When he is not teaching law or writing articles on democracy, telecommunications and broadcasting at the University of Iowa, Nicholas Johnson has a quadrennial hobby he pursues.
He asks candidates running for President in the early Iowa Caucus one question. It goes something like this: “I’ve now heard you denounce those powerful special interest lobbies in Washington whose power so damages fair and proper policies. If you are elected President, just how would you implement your reforms and restrain those powerful interest groups?
Johnson tells me that the only answer that came close to responding to his question was that the candidate would appoint good people to head the agencies and departments of the federal government.
But, he point out, that approach has been taken before. Good people have been appointed to cabinet level and agency level positions and only the merest dent has been made in the corporate siege of Washington, D.C. Johnson should know. He was head of the Federal Maritime Administration and a Federal Communications Commissioner in the Sixties and Seventies. He knew first hand that good people up against a steel wall of corporate power seeking taxpayer subsidies and special privileges can do little without the grass roots power of an informed citizenry.
Which brings us to the present Presidential primaries now brewing in New Hampshire and other states. This year, the denunciation of special interests is particularly strong. Democratic candidates such as Tom Harkin is taking on big corporations with their huge salaries and bonuses that stand in contrast to large layoff notices to their workers. Other candidates, while mindful of who is paying their freight, are more cautious, but they all bewail the need to overcome the obstacles and rigidities to necessary changes inside and outside government bureaucracies.
Such a rigid state of public affairs merits a deeper scrutiny than a laundry list of recommended changes in the tax laws, the military budget, housing programs, street and corporate crime and the like. The scrutiny probes the question whether anything can be changed in a deteriorating society where the path of least resistance for the forces of organized greed and entrenchment is eroding unorganized consumers, taxpayers and citizens.
The fundamental questions that need to be put to the candidates over and over again are how are they going to empower, how are they going to facilitate the banding together by those Americans who are being compelled to pay and pay and pay for bills not of their own making, such as the huge Savings and Loan bailout.
In today’s complex economy and convergence of big business with big government, the Lincolnesque phrase of government of, by and for the people needs updating, renovation and far deeper resources.
Today, it must mean organized access and use of the radio and television media by the citizenry. The public airwaves are after all the public’s property rented out free of charge to the profitable broadcast companies. Why shouldn’t one hour prime time be returned back to studios, reporters and programmers who belong to an Audience Network? (For more information write to P.O. Box 19367, Washington, DC 20036).
Today, it must mean group buying by consumers to enlarge their bargaining power vis-à-vis the giant sellers that are dominating our economy. And, unless the federal government stops spending billions of your tax dollars to promote and subsidize corporations (e.g. the Department of Commerce), then the Presidential candidate should have some suggestions as to how consumer buying groups can be facilitated with very little use of your tax dollars.
Today it must mean more than laws governing banks, insurance companies, utilities and other lines of commerce that are often written by these companies and unenforced by people from these companies, who go into government for a few years to head these regulatory agencies, or who are going into these companies after leaving government. It must mean more than endless bailouts and abuses of consumers. It must include written inserts in the monthly bills or statements of these legal monopolies (utilities) or subsidized companies (banks) that invite consumers to join organized consumer associations with full time consumer champions.
Today, it must also include an end to buying or selling politicians through campaign contributions or what David Brinkley once called “legalized bribes.”
When the winds of corruption and greed blow harder, the tree of democracy needs deeper roots and broader branches. If you meet any of these candidates in the coming month, find out whether they understand this elementary principle or whether they’ve set their campaign sails on a set of reforms that have no way of being implemented even if they are elected. Remind them of Nicholas Johnson’s question in Iowa.