Rachel's Democracy & Health News #880, November 9, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: Essential reforms: eliminate global poverty, end tax cheating by the super rich, and get private money out of our elections.]

By Peter Montague

Readers ask, "On what basis do you choose topics for Rachel's News?" Last week and this, I'm answering that question.

As we said last week, we start with twin goals:

(1) We want to hand the planet to the next generation undamaged and undiminished. In other words, we favor the present generation meeting its needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs because stealing from our children is wrong.

(2) We favor the Golden Rule and therefore we want to prevent and alleviate suffering.

So what are the sources of harm and suffering? And what are the remedies?

A major source of harm, suffering, global instability, and conflict is the large number of people who are wretchedly poor -- perhaps as many as 1/3rd of the world's population. The global population today is 6 billion. Within 50 years, it is projected to reach between 9 and 12 billion. This growth alone seems certain to damage the planet irreversibly. Therefore, it seems desirable to find ways to reduce the pace of growth in the human population. There is now broad agreement that the best way to do this would be to eliminate poverty. After people escape poverty, their birth rate declines rapidly for many reasons.

Without going into detail, suffice it to say that the world has the wealth, the know-how and the means to eliminate poverty. Jeffrey Sachs at Columbia University, and others, have shown how extreme poverty could be eliminated by 2025. In the shorter term, meeting the United Nations Millennium Development Goals by 2015 would be a major step in the right direction, and it, too, can be readily accomplished if we choose to do so.

Alleviating poverty is urgent for many reasons. Inequality of wealth and status are major causes of conflict in the world, and conflict is now a major source of suffering, harm, waste, and damage to the natural environment. Inequality of wealth and status are also, as we have recently become more aware, constant wellsprings of frustration, rage and animosity toward Europe and the U.S. Increasingly, individuals are willing to kill themselves in spectacular ways to get even for the injustices and indignities they perceive to have been inflicted upon them and their societies.

In truth, over the past 400 years, Europe created what we call the "third world" for the benefit of Europeans, to the long-term detriment of third world peoples. After 1898, the U.S. participated in these exploits with military-religious fervor. This is a hidden history -- but hidden in plain sight. Typical is this 1898 quotation from Senator Albert J. Beveridge, a progressive from Indiana, praising President Ulysses Grant:

"He never forgot we are a conquering race and that we must obey our blood and occupy new markets, and, if necessary, new lands. He had the prophet's seer-like sight which beheld, as part of the Almighty's infinite plan, the disappearance of debased civilizations and decaying races before the higher civilization of the nobler and more virile types of man.... He had the instinct of empire." This is a typical expression of the "white man's burden," from which we today have inherited a powerful residue of racism and white privilege.

Senator Beveridge was a mainstream progressive of his time. He favored the eight-hour work day, meat inspections, the regulation of railroads, and anti-trust laws to curb the monopoly power of corporations. He was concerned that material wealth was undermining the Puritan elements of the American character. Yet for him, "history was in a sense just a predestined rescue operation, rescuing the world 'from its natural wilderness and from savage men.' Beveridge wrote, "A hundred wildernesses are to be subdued. Unpenetrated regions must be explored. Unviolated valleys must be tilled. Unmastered forests must be felled. Unriven mountains must be torn asunder and their riches of gold and iron and ores of price must be delivered to the world." ([1, pgs. 98-99) Exploitation was the obligation of the conqueror and conquest was the obligation of the superior race of men.

Over 400 years, Europe systematically extracted cheap raw materials from various colonies and protectorates using forced labor (slavery or indentured servants) for the benefit of England, Spain, France, Portugal, Belgium or Holland. Third world economies were "developed" by military force into plantations growing crops for export -- sugar, coffee, tea, cocoa, bananas, cotton, rubber, palm oil, hardwood timber), with cheap labor provided by a landless peasantry. Third- world mines provided copper, nickel, iron, bauxite, phosphates. The dominant societies turned these into highly-profitable manufactured goods. The Third World nations provided the raw materials but remained poor by intent. Development in the dominant countries meant something entirely different -- a varied and thriving industrial base with a rising standard of living.

All this was no secret at the time. As Cecil Rhodes (for whom Rhodes Scholarships are named) said about Africa, "We must find new lands from which we can easily obtain raw materials and at the same time exploit the cheap slave labour that is available from the natives of the colonies. The colonies would also provide a dumping ground for the surplus goods produced in our factories." (See Clive Ponting's A Green History of the World, especially chapter 10.)

From this history we conclude that it is only fair that Europe and the U.S. should invest in alleviating some of the harm that they purposefully inflicted on others for their own benefit. We believe it is also in our national self-interest to do so, to eliminate some of the most obvious sources of resentment, conflict, and global instability.

Ending Third World poverty would probably require the U.S. to modify some of its investment priorities. For example, we presently spend $450 billion year on our military apparatus, to protect ourselves from conflicts generated in no small part, we all readily acknowledge, by global poverty, inequities, and inequalities. Yet we spend only $15 billion per year (or about $50 per U.S. resident per year) to eliminate global poverty.

Could we afford to invest more than $15 billion annually to end world poverty? It seems we could quite easily. A bipartisan report from the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Permanent Investigations published in August revealed that the super rich evade $70 billion in U.S. taxes each year. As the New York Times reported August 1, 2006, "So many super rich Americans evade taxes using offshore accounts that law enforcement cannot control the growing misconduct, according to a Senate report that provides the most detailed look ever at high-level tax schemes." But the problem could be easily solved: To catch more tax-cheaters and collect more taxes that are legally due, we could simply beef up government tax audits.

How do traditional conservatives view tax collections? They favor fairness. True conservatives do not defend tax cheats. Adam Smith, in his monumental Inquiry into the Wealth of Nations (1776) had this to say on taxation (Book 5, Chapter 2, Part 2):

"I. The subjects of every state ought to contribute towards the support of the government, as nearly as possible, in proportion to their respective abilities; that is, in proportion to the revenue which they respectively enjoy under the protection of the state.

"II. The tax which each individual is bound to pay ought to be certain, and not arbitrary. The time of payment, the manner of payment, the quantity to be paid, ought all to be clear and plain to the contributor, and to every other person."

In sum, Adam Smith said, If you become wealthy thanks to all the features of modern society provided by everyone working cooperatively together -- the transportation system, a stable currency, the judicial system, the educational system, the communications apparatus, the military, the system of laws and regulations guiding contracts and commerce, the reciprocal relationships of trust, the freedom to travel, and so on -- then you should contribute to the common good in proportion to the benefits you receive. Thus Adam Smith articulated the basic idea behind progressive taxation: the tax burden should fall most heavily on those most able to pay. To shift taxes onto those least able to pay -- as has been public policy since 1980 -- endangers the stability of our representative democracy.

Unfortunately, during the presidencies of both Bill Clinton and G.W. Bush, public policies have encouraged tax cheating. Tax audits of the rich have declined while tax audits of the working poor have increased. Tax-collection policies have been intentionally rigged by both Democrats and Republicans to help the super rich cheat on their taxes. This undermines confidence in government.

Worse, the entire government rule book has been systematically rewritten in the past 25 years to favor people who make money destroying -- rather than creating -- productive enterprises. In 1991, reporters for the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote a nine-part series that blew the lid off this scandal and became a best-selling book, "America -- What Went Wrong" in which they documented how the government rule book had been rewritten to give every advantage to Wall Street raiders and to effectively destroy the middle class. Unfortunately, this shameful and destructive era of our national history has not ended.

This leads us directly to the most fundamental problem facing our representative democracy: the corrupting influence of private money in our elections. The basis of our democracy is one person, one vote, NOT one dollar one vote. With the advent of TV, elections have become more expensive year by year. This has created overwhelm advantages for office seekers with access to mountains of cash. Unless candidates are wealthy themselves, they must beg the wealthy to put them in office; after they win an election they are beholden to the people who provided the millions of dollars required to compete.

Ordinary people with good ideas and ethical standards cannot even run for office unless they gain access to big money. Thus the influence of money in democratic governance has increased greatly during the last 50 years. "One dollar one vote" is now a far more accurate description of the system than "one person one vote."

This fact alone explains a great deal of what has gone wrong in the U.S. It explains how the system has been rigged to allow wealthy people to evade their taxes, destroy productive enterprises, ship jobs overseas, erode the stability of the middle-class, and increase the numbers of the poor.

It also explains why the "environmental movement" -- despite heroic efforts -- has been unable to curb environmentally-destructive patterns of production: pollution is highly profitable for a small number of powerful people even though it is demonstrably harmful to the vast majority. Getting private money out of elections is the single reform that could make all other reforms possible.