I came out for Bernie Sanders nearly a year ago. I’ve actually been donating money to his campaign, which is something I’ve never done in my life. I plan to vote in the California primary; I’ve never participated in a primary, anywhere. I’ve even registered as a Democrat, which is not merely something I’ve never done, but something I thought I’d never do.
I have relatives who are in love with the idea of Hillary as President, and we’ve exchanged some interesting viewpoints. I’m writing this mainly for them, not to sway their vote — it would be a dull world where everyone agreed on everything — but simply to clarify a few things that Facebook posts can easily obscure.
The United States has been in the midst of a strange economic experiment for the last forty years. It’s actually not so much an experiment, as a recurring fever, like malaria: I call it a fever, because it potentially has as dire consequences as a malarial fever. Our current episode started about the time I came of age as a voter, so my entire political life has been lived under its influence.
It has a lot of names. During the episode we suffered in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, they called it laissez-faire. The current episode has been called “trickle-down,” or “supply-side,” or simply “deregulation,” all of which refer to various fits and tics the fever produces. But the basic thrust of the process could be called “privatization.” It’s a process by which public property becomes private property, and private property becomes political power to turn still more public property into private property.
More simply still, it’s the process by which “ours” becomes “mine.” It’s the gradual theft of something called “the common wealth.”
My concern isn’t really with the theft, as such — though it’s obnoxious — as with the consequences of that theft. Let me see if I can explain the concern simply, by talking about medicine.
We have some fabulous medical technology. A cancer diagnosis was a death sentence when I was a child — now, cancer is largely curable. Clogged arteries are now a routine matter of balloons and stents. We cut open the skull to relieve pressure from a hematoma or do various kinds of brain surgery, and we’re even fitting people with mechanical limbs that respond to their nerve impulses. Modern medicine is like something out of a science-fiction story of the 1960’s.
Modern medical practice is built on the knowledge and skills of physicians who practice medicine. The reason we have these physicians is that there is a huge body of people who are so well-paid, or have such princely insurance benefits, that they can afford to be treated by these physicians.
Let’s skip the question of whether the masses deserve such princely medical care. Maybe they do. Maybe they don’t. But without these masses puffing up the ranks of people who need heart surgery, for instance, and who can pay for heart surgery, we simply would not have the heart surgeons that we do. We would have fewer heart surgeons. We would have fewer schools teaching heart surgery. We would have fewer hospitals and clinics that support heart surgery. We would have less research, less practice, less experience. The entire field of heart surgery would suffer if there were fewer paying customers.
In the ultimate end-case of privatization, we might have, say, four hundred wealthy families that could afford these advanced medical procedures. Perhaps one individual, maybe two, in those four hundred families would actually need heart surgery in a decade. That’s not enough to support an entire specialty of heart surgery. Even if you decided to create a captive market, and kept dozens of heart surgeons on permanent retainer, just in case you needed one, none of them would have actually performed heart surgery on a human being — they’d have read about it in a book, and perhaps practiced on a dog, or a cow. Unless you kept the surgical facilities right in your mansion, and never left it, you’d need EMTs to follow you around who knew how to handle a sudden heart attack. You’d need to pay for all the equipment and medicines. Just in case.
We can extend this across the entire economic spectrum.
If you want something as humble as take-out pizza, there has to be a market for take-out pizza, which means lots of customers with plenty of easy money to waste on pizza.
Even indoor plumbing is about the masses. The busy royalty of old would just hire someone to follow them around with a bucket — they didn’t need indoor plumbing. The commoners couldn’t afford indoor plumbing even if it had been available.
We need a thriving middle class. It isn’t just about the money — it’s about the shape of our civilization itself.
Though it’s also about the money. Some of the top end investors get it: they call it “the velocity of money.” They call it a lot of different things.
But it has an older and far simpler name: prosperity. Prosperity is the common wealth. Not the private wealth.
To be a strong nation, we must be a prosperous nation. We must have a great deal of common wealth. If there is only private wealth, the wealthy will find nothing to buy with their wealth. If they rule a flea-bitten empire, they will, themselves, have fleas.
No one in politics would openly disagree with any of this, but our experiment — our fever — of the last forty years has been based on a recurrent delusion, a fever-dream, that if you give money to the rich, they will give it all back in the form of jobs and technology and an improved standard of living. It’s a delusion, because the rich will only create as many jobs as they absolutely must to meet demand for their products, “demand” meaning paying customers. If paying customers can no longer afford pizza, the pizza parlors will lay off workers — they don’t hire more people when demand drops off. With that layoff, there are now even fewer people to buy pizza.
It’s a vicious cycle.
The way out is fairly simple. You collect taxes from the people who have money — the rich — and you create what we now call “infrastructure.” Infrastructure is part of the common wealth: it’s available to everyone at no cost beyond the taxes. Things like highways, which facilitate trade. Things like military forces and police, so that we can trade and be prosperous without worrying about invasion and theft by force. Things like power networks and internet backbones and regulated airwaves. Things like clean water and sewage treatment and education.
What the infrastructure investment does is to create business opportunities. They are real opportunities, because they are freely available to anyone with nothing but a dream in his heart, and the ambition to follow it, and the willingness to work for it. They don’t have to already possess the patent, and the brand name, and the customer base, and the vast sums of old money.
Because of my intended audience with this post, I’d like to talk about one very particular piece of the common wealth: publicly-funded scientific research.
I’ve worked, in one sense or another, with privately-funded research for most of my life, and the first thing you learn is that you never call it research: it’s called “development.” There’s a reason for that — it’s always targeted toward profit margins. If it doesn’t “pay out” in a “reasonable” amount of time — usually a year or at most, two — it’s abandoned. It takes a very large and tolerant company to put up with even a year of unprofitable development.
Almost the only time a company will do real research is if it receives direct government funding to do so. Even then, it will often try to farm out the hard thinking to a publicly-funded university researcher. Management wants a green light — US dollar green — on all the speculative parts of a project before investing any of its own money in development.
I recently posted on Facebook a comment by none other than Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, who observes pretty much the same thing.
Our forty-year fever has caused most of the serious and worsening pathologies in the university research community. Funding has become tighter, and tighter, and tighter. Funding committees have closed ranks against “frivolous” research — meaning research that won’t yield immediate, spectacular, and guaranteed scientific “profit.” This gives researchers a strong financial incentive to commit scientific fraud and hope that they don’t get caught. Research papers have vanished behind abusively-priced paywalls. Universities now patent discoveries, rather than making them part of the public domain.
Publicly-funded research is being privatized right out of existence.
Bernie Sanders is the first US politician I’ve heard in forty years who seems to actually get this — the fact that we are, and have been, headed in exactly the wrong direction regarding common and private wealth for at least forty years.
Q: Do we tax the wealthy, or give them tax cuts? A: We tax the hell out of them, and plow the taxes back into real public research, and infrastructure development, and the common wealth.
Q: Do we let the banks grow large, or cut them down to size? A: We cut them into itty bitty pieces, because banks exist only to facilitate the flow of money in a free economy, and you don’t need large banks for that. Large banks take large risks, including fraudulent risks, and then when they fail, they impede the flow of money fatally, like a blood clot in the heart.
Q: Do we allow universities to put students into lifelong debt for an education? A: No. Education itself is part of the common wealth, the infrastructure, and should be tax-paid, all the way through the highest levels.
Q: Is health-care a right or a privilege? A: It’s a right. Not for weepy reasons about how sick people somehow deserve it, poor things — though there is that — but to ensure that the medical profession itself remains robust.
Q: Should trade deals reduce — directly or indirectly — the wages of US citizens? A: No. That only forces the pizza parlors to close, and the doctors to drop out of medicine. It reduces the common wealth.
I see no evidence that Hillary understands any of this.
Maybe she does, someplace deep in the secret places of her heart.
But she has taken the political route of paving her path with the money of the wealthy, most of whom are deep in the convulsions of the fever-dream — it’s the foundation of her entire campaign strategy, both in 2008 and in 2016 — so even if she really gets it, she absolutely cannot say that she gets it. Not out loud. She can’t spook her fevered donors; she has to reassure them.
In fact, the only way that Hillary could take us in the right direction as a nation is to flat-out betray her donors. She has to reassure, and reassure, and reassure, and then when she gets into the White House, turn around 180º and slap them with high taxes and bank breakups and debt forgiveness for student loans and a national public healthcare program.
She’s too honest to do that. She’s courting the wealthy because she believes in the wealthy. She is not dishonest: she is fevered. She will do nothing to turn the country around, because she doesn’t think it’s going in the wrong direction.
If I felt Hillary and Bernie were headed within even forty-five degrees of the same direction on these hard-core policy issues, and others, I could consider putting my vote behind Hillary.
But I don’t see it. I think they are headed in opposite directions, and I think Bernie’s direction is the right one. It’s why I’m “feeling the Bern.”
There are two objections to Bernie’s platform that I hear a lot of, that are worth addressing:
“This is just Utopian wishful thinking.”
I’d agree with that, and run the other way screaming, except for the fact that the US went through this fever in the early 1900’s, almost died in the 1930’s, and recovered with exactly the same medicine that Bernie is prescribing. It’s called democratic socialism, and it’s what I grew up under as a child. It’s what most of the European nations are taking these days. It’s safe, and effective.
“There is no way Bernie is going to get his policies enacted.”
That remains to be seen. The truth is that neither Bernie, nor I, are wild-eyed visionaries crying out in the desert. Look to the rallies. Look to the enthusiasm and political engagement of the Millennials. Look to the widespread support among political Independents and even moderate Republicans. This is not an election, it’s the formation of a movement. It is bringing together a lot of support.
Yes, it’s possible that democracy in the US is dead, and that this whole attempt will fail completely. In which case, our economy will continue to rot out from under us, until the multinational corporate owners decide they can’t stand the stink of poverty among the US masses any longer and move somewhere else, leaving the US as a burned-out third-world nation. In that case, at least we’ll be able to say that we tried. By God, we tried.
But my expectation is that what Bernie will accomplish is to give the tiller a hard pull to what the fevered call “the left.” It will likely take a decade or two to complete the turn, and Bernie will of course have to leave the task to others. The point is not to finish the job. The point is to start it.
Because ultimately, this isn’t about me, nor even about us.
It’s about our grandchildren.