Gorebush's Worst Nightmare

"Social reform," wrote Henry George, "is not to be secured by noise and shouting, by the formation of parties or by the making of revolutions, but by the awakening of thought and the progress of ideas." Words to live by; indeed the spirit in which we pursue our work here -- yet sometimes the road seems very long. To believe in social reform is to believe in democracy. There is literally no other game in town. So, dear reader, how are we feeling about the state of democracy, in these United States, in this Y2K?

Not great. "Super Tuesday" is behind us, and the results were not surprising. As of this writing, Bradley has pulled out of the 2000 Presidential Race, and McCain is about to, although he still hopes to nudge George W. Bush in the policy direction of something resembling "clean" campaigning. It had looked interesting for a while there. Two strong candidates emerged who seemed to take refreshingly substantive stands. Bradley made a strong call for universal health care (while Gore stepped right up and defended Medicare); McCain's initiatives on campaign finance reform are well-known, while huge money from corporate interests has been rolling into Bush's war chest from the git-go.

A cynical take on all this might be that the system allowed us to enjoy the comforting illusion of a pluralistic, issues-driven presidential campaign for a time, before consolidating power in the establishment candidates before things got out of hand. Clearly there isn't much difference between the two major candidates, when it comes right down to it. It would be a good idea to keep from further tilting the Supreme Court toward rubber-stamping all capital cases and chipping away at reproductive rights. But clearly we cannot expect an administration, or a Congress, elected by the kind of election we are accustomed to holding, taking any real steps in the direction of economic justice.

One could be hard-nosed about it and say, well, we voted for them. If we are too busy or too lazy to decide what we want -- and reject our representatives when they fail to deliver it -- then we deserve what we get.

But what do we want? Is any candidate for national office addressing the issues that actually concern us? I doubt it! I would venture to guess that a solid majority of US citizens:

  • Believe that they have been working harder, and getting less for it.

  • Want to keep the wealth that they produce, and do not understand why they must work until April to pay their tax burden.

  • Are alarmed at the vast and growing gap between the Very Wealthy and the Barely Getting By.

  • Are afraid that health care costs will rise beyond their ability to pay for them.

  • Sense a precarious falseness behind the "longest economic expansion in history" and want a full-employment economy.

  • Would prefer not to enjoy goods manufactured by slave labor.

  • Believe that two million US citizens in prison is too many.

  • Want a better set of choices for educating their children.

Candidate Boregush may use buzzwords that mention things resembling some of these concerns -- but don't hold your breath waiting for them, or the Next Congress, to implement any real policies that address them.

There are a number of sensible proposals for reforming the electoral system. Proportional representation would bring alternative parties into the legislative process. Same-day voter registration would ensure a larger voter turnout, particularly among the marginalized groups who tend not to register in advance. A policy requiring candidates to be elected by a majority of the eligible voters, rather than merely by a majority of the few who happen to show up, would cut the influence of well-heeled special interests. Equitable public financing of campaign advertising would decrease the scale of the corruption.

We all know change is needed. But perhaps the first thing we need is a clearer picture of what we would like to change the system to. That, I believe, is the last thing that the purveyors of the Conventional Wisdom want us to get. It's their business to make sure that we believe our political and economic realities to be so complex, so multifarious, so bewilderingly labyrinthine that no sane person could ever have enough spare time, after work, somewhere around the kids' bedtimes, on weekends, whenever, to understand them. No, we'll never have the chance to become informed voters. It might be nice -- true democracy might even depend on it -- but it just isn't a real possibility. We'd better just trust the pundits and hope for the best.

"The awakening of thought, and the progress of ideas." If we are ever to get beyond the cesspool that is United States politics (and has been -- let's face it -- for many, many decades), then that is where we have to start.

And once we do start, we will find that it is anything but impossible. We may even find that the more we explore, the more naked the emperor will come to appear. That's what we believe here at the Henry George Institute, anyway. We hold that any literate person who can follow basic logic can develop a functional grasp of fundamental economic principles -- and, by so doing, take a giant step toward that seemingly impossible goal of becoming an informed voter.

Lindy Davies -- March 8, 2000

What Folks Have Been Saying

Lindy, my friend and fellow Georgist, we agree on many things, but I urge you to reconsider some of your ideas about reforming politics. > Proportional representation would bring alternative > parties into the legislative process. And would that be good? You may want a party which more closely matches your own views than does either branch of the Demopublicans, but do you also want parties closely matching the views of Ross Perot, Pat Buchanan, Ralph Nader, Jesse Jackson, Jesse Helms, Pat Robertson, and various others of the left, right, and six other directions? When all these parties horse traded to get something enacted, would the results be any better than those of our current system, where various factions are parts of two major parties? > Same-day voter registration would ensure a larger voter > turnout, particularly among the marginalized groups who > tend not to register in advance. It would also make vote fraud easier, and we already have too much of that, thanks in large part to the "Motor Voter" law. The right to vote is meaningless unless accompanied by the right not to have your vote cancelled out by that of a tombstone. As to marginalized groups, you can be poor, black, just turned 18, or whatever, and still register months in advance. If you can't be bothered, or don't know or care enough about politics to do so, then it is unlikely that your vote will lead to the country being better governed. > A policy requiring candidates to be elected by a > majority of the eligible voters, rather than merely by a > majority of the few who happen to show up, would cut the > influence of well-heeled special interests. That isn't at all clear to me. What is clear is that this proposal would in many cases lead to offices being unfilled. Perhaps that would even be a good thing, but you need to explain your position better. Or are you saying that if there weren't any Congresscritter from the Umteenth District, at least no special interest could influence him? > Equitable public financing of campaign advertising > would decrease the scale of the corruption. That depends on just what you mean by corruption. I think that spending government funds to support the campaigns of approved candidates, while unconstitutionally interfering with the right of citizens to speak out and make their views on the candidates and issues known, would be a monstrous corruption of our system of government. Even if you disagree, even if you favor "equitable public financing," you should be careful what you demand, because a system of public financing might be very inequitable. Do you really trust our elected representatives to pass a bill which would not be an incumbent protection act, one way or another? Regards, Nicholas
Nicholas Rosen <ndrosen@erols.com>
Arlington, VA U.S.A. - Thursday, March 09, 2000 at 22:20:16 (EST)
Well, Nicholas, I basically just listed those proposals -- and sorry if I seem to be backpedaling now, but I'd say I listed them a bit too glibly for them to be taken as full-fledged recommendations. You don't like any of those proposals, apparently. What would you suggest?
- Friday, March 10, 2000 at 09:32:17 (EST)
I don't have any perfect solution; we would do well to remember Churchill's words, that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others. I do think that the post-Watergate campaign finance "reforms" ought to be repealed. Let any citizen contibute as much as he likes to the campaign of any candidate, subject only to the requirement that the source and amount be made public. That way, politicians won't have to spend so much time grubbing for small contributions from so many sources. Occasionally someone will spend a million or two of his money to get out the word for a good idea like Georgism, and for a candidate who supports it. Occasionally, too, someone will spend a small fortune to try to elect a candidate with bad ideas, or himself, with no ideas except boosting his ego. I wouldn't worry too much about that. Money is useful in a political campaign, but it isn't enough, or else John Connally and Ross Perot would have become Presidents. I'd like to see the power of bureaucracies and courts trimmed, partly for other good reasons, and partly so people would have more of a feeling that their votes mattered. As is, what does it matter who's elected if what should be legislative questions are decided by trial lawyers, courts, political appointees, and power hungry regulators? Beyond that, I have weirder ideas, like selecting some fraction of legislators by lot, so we'd have a leavening of people who wouldn't be professional politicians, and wouldn't be particularly eager to exercise power. There's also something to be said for an upper house elected by a limited franchise, or with multiple votes granted for military service, wealth, educational achievements -- but if so, I'd want a democratically elected lower house to prevent a self-selected elite from gaining too much power.
Nicholas Rosen <ndrosen@erols.com>
Arlington, VA U.S.A. - Saturday, March 11, 2000 at 21:54:36 (EST)
So, you see the weak link in the area of informing the public. This seems to differ from the approach taken in Pennsylvania, where two-rate lobbyists wnt directly to the representatives. How do you explain the difference? What do you think will be the best approach for a person like myself who believes that enlightening the public is the key?
The Agrarian <homeground@nebonet.com>
- Sunday, March 12, 2000 at 13:22:57 (EST)
Always seemed to me that a large tax should be applied to campain finances. The funds collected would be given to all the candidates. I think such a tax should be in the 60-80% range but even a much lower number would help level the playing field. With such a mechanism money from controversial sources such as oil, tobacco, gun and even foreign interests would do little damage.
Matt Welland <matt@ocean.net>
Richmond, VT USA - Wednesday, March 15, 2000 at 09:51:28 (EST)
This seems rather interesting! I am particularly interested in the Home study Course in Economics. Thank you. I look forward to hearing from you. Evelyn.
EVERLYNE KOECH CHEROBON <chevelyn@yahoo.com>
NAIROBI, KENYA - Thursday, March 16, 2000 at 08:06:02 (EST)
I just sent a comment but forgot to include my mailing address. You can also use the following address particularly for the Home Study course in Economics and any Material you think may be of interest to me. Ms Everlyne Cherobon, P.O. Box 32621, NAIROBI,KENYA. Thank you.
Everlyne Cherobon <chevelyne@yahoo.com>
Nairobi, Kenya - Thursday, March 16, 2000 at 09:31:38 (EST)
The Agrarian asks about the comparative merits of informing the public and going directly to legislators. Both are important, in my view. I applaud the work which the HGFA and CSE have been doing, getting two-rate property taxes enacted in a number of Pennsylvania towns, and I contribute money to them. On the other hand, if we don't educate the public, then one of these days our work will be undone by the lobbying of landowners, or simply because no one sees any reason not to undo it. (That's what happened in Fairhope, Alabama.) So please, go ahead and enlighten the public. You can tell them that this isn't just a lovely theory; it works in Pennsylvania and elsewhere. We should also lobby politicians to take action; and it will help if we can tell them that substantial numbers of their constituents want what we're asking for. Everything interconnects.
Nicholas Rosen <ndrosen@erols.com>
Arlington, VA U.S.A. - Sunday, March 19, 2000 at 17:28:46 (EST)
I am unable to agree with Mr. Welland. Such a tax would infringe on people's rights to express their views, and invite evasion. (If I can't contribute to the Smith for congress campaign without 80% of my money being taken for the use of other and mostly opposing candidates, I probably won't contribute to the Smith for Congress campaign. Instead, I'll spend some money on an independent project to praise Smith and publicize the faults of his opponent, Jones.) Secondly, if the money is to be given to all candidates, which candidate gets how much? Do we give the same amount to anyone who wants to run, and give as much to the candidates of two Communist splinter factions as to Bush and Gore, or do we distribute money only to those who meet certain thresholds of pre-existing support? The first method would be wasteful; the second would tend to insulate the status quo from dissidents. Mr. Welland says that his proposal would reduce the power of money from controversial sources to do damage, which may well be the case, but it would reduce the power of controversial contributors to do good, pari passu.
Nicholas Rosen <ndrosen@erols.com>
Arlington, VA U.S.A. - Sunday, March 19, 2000 at 17:45:27 (EST)

In reply to Nicholas Rosen:

I'm not sure what is meant by peoples rights to express their views. Big money buying advertising time for special interests bothers me for example. My thought is not to stop that from happening but to lessen the power that comes from having money. If you want a perl script that illustrates the effect I'm talking about, email me.
Matt Welland <mattwell@us.ibm.com>
Richmond, VT USA - Monday, March 20, 2000 at 17:29:24 (EST)

How's the responxe to your web site? I'm a lonf time Georgist. Would like to locate a Cyrus Camphell who I mey many years ago in NYC at the HG School. Can Youy help? Thanks, HCZwart
HC Zwart <HZwart@AOL.com>
Novato, Ca USA - Thursday, March 23, 2000 at 22:25:50 (EST)
Want to find some answers?

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