What a difference a few centuries makes!
It was early 1776, when Thomas Paine penned one of the most important literary works of all time. Long held as the pamphlet that sparked the Revolutionary War, Paine’s “Common Sense” made a compelling argument for American independence and drove colonists down off the fence of indifference regarding British excess. Paine’s work gave voice to the growing unrest of a nation being actively exploited by an unholy partnership between an all-powerful monarchy and the corporate profiteers of the time. That much should resonate with the vast majority of citizens of 21st Century America, but today, the “common sense” of the Founders has largely been replaced with something very different.
Contrary to the tenets of modern conservative mythology, the Founders were anything but anti-government zealots. There was indeed much debate over the degree of power appropriate for the federal branch, and even within that body, the extent to which the executive should have control. But be that as it may, there was never any argument over the absolute necessity of government. In Paine’s own words, “Here then is the origin and rise of government; namely, a mode rendered necessary by the inability of moral virtue to govern the world.” It wasn’t a desire to be free of government that brought about the dumping of the East India Company’s tea into Boston Harbor, nor was it rejection of the public good or the tax revenues required to provide it that drove the colonies to war; it was the overwhelming need to end the tyranny of governance without morality.
Read the long list of “injuries and usurpations” listed within our Declaration of Independence in the indictment against the Crown. Each and every entry addresses the corruption of an immoral government, not the immorality of government. The problem with the Tea Act of 1773 wasn’t simply that it raised taxes on tea; the problem that led to the Boston Tea Party was that the law was enacted to give a corporation, the East India Company, full and unfettered access to the American tea trade and extend to it unfair advantage by granting an exclusive exemption from any tax on tea exported to the colonies. Those ships in Boston Harbor weren’t boarded in protest of taxation – the protest was against the corrupt effects of corporate lobbying and the government sponsorship for which it pays.
The Founding Fathers fully understood and appreciated the need for moral government and knew all too well the debilitating impact, the exploitation and erosion of rights inherent in a system intended to serve the few at the expense of the many. It was no accident that the Constitution of the United States was a strengthening over the articles that held together our young republic, nor was the enactment of the Bill of Rights merely a political endeavor. The Constitutional Convention of 1787 signaled clear acceptance of the premise that a strong nation required a government that was both strong and moral, and the system of government that emerged was clear acceptance of the core principle of our democracy: so eloquently stated by Thomas Jefferson, “I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves.”
How can it be then that that which was so patently obvious as to be considered “common sense” in the time of wooden ships and oil lamps is now so hotly debated in the age of information?
Can it be that the Founders were wrong, that the drive for less government will actually pave the path to more freedom, to an increase in happiness? Somalia has far less government, but it’s unlikely that many Americans would argue to adopt Somali style law here at home. Although our founding establishes the “pursuit of happiness” to be an inalienable right, it’s the countries of Northern Europe that consistently register as those where the citizenry is the most happy – and they do so with far higher taxes and more government than that of the US.
Perhaps instead, the Founders were actually right: maybe, it’s not so much the size of government, but rather the size of the group in control of the government, that threatens true freedom and inhibits the happiness of the people?
This was the “common sense” that pervaded American thought from the time of our founding up until the late 1970s. It was clear to Thomas Jefferson where the real threat to liberty resided, “The end of democracy and the defeat of the American Revolution will occur when government falls into the hands of lending institutions and moneyed corporations.” Lincoln too was astute in his mastery of this common sense, “We the people are the rightful masters of both Congress and the courts, not to overthrow the Constitution but to overthrow the men who pervert the Constitution.” Progressive Republican (now an oxymoron) and noted trust-buster, Teddy Roosevelt, had no qualms with loudly voicing this wisdom, “to dissolve the unholy alliance between corrupt business and corrupt politics is the first task.” His cousin and 32nd president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, could not have stated it more clearly, “We know now that government by organized money is just as dangerous as government by organized mob.” Even former 5-star general and president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, warned of the potential for corruption when economic power casts its shadow on government, “We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence . . . by the military-industrial complex.”
But alas today this wisdom that brought us independence and enabled our ascension as the greatest nation in the history of the planet has somehow been brought into question. Our nation now stands divided between those who still believe in the “common sense” that prevailed for the first 200 years of our history, and those who instead embrace a different way of thinking, a new paradigm steeped in dogma, devoid of factual substance, bereft of moral underpinning, and made popular by the very powers that so many good Americans strived, and often gave their lives, to keep in check.
Paine, Jefferson . . . all of the Founders, Lincoln, the Roosevelts, they all had one thing in common that bound them to “common sense” – they believed that government was the “solution” to the ills of society, a means to address the “inability of moral virtue to govern the world.” Sadly, both that belief, and to a constantly increasing extent, the ethic upon which it is based, no longer hold their honored position at the forefront of the American political psyche. Adhering to their core tenet that no good crisis should ever go to waste, the powers of money and greed seized the opportunity presented by a 1970s America struggling to address a global shift in the energy market, and like vultures circling a wounded beast, swooped upon a fragile and unwitting public. Hawking a new ethic, where the immorality of greed was turned on its head, and selfishness suddenly became a virtue, Americans were sold a counterfeit bill of goods – government was painted to be “the problem,” not the solution, and the age of “common sense” gave way to the new era of “common nonsense.”
Make no mistake, while this claim may sound like hyperbole, it only seems so because the utter nonsense of the “government is the problem” cult has been so wildly popular and widely accepted, it’s become a cultural article of faith for many Americans. But unlike “common sense,” which can be argued with sound reason, based on empirical evidence and historical precedence, any argument in support of the new “common nonsense” must, by necessity, be rooted in the same deceptions, distortions, and distractions from which the entire paradigm was spawned.
Unless one believes that Paine was wrong in his assertion that government is made necessary by the failure of humanity to otherwise govern itself in a moral manner, then the very premise of the argument to shrink government to where “we can drown it in a bathtub” is flawed at its core . . . provided you actually object to immorality. The simple truth that seems to evade so many good people is that, whether government is small or large, or whether it exists at all, we will all be governed. We can be governed by a body formed “of, by and for” the People, or we can be governed by some form of ruling elite, but one way or the other, governance will occur – decisions will be made and rules will be set into place. The only real question is by and for the benefit of whom?
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that what’s good for the billionaire is not necessarily good for the working person, but still the purveyors of “common nonsense” have somehow managed to hoodwink millions of people into diligent support of policies that cannot lead anywhere but to the demise of the American worker. Just as the monarchy of King George served the English Crown at the expense of the colonies, the new American plutocracy serves the economic elite at the expense of the rest of America. The key difference is that in 1776 we united, embraced “common sense” and went to war to fight against the tyranny of the ruling elite, but today we stand divided, with half of the American public embracing “common nonsense” and fighting to strengthen the suffocating stranglehold the ruling elite have around the throat of our democracy.
The fact of the matter is that, where sound government is built on a solid foundation of unity and morality, the argument to shrink government “in order to serve the people” is built on a smoldering dung heap of manufactured division and self-serving propaganda.
Arguments for a strong and efficient government “of, by and for” the People, contend that working people deserve a fair wage; that no American should work and not be able to afford food, shelter and healthcare; that investing in our nation: in the education of our people, in developing clean sources of energy, in protecting the environment, in building and maintaining our infrastructure — is the best means to make America stronger, and that the true greatness of any nation is measured by the well-being of its average citizen, not the vast wealth of its richest few.
In stark contrast with this vision are the arguments that form the entire basis for the “shrink government” movement. Strongly upheld in the dogma of contemporary conservatism, yet proven time after time to be utter falsehood is the entire hit parade of “common nonsense.”
Trickle-down economics, the notion that wealth allowed to accumulate at the top will be shared, has been revealed to be a sick joke. It has never worked, not in the 1890s when it was graphically referred to as “horse and sparrow” — where the more oats fed to the horse, the more edible matter there is available in their droppings — and it surely doesn’t work today. Wealthy individuals don’t invest more in additional capacity because they have more money leftover after taxes — they do so when increases in demand require increases in supply. It’s really that simple: in order to rev up the economic engines, you need to increase demand, and it doesn’t take a quantum physicist to understand how that’s best accomplished —through policies that benefit the middle class.
When it comes to government budgeting, contrary to GOP doctrine, tax cuts do not actually pay for themselves. This is easily evidenced by the results of the Bush cuts of 2001 and 2003, which as “common sense” would suggest, are the source of the single largest portion of the present federal debt. The argument that tax cuts for the rich will raise tax revenues is nothing but the same “voodoo economics” used to support the rest of the “common nonsense” about trickle-down. Of course . . . nobody actually believes it’s true — not even the liars who say it’s so. Everyone knows there’s ZERO empirical evidence to support the claim. In fact, all evidence supports exactly the opposite.
In a 2005 Congressional Budget Office study looking at the macroeconomic impact of an across-the-board 10% tax cut, the CBO estimated that the BEST CASE return on such an “investment” would be to recover 22% of the lost revenue over the first 5 years and 32% over the subsequent 5 year period. And those were their “most optimistic” projections. Using their more conservative assumptions, the CBO concluded that the recovery would be only 1% over the first 5 years, and that the second 5-year period would actually produce a 5% increase in lost revenue. What’s important to keep in mind is that this study looked at “across-the-board” tax cuts — for rich and poor alike. If the cuts were isolated and applied to the top tax rates only, even less of the money would find its way back into the productive economy, ensuring a net negative result. A 2009 study by Mark Zandi, head economist for Moody’s, came to the same unavoidable conclusion regarding tax cuts, and also offers an eye-opening comparison to the “common sense” net-positive impact of government stimulus spending.
Unfettered by fact or substance, “common nonsense” is abundant and free of the ties that bind rational argument. Take for instance the story that the fight to keep the top marginal tax brackets from rising is about protecting small business. This is a great talking point, but when placed under the light of factual scrutiny, it becomes immediately apparent that when you increase taxes on people earning more than $250K, you don’t — in the real world — actually impact small business . . . unless that is, you share the elitist view that the 2.5% of “small businesses” that include large hedge funds, law offices, and billion dollar companies like Bechtel and Koch Industries are actually “small” businesses. If it seems to you a little deceptive to label billion-dollar hedge funds as “small business” because they employ so few people, or perhaps a bit disingenuous to use the same label for billion-dollar companies because of the legal form of the business, you just might have some grasp of “common sense,” on logic, reason, and honesty. There are many terms that fit this particular “small business” type of distortion, and “common nonsense” is probably the most kind.
How about the “common nonsense” that President Obama has raised taxes on average Americans? It’s a valid claim — only if signing 18 tax cuts for actual small businesses, lowering income taxes for 95% of the population, and bringing about across-the-board payroll tax cuts can somehow be construed as raising taxes on average Americans.
At the center of the entire “common nonsense” narrative is the story of the pending doom of Social Security and the assertion that it requires we raise the retirement age and cut benefits. The truth is that the program is actually able to pay full benefits through 2037 and pay 75% of benefits thereafter without making any changes. And the further truth is that full benefits could be paid for the entire 75 year horizon and beyond, simply by lifting the taxable earnings cap, thereby treating the richest Americans like everyone else and requiring them to pay on every dollar they earn.
Medicare too has a “common nonsense” crosshair painted over the program. The story goes that issues with Medicare are “forcing” us to swap the program out for a voucher system that will place all burden on elderly recipients to cover cost increases. The perpetrators of this cruel lie euphemistically refer to it as “premium support,” but in the real world, the one where “common sense” still prevails, it’s clearly seen for the throw-the-elderly-to-the-wolves option it actually is. Sadly, in the immoral world of “common nonsense” this choice is preferred over allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices, moving away from the profit centric fee-for-services healthcare model, or otherwise dealing with the soaring cost of healthcare, which presently costs us more than double the average for other OECD nations and consumes over 17% of our GDP.
“Common nonsense” also dictates that defense spending is sacrosanct, even though we spend nearly as much on defense as the rest of the world combined, with a Department of Defense budget that’s actually tripled in size just since 1997. Still, somehow the argument is that, in order to protect ourselves and remain safe, we must continue to increase defense spending that already runs more than $1 trillion annually, when all defense related spending is included, and is pushing 30% of the federal budget.
The tenets of “common nonsense” assert that the American Dream is still what makes our nation special, yet completely ignores the fact that upward mobility in the US has gone the way of the Dodo bird. They contend that taxes are too high, even though they’re at the lowest portion of GDP since 1950. They posit that the debt is our most pressing issue, threatening to bankrupt the economy, in spite of the fact that we once paid down the bill for World War II that weighed in at 122% of GDP. They even argue that the federal stimulus of 2009 was a failure, while the fact is that it added as much as 4.5% to the GDP and increased domestic employment by between 1.4 million and 3.3 million jobs.
Many ideas may be “common,” but there’s nothing sensible about the need to give tax subsidies to oil companies that already enjoy profits of $341 million per day. The denial of climate science may be accepted in the halls of “common nonsense,” but in the halls of science, it’s clearly seen as “nonsense” by 97-98% of those performing research on the topic. The promotion of the Keystone XL pipeline for the jobs it will create, the assertion that corporations are people, or the fight to protect the robber banksters from regulation are all both “common” and utter “nonsense.” There’s no legitimacy in the argument that we need to both balance the budget AND maintain special tax advantages for the wealthy, like a 15% tax rate for hedge fund managers and provisions that allow the very rich to hide their earnings in tax havens abroad. This is all “common nonsense” of the most bold and blatant variety!
Those people who strive to exploit American workers, send jobs overseas, leverage capital to dismantle and destroy productive companies, and fight to defund unemployment insurance, should be openly rejected when they then stand and complain that the 47% of Americans who’ve been left with no money, and no job, pay no income tax. It’s like kicking somebody in the teeth and complaining that they got blood on your shoe. Such people should be seen as the snake-oil-peddling purveyors of “common nonsense” they truly are. Vulture capitalists don’t feed the productive economy — they feed on it!
Like carnival barkers, these hucksters want Americans to believe that we’re faced with such rampant voter fraud, that draconian measures that may interfere with the ability of legitimate voters to participate is regrettably necessary, that the problem is just too dire to ignore. So, what’s the truth? That your odds for winning the Powerball or Mega Millions jackpot are 6 times better than finding a single case of in-person voter fraud. But of course, when you just can’t compete honestly on the issues, the “common nonsense” justification to suppress democracy becomes an absolutely essential component of your plan to retain control — and America gets 30 states enacting measures to disempower voters over the past two years.
Yet as ridiculous as the tenets of trickledown may be, as egregious as the efforts of voter suppression, as reprehensible as the arguments illegitimately attacking the “entitlements,” possibly the master stroke of “common nonsense” is the utterly absurd notion that, if we fail to cut government spending, the United States of America is going to become another Greece — we’re going to go bankrupt.
Now that’s one hell of a scary prediction! But never mind the fact that the entire “what we have is a spending problem” meme depends entirely on the “common nonsense” of trickledown and tax-cut doublethink — predictions of an American bankruptcy are, in fact, forecasts of the IMPOSSIBLE. The truth is that it’s impossible for Japan, Australia, Canada, the U.K., or any other nation that issues its own non-convertible, floating exchange-rate currency to go bankrupt. As Alan Greenspan has clearly stated, “a government cannot become insolvent with respect to obligations in its own currency,” because, “Central banks can issue currency, a noninterest-bearing claim on the government, effectively without limit.” Yet in the Bizarro World of “common nonsense” we must embrace the same austerity that’s destroying the economies of Europe in order to avoid a scenario that can’t happen anytime before pigs fly.
“Common nonsense” is not some natural and unavoidable phenomenon. The sad truth is that, like in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, the natural human process of cognitive dissonance has been systematically replaced with a form of doublethink, where people simultaneously embrace certain long held values and their contradictory opposites. This can only be made possible through deliberate deception and promotion of falsehood, through constant revisionism — through perpetual generation and repetition of “common nonsense.”
Just as the tobacco companies of the 1960s lied to suppress the truth about cigarette smoking, willfully polluting the lungs of so many Americans just to maintain corporate profits, the corporatocracy of today feeds the “common nonsense” pump and pollutes every aspect of American society for the very same purpose. Thomas Jefferson made it abundantly clear that, “An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people,” and the opposite is also true — a misinformed citizenry is a vital requisite for exploitation of a free people.
Make no mistake, the source behind the wellspring of “common nonsense” has but one motivation — the thirst for money and power. Thus far their deception has been overwhelmingly successful. They’ve permeated the American consciousness with a false meme of government that takes from a hard-working middleclass to gives to an undeserving poor, yet the plain truth is that “91 percent of the benefit dollars from entitlement and other mandatory programs goes to the elderly (people 65 and over), the seriously disabled, and members of WORKING households.”
They’ve used this “common nonsense” to distract the public and conceal the truth that what’s really occurring is the systematic use of power and influence to control government for the benefit of the most wealthy, to take from that hard-working middleclass and feed the proceeds to a voraciously greedy and disconnected rich. Nowhere in the annals of “common nonsense” will you see reference to the growing concentration of wealth, to the fact that the richest 1% now hold more financial wealth than 95% of our population combined, nor will you hear the barkers speak of the 93% of all economic gain in the present recovery that’s gone to that same 1%. And rest assured, you damn sure won’t hear any mention of record-breaking CEO salaries or the huge bonuses they’re paid while offshoring American jobs and forcing workers to accept more than 3 decades of stagnant wages culminating in the recent drop in nationwide median income, the first since 1967.
American democracy is under attack, and the war isn’t being waged by a foreign foe. The enemy of a strong and prosperous America is the very same enemy Jefferson, Madison, Lincoln, the Roosevelts, Eisenhower and so many others warned about. It’s the enemy of which Jefferson expressed his wish to “crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations which dare already to challenge our government to trial and bid defiance to the laws of our country.”
If America is ever to save its middleclass and return to a system of shared prosperity, it must first come to reject the blatant falsehood and turn from the “common nonsense” of the cult of gutted government. The common sense of our forefathers holds as true today as it did when they formed our fledgling government: the solution to tyranny is now and always has been the unity of the People — and government “of, by, and for” those People is the only mechanism through which their authority can be set into force.