it’s painful. Psychic defences are needed to ward off the unbearable. But striking is his utter defiance. “Never, ever become someone’s victim is a golden rule,” he says. In graphic detail, he then sketches his ten days in solitary confinement, in the basement of Wandsworth Prison, in south-west London, in late 2010. “I had expected to be completely out of my depth. But I felt no fear. I was tremendously enthusiastic about the challenge to come. I learned to adapt on my feet.” He means what he says.
I’m keen to talk about courage and its political significance. We do so for well over an hour. Lunch arrives: soup and a vegetable wrap from the local Marks and Spencer. His boxing mate appears. Assange says “it will be a while” and politely asks him to wait in the adjoining room. I remind Assange that he’s holed up in the right-wing Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, home to one of the safest Tory seats in Britain. So, just for fun, I play devil’s advocate by repeating the well-known remark of Winston Churchill that success is never final, failure is never fatal, and that what really counts in life is courage, the ability of people to carry on, despite everything. Assange lights up. “That’s undoubtedly true.” He’s never written or spoken at length about courage, but our time together convinces me he’s thought deeply and in sophisticated ways about the subject. He’s been forced to.
We discuss the detention without trial and torture of Bradley Manning. Assange mentions how the authorities are “picking off people all around me” (he’s referring to the ongoing FBI investigation and arrests of WikiLeaks activists). There’s no maudlin wobble. He understands the traps of “obsessive self-preoccupation” and speaks of the vital importance of cultivating a strong personal sense of “higher duty” to carry on. Courage is for him something that’s more important than fear because it involves putting fear in its place. I quote Aristotle at him: courage is the primary virtue because it makes all other virtues possible. “Yes, and that’s what’s worrying about present-day trends. We’re losing our civic courage.”
So where does courage come from, I ask? What are its taproots? Some people evidently draw breath from spiritual or religious sources, I say. He frowns. “My case is quite different. It’s hardship that makes or breaks us. True courage is when you manage to hold things together, even though most people expect you to fall to pieces.” The words ooze resilience. They could easily be his personal anthem, the proverb engraved on his Knightsbridge prison walls. He goes on to explain that although courage may or may not be a quality within human genes, a good measure of it is always learned. Courage is cultivated. It’s infectious. “Women on average have more of it than men,” he says. We discuss examples: on our list are Raging Grannies, Pussy Riot and the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp. “These women show men what courage is. Treated as outsiders, women have learned the hard way how to deal with structural power. They’re consequently much more adaptable than men. The world of men is structured force.”
The phrase catches me by surprise, but it captures in the most concise way exactly what the prisoner sitting across the table has done, in style, with great courage: he’s confronted structured force head-on. Julian Assange could be described as the Tom Paine of the early 21st century. Drawing strength from distress, disgusted by the hypocrisy of governments, willing to take on the mighty, he’s reminded the world of a universal political truth: arbitrary power thrives on secrets. We run through how WikiLeaks perfected the art of publicly challenging secretive state power. This “intelligence agency of the people” (as Assange calls his organisation) did more than harness to the full the defining features of the unfinished communications revolution of our time: the easy-access multi-media integration and low-cost copying of information that is then instantly whizzed around the world through digital networks. WikiLeaks did something much gutsier. It took on the mightiest power on earth. It managed to master the clever arts of “cryptographic anonymity”, military-grade encryption designed to protect both its sources and itself as a global publisher. For the first time, on a global scale, WikiLeaks created a custom-made mailbox that enabled disgruntled muckrakers within any organisation to deposit and store classified data in a camouflaged cloud of servers. Assange and his supporters then pushed that bullet-proofed information (video footage of an American helicopter gunship crew cursing and firing on unarmed civilians and journalists, for instance) into public circulation, as an act of radical transparency and “truth”.
We’re at the several hours mark, but everybody around me remains gracious. Nobody looks at watches; in fact, there’s not a clock to be seen. The debonair assistant pops in and out of the office, sometimes squatting at our table, tapping out messages on his laptop, fielding phone calls, several times handing his mobile to Assange. “It’s the latest crisis,” he whispers during the first of them. “We handle on average at least four or five a day.” He looks undaunted. This one’s just to do with the FBI investigation.
When Assange comes off the phone, I change topics. I ask him about his pre-Christmas speech from the embassy balcony, when he predicted that in the next Australian federal parliament an “elected senator” would replace an “unelected senator” (he was referring to Foreign Minister Bob Carr, appointed through the casual vacancy rule). Now that the federal election date (September 14th) has been announced, is he still seriously intending to stand as a candidate?
Our conversation grows intense. For several years, Assange has been serious about entering formal politics. A new WikiLeaks Party is soon to be launched. He’s sure it will easily attract the minimum of 500 paid-up members required by law. The composition of its 10-member national council is decided. There’s already a draft election manifesto. The party will field candidates for the Senate, probably in several states. And, yes, Assange is certain to be among them, probably as a candidate in Victoria, where (conveniently) three Labor senators face re-election.
Assange bounces through the probable scenarios. Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa will be re-elected, for another four years. He’ll stand firm in his personal and political support for Assange. This will ramp up pressure on the Swedish authorities, whose case against him is “falling apart”, with the two women plaintiffs looking for a way to extricate themselves from the protracted messy drama. “The Swedish government should drop the case. But that requires them to make their own thorough investigation of how and why their system failed.” The man’s not for turning. He’s certainly no intention of apologising for things he hasn’t said, or done. If he wins a seat in the Senate, he says, the US Department of Justice won’t want to spark an international diplomatic row. The planet’s biggest military empire will back down. It will drop its grand jury espionage investigation. The Cameron government will follow suit, says Assange, otherwise “the political costs of the current standoff will be higher still”. So the obvious question: what are the chances of that happening? Can bytes and ballots trump bullets? Can dare claim victory in his personal battle for political freedom?
What he has in mind has never before been attempted in Australian federal politics. Eugene Debs ran for the US presidency from prison (in 1920). Sinn Fein MP Bobby Sands was elected to Westminster while on hunger strike (in 1981). Under house arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi won a general election (in 1990). In defiance of Israeli occupation and prison confinement, Wael Husseini was elected to the Palestinian Legislative Council (in 2006). There are plenty of similar examples, so why shouldn’t Julian Assange attempt to do the same, and in style?
By now the boxing mate, kept waiting several hours, has gone home. The young assistant has left for another appointment outside the embassy. Dinner is nowhere in sight. We reach for chocolate biscuits and spend the last hour drilling down into the barriers Assange might well face. We start with nagging questions about his eligibility to stand. He’s characteristically upbeat. The technical objections (raised by Graeme Orr and others) aren’t real, he says. He’s no traitor to his country, and most definitely not under the “acknowledgement of allegiance, obedience or adherence to a foreign power” (section 44 of the Australian constitution). Truth is he was let down by a gutless Gillard government and forced into political asylum, under threat of extradition. “I’m safe here inside the embassy walls,” he mocks, “protected by more than a dozen police, including one stationed night and day right outside my bathroom window.”
The man of courage clearly relishes the thought of being the first Australian senator catapulted from prison into a debating chamber. I crack a bad joke, telling him that he’d better hurry up, reminding him that the Commonwealth Electoral Act stipulates that people who’ve been sentenced for more than 3 years in prison don’t have the right to vote in federal elections while they’re serving their sentence. His eyes twinkle, before laying into those who insist that the federal electoral laws are against him, that he’s ineligible because candidates must already be registered to vote. “That’s untrue,” he notes. “The Act specifies only that candidates must in principle be qualified to become a voter.” Assange is right, but since he’s not currently on the electoral roll much turns on whether his preferred strategy of registering as an overseas voter will work. Courtesy of legislation pushed through by John Howard, I know from bitter experience, having once lived abroad for more than three years, what it means to lose the right to vote. Assange says his case is different. He’s been overseas for less than three years (he was last in Australia in June 2010) and intends to return home within six years – that’s why he’s just applied to be on the electoral roll in Victoria.
That leaves two final snags. If victorious, some advisors speculate, Assange might need to take oath before the Governor-General. For this to happen he’d have to be set free, naturally, but it could also be done, “for the first time ever, by video link”. Whatever the situation, continued confinement, he says, would breach the rule that he must take up his Senate seat within two months. “In that case, the Senate could vote to evict me. But that would trigger a big political row. Australians probably wouldn’t swallow it. They’ve learned a lesson from the controversial dismissal of Gough Whitlam.”
I’m curious about the kind of political party WikiLeaks will launch. “The party will combine a small, centralised leadership with maximum grass roots involvement and support. By relying on decentralised Wikipedia-style, user-generated structures, it will do without apparatchiks. The party will be incorruptible and ideologically united.” I flinch at his mention of ideological unity. He explains that the party will display iron self-discipline in its support for maximum “inclusiveness”. It will be bound together by unswerving commitment to the core principles of civic courage nourished by “understanding” and “truthfulness” and the “free flow of information”. It will practise in politics what WikiLeaks has done in the field of information. It will be digital, and stay digital. Those who don’t accept its transparency principles will be told to “rack off”. That’s the ideological unity bit.
Assange agrees the WikiLeaks Party must address and respond creatively to the creeping local disaffection with mainstream politicians, parties and parliaments. “I loathe the reactiveness of the Left,” and that’s why, he says, much can be learned from clever new initiatives in other countries. We discuss Beppe Grillo’s 5 Star movement (it could well win up to 15% of the popular vote in Italy’s forthcoming general election). On our list is the Pirate Party in Germany (it practises “liquid democracy” and has representatives in four state parliaments). So is Iceland’s Best Party. It won enough votes to co-run the Reykjavik City Council, partly on the promise that it would not honour any of its promises, that since all other political parties are secretly corrupt it would be openly corrupt. Assange lets out a laugh. “Parties should be fun. They should put the word party back into politics.” The WikiLeaks Party will try to do this, and to learn from initiatives in other democracies. Supported by networks of “friends of WikiLeaks”, it will be seen as “work in progress” designed “to outflank its opponents”.
He and his party supporters are bound to attract hordes of detractors. Tom Paine was cursed by foes; he even suffered the dishonour of being called a “filthy little atheist” by Theodore Roosevelt. Assange is similarly facing an army of spiteful enemies. In Britain and the United States, there are signs they’re now closing in on him with new arguments. He used to be denounced as a “cat torturer”, a “terrorist” and “enemy combatant” and accused of committing “an illegal act” (Julia Gillard). He was attacked as both an “anti-Semite” and a “Mossad agent”. There were murderous calls to “illegally shoot the son of a bitch” (Bob Beckel). These days the language is milder but no less vicious. He’s said to be ‘paranoid’, all ‘alone’ in his gilded prison, abandoned by his supporters, at the British taxpayers’ expense. He and WikiLeaks are guilty of the same “obfuscation and misinformation” (Jemima Khan) they claim to expose. Swedish media and politics are meanwhile crammed with crass epithets: “rapist”, “repugnant swine”, low-life “coward”, “Australian pig” and “pitiful wretch” hooked on sex-without-a-condom.
Auguste Millière’s portrait (1880) of the great English champion of liberty of the press Tom Paine. Auguste Millière/Wikimedia
I can’t tell from our time together whether any of this stuff hurts. It’s clear he’s aware that going into parliamentary politics will involve permanent fire-fighting, but unflappable he sounds. “I’ve had to deal with the FBI, the British press and more than a few rank functionaries. The Australian press are decent by comparison. No doubt the Australian Tax Office will show an interest in our campaign. Old enemies may make an appearance.”
Assange knows that in the age of surveillance and media saturation little remains of the private sphere. I put to him a prediction: the way he dodged questions about the Swedish allegations during a recent video-link appearance before the Oxford Union (“I have answered these questions extensively in the past”) isn’t sustainable, that avoiding the subject when running for the Senate will be blood to the hounds of the press pack. He asks what he should do. I put to him a positive alternative, which is to come clean on his alleged misogyny. “I’m not interested in softening my image by planting attractive women around me, as for instance George W. Bush did. I like women. They’re on balance braver than men, and I’ve worked with many in exposing projects that damage women’s lives. An example is the scandalous practice of UN peacekeepers trading food for sex that we exposed. Our WikiLeaks Party will attract the support of many women.” But what about the charge of misogyny, I ask? Isn’t Julia Gillard’s use of the word to attack the Leader of the Opposition worth widening? The reply is very Julian Assange: “Let’s just say I prefer miso to misogyny.”
There are moments when Assange seems much too serious, nerdish even, yet one thing’s very clear: prison hasn’t ruined his deadpan humour. He’s smart, and he’s shrewd; he’s a fox, not a hedgehog. That’s why he’s counting on lots of public support down under. “When people speak up and stand together it frightens corrupt and undemocratic power”, he says. “True democracy is the resistance of people armed with truth against lies.” I wonder whether he’s right. Australians can be a politically lazy bunch, but we’re also known for our cheeky cheerfulness, our taste for the matter-of-fact, plus our strong dislike of bullshit. We respect hard work and admire courageous achievement. We’re mawkish in the company of Ned Kelly underdogs. And so, if a political fight over his election to the Senate were to break out, strong public support for Assange might suddenly surface.
Time’s up. Not wanting to overstay my welcome, I slip on my coat, prepare to say goodbye, to pass back through the wall of mean-faced police. Assange shakes my hand, twice in fact. Both of us are pretty tired and stuck for words, so I let myself loose by asking him to ponder a wild southern hemisphere fantasy, a hero’s welcome later this year, a rapscallion’s reunion with spring sunshine, fresh ocean air, flowers, banners, tweets, whistles, haunting sounds of didgeridoos. For a few seconds, he smiles, then draws back, looks down, and glances sideways. It’s the reaction of a man who knows in his guts there are no easy solutions in sight. The cards are stacked, piled high against success. He’s trapped. He knows his fate will be decided not by legal niceties, or diplomatic rulebooks, but by politics. That’s why he’s aware that in the great dramas to come, nothing should be ruled out.
The Irish bookmaker Paddy Power lists his odds of winning a Senate seat as seven-to-two. The cautious fortune telling may be significant. Down under, nationwide polls conducted by UMR Research, the company used by the Labor Party, show (during 2012) that a clear majority of Australians think he wouldn’t receive a fair trial if extradited to the United States, and that in any case he and WikiLeaks shouldn’t be prosecuted for releasing leaked diplomatic cables. Green voters (66%) and Labor supporters (45%) are sympathetic to Assange. Significant numbers of Coalition supporters (40%) think the same way. In the most recent UMR poll, Assange tells me, around 27% of voters say they’ll vote for him.
That should be enough to slingshot him from Knightsbridge to Canberra. Set aside the cheap diatribes and what you think of Julian Assange as a person, or whether he’s done this or not achieved that. The fact is that electoral victory for him later this year would be one of those rare political miracles that make life as a citizen worth living. In a country weighed down by sub-standard politicians, sub-standard journalists and sub-standard freedom of information laws, the political triumph would be great. It would breathe badly-needed life into Australian democracy. And, yes, if the miracle happened, from that very moment the fun party down under would begin.
John Keane does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.
This article by Jeffrey D. Sachs offers an interesting perspective on American politics and suggests that we may be entering a new era of progressive government. –t.h.g.
AMERICA’S NEW PROGRESSIVE ERA?
By Jeffrey D. Sachs*
In 1981, US President Ronald Reagan came to office famously declaring that, “Government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem.” Thirty-two years and four presidents later, Barack Obama’s recent inaugural address, with its ringing endorsement of a larger role for government in addressing America’s – and the world’s – most urgent challenges, looks like it may bring down the curtain on that era.
Reagan’s statement in 1981 was extraordinary. It signaled that America’s new president was less interested in using government to solve society’s problems than he was in cutting taxes, mainly for the benefit of the wealthy. More important, his presidency began a “revolution” from the political right – against the poor, the environment, and science and technology – that lasted for three decades, its tenets upheld, more or less, by all who followed him: George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and, in some respects, by Obama in his first term.
The “Reagan Revolution” had four main components: tax cuts for the rich; spending cuts on education, infrastructure, energy, climate change, and job training; massive growth in the defense budget; and economic deregulation, including privatization of core government functions, like operating military bases and prisons.
Billed as a “free-market” revolution, because it promised to reduce the role of government, in practice it was the beginning of an assault on the middle class and the poor by wealthy special interests.
These special interests included Wall Street, Big Oil, the big health insurers, and arms manufacturers. They demanded tax cuts, and got them; they demanded a rollback of environmental protection, and got it; they demanded, and received, the right to attack unions; and they demanded lucrative government contracts, even for paramilitary operations, and got those, too.
For more than three decades, no one really challenged the consequences of turning political power over to the highest bidders. In the meantime, America went from being a middle-class society to one increasingly divided between rich and poor. CEOs who were once paid around 30 times what their average workers earned now make around 230 times that amount. Once a world leader in the fight against environmental degradation, America was the last major economy to acknowledge the reality of climate change. Financial deregulation enriched Wall Street, but ended up creating a global economic crisis through fraud, excessive risk-taking, incompetence, and insider dealing.
Maybe, just maybe, Obama’s recent address marks not only the end of this destructive agenda, but also the start of a new era. Indeed, he devoted almost the entire speech to the positive role of government in providing education, fighting climate change, rebuilding infrastructure, taking care of the poor and disabled, and generally investing in the future. It was the first inaugural address of its kind since Reagan turned America away from government in 1981.
If Obama’s speech turns out to mark the start of a new era of progressive politics in America, it would fit a pattern explored by one of America’s great historians, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., who documented roughly 30-year intervals between periods of what he called “private interest” and “public purpose.”
In the late 1800’s, America had its Gilded Age, with the creation of large new industries by the era’s “robber barons” accompanied by massive inequality and corruption. The subsequent Progressive Era was followed by a temporary return to plutocracy in the 1920’s.
Then came the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, and another 30 years of progressive politics, from the 1930’s to the 1960’s. The 1970’s were a transition period to the Age of Reagan – 30 years of conservative politics led by powerful corporate interests.
It is certainly time for a rebirth of public purpose and government leadership in the US to fight climate change, help the poor, promote sustainable technologies, and modernize America’s infrastructure. If America realizes these bold steps through purposeful public policies, as Obama outlined, the innovative science, new technology, and powerful demonstration effects that result will benefit countries around the world.
It is certainly too early to declare a new Progressive Era in America. Vested interests remain powerful, certainly in Congress – and even within the White House. These wealthy groups and individuals gave billions of dollars to the candidates in the recent election campaign, and they expect their contributions to yield benefits. Moreover, 30 years of tax cutting has left the US government without the financial resources needed to carry out effective programs in key areas such as the transition to low-carbon energy.
Still, Obama has wisely thrown down the gauntlet, calling for a new era of government activism. He is right to do so, because many of today’s crucial challenges – saving the planet from our own excesses; ensuring that technological advances benefit all members of society; and building the new infrastructure that we need nationally and globally for a sustainable future – demand collective solutions.
Implementation of public policy is just as important to good governance as the vision that underlies it. So the next task is to design wise, innovative, and cost-effective programs to address these challenges. Unfortunately, when it comes to bold and innovative programs to meet critical human needs, America is out of practice. It is time to begin anew, and Obama’s full-throated defense of a progressive vision points the US in the right direction.
*Jeffrey D. Sachs, Professor of Sustainable Development, Professor of Health Policy and Management, and Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, is also Special Adviser to the United Nations Secretary-General on the Millennium Development Goals. His books include The End of Poverty and Common Wealth.
Here’s the latest from Tom Atlee about government by the people….
Ancient Athens didn’t have politicians. Is there a lesson for us?
Few people realize that in ancient Athens – the original democracy from which modern democracies supposedly grew – no one was elected to be a representative. There were no public offices elected by the people. They just didn’t have politicians.*
They had voting, of course, because it was a democracy. But they voted for proposed laws, not for candidates.
And they had a Council of 500 (the “boule”) who proposed laws for all the citizens to vote up or down in Athens’ participatory Assembly. Ah! So that’s a powerful role, being able to create the proposals that the people voted on! So how were those 500 councilmembers chosen?
Well, believe it or not, those powerful people were ordinary citizens who had been chosen by lot – by random selection. And Athens’ democracy didn’t stop there. No way! Nearly EVERYONE holding public office or serving on a governing board was an ordinary person who had been chosen by lot. (The only exceptions were top military and financial posts, which constituted about 100 of the nearly 1000 government positions to be filled.)
This random selection approach – technically called “sortition” or “allotment” – was THE method for selecting people in government positions and, especially, in the Council of 500. Here’s how it worked: Each of Athens’ ten tribes (which were themselves defined to contain people from diverse territories and clans) picked 50 of its members at random to be on Athens’ Council of 500. No citizen could serve on the Council more than twice, but most citizens served at least once in their lifetimes. Within the Council, one of the ten tribal groups was chosen – by lot – to serve as presidents for the Council’s various sub-activities for about a month. Furthermore, within that group of 50 presidents a chairman was chosen – again by lot – to preside over the other presidents for just one day. Why only one day? The chairman of the Council’s presidents was the most powerful office in Athens, holding the state seal and the keys to the state’s treasury and archives.
So we find that ordinary Athenian citizens – like ordinary Americans or other citizens of modern democracies – could EACH aspire to preside over their ENTIRE government. However, those ordinary Athenians – UNLIKE most ordinary modern citizens – ACTUALLY had an excellent chance of serving in that lofty office. It is estimated that “approximately one half of all Athenian citizens would, at some point during their lives, have the privilege and responsibility of holding this office, arguably the closest equivalent to a Chief Executive in the Athenian democracy.” (ref: the link given above)
The Athenians were obsessed with the necessity of random selection for a democracy. They believed – quite rightly, it seems to me – that random selection not only made corruption very difficult but also involved the entire citizenry very directly in the challenges and powers of government. In other words, random selection made Athens a true government of, by, and for its citizens. For them, what made a democracy a democracy was random selection with few, if any, officials being elected. Thus no politicians. (We might also note that although they also supported voting, they were wary of mob rule and gave it a name: ochlocracy.**)
As the Wikipedia article on Athenian democracy says, “elections would favor those who were rich, noble, eloquent and well-known, while allotment spread the work of administration throughout the whole citizen body, engaging them in the crucial democratic experience of, to use Aristotle’s words, ‘ruling and being ruled in turn'”.
Compare that with our electoral system. Electing people to office actually makes us a republic like the Roman Empire more than a democracy like ancient Athens. We elect representatives… but who is this “we” and how representative are these “representatives”?
Spurred by the movie, Lincoln, David Morris has written an excellent article that describes the struggle for freedom and equality subsequent to the Emancipation Proclamation, a struggle that continues even today, not only in the South, and not only for Blacks, Hispanics, and other minorities, but for all of us, everywhere in this country.
“Lincoln is a magnificent movie. But as I left the theatre, to echo Paul Harvey, the late radio commentator, I wanted to know “the rest of the story”, then goes on to describe the multitude of ploys that have been used to constrain the political power of various groups. It then concludes,
“By all means go see the movie Lincoln. You can even go out cheering the January 1865 victory. But realize that the movie’s triumphal ending did not mark the end of the struggle to gain full citizenship for blacks and other minorities, but only the beginning. Today minorities no longer confront poll taxes and the Ku Klux Klan but newly imposed voting restrictions and racially biased drug laws and a Supreme Court that is indifferent or outright hostile to the rights of minorities. Gridlocked Washington will not come to the rescue. But much of the problem lies at the state level. We need a new massive grassroots struggle such as that which arose in the 1950s and the 1960s, this one to overturn draconian and racially biased drug laws and to eliminate the new wave of law that hamper voter participation. The struggle continues.”
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