Friday, April 23, 2004

Hey Ralphy Boy!

Ralph Nader, a man whom I respect deeply, came to Tucson and spoke at the Law School yesterday. As is always the case, every word Ralph spoke, though it might have seemed revolutionary or fringe to some listeners, was simple and unalloyed truth about the state of the American polity, society, and economy. No man sees America more clearly than Ralph Nader.

The central theme of his speech was the role of corporations in our society. Their power and influence are the central fact of political power in our time. The Supreme Court's decision to confer Constitutional protections upon corporations at the end of the 19th century is probably the defining Constitutional event of the 20th. Corporations now have all the same Constitutional rights as real people, save only the 5th Amendment's right against self-incrimination. Yet they are not people; they are immortal, immoral, conscienceless, legal fictions designed only as a mechanism for increasing shareholder weath. They have no alleigence to the community - acting from such motivation invites legal action against the corporation's officers. They have no alleigence to the nation - they have no feelings to stir at the sight of a flag, or the death of our nation's soldiers. They have no pity, no remorse, no conscience, no regrets - clinical diagnosis would classify them as sociopaths. Yet these are the entities to which we have ceeded control of our government, our society, and the fate of humanity.

Corporations are designed to accumulate wealth. When our Constitutional jurisprudence equates money with speech, what hope have real people to make their voices heard? Corporations are designed to reduce and externalize costs in order to maximize profits. The real costs of doing business are transferred whenever possible to taxpayers. Falling wages, the costs associated with "Globalization" (which is really just seeking lower cost structures), social displacement and disintegration, and environmental degradation, are the natural result of allowing corporations to pursue their mandates unchecked. The push for deregulation and tort reform is not to make industry more efficient, it is to allow greater profits by allowing corporations to create more, and larger, externalities to burden the public. While the tax burden grows ever greater for real people who work, the tax burden on wealth and corporate income is being systematically lowered. Corporations paid 35% of all taxes in the 1930s, today that share is down to 7%. The effect of corporations' mindless, yet ingenious, pursuit of return on investment above all else is systematically squeezing the life out of civil society and endangering the sustainability of our culture, our polity, and our world.

We all grow up corporate, Ralph says. Corporate crime and malfeasance, which costs society far more in terms of money, suffering, and lives than street crime, becomes invisible. We don't see the beauty of a person's culture, values, or character; instead we see only physical beauty which can be marketed, enhanced, and profited from. We no longer see politics in terms of the division of power, only as the petty symbolic squabbles and personal traits of candidates. As a result, ever more citizens stop listening, stop voting, and stop expecting things to change. The beneficiaries are corporations, who have trained us not to see that they have all the power, and that we have none when people stop doing the one thing corporations cannot: vote. We are obsessed with material possessions, getting ahead, getting the Benjamins - such values are universally recognized as being difficult to reconcile with valuing community, family, love, ideals, and strong personal values. That materialism can compete so strongly with the natural call of the human heart indicates that the corporation's values have become a part of our socialization.

We are conditioned to view so many of our nation's problems - heathcare, living wages, energy independence, pollution, and public transport - as intractable and nearly insoluble. Yet the conflict is clarified if one simply looks at who does not want these problems solved because the problem is profitable. In each case, corporate power defends a disfunctional status quo - health insurance and drug companies, low wage employers like Walmart and McDonalds, oil companies, industrial polluters, and car makers. Were the power of corporations in our political system reduced, the many solutions to these problems that other nations have already pioneered could be readily applied. Solutions aren't the problem, implementing them over the powerful objections of corporations are.

It is hard to decide to NOT vote for what you know to be true. A person who is clearly articulating the truth deserves your vote over one you know is constrained by long habit and training to say as little as possible. It is hard to vote for a man you know is carefully avoiding certain topics, advocating solutions which treat symptoms while leaving the underlying pathology intact, regardless of his good intentions. It is hard to cast your vote for, as Ralph puts it, the lesser problem. But as Arrianna Huffington said today on the Daily Show, "You don't remodel your house when it's on fire."

As much as I believe that what Ralph is saying is vitally important, and I pray that he gets more media attention and gets into the debates, I will not be voting for Ralph Nader. He may be the best person to lead the Nation. He may be the one wise man in a Nation of fools. But the White House is on fire. Bush will do far more harm to our country than Kerry could ever do, even with some of his more misguided notions.

The likelihood of a harm occuring, as well as its gravity, affects total risk associated with an event. The likelihood of Bush's re-election and the harm it would do are both very great. Even if Kerry does little active good, he has a much greater chance of defeating Bush than Nader. Though Nader might do this nation a world of good by leading it, he can only piss on the Bush fire, while John Kerry has the entire Firefighter's Union at his side. The utility derived from a vote for Kerry is thus much greater, even though he may provide less ultimate benefit himself.

I admire Nader. I fervently wish he could be our President. But I won't vote for him. I did so in 2000, when AZ was not a swing state. But this year, every vote in AZ counts for too much. We are one of the 14 states identified as battleground swing states by both parties. That means that every vote in a swing state is worth at least 3 1/2 times a vote in other states. Add to this the likelihood that few will cross party lines, and if you are an independent voter, regardless of your registration, the power of your vote is ampliflied even more. Given that the state is expected to be very close and might be won by just a few thousand, or even a few hundred votes, your vote becomes awesomely powerful, and greatly privileged over than of many other Americans in terms of it's electoral power. Don't triffle with the power that circumstances and demographics have gifted you.

Harness your vote to Kerry's fire-fighting team, don't piss into the wind with Ralph.

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