Common Ground

Our two packs of extremists — the tea party, and Occupy Wall Street — might have more in common than they let on. Here, an attempted synthesis. If OWS stands for something (which remains debatable), they stand for the proposition that corporations exercise too much control over the American people and their government. And if the tea party knows anything (which is, again, debatable), they know that the American government exercises too much control over her people.

The groups share this notion between them: that due to some force beyond their control, America as a nation-state is less connected to her people today than in the past. This is a fairly general proposition, but both iterations of it are uniquely American concepts, each grounded in Jeffersonian thought.  For your unwashed hippie:

I hope we shall take warning from the example and crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws of our country.

And for your tea partier:

The government is best which governs least.

(Though, in classic tea party fashion, they actually have their history wrong: we merely attribute this last saying to Jefferson, because he would’ve probably agreed with the sentiment. It’s actually Thoreau.)

To build a consensus around these groups, we should start by acknowledging that they’re probably both right, to some extent. Modern America is bigger, more complicated, and more distant from her citizens than at any point in our past. Some of this is unavoidable: you can’t administer a modern nation the size of the United States without “big government,” and you can’t drive its economy without the kind of capitalism that results in some level of corporate excess. The trick is to roll the size of government, and the extent of corporate control, back to necessary levels. Both the tea parties and OWS substantially overshoot that mark, but provided one balances the other, mutually unrealistic demands serve the valuable function of anchoring the parties at matching extremes. Theoretically, any solution between the two polar opposites is up for debate.

The next step is to identify shared goals. Here, it’s arguably the case that big corporations create big government. We need an active SEC (and overwrought regulatory regimes, like Dodd-Frank) to properly address the problems created by corporate excess. Unfortunately, corporate excess isn’t something we can wish away, and it’s not something that’s really accounted for, at all, by “small government” solutions. So long as humanity remains human, the profit motive will exist, and make the kind of de-regulation demanded by tea partiers an impossibility. This fundamental disagreement forecloses a mutually acceptable solution, unless we redefine each side’s goals.

Let’s ask, then, whether the tea party wants less regulation, or transparent, controllable regulation. Modern financial controls presuppose that only the federal government can successfully implement federal legislation — which is to say, the SEC enforces the Securities and Exchange Acts, not the states. Although it would present some legal problems, that doesn’t have to be the case. To keep compliance costs manageable, corporate regulation should be the product of a federal statute, but its implementation could be devolved to the state level… although it would require a systemic overhaul, and the rewriting of most law books. Devolution, too, would have the benefit of keying enforcement to the particular problems of each state: we can imagine a New York Attorney General more aggressively pursuing investment banks, but an Alabama Attorney General leaving well enough alone.

This would be a complicated solution — and it’s not one that’s particularly likely to happen. But to bridge the divide between the two parties’ extremist camps, we need to stop talking past each other, and start thinking creatively.

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