President Obama Must Make This Wake-Up Call To Action: Our System Of Democracy Has Failed Us

In his “President’s Message,” that introduces his just released federal budget, President Barack Obama says that our huge financial crisis “is neither the result of a normal turn of the business cycle nor an accident of history.” He blames the mess we are in on “the profound irresponsibility that engulfed both private and public institutions from some of our largest companies’ executive suites to the seats of power in Washington, D.C.”

Strong words, but, in my judgment, not nearly strong enough. Obama needs to address why this tsunami of “irresponsibility” happened. If it was not normal, not an accident, not an act of God, where did this destructive wave of “irresponsibility” come from?

Obama writes, “Those in authority turned a blind eye to this risk-taking; they forgot that markets work best when there is transparency and accountability and when the rules of the road are both fair and vigorously enforced.”

They forgot? They forgot to do their job? I don’t think so. Obama’s words are too kind, too generous — and simply not accurate. This man-made disaster did not happen because of forgetfulness. During this time of “irresponsibility,” those who cashed in knew full well what they were doing. They were irresponsible to the common good; they were irresponsible to even to their share holders. But they were very responsible to what they saw as their own interests. They became rich as kings. And, those in authority who “turned a blind eye,” were complicit; they were rewarded generously.

Obama needs to deal with the heart of the matter. To focus on self serving greed, “irresponsibility,” misses the bigger point. We are experiencing widespread system failure. And if we don’t get the system right, even worse man-made disasters will surely happen.

This avoidable man-made financial disaster should be our wake-up call: Our system is failing. Our system of democracy is failing. All of this misery could have been avoided if we truly had a government of the people and for the people. But we are far from having such a government. Our system has been taken over by an oligarchy that defines the “common good” as being anything that advances the interests of the oligarchy.

Robert Reich writes that in 1980 the top earning 1% of Americans took home 9% of the nation’s total income — but in 2007, the top 1% took home over 22% of all income. “Even as their incomes dramatically increased,” Reich writes, “the total federal tax rates paid by the top 1 percent dropped.”

Wow. None of the increase of wealth or power of the oligarchy has been accidental. It has happened as the result of very specific governmental actions. And none of it has been democratically determined, but oligarchically determined.

Obama writes, “We must usher in a new era of responsibility in which we empower citizens with the information they need to hold their elected representatives accountable for the decisions they make. We need to put tired ideologies aside, and ask not whether our Government is too big or too small, or whether it is the problem or the solution, but whether it is working for the American people.”

Yes. But citizens should already be empowered by the structure of their democracy itself. Elected representatives, as it is, are not accountable. Giving citizens better information may help, but, by itself, this is not enough. Our wake-up call should be that our system of democracy is failing. We should greet this wake-up news in the same way as Holland might greet the news that their system of dams and levees is failing. This is an emergency that is life threatening. One or two more massive system failures may effectively cause such a deluge that the system itself is destroyed.

Why has our system of democracy failed? What are changes to the structure of the system that will make the system stronger? How do we make a system that is truly of the people, for the people? Obama should tackle these questions head on. He should sound the alarm, and he should make the project of strengthening our democracy a number one priority for his administration.

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