Democracy Vs. Capitalism, Or, Why We Don't Have Supertrains, Part 1
October 6, 2009 - 6:53pm ET
Michael Moore's latest movie Capitalism: A Love Story, not only warns against greed and the love of money, but calls for a democratization of the economy. I think he's right, both at the macro level where our elected representatives need to take more of a hand in directing productivity towards meeting public needs, and at the micro level where an authoritarian workplace culture needs to be replaced with greater egalitarianism.
What does that mean, and might we more easily get benefits much-needed, economy-boosting high speed rail out of a more democratic economic system?
First, let's look at the implications for trying a more democratic economy at the macro level of national policy.
On one hand we have factories, offices and skilled workers going idle. Capital is going idle, as investors resist backing new ventures and banks are hesitant to lend.
On the other hand, the United States has significant public infrastructure needs that, while affecting individual actors only a little, affect the country and overall business climate a great deal.
No one business or person is going to benefit enough from the high speed, intercity rail that even the Obama administration has only timidly backed so far to invest, or be able to invest, the money needed to fund it. Particularly in terms of transportation, the cooperation and consensus needed to secure rights-of-way, as well as the planning foresight to best determine route needs, requires government scale action.
The private sector is simply incapable of putting together something like the federal highway system, from which every American citizen and business, and every foreign business engaged in commerce with US firms, benefits every single day. We indisputably need it, and it could only have come about through the largest, most democratic institution in the United States, the government in which we all invest.
Yet that system of roads and bridges has passed its shelf life in many cases, as tragedies like the 2007 bridge collapse in Minneapolis so tragically demonstrate. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimated in 2005 that it would cost $1.6 trillion to restore our civic infrastructure, primarily transportation related.
If we had a National Infrastructure Bank to finance the diffuse profits of good infrastructure, with government backing ensuring buy-in from all potential beneficiaries, this gap in need could be more readily met. Beyond even straight repairs, a nationally planned effort could better look at a full mix of transportation needs and build something more fitting to the modern era than the original Eisenhower-era interstates. We've learned a lot since then, or so we should hope.
While even the hard right Chamber of Commerce backs such a bank, the organization spends much of its other time effectively questioning either the sense or morality of government intervention in the marketplace. Even when it works very well. Unless, that is, the government is providing subsidies to powerful corporations represented by the Chamber in order to preserve the economic status quo, in which case they don't mind.
Yet if our economy had a truly democratic ethic, it wouldn't be such a freak event to hear business leaders and public officials talk about directing business productivity towards the greatest common good. Certainly, that's what everyone at least pays lip service to when discussing the policy direction of accountable, democratic governments. Yet you can see in the health care debate that the urge to protect the private profits of a few companies often outweighs the obscene cost of our health financing system to individuals and businesses - that doesn't sound like democracy.
Corporations were originally chartered for the purpose of providing some public good, and our democratic government was supposed to be all about that (work in progress, but it was the plan.) That's what needs to be asked of our institutions, and the broader economy, once again.
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Views expressed on this page are those of the authors and not necessarily those of Campaign for America's Future or Institute for America's Future