Democracy, If We Can Keep It 

Louis Brandeis

Louis Brandeis

Former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once famously said, "We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can't have both." If Brandeis is correct, we no longer have a democracy in the U.S., or, at best, we are damn close to losing it.

An economic report released this week by the Oxfam organization concluded that income inequality has reached unprecedented levels. To illustrate, Oxfam noted that three Americans — Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and Warren Buffett — hold a total of $263 billion in wealth, which is equal to the holdings of the lower 50 percent of the American population at large, or 160 million people.

So, to reiterate: Three guys have as much money as the total amount of wealth held by 50 percent of American citizens. Worldwide, the figures are just as staggering. Oxfam reported that 42 people now own as much wealth as the bottom 3.7 billion people living on the planet.

The U.S. governing bodies — the House and Senate — are mostly run by millionaires who became millionaires by doing the bidding of billionaires via special interest lobbies and corporate donations. The Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United v. FEC decision — which decreed, essentially, that corporations are people with the right to "free speech," meaning they have the right to contribute unlimited funds to political advertising — has polluted and corrupted the electoral process to an astonishing degree in just eight years.

The Trump presidency has stepped it up another notch by appointing billionaires to most key cabinet positions. And almost without exception, they are serving the very corporations they are supposed to be regulating. Millions of acres of our National Parks are being sold off to mining, oil, and lumber interests. Off-shore drilling rights are being granted near the beaches, coral reefs, and fishing grounds of our coastal states. Banking and financial investment regulations are being loosened. Environmental laws are being repealed or rolled back or ignored. Public school funding is being curtailed, as money gets funneled into for-profit "educational" institutions. Health care is becoming a luxury the poor and working-class can't afford.

All in the name of greed. All in the pursuit of accumulating more money by those who already have more than most of us would see if we lived 10 lifetimes.

We've been here before in our history, most recently in 2007-2008, when the subprime mortgage crisis nearly destroyed the economy. The Wall Street cowboys thought the Ponzi-scheme housing bubble they'd created would never burst. But it did, and fabled financial institutions, including Bear Stearns, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Lehman Brothers, Citibank, and AIG went down in flames. The U.S. automobile industry went on life support. The government threw $700 billion at the banks to bail them out, and poured another $800 billion stimulus into the economy. It worked, eventually, but a lot of folks got burned; a lot of folks lost everything.

Now, here we are, 10 years later, and it's party time again. Regulations? We don't need no steenking regulations! The economy is booming! Unemployment is low. The stock market is hitting another all-time high every week. What could go wrong?

Maybe nothing. Maybe we just soar and soar into the great wide open, as the rich keep getting richer and the poor keep getting screwed by the trickle-down myth. But karma is a bitch, and the universe has a way of correcting imbalances. So do democracies, if they can survive long enough to vote the money-changers out of the temple.

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