From: John Talbott
To: Simon Johnson
Subject: Taking Back the Country
I think you and I and most economists suffer from an antiquated belief that if we can just figure out exactly what went wrong, policymakers will beat a path to our door to ask our help in enacting necessary reforms. Unfortunately, the world no longer works that way. Our corrupted government, our criminal businesses and banking institutions, lobbyists, special interests, and the corporate controlled media are not interested in fixing this problem. They are making trillions of dollars through a vast scheme that transfers wealth from ordinary American taxpayers and consumers to their corrupt coffers. You are right that if big business thought about it, they should support efforts at restricting lobbying so that growth-oriented government policies could be implemented without the influence of corrupting special interests. But each lobbying corporation is also its own special interest, and so such internal reform is impossible.
The million-dollar question is: Why haven't ordinary Americans reacted more passionately and angrily in taking real action to end this systemic abuse? A decade ago, I wrote my first book on the corrupting influence of big business lobbying on our government and concluded at the time that average Americans would not focus on the issue until they had suffered real pain. I concluded that you can't defuse a bomb in America until after it has gone off.
But now the bomb has exploded. Forty million Americans are unemployed, millions have lost their homes, and most have taken a very substantial hit to their incomes, retirement savings and wealth. Why aren't Americans in the streets protesting this corrupt, enormously damaging criminal enterprise? I have traveled enough around America to realize that even though the current situation is enormously complex and not all Americans can describe exactly how the CDO market works, almost without exception every American can relate to you his frustration with how corrupt this government is and how unjust corporate lobbying and special influence in Washington has become. They get it. As a matter of fact, some of my high school-educated friends from my home state of Kentucky understand it a lot better than my Harvard-educated friends from Wall Street.
So I don't think the current challenge is figuring out exactly what caused the crisis. Focusing on what caused this episode will lead to narrow regulatory reform that reminds me that we all now take off our shoes at airports because one crazy fellow had the idea of putting a bomb in his heel. So while reform is needed in subprime mortgages, securitization, derivatives, and even in the magnitude of our financial institutions, none of these get at the fundamental problem: The people of this country are no longer making the rules by which they wish to live. If subprime mortgages hadn't blown up, some other area of highly leveraged bank lending would have eventually imploded. Even if the banking industry hadn't crashed, some other sector of the corrupt business/government criminal enterprise would have. Maybe the ice shelf of Greenland would have collapsed into the North Atlantic, maybe we would have run out of oil, maybe Microsoft's monopoly position in operating systems would have led to a worldwide computer virus shutdown, maybe poor consumer safety standards with China would have led to a global disease epidemic. The point is that when corporations make the rules, the results are not always good for the inhabitants of the planet.
So we don't have to decide today exactly what the reforms will be -- we just need to get corporate America out of our government so that the people can deliberate and make these reform decisions themselves without undue influence from bankers and corporations.
But there are two huge impediments to accomplishing this. This is not a traditional economics problem, it is an organizing problem or a collective action problem. People know the system is rigged and broken and unjust, but they feel as if there is very little that any one of them can do to effect much change. The organizing task is further complicated by the fact that our media, including television networks, cable TV, radio, newspapers, and magazine and book publishing, are almost all sponsored, owned and controlled by big corporations. The only hope is the Internet, over which big business has tried but to date failed to successfully exert its dominance. The Internet will prove to be both a source of unbiased news and information as well as the communication tool concerned citizens can utilize to fight back against big government, big business and big media.
What has to happen to get this movement started? First, I think people need to see that there is a channel being constructed that has the potential to be effective in directing their anger into real positive reform and change. I am in the process of beginning just such an organization and encourage people who are interested in fighting back against the system and against corporate lobbyists and special interests to contact me at my e-mail address, johntalbs (at) hotmail (dot) com.
Next, people have to believe that if they invest their time in such an effort they have the potential of winning. In this case, this is rather straightforward and easy to explain. If we are successful in organizing 5 million to 10 million Americans who want to see real change about how business is conducted in Washington, then by definition, we will have not only substantial political and voting power, but more important, the beginnings of a real consumer movement that could easily boycott the products and services of the worst corporate lobbyers in our government.
And this is where the magic of the Internet comes in. No one person could organize a 10 million person database in his lifetime. But Obama was able to accomplish it in less than two years. How? We don't have his money. Instead, we create our own Ponzi scheme. We create the ultimate chain letter. I e-mail 30 of my friends who each e-mail 30 of their friends and so on and so on. If only four cycles of people pass on the info we end up contacting 25 million Americans. We ask people to give us their e-mails and then contact them when we want to boycott a new offender.
It is time for Americans to realize that things are not going to improve until they get involved. It will take time. But the economy is not going to improve until we straighten out our corrupt system. Do you have anything more important that you are working on than this? The survival of liberal democratic society in the world.
Thanks for a great exchange of ideas. And best of luck in your future research and work.
Organizing average citizens against powerful financial interests has always been the central challenge of any democratic society. The only way that is going to happen is if the citizenry is informed and empowered to take a stand against the corrupt state of affairs in this country. In my opinion, the two-party system that is dominated by corporate financial interests is one of the main problems in our political system. Both Democrats and Republicans are heavily influenced by a variety of corporate interests, and corporate interests do not discriminate against either party; they fund both parties, making any real reform incredibly difficult in the face of an unorganized, disenfranchised populace. This will be an ongoing struggle for those of us interested in social justice and an undoing of the corrupted capitalistic economy that has exploited average Americans for decades.