Sunday, October 30, 2011

Elections or Democracy?

   We are told that we have to go to Iraq, Afghanistan,  Lybia, etc., etc. to create democracies there.  When elections are held in a foreign country, we congratulate ourselves.
   There is a huge difference between elections and democracy. An election is a one-time act; democracy is continuous participation in public affairs. Elections are based on manipulated television pictures and 30-second sound bites; the essence of democracy is information and concern for the public good.
   There have been regular elections in the most undemocratic countries of the world, like the Communist German Democratic Republic. On the other hand, Confucian China was practicing almost equal access to public offices for 2500 years without ever holding any elections.
   Democracy is much more than elections. It is the self-government of informed and concerned citizens. Democracy is impossible without continuous, active participation at all levels. Democracy is only possible in highly cultured free societies where people respect each other, the public institutions, and the rule of law. It is based on peaceful negotiations, cooperation, and compromise. It also includes wide-range consultations and public criticism of both elected and appointed officials.
   Public policies should be determined by reason and argument, not by counting noses. The number of votes for or against an idea or a person has nothing to do with the merits of that idea or person. Elections in their present form are as if two foxes and one rabbit were to vote on what to have for breakfast.
   We all know that only those candidates have a chance to be elected who have the support of the powerful special interest groups and the media. As a result, we do not have a real choice at elections. No matter whom we elect, the interests of the country will never be as important as the special interests of those who select and support the representatives. The common interest is not represented at all. As the country becomes increasingly fragmented, it will be increasingly difficult even to define this common interest.
   When everybody is somebody, then nobody is anybody: the right to vote has lost its value. A narrower suffrage meant a certain prestige that is lost now. Universal suffrage that exists today includes an unduly large segment of the population who have little idea either about the issues or about the candidates. According to a Hearst Corporation poll, 45% of Americans believes that the Communist slogan "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need" is part of our own Constitution. Such people are incapable of a rational choice; they become tools in the hands of manipulators who try to control public opinion. The universal suffrage would make better sense in case of an informed and educated citizenry. Therefore, political reform should start with a reformed educational system.
   The present system of choosing office holders is unfair, and it is not accessible for most people. It is virtually impossible to be elected unless the candidate is supported by one of the two big parties or some powerful special interest group. Ideas do not count, money does.
   Campaign costs are growing like a cancer. To be elected to the House of Representatives one has to raise a lot of money. A Senate seat costs millions. There are only two ways to raise that much money. Either you are so rich that you can afford to pay it from your own pocket, or you rely on the special interest groups. Political campaigns are not about ideas or issues but about visual images that can be manipulated at the will of the media. The money is mostly used for polling people's sentiments, fitting the politicians' images to the results of the polls, and for senseless negative television commercials.
The big campaign providers argue that by contributing money they exercise their fundamental right to participate in the political process. This is a hypocritical and false statement. Manipulating public opinion is coercion; buying politicians is immoral.
   Money should be eliminated from the political process and replaced with an independent information system to provide a broad range of political choices. This information system should be provided free of charge to express the views of anyone who has the qualifications necessary to run for office. Government would have no control over the ideas transmitted.
Paid political advertisements and financial campaign contributions from individuals, political action committees, or corporations should be prohibited as clear examples of coercion and manipulation. The costs of all political campaigns should be financed by the public. All qualified candidates must be put on equal budgets. False campaign statements should be punished by law as any other false advertising.
   All political offices should be accessible to every citizen who meets the constitutional requirements. Participation should be open to any qualified person. To become a candidate for elected office, one should meet only some elementary standards, e.g., collecting a small number of nominating signatures, and passing a simple examination on basic historical, cultural, and political issues.
   As an additional step, the 'None of the Above' option should be included in the election procedure. If more people vote for this option than for any of the candidates, new elections should be held where none of the rejected candidates could participate. This would be a powerful and simple way to remove unfit people from political office.
If none of the above proposals can be accepted, then even selection of office-holders by a lottery would be a better system than the existing one.
   We need a national commitment to political reform. When Americans perceive the alarming extent of the system's failure and the destructive threat it poses to the society, we must start to work to bring about the necessary changes. This effort will require traditional American idealism, energy, persistence, and practicality.

Excerpted from How to Save Our Country, Copyright (c) 1993 by Miklos N. Szilagyi.

Consumer Society

    A hundred years ago, Henry Ford had an incredible idea: the then newly invented automobile should be manufactured and sold so cheaply that it would be affordable to everyone. It is even more incredible that his idea not only worked but it opened the way toward the egalitarian, classless, overpopulated consumer society that exists today all over the world.
    To paraphrase Ronald Reagan’s classical question: Are we better off today than our great-grandparents were a century ago? There is no question that the benefits of technology are available now to regular folks through mass production. We live at a substantially higher material standard than our ancestors did. But let me modify the question: Are we happier than our great-grandparents were?
    Today, the consumer society engulfs the whole world. We allow ourselves to be hypnotized into consuming products and services that we don’t need at all: stimulants and tranquilizers, energizers and sleep inducers, fatty junk food and fat reducers, uppers and downers, and so on.
    We drive our automobiles even when we don’t need to, polluting the atmosphere and perishing in car accidents. We travel in airplanes like sardines. We have reached a point where transportation consumes more energy than industry! We consume university degrees without getting an education. We waste our free time staring at meaningless TV shows. We spend our vacations on cruise ships that don’t go anywhere, for the sake of consuming food and services, instead of learning something about the world. We sit alone in front of our computer screens and exchange fantasies with other nameless loners.
    As Benjamin Barber wisely said: “The only thing that we can do twenty-four hours a day is to consume.” The consumer society has introduced a total uniformity of the world that no totalitarian regime would ever be able to accomplish. You no longer know whether you are in London, Hong Kong, or Phoenix: you find the same skyscrapers and fast food chains everywhere.
    You try to approach service by telephone and hear an automated message: “If you wish blah-blah-blah, press nine.” You are told that your waiting time will be approximately three minutes, then you spend an hour on hold, listening to the same music, occasionally interrupted by a recorded enthusiastic voice informing you that “Your call is very important to us.” When I asked a high-level bank manager if they were concerned about losing their customers because of this senseless practice, he replied: “We are not concerned. You see, this generation no longer knows what service is.”
    Unfortunately, he is right. We have been brainwashed to believe that the only important thing in life is to consume more and more. A hundred years ago, people were more modest in their expectations and, accordingly, were happier. As Dwight Eisenhower said: “We were poor but we didn’t know it.” Now nobody wants to be “poor.” This is why we can no longer live on one salary per family. As a result, the institution of the family is being destroyed, dooming society to chaos.
    Consumer behavior is based on satisfaction from the purchase of products. This satisfaction decreases as the supply of products increases. Thus, economic growth creates unhappiness. Nevertheless, our politicians compete with each other in promises of more economic growth. What they really mean is the production of more and more consumer goods. They don’t seem to understand that economic growth has limits and it depends on the quality and extent of natural and human resources, i.e., on the environment and on investment and education, as opposed to consumption. They don’t seem to understand that our Earth is finite and it cannot be exploited without limits. Constant growth is the philosophy of the cancer cell!
    According to the Gaia theory, the Earth has a control mechanism that ensures its equilibrium. If mankind tries to destroy this equilibrium, the Earth will destroy mankind: as more and more species become extinct, the balance will be restored by the creation of new ones in the form of deadly viruses that will eventually destroy us.
    The degradation of our environment is also against the basic interests of business. Imagine what will happen to business when our forests, waters, and air become extinct. On the other hand, there are huge business opportunities in restructuring our economy.
    We must rethink our goals. Do we want to continue our own destruction by consuming more and more products or survive and be happy? If common sense prevails, then we must do something to stop our journey to suicide. What can be done? Here are some modest proposals:
     Recycling is not a solution: it generates additional pollution. We must plan product elimination. Our engineers should design products whose important components can easily be recovered.
     Let us start rebuilding our railroads to provide fast and relaxed access to remote destinations without substantial air pollution. Remember, the highways were built on public funds. Make the creation of high-speed trains criss-crossing the country a national priority.
Investment is more important for the future of society than consumption.
     Replace the income tax with a consumption tax to encourage success and penalize wasteful consumerism.
     Wake up and start teaching real values to our children instead of hypnotizing them into the    false belief that the American dream is to consume more than your parents did.

Saturday, October 29, 2011