In my last few columns, I opined that, in choosing our leaders in the next election, selecting candidates who articulate “solutions to problems” is better than siding with those who minimize their agenda by only stating “positions on issues.” I also said that a candidate’s reputation for “getting things done” and positions on issues which are “logical and substantive” as opposed to “rigid and ideological” should be given greater weight than how close a candidate’s position on individual issues reflects our own. Finally, I have strongly suggested that we, as voters, should reject the intense destructive ideological and party partisanship, which appears to be institutionalized at the federal level and heading in that direction in Annapolis. Instead, we should vote for candidates who develop fact-based innovative solutions to tough social problems and economic policy issues and are able to explain their positions persuasively by reference to facts which have been thoroughly researched.
There are, however, large issues which are important and merit our attention when we select our leaders in November. These issues will be the focus of my next few columns.
The first and one of the most important is how to regulate what economist and writer, Robert J. Samuelson, describes as the “uneasy relationship between capitalism and democracy.” As Samuelson points out, “Capitalism thrives on change – it inspires new technologies, products and profit opportunities. Democracy resists change – it creates powerful constituencies with a stake in the status quo.” Professor Samuelson further points out that Capitalism, which he defines as “an economic system that relics heavily on markets and private ownership” and democracy need each other. “The one generates rising living standards; the other cushions capitalism’s injustices and thereby anchors public support.” But this mutual dependence is tricky because, says Samuelson, “if democratic prerogatives are overused, they may strangle capitalism.” Conversely, if restraints on capitalism are not exercised effectively, albeit with restraint, crucial public support for business will be abated.
Just how to regulate this relationship is an issue that is front and center in this election. At the federal level, it manifests itself most clearly in the debate about globalization. In fact, it pervades and, most importantly, puts into context almost every issue emanating from globalization, including outsourcing of jobs, labor conditions here and abroad, dependence on foreign oil, rising interest rates, the Budget deficit, the minimum wage, health care, tax cuts, etc. In Maryland, it shows itself quite clearly in the debate and litigation over electric utility regulations. Sometimes it is recast and arguably oversimplified as a debate between being “pro-business and not pro-business.” But it certainly is not helpful to discuss it exclusively in these terms.
What we ought to demand from any candidate seeking our support is that they recognize, acknowledge, and articulate that the regulation of the relationship between capitalism and democracy is the overarching issue and the context in which almost all of the issues which are being debated arise. We should also require that they acknowledge its complexity and cumbersomeness because not only do the facts upon which policy should be based change, but also the policy which may be appropriate today may not be wise tomorrow, for among other reasons, the trade off and the balancing which is necessary to attain the desired equilibrium between the forces of capitalism and democracy.
Finally, we should require those who aspire to lead us to be smart enough and respectful of the electorate enough to recognize and acknowledge in real terms what Professor Samuelson describes as a “useful political lesson.” “A successful democracy gives people a chance to protect their interests and lifestyles. But when these protections try to deny unalterable economic realities, they become self-defeating.”
That can be difficult news to accept and even more difficult to convey, particularly when you are seeking votes from people who do not want to hear the truth. It fully explains, however, why the problems at both the federal and state level persist in this representative democracy and the mixed capitalist economy under which we live and govern. It is hard to adjust to shifting realities because changes often offend voting blocks that benefit from the status quo.
At the federal level, this is why huge budget deficits persist and why in Maryland so far the failure of the deregulation of electric energy experiment is now being debated almost exclusively in terms of whose fault it is and not over what is the solution to the economic and political problem it has caused.
It is easier to pretend that there will be no ill effects and to ignore them or, if they cannot be ignored, to blame them on the other candidate or political party. Each candidate and political party does this with the hope that there will be no day of reckoning. If they are elected, however, and they have to govern, they are wrong!