Consensus Building Approach by Larry Susskind
Students are marching in the streets to protest the recent killings of Black Americans. They want those in positions of power to acknowledge that these deaths are, at least in part, the result of unchecked racism that is still very much alive in our country. Whatever progress has been made over the past fifty years to address inequality, unfairness, racial bias, ignorance, lack of empathy and unequal opportunities, there is still a long way to go before everyday life in America aligns with the ideals we espouse as a nation. The protesters want the institutions that they are part of to do a better job of addressing rampant unfairness and privilege in their normal course of business. (There isn’t a single class being offered in any college or university, for example, that couldn’t make a useful connection between what is being taught and the changes required to make the world a fairer place.) They want our political leaders to re-affirm that fairness and equality of opportunity are, in fact, important goals. They want to see explicit action and resource commitments that make it possible to achieve the democratic ideals we allude to all the time.
And, if the leaders in all the institutions and communities in the country no longer think that greater equality of opportunity and fairness in the allocation of collective resources are appropriate goals, then the protesters want them to admit that. Recent reports indicate that the majority of our citizens no longer think the American dream is something that they or their children can reasonable hope to achieve. That is, with the jobs they are likely to get, they won’t be able to afford the housing and services they require. With the public education available to them (at increasing costs), they won’t be able to get better jobs. And, with the cutbacks in government and government services, they won’t be able to count on the healthy environment that is a prerequisite to living a full life and providing something better for their children. If that’s what the majority face, the protesters want those in positions of leadership to own up to that. Because once they do, it might be possible to rouse the vast majority of people from their political lethargy.
Even with increasing control of our political process shifting to lobbyists and wealthy donors, the power of social media can not be suppressed. If the vast majority of people reach the conclusion that the inequalities and unfairness in our society are no longer tolerable, and they had an easy way to express their unhappiness, the noise would be deafening. If that noise were accompanied by an on-line mobilization effort around a very simple agenda, it would be possible to reframe the political discourse in the country and draw in the half of all eligible voters who don’t bother to vote. It now takes only 20% of eligible voters to win a Congressional seat. It doesn’t take much more than that to win the Presidency. If everyone eligible could vote on line, and their votes were clearly connected to an explicit action agenda (rather than a watered-down party platform), it would be relatively easy to engage the half of America that is too disheartened or angry to vote.
What might this new political agenda include? Not easy bromides or slogans about divisive social issues that have no consequence for how trillions of public dollars are spent. Rather, the agenda should include free public education through college for anyone whose family makes less than $100,000 a year. Free job training for anyone who chooses not to attend college. Free health care for anyone who needs it, but can’t afford it. Free food for any family that can’t afford it. Housing subsidies for anyone who can not afford market-reate housing. A retirement wage sufficient to live a meaningful life. The programs needed to accomplish all of these goals are already in place (although there are elected politicians trying to dismantle them). They are just not funded adequately. We have the financial resources in our overall economic system to cover these costs while still allowing continued economic growth. At the heart of everything is what we have forgotten about the role of government. It is only through our collective efforts that our individual well-being can be guaranteed, and government is the only mechanism by which we can act collectively. There is no way that each household can ensure clean water, clean air, adequate transportation, food that’s safe to eat, punishment of consumer fraud, access to information, a legal system that holds private parties to their contractual obligations, protection from terrorism, investment in basic science, and so on. Yet, as a country, we have been brainwashed. We think that shrinking the government is going to help us. Nothing we do privately will amount to anything without an adequate government system to protect us. Each of us is both a private actor and a citizen. People have been focused too much on the things they can do for themselves as private individuals, and not enough on the things we must all do together for our private interests to amount to anything.
Take the total cost of all the guarantees I have listed. Subtract the revenue raised by a reasonable tax on corporate wealth and profits. Divide the remainder by the number of households in America. Compare the remaining cost per household to the income and wealth that each household has. Calculate what a progressive system of taxation would need to raise to cover these basic guarantees. Design a system of taxation that rewards entrepreneurial effort, but only after our minimum collective costs are covered.
What we need are some very bright people to prepare a national budget starting with a clean sheet of paper. I think most people would be shocked to see how easily all the basic guarantees I have listed can be met. If people ran for office on a very specific agenda of expenditure and revenue priorities, we could hold our elected officials accountable (at every level of government) to fulfill these commitments (and nothing more). This would restore everyone’s sense of political efficacy. My colleague Sol Erdman and I have spelled out how this would work (what we called Interactive Representation or IR) in a book entitled THE CURE FOR OUR BROKEN POLITICAL PROCESS: How We Can Get Our Politicians to Resolve the Issues Tearing Our Country Apart (Potomac Books, $10 Kindle or Hardback). But, even if you don’t look at the book, think about what it will take to ensure greater equality of opportunity and fairness of results in America. Think about the things we have to do collectively because individuals working on their own can’t accomplish them. Think about using social media to mobilize people around a very simple agenda. Think about the things you can propose that would benefit the vast majority of Americans and ensure greater fairness in our society. Try to get the place where you work or study to put aside a little time to talk about the systematic racism and unfairness that people in our country face every day.
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