Are We Arsonists or Firefighters?


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“Not a dollar more than legally required.”

This was the answer that Mitt Romney gave to a journalist’s question about how much he paid in taxes. He said it with a smile and the confidence of a man who knows he is giving not just the right, but the best answer, and the crowd agreed, roaring its approval. Later, it was revealed that Mr. Romney, whose net worth is estimated in the neighborhood of $200 million, belongs to a lower tax bracket than his secretary, whose net worth I do not know, but am sure is way less than Mitt’s.  Way, way, way, way less.

Does that sound right to you?  It doesn’t sound right to me, that someone with more money than they can spend in multiple life times pays a tax rate so unobtrusive to his wealth he feels comfortable making jokes about it, while his secretary is statistically likely to be one of the 7 in 10 Americans who lie awake at night worried about money problems and with a predicted lifespan shorter than their parents’.

Warren Buffet doesn’t think it sounds right; Buffet believes there should be a minimum tax on top earners like himself, who benefit from  the lower rate of taxation for capital gains (the primary source of his wealth) than regular earnings. He advocates for the Buffett rule which the Obama administration liked, and which an Opinion Research Center poll showed a majority of Americans across all party lines, including independents, supported, but the Republican Congress did not and voted it down. Does that sound right to you?  It doesn’t sound right to me – it certainly doesn’t sound representative.

If the constituents want it, the executive branch approves, and the super wealthy themselves are proposing it’s needed, one wonders who these Congresspeople voting No are actually representing. Here they are, going against what appears to be not just all common sense but expert sense too, and what can we do about it? Nothing, apparently, but wait four dreary more years to vote them out.

You’d think we’d all be rushing to the polls to fix this mess, but we’re not. In fact, voters have not been rushing to the polls in record numbers, globally.  Voter turnout has been declining for decades, and the reason isn’t that people feel so happy and comfortable with the way things are that they’d rather just stay the course, but the opposite.  They don’t see their vote changing their circumstances. They suspect that their vote might not count quite as much as the special interest money that has poured into politics ever since the Citizens’ United decision, and they are right. A study led by Professors Martin Gilens (Princeton University) and Benjamin I. Page (Northwestern University) found that the  economic elites – i.e. the top 10% –  and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.

The graphs of preference relative to influence can be seen below and they show citizen influence to be as flat line as most people’s wages have been for the past several decades:

 

 

 

The researchers  concluded that

“In the United States, our findings indicate, the majority does not rule—at least not in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes. When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites or with organized interests, they generally lose. Moreover, because of the strong status quo bias built into the U.S. political system, even when fairly large majorities of Americans favor policy change, they generally do not get it.”

As voters see it, the way things are can’t be fixed by the way things are.  And that means by continuing to vote in a system that has disempowered the voter to the point that there is no point in voting, as it only sustains a system that is helping only itself survive and even thrive – as the chart below shows, the $5.8 billion spent in lobbying by the 200 most politically active companies in America had a whopping return on investment of $4 trillion in taxpayer subsidies and support. No wonder there are, by best estimates, from 26 to 250 lobbyists for every  US Congressperson! Payola really pays!

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So how do we fix democracy when the democratic process itself is broken, corrupted by  monied and business special interests? Can democracy be fixed if democracy itself is broken?  The San Francisco architect-philosopher Buckminster Fuller put it better than I ever could:

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality.  To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

So what is this new model for democracy?  And can we build it in time? Because we are in trouble here. The incrementalism of the past will not work. The slow-turning wheels of the current political machinery cannot help us. The current system has led us to wealth inequality of historic proportions; the current system preferences businesses so shamelessly and with so little accountability,  they’ve pumped so many chemicals and carbon into the air and the water and the soil that we’ve lost 76% of the insect biomass and more than half of all invertebrates and 50% of the songbirds since the time I was my daughter’s age. And I am only middle-aged, not old at all, especially if you catch me on a day when I am running an ultramarathon in the mountains, which last year wasn’t possible because wildfires destroyed the air quality for too much of the summer and we had to wear masks, even inside the house.

We are in trouble. People go to rallies to protest hate and get killed by people who are at the rally to advocate hate and the president said but some nice people were there and a lot of people cheered that but even more were pretty uncomfortable, because how many of us would want this to be our epitaph, dead on the street, slain, and the president saying on television but wait, there are some nice people involved?

We are in trouble. We’re seeing bogeymen where there are just poor families hoping to spare their children and themselves from murder, having come from a place where government has broken down completely and there is no way for good guys to get enough guns to fight the bad guys with guns, so they run. For thousands of miles, with round-eyed infants and haunted-looking children. They come even though the Presidents of the United States and Mexico say, you’re not welcome here and they come even though citizens on both sides of the border where they hope to cross yell curse words at them, tell them go away, you are not wanted. No one asks, so no one answers, what are they supposed to do when going back means certain death? What are we telling them about the value of their lives, what are we saying about their humanity?

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You’d think the US would be more empathetic about children running from gun violence; after all, children in the US are scared they are going to be gunned down in school and it’s hard to tell them not to worry about it when they are in fact being gunned down in school – definitely way more than when I was in school. When I was in school there were zero, as in none, school shootings, but since Columbine in 1999, more than 220,000 kids have experienced gun violence in school.  Parents share the fears of their kids: Pew Research reports that 63% of parents say they are at least somewhat worried about the possibility of a shooting happening at their child’s school. And still the law of the land makes it easier to get a revolver than a bank account, and Congresspeople hide or stare into the middle distance as the friends of murdered high schoolers march and give speeches, rightly afraid to give the only recommendation their corporate overlords will allow, which is to buy more guns.

We’re in trouble because the CDC reports, “America is facing a suicide crisis.” Youth suicide has doubled in the US in just one decade. Adult suicide is up 25% in the last 15 years. I’m not even going to get into the opioid crisis, just point to the vast outline (like the kind the police chalk around a dead body) that it makes on our landscape, claiming more American lives than Viet Nam, only this time the ones pulling the triggers are wearing white doctor coats.

We’re in trouble because the ice is melting and the seas are rising and the five warmest years on the global record have all come in the 2010s, the 10 warmest years on record have all come since 1998, the 20 warmest years on record have all come since 1995, and jackass politicians claim to believe that none of this is caused by humans, all so their buddies can keep being multi millionaires running companies that keep extracting natural resources and keep pouring carbon into the atmosphere. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has told world leaders that they have a moral obligation to act on climate change and only 12 years in which to do it. Donald Trump said “No way,” massively cut environmental regulation and withdrew from the Paris climate agreement – even, as it must be said, the countries that remain in the agreement are failing on their commitments to curb climate change. We are in so much trouble.

The Arctic could be virtually free of ice in summer within people’s lifetimes and animals are going extinct at about 1,000 times the natural rate – up to half of plant and animal species in the Amazon and Galapagos, could face local extinction by the turn of the century. A billion butterflies have disappeared in less than a decade. Four of the most destructive hurricanes in US history have happened in the last 6 years. Seven of the most destructive California wildfires have happened in the last twelve months.

And the trouble just keeps coming. Our oceans contain multiple patches of plastic garbage the size of Texas and we add eight million more metric tons every year. By 2050 there will be more plastic in the oceans than there are fish. Already every fish you eat  – if you still eat fish that is, which I don’t – contains plastic. In the past two years we’ve lost 30-60% of all coral reef.

Our troubles on the Land extend to the Cloud. In the past decade, a relatively small handful of huge companies – Equifax, Marriott, Yahoo, Facebook – have been hacked to the tune of 1.6 billion username and password combinations, and yes, yours is probably among them. The great majority of our Congressional representatives don’t understand the most basic facts about technology or network effects, nor how to regulate the social media companies that are splitting the demos into warring factions and determining the outcome of elections.

We are in trouble, and we’re not the only ones: around the world autocracy is rising, less than half the world lives in what an American would recognize as freedom – and even Americans are less and less free, as Snowden showed us and Facebook keeps showing us.  We are in real trouble and real, massive, immediate action is needed because we have just twelve years to stop activities that are killing the ground beneath our feet. Twelve years to take concerted action to reverse the results of unfettered capitalism and run amok greed, or we’ll all pay the price. Some have already begun paying.

There is no more time for the incrementalism. More incrementalism is going to lead to more of the same, and people’s tolerance for more of the same is just about finished – our time for more of the same is about finished.

What happens next? Uneasy billionaire Nick Hanauer says the 99% will finally get sick of scraping by for a living based on keeping one’s head above debt and revolt. The pitchforks are coming, as he puts it in his TED Talk – and while he was speaking figuratively and not literally, it cannot be ignored that the Yellow Vest moment over a recent January weekend smashed its way into a government building with a forklift.

We’re in trouble, and we’re just about out of time. The clock is ticking on the environment. As for all of the Congresspeople and business people continuing merrily down the current path, I sometimes want to ask them: Don’t you have grandchildren? Just-fired EPA chief Scott Pruitt – who has two children – reversed an Obama-era effort to ban chlorpyrifos, a pesticide widely sprayed on citrus fruit, apples and other crops found to harm the brains of babies. even in tiny amounts.  How much more comic book villain can you get, putting a chemical universally understood by scientists to be harmful to humans and especially to the developing brains of babies back on the market?  I want to ask him, don’t you want a nice world for your grandchildren? Don’t you care that the act of continuing life in the current configuration condemns future generations to an ugly, collapsing world of social unrest, food and water riots, civil wars and extreme weather, killing millions upon millions? What will you tell your children about what you did to stop the headlong rush off the cliff that we’re currently engaged in? I don’t mean that question in a  blaming way, I am honestly interested.  The storybook saying – the one where “For want of a nail, a kingdom was lost” seems to apply, only instead of ‘nail’ use ‘a population smart enough to care about the world’ and instead of ‘kingdom’ use ‘planet’.

Today I read a Gallup poll that shows more than half of my fellow surveyed humans, surrounded by the silent deaths of a thousand species, think “climate change won’t affect them personally.” Did I mention in Australia this past week it was 122 degrees so many days, wild horses died by the dozens near dried up river beds, while in Manitoba it’s so bitterly cold at -40 F that it freezes the eyelashes on your face?  We’re in so much trouble, and they met at Davos just like they always do this year, and Tony Blair genteely pooh-poohed the idea that 26 people having more wealth than half the world could in any way be contributing to climate change (“All I see are people trying to solve problems.” TB) and you just want to scream given that research shows, indisputably, that the rich emit more carbon and contribute less money to fighting climate change than the poor. There’s no better way for an individual to heat up the environment than flying around in a private jet, and this week more than 1,500 are flying in and out of Davos, where the private jets director at the Air Charter Service that counts such things notes that there is an 11% increase in private flights since last  year, with a trend towards larger aircraft. Without even a whiff of irony, the World Economic Forum’s global risk report identified environmental challenges as the top list of dangers facing the world economy.

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Are we firefighters or are we arsonists, asks Bono onstage. Fifteen-year-old Greta Thunberg spoke truth to power – in a short speech that made me gasp at the bravery, she made it clear to the  WEF panelists that she considered them accountable arsonists. “You would have us believe the climate crisis is something we all have created, but that is not true. If everyone is guilty, then no one is to blame, and someone is to blame. The future of humankind rests firmly in your hands.”  Watch her TED Talk, which for once, is the exact right audience for a speaker that proposes to change the world.

After reading Anand Giriharadas, author of Winners Take All, there doesn’t seem to be much room for optimism.  He notes that our elites

“believe that their solutions deserve to be at the forefront of social change  – they may join or support movements initiated by ordinary people looking to fix aspects of society. More often, though, these elites start initiatives of their own, taking on social change as though it were just another stock in their portfolio.”

Giriharadas sees these initiatives as undemocratic, not reflecting collective problem-solving or universal solutions. Personally, I’ve come to dread the billionaire introduction as part of the fundraising process for the nonprofit where I work. What’s the business model? they all want to know. Oftentimes, they present us with their own pitch for a fund they want to put together for some crypto scheme light on details but heavy on resonance from forums like Davos, Paris, SXSW, etc.    Before reading Anand’s book, I thought that what I was experiencing was a San Francisco thing – where a relatively small handful of predominantly white males control most of the capital, and everyone is quick to number Air BnBn and Ubers and Facebooks and Googles on their ‘early investor of’ list, but none of these people are searching, on the back end, to rectify the damage done by these behemoths in their rise to monopolistic global powers with their social investments.  Even among so-called ‘social impact investors’ the business model is the principle question, a code for How will I make a killing? and how protected will my money be so that if things don’t go as plan I don’t actually risk anything? But, you know, also ‘help’ climate change.  Which makes no sense, when you consider that 95% of foundation funds are typically invested in Wall Street stocks, while only 5% is doled out to the clamoring hordes trying to rid the oceans of plastic, rid the air of smog, rid democracy of corruption, rid the world of desperate inequality. Why hold the 5% of impact investing to the same impact standard as the 95% invested in the very businesses that make impact investing necessary to start with?

“Left unaddressed, many foundations and universities are effectively taking part in the business of impoverishing the working class, and harming the environment in order to provide for a privileged few – whether they are recipients of development aid and local charities or university students.” ~The Dark Alliance of Global Philanthropy and Capitalism

Journalist for The Atlantic Helaine Olen noted many wealthy people can afford to give away much more money than they do  – the Chronicle of Philanthropy released in 2014 found those earning $200,000 or more per year reduced their giving during the Great Recession and its aftermath by 4.6 percent, while those bringing home less than $100,000 upped their donations by the same amount.  The more things change, the more they stay the same: back in 1892, The Boston Globe published an op-ed, naming names, arguing that the United States’ wealthiest citizens needed to give more money to charity. And yet they don’t, and when asked why, a philanthropic researcher could only say, shruggingly “I guess there is something visceral about watching their bank accounts go down,” which ignores that the vastly greater number of vastly poorer people with less to give handle this oddity about giving (the giver end up with less! the givee ends up with more!) much, much better.

The billionaires aren’t going to be embarrassed into saving the planet they can’t admit their outsized role in destroying. The hoarding is self-defeating and seemingly intractable – not because billionaires are inherently evil and selfish – they are not. Many are quite generous and demonstrate on a daily  basis a care for a world they acknowledge as much greater than themselves. It’s not a problem of individuals – they are merely part of a system that allows billionaires to exist while the majority of Americans slip into what has been defined as “the precariat class” – living paycheck to paycheck, one illness, towed car, lost job away from slipping into poverty. If you or I were offered the same advantages and privileges we’d probably behave in the same ways, and feel the same offense Howard Schultz demonstrates when people call him out of touch, but then provide an active demonstration of said state of out of touchness with his plaintive request to be called ‘a person of means’ or ‘ a person of wealth’ vs. a billionaire because billionaires ‘get a bad rap’, without a hint of irony or realization how precious this sounds.

And yet, still, there are  many reasons to feel optimistic.  There are groups springing up all over the world, ready to fight the deadly, inequality-widening  status quo.  People are anxious, people are mobilizing: I recently attended a climate change meeting, thinking maybe I could do some volunteer social media, and was astounded at the number of movements represented in an audience of about 100: people of all ages announced their alliances including 1,000 Grandmothers, Save the Planet, the Sunflower Alliance, the Poor People’s Campaign, Black Lives Matter, March For Our Lives, the Women’s March, Rising Tide North America, System Change, Radical Exchange and the Sunrise Movement were all represented. I felt strengthened at this cross hatching of communities, and the active efforts at inclusion, including starting with an acknowledgement that we were conducting the meeting on stolen lands. Never before have I sat among a group of people who radiated the same calm, attentive energy. I don’t know exactly what to do, person after person said as they stood and introduced themselves. It’s just that I’d never forgive myself for not trying to do something.  Hearing this again and again, I am optimistic.

I am optimistic that people are making a move to reclaim democracy. I do not believe, as Yascha Mounk has warned, that we may be entering a new era of the populist authoritarianism – that Trumpism is here to stay, at least for a few decades. I don’t believe it because I can see for myself how voters are mobilized.  When Mitt Romney laughed and said assuredly “I don’t think Americans want a president who pays more than is required for taxes,” people nodded in agreement – that was in 2012.  Today, people have a different response, a different context. As a recent story in The Atlantic noted, “If many Americans want the richest among them to give more maybe taxation, not philanthropy, is the more effective approach” and recent polls show that a majority of Americans do in fact support the richest among them (hear that Mitt?) to be taxed more – specifically, increasing the top marginal tax rate from 35% to 70 percent on income over $10 million. I am optimistic because the people are speaking and the Overton window is shifting and suddenly the pundits are correcting Michael Dell’s ill-advised (and even more ill -informed) attempt – from the stages of Davos, no less –  to dismiss the proposal by Alexandria Ocasio-Crotez and herself for making it.

I am optimistic because I see a Cambrian explosion of development in crypto currency and blockchain; for the first time social applications from censorship-resistant voting to borderless democracies to encrypted peer to peer lending to Universal Basic Income can become a reality.

I’m optimistic because even in the midst of all that is negative, there is light, illuminating the citizens of Venezuela in their chance at newfound freedom from a brutal dictatorship that has starved, impoverished and dispersed its citizens, but not defeated them. I’m optimistic because the first thing these beautiful beleagured people call for in the streets is democracy. They know, as we in the US are learning, that owning your voice is necessary for freedom, that a weakened democracy is at the root of all of the troubles listed here.

I’m optimistic because I see the decentralized development community building the new system that makes the existing system obsolete even as I write this, and it is a system of transparency and accountability, a system of trustlessness that removes the corruption-prone  human component. If that sounds like hyperbole consider that some countries are already cashless, and Bitcoin ATMs will be commonplace, globally, by the end of this year, and realize that maybe it just sounds like Moore’s Law, in action.

I’m optimistic, but I’m not kidding myself. Already the ocean this year is the warmest it’s ever been since we started measuring such things.  It will continue to warm over the next few years, even if we ceased all carbon emissions immediately, even if we reached zero emissions now. We’re going to find ourselves in new territory, with thousands – maybe hundreds of thousands – of climate refugees. It’s going to take all of our ingenuity to deal with the hand we’ve dealt ourselves. And yet, people are reaching to solve even this problem, with researchers Eric Posner and Glen Weyl defining a Sponsor an Immigrant program in their book Radical Markets: Uprooting Capitalism and Democracy For a Just Society. The question has become, not do we need radical solutions, but will our solutions be radical enough to make a difference – and in time?  Only time will tell.

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