Let’s stop lying about the state of the planet and what it will really take to fix it. Let’s stop lying about who the “founding fathers” were and what kind of constitution they wrote. Let’s stop lying to each other that we can fix everything by electing better people to office.
We live in a bubble of myths. They scramble our brains. They make it difficult for us to see the forest, rather than just individual trees; especially when the most powerful forces within our system whisper those myths incessantly in our ears.
While it’s certainly easier to blame the latest president for our state of affairs, the reality is much more troubling—that we have a system of law and government which poses as a working democracy while guaranteeing the destruction of the planet. In other words, it’s the hardware, not the software. It’s a faulty system.
Here’s what we believe:
- We believe that the planet is in bad shape, but that we can fix it by recycling, buying electric cars, and taking shorter showers.
- We believe in the “founding fathers,” the “rule of law,” and our constitution, and that we need to “strengthen” our democracy, which assumes we had one to begin with.
As they say, denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.
Let’s start with our planet, the planet Earth. Almost all major ecosystems are in various throes of decline; climate change-caused catastrophes have now become the norm; and our very own life support systems are all under siege.
We are rapidly turning the planet into one giant Superfund site, and we show no signs of putting on the brakes.
Yet with one unified voice, democrats and republicans alike call for more economic growth, even though more “growth” means more destruction of the planet. Smart growth, green growth, sustainable growth—it doesn’t matter what you call it; it’s all about the belief that we can continue to consume without causing more damage to the planet.
When was the last time a politician called for “less” rather than “more?” When was the last time a government called for “negative growth” or a “reduction in GDP” as necessary for survival?
The only thing that believes in endless growth, other than our politicians, is a cancer cell. And we all know what eventually happens to the host.
The democracy myth
Then there’s the belief that we live in a democracy. Democracy literally means that the people govern themselves. In a democratic republic, people elect other people who are then supposed to govern in the interest of those who elected them. You know, “of the people, by the people, for the people” and all that jazz.
In our “federal” system, the federal government reigns supreme—that means that laws passed by Congress legally override laws adopted by any state or municipal government. Given that supremacy, the ability of people to elect people who will govern in the public interest would seem to be the determiner of whether we have a democracy.
Want to get elected to Congress? Just reach into your pocket and pull out the $2 million average cost to be competitive; or the $5 million it takes to be competitive for a Senate race. For the House, that means raising $2,700 a day—and that’s after you decide to sell your soul to one of the major parties to have a shot at moving to Washington.
Elizabeth Warren raised over $42 million to win her seat. That means raising over $19,000 a day for six years!
Couple this with the Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court (and the multitude of cases that came before it, recognizing constitutional “rights” for corporations), in which the Court guaranteed that corporations can dump unlimited amounts of cash into races for candidates that they prefer, and it’s no surprise that both parties scout for millionaire candidates that can self-finance campaigns. Either way, the parties are completely dependent on those with the financial ability to support their candidates.
How does an average, ordinary person, who knows what it’s like to miss a mortgage payment or an electric bill, run for office?
They don’t. Which means that the people elected at the federal level have no clue what it’s like to be the other 99 percent, and their decisions are guaranteed to be out of whack with the average American. And yes, occasionally a Paul Wellstonesneaks through, but that doesn’t change the underlying calculus: One salmon breaking through ain’t enough to spawn.
Protest culture (in reverse)
People will perfect sign-making, marching routes, letters to the editor, and rally agendas targeting one single issue like removing funding from a government agency or shrinking national monuments, but many seem incapable of moving from defense to offense. I call it the “protest culture”— one in which we define our activism almost entirely by what we’re against.
It shouldn’t be a surprise, however, that we’re stuck in this mode because we’re so used to not having power that we’ve done the best we can to leverage whatever obstructive power we have left.
What would it look like if corporations were on the permanent defense? What if corporate executives were forced to make signs and march down the street in response to a bill or governmental decision? What if the owners of the largest corporations in this country were relegated to “free speech zones” at international trade conferences?
What do we have to do to make that happen? How do we create a system of law and government that isn’t placed in service to the wealthiest players in that system? Shouldn’t that be the question that we ask, rather than the color of the marker that we should use on our latest protest sign?
We may not know what else to do. But it’s time we learn if we are going to survive on this planet.
No more fairy tales
This belief that we live in a democracy is most clearly tested when we come face-to-face with threats to our own communities.
Let’s actually face it. Even our own towns, cities, counties, villages—you name them—are utterly overwhelmed when a big corporation squeezes into town. Not only are they mismatched in resources against a new corporate hog farm project, or toxic waste incinerator, but they find themselves on the wrong end of the law.
Because corporations have constitutional “rights,” if a community makes a decision to stop a bad project that has been permitted by the state or federal government, a corporation has the ability to sue the community to force its project into the town.
There’s no self-government at work here. Our communities aren’t even recognized by our own constitution, and courts have gone so far as to say that our towns, cities, counties, and villages only have the powers that the state legislature has deemed to give them. That means that we are all rightless within our own communities, and that corporations automatically have more rights than the people who live in these places.
In some ways, because we all continue to reinforce these myths about how our country works, we’re just as guilty as those who benefit directly from the way the system works.
That means that the well-meaning organizations that work to “tweak” the system may well be more of a problem than the corporations operating within it. “If only this were changed, or that,” they say, “Everything would be okay.”
I, for one, have stopped telling that fairy tale to people. Perhaps if enough of us stop telling it to each other, we can begin the hard work of building a new operating system—from scratch.
(“One Final New Year’s Resolution for 2018” was first posted on the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund’s (CELDF) website and is reposted on Rural America In These Times with permission. CELDF has partnered with nearly 200 communities across the country, “spearheading a movement to establish rights for people and nature over the system that control them.” For more information, click here.)
The Case for Nationalizing Elon Musk, by Kate ARONOFF, In These Times
On Tuesday, Elon Musk launched some stuff into space. The SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket was shot into the Solar System, tailed by a Tesla Roadster blasting David Bowie songs, reportedly the fastest car ever to be released into orbit. Each Falcon launch is only expected to cost around $90 million—a bargain in the world of extraterrestrial exploration.
Scientific American gawked, “Elon Musk Does It Again,” praising the “bold technological innovations and newfound operational efficiencies that allow SpaceX to not only build its rockets for less money, but also reuse them.” That view—shared by several other outlets—fits comfortably with the Tony Stark-like image Musk has crafted for himself over the years: a quirky and slightly off-kilter playboy genius inventor capable of conquering everything from outer space to the climate crisis with the sheer force of his imagination.
One of Musk’s long-term goals is to create a self-sustaining colony on Mars, and make humanity an interplanetary species. He hopes to shoot two very wealthy people around the moon at some point this year. Musk has invested an awful lot of public money into making those dreams a reality. But why should Americans keep footing the bill for projects where only Musk and his wealthy friends can reap the rewards? Enter: the case for nationalizing Elon Musk, and making the U.S. government a major stakeholder in his companies.
The common logic now holds that the private sector—and prodigies like Musk, in particular—are better at coming up with world-changing ideas than the public sector, which is allegedly bloated and allergic to new, outside-the-box thinking. Corporations’ hunt for profits and lack of bureaucratic constraints, it’s said, compel cutting-edge research and development in a way that the government is simply incapable of. With any hope, more of these billionaires’ breakthroughs than not will be in the public interest.
The reality, as economist Mariana Mazzucato argues in her 2013 book The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths, is very different. Many of the companies that are today considered to be headed by brilliant savants—people like Steve Jobs and, yes, Elon Musk—owe much of their success to decades of public sector innovation, through repackaging technologies developed over the course of several decades into new products. Take the iPhone, essentially a collection of Defense Department research and National Science Foundation-grant projects packed into one shiny machine.
“The prospect of the State owning a stake in a private corporation may be anathema to many parts of the capitalist world,” Mazzucato writes, “but given that governments are already investing in the private sector, they may as well earn a return on those investments.”
As she notes, Musk’s future-oriented empire—Tesla Motors, SolarCity and SpaceX—has benefitted from around $5 billion in local, state and federal government support, not to mention many years of foundational public research into programs like rocket technology. SpaceX itself exists largely for the sake of competing for government contracts, like its $5.5 billion partnership with NASA and the U.S. Air Force. The U.S. Department of Energy invested directly in that company, as well as in Tesla’s work on battery technology and solar panels. The latter is perhaps the biggest success story of the Department of Energy stimulus grant that also supported Solyndra, a solar energy company reliably held up by the Right as an example of the government’s failure to make wise investment decisions. “Taxpayers footed the bill for Solyndra’s losses—yet got hardly any of Tesla’s profits,” Mazzucato notes.
As Mazzucato finds, the private sector hasn’t done much to earn its reputation as a risk-taker. Corporations and venture capitalists often adopt conservative thinking and fall into “path dependency,” and are generally reluctant to invest in important early-stage research that won’t necessarily turn a profit in the short-run. This kind of research is inherently risky, and the vast majority of this kind of protean R&D (research and development) fails. For every internet—birthed in the Defense Department—there are a well over a dozen Solyndras, but it’s virtually impossible to have one without the other.
The problem runs deeper still. Whereas in the past public sector research has been able to attract top-tier talent, the myth that the private sector can do what the State can’t has created a negative feedback loop whereby bright young scientists and engineers flock toward a private sector that goes on to further its reputation for being the place where the real innovation is happening.
The alternative Mazzucato suggests is to socialize risk and reward alike, rather than simply allowing companies that enjoy the benefits of public innovation to funnel their profits into things like stock buybacks and tax havens—or, for that matter, flamethrowers. When companies like SpaceX make it big, they’d be obligated to return some portion of their gains to the public infrastructure that helped them succeed, expanding the government’s capacity to facilitate more innovative development.
All this is not to say that there isn’t a critical role to play for people like Jobs and Musk in bringing new technology to the market. In all likelihood, Tesla’s Powerwall and SolarCity panels will play a key role in our transition off of fossil fuels. But lionizing Musk as the sole creator of the Powerwall and this week’s space launch stands to perpetuate a dangerous series of myths about who’s responsible for such cutting-edge development. Through smart supply-and-demand-side policy, states can play a crucial role in shaping and creating markets for the technologies we’ll need to navigate the 21st century. This can happen not just through R&D but also through developments like fuel efficiency standards, which encourage carmakers to prioritize vehicles that run off of renewable energy.
Given the mounting reality of climate change and the necessity to rapidly switch over to a clean energy economy, there’s also a bigger question about how actively the state should be encouraging certain kinds of research and manufacturing. During World War II, the United States essentially had a planned economy: By 1945, around a quarter of manufacturing in the country was under state control. The reason for that was simple—the U.S. government saw an existential threat, and directed some of its biggest corporations to pitch in to stop it or else risk getting taken over by the state.
There’s some Cold War nostalgia to hoisting shiny objects into orbit—a telegenic show of America’s technological supremacy. But it may not be much solace to coastal residents forced to flee in the coming decades, whose homes are rendered unlivable by a mixture of extreme weather and crumbling, antiquated infrastructure. And if you’ve watched any number of big-budget sci-fi productions over the last several years, it’s not hard to imagine Musk’s Martian colony spinning off into some Elysium-style eco-apartheid, where the rich—for the right price—can escape to new worlds while the rest of us make do on a planet of dystopian slums, swamps and deserts.
Today, the risk posed by climate change is greater still than that posed by fascism on the eve of World War II, threatening to bring about a planet that’s uninhabitable for humans, and plenty hostile to them in the meantime. In such a context, do we need to launch cars into space? Maybe not. If the public sector is going to continue footing the bill for Elon Musk’s fantasies, though, he should at least have to give back some credit, and a cut of the profits.
Kate Aronoff is a writing fellow at In These Times covering the politics of climate change, the White House transition and the resistance to Trump’s agenda. Follow her on Twitter @katearonoff