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The Pinworms of Peace and Prosperity

They’re all small things. They seem hardly worth noticing. And because Mother Nature has nothing to do with them, we don’t even react with total disgust.

We should, though. They’re a disease of the body politic as bad as any pinworm. The genius of the Karl Roves of the world, who feel that power and money are wasted on people, is realizing that people will ignore small things. Throw someone in jail for exercising free speech, and you have a fight on your hands. But make sure that only compliant reporters get “the story,” and they’ll fall all over themselves to be your mouthpiece. It’s all those little things we can’t be bothered with while we try to stop war, pestilence, and pollution that cause war, pestilence, and pollution.

What follows isn’t a complete list. Far from it. But it’s what occurs to me off the top of my head, and it’s a start.

Accounting rules

What could be more boring than accounting rules? But they hold the key to the environmental destruction that’s getting worse by the minute.

The costs a business has to include in its accounting are determined by market forces and regulations. I’ve put regulations in bold because it’s convenient for people seeking profit to pretend that only market forces are legitimate. But a market is a social creation. Decisions about what may be bought and sold are social decisions. Legitimate pricing and methods of selling are also decided socially. After all, if the only rule is finding a buyer, you can find buyers for human beings. If the only rule for payment is being able to extract the money, then protection rackets are underutilized business opportunities. Some things just aren’t right, no matter what the profit potential is. The only point of disagreement is where to draw the line on what is out of bounds.

People draw that line as far as they can. Just because that’s understandable is no reason to let them get away with it. There are, for instance, measurable medical costs to pollution, as well as the expense of clean-up, reduction in real estate values, and opportunity costs for all the sustainable uses excluded by the destruction of the resource. There are huge costs in lost earnings and national productivity when near-slave labor is used (at both ends of the exploitation), and there are local and global medical and legal system expenses associated with forcing people into poverty.

Those are costs of a specific way of doing business, and right now we, as a society, are saying it’s legitimate to keep those costs off the books. Somebody else has to pay for it: individuals, or taxpayers, or (the perennial favorite) future generations. That is a subsidy–a subsidy–for those businesses.

There is no law of Nature that says this must be so. Whether the rich and powerful have to take responsibility for their actions is a social decision.

The costs involved are not precisely known, but in that they’re no different from lots of other estimates businesses or societies must make. Many things aren’t precisely known, such as likely bad debts, the value of goodwill, or retiree medical expenses, but that doesn’t prevent them from being part of a balance sheet.

A simple accounting rule could, overnight, make crimes against the planet cease to pay. If the subsidies were removed and all the costs of production were included as costs, market forces would suddenly work the way they’re supposed to. The least costly, most efficient products would actually cost the least. How’s that for a bizarre idea?

Corporate persons

Speaking of weird ideas, I find the concept of corporate personhood right up there with talking to God via the fillings in your teeth. I can’t even imagine how it got started, except perhaps as a delusion caused by thinking that words are real. In its early history, the term “corporation” (from the Latin for “body”) was applied to groups on a quest (e. g. the Catholic Church or the East India Company, which in the days of its beginnings was more like going to the Moon than starting a business). These bodies were like those in a body politic, not like those that go to the doctor for appendicitis.

Governments confer individual rights and protect them, so governments chartered the old style entities and gave them rights, presumably to aid them in their quests. (Yes, in practice that worked about as well as do all these “incentives to innovation,” but that’s a separate issue.) Well, governments aren’t going to go to all this trouble for free. They charged money for charters.

Then, in the 1800s, some governments were struck with the realization that they could hand out these bits of paper to anybody willing to fork over cash. It was a new way to get money! Why limit the field of potential sources to people on a mission? In the words of Wikipedia [1], talking about the mid-1800s,

“Corporate law at the time was focused on protection of the public interest, and not on the interests of corporate shareholders. Corporate charters were closely regulated by the states. Forming a corporation usually required an act of legislature. Investors generally had to be given an equal say in corporate governance, and corporations were required to comply with the purposes expressed in their charters. … Eventually, state governments began to realize the greater corporate registration revenues available by providing more permissive corporate laws.”

So the corporation as we know it was born. They were group entities–body business rather than body politic, so to speak–but it didn’t take long for bright wits to realize that real bodies had more rights than business bodies did. They wanted some of that. So they spread the notion that this was unfair. All people are created equal, aren’t they?

Astonishingly enough, they found judges who fell for it. Brad Plumer [2] had an interesting post on this topic a while back. He cites Barry Yeoman:

In 1922, the Supreme Court ruled that the Pennsylvania Coal Co. was entitled to “just compensation” under the Fifth Amendment because a state law, designed to keep houses from collapsing as mining companies tunneled under them, limited how much coal it could extract. … [In the mid-1990s a] federal appellate court struck down a Vermont law requiring that milk from cows treated with bovine growth hormone be so labeled. Dairy producers had a First Amendment right “not to speak,” the court said.

However, these odd “rights” don’t extend to the responsibilites that real people have. Sludge dumpers argue that their rights to due process and equal protection under the law are violated when towns prevent them from dumping, but when real bodies are harmed by the toxic waste, then somehow that’s nobody’s fault and somebody else’s problem. This is not the way it works for real people with real rights. To begin with, I can’t dump toxic waste in your garden, and if I did, I’d be liable for all the ensuing damages.

If corporations are persons, then why aren’t they persons all the way? They get the rights, but they don’t get the consequences of their wrongs. But then again, how could they? Only people can pay fines, even when they’re shareholder people. Only people can go to jail. And the individuals in question can always argue that the crime wasn’t theirs because it was committed by a much larger group of people. So the individual’s right to equal protection means that nobody is punished and the crimes continue.

The only real solution is to do away with the legal fiction of corporate personhood. Corporations are business entities, not people. Trying to fool people into believing otherwise is just a way to give a few rich people an excuse to trample everyone else. Nice for them; bad for everyone else; and the reason why it’s such a durable piece of flimflam. Anything that helps the rich and powerful has huge staying power.

Corporations are not people. The people who run them are people, and the ones in control should be the ones responsible. That does not mean shareholders, since it’s another ridiculous legal fiction that they control anything. The people actually making the decisions must be the ones facing personal consequences if they break the law, the same way any other criminal does. If that principle were actually applied, corporate executives would either straighten out or we’d have to fine them enough to pay for all the new jails we’d be building.

Either way, the small legal change required to recognize corporations for what they are would mean that they cease to function as covers for squeezing out money at all costs “maximizing profits.”

Counting votes

Voting procedures are another supremely dull subject. Counting votes seems like a no-brainer. Voter fills in ballot, election official counts it. End of story.

The funny business comes in with the minutiae of how the vote is counted. To begin with, through the magic of voting districts, the votes a politician likes can be grouped together, and the undesirable ones excluded. Just pick the exact places where the voters you want to include or exclude live and, at least in the US–exporter of democracy to the world–so long as you can draw a contnuous line around them, you’re all set. It’s even okay if you need to include a stretch of highway where nobody lives, as in the map below.

From Wikipedia [3]:

Politicians aren’t supposed to choose their voters, at least not in a democracy. The result doesn’t take long to appear. In the US, only 57 of the 435 seats in the lower House were decided by margins narrower than 10%, or, to put it another way, only about one eighth of the seats were even close to contested. This is not because the representatives in the other 87% of seats are so wildly loved.

Politicians are not objective, disininterested parties in this matter, and they will never find a solution. Judges can’t find a good solution because they don’t actually know anything about what is, in essence, a mapping problem. The solution is to find a few geographers with a good grasp of mapping software, and to tell them to draw the most compact districts that are compatible with population distribution and terrain.

Another way to waste votes is to avoid systems with proportional representation. The US has a winner-take-all system for any given district or state, depending on the office in question. This means that 49.9% of the voters can be left without representation. Coupled with other vote-counting shenanigans, the result is that much less than half the voters can elect most of the politicians. That suits the politicians just fine.

The third wrinkle is how the votes are actually counted. Can voters stipulate their second and third choices? Rarely. With a large enough field of candidates, that could allow a hideous reactionary with support in the single digits to win the election. For instance, say there are 15 candidates, one of them a violent bigot with the 9% violent bigot vote sewed up. The 14 rational folks split the remaining 91% into 6.5% chunks. Result: the bigot is elected. In a more sensible system voters can say who their second choice is. When their first choice drops out of the running, those votes go to number two, and so on. (There are interesting mathematical complexities to methods of adding the preferences. See this article in Science News [4] for a clear and brief summary.)

Last, there is ease of voting. How easy is it to register to vote? How simple is the voting process? Can you, for instance mail in a ballot, or do you have to take time off work to make it to a distant polling place that turns out to have a shortage of ballots? Probably needless to say, the party most dependent on the ability of polticians to select their voters, which currently in the US is the Republicans, opposes every measure that would help voters to actually vote. Artificial barriers to voting don’t have the same drama as shooting at voters. But just because the barriers are camouflaged as boring procedures or minor organizational glitches doesn’t make them any less powerful. It makes them more powerful.

(I have an earlier post, Democracy doesn’t work [5], that goes on (and on?) about all these vote-related points.)

None of these boring procedural matters can be easily dealt with in the customary political framework because the customary political framework is what caused the problem to begin with. And yet they’re too boring or technical to be dealt with by the sledgehammer of popular referendum, when that’s even available. And so something that is essentially electoral bookkeeping has become the most effective way of subverting democracy from within.

Free speech

Free speech is the bedrock of a free society, and a free society is the only way people can stop abuses of power, whether that’s tyranny, corruption, or exploitation. Free speech, in other words, is essential to peace and prosperity.

Okay. That’s not exactly a startling insight. And yet, we seem to be so used to it, we’ve stopped thinking about what it actually means.

The point to free speech is not just to stand on a soapbox at Hyde Park Corner (or balance on one in a blog called Acid Test). It’s for people to become informed. It’s to enable them to know enough to make rational decisions about what’s in their real self-interest.

That implies to several things. Unpleasant facts have to be as easily accessible as pleasant ones. But that means news as entertainment won’t do. Only entertainment can pull in the large viewer numbers beloved by advertisers, but time is limited, so entertainment elbows out information. The result is that on a planet spiralling toward World War III, and in the country leading the charge, the big story is about how a celebrity twit shaved her head. (For those who doubt, and who can find cached versions, check out the headlines for Feb. 17, 2007.) The idea that commercial news is incompatible with the information needed for a free society may well count as a startling insight in the US.

There’s another overlooked problem in the mere definition of free speech. Supposedly, it’s simple a matter of everyone being free to say anything.

Which is nonsense. Take some obvious examples. Threatening speech is not covered by free speech laws anywhere. Hate speech is starting to be recognized for what it is, and is losing the free speech protection it should never have had. Advertising is limited to some small extent by truth in advertising laws. The general idea is that speech whose primary purpose is to hurt people or that could be cheating them operates under a different set of rules. It’s free only if it’s truthful and not harmful. (Note that art, which presumably speaks to a deeper truth, doesn’t and shouldn’t fall under these limits. Yes, the boundaries can be hard to find, but we can muddle through on that like we always have.)

Here again, that’s not new, but an obvious corollary to the truth-in-advertising laws has been ignored. If speech designed to get something out of you should be truthful, then what about campaign speeches? They’re designed to extract votes rather than money, but the same need to protect people from snake-oil salesmen applies. If solid information is essential to democracy, then truth-in-political-campaigning laws are even more important than truth in mere soap-selling.

There are and always have been limits on free speech because that is, ironically enough, the only way to maintain the freedom of speech. New technology gives people new ways to avoid the necessary limits, and it’s past time for regulations to catch up.

The sticky problem, of course, is what, exactly, the regulations should be. At the extreme, it’s not a hard question. The most egregious, lynch mob-type hate speech can be relegated to criminality, where it belongs. Cyberbullying is nothing but criminal harassment using technology. But other than the cleacut cases, I’m not sure. What do you do about the Limbaughs and Malkins of the world? To say nothing of the Faux News’s? The people who are expressing opinions but often lie about the facts that supposedly back them up? I could imagine a system where after being caught in, say, five falsehoods, shows like that would have to have a split screen or a voiceover. On one side will be the usual presenter, and on the other the actual facts of the case. I don’t see how it could be done in practice, but I love the mental image of someone like Limbaugh having to compete with reality.

Free speech now needs the lawyerly, tedious task of separating the signal from the noise. If we don’t get on it, free speech will continue being drowned out and one of these days we’ll realize that peace and prosperity drowned with it.

And Finally…

From apparently picayune or silly things, it takes only a few short and obvious steps to see that they’re really the tiny switches enabling huge problems. Accounting rules, legal fictions, electoral procedures, commercial “news,” none of these seem important, let alone worldchanging. But they are. Just look at how impossible it is to change anything about these so-called details. In the US it’s become increasingly obvious over the last three election cycles from 2000 to 2006 that our system is badly broken. And yet even as small a change as requiring a paper trail–which is not really a change at all, just a more cheat-proof accounting procedure–takes huge effort to implement.

The pinworms who survive only because the immune system doesn’t notice them know exactly how crucial these things are. The only question is whether or not they can fool the rest of us long enough to kill us.