Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Private Financial Interests in the Public Square: Crowding Out by Design

Is the typical American self-centered and greedy, or is there a civic-mindedness that yearns to bracket one's own interests?  In other words, is there more to American society than being the sum of the parts? Is there something more than the aggregate?  I don’t mean to criticize individualism here; creativity and liberty, for example, are individualistic traits that highlight a person's character and virtue. Nor do I mean to point to one of the two major parties. One could point to the democrats protecting unions at the expense of a free market for labor just as one could point to rich republicans holding tax cuts hostage unless they are included even though they could afford higher taxes.  If there is something more to American politics than asserting one's own interests, who is to represent the civic component?

The American Founding Fathers assumed that a given republic requires a certain level of disinterestedness or impartiality among the citizenry. The Founders thought that gentlemen freed up from the pressures to make money were obliged to serve in government precisely because selfish monetary pressures would be less pressing among the already rich. So the Founders were startled when common folk began winning more state legislative seats.  The concern was that the immediate economic interests of the folks would carry the day over what would be needed legislatively for the public good.  Reading this, a modern American is apt to be surprised that the Founding Fathers might not have been so populist as the American mythos might have suggested. The Founders might also be critiqued for being blind to the possibility that moneyed gentlemen might legislate in the interest of their class at the expense of the folks. In short, American populism may not have been an ideal at the inception of the union of states. The question here is less historical, however, than on how and by whom the pubic good might be asserted.

Lest one look to the presidency, the sheer amount in financial backing renders the occupant captive to the financial elite, which in turn has a vested interest in its own interest and the status quo in which it has done so well.  Real change in the public good at odds with the status quo is not likely to come from the White House. Lest one look to the U.S. Supreme Court in protecting individual rights, the fact that justices are nominated by the president and confirmed by the U.S. Senate, which among other things represents wealth, suggests that the high court will stamp rather than impede extensions in Congressional and presidential power, which in turn has a strong financial-interest backing.

The question of standing up for the public good where the financial elite such as Wall Street has a direct financial interest in perpetuating systemic risk was at the fore in the wake of the financial near-meltdown in September of 2008.  The subsequent banking regulation reform was highly watered down by Wall Street's involvement in the very writing of the law. For example, the existence of investment and commercial banks that are too big to fail was not seriously questioned, not to mention confronted. Instead, "incentives" not to increase further in size were included. Whereas in history monoliths such as Standard Oil and ATT were broken up by the high court, Congress could not bring itself to break up the still risk-prone banks even in the wake of the banks' self-induced crisis.

So the question remains: what of the public or common good--the public square that goes beyond the sum of the parts?  Who, if anyone, is to stand up to the vested interests to push through real change that is necessary to the survival of the United States as a going concern?  I suspect that the usual suspects have the American public debating secondary issues so such primary questions are kept off the radar screen of public discourse. Lest it be forgotten, the American media companies are interwoven into corporate America. There may be a vicious self-perpetuating feedback cycle wherein the public is kept from raising a movement that would question the matrix on which the financial elite has thrived. The question may thus be whether this cycle can even be broken.