“Every immigrant makes our nation more, not less, American…”
–George W. Bush
is a 30+ year new media development pioneer & differentiator who served several years in the US Peace Corps. His earliest political memory is arguing the merits of RFK, McCarthy, and Humphrey on the playground with his 2nd grade classmates in West Lafayette, IN. Ask him about his avatar (or maybe not).
This is part II of a two part series. You can read Part I here.
Part of our Like A Prayer series, a big tent where we can fill ourselves with American faith, what American faith, faith as Americans, means today, what it means to be American, what values and rituals are implied, and how best to practice what we’ve preached in our policies. It’s a place where soapbox isn’t an epithet–let us give you one…
Back To Basics
We are a nation of immigrants. So as sure as all life emerged from the sea, who America is and what we stand for starts there, always. Those of us who’ve been here for any appreciable length of time get too close, lost in the chaos and cacophony; we start to get tangled up in and trapped by new roots, becoming more Old World with every generation.
It takes ship after ship coming over the horizon by land, sea, or air, filled with intact dreams and ideals, to remind us of who we are and why we’re here, and no place else on earth. All nations have a “next generation” that keeps them moving forward–we have two such generations for every cohort other polities enjoy, with one of them reborn on our shores with an alchemy of wisdom and energy the rest of us only wistfully pine for, an alchemy that becomes an elixir of leadership that keeps thrusting all of us to the fore on earth. It takes the immigrant approaching from afar to see the shining city on the hill. It’s the new immigrant, the “alien,” who, with untethered statelessness and the freshest of eyes, can look on our craziness with the dispassion of a therapist and the amusement of a child, guilelessly becoming the most piercingly honest among us in a time when truth has been sold to us as luxury.
For example, I was talking with an Ethiopian restauranteur recently who had come here, started a successful business, and sent his children to Ivy League schools, the epitome of the American dream 21st century pundits are well-compensated to tell us we can no longer hope for. Like many Africans I’ve known, he was as outwardly, even defiantly cheerful as makossa, high-life, and other West African pop music forms are to those who don’t know the words. Yet he was clearly and openly troubled by what he was seeing in our country in the Trump era. In particular, he couldn’t understand the modern American obsession with “the economy.” “The economy, it goes up and down, up and down, always” he said, motioning with his hands like waves. “But your values?” Here, he raised one hand like a soaring eagle going higher and higher. “Don’t you understand that it’s your values you are known for around the world? It’s your values that bring us here.”
Which raises the question: what are those values? While, as my Ethiopian friend suggests, they rise above grubby materialist formulations like GDP, they all coalesce in a word that is fundamentally economic: opportunity. For literally centuries, our country has been the best place to start a business, and it’s still by far the biggest and most robust economy in the top 10 to start one. America is the place where ideas, especially big ideas, come to grow. And there are, of course, substantial un-economic components resting on the broad shoulders of the concept, too–the opportunity to practice one’s religion, for example, the opportunity to get an education and, especially, the opportunity to freely express one’s beliefs of any kind. Contrary to what ahistorical fabriots may believe, this country was founded on protest, not a flag.
Opportunity in America, in turn, depends on two pillars: democracy and free markets. Which could be combined into one–call it “the wisdom of crowds” until we invent a word for it–because democracy is fundamentally a free market of ideas, and in truly free markets, all participants are created equal and, in the main, stay that way.
As you can imagine, this view of free markets is far from capitalism, even antithetical to it. In fact, we’d argue that democratic socialism, though it has its own flaws, is a better guarantor of free markets than capitalism is, because in a democratic socialist country like Denmark (regularly the world’s happiest country) or Sweden, democracy really is “one man, one vote,” which permeates all decision-making, and income is evenly enough distributed that the full market has a say in the goods and services valued and produced. Whether he and Abraham Lincoln were besties or not, Karl Marx was right–capitalism by its inherent nature can only result in economic and political oligarchy (where all roads really do lead to Russia), which has nothing to do with free markets at all. For all the times that the mere spectre of Marxism has stayed the excesses of capitalism, saving it in the process, KHM’s the one who deserves to be on a U.S. stamp, not the execrable Ayn Rand, whose only contributions to our country have been (i) the most ultraviolet prose in history (ii) an unfortunate fountain of youth, producing acolytes who never grow up, and (iii) the 2008 recession.
So what are real free markets? They’re the bazaar, they’re the Wild, Wild West, they’re the Internet from 1980 to roundabout 2010, the example I’m most familiar with. For those readers who may not have IPOed from their moms by then, laissez faire imaginer: Low to non-existent barriers to entry; innovation rampant; Big Corporate not yet able to figure out how to use the government to suppress the rising proliferation of new players, let alone twist the knife by using “protections for the little guy” like IP law against millions of little guys; online communities giving voice to the voiceless, connecting the isolated, reconfiguring the geography of man. Laissez les bon temps rouler.
Does any of that sound like the angry, cynical, shallow, and colorless past decade online under the thumb of The Big Five–Facebook, Amazon, Google, Apple, and Microsoft? In a free market, Google indexes and provides access to the world. In the era of the Big Five, Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump use the monoculture as a lever to help steal a presidential election. In a free market, information probably wants to be freer than it should be. In the era of the Big Five–and throwing the cable companies into the mix–some information packets are more free than others, and that’s not a decision made by their creators.
Lest I sound too GOML, innovation is still happening, but at a 300 baud pace, and it’s not because the medium is played out, any more than television was before the Golden Age of prestige TV. Anyone with a modicum of creativity can see we’ve barely scratched the surface of possibility. And of course, what made TV’s Golden Age possible? The Internet-driven wresting of creative control away from legacy media’s Big Four–NBC, ABC, CBS, and The Good Fox. Remember them, and get the picture?–or is your cable company testing to see how you’ll react to a little post-neutrality throttling of the medium you created and paid for with your taxes?
Fundamentally, a belief in free markets means a near-implacable opposition to bigness that in no small part was spark and tinder of our founding. Put in modern business terms, we didn’t like being bigfooted by an English king, and that spirit of ’76 has carried through to the present day. We were the first nation on earth to pass antitrust legislation, in 1890, even as massive conglomerates like the East India Company (last seen in our waters hosting a major tea party in 1773) and the Dutch East India Company, continued to thrive with their governments’ blessing, even collaboration, as they had since the late 16th-early 17th century. German business monopolies played a key role in bringing Hitler to power, and one of the first steps we took in defeating him was to go to war with Wall Street to break them up.
Europe became the patchwork quilt of nations it is largely through a combination of socio-geographic isolation and consequent cultural evolutionary drift, seasoned with regular intervening bouts of conflict to bake in differences like a kiln. Africa, South America, and much of Asia were cut up like birthday cakes by their colonial usurpers. America chose to divide itself into 50 states, is willing to casually discuss further divisions (like dividing California into six states to pack the Senate) and, in the 10th amendment to the Constitution, gave those states sweeping authority to tell the federal government to butt out. For all the sturm und drang about the Beltway colossus, we are arguably the least centralized nation on earth not currently engaged in a civil war, which says something about how deeply opposition to bigness is culturally embedded within us.
Yet on the economic front, gigantism has crept up on us, complete with bought off, authoritative-sounding apologists in the academic community deriding “the myth” of the virtues of small business using cherry-picked data and mustering fallacious arguments they should be ashamed to put to paper. Any business consultant who has worked with growing companies has seen the same sad story on a loop, again and again: the more they grow, the more bureaucratic, the more sclerotic, the more like the government boogeyman they become. If you know any exceptions, please post them to us in comments below. We know of none.
Defenders of monopolies intone solemnly about economies of scale, usually having no idea what they’re talking about in the specific case they’re stuffing with this herring-scented argument. In particular, they provide no reason to believe that in a world as interconnected as ours is today, economies of scale are still unique to large firms–or even superior, given the typical dysfunctionality of Firms Of A Certain Size. Kept academics and policymakers point to turnover in the Fortune 500 to suggest purely capitalist markets are free after all, and it’s true, such turnover does eventually happen. But anyone in new media with eyes to see, and fingers to type, knows what’s happened to the Net as the Big 5, Big Media, Big Cable, and their minions in government have steadily bent our medium to their will.
Several years after retiring, Bill Gates gave an interview to an obscure tech publication, the archive of which, interestingly, does not appear to be online anymore. At one point, completely unprompted, he burst into a derisive brag about how “everyone thought” his company was going to be crushed by a small operating system called Geoworks, and how wrong that turned out to be. It was clear from both the spontaneity and vehemence of what he had to say that this little company had put a major scare into him.
For good reason. At one point, Geoworks was assessed to be as many as 2-3 years ahead of his Windows OS in development, an eternity, as we now know, in Internet time, and astonishingly, the kernel of Geoworks’ OS was not much larger than the lunar module’s–only 256K! Which meant it could run on a much wider range of machines and, critically, machines that were older and/or less expensive. What would soon be, by far, the dominant online service, America Online (which would go on to crush Gates’ foray into the space, MSN) had used GEOS as the operating system for multiple iterations of its products, including the first PC version of America Online and Promenade, the service it developed in partnership with IBM for the PS1, that behemoth’s first foray into personal computers.
How then did Gates “beat” Geoworks? By simply telling every PC manufacturer that if they bundled Geoworks’ operating system on their machines, he would prohibit them from using MS-DOS, the foundational operating system that Geoworks and Windows both ran on, among other anti-competitive tactics. Ex-Geoworks employees lament their failure to create an easy-to-use software developer’s tool kit and a suite of games. Might the company have gotten the resources it needed to develop these products had its operating system been bundled into even a fraction of the PC market, a definitely rhetorical question? More to the point, how did Gates’ strong-arming benefit the consumer? How did creating a digital divide that still endures, like the traffic echo of a car accident, between those who could afford the high end machines needed to run Windows and those couldn’t, serve the interests of America or the world?
And of course, this was only one of many cases of such anti-competitive tactics Microsoft engaged in (and ultimately got away with), not to mention a tiny, tiny fraction of the anti-competitive tactics that monopolistic players across the economy engage in every day. In my industry, we have a shorthand for the reaction and strategy of the big boys whenever a new kid in town emerges: “copy, buy, kill.” First, they try to (shamelessly) copy the competitor’s innovations into their own product, which over time turns their platform into a technological equivalent of Howl’s Moving Castle, where spaghetti is the only meal in the pantry–but no matter, because they have the resources to acquire and waste more and more of the industry’s top talent on the black hole that used to be their stable code base. If for legal or technical reasons they can’t pull this off, they buy the company, maybe incorporate its features, but definitely kill it, often aided and abetted in the process by the company’s own investors, who are typically more interested in flipping their investment for a quick megabuck than helping build it to its potential, and more than willing to throw the company’s founder/visionary out of the boardroom to close the sale.
At one point, Microsoft was to be broken up, the remedy now proposed for Facebook and others. Apologists throw up their hands in horror at this possibility and the damage it could do to the “performance” of these platforms, as if reformers were seeking to dice their code up like Solomon. When we hear such fear-mongering, it’s worth remembering that phones didn’t stop working when AT&T was broken up, and gas stations continued to pump out Texas tea when Standard Oil met its fate. It’s also true that, Terminators that they were–and are–both AT&T and Standard Oil gradually reassembled themselves over the years. Does that mean antitrust activity is futile? Hardly. Because the time it took these companies to pull themselves back together allowed other competitors to emerge, new companies that continue to compete fiercely with them to this day.
Moreover, we all know we live in a time of ever-increasing change; if we’re not generating such change ourselves, the earth will be compelling it from us, as surely as molecules move ever faster as they’re heated. In such an environment, what is more valuable to us; ever-increasing efficiency at doing what we’ve done before, if only we protect Big Corporate’s supposed economies of scale? Or the hothouse of rapid innovation we saw when the Internet was the world’s biggest free market, the proven promise of truly free markets everywhere? We hope that question is rhetorical. To us, it’s clear: if we’re going to return to American values for the benefit of ourselves and the world, crushing capitalism in the name of free markets has to be part of the program.
And just as fundamentally, so does democracy, which free markets depend on, not just to prevent monopolies from taking over the political economies, but to insure the deeper conditions which native-born Americans and immigrants alike take for granted when they hold up at eye-level the ideal of opportunity: “a fair shot,” “a real chance,” “a level playing field.” As much as Americans seem to be more repulsed than any other people by the concept of “equality of outcomes,” even most conservatives offer what they believe to be the better, fairer alternative in their pushback: equal opportunity. They know, like the rest of us, that the country providing this to all its citizens will always be the most powerful on earth. But without a democracy of we, the people, it’s easy for especially the more fortunate to elide over the depth of meaning in those two words.
Equal opportunity means equal education, not the Dickensian differences that arise when local property taxes are the primary basis for funding, when phony comparisons are made, failing to account for differences in costs of living, or for the much greater set of responsibilities urban schools take on amid the vacuums of their surrounding communities, when the wealthy can opt out completely into a separate and decidedly unequal educational system entirely. Equal opportunity means equal health care and equal infrastructure of all kinds, if not for adults in the “outcomes” phase of life, then at least for the children–how often did we hear from conservatives in the 1980s-90s that we needed to enact one punitive measure after another against freedom and free expression “for the children?” Well, “it’s not a one-way street,” as they’re also fond of saying–affirmative measures “for the children” are required as well; they are our future, after all, and without them we are literally nothing.
Achieving equal opportunity is, of course, impossible–so is a world without crime; that doesn’t mean we don’t do everything we can to achieve it. As in all things in life, we can only insist on progress, not perfection. If it seems (less than charmingly) naive to insist best efforts towards goals like equality in education, health care, and infrastructure are required to fulfill the fundamental American promise of opportunity, it’s only a reflection of how far we’ve fallen from democracy as the founders understood it. Today, the United States ranks 27th on The Economist’s annual Democracy Index, down from 21st in 2016, and 17th when the Index was inaugurated in 2006. Among the nations now considered more democratic than the nation that re-introduced democracy to the world are Uruguay, Mauritius, Costa Rica, and Chile; we’re just ahead of Malta, Estonia, and Botswana.
The legendary Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis (yes, that Brandeis) once said “We can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few in this country, or we can have democracy, but we cannot have both.” And at the root of our dereliction of democracy is income and wealth inequality–democracies depend as much on free markets as markets do on democracy; oligarchy perpetually climbs up out of the muck as if aided by a ladder–an erosion of democracy leads to an erosion of markets leads to a further erosion of democracy, lurching from side to side, step by step, until the golem of plutocracy is looking down on us from high above.
To win back both these great pillars we once straddled astride, we have to start by treating the symptoms, or stabilizing the patient, as a psychiatrist would say, and that means addressing what we too often call “just politics.” As the great linguist George Lakoff would say, at its core, politics is about language and framing, which is why one of our most impassioned ongoing projects is what we call the Glossarium, where we’re seeking to create a new language and vocabulary for politics, as well as recapture the old. We probably have more fun at the expense of others than we should there, but we’re hoping you’ll join us anyway.
From our perspective, “political correctness” is–or should be–about what’s correct for politics, and if there are words or phrases that need banning, it should be because they’re deleterious to the political process. Where democracy is concerned, a number of linguistic conceits of the right have infected the body politic, have had their way with it, and must be expunged. For starters, voting is not a “privilege;” it’s the most fundamental and sacred right we have, and as such should be as easy as taking in a fresh breath of American air. The right to vote is referenced five times in the Constitution, more than any other, five times as often as the right to bear arms, infinitely more often than judicial review or the filibuster, and usually with “shall not be abridged” tagging faithfully along close behind.
As for that “tyranny of the majority” phrase conservatives bandy about these days, without a hint of shame? The only founder who ever uttered it, John Adams, just once, would surely deploy that old GOP chestnut, “I was quoted out of context,” if he knew how it was being misused today; he was simply objecting to giving all the powers of government to the House of Representatives, not justifying the misuse of the Electoral College and a body-built Executive Branch to establish and maintain minority rule.
Relatedly outlandish is the claim that “we’re a republic, not a democracy.” Leaving aside that nearly all the founders used these words interchangeably (including the aforementioned Adams), the Republicans’ worship at the altar of “originalism” when choosing judges should surely apply here. Any fair reading of the Constitution by anyone for whom English is a first language, and frankly, by any immigrant for whom it is a fourth or fifth, makes clear that the Founders’ intent was to make the House, the most democratically representative branch, by far the most powerful (hence Adams’ objection, which resulted in the Senate as a check on the House to protect minority rights, not to perpetrate/tuate minority rule). According to our forefathers, the Executive Branch was just supposed to execute the will of Congress, and the Judicial Branch appears to have been added at the tail end of a final all-nighter.
Much is made by the Repos of Federalist #10, penned by the father of the Constitution, James Madison, yet even the libertarians of the Mises Institute recognize that Madison was only making the distinction between republics and democracies as between representative democracy, where the republic is simply the place where “the scheme of representation takes place,” and direct democracy, where the people vote on all government decisions being made. The libertarians of Reason go even further, arguing that the founders’ definition and understanding of the meaning of a republic had to have been taken from the only republic they knew (and were extraordinarily well-versed in), the Roman Republic that, to this day, dominates the architectural vision of our capital. And the Roman Republic was a direct democracy–the people voted on all the laws, with the Senate having only an advisory role, much as was intended by the founders in handing the greatest share of power to the House.
All that said, the boldness with which these outrageous assertions are made signals a conviction that the destruction of democracy as we’ve know it is a fait accompli, and that all that remains is the drilling of propagandist mantras into our heads to tamp down the grave and deprive it of any last remaining pockets of air. We demand to differ. We believe a new bill of rights is in order, whether by legislation or Constitution, focused specifically on voting, and believe that far from having achieved victory in all but the (feckless) shouting, the enemies of democracy have, through their grotesque overreaches, insured themselves a far more radical defeat than otherwise. In fact, our fear is that the revolution may become more French than American, threatening to destroy the country as we know it along with it, unless steered constructively along the tightrope of real change.
Without getting into specifics, which we’re hoping you’ll help us draft (more on why below), we believe this renewing manifesto’s guiding principles should include:
- Equal, equal, equal opportunity. For example, all polling places should be serving the same number of people (as should all offices issuing state-issued ID), all election machinery should be of the same type, quality, and receive the same level of maintenance. Any interaction with government at any level should automatically result in registration and all forms of ID should be treated equally–people who own cars and guns shouldn’t be privileged over the poor and students. It should be equally easy for anyone to obtain ID, which means the state needs to pick up all costs to acquire them–and we do mean all–document research & fees, postage, transportation, child care, lost wages, the works. Early voting should be extensive in length so that everyone–not just those who can afford to take time off–has an equal opportunity to vote, and firing anyone for taking time off to register, get ID, or vote should be a felony. Are we really going to let a tiny country like Estonia continue to show us how it’s done? Is that American? It is not.
- Total transparency — For example, all election machinery and software should be forensically audited both before and after every election. The results of these audits and a detailing of all security measures in place in every state, locality, and precinct should be recorded and updated in a publicly available database–hackers know all of this information, why shouldn’t we, the people? There should be a full public accounting of all provisional and mail-in ballots cast; how many of each were rejected, for what reasons, and who those voters intended to vote for. Let anyone who feels they were prevented from voting for any reason also tell us, via user-friendly affidavit (we all know the buckets) and publicly available database form, in what ways, and who they would have voted for as well (we’ve taken the liberty of mocking this up so that the end of one campaign can be the beginning of another). Let we, the people, then decide whether the overall result reflects our will, or the will of those doing the counting and administering.
- Render unto non-partisanship — Not only should all redistricting be done by non-partisan commissions that include equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans, but all election administration should be non-partisan as well. To ensure redistricting and election administration policy isn’t being used by the two major parties to lock out other parties, third parties should be allowed to review and block decisions that appear to be designed to disadvantage them. Voter purges should be prohibited unless it can be demonstrated they can be conducted at the same level of accuracy expected in business operations in general.
- Majority rules — We are the literally the only country in the world professing to be a democracy or a republic–the country that claims to be the standard-bearer, in fact–in which the candidate who gets the most votes doesn’t win the election to be the nation’s leader, because of a 17th century appendix that was tossed into the mix as a sop to slave states (which means the 13th-15th amendments should have eliminated it) by the founders, who never expected it to actually be used. Worse, in every case, the popular vote winner denied has always come from the same party, a phenomenon otherwise only seen in rigged election autocracies. If the Electoral College can’t actually be abolished, there needs to be a major push at the state level (more on this below) to push forward the National Popular Vote Compact to the point where 270 electoral votes are committed to the popular vote winner. This is closer to happening than one might think–as of July, states representing 196 electoral votes have made this commitment, it’s passed at least one chamber in states representing another 88, unanimously in committee by states representing 27 more, received a hearing (not an insignificant step, as followers of the US Senate know) in states representing and addition 132, and has at least been introduced in every state.
- Net neutrality>Citizens United — No set of democratic reforms would be complete without vowing a Constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United, the Supreme Court case that granted personhood to corporations and gutted campaign finance reform in the process. But in so doing, advocates are fighting a 20th century battle and threatening to drag us down and back in the process. While we’ll always have a soft spot for the wag who vowed he would “accept corporations as people when Texas executes one,” ever since Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign (until Dean screamed IRL), online savvy has increasingly trumped big corporate dollars for electoral success. With pun fully intended: in 2016, the “winning” presidential campaign deployed, at a cost of $44M, a Net-based Shakespearean monkey strategy–with Facebook as its nearly infinite room full of typewriters–that pixelized more than $1B worth of television ads run by its opponent. And in cases where insurgent candidates need more money than that, even in the midst of a pandemic, in which tens of millions of potential marks have lost their jobs and shuttered their businesses, small donor fundraising has only become more annoyingly effective. Meanwhile, savvy incumbents have actually never met a campaign finance bill they didn’t like, because spending limits favor those with name recognition and the levers of government in hand. Since long before money went dark, it’s been a truism that challengers have to spend more to win–until the Net meant they didn’t. Which is why any dictator could tell us that restoring Net neutrality against the incursions Big Corporate have already made against it is much more important than tilting at the Roberts Court and rural states to overthrow Citizens.
- A right is a right — And if it’s a right, not a privilege, it shouldn’t be taken away for committing a crime, unless the crime is an electoral one, let alone denied those who have done their time. Voting should be viewed as so fundamental to American identity that taking it away means we no longer view someone as American, which, if they’re locked up in American prisons, should beg location of the extradition order from the parallel universe where they’re American citizens.
- A right is a right — We now know that children, at the age of 10, function better cognitively than adults 50 and older. We’ve also been selling their future to the sea for decades and, as we’ve argued elsewhere, there’s nothing we could do that would raise the level of citizenship in this country more, when we need it most, than provide them with a path to the franchise well before their 18th year.
- A right is a right — Puerto Rico, DC, Guam, the US Virgin Islands, the Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa all have more citizens than Idaho or Wyoming did when they were given statehood as part of a late 19th century Republican stacking of the Senate with eight new “states” whose only qualification was a willingness to back the GOP’s unpopular pro-business platform and keep the Democrats out of power, including twice when Dems won the popular presidential vote. Yes, the cheating and hypocrisy for money goes back that far. And this isn’t just an artifact of time–Puerto Rico has six times the population of Wyoming now, and 150x+ the pop. WY had when it was admitted; DC has more than 20x the population Idaho did, 30x+ Wyoming, Guam has nearly 8x Wyoming, 5x Idaho on admission day, and so on. PR, DC, and Guam all have more citizens today than MT, WA, CO, NM, ND, SD, and NM had as well.
- A right is a right –And while we’re at it, how about we deliver on the “self-governance” we repeatedly promised Native Americans when we shunted them off to what we thought was the most worthless land available, linking their reservations across existing state lines, which are our borders, not theirs. There are nearly 1.6 million Natives living on the rez, which justifies on its face at least two new Native states,1 and maybe we should one-up the Canadians, in a good way for once, by throwing in another 2-3 for all the treaties broken, resources stolen, and monies we’re holding “for them, for their own good.”
- Defining and punishing crimes against America… — If voting is our most sacred right and rite as Americans–and it should be–what should be done to those who attempt to prevent others from voting, prevent their vote from being counted, or deny their vote equal weight with other citizens?’ To date the answer has been: not much. Which, given that voting provides the most creatively destructive economic system in the world with its legitimacy, and holds us together in an marketplace whose dynamism continually threatens to tear us apart, is an existential problem, as the defiling of the sacred always is. Politics “ain’t beanbag,” they say, and they’re right; it’s a lot more serious than that. Politics is “war by other means,” they say, and they’re right, because politics kills. The smirk ought to be permanently wiped from the faces of the likes of Roger Stone; there should be a long, long list of tactics that are considered felonies, with mandatory minimums, in medium security or worse facilities, the only offenses for which you really should lose your right to vote, like a stock swindler loses his broker’s license. We’ve started a list here, and ask you to add to it. Because at least one of our political parties spends far more energy on finding new ways to cheat people at the ballot box than on policy innovation, there should always be a catchall crime in the code simply defined as “disenfranchisement.” There’s no greater deterrent to white collar criminals than not knowing–and being unable to know–where the loopholes are.
- Which include false advertising — To reiterate, if America is to be America, to continue to produce miracles at market rate, sacred space is not a luxury–it’s a requirement, a space where e pluribus unum, not caveat emptor, always applies, and where intent is irrelevant because lying and manipulation don’t become less corrosive just because someone claims–again and again and again–that they didn’t mean it, or worse, that they believe their own deceits. How hard is it, really, to limit what you say in politics to what’s actually true, without spin, to leave some margin between what you say and the line that shall not be crossed, especially when you know everyone else is being held to the same standard, especially when you know it means the restoration of trust, of facts, evidence, and truth? We legally and rigorously require truth of drug manufacturers whose products will never be capable of the level of death and destruction a politician who achieves power through dishonesty can achieve, a level of death and destruction that far exceeds the cost of anything that can be shouted in a crowded theater. And yes, we’re talking about a psychological arms race for the soul that can never truly be won–politicos will skirt, they’ll deflect, they’ll stonewall, dodge deftly, they’ll still “get away with” what they shouldn’t, in this life anyway–the thieves ye will have with thee always. But everything beautiful in nature is the product of thousands of cycles, iterations, twists, and turns; you just have to start somewhere.
- Third party products — Two-thirds of Americans want a third party, a proportion that’s long been substantial, but never higher. Since it’s almost certain these Americans have widely divergent visions of what this new party would stand for, what we’re really saying is we want four or more such entities. Fundamental to the idea of democracy is the ability to vote for a candidate of your choice, and the fact that, as indicated by the chart at right, we’re virtually the only advanced nation that has only two major parties suggests that our duopoly is an unnatural, even inhuman state of democratic affairs, as does our rate of participation in elections, which trails not only most of the advanced world, but much of the developing world as well. For many years, supporters of the two-party system pointed to hapless Italy with its 60+ governments since WWII as the posterized child of multi-party systems, but in fact the vast majority of multiparty systems are more functional than ours. Why? Because typically in these systems, no one party has enough clout to dominate or block action–instead coalitions form and reform to address each issue as it arises–to appreciate the difference, you could do worse than check out the Danish drama Borgen on Netflix. A multiparty system would also map much better onto the diversity of our country than the black and white worldviews of Democratic and Republican politics. Key to the ongoing viability of many of these systems is the adoption of proportional representation, rather than winner-take-all, in the allocation of legislative seats. While that may be a bridge too far for us at the national level without a substantial constitutional re-write, another innovation that increases the chances for third party candidates to break through (and helps weed out extremists), ranked choice voting, falls fully within the purview of states’ election powers, and has been spreading like wildflowers on both coasts, including federal elections in Maine. Which would not be the first time that national electoral policy has bubbled up from the grassroots–women already had the right to vote in twenty states, for example, before the passage of the 19th amendment, many of which were not those one would expect.
- House rules — Give the GOP credit; over the past decade they’ve clearly illuminated the greatest threat to democracy by pushing to the hilt to exploit it–unelected chambercrats with lifetime appointments and unlimited power to thwart the will of the people at every turn. And we defy them to find one sentence in the writing of one founding father that predicts or supports this state of affairs (go ahead, that’s what the comments section is for). Democrats talk darkly about packing the courts in response, but as any hardened but honest ethnic justice warrior knows, escalation never solves anything until both parties spiral too close to the sun, and after that, all bets are off. We believe there are better ways to end the judge wars and address the deeper problems that underly them, assuming the peoples’ body the founders really wanted in charge is willing to step to the challenge.
It may seem outrageously self-important for us to assign ourselves the task of drawing up a voters’ bill of rights. After all, isn’t House already all over this, just poised and waiting for a functional president and Senate to finish the job? Isn’t this what the justly lauded H.R. 1, the first bill proposed by the new Democratic majority in the current term, is all about? Yes, but it will require we, the people, all over the nation to make it stick. Why?
Let’s suppose voting rights advocates’ dreams all come true sometime between 11/3 and 1/20–Biden becomes president, the Senate goes blue, H.R. 1 passes on Day 1 and is signed into law on 1/21. By then, this fall will be the past that’s likely prologue for what happens next. For at least the past six weeks, a billowing black wave has been building up all over the country and crashing down all over the franchise. Those who’ve seen it have observed an uncanny resemblance to judicial robes. Time after time, advocates have scored common sense legal victories in the lower courts on behalf of voters, only to have appeals courts and the Supremes, both methodically packed by the GOP over the past decade-plus, set aside these rulings in favor of voter suppression by the states.
In doing so, the judges bring to bear a powerful constitutional weapon, the Elections Clause of Article 1, which gives the states broad authority to prescribe “the Times, Places, and Manner” of holding Congressional elections. The Apportionment Clause of Article 1 further gives state legislatures the full authority to draw state and Congressional district boundaries, and Article 2 likewise gives them scarily absolute authority where choosing the electors to the Electoral College is concerned (e.g. nothing in the Constitution requires them to award their electors based on the results of the popular vote in their states; many have state laws in place requiring this, but when the results of the state’s popular vote are in dispute, as the Florida state legislature showed in 2000, anything can happen).
So, what’s to stop these same courts to strike down H.R. 1 in the name of states’ rights? In theory, Congress has ultimate say over the conduct of elections, just like it did when it passed (ahem) McCain-Feingold, the landmark campaign finance reform law the Supremes wiped out in Citizens United. Or the Voting Rights Act, reaffirmed over multiple generations in Congress until chambercrats gutted it in Shelby v. Holder. In theory, precedent is supposed to mean something, too, but it clearly doesn’t to the Roberts Court, even if it’s been established over the course of more than a hundred years. The few occasions where the ultimate court has ruled against the states on election matters are merely exceptions that prove the rule where reform is concerned, e.g. Rucho v Common Cause, which struck down Arizona’s program to provide matching funds to candidates to level the financial playing field.
Over the course of the past two decades, the post-modern GOP has provided the road map for subverting our nationally elected representatives, setting up a shadow government, a new confederacy, at the state level, perverting and corrupting federalism to their cause, creating monopolies in the free marketplace of ideas through cookie-cutter state-level legislation and interstate coordination. And in this, they were building on their previously established playbook for subverting hostile federal courts, most notably in the case of abortion rights: sending forth wave after wave, swarm after swarm, iteration upon iteration of state-level legislation to sow doubt and confusion, forcing the high courts to play whack-a-mole while their decisions were being nibbled to death by all manner of waterfowl. It’s now our turn to do all of the above, state by state, beginning with the creation of model state-level legislation, the aforementioned bill of rights, and continuing with coordination, individual accountability, and leadership by example.
One more thing: This is Creative Politics–what we’ve laid out above is just the opening ante for democracy as far as we’re concerned, and because we believe in navigating by the stars, which can’t be done unless you know what and where they are, a few additional ideas follow. But let’s first address the elephant not in the room: the threat to democracy from individual or coordinated collective voter fraud (as opposed to fraud of other kinds–hacking into the voter rolls and election software of multiple jurisdictions in all 50 states, for example, in coordination/collusion with a hostile foreign power). We haven’t included such malfeasance as a focus for reform, Republican friends, because it doesn’t exist, and it’s a straw herring to boot. Yes, we’ve seen the American Heritage database of incidents, and its sum total doesn’t add up to a hill of beans in Morocco, let alone a single stolen election, even if all the instances were concentrated in a typical Congressional district in a single election. That there are districts with more registered voters than residents, or more voters than registered, has innocent, if incompetent explanations that better meet the terms of Occam’s Razor than your conspiracies, and they still don’t merit the purifying elixir of voter purges you’re always so quick to prescribe.
In fact, here are a few counter-findings of interest that involved much greater expenditure of resources and expertise than your slapdash little collection:
- An analysis of more than a billion ballots cast between 2000 and 2014 found 31 cases–that’s 31 individual votes, not “incidents” involving more–in which voter fraud appears to have occurred; we say appear, because even in these cases, the authors believe in most cases, innocent explanations will be found.
- The Bush administration spent five years, at a cost of tens of millions of dollars, on an investigation led by highly motivated prosecutors, several of whom were corruptly fired for not being able to find or manufacture the results the GOP wanted, that fared little better: 120 cases, 86 voters convicted, the vast majority involving local, not national races, many of them the result of misunderstandings.
- True believer Kris Kobach investigated 84 million votes in 22 states looking for double-voting and found only 14 cases strong enough to refer for prosecution, a fraud rate of 0.00000017 (click the link for numerous other unintentional de-bunkings by motivated parties).
- Illegal immigrants? A theory that never made sense to begin with, but OK. A study by Arizona State found only 56 alleged instances in a 12 year period, and only 10 instances of in-person impersonation over the same period. And there’s more.
In light of the above, is it any wonder that Mississippi Republican Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann’s response to the queries of Donald Trump’s voter fraud commission was to suggest the investigators “go jump in the Gulf of Mexico,” that conservative judicial icon Richard Posner regarded his influential opinion affirming the constitutionality of voter ID laws to be the biggest mistake of his career, or that the Republican Supreme Court Justice who wrote the opinion backing Posner’s came to feel the same way?
At the end of the day, it’s hard not to see the protestations of a party that can be credibly accused of stealing the 2000, 2004, and 2016 elections (with mounting evidence it is trying with Russian allies to steal 2020 as well) as anything more than self-incriminating projection. Republican friends, there’s a better way. You’ve provided leadership for our country on many ideals that are classically American, shared by large majorities of our people; our anger with you is fraternal, which doesn’t make it any less intense, but it does mean we have bonds that cannot be broken. Time was, the relationship between the two parties was highly symbiotic and contributed strongly to our nation’s greatness: Democrats were the party that identified problems Republicans weren’t capable of seeing or didn’t care to see; Republicans came up with the innovative ideas needed to address these problems without tearing apart the system. Run on that instead. Please.
Anyone objecting to the extremely undemocratic nature of the Senate is referred back to the raison d’etre of the Senate’s structure; the founders’ desire to protect the rights of the small states, or more accurately, the desire to get them to sign the Constitution. But we live in a fast-changing highly competitive world today, and for existential reasons, “originalism” isn’t good enough, not unless we want to return to a 1789 economy. 37 states that today contain more than 70% of our population weren’t party to that original agreement. The founders couldn’t have anticipated the Industrial Revolution, which caused mass migration to cities, with the result that one county–L.A.–is more populous than 42 of the 50 states, yet shares two Senators with the rest of California.
We can’t forward forefathers to the present, but we can look back with present data in hand to objectively determine WWTFD. At the signing of the Constitution, there was no city with more inhabitants than any of the 13 states–the largest, New York City, was half the size of Delaware; there were only three cities with more denizens than DE–and the largest state had 10x the eligible voters of the smallest. Today there are more than 30 cities more populated than the smallest state (WY), the largest city has a population more than 14x the smallest state, and the largest state has a population that’s nearly 70x the smallest.
Projecting back from this, to believe the founders would accept the current state of affairs as is, we’d have to maintain that in 1790, when PA and VA had about 110,000 eligible voters each, they would have accepted, as a state with equal representation in the Senate, a territory with only about 1,600 inhabitants, which wouldn’t even crack the top 40 in 1970 towns and cities (Hudson, NY, #39, had 2,500+). And we know categorically that’s not true. The chart at right shows the approximate population of every state added to the union between the signing of the Constitution and July 4, 1826, that sad and remarkable date when founding frenemies John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died within hours of each other. Nor are these numbers a random walk–a governing piece of legislation called the Northwest Ordinance dictated that states in the Northwest Territory acquired during the French & Indian Wars have at least 60,000 inhabitants to qualify for statehood, though apparently dead people were voting in the Land of the Stinking Onion earlier than generally believed.
Put another way, and fast-forwarding back to the present, if we assume that the founders would never have granted statehood–or senators–to a patch of land with less than 10% of the population of the largest state (which seems generous, given the much higher levels of relative critical mass they required for territories they didn’t already have to grant admission to because they were part of the original thirteen), and if we further assume the original thirteen–plus all others accepted by the forefathers–are grandfathered in for perpetuity, we’d have about a third fewer states–and senators–than we do today. Utah, Iowa, Nevada, Arkansas, Kansas, New Mexico, Nebraska, West Virginia, Idaho, Hawaii, Montana, South Dakota, North Dakota, and Wyoming would likely either all be still be territories or would have been combined (e.g. Utah/Nevada, Nebraska/Kansas, Kansas/Arkansas, North/South Dakota, Idaho/Montana)
Of course that’s not what’s going to happen, but it certainly gives the lie to the small/rural state fable that the level of inequality in the Senate was the result of the founders’ “wisdom” or what they wanted, and argues strongly for a more equitable distribution of power there, as everywhere else. There’s a difference between minority rights and minority rule, and it’s very clear that while our forefathers wanted the former, the latter was even more anathema. It’s time for those who use one to justify the other to separate them clearly and tell us honestly and concretely what rights of the minority they believe merit protection against the will of the majority. Reflecting that we are, relatively uniquely, a constitutional democracy, let’s draw these lines in the sand up, in the context of modern governance, with as much urgency and fanfare as the voters bill of rights, and get back to the system of government our wise-beyond-their-years-on-earth founders intended.
There’s actually a really simple way to have a good discussion with someone on “the other side.” Push aside parties and, especially, personalities (Trump, Hillary, etc.) to focus solely on problems, what they are, and how we solve them, where the common ground is (and there’s always lots of common ground).
So why are we always stuck with voting on who we’d most like to share a hard seltzer with? Why do we always end up with someone who maybe we would have favored for prom king or queen over the alternative, who then claims a “mandate” to implement a slew of policies that have nothing to do with why we voted for them?
Since the days of Fighting Bob LaFollette more than a century ago, state and local-level issue-based referenda have become a time-tested way for vox populi to cast votes about matters of more substance than someone’s given or family name, the party abbreviation next to it, and/or their nebulous fact-free advertisements. It’s a model that needs some additional protections, both from misinformation and unscrupulous party politicians who disagree with the verdicts we render, but why shouldn’t we be given the opportunity to express our opinion on the national policies we want pursued, not just who we want or trust to execute our will? Wouldn’t this make our legislators and executives more truly what they’re supposed to be: public servants, servants to us?
And here are a few more stars in our own personal Ursa Minor. First illumination: if even the greatest mind in the history of the world, a man who knows more about every topic than every other human being on the planet combined, was reduced to word salad after only days in the Oval–and no wonder, given what the job has become, isn’t it time to take a fresh look at the presidency? In corporate America, in which no corporate officer’s responsibilities approach the presidency in complexity, the era of the celebrity/superstar CEO is over; our greatest companies are run by teams and largely by consensus–shouldn’t we consider that model for the most powerful position on earth?
The response of most other advanced nations to disputed elections has been the formation of unity governments in which power is shared and key posts are divided among the top contenders. We’re almost certainly about to experience the sixth consecutive presidential election after which a majority of whichever side is deemed to have lost is going to believe the results are illegitimate, stolen, fraudulent (yes, believe it or not, a majority of Republicans believe Barack Obama stole both the 2008 and 2012 elections). Shouldn’t we consider the course of treatment other politically mature nations would have started after one such result, with the understanding that allowing these feelings to fester for two decades might result in a metastasis that tears apart the body politic? Shouldn’t we start that treatment now, while more than seven in ten of us still believe, despite someone’s best/worst efforts, we have more in common with each other than the pundits and politicians do?
Ironically, originalism would be on our side if we did. More than anything other than monarchy, the founders feared the rise of political parties–factions, as they called them–which is why, in the original Constitution, there were no presidential tickets; whoever got the second highest vote total, typically someone from a different party than the president, became the VP. It was the creation of tickets that turned the vice presidency into a pointless “bucket of warm spit;” before then, it was a position that required even the likes of Adams and Jefferson to work together.
Finally, this is 2020, nearly 30 years after digital media came into widespread use. We believe that 21st century citizenship includes, or will include, a steady blurring of the boundaries between those governing and the governed, in part because technology makes it possible, and in part because, as in our workforce, diversity makes “buy in” not only increasingly necessary, but ideationally key to success. Now that the whole country is “woke,” at least when it comes to the importance of politics in our daily lives, and more fully aware we ought to be willing to spend a least as much time making political decisions as we take in buying a home, is it not time to apply some of the approaches we’ve recommended to the IRS to government as a whole, to involve the citizenry more closely and directly in the details of regulatory policy and how our dollars are spent? Some might think we’ve gone too many levels deep in Inception when we make such a suggestion, but the folks at the Participatory Budgeting Project wouldn’t, not when they’ve arranged, with governments all across the nation, for 400,000+ Americans to decide how to allocate $300M in public funding.
At this point in our exegesis, some conservatives may no longer be able to contain themselves or listen. If they got through what we said about free markets without concern, secure in the knowledge that the House, Senate, presidency, and Court they’ve built render the import of any such claims “mute,” every action they’ve taken to spindle the vote shows they know the hole in the dike they really need to plug and how much rising water lies behind it. Against our demand that they actually include active ingredients in the bromide version of equal opportunity they espouse, they’ll likely start bleating “redistribution!” and try, by dint of endless repetition, as they have for at least the last fifty years, to drill home that there’s nothing American about that.
In their self-righteous guilt, it would be hard for them to be more mistaken: in fact, our country was the first redistributive nation on earth, the first to fully allow all those who came to our shores of their own volition to slip the bounds of class and caste and reap the spoils of doing so. We also, unforgivably, redistributed resources from those we rendered powerless–African slaves and Native Americans–to the powerful, but in this we were less unique, and such redistributions it seems our friends on the right would prefer to forget.
For many decades, social mobility in America, aka the American dream, was the envy of the struggling around the world. Today, as a result of greatest income inequality in human history, rivaled only by the Egyptian pharaohs, our social mobility is the worst among developed nations. If you want to start anew or get ahead, go east, young man, back across the ocean–seventeen of the twenty most socially mobile countries are in Old World Europe. Now that’s un-American.
But it’s true that in consequence of the origins of the nation, redistribution American-style has always been a bit different from other sovereignties. Rather than ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul,’ as conservatives grouse, our version has more often involved creating an ever-unfolding series of broad canvases–from the seemingly endless frontier to universal public education to the Internet–on which all Peters, Pauls–and Marys–can potentially write their own stories and thrive. It’s been less about redividing the pie than about growing the pie for all. Since our earliest days, the celebration of American individualism has always been barn-raising, in one form or another, communities banding together to give individuals the opportunity and freedom to reach their potential, not Tennysonian tooth and claw or Machiavellian divide and conquer.
And it has to be, especially now, because conservatives are right–all the wealth of the wealthy isn’t enough to address all the challenges we face today; that’s not the reason to raise their taxes. The real reason, as economists Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman observe, is to reduce the incentives for spiraling inequality, and more generally break the stranglehold the wealthy have on government. Only governments can create large-scale frontiers, because only governments can take the long view competitive businesses cannot afford. Yet in a classic commons tragedy, the one-percenters are so busy competing with each other for access to the federal teat (literally no legislation passes without their support), they’re trampling the runts with the greatest potential to grow or produce growth, even though (to shake, not merely stir, metaphors) such new vistas would greatly increase their own wealth as well.
So, what are those vistas? To be honest, we don’t know. But we’re pretty sure we know how to find out: basic research. Since their inception, winning Nobels has been a cinnamon spice of the American pie, and the work that produces this recognition–a third of it by those pesky immigrants again–has supplied a good portion of the pectin filling. In theory, Nobel Prizes are not to be awarded for theory; Alfred Nobel was the inventor of dynamite, and insisted the prizes be awarded only for work of the greatest practical utility that could balance out the grevious harm he felt his invention had done, which is likely why Americans who, in many ways, are both the world’s ultimate idealists and the ultimate pragmatists, have won more than any other nation.
But in practice, the awards are often made, especially in physics, to scientists who were basic researchers for whom practical applications were not even a twinkle in the eye. What led Albert Einstein to E=mc², for example, was imagining what it would be like to ride on a beam of light, not visions of atomic bombs or nuclear energy. And don’t get us started on all the Nobels that burst out of the Institute of Theoretical Physics in Copenhagen like so many fundamental particles from a collider. The reason for this is simple: while it’s almost never initially obvious, basic research is almost always what breaks the ground from which a torrent of practical applications bubble up and pour out.
It’s happened often enough one would think we’d hold on to the same faith we have that if we drill enough holes in the ground, we’ll inevitably strike enough oil to create instant multi-millionaires, a faith so strong we no longer think of it as faith, but as science. And for decades, we did. But then, during the Carter-Reagan years, we decided government needed to be run more like a business. Truth be told, it does, but unfortunately business doesn’t usually send its best and brightest across the private-public border (though some, we suppose, are good people). Or more to the point, its best and brightest decline to cross. I’m fairly certain my old boss Steve Case, for example, would make a better president than anyone who’s run since RFK (with the possible exception of Amy Klobuchar), but my guess is that he’s having too much fun/impact running Revolution with Ted Leonsis (who’d make a hella 21st century LBJ on the Hill, imnshnsuo) to even consider it, and the same is true for nearly all the rest of the A list.
So instead of the vision of the founders, we’ve been getting quarterly “bottom lines” as time horizons, and demands to know how soon (before the next election) basic inquiry will “pay off” and become “self-sustaining.” Worse have been the Proxmires of the world who, out of what can most charitably be considered arrogant ignorance, have relentlessly subjected basic research projects to unwarranted ridicule.
For example–and this one’s for you, Trump supporters–Prox gave one of his aforementioned “Golden Fleeces” to what he described as a study to “find out why woodpeckers don’t get headaches.” Of course, it turns out the reason why woodpeckers don’t get headaches, in spite of the fact that they spend a good portion of every day slamming their heads into trees at forces of 1,200 Gs (the human equivalent of slamming your unprotected head against a concrete wall at 25 mph over and over again), is due to elements of the structure of their skulls, the understanding of which has led to the development of safer, more effective helmets for construction workers, firefighters, electricians, football players, et al.
We’ve just launched a project called The Goldyledon Imperative (which you’re more than welcome to join!) with the goal of re-infusing our country with the spirit of inquiry that was once the shock and awe of the world, in which, for starters, we’re going to revisit every Golden Fleece winner and provide a list of potential practical applications of each and every research project so cynically trashed by Proxmire et al. Because as a result of the steady kazoo-like hum of derisive hostility, federal funding for basic research, as can be seen in the chart at right, has suffered a long steady decline as a share of our government’s budget. Some may point out that business R&D spending has been steadily increasing during the same period, but again, that’s an atoms-to-oranges tradeoff given the much shorter leash competitive businesses can give researchers before their work must produce tangible results–or be shelved.
Not surprisingly, these years of short-sightedness have begun to catch up to us. While the total number of patent applications in the US continues to increase, much of that increase is due to increases in the number of foreign inventors filing for US patents, and the rest is simply an artifact of population increases. The second chart at right shows the number of patent applications made by U.S. inventors per million citizens. “Falling off a cliff” seems like an apt description.
Of course, many of our friends on the right find data deeply suspicious these days, with some justification. Ever since Ronald Reagan’s welfare queen, anecdote has been the coin of the political realm for conservatives. So let me share a little anecdotal evidence that I hope will be at least as persuasive as Reagan’s was, if only because, like single black mothers living in poverty, it involves another conservative bête noire (pun perhaps intended): China.
A dear friend–my best friend, if truth be told–and colleague is a basic researcher and professor working at an Ivy League school that’s best in the world in her field. She uses rats in her research, typically a specific strain of rat in which, to minimize any possible confounding variables in her findings, each individual animal is as genetically identical as possible, with the exception of one “knock-out gene.” There are hundreds of strains of laboratory rat in the field that are similarly separated from each other by such thin strands of genetic material.
Her laboratory for her work, which has been published in some of the most prestigious journals in her field, consists of one side of a short hallway between two rooms of another because that’s all she, and the senior colleague in whose lab hers is contained, a man who himself has produced an astonishingly diverse and impactful set of findings, can afford for her. When she has experiments she wants to conduct that require more space or other resources beyond what she has available, she’s sometimes reached out to colleagues in China. Why? Because in China, there are entire buildings dedicated just to experiments using the same strain of rat with the same knockout gene she deploys.
If her experience is at all representative, we can expect a tsunami of basic research coming out of China across every key field that will enable Beijing to seize leadership of the world economy unless we substantially increase our commitments in this area. Or develop a new relationship with the Middle Kingdom where research is concerned.
By sheer numbers of every kind, our cause would seem to be doomed alongside a nation of 1.4 billion people, especially if we go the go it alone route, because there’s no reason to believe we have any genetic hard-wired advantage as human beings over the people of any nation. But as in business, politically we have two top Teng-level advantages in research, provided we hold onto them even harder than guns and religion: entrepreneurship and diversity. Both are antithetical to the tight level of control Beijing’s authoritarian capitalist system requires. For authoritarians, diversity is a recipe for unrest (even in a country like Cameroon, where nearly 300 languages/dialects are spoken, divide and conquer only works so long), while the kind of researcher capable of making fundamental breakthroughs is also unlikely, by force of personality, to find such levels of control tolerable.
Meanwhile, our research output also has its own weak points, in particular reproducibility of results. We may be the most attractive destination for creative scientific minds, but the combination of:
- Laudable ambition that comes with such creativity;
- Continuing declines in funding;
- A system that’s just as overly capitalist as China’s is overly authoritarian–meaning a winner-take-all arena in which discoverers are disproportionately rewarded versus those who make their discoveries possible, and;
- An ever-accelerating velocity of change as the number and diversity of contributors around the world continues to increase;
has produced an environment in which too many are gunning for glory and too few are checking their work, resulting in a massive plastic patch of unverified results that is likely too large at this point to be cleaned up by any realistic level of increases in our own funding, especially given our need to continue to focus on finding those next frontiers. Yet it needs to be dealt with; as it stands, these collections of potentially irreproducible–yet often previously trumpeted–results can be likened to intellectual nuclear waste in the deleterious effect they’ve already had on faith in facts, evidence, and science in many of the cases where they’ve been more fully exposed to the elements of the scientific method.
It may seem like heresy to suggest a positive relationship with the Chinese in the Year of the Coronavirus, but wouldn’t we, they, and the world benefit from a scientific division of labor not dissimilar to the way in which we’ve pursued a psychopolitical version of the Law of Comparative Advantage together to divvy up who does what in the world economy? Specifically, they could send their future troublemakers and dissidents to us to find big breakthroughs, and sic their massive human capacity on verifying the findings of the world, to get beyond the Law of Small Numbers. We would know before they do about the breakthroughs; they would know before we do whether they’re real, and these two new realities could bind us via the same kind of MAD arrangement that their US debt holdings do, in fact it would do so symmetrically: they hold first strike capability economically, we would hold it scientifically & technologically. Or we could just share the fruits of the arrangement equitably, rather than continuing with a system in which the Chinese haphazardly steal our work without compensation, and without any assurance that what they’ve stolen is worth the pixels used to generate it. Given the challenges before both nations (and the world), do we really have time for such Rube Goldberg shenanigans?
Grand compromises are tough–that’s why they’re grand, and branded as such. If we’re not ready to go there, but want to at least play at maximizing the “bang for the buck” of fundamental research, both for its own sake, and more so, to enable more funding to be allocated to it politically, we’ll need to dedicate significantly more resources to translating the results of these inquiries into commercial products. Happily, this is something nearly everyone across the spectrum believes the government knows how to do, or at least support, and do well, through its Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs.
Both SBIR and STTR fund R&D to determine the commercialization potential of prior research and product development, and develop strategy, tactics, and pathways to do same; STTR, in addition, brings small businesses and non-profit research institutions (e.g. universities) into partnership in these efforts. A recent analysis of the program’s impact turned up the following fairly eye-widening results from its implementation by the US Navy and Air Force, for example. Their investment of $6.25 billion yielded:
- $28.9 billion in product sales
- $92.1 billion in total economic output
- $8.8 billion in taxes collected–more than repaying the entire cost of the program to them
- More than 30,000 jobs generated annually, at average salaries of $65,986 and $68,585 in the case of Air Force and Navy grantees, respectively
Across all agencies participating in these initiatives (DoD, NASA, NIH, NSF):
- Between 40-70% (depending on the agency) of the grantees had already succeeded in turning their research into products reaching the market at the time of the analysis, a percentage that almost certainly increased, since the survey that yielded this result included even the most recent grant recipients.
- With the exception of NASA, and depending on the agency, 60-80% of the projects funded subsequently received additional investments from other sources, a strong endorsement of their commercial potential, and a key portent of ultimate success, as these additional investments are typically made to help these companies to make it across the “valley of death” between product development and self-sustaining sales.
Imagine the potential of marrying a process capable of generating results like this with the investment program, previously described, to fill the empty and abandoned spaces on our original succession of frontiers with start-up partnerships between immigrants and the forgotten native-born.
At this point, overseas readers could be excused for wondering when we’re going to get to the part where all this pro-American strategizing, bordering on jingoism, benefits the rest of the world. Perhaps they’ve even grown weary of what many might see as this self-absorbed nation vomiting its culture all over the planet. What they may not have realized is why American culture is so ubiquitous–we’re certainly not threatening to bomb others into the Stone Age unless they open a Pizza Hut and broadcast The Kardashians. Perhaps they’ve subscribed to one of the most inaccurate and damaging myths about our country: how parochial it is. At an individual level, starting with the startlingly low percentage of Americans who had passports before we needed one to get into Mexico or Canada, there’s admittedly some truth to this belief: as a nation, there isn’t. How could there be, in a nation of immigrants?
Instead the US runs the world’s biggest cultural and ideological import/export shop, and the world’s most expansive virtuous cycle. Immigrants come here attracted by our ideals, we start to see the world through their eyes, especially as they rise up into the halls of government, and export those ideals, in culturally appropriate form, back out to their homelands, spreading them like Christianity through the pagan lands. American culture is everywhere because it reflects, to some degree, everyone’s culture. Other nations and their citizenry are globally aware because they have to be–for most of the world, the world is a dangerous place; America is because it wants to be, thanks to its status as the foremost immigrant nation.
The net result is that the U.S. is the only country with a substantial history of large-scale interventions that are primarily moral and selfless in nature. The vast majority of nations can’t point to a single instance in their history when they’ve done this for any plausible reason other than immediate (as opposed to enlightened) self-interest. Please feel free to challenge these assertions in comments below–bon chance.
This can be difficult for both international sophisticates and the man on the unpaved road to understand. When I was a Peace Corps volunteer, for example, many of my friends in Cameroon were deeply suspicious of my motives for being there, especially after a ngange or two. Deeply committed in their ties to family, village, and tribe, they found it hard to believe I wasn’t really secretly an agent of the CIA, not the math-science teacher I professed to be.
Yes, it’s true that our motives are often mixed, and many Americans are more reluctant than we should be to admit this. Too often we must be fooled into getting involved, and of course when dishonesty is at the root of those engagements, is it any surprise so often they’re the wrong ones, for the wrong “side?” It’s also true that mixing morality with self-interest can easily result in a dangerously intoxicating brew, but we have to ask: dangerous to whom? In the end, does the stability of realpolitik, or self-satisfaction with middling results, really benefit anyone but the elites? Does it really result in anything more for the majority of the world’s citizenry than slower, more miserable death, as opposed to the chance to reach for a better life?
Eurochiks like to point out that on a per capita basis, countries like Norway are more generous than Americans, based on the percentage of GDP dedicated to “official assistance.” But is Norway–or anyone else–really more generous when all the ways and means, public and private, American resources go out into the world are considered? The Gates Foundation alone spends more per annum on global programs than all but seven other countries outlay for foreign aid, and Americans (individuals–including corporations–and foundations) give about $23 billion a year specifically for international affairs, more than any government other than our own. This excludes the proportion of other giving categories, like “environmental and animal” and “giving to individuals,” that are likely to end up overseas, not to mention the $56 billion/year immigrants send back to their countries of origin. Americans wish they could give even more, and would want their government to as well, if they knew what it actually spends on aid.
Americans also lead the world in putting their feet where their mouth is, in a good way: there have been nearly 250,000 Peace Corps volunteers to date, for example, each making a commitment of two years or more, and it’s estimated 1.6 million Americans perform some kind of volunteer work abroad every year. And has any other country ever undertaken anything like the Marshall Plan, the World Bank, the United Nations? The landmark climate treaty of our times (so far) may have been signed in Paris, but the prime mover behind it was an American president, Barack Obama, as has been in the case of so many other treaties and other agreements since WWII.
To get a visceral sense of America’s international importance in ways we normally don’t even think about, one could do worse than watch Norway’s Occupied or Australia’s Secret City, which posit the consequences of an America that has absented itself and one whose influence is on the decline, respectively. On the flip side, when the virtuous cycle is working as intended, the result, ironically, is precisely the rising level of global competition we believe necessitates substantial increases in legal immigration: we raise other nation’s bars for them, and they do the same for us. And if that sounds too much like altruism, now might be the best time in years to remind ourselves a little of what we receive in return, like the acceptance of a fiat currency that’s currently allowing us to print trillions of dollars against the effects of COVID-19.
It’s only when we pull back from our ineffable role that Raspailian nightmares can be the result. It happened between world wars, and it’s happening again now. To paraphrase Churchill for the benefit of Ameriphobes: America is the worst of all nations except the America emerging–or rather slinking away–now. Even though less than 10% of the world’s citizens live in full democracies–or perhaps, in part, because of this–most of the world doesn’t actually want to come here, any more than people in Appalachia want to pick up and move to “where the jobs are” or unemployed factory workers want to be “retrained” for new careers that separate them from everything and everyone they’ve known. Anyone who is genuinely or even euphemistically concerned with “the fabric of America” in the face of an unchecked flood of immigration should understand that making the world safe for democracy has a double meaning, the second of which is to insure that those who come here do so because they want to, not because they’ve been forced by conditions to undertake the long and treacherous journey to our borders.
One of the most popular children’s shows in the U.K. for decades has been It’ll Never Work, a programme primarily concerned with making fun of bad inventions, bad ideas, and failed inventors. From the title alone, one can intuit this is not a British import any of our networks will be looking to copy any time soon–we are, by nature, an optimistic people, not a cynical or fatalistic one, and however much the distinguished world-weary likes of Graham Greene may rail against this, it has served both us–and the world–well; certainly better than the colonial rule of any European nation. Until the last three+ years, America has never compared itself or the results of its actions against anything but the best, and even more often only against an ideal, exceptional version of itself, while holding others to the same standards. It’s what most fundamentally makes our withdrawal from the world over the course of those same years so un-American.
Take, for example, the inhuman face that’s been put on immigration dystopia, the “caravans” of Central Americans portrayed streaming like ants towards our borders. The American thing to do would be to determine what conditions are causing this mass migration, determine how to resolve those conditions, and apply whatever means are necessary to resolve them because we’ve learned, not least from our immigrants, that in the end, this is much less costly than dealing with the problem only when it reaches our shores, applying the morality of pragmatism if nothing else.
Depending on the means deployed, some may call this imperialism or, more gently, interfering with the affairs of a sovereign nation, but surely we can all agree it’s better than the deeply cynical approach that’s been unfurled instead, sharp cuts in aid and support to the countries–Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador–whose citizens are fleeing, exacerbating the problem for ideological reasons–the reflexive opposition to foreign aid that’s part of the America First “ethos”–and political gain, deliberately manufacturing and pouring hot sauce onto a humanitarian crisis in hope and expectation that the flames will light up xenophobia and win votes.
A description that Ameriphobes despise nearly as much as “American exceptionalism” is the concept of our country as the “one indispensable nation.” Yet after the last four years, can anyone seriously deny it’s true? Climate change may be the greatest existential threat we face as a species in the coming years, but it’s hardly the only one that will require the coming together of nations for common cause. Other than Russian, Chinese, and other authoritarian elites, has anyone’s life or future in this context, anywhere in the world, been improved by our country’s withdrawal from the world stage? Is there any prospect that it will be?
To be clear, a return to American leadership cannot be as it was, because leadership in the 21st century, as we know from business, is not what it was before in any sphere–it’s better: more enlightened, more open, more collaborative, more empowering and scaffolding, more 360, more listening, not to mention one where we’re only one of many powers, however unique our role might be. The laughter at the idea of “leading from behind” should be heard for what it is: a wheezing, gasping death rattle from a past century. I’ve spoken of Old World views as a kind of resentment at being compelled to rouse out of lassitude and badgered to exercise one’s best self, but the European et al perspective of acceptance, of seeking, even demanding, understanding of our limitations and blind spots is as necessary in confronting a zealous nation drunk on power as it is in challenging individuals high on any other mind-altering substance. I think of that great eastern European chronicler of the history of science, Jacob Bronowski, standing in a muddy pit at Auschwitz containing the ashes of much of his family, quoting Oliver Cromwell: “Think it possible you may be mistaken.” Both New World and Old World philosophies are necessary in the tightrope race we continually run against functional–even actual–extinction in an increasingly rapidly changing environment.
I’ve spent a good portion of the last thirty years of my life building online communities, which, the Internet being what it is, means creating social structures that draw membership from literally all over the world. One of the key elements that consistently separates communities that succeed from those that fail as vehicles of discussion and, especially, action, is the existence of a “core community,” a community within the community consisting of a more tightly-knit society, often representative of the group as a whole, that takes on primary responsibility, typically unremunerated, for welcoming and supporting new members, seeding and moderating discussions, creating the scaffolding for the community’s goals, the outlines and language of its culture. As the place where the people of the world often most meet, get to know, trust, and learn from one another, America has been that increasingly vital “core community” for the human race.
Once upon a time, our nation drew strength from its splendid isolation, and like celebrities who can’t stop telling people how shy they are, the draw inward of isolationism continues to be a quixotic yearning, like nostalgia for the simpler times when our country was a child among nations. But in a global economy, our currency is no longer the fertility of the soil we come from or the latest toys of life, death, and existence we may create; it is in connection, as the nation most networked with the rest of the world, therefore holding that network together–and in our example. These are the burdens we agreed to bear, whether we realized it or not, the last time we shared a common sense of inspiration; they are the duties of a fully grown nation to an ever younger developing world that we birthed nearly 250 years ago. And therefore, they are–and must be–duties to ourselves as well. The world needs an America; if not us, then who?
In honor of my father, Baker’s grandfather, who left East Germany (the East Germans would say escaped) by bicycle, met my mother in the West, and followed her in steerage to Cambridge, MA, reading Beatrix Potter books, then Faulkner’s Requiem For A Nun (which contains, apropos this essay, his most enduring quote: “The past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past”) along the way to bone up on his English.
Creative Politics is the world’s first community-based political incubator, synthesizing the best of liberal and conservative ideals with technology and history to generate policies, strategies, applications, and actions for the post-modern era that are well outside the beltway, and well beyond just talk. All Creative Politics blog posts are collaborative, living documents, the way Madison and Hamilton would create them if they were writing The Federalist today. We welcome, nay urge, your feedback in the comment/discussion section below, and will be using it (with credit) to make what you just read less virtual–thanks much for your time and insights; they will go unpunished!