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A Modest Proposal, from a Concerned Citizen

Norman Ferris

How did our democracy get itself into a situation in which huge financial and industrial monopolies became "too big to fail," while ordinary Americans face the prospect that our hard-earned incomes will be vitiated for the rest of our lives, and our children and probably our grandchildren will face the same unjust erosions?

And how did our "law and order" society arrive at the point when an Attorney General, Eric Holder, required by statute to investigate and prosecute federal crimes, has apparently decided not to pursue charges against office-holders who have been arguably among the worst governmental law-breakers in American history, responsible, directly or indirectly, for the deaths of many thousands of innocent people, the needless destruction of billions of dollars of valuable property, and the fraudulent waste of enormous national resources? Apparently these men and women, alleged to have committed a multitude of criminal acts, are also "too big to fail."

It is clear that the "military industrial complex" that President Eisenhower warned us against as he prepared to leave office is not only alive and well but also far more influential than it was back in Ike's time. In our own day the end has too often come to justify the means. Profiteering has become the norm. Corruption is rampant. Fraud is everywhere. Tremendous waste and incompetence is countenanced as the "cost of doing business." Even outright murder is covered up. A "few bad apples" are prosecuted in order to silence criticism, but the major perpetrators are "too big to fail."

Financial conglomerates unscrupulously gamble with other people's money, hoping vastly to enrich themselves. If they overreach and lose their clients' funds, they expect American taxpayers to bail them out. Meanwhile, they and their counterparts in many other large monopolistic or semi-monopolistic corporations shamelessly lobby legislators to enact laws favorable to themselves (such as laws allowing tax deductions for lobbying legislators). Who pays? The American taxpayer.

Another common activity of large American corporations is to infiltrate federal and state agencies at the highest possible level with their own minions, who then endeavor to institute policies that will benefit their former employers' bottom line, while eliminating policies impeding corporate avarice. Implied is the promise of lucrative re-employment when these servants of greed leave public "service." The result? Additional victimization of ordinary American citizens.

Even worse is how the corporate oligarchy pollutes politics for profit. When "bundled" sums of money lavished upon a candidate for public office by corporate executives and their lobbyists reaches a total far beyond what average Americans can afford, such largess is called a campaign contribution. Let us call it what it really is. Bribe money. How many times have public officials taken such large amounts of money and then supinely carried out the wishes of those who supplied them? The "malefactors of great wealth," it seems clear, now own the federal government and many state governments as well.

How do these unscrupulous moguls and their servants in public office justify their behavior? With "spin," which is an euphuism for calculated distortions or outright lies. Such misleading wordplays, rarely exposed or answered, are so ubiquitous in the American corporate media that even if average Americans were educated to critique and analyze such mendacious propaganda (which they are not), the deluge of "spin" overwhelms rare efforts in the national and local media to get at the truth.

For-profit corporations, by their very nature, are amorally dedicated to two main goals, to make as much money as they can in the shortest possible time for their investors, and in the process to deliver vast rewards for those men and women who actually run these entities. A third goal is frequently to swallow up competing corporations until serious competition in a particular market ceases to exist. Once monopolies or near-monopolies are established, corporations become even greedier and more unscrupulous, until the expression "Robber Barons" is too tame a term to describe the corporate titans who now dominate virtually all aspects of American society.

To borrow a familiar expression, the American people need to "take their country back." But how?

We have too long avoided purging the way we elect our public officials of the corrupting influences that dominate the current system, which is rigged to give overwhelming advantages to candidates who can raise the most attempted bribe money from large vested interests and then employ it unscrupulously to saturate the corporate mass media with one-sided, sometimes fraudulent, propaganda in behalf of their corporate sponsors. Moreover, laws giving enormous advantages to incumbents prevent challengers, unless also backed by vested interests, or unless wealthy themselves, from campaigning on anything like a level playing field. These abuses can be rectified, at least partly, by passing laws requiring the same truth in political advertising that we insist apply to the marketing of food or drugs. Laws should also be enacted to prohibit overt political campaigning more than sixty days before any election, to prohibit political advertising in the mass media except during the same time period, and to set strict limits on money donated from any person or entity as "campaign contributions" to candidates, allowing enough for candidates to get their messages out but not enough for political action committees and/or wealthy individuals and corporations to determine the outcomes of elections and thus to obligate those who gain positions of public trust.

Andrew Jackson warned Americans many years ago, as did Theodore Roosevelt some seven decades later, that largely unregulated conglomerations of capital in the form of business monopolies are inimical to any truly democratic society. Under the Sherman and Clayton Acts as amended, formidable concentrations of economic domination were broken up into smaller entities, thus reducing the opportunities for the oligarchic parent corporations to victimize the public. It is time once more to "bust" the trusts and to institute tighter governmental regulation of all of the corporate businesses that directly impact the lives of American citizens.

Of course the aforementioned reforms are unlikely to be attained by petitioning a Congress frozen, as FDR put it, "in the ice of its own indifference," or by relying upon significant action by a President constrained by the Constitution from acting unilaterally. Only a powerful "outside the beltway" mass movement, well led and highly motivated, can accomplish what needs to be done.

In the United States there are many activist organizations dedicated to noble causes. What is now needed is for the leaders of these associations to come together and reach a consensus on a statement of agreed-upon objectives for reform, as well as a program of strategies and tactics for enacting those objectives into law, followed by a carefully calculated effort to rally a majority of the American people to support such an effort.

A national convention should be held of delegates from all interested progressive organizations, the number of delegates from each one proportional to its total membership, to draw up, as did the delegates in the first Continental Congress in 1776, not only a declaration of basic principles, but also a strong bill of indictment of existing abuses which need to be eliminated.

The convention should establish a mechanism for pursuing the enactment of essential reforms and a timetable for proceeding. Some reforms can best be initially sought at local levels where "greed is good" attitudes can most readily be exposed as inimical to the public good. Other reforms might first be pursued at the state level, in places where receptivity seems most likely. But the enactment of reforms of the greatest importance, comparable to the passage against tremendous opposition of our Social Security, Medicare and civil rights laws, should be pushed at the national level, in the hope that a majority of the members of Congress might be willing, for once, to put aside pursuit of personal political and economic gain, in order to act solely for the public welfare, with the President joining in and perhaps eventually assuming leadership of such a movement.

Absent such an unlikely reorientation of our current governmental institutions, a Populist movement unmatched in American history will be required. Such a movement is feasible. Something like it occurred ten score and thirteen years ago when our forefathers came together to establish a new nation "conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." They, too, initially acted outside the framework of existing government institutions until, eventually, they prevailed upon those same institutions and established new ones to adopt the principles that they had enumerated.

Although what the Founding Fathers accomplished near the end of the eighteenth century was hardly the work of Populists, their efforts, against massive resistance, succeeded in creating a better world. We ought to be able to learn from them, from the enlightened citizens who enacted the first state constitutions, and from the delegates who came to the United States from many nations to draw up and sign the Charter of the United Nations.

In accomplishing these feats of daring statesmanship, these venerated leaders won a well-deserved immortality for themselves. Are there not men and women among us today capable of doing as much?

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Dr. Norman Ferris is an emeritus professor of history from Middle Tennessee State University and an author of scholarly books and essays in the field of American diplomatic history. A former naval intelligence reserve officer assigned while on active duty to the office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon, he is also a former national officer of the American Association of University Professors and a current member of the board of directors of Humanities Tennessee, the state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Dr. Ferris lives on a farm outside Murfressboro, Tenn. Contact: or 615-896-0429.

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