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Deck is stacked against average citizens

July 28, 2013|By TIM ROWLAND

The French revolution of 1789 was bloody. The Republican revolution of 1994 was symbolic. The Egyptian revolution of 2011 unified dissimilar factions. But they all proved one thing: It’s a lot easier to throw bombs from the outside than it is to actually govern.

French revolutionaries championed liberty, virtue, universal voting rights, abolition of slavery and elimination of the death penalty. And to implement this agenda, they thought it was productive to guillotine everyone in sight, until they themselves were guillotined five years later.

“Contract with America” in hand, Republicans in 1994 took control of the House of Representatives, something they hadn’t done since 1954. But once in power, they were promptly led off a cliff by Speaker Newt Gingrich, who incorrectly calculated that a government shutdown would be blamed on the Democratic president, not the Republican Congress. Four years after his election as speaker, Gingrich resigned under a cloud of ethics investigations.

The results of the Egyptian revolution are still unknown. Two heads of state have come and gone. The first proved incompetent; the second, autocratic. Neither was what the Egyptian people had in mind, so its first stab at democracy ended in an undemocratic coup.

What the lesson of all this seems to be, and what the world — from Brazil to Turkey to the United States — seems to have intuited, is that a bad leader is worse than no leader at all.

We’re all familiar with the first half of the Lord Acton witticism: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” But it’s his next sentence that is more troubling: “Great men are almost always bad men.”

Yet, to take one example, “Occupy Wall Street” failed to gain traction in no small part because it had no leader, no strong personality to put the protesters’ grievances into a 30-second sound bite. Protests in Iran, Turkey, Brazil and the Arab states were led not by a person, but by the software programs written by the creators of social media.

Nor — the autocratic Arab states notwithstanding — did the reasons for these protests seem terribly compelling. The Turks were upset with development plans for an Istanbul park. Brazilians protested public transportation fare hikes. The Occupy movement swung impotently at faceless institutions.

Yet, no matter how superficial the origins of these protests might appear, they all had a common theme: Around the world, the deck has become increasingly stacked against average citizens.

It’s been nearly 40 years since Ronald Reagan popularized the term “welfare queen,” but even to the extent that such parasites did exist, they never came close to sucking the amount of financial blood that elite executives extract from the taxpayers of today.

Billions in corporate profits go untaxed, even as the IRS looks to squeeze a few bucks out of tea party groups; staples such as food and fuel have become gambling chips for hedge funds, putting consumer dollars into the pockets of commodity gamblers; congressional members who collect millions in farm subsidies vote to deny poor people $30 worth of groceries a week; consumers lose their right to sue corporations for injury, even as the court is declaring that corporations are “people” deserving of human rights and liberties; and banks lose billion-dollar bets and have to be saved by the taxes of people earning $40,000 a year.

The revolutions that dominated Europe in 1848 petered out after a year or two. “We have been beaten and humiliated ... scattered, imprisoned, disarmed and gagged. The fate of European democracy has slipped from our hands,” lamented the French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon.

Not really. He just didn’t wait long enough to see the final result; the seeds of distention can take decades to sprout.

So looking forward, what do today’s leaderless protests portend for the future? They almost certainly mean something — they are too widespread and universal in theme not to, even if their meaning might not become clear for another century.

Maybe they are a warning that unrestrained lust for money and/or power is the fatal flaw in democratic market capitalism. Maybe it means that one day our governments will be run not by flawed human beings, but by software programs blind to favoritism. Maybe it means that those at the tippy top will get the message and back away from this exponentially expanding behavior of vacuuming every last economic and political nickel out of the hands of the lower, middle and upper-middle classes for the enrichment and aggrandizement of themselves.

Don’t bet on that last one.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. His email address is timr@herald-mail.com.

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