The term “common” is used to identify that which applies equally to all – in general; of all; from all; by all; to all. Things owned in common are owned equally by all, and the term “commons” refers to the things owned or shared equally by all. Thus, when we do something for the common good, we do it for the good of all.
A society is something more than a collection of independent individuals. Societies are made up of people who have shared interests and shared values – people who have something in common. A society is a whole – something more than the sum of its parts. The nature of the relationships among people within a society is as important as the nature of its individual members – and, relationships exist not within but among people. A root cause of most of the ecological and social problems confronting humanity today is an inability to maintain strong positive relationships among people.
Social sustainability depends on our willingness and ability to maintain the integrity of human society. Maintaining the health and regenerative capacity of families, communities, and societies in general may be referred to as pursuit of the common good – the good of all people for all times. The health and regenerative capacity of future generations will depend in no small part on the cultural values passed down from generation to generation.
Government is the primary organizational structure through which people protect the good of the commons, produce common goods, and pursue their common good.[i] Other types of organizations – nonprofit, voluntary, philanthropic, charity, civic, and religious – also play important roles in promoting socially responsibility. However, governments have both the means and the authority to function on behalf of the people who form them, as a whole rather than as individuals. Admittedly, a government is capable only of reflecting the social and moral principles of those governed, but government is nonetheless a necessary means of taking collective actions for the common good.
By John Ikerd, Presented at Rural Life Day 2003, Farming in the Sacramental Commons, sponsored by Social Concerns Office, Diocese of Jefferson City and Missouri School of Religion, Center for Rural Ministry, Jefferson City, MO. December 6, 2003.
We are in a time of transition. We are moving out of the age of logic and reason and moving into a new age of insight and intuition, of common sense. Many future debates will focus more clearly than ever before on how a society defined by laws and rules, which arise from logic and reason, differs from a society defined by purpose and principles, which arise from our common sense. We have never completely abandoned our common sense – as attested to by reoccurring controversies surrounding such issues. But, logic and reason have made serious inroads into our willingness to honor the basic social and spiritual principles that we know, through insight and intuition, to be true and right. The new societal revolution will lead us to an era where laws will be made and enforced according to purpose and principles, and logic and reason will be but means of clarifying and reinforcing our common sense.
We will win the societal victory when the people take back control of their institutions, particularly their government, from the corporations, politicians, and bureaucrats and restore our democratic society. We still have the power to restore our democracy without resorting to open revolution, but time is quickly running out. The current political and economic situation in America provides several prime opportunities to choose the road to societal victory.
The key to the societal victory will be to rely on the principle of leverage – to identify specific, do-able actions or changes in structures that can lead to significant, enduring changes in the system as a whole. As Peter Senge, the MIT Professor of Management, states in his book, The Fifth Discipline,[ii] “Often, leverage follows the principle of economy of means: where the best results come not from large-scale efforts but from small, well-focused actions.” He goes on to point out, we often focus on low-leverage changes, because we become so focused on symptoms that we fail to see the underlying structures, which are the root cause of the problems.
Corporatism is not the cause of our problems in American society today – it is a symptom. The only means we have of addressing the cause of corporatism, as indicated previously, is through our collective actions – through government. However, the government is currently controlled by the same corporate entities that the government ultimately must bring under its control. Thus, the most critical leverage point for societal victory is to reengage the people in the processes of government.
If we are to take back our government, we must be willing to reengage in the process of electing our representatives in government. The controversy surrounding the Presidential Election of 2000 provided an opportunity to begin that process. Following that fiasco, the American people demanded reform in the process of electing the President of the United States. Only time will tell if the American people will seize this opportunity to bring about real and lasting change, or will continue to allow a small minority, those who choose to vote, to elect those who represent us all.
A common sense set of principles to guide election reform would seem to be, “Every vote should be counted, every vote should count, and every eligible citizen has an equal right and responsibility to vote.” This is not so different from what most of us believed to be the principles guiding all elections up to now. However, voter apathy in recent elections and the controversies in the election of 2000 seem to reflect serious doubts regarding each of these principles. To solve the problems of voter apathy and skepticism we can’t simply treat the symptoms, instead we must go to the source of the problem.
Regarding presidential elections, some might argue for abolishing the Electoral College. Many would prefer a direct vote of the people, with a uniform ballot for all national offices, and a nationally standardized process for casting and counting all votes for national election. Some aspects of such proposals most certainly are worthy of serious consideration. The technologies currently used for counting votes in most election precincts are hopelessly out of date. There is no logical reason for continuing to use paper ballots or punch cards to record and count votes.
Voting could be as simple, accurate, and dependable as using an automatic teller machine (ATM). Anyone who can read the name of a candidate and punch a button to record his or her vote could use an ATM-like machine to vote. Perhaps, existing ATMs should be programmed to receive and record votes on Election Day, greatly reducing the costs and increasing the security of conducting elections. By providing each voter with an ATM-like voter identification card, votes could be cast and recorded instantaneously from any location in the world. The cost of providing ATM voting cards would be virtually the same as providing voter registration cards today. Voter fraud could be greatly reduced as voter registration could be checked electronically and instantly when the voter inserted their card into the machine. Hot lines and service centers could handle any problems at a fraction of the cost of polling places today. A paper record of each vote could be generated at the time of the vote, one copy for the voter and one for election officials, to facilitate periodic random checks of the system and for use if a manual recount is deemed necessary.
ATM-like machines could be placed in polling places, or even made available in other specific public places, presenting no more problems with security or secrecy than exists today with the increasingly popular process of voting by mail. The need for absentee voting would be virtually eliminated. Everybody is somewhere on Election Day. After completing a ballot, the voter could be provided with a summary screen showing all offices for which they have cast a vote, allowing review and revision of the ballot before it is submitted as their final vote. The voter could request a written record at the time their final vote is submitted. Votes could be totaled electronically as they are cast, allowing for a very quick tally and reporting of winners and losers at the close of the polls.
There is every reason to believe that electronic votes could be handled as accurately and as efficiently as the billions of dollars that change hands electronically in our current banking system. There would certainly be no greater incentive or opportunity for fraud or mischief than in the current handling of global financial matters. Perhaps, the existing ATM system should actually be used in the voting process. ATMs could simply be closed for banking business on election days, serving as a convenient reminder that elections days are important days in the life of a nation, possibly increasing voter participation.
However, technology will not ensure voter participation in elections. People don’t vote because they don’t feel their vote makes a difference. A national popular vote for President would only make this matter worse. National polls taken before elections would identify the national vote leader going into the election. Even in cases where the race was too close to call, as in 2000, voters will know that a margin of 300,000 votes, as in 2000, would be considered a razor thin margin of victory in the national popular vote. What possible difference can my one vote make when the narrowest of victories are decided by a quarter-million votes?
With the Electoral College system, the 2000 presidential election seemed to hinge on a 154-vote lead for George W. Bush in Florida at one point. Before the manual recounts were stopped, the margin was said to have dropped to close to 50 votes. With national elections decided by margins this small, it’s easy to see that every single vote can count. If we are to restore the commitment of voters to the election of their President, we need to keep the Electoral College. The Electoral College still rests on a solid foundation of principle, but the College does need to be restructured to meet the needs of today’s society.
Each state receives one electoral vote for each member it sends to the House of Representatives and each state receives two additional electoral votes, representing the two Senators from each state. The principle of representation reflected in the Electoral College is the same as that reflected in Congress, where representation in the House is proportional to population and representation in the Senate is equal for each state. The only significant problem with the current Electoral College is that nearly all states give all of their electoral votes to the candidate that wins a majority of the popular vote for the state. This would be equivalent to requiring an entire state delegation to the U.S. Congress to vote as a block, with their block vote determined by a simple majority.
However, the electoral process could be reformed so that each state’s electoral votes associated with its representation in the House would be allocated in proportion to the popular vote received by each candidate. This would allow the vote of the people to be more accurately reflected in the electoral votes cast by their state. The two remaining senatorial votes would go to the candidate who received a plurality of total popular votes for the state. Under this arrangement, for example, Missouri’s 11 electoral votes in 2000 would have been divided, 4 for Gore and 7 for Bush instead of 11 for Bush – more accurately reflecting the vote of the people. The Electoral College vote would then reflect the same principles of representation as does the Congress. This pattern would provide representation of the states as well as individuals in the public decision making process. A candidate would have an incentive to campaign for the popular vote, as well as each state’s two senatorial majority votes, in order to win an election. Two states, Maine and Nebraska, currently allocate votes based on proportion of popular votes; so apparently, such a proposal is constitutional.
Under this arrangement, any single vote could be the vote that determined whether one candidate got one more, or one less, electoral vote, regardless of the size of a statewide majority. The inevitable early media forecasts of popular vote winners of particular states would be far less significant. In addition, forecasters would face far greater difficulties in projecting exact numbers of electoral votes for each state than in projecting state majorities, their errors would be more frequent, and thus, far fewer voters would be discouraged from going to the pools. At least fifty electoral votes, the last one to be determined in each state, would always be in some doubt until one-by-one each state’s totals were tallied. Every vote in every state would be important in virtually every election.
In addition, any candidate receiving a proportion of the popular vote, equal to or greater than their proportional representation in the House, should be awarded at least one electoral vote. For example, if a state has 10 members in the House of Representatives, an electoral vote would be awarded for each ten percent of the popular vote, with residual proportions allocated on a plurality basis. Thus, third or fourth party candidates, who have virtually no chance of receiving electoral votes under the current winner-take-all system, would have a far better chance of impacting elections. The supporters of serious minor parties would not be disenfranchised by the electoral process. However, the percentage threshold required to receive even one electoral vote would eliminate frivolous candidates from having an impact.
Presidential candidates would still be required to receive a majority of electoral votes to win the presidency. A candidate lacking a majority of electoral votes after an election would be required to negotiate with minority party candidates to secure the support, and the electoral votes, in order to secure a sufficient number of votes to win the election. This would be similar to the way coalition governments are put together under parliamentary systems of government – which give greater voices to minorities in the process of forming majorities. The important principle here is that supporters of third and fourth party candidates have a far better chance of influencing the outcomes of elections and the policies of the successful candidate, even if their candidate has little chance of winning a majority.
I’ve spent a good bit of space outlining this proposal, hoping that reform of the election process will continue to be a topic of broad public debate for years to come. Another fiasco in the 2004 presidential election would go a long way toward ensuring a continued discussion of this important issue. In addition, reform of the Electoral College is a do-able, feasible action that can have a significant and enduring impact on American society. I participated in formal debates of the pros and cons of the Electoral College in speech classes in both high school and college – I argued the pro-side both times, and won. So, the issue certainly is not new and it is not going to go away, but more important, it is a point of leverage that can literally change the whole of American society.
The details of election reform don’t really matter all that much, but the principles reflected in the details are important. If democracy is to be restored in America, people must accept their responsibility to vote, must be assured of an equal right to vote, must believe their votes will make a difference, and must be assured that their vote will be counted. There is nothing more fundamental to the future of our democracy.
Corporate influence on the political process is not a cause of the problems in our American society – it is a symptom. The political influence of corporations is a symptom of the means by which we currently finance elections. Nothing is more critical to the restoration of our democracy than campaign finance reform. The power to select and elect candidates to public office must be returned to the people.
In spite of rhetoric to the contrary, meaningful campaign finance reform is virtually impossible until we reform the election process. The Supreme Court simply made a mistake when it concluded that corporations have the same rights as individuals to contribute to political campaigns. But, correcting this error in principle would require that labor unions and other special interest groups, including all generic corporate groups, be prohibited from contributing to political campaigns. While this may be the ultimate solution, it’s not likely to happen until we remove the ability of anyone to influence the outcome of an election through monetary campaign contributions. The basic cause of campaign finance abuse is the ability of contributors to influence the outcome of elections. As long as that ability exists, contributors will always find some means of circumventing any law that is passed.
The right to free speech is a right held equally by every person, individually, regardless of his or her ability to buy advertising time or space in the mass media. The Constitution does not treat free speech as a private property right, but instead as one of those inalienable rights that are to be equally available to all. Thus, speech concerning pubic matters, such as elections and public policies, should be limited to individual speech, while speech in private matters, such as advertising products for sale, need not be so limited. Restricting our ability to influence elections, to our personal ability to influence others, is not a violation of our right to free speech, but instead is a protection of the right of free speech for all. The court of common sense eventually must prevail over the U.S. Supreme Court on this issue. The ability to influence elections through financial contributions makes the right to free speech unequal, and thus, unconstitutional, giving greater powers to those with more money and denying constitutional protections to those who have less to spend.
A fundamental role of government is to ensure equal rights guaranteed by the Constitution are realized equally by all, regardless of their ability to pay. Free speech on matters of public concern is a right – not a commodity to be bought and sold in the marketplace. Corporate organizations, of all types, are buying and selling candidates and elections because we have allowed the right of speech to become an economic commodity, to be sold to the highest bidder. To restore integrity to the electoral process, we must restore the constitutional right to equal free speech.
Limiting political speech to individual speech would raise questions as to whether voters could have sufficient information to make informed choices among candidates. However, a very small proportion of the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on national political campaigns today are actually spent to inform the voters. Informing is relatively easy and inexpensive, but persuading is far more difficult and costly. It takes millions of dollars to finance campaigns today because the candidates feel they must create illusions of competency and leadership ability that simply do not exist. Millions are spent for political consultants alone, who try to determine which characteristics of a candidate or positions on issues will secure the most votes. The consultants then try to make their candidate appear to possess those characteristics and to support those positions that will win elections. Differences between the candidate’s actual characteristics and positions and the vote maximizing characteristics and positions are minimized, while any similarities are magnified, through campaigns of persuasive advertising and public relations. This is not a process for informing the voter, this is selling the candidate.
Past successes in selling candidates, suggests that candidates who stick to informing the voters are destined to lose elections. However, if campaigning were limited to informing the voters, all candidates would have an equal opportunity to win elections, with the winner determined by personal integrity, leadership ability, and the merit of the candidates’ positions on the issues of most importance to the most voters. Certainly, some candidates would still have stronger individual supporters than would others and stronger supporters would likely have more influence on other voters. But strong support among individuals would reflect the candidate’s ability to influence real people, not just an ability to raise private or corporate money, and would be a legitimate factor in influencing an election.
Providing voters with the information needed to make informed choices in elections is a legitimate public service. Every voter has an equal right to be informed and every candidate should have an equal right to inform the voters. Thus, election campaigns should be financed by the public – not by private or public corporations or by individuals. However, public financing does not imply the government would need to collect and allocate tax dollars to candidates, as is the case currently with federal government support of presidential campaigns.
Every radio and television station in the country operates with a public charter, which obligates it to allocate a certain proportion of its broadcast time to public services messages. Examples include national coverage of presidential debates and of presidential addresses to the nation. Such events are not sponsored by advertisers, they are provided as a public service. Following the terrorists attacks on New York City and Washington in September 2001, most television networks operated for a week without commercial interruption. In these cases, television stations have accepted their responsibility to provide public service.
Most newspapers devote large sections of their papers to reporting on public issues – particularly during periods of time leading up to elections. Most newspapers, and many magazines, carry side-by-side comparisons of candidates, issue by issue, prior to elections. There is nothing to prevent a nation-wide agreement between the government and the mass media to provide voters with the information they need to make informed choices. The costs of mass media campaigns for individual candidates would then be limited to preparing information for the media for presentations made directly to voters.
The primary difference between such informational campaigns and the current persuasive campaigns would be the elimination of all campaign advertising. All campaign activities would be overseen by elections commissions charged with ensuring that all voters have equal access to information and all candidates have an equal opportunity to inform the voters. Such campaigns could include debates, speeches on radio and television, opinion pieces in newspapers, articles in magazines, publications outlining positions of candidates on issues, handbills, even billboards and yard signs – anything that might inform the voter. However, anything that was accessible to one candidate would also have to be accessible to all legitimate candidates – all who are eligible to be on the ballot. Contributions of individuals would be limited to contributions of their time and energy, and everyone at least has the same amount of time, if not energy. Corporations, unions, and special interests groups might even be allowed to help finance campaigns, but all such contributions would be put in a common pool of funds to help ensure that all have equal access to information.
Election campaign reform could be a critical point of leverage in restoring our Democracy. It is a do-able, feasible act, capable of bringing about significant and lasting changes in American society. Candidates elected by publicly informed voters would owe no debts or allegiance to anyone other than the voters who elected them. They would not be obligated to do anything to get reelected other than to convince the voters that they have been worthy of the public trust and confidence. New candidates for public office would only need to secure the endorsement of a sufficient number of voters, either through nomination by a recognized political party or a petition of registered voters, to ensure that public funding of their campaign represented an appropriate use of public funds. No one would be allowed to run for public office simply because they were rich enough to finance a campaign, and no one would be excluded from running for public office because of their lack of money to finance a campaign. Such an approach to electing our representatives to government would go far in putting the country back on the road to societal victory.
A Congress elected by the people and supported by the people, rather than by corporate special interests, would be free to bring corporations back under the control of the people. Corporate domination of the American economy is not a cause of our economic problems in the U.S. today but rather is a symptom of a deeper cause. Large amounts of capital were necessary to achieve the economies of scale of specialized, standardized production processes. So the government granted charters to corporations to encourage industrial economic development. Perhaps even more important, virtually all government economic policy, at least over the past century, has been focused on subsidizing the accumulation and use of capital. The elimination of government subsidies designed to encourage capital investment is a critical leverage point in restoring the American economy.
A sweeping action eliminating all such subsidies might seem virtually impossible in today’s economic and political climate – although it would be far easier after electoral and campaign finance reform. Any leveraging process must begin by first gaining a toehold. The toehold for eliminating subsidization of capital accumulation is the elimination of corporate welfare. Chipping away at corporate welfare is a do-able, feasible action that can have significant and enduring effects on the American economy.
Most of the largest current corporate welfare programs are disguised as incentives for job creation through capital investments. If we are to dismantle corporate welfare, then, we must first discredit the conventional wisdom that taxpayers benefit from subsidizing corporate investments. The key assumptions of corporate welfare is that capital is the factor most limiting to economic growth, that economic growth is necessary for high levels of employment, that corporate employment is necessary to maintain personal income, and that personal income is the key to maintaining a desirable quality of life. As I have pointed out in previous chapters, none of these assumptions is valid even in today’s economy, and most certainly will not be valid in the economy of the twenty-first century.
Knowledge, not capital, is the factor most limiting current economic and social progress. Growth in economic output no longer translates into higher levels of employment, as increasingly sophisticated information technologies are substituted for both labor and management. In fact, fewer, rather than more, people will be fully employed as a consequence of current corporate welfare. With the current emphasis on unrestricted global markets, investments of multinational corporations often result in the outsourcing of jobs from the country of investment. In such cases, taxpayers are subsidizing the elimination of their own jobs. Also, subsidizing private capital investments detracts from potential public investments in the productivity of people. In general, subsidizing corporate employment is no longer the best means of generating additional personal income. The industrial era, with its good paying jobs for non-thinking workers or even skilled workers, is in the past, not the future. To increase personal incomes in the future, people must be given an opportunity to use their uniquely human abilities to think, to create, to judge, and to make uniquely human decisions.
Finally, having more income and buying more stuff is not the key to a more desirable quality of life, as I have said many times before in this book. The industrial systems, which corporate welfare supports, are destroying the natural environment and the social fabric of our society – the very things that we must have to sustain a desirable quality of life in the future. Elimination of corporate welfare is do-able and feasible because it simply does not make sense for taxpayers to help finance the degradation of their own quality of life.
Perhaps even greater than the government transfer of taxpayer dollars to corporations is government acquiescence to corporate exploitation of consumers in the marketplace. Economic competition is absolutely necessary, not only to ensure that suppliers provide the things consumers want to buy but also to ensure that suppliers’ profits are not enhanced by charging unnecessarily high prices to consumers. During times of economic transition and rapid technological innovation, such as we are in today, it is difficult, if not impossible, to evaluate the extent to which consumer prices are unnecessarily high due to lack of competition. Prices of many consumer products are falling as a consequence of new production technologies, so it is difficult to determine how much faster they might have fallen with a truly competitive economy. New, and occasionally better, products are coming into the market on a regular basis, so it is difficult to determine what different and even better product might have been available if the economy was truly competitive.
Obviously, corporations will claim credit for lower prices and product innovations because they dominate the economy. But, they are simply presiding over a fundamental change in human society as a whole, which just happens to include the economy that they dominate. The technologies and innovations are a consequence of changes in the global sociological and ecological environment, and more important, changes in ways humans think, for which the corporations can claim no credit. In fact, the corporate, industrial structure is antithetical to such changes; they are happening not because of, but in spite of, corporate domination. The corporations simply are parlaying economic prosperity into the government’s acquiescence of its responsibility to maintain a competitive economy. They tout capitalistic freedoms as the philosophical foundation for their unrestrained pursuit of greed, while in fact they are destroying the very foundation of our capitalistic economy.
With huge corporate mergers as an almost-weekly occurrence, with no seeming concern from the Department of Justice, it would be easy to write off restoring competitiveness as a potential point of economic leverage. However, there are growing signs of a weakening in the American economy, in spite of year-to-year ups-and-downs. Anytime the economy falters, the time might well be right to begin efforts to restore competitiveness of the American economy.
The political odds of dethroning corporate America may not be as slim as appears at first glimpse. The Progressive movement of the early 1900s succeeded in rolling back previous corporate domination of the economy. In the last election, the corporations were attacked politically, from both the left and the right. Electoral College reform and election campaign reform both are clearly do-able and feasible and would clearly give greater political voice to the growing anti-corporate, pro-competitiveness factions within American society. The government has both the power and the responsibility to restore and maintain a competitive economy. All this makes restoration of competitiveness a potentially effective point of leverage to guide American society toward the road to victory.
Government grants of monopolistic power are not limited to chartering of corporations. Patents and copyrights also grant monopolies – to individuals as well as corporations. And, while individual monopolies may not have as much impact on markets, they do severely narrow opportunities for individual achievement. Contrary to their initial intent, patents and copyrights in today’s economy tend to discourage the scope of individual initiative and creativity. Their elimination could provide a powerful lever for empowering far larger numbers of people to become engaged in the types of creative endeavors needed to achieve societal victory in the knowledge-based era of human progress.
Patents and copyrights were initially granted under the assumption that new discoveries and artistic creations would not only require a significant investment of time and talent, but also would require a substantial investment of development capital to transform discoveries or creations into marketable products. Thus, an inventor or creator would need to be protected from competition from others, who might otherwise commercialize their invention or artistic creation, for a period long enough to recoup their costs of both research and development. The underlying assumption, once again, was that capital is the factor most limiting economic progress. Thus, investors or creators are granted a monopoly on new discoveries so they can recoup their capital investments. The monopoly is granted, through a patent or copyright, under the assumption that private profit incentives would be inadequate to justify sufficient investments in innovations to serve the public interest in the absence of the patent or copyright.
The most critical assumptions used to justify patents and copyrights quite simply are no longer valid. In cases of industrial innovations, there is no lack of incentives for investments. These industries are no longer competitive, at least not in the economic sense of competition. Huge capital and structural barriers to introduction of new products and process would exist even in the absence of patents. Because of these barriers, individuals who make new discoveries have no means of commercializing them on their own. Also, existing firms in most industries have sufficient market power to develop, commercialize, and recoup their initial investment in new discoveries long before any other firm could become competitive in a new product or process. Today, patents mostly serve to eliminate all potential for competition, and thus, give monopolistic corporations a license to accumulate excess profits and to extend their exploitation of consumers. Rather than reduce the length of time for which monopolies are awarded, periods for both patents and copyrights have been extended.
The pharmaceutical industry is but one example of public exploitation by patenting. These firms make huge profits from new drugs, while reinvesting a far smaller portion of their profits in research than they spend on marketing their products. They invest in new drugs that can be marketed to affluent customers and to those with more generous health insurance programs while ignoring the maladies of those who can’t afford the high prices of their medicines. It would make far more sense to tax the giant pharmaceutical firms to finance medical research at public institutions, for research on products to meet the medical needs of the poor, than to protect these firms from competition through patents.
The new post-industrial economy promises to eliminate the last vestige of excuses for granting extended patents, copyrights, and exclusive franchises. The source of new wealth and human well-being is embodied in people, not in industrial production processes. There is no longer any justification for subsidizing capital investments. Any public subsidies of the private economy in the future should be targeted to investments in human productivity rather than accumulation of capital. Businesses should be responsible for training people to work in their particular industry or enterprise, but everyone benefits from a society made up of people who are educated, informed, and most important, have the ability of think. Basic education is a public service – specific training is not. Investment tax credits, preferential tax treatment of capital gains, accelerated depreciation of buildings and equipment, and all sorts of corporate subsidies to encourage capital investment, should be systematically eliminated, or better yet, shifted to support investments that will build the capacities of people to lead productive, successful lives. It just makes common sense.
Inventions of the post-industrial era will not require large investments or industrial infrastructure for commercialization. Post-industrial innovations will be information, process, and methodological know-how, created by individuals and disseminated quickly and inexpensively around the globe using electronic communications systems. The capital structures of the dot.com companies do not represent investments in tangible capital assets, but rather an ability to organize and control individual talents. Large-scale organization and control contributes little if anything to the productivity of dot.com firms. The only reason these corporations continue to grow is to secure and hold the market and political power they need to retain excess profits. Such organizations inevitably will diminish the imagination, innovation, and creativity, which characterized the early Silicon Valley days.
It probably would be unrealistic, and even counterproductive, to eliminate patents and copyrights entirely. However, the length of both should be shortened, to allow inventors and creators time to recoup their investments, but not to maintain monopoly control. Copyrights in the U.S. are currently protected until 70 years after the death of the creator. Design and utility patents grant monopolies of 14 and 20 years, respectively, but corporations often find ways to extend their monopoly rights by patenting slight modifications of their original patents. After inventors and creators have had sufficient time to recoup their initial investment, their inventions and creations should become available to anyone who chooses to compete with the initial manufacturer or publisher. No one should be allowed to remove or replace the name of the original writer or artist or otherwise claim ownership of copyrighted ideas. But, requiring recognition and credit is quite different from preventing competition in distribution. Limiting patents and copyrights to five years might be a reasonable starting point in a discussion of how long inventors and creators need to recoup their investments.
By current law, I acquired the copyrights to this book by the simple act of writing it. If it is published, I will have to grant a copyright to whoever agrees to publish it. I probably deserve some return for writing the book, assuming that people want to read it. And the publishers will deserve a return on whatever investments they make in publishing it. No one else should be able to claim that they either wrote or first published this book. But, neither the publishers nor I have the right to keep people from reading this book simply because they don’t have the ability to buy the book.
Perhaps those who are willing and able to buy the book should have first and easiest access to it. Eventually, and by some means, the book should be made available to anyone who wants to read it. I did not create whatever information, knowledge, or wisdom that is in this book and neither did the publisher. Therefore, we do not own it. We simply rearranged it and packaged it. We have a right to seek a fair return for what we did, but we do not have a right to deprive people of whatever information, knowledge, or wisdom it may contain.
Soon, it will no longer be possible to protect patents and copyrights, even if it were desirable to do so. The person who created napster.com allowed people to share their CDs over the Internet, signaling the practical end of enforceable copyrights. In a television interview, a napster supporter said, “If you are making your living selling water in the middle of the desert, and all of a sudden it starts to rain, you are going to have to find something else to do for a living.” Digitized information, like rain in the desert, soon will be freely available to everyone. People in the information distribution business are going to have to find some other way to make a living. Free access to information will be one of the most valuable societal resources of the twenty-first century, and we cannot allow it to be monopolized through patents and copyrights.
So what will happen to the inventors, writers, and entertainers in the post-patent, post-copyright era? First, there will be a lot more of them. Anyone who has real talent will have an opportunity to offer it to the public. Any software developer, for example, will be able to distribute their products through the Internet. Any writer will be able to publish their work by putting it on the Internet. Any entertainer will be able to record their performance and put their recording on the Internet.
Second, the money spent to reward creativity will be spread around a lot more evenly. The days of the superstar will be gone, as people will have a lot more choices. Most professional entertainers will likely have a modest following of loyal fans that will support them by attending their live performances and buying their first releases. Professional writers will find publishers who will print hard copies of their work and they will have a group of loyal readers who buy their books for convenience and portability. The careers of creative people will likely be less hectic and far more enduring, and maybe even more financially and personally rewarding.
The current controversy over patenting of living organisms could provide a toehold for revisiting the broader concept of patents and copyrights in general. Many nations of the world have flatly rejected the U.S. position that patenting of life forms is either necessary or desirable for the future development of biological technologies. Hopefully, we are moving toward a societal decision that patenting of living things is neither ethical nor economically desirable. Living things are self-making. No one should be able to claim an exclusive right to design and make something that designs and makes itself. During the debate over patenting life, society just might conclude that patenting in general has become an obstacle in developing the full creative potential of people in a knowledge-based society. Shortening the duration of patents and copyrights just might be a powerful lever for releasing the power of human creativity and realizing societal victory.
Revised patents and copyrights laws could be the lever for opening the door to reviews of corporate charters as well. Incorporation is not a right, it is a privilege granted by society. A corporate charter allows a group of investors to engage in a collective business venture that otherwise would be classified as collusion, and otherwise clearly would be illegal. Corporate charters are supposed to be granted only under conditions that promise that the general public will benefit, rather than be harmed, by such collusive activity. In other words, corporate charters are granted for the purpose of promoting the public good.
The leverage point for ensuring that corporations serve the public good might well be initiation of a formal process for more open and public review of charters. Perhaps citizens’ review boards, including advocates for social justice and environmental issues, should scrutinize every request for a corporate charter to ensure that each new corporation promises to create a new benefit for society in general. These same boards also could conduct periodic reviews, perhaps every five to ten years, to ensure that each existing corporation continues to serve the public interest. In addition, citizens should have some means of challenging any corporation, at any point in time, regarding whether it indeed is operating in a way that serves the public interest. Corporations should consider whatever costs might be involved in defending the legitimacy of their charter to be a normal cost of doing business. Corporate taxes paid to the government could be used to fund citizens review boards, ensuring that such boards serve the interest of the public, rather than corporate interests, in their reviews of corporate charters.
Again, the task of denying and revoking corporate charters might seem extremely difficult – if not impossible. However, we need to remember the primary incentive for publicly held corporations today is not economies of scale but economic power and political influence. Even today, most enterprises that make up the new economy are not large manufacturing operations that require huge capital investments for buildings and equipment and thousands of assembly line workers to achieve the economies of large-scale production. Such manufacturing operations are rapidly being moved from America to less-developed countries of the world, where labor costs are lower and environmental constraints are fewer. Productivity in the new economy arises from creative individuals, or small teams of creative individuals, who could be just as productive, if not more so, in an individual proprietorship or partnership instead of a corporation.
The corporations, however, are not likely to give up without a fight – in spite of the fact that most no longer serve any essential public purpose. They may be forced to give some ground through the political process, as they did in the early 1900s. But, they will find a way to fight their way back to power, unless the issue of corporatization is addressed directly through the constitutional process. We need to address the corporate issue at its constitutional heart – the question of whether a corporation is a real person, which it clearly is not, and with it, the constitutional rights of individuals to freely assembly and associate for either political or business purposes.
All constitutional rights of individuals are limited insofar as no person has the right to deprive the constitutional rights of another. The Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution was written to ensure that the rights of individuals were not taken away by the federal government. So the Constitution protects the individual against political tyranny. The fundamental problem is that the Constitution does not explicitly protect the individual against economic tyranny.
If the U.S. Constitution were to be written today, by the true scholars of today, it would include an Economic and Ecological Bills of Rights to complement the current political Bill of Rights. Nothing in today’s society indicates that the general welfare of the people can be further promoted without new constitutional assurances that the economic and ecological rights of humanity will be protected. Lacking constitutional protection for our economic and ecological rights, our political democracy quite simply is not sustainable.
I suggest the following statement of basic human rights as a starting point for discussions to precede amending or rewriting the Constitution:
These basic human rights shall not be denied or restrained, unless the exercise of rights by one person infringes upon the rights of another. Even in those cases, rights cannot be denied or restrained without due process of law -- except in cases of self-defense against the immediate, unlawful threat to one’s rights by another.
These rights are to be made available to all, to the extent that they are available to any within the society being governed. The current generation has a responsibility to ensure these rights for future generations, to the extent that they are available to those of the current generation. These rights may not be bought, sold, or otherwise obtained or given away for any reason.
The Right to Life: Every human being has the basic right to live and to grow -- physically, mentally, and spiritually.
· Social: Right to protection from, and to self-defense against, all threats to life, health, and full physical and mental development.
· Economic: Right to adequate food, clothing, shelter, education, and health care to ensure survival and physical, mental, and spiritual development.
· Ecological: Rights of future generations, equal to those of the present, to the natural resources needed to provide physical protection, growth, and to develop.
Right of Individual Thought and Expression: Every human being has a basic right to think their own thoughts and to express those thoughts to others.
· Social: Right to protection and of self-defense against the immediate repression of thought and expression including speech, writing, publishing, education, or other means of sharing information.
· Economic: The right to obtain accurate, unbiased information and to be protected against attempts by others to manipulate or subversively influence one’s thoughts, expressions, or actions for economic gain.
· Ecological: The right to obtain and distribute all types of information concerning potential threats to the natural environment that might affect the rights of future generations.
Right of Individual Action: Every human being has a basic right to independent action and freedom of movement.
· Social: Right to protection from, and self-defense against, restraint of action or movement and invasion of privacy of personal actions.
· Economic: Right to pursue economic opportunities of one’s choosing and to be protected against oppressive or coercive economic actions of others.
· Ecological: Responsibility of the current generation to maintain options for actions of future generations equal to or greater than options of the present.
Rights of Interaction: Every human has the basic right to interact with other human beings.
· Social: Right to communicate, meet, congregate, marry, have or not have children, organize for social or political purposes, and to formulate and conduct the processes of self-government.
· Economic: Right to collaborate, organize, and pursue joint economic activities, but only so long as such organizations and associations contribute to the social and ecological well-being of society.
· Ecological: Responsibility to pass on to each succeeding generation personal freedoms equal to or greater than the freedoms of previous generations.
Some will argue that we must move slowly – changing our Constitution only incrementally, one amendment at a time. However, I contend that we need to do far more than just tinker with the Constitution. We need to define a set of new and different rights, to ensure protection of individuals against new kinds of oppression. We need a constitutional convention. Along with defining the rights of people to be protected against economic oppression, a social Bill of Rights can be written to resolve such issues as our rights to life, right to bear arms, and right to public prayer. Some will argue that a constitutional convention risks opening a whole new can of worms. My response, it is long past time we opened that can of worms, because they are beginning to rot. We don’t need to worry about finding a place to end the rewriting process. The Constitution was meant to be a living document – it was meant to be ever changing to meet the ever-changing needs of human society.
We need to form a permanent Constitutional Commission, perhaps similar in format to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was directed by Desmond Tutu, following the end of apartheid in South Africa. We need an open forum where people can bring forth their proposals for constitutional amendments and for new constitutional provisions to be openly discussed and debated. As I indicated previously, we need a process, short of civil disobedience, by which people can identify issues upon which government has lost the consensus to govern. The Constitutional Commission could bring proposals for constitutional amendments before Congress, or could call for periodic constitutional conventions, whenever they felt that a potential change in the Constitution should be brought before the American people. Perhaps the process of adopting amendments and other changes to the Constitution should be reconsidered to ensure that such a continuing national consensus building process takes place.
I am not wise enough to resolve all of these issues, but I am wise enough to know that they eventually must be resolved. We cannot restore common sense to our democracy until we restore the basic rights of people, of this and all future generations, to be protected from economic oppression. We cannot ensure our economic and ecological rights over the long run without rewriting the Constitution. These are matters of first principles – of common sense. The new revolution ultimately must lead to constitutional reform. The new revolution will not be over until we have a new Constitution.
Once the economic rights of people have been assured, the more progressive corporations will begin to take themselves apart. Once they lose their unwarranted and indefensible power to exploit people, either as taxpayers or as consumers, they will have no other compelling reason to exist. Once they are forced to rely on productivity as their only means of sustaining profitability, they will evolve toward a more productive organizational structure, which will be far smaller, more diverse, less structured, and more decentralized in nature. As the corporations take themselves apart, stockholders may well be given the option of focusing their investments on smaller and smaller units of the old corporation, until in essence, they become partners with other small groups of investors, or even individual proprietors.
As the trend toward a post-industrial economy continues, the corporate structure of business organization will become less significant to the functioning of the American economy. Thus, it will become far easier to refuse charters to those who would do nothing to promote the public good. It will also be easier to revoke the charters of those corporations that exist primarily to exploit the public and that refuse to abandon the corporate structure voluntarily. Public review of corporate charters, the first step, represents a potentially powerful lever for urging the economy to move more quickly in a direction it already is inclined to go.
Macroeconomic policy is another potential point of leverage for transforming the economy, from one that attempts to maximize economic growth to one that maximizes sustainable economic development. When the Fed talks about sustainable economic growth today, they are referring to the maximum rate at which they feel the economy can grow without bidding up wages and salaries and creating inflationary pressures, which eventually would slow the economy. They are not talking about a rate of economic growth consistent with sustaining the long run productivity of the natural resource base – maintaining ecological capital – and maintaining the productivity of the human resource base – maintaining social capital. Economic growth over the past several decades has been sustained by exploiting both natural and human capital, and such growth quite simply is not sustainable.
The focus of macroeconomic policy on maintaining maximum economic growth is a symptom of corporatization. It commits the government to maintaining corporate profits and growth, regardless of the costs to society and the environment. If current proposals to divert a portion of Social Security taxes into stock market investments succeed, the situation will become even worse. Proponents argue that private investments in stock market returns have been higher historically than returns on money paid into the Social Security system. First, money paid into Social Security is not invested. Except for a modest Social Security Trust Fund, Social Security taxes paid in by current workers are paid out immediately to fund the benefits of retirees currently receiving Social Security payments. The rate of return of money invested in Social Security is determined by decisions of Congress when they decide how much people who have paid into the system are entitled to take out – totally and completely. Congress can increase or reduce the rate of return on Social Security investments any time they choose. The rate of return has nothing to do with how Social Security funds are invested, because they are not invested.
Diverting money from Social Security to the stock market is equivalent to letting people who are working today opt out of their responsibilities to people who have already paid into the system during their working years. Those retirees paid into the system to fund the retirement benefits of the last generation and they are counting on people working today to fund theirs. Who is going to make up the money that went into the stock market rather than toward paying those benefits? The Social Security Trust Fund would soon be depleted. Who is going to take care of those who lose their Social Security retirement money in the stock market and find themselves old, sick, and broke?
But most important, once people start thinking of the stock market as the safe keeper of their retirement funds, the government will be forced by public pressure to do everything possible to keep the stock market from slumping. At least today, the Fed can claim success for its policies as long as the Gross Domestic Product is growing and inflation is under control, regardless of what kind of speculative gyrations the stock market goes through. Most of the nation’s private pension funds are already tied up in risky stock market investments. But, most people think that their retirement funds are safe. Once people know their retirement is riding on the stock market, the pressure on the government will be intense to prop up the stock market – by propping up corporate profits.
Instead of continuing on this road of corporatism, the government must accept its responsibility for maintaining a level of economic growth that can be sustained for the long run benefit of society. A government of the people must work for the good of people. Macroeconomic policies must be focused on maintaining a level of economic growth that allows for sustainable levels of appreciation in economic, social, and ecological capital.
The Federal Reserve Board provides a model that might be used to leverage changes in overall government policy. First, the Federal Reserve System is an independent government agency, which is not funded directly by Congress, and decisions regarding monetary policy do not require the approval of either Congress or the President. This allows the Fed to pursue their objectives relatively free of political pressures. This independence, as much as any single factor, accounts for the relative success of the Fed in directing monetary policy.
A similar independent Fiscal Policy Board (FPB) should be established to determine fiscal policy. The FPB would meet periodically and, in consultation with the Fed, would decide on a specific level of federal budget deficit or surplus that the government would have to maintain over a specific period of time – perhaps a total for the federal fiscal year with quarterly targets. Congress would retain their constitutional powers to tax and spend any total amount they choose by any means they choose. They would simply have to adjust taxes and spending to achieve a budget deficit or surplus as determined by the FPB. This would allow the nation to have a reasonable, common sense approach to fiscal policy, rather than the current practice of developing unrealistic federal budgets and taking whatever surplus or deficit that happens to result. Budget surpluses would help restrain inflation with less pressure on interest rates, and budget deficits would help pull the economy out of recessions.
Harmonizing monetary and fiscal policy would be but the first step toward harmonizing economic, social, and environmental policies. A National Board for Sustainable Development (NBSD) might then be formed to make decisions concerning how to balance the investment of national resources among the individual, social, and ecological economies. The NBSD would not be an independent agency, because its decisions would have to be based on judgment, insight, or wisdom rather than technical expertise. They would be making decisions for the nation concerning how to balance the individual, social, and ecological economies of the nation so as to sustain a desirable quality of life for its people. The NBSD would need to include representatives from both houses of Congress and from the executive and judicial branches of government. It would need representatives from the Fed and the new FPB, but it would also need the independent representation of social, environmental, and economic concerns.
The NBSD would provide the broad framework within which the rest of government would function. The Fed and the FPB would be given target rates of economic growth consistent with the NBSD’s best estimates of truly sustainable economic development. The President and Congress would be given directions concerning how the federal budget is to be allocated among various broad spending categories, including national defense, social welfare, and environmental protection programs. Specific provisions for taxation would be negotiated so as achieve the goals of social equity and environmental integrity, while maintaining the economic incentive for a strong private economy. The NBSD might also initiate national dialogs concerning issues on which the people need to move toward national consensus and possible changes in the Constitution.
The tasks of the National Board for Sustainable Development would not be easy, but the nation must have some means of achieving national harmony and balance among currently conflicting national priorities. Monetary and fiscal policy can work in harmony. Economic, environmental, and social policies can, and ultimately must, work in harmony.
The executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government can work in harmony. Checks and balances need not imply confrontation and conflict, but instead could mean a mutual commitment to balance and harmony. Tensions and stress among the various needs of society and branches of government are both inevitable and necessary to maintain a strong society. The purpose of harmonization is to keep positive tensions from developing into destructive conflicts and to keep stress from degenerating into distress. Somewhere within government, there must be an entity that brings together our diversity of needs, to achieve the harmony and balance that is absolutely necessary for sustaining a desirable quality of national life.
Physicists claim that one person could move the entire mass of the earth if they had a sufficiently long lever and a place to stand. Such is the basic principle of leverage. If the work can be spread over sufficient time and space, even the most difficult of task can be accomplished with reasonable effort. Every leverage point identified in this chapter is an area where relatively little effort could generate large results. Every action or change suggested is do-able and feasible and, if accomplished, could bring about significant and enduring results. However, every change suggested would require support, if not action, on the part of the people in general. The tasks are relatively easy for each of us because they are tasks that must be shared widely among many of us. Several of the tasks that seem impossible today will be relatively easy in the future. But, we must have the patience to begin with those that can be accomplished today, because those accomplishments will give us the platforms on which to stand to leverage additional changes tomorrow. With leverage, we can move the world.
Society is going through a great transition. We are moving into a fundamentally different era in human history. All we have to do to help shape this new world is to engage our hearts and minds in the process of change. All things are connected and we can’t do anything that doesn’t affect everything else. Every discussion that takes place between two individuals affects, in some small way, every future discussion that takes place between any other two individuals. Every position you take on an issue, regardless how strongly or widely you defend it, affects in some small way the positions taken by everyone else on every other issue. Every vote that you cast, every letter you write to the editor, every time you join a campaign, or run for any office, everything you do helps to shape the attitudes, opinions, and actions of everyone else.
I am not wise enough to explain how this principle of interconnectedness or interdependence actually works. But, my insight, intuition, and common sense – supported by philosophies as disparate as quantum physics and Buddhism – confirm to me that the principle truly does work. We are an important element of this universe. What we do really does matter. All we have to do to build a better society is to begin thinking and acting as responsible members of a better society would think and act. The road to societal victory is clear and clearly attainable. The opportunity is at hand. The victory is assured, once we begin to act. Our common sense provides the platform on which we can stand to apply the lever that will allow us to move the world.