Sunday, February 11, 2007

Gar Alperovitz on Decentralized Government

Gar Alperovitz better not run for office. He thinks way too clearly and advances arguments that sail far above the heads of most voters. In other words, I am deeply impressed with what he says.

►The top 5% of Americans own just under 70% of all financial wealth.

►The top 1% of Americans now claim more income per year than the bottom 100 million Americans taken together.

►The top 2/10th of 1% makes more on the sale of stocks and bonds in one year than everyone else combined.

The distribution of wealth ownership in America is truly feudal--and deeply corrosive of our democracy. Is the growing concentration of wealth inevitable, or are there innovative models and policies that begin to point the way toward more equitable ownership of wealth by individuals, workers, communities?

That excerpt is from a promotional site for his book America Beyond Capitalism. When I read that I didn't need to go further. I know when there is something wrong with a picture, and there is something wrong with that picture. Like the little boy pointing at the king's new clothes, this man sees plainly what most other people miss. Everyone who is informed, left or right, Democrat or Republican, knows that the gap between rich and poor in America is getting bigger all the time. It has been a trend for three decades.

Anyone who thinks that gap is acceptable is either at the top of the economy or scrambling hard to get there. Talk show hosts will toss off this observation as an illustration of how this disparity is simply a motivating factor to encourage everyone to work harder and become more productive. Something like Amercan Idol is making everyone a better singer. Or the NBA is making all young men into better basketball players.

Writing in the NY Times, Dr. Alperovitz looks at how centralized government is crippling America's progress in a number of areas. I have already come to the conclusion that education, the minimum wage, and health care for the indigent are all problems better resolved at the state level with minimal federal control. Now I have found someone thinking similarly. He points to California under the leadership of Governor Schwarzenegger as a case in point.

Governor Schwarzenegger is quite clear that California is not simply another state. “We are the modern equivalent of the ancient city-states of Athens and Sparta,” he recently declared. “We have the economic strength, we have the population and the technological force of a nation-state.” In his inaugural address, Mr. Schwarzenegger proclaimed, “We are a good and global commonwealth.”

Political rhetoric? Maybe. But California’s governor has also put his finger on a little discussed flaw in America’s constitutional formula. The United States is almost certainly too big to be a meaningful democracy. What does “participatory democracy” mean in a continent? Sooner or later, a profound, probably regional, decentralization of the federal system may be all but inevitable.

Anyone who writes in Mother Jones [PDF Link] has to be a lunatic after my own heart. In the current issue he advances visionary ideas.

The institutional power arrangements that have set the terms of reference for the American political-economic system over roughly the last half century are dissolving before our eyes–especially those that once constrained corporate economic and political power. First, organized labor’s capacity to check the giant corporation, both on the shop floor and in national politics, has all but disappeared as union membership has collapsed from 35 percent of the labor force in the mid-1950s to a mere 7.9 percent in the private sector today. Throughout the world, at the heart of virtually every major progressive political movement has been a powerful labor movement. Liberalism in general, and the welfare state in particular, would have been impossible without union money and organizing. The decline of labor is one of the central reasons traditional liberal strategies are in decline.

Second, globalization has further enhanced corporate power, as the threat to move jobs elsewhere erodes unions’ bargaining capacity, while at the same time working to reduce taxation and regulation. (The corporate share of the federal tax burden has declined in eerie lockstep with union membership—from 35 percent in 1945 to 10.1 percent in 2004.) This in turn has intensified the nationwide fiscal crisis, further undercutting efforts to use public resources to solve public problems ranging from poverty and hunger to energy conservation and even simple repair jobs such as fixing decaying roads, bridges, and water systems throughout the nation.

Third–and most important–the Republican "Southern Strategy" has now completed the transformation of a once (nominally) Democratic South that at least voted for Democratic presidents into a reactionary bastion of corporate power based on implicit racism and explicitly religious divide-and-conquer fervor. Bill Clinton’s brief moment occurred just before the full consolidation of this Southern stranglehold. Very few observers have grasped the full implications of this shift: The United States is the only advanced political economy where the working class is fundamentally–not marginally–divided by race. It is also the only one where a massive geographic quadrant is now essentially beyond the reach of traditional progressive politics. George Bush, though extreme, is no accident; nor can the core political relationships that now define the South be easily unraveled. Hence, yes, a Democrat might be elected president one day. But no, such a shift is not going to nurture an era of renewed liberal or progressive reform. The system of power that once allowed this no longer exists. Period.

No need to continue. I've said as much as necessary to make a bookmark for future reference.

That's one more brick on the wagon. When the day comes that America shows signs of imploding from the weight of its many neglected problems, those of us who have been watching helplessly from the sidelines (along with a smart minority of thinkers like Gar Alperovitz) will stifle the urge to point and say we told you so.

The only significant trend that he doesn't mention in the context of this analysis is the impact of the millions of Latino immigrants who will very soon become a factor in the body politic. Whether or not that group will accelerate or slow a trend to regional division remains to be seen.

Thanks to John Robb for the pointer.

No comments: