When everything is important to do, nothing that really matters gets done. That is the essence of what Henry David Thoreau expressed so much more eloquently: “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.”
If you care to admit how deep our country’s problems run and if you care a whit about the future we bequeath to our children and grandchildren, Lawrence Lessig’s book “Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress — and a Plan to Stop It” is must reading. If this brilliant assessment of the condition of our democracy is anything, it is a clarion call for root-striking.
Branches of evil abound. Witness the recklessness and irresponsibility on Wall Street that brought America’s — and the world’s — economy to its knees. The only surprise is that anyone was surprised, after Depression-era protections against such chicanery were systematically weakened and eventually swept away altogether. Banks became glorified casinos. In 3 ... 2 ... 1 ..., the financial system descended into chaos. Homes were lost. Life savings vanished. Economic growth ground to a halt. Sales slumped. Employers laid off millions. Factories were shuttered.
Were banksters thrown in jail? No. Was Glass-Steagall re-enacted? No. Why not? Because, at the root, our nation’s “leaders” are not free to lead. They are paid by the likes of Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan Chase and Citigroup and Bank of America not to lead.
For others, the branch that simply must be hacked is the massive redistribution of wealth in America and the slow but steady extermination of the middle class. In 2010, 93 percent of all income growth in the U.S. went to the wealthiest 1 percent. The concentration of wealth at the top is the greatest in living memory.
Are tax rates for millionaires and billionaires being restored to levels seen in past years when our economy was most prosperous and America was growing together rather than growing apart? No. Why not? Because, at the root, our “leaders” are not free to lead. The 2010 midterm congressional elections were bankrolled by less than 1 percent of Americans and 2012 will be no different. The richest 1 percent control one-third of America’s net worth, but just 1 percent of the 1 percent contribute a quarter of the money to all federal political campaigns.
Some see climate change as the problem that none of us can afford to see go unaddressed. Yet our nation’s “leaders” have their heads buried in the sand on global warming. Is Congress moving on cap-and-trade legislation to address carbon emissions? No. Are big public investments being made in renewable energy sources? No. Compared to federal subsidies for oil and gas production, green energy gets almost nothing. Why? Because, at the root, our “leaders” are paid by ExxonMobil, Koch Industries and Chevron to remain in denial over climate change.
Few things affect all of us as much as what we eat. Yet our food policy is a mess. All manner of poisons are dumped on crops, and regulations have been eased. Drug allergies are on the rise and more antibiotic-resistant bacteria emerge almost daily, yet factory farmers are allowed to “treat” disease prophylactically by feeding healthy cattle antibiotics. We face alarming levels of childhood obesity and unprecedented rates of diabetes among children, yet we continue to heavily subsidize the processed food industry and the production of high-fructose corn syrup among other culprits. Why? At the root, Monsanto and Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland and their ilk are paying handsomely to make sure our nation’s “leaders” keep things the way they are.
As Lessig concludes, there really is only one issue in America. Our “leaders” are not free to lead on any of the gigantic problems facing our country. There are countless branches of evil, but one root that must be struck.
Mike McCabe is executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. This column first appeared on the group’s Big Money Blog.