By Donella Meadows
–October 6, 1994–
The word “plutocracy” comes from the ancient Greek “ploutos,” wealth, and “kratein,” to rule. Rule by the wealthy.
That’s what we have in this nation where it takes a pile of money in the five or six zeros even to think of running for office. There’s nothing inherently wrong with plutocracy — wealthy people are made up of roughly the same mix of wisdom, foolishness, criminality, and nobility as the rest of us. What is wrong is that plutocracy can degrade, as our political system has, to a level of crassness that turns the stomachs of decent people. Then only the cynical and short-sighted are attracted to government. These are people who, in the scramble to preserve their own first-class berths, do things that sink the ship.
For example: even if the plutocrats had no concern about unvaccinated children or uninsured adults, you’d think they would care that we pay roughly twice what the citizens of other civilized nations pay for health care. They themselves, once elected, pay nothing. But they do live in a nation that pours something like 400 billion dollars a year down health-care rat-holes. If government, businesses, and families could cut their health care bills by that much, the economy would improve in so many ways that even taxpayer-insured plutocrats would benefit.
Cost-control vanished as a topic in the health care debate, because those who collect the costs — mainly insurance companies — want to go on collecting them. They ran deceptive ads, bought Congressmen, and suppressed the question of how the Japanese and French and Germans and Canadians have longer lifetimes than we do, while paying less. They managed to start fights over where the money for health reform is going to COME FROM, instead of over what to do with the money we could save.
Why did the uninvolved plutocrats, the ones not reaping million-dollar insurance executive salaries, let the others get away with that? The only possible answer is that they were playing the game of “I’ll support your scam, if you support mine.”
Another example: mining reform has just been buried once again in Congress. Our 1872 mining law allows private companies to acquire public land and extract billions of dollars worth of minerals at virtually no cost and with virtually no requirements about cleaning up the mess.
The mining companies that have left 50 toxic Superfund sites behind them love this law. So does the company that acquired public land near Phoenix for $170 (yes, you read that right!), mined it, then turned it into a $60 million resort. And the American Barrick Resources Corporation that paid the government $9,765 for an estimated $10 billion gold reserve. Our mining law makes a very few folks rich at an enormous cost to the rest of us in money, uprooted land, and polluted water.
The mining companies have not bought enough Western senators to carry Congress, so the “I’ll support your scam” game must be all that is holding up the 1872 mining law. That game is not only immoral, it’s stupid. Everyone loves his or her particular scam, but no one wants to live in a world of scams. And an economy that lives by scams instead of honest costing and true productivity is an economy living on borrowed time.
The biggest scam of all will come before Congress just after Thanksgiving. It is the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, or GATT. It claims to be about free trade, but, like NAFTA, it is riddled with special favors. Some industries and companies will trade a lot freer than others. They will do so at the expense of workers, the environment, and national sovereignty. GATT would allow other countries to challenge any of our local, state, or federal laws that might interfere with foreign trade. To take some recent examples, it would allow foreign car-makers to object to our mileage standards. Or foreign farmers to object to our restrictions against pesticides in foods. Challenges like these would be decided by an international tribunal in Geneva, a secret one, not open to the press or to citizen appeal.
Furthermore, the fundamental theory that free trade makes the whole economy better off is questionable. Those economic models that tell us how many new jobs GATT will create are riddled with dubious assumptions. GATT will not be as good for the rich and powerful as the rich and powerful think it will be.
Signing away national sovereignty for doubtful gain under a suspect theory is a serious thing to do. Are the plutocrats discussing it seriously? No. They’ve promised to pass it overwhelmingly, but not till after the coming election. They don’t want to face angry workers and environmentalists and believers in democracy.
Democracy — from the Greek “demos,” or people. Rule by the people. So far the disgusted people have come up with only one fix for plutocracy — term limits — which will simply cycle plutocrats through the government faster. The only way to reclaim democracy is to separate money from government. That means making candidacy for office independent of the ability to raise and spend money; restricting or forbidding paid political advertisements; outlawing contributions of money or favors by any person or organization to any public official at any time.
Restoring our plutocracy to democracy is the only political issue of importance. Without it all other issues will be turned into scams, and the ship will sink.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1994