Saturday, November 7, 2015

Fourth-Down Punt Economics

© Charles D. Hayes

Imagine what would happen if the referees calling penalties in professional football were paid exorbitant salaries by only the richest teams. One thing is sure: we would deem it a sham. If the game was obviously rigged, most people would stop watching. Ironically, that’s precisely what we have today in American politics. Our elected representatives (our supposed economic referees) are being openly bribed because not enough of us are watching and so many of our citizens don’t vote.

Both of our major political parties are unduly influenced by moneyed special interests; one is just more blatant and ideologically open about it than the other. Unfortunately, the reason many people don’t pay attention to politics is that they know the system is corrupt and they feel powerless.

Because of special interest lobbying, corporations never have to punt. They own our referees. Through legislative influence they have effectively devastated labor unions while enabling banks to charge excessive fees for administering customer accounts and to move away from traditional services to casino-like investments where profits are capitalized. They take big risks, fully confident that, because of their size, catastrophic losses will be socialized.

Some of our largest and most profitable businesses pay poverty-level wages with the assurance that taxpayers will support their employees with food stamps. The sheer amount of corporate profits in offshore banks to escape taxation is breathtaking, while lobbying by the military industrial complex is so effective, our generals and admirals can’t even cancel the manufacture of weapons they don’t want or need.   

Inequality has been escalating at record rates for decades, a direct result of legislation on behalf of those with an economic advantage and the power to leverage their influence at every opportunity. One strategy has been to incite public anger at the poor for not pulling their weight and appearing to game the system by getting something for nothing, even when the evidence shows that’s not true. This feeds people’s inherent tribalistic tendencies because blaming the poor allows one to identify vicariously with the rich and powerful.

Capitalism is an incredibly dynamic system capable of both good and ill, but today’s economic playing field is not in any sense level. Capitalism works best with strictly regulated competition. In professional football, we don’t hear arguments about a minimum wage because teams have to compete for players, causing compensation to soar.

The same principle applies to the workplace. Capitalism only works effectively for working people when business has to compete for employees. To assume that human beings should work full time for poverty wages in the richest country in the world is as absurd as it would be to play football without protective gear.  

The notion that free markets magically arrive at fair wages for work performed is a fairy tale. Nothing is free, and our laws for business and labor are biased by design. The commercial usage of natural resources does not remotely reflect its environmental costs. Moreover, elected officials’ dependence on private donations means legislation is never free of partiality. And finally, far too many of the rules and regulations we live by are created in secret.         

Football, of course, is just a game and may seem to be of little significance, but we are drawn to it precisely because of our tribalistic instinct for belonging. Sports fans display near fanaticism in their insistence that referees be fair when calling penalties. Notice how upset they get when a penalty appears unjust. But building an economy where people can earn a decent living is more important by orders of magnitude than scoring points in a game. That we insist on fairness in sports contests, and not in matters where so much more is at stake, reveals a tragic flaw in human behavior.

The only way we will ever achieve a level economic playing field in which the interests of average citizens are matters of real political concern is to publicly fund elections and forbid the bribing of our elected officials. Until this is accomplished, the ideologies of the Left and Right will always matter less than the degree of corruption we’re willing to accept.

The first order of business is to stop cheerleading with the mindset of the 1950s. The American aspirations for hard work and self-reliance haven’t changed, but our methodologies for contracting and compensating wage labor have been radically degraded and diminished over the last half-century. The rules, regulations, and taxes that created the middle class have been slowly but steadily altered beyond recognition.

If professional football had kept pace with our politics these past five decades, the Wall Street team would take the field with equipment and talent comparable to what the New England Patriots have today. The opposing team representing working people, however, would be an assembly of high school B-stringers, who would show up without helmets or shoulder pads. Every time they got the ball, it would automatically be fourth down with a fifteen-yard penalty tacked on and no time-outs remaining.

In November 2016, it will be time for a new lineup of referees to take the field. Let’s make sure they have an edict for public funding of elections and are individuals who will strive to overturn Citizens United legislatively. Let’s elect representatives who will look out for average Americans with an implicit understanding that, if they fail, they will be held accountable. The penalty will be that they’ll be deemed off sides, out of bounds, and soon out of office.         
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