I’ve been thinking about the economic stimulus and its ugly cousin, the Wall Street bailout for a long time now, and what it means for us, both as participants living in an economy that we have little control over and as citizens of a democracy that we, at least in theory, have ultimate control over. Rather than get into the stimulus bill itself, which I find inscrutable and insanely long, I’m more interested in the people and thought that brought it about.
The idea behind Congress is that most people either don’t have the time or the expertise to run the government. Back in the late Eighteenth Century, most people, the commoners, plebeians or the mob, simply didn’t have anywhere near the education or experience required to participate in fundamental functions of government. From a more practical perspective, a complex society simply couldn’t function if everyone had to be involved in every decision of the government. Direct democracy, which today takes the form of popular voting, town hall meetings and caucuses, is a very time-consuming process. It takes a lot of work to be an active participant in direct democracy, if only to make informed choices when going to vote twice a year. Imagine the amount of research done for learning the ballot measures for the average major election year, and multiply that by every day.
Congress (and state legislatures, and local boards and the like) has to deal with extremely complex issues as a matter of course. Society would simply grind to a halt if everyone had to deal with all those issues. Infrastructure would break down, science would stop, the power would go out, and so on. Thus, we hire people to go to Washington to deal with that. They’re supposed to go to Washington to represent the people who live near them and to fight for their interests.
Of course, the reality is quite different from my overly simplistic summary. Yes, we live in a representative democracy, but we are far from represented in Washington. People always complain about the obvious disconnect between what the country wants and what comes out of Congress. The bailout and the stimulus are the most recent and egregious examples. The American public was overwhelmingly opposed to bailing out Wall Street and put an incredible amount of pressure of Congress not to pass the bill. It makes perfect sense that the public would feel this way since we’ve been spoon fed the idea that in a free market capitalist system those who can’t keep their competitive edge, fail. Yet somehow that idea is being pushed aside in favor of a system that keeps failing and uncompetitive financial institutions from being revealed as the broken and unsustainable institutions they truly are. However, despite this fact Congress passed the bailout overwhelmingly, with virtually no restrictions on how the money was to be spent. The stimulus is a similar situation, but the public is in favor of a package that creates and protects jobs, public health and forces banks, especially ones that received bailout money, to resume lending. What we got was a gift to corporations, but very little protection or economic help to workers or homeowners.
We assume that government is corrupt, and with good reason. The question is why? We have the power to remove people who we don’t like. If a congressman sucks, we kick them out and stick in someone better, right? Well, no. The majority of congressional seats are considered safe. Those people are so secure in their seats that they’re highly unlikely to be unseated by an opponent, even one from the same party. The power of incumbency is one of the strongest forces in American politics. One of the reasons for this tends to be the lack of credible opponents. Take my representative, who happens to be the speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi. By all accounts, people in San Francisco think that she’s been doing a rather shitty job of leading House Democrats to fulfill the promises that swept them back into power. She (and Harry Reid) caved to the Bush Administration time and time again, even when the public was clearly against Bush. Even after Obama’s massive victory, Congress still bent to Bush’s will all through the lame duck session. Does Congress do these things because the members are hideously corrupt, or because they are so weak-willed that they simply lack the ability to stand up to the worst president in US history, who has already been repudiated by the public? Sadly, no. The true answer is as simple as it is depressing. Congress acts the way it does because we the people are not their constituents. Congress does not represent we the people, it represents those who pay them. Of course there are members who truly try to do their jobs for the betterment of we the people, but as a body, we the people are just the chumps who pull levers every two years.
Despite the public anger towards Congress, the same people tend to keep getting elected. Why? Despite the massive corruption in the political system, no reforms are demanded by we the people to force our representatives to represent our interests over those who prey on us. Congress falls over itself to grant a wonderful socialist paradise to Wall Street, but balks at keeping middle class families in their homes, even though to rescue the economy, bailing out the middle and working class while leashing Wall Street is the guaranteed path to success.