The Road to Real Reform

I’ve always felt negative criticism needed to be balanced with positive suggestions. Don’t just complain about what’s wrong – explain how to make it better. All institutions and systems are human institutions and systems, meaning they’re far from perfect. Sometimes, even though a particular arrangement is flawed it’s still the best that’s possible under the circumstances.

In comparison with all the current and historical systems of finance, economics and politics the current American system is pretty good. But it’s far from the best that’s possible. People are suffering and the trends are headed in the wrong direction. Changes need to be made.

But changes need to be well-considered with an eye toward results, not toward someone’s political doctrine. A solution has to offer specific measures to achieve specific results. Any effective solution will strike a balance between egalitarianism and individualism – it will allow people to pursue their own self-interests while insuring everyone has enough.

Systems Changes – What Occupy Wall Street Should Demand

A financial transactions tax. As I discussed on Thursday, our financial markets are too fixated on short term increases in stock prices and not on long-term profits and profitability. Computerized trading means that a brokerage can buy and then sell a stock within minutes or even seconds. This does nothing to help efficiently allocate capital, it simply adds to volatility. A transactions tax on every purchase and sale of stocks, bonds and commodities would provide a disincentive to speculate.

I don’t know what the rate should be – high enough to cut down on churn but not high enough to be a disincentive to sell a stock you felt was going to lose value. Whatever the rate, it should be higher on commodities and extremely high on oil. You can’t repeal the law of supply and demand, but if the demand doesn’t include speculation prices will be lower and more stable.

With less short term trading and speculation stock prices would be more stable. This would encourage the executives of publically traded companies to manage less for short term income and more for long term profitability.

Campaign finance reform. I’m not talking about partial measures. I’m talking about radically restricting the amount of money available for political campaigns. No institutional contributions. No soft money (money given to political parties and interest groups). Extreme limits on the use of personal funds.

The problem isn’t that the rich “buy” candidates. The problem is that there’s so much money in the process that every politician employs huge staffs of professional campaigners that don’t go away after the election is over. Nobody wants to govern any more – every decision is about scoring points to win the next election.

Without the money to pay professional campaigners politicians would have to rely on input from a handful of staffers and from their constituents. Without the funds to pay professional pollsters politicians would have to vote based on what they thought was right – which is what’s supposed to happen in a representative democracy.

Would it be perfect? No. Would money still get into the system? Yes. Would the rich still have more influence than the rest of us? Yes. But the system would be much cleaner without the full time professional campaigners.

Those two items would do more to reduce inequality and the abuse of power than anything else that can be done politically. There’s more I’d like to see: increased transparency in the financial industry, the restoration of a highly progressive tax code, universal health insurance, the elimination of the cap on social security taxes, and massive investments in infrastructure repairs and expansions. But no movement could achieve all that at once. A financial transactions tax and campaign finance reform would offer the most impact.

Personal Changes – What We Should Do

If there is to be peace in the world,
There must be peace in the nations.

If there is to be peace in the nations,
There must be peace in the cities.

If there is to be peace in the cities,
There must be peace between neighbors.

If there is to be peace between neighbors,
There must be peace in the home.

If there is to be peace in the home,
There must be peace in the heart.

– Lao Tzu

The theme running through all this week’s posts is that we are where we are because a lot of people made decisions they thought were in their own best interests, but failed to consider that those decisions had impacts on other people and that they had unfavorable long term consequences. This is what people will do over and over again unless constrained by intense social pressure or by the force of law.

There is another way – changing human hearts and minds.

Most all of our moral and social conflicts are due to millions of years of evolutionary instincts telling us to do things that are no longer helpful in the modern world. But we don’t have to wait for mutations and adaptations to change us, we can change ourselves.

This requires mindfulness – considering what we do before we do it. It requires understanding that once we have enough, more doesn’t bring more happiness. It requires learning that the person speaking a different language or worshipping a different god is our relative just as much as the person next door.

We can learn and grow. We can mature – we can break out of the cycle of “mine!” and “not fair!”

Lao Tzu taught this. Buddha taught it. Jesus taught it. Muhammad taught it. So have prophets and sages and philosophers around the world for the last 2500 years. Each put his own mark on it, each adapted it for his own time and place, each wrapped it in his own sacred stories.

Those sacred stories are still valid. If you’re a follower of one of the “major” religions, find a denomination or a congregation that teaches compassion and unity and help build a thriving community.

Maybe you don’t like the old stories. Maybe you prefer the story that says there’s nothing beyond this world so we’d better take care of it and live the best we can while we’re here. That can be a good story too.

Or maybe, like me, you prefer the really old (or is it really new?) story that says the Earth is sacred and that we have a obligation to both past and future generations to take care of her and to take care of each other.

Whatever version of the great story of mindfulness and compassion you prefer, learn it and live it.

It isn’t easy – millions of years of instincts don’t fade away overnight. The “us vs. them” and “survival of the fittest” stories are very prevalent – and very popular – in our mainstream society. It takes commitment and practice.

But really, what choice do we have? What we’re doing now isn’t working. I don’t know about you, but I’m hurting enough to try something different.

If there is to be peace in the world, there must be peace in the heart.

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