By Donella Meadows
–June 3, 1993–
Whatever you do, don’t read the book Who Will Tell the People by William Greider. Especially not now, while the powers-that-be are putting up such spectacular resistance to balancing the budget, helping the economy, or reducing their own privileges. You’ll get too mad.
Innocent citizens like me can watch the short-sightedness and greed of our leaders year after year, but never lose our faith in our letter to Congress or our vote in the next election. We know about the lobbyists and the sources of campaign funding. But we still hope that if we get just the right president, the right balance in Congress, the right laws, the government will work for the people again.
If you too are that kind of hopeful citizen, do not read Greider’s book. It makes clear what suckers we are.
Greider describes, for example, how the nation’s producers of toxic wastes — General Electric, Dow, Du Pont, Union Carbide, Monsanto and others — have resisted with all the litigation at their command the Superfund law that requires them to clean up their messes. And how they put pressure on the EPA not to enforce the law. And how they then convinced the EPA to use a few million taxpayer dollars to study why Superfund isn’t working.
Greider talks about the “information” purveyors in Washington — the American Enterprise Institute funded by the nation’s largest banks and corporations, the Heritage Foundation funded by right-wing Joseph Coors — all of which bring “facts” to the public arena to counter the voters’ irresponsible “emotions.” They provide talking heads and newspaper columns scolding Americans, for example, for wanting to live “risk free” — which is to say, live free from the safety shortcuts and toxic residues from which companies profit.
These are the august thinktanks that tell us how many jobs will be lost by any change toward the public good — such as the claim last week by the National Association of Manufacturers that the energy tax will cost 600,000 jobs. That analysis came from a 350-equation economic model, which assumes that a corporation, faced with higher energy prices, will not use energy more efficiently, it will just fold up in despair. (This example was provided by me, not by Greider, who provides many more.)
Of course there is much more money for analysts who provide “facts” that favor the powerful than there is to fund the public interest groups, the Ralph Naders, the environmental organizations. That’s why the American public discourse, uniquely in the world, does not take the greenhouse effect seriously, does not count public investment as investment, and believes that giving tax breaks to the rich stimulates the economy more than giving them to anyone else.
The story in Who Will Tell the People that you absolutely should not read is the one about the collapse of the S&Ls. You know there was plenty of skullduggery behind that one. But did you know that the banking industry, the regulators, and both political parties quietly agreed to let the problem fester until it reached hundreds of billions of dollars, precisely so the banks wouldn’t have to pay it and the people would? Greider quotes Kenneth McLean, staff director of the Senate Banking Committee: “Let’s let the problem build up and dump it on the taxpayers.” And Robert Dugger, lobbyist for the American Bankers Association: “Everyone knew the game was: Democrats don’t bring this up. Republicans don’t bring this up.”
Greider’s point is one we all know, somewhere inside us. Something shattering has happened to our democracy. Something about the use of money and marketing in politics, the decline of both political parties, the compliance of the news media, themselves large corporations — something not planned by anyone in particular — but something seized upon and perfected by the most unprincipled among the most privileged — something has caused the whole Washington establishment to lose its moorings to the people.
The media report the fate of the the jobs package and the budget only in terms of whether Clinton or Dole won, not in terms of whether the country won. The Social Security tax, levied just on incomes below $55,000, provides the only surplus in the federal budget, but the fatcats in Washington think we should “cut entitlements” to reduce the deficit. Industry stalls for 20 years rather than comply with the Clean Air Act, meanwhile siting its smokestacks where they will pour out upon the poor. And the people who paid the higher taxes of the 1980s now have to pay the even higher taxes of the 1990s because of the debts run up by those whose taxes were cut.
My neighbor said the other day that she can’t stand to watch the Washington machine grind up Bill Clinton’s attempts to solve national problems. If he doesn’t succeed, she says, that will end her last hope. Greider would urge her to give up that hope. No one well-meaning person, not even a team of them, not even a president, can overcome the short-term, narrow-focused, me-first system that dominates our capital city. Which is not to say that nothing can be done. As a reporter touring the nation, Greider finds the people full of common sense and democratic instincts, though he would say we aren’t anywhere near angry enough, because the information that would make us so is withheld and distorted.
An example of his point is the fact that the press made more of Madonna’s book than of Greider’s book, which is much too damning to be allowed to become a subject of widespread discussion. But that’s just as well. You shouldn’t read it. It would make you too mad.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1993