One of the challenges in ruling ancient Rome was that, as a Ponzi scheme run for the benefit of the senatorial elite, the government was often unable to meet its obligations to its veterans. This could lead to some unruliness. One of my favorite images is that of Octavian strapping on his armor to confront an angry mob demanding compensation for their service. He was rescued by Marc Antony and the Praetorian Guard, but I have to admire the courage Octavian demonstrated in choosing to come face-to-face with the people affected by his mismanagement.
At the other end of the scale we have the touching image offered in Revelation 4. Unconditional Love sits on a throne in heaven, surrounded by angels that channel the gratitude offered by all the living creatures on earth. The isolation of love is tragic. Remedying it seems a likely goal of Jesus’s promise to “remake heaven and earth.”
Somewhere between these two extremes of executive authority we have the modern CEO and head of state, in whom are gathered all of the defects of power, remoteness and corruptibility.
America’s constitutional system was designed to limit the power of the head of state. One of the principle abuses of royal authority in Europe was the use of charters to transfer control of markets to the nobility. This inhibited the rise of institutions with the wealth to defend the common man in disputes with the nobility. To guard against that in the new federation of US states, three branches of government were established with distinct powers.
George Washington, the first president, observed that his principle function was to encourage development of the nation’s resources. He was a booster for private business. The Native Americans bore the worst of this link between development and government. In one particularly egregious instance: The Cherokee of Georgia had actually begun to assimilate when gold was discovered on their land. Greedy speculators supported passage of the Indian Removal Act in 1838, and the Federal Government forced the Cherokee from their lands.
The cozy relationship between business and government became abusive in the late 1800’s. Deflationary policies ensured that the purchasing power of idle capital continued to increase, with the side-effect that farmers could not pay their obligations and were thus forced off of their land. Attacking these hypocritical policies was made more difficult because the Federal government lacked the financial means of the interstate corporations. Unchecked, the robber barons of the period, with their company stores and abusive working conditions, lined their own pockets at the worker’s expense.
Breaking up this social disaster was largely the work of the Roosevelts, Theodore and Franklin. Theodore was an army officer, and associated with men who were forced into the army by the loss of their lands. He was the president that stood up against the banking system and supported unionization against the violent resistance of owners. Franklin, who as governor of New York had witnessed the worst of the industrial hygiene crisis that beset the nation, betrayed his own class to ensure that a federal safety net was secured for vulnerable workers when the Great Depression paralyzed industry.
Roosevelt’s “New Deal” posed a challenge to our constitutional system with the creation of federal agencies administered by the executive branch. Congress no longer had the means to check executive power when so much money was allocated to agencies under the President’s control, and the courts were required to wait for whistleblowers to step forward with a complaint before they could intervene.
While you would think that it would be the liberal parties that would step forward to check this imbalance, in our day it is actually the conservatives leading the charge. This is because they share the agenda of business leaders seeking to limit the influence of the government on their operations. This is particularly strong with oil industry executives that want to prevent regulation of CO2 emissions. The power of business in the party was evidenced in 2012, when the flood of tea party money from out of state cost the Republican Majority Leader his seat in the House of Representatives. His crime: negotiating with Democrats on budget and immigration issues.
What bemuses me is that there’s another way to solve the problem besides trying to shut the government down. The mechanism of modern corporate structure are designed to ensure that majority shareholders don’t abuse the rights of minority shareholders. Corporate policy is set by an elected board, with implementation by a professional staff serving at the pleasure of the board. The public record-keeping required of the board ensures that abused shareholders have the opportunity to seek redress.
To ensure that the President did not abuse his powers, the constitution could be amended to make the president’s cabinet the chair of departmental boards, with the remaining members selected by 2/3 vote of Congress. Implementation would be through career civil servants. The president would retain his unilateral authority as command-in-chief. While limiting the opportunity for misdoing by the executive, this program would also reduce the political value of Congressional witch-hunts, as Congress could no longer say “we didn’t know.” They could invest the recovered with the business of the legislature – which is to debate and pass bills.
As for the corporations: they’ve come quite close to restoring the halcyon era of the late 1800’s. The injustice, as in the era of the Roosevelts, is that they acquire their wealth under the auspices of the government. Government, after all, is simply a system for negotiating the rules that control the distribution of power throughout the society. That can include procedures that seem somewhat abusive. For example, when a board awards a huge stock option to an executive, a legal transfer of wealth takes place from the shareholder to the executive – without the direct consent of the shareholder. The government enforces the legitimacy of that transfer. It’s seems reasonable that the people should have the option to recover that ill-gotten wealth through progressive taxation.
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