I had a fascinating discussion with a smart friend of mine—a professor of women and gender studies—where we discussed the plight of the U.S. economic and political system. My perspective was that the rules set by our government have distorted the economics that make capitalism a productive system. My perception of her argument was that capitalism through the disproportionately wealthy has become predatory. While we arrived at the conversation from very different perspectives, it is evident that the U.S. democratic-free enterprise system is not what it could be.
My view is that government continues to set rules that reward economic choices that are not best for the whole—often due to pressure by lobbies and special interest groups. My friend’s view, as I understood her to say, revolved around the choices made by business people and businesses that was predatory. For instance, I saw the mortgage crisis of 2008 as a result of the rules that encouraged the behavior while my friend saw it as a result of choices that took advantage of people.
That is when it hit me. We are both right. In everyone’s individual struggle to succeed and thrive, free enterprise in its current state has some shortcomings. The problem, however, is camouflaged—it is hidden in plain sight. To some extent, it is reasonable to think that business and special interest leaders will work for the benefit of their respective concerns over those of others. In a democratic society, elected public servants create and supervise boundaries for free enterprise to work in a balanced manner. The challenge arises when the very public servants we elect leverage the system as capitalists themselves.
One example of this business-public servant feedback loop is evident in an unlikely place—honey bees. Thirty per cent of the American diet comes from bee-pollinated food sources. Due to Colony collapse disorder, the cost of raising bees doubled in the last decade resulting in a multi-million dollar economic issue (Beespotter.org, 2015). The problem is complicated, but a major contributor is the use of neonicotinoids in pesticides (Harvard School of Public Health, 2014). Europe banned the use of neonicotinoids; the U.S. government is still reviewing the issue. However, public records show the same makers of these chemical compounds spend millions to influence our public servants.
Now consider that the median average congress member has a net worth over $1 million (Katz, 2014). According to Peter Schweitzer (2011), most congress members’ net worth increases beyond their incomes during their tenure as public servants. Juxtaposed to the average working American’s net worth of $8,000-$180,000 (Money Relationship, 2014), it appears public service is a place for the rich to get richer. Not exactly “of, for and by the people…” The system is run by the wealthy who are funded and influenced by groups with more money. No surprise then that the people with money do the best in this arrangement. This is compounded by the 80-90% congressional re-election rate, 5 year congressional pension vesting, and average congressional terms in excess of the minimum vesting period (OpenSecrets.org, 2014; C-Span Questions, 2000).
I do not fault ambitious people for trying to get ahead. For many leaders, ambition is in their nature. The fault may not be in human nature but in the rules of the game. Senge (2006) made a strong argument that structures precede outcomes. The current structures appear to create this outcome. These rules tip things in favor of the few creating a type of modern aristocracy.
In the 40s, similar concerns arose after President Franklin Roosevelt won the presidency an unprecedented four times. In response, the U.S. ratified the 22nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that limits presidential terms with the following language:
No person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice, and no person who has held the office of President, or acted as President, for more than two years of a term to which some other person was elected President shall be elected to the office of the President more than once. But this article shall not apply to any person holding the office of President when this article was proposed by the Congress, and shall not prevent any person who may be holding the office of President, or acting as President, during the term within which this article becomes operative from holding the office of President or acting as President during the remainder of such term.
Would a 28th amendment limiting terms in congress be a solution? There is no panacea. No silver bullet. However, it may be a step in the right direction by structuring public service around…well, uh, service.
BeeSpotter.org (2015). Retrieved from www.beespotter.org.
C-Span Questions (2000). Retrieved from http://legacy.c-span.org/questions/weekly68.asp
Katz, A. (2014). Congress Is Now Mostly A Millionaires’ Club. Time. Retrieved from http://time.com/373/congress-is-now-mostly-a-millionaires-club/.
Money Relationship (2014). The average net worth of Americans. Retrieved from http://www.moneyrelationship.com/retirement/the-average-net-worth-of-americans-where-do-you-stand/
OpenSecrets.org (2014). Retrieved from http://www.opensecrets.org/bigpicture/reelect.php
Schweitzer, P. (2011). Throw them all out. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
Harvard School of Public Health (2014). Study strengthens link between neonicotinoids and collapse of honey bee colonies. Retrieved from http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/press-releases/study-strengthens-link-between-neonicotinoids-and-collapse-of-honey-bee-colonies/
Senge, P. (2006). The fifth discipline; The art & practice of the learning organization. San Francisco: Currency Doubleday.