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  • Louis Putterman

Turning point: Can we still save our society and build a better world?



The past few years have been an emotional roller-coaster for those of us who’d hoped to leave this world a better place than we’d found it. A few years ago, I wrote the book The Good, The Bad and the Economy: Does Human Nature Rule out a Better World?, and in the book’s Preface, I wrote about “glimmers of progress towards humanity’s dream of a world in which peace, justice, and harmony could reign.” The glimmers I had in mind included the birth and spread of political democracy—still highly imperfect and a novelty when the U.S. constitution was written. Democracy seemed to be a bit closer to realization when the first African American president was re-elected in 2012, confirming trends in the U.S. electorate holding the promise of growing diversity and inclusion. The glimmers also included progress towards establishing equality before the law; gains in the status of women; declines in bias based on sexual orientation; growing awareness of and rejection of racism; and technological progress making better quality diets and housing, better health, and far more years of life available to more of the world’s people than ever before.


But I also pointed out frustrating set-backs and stubbornly festering blights on the human scorecard: the fact that the world’s two richest men had the same combined net wealth as its poorest one billion people; the continuing problems of human trafficking, of civil wars, ethnic cleansings, massive refugee encampments, and an American life expectancy declining for the first time in generations due to rising suicide, opioid overdoses, and alcohol-induced liver disease. And that was before the election of Donald Trump and the Covid-19 pandemic.


After Trump’s election, confidence in the idea of human progress, optimism that societies can reform and improve, belief in the ideals put forth by the great minds of The Enlightenment—Voltaire, Locke, Hume, Kant—sank to depths not seen since the darkest days of the World War II. In that war’s early years, it seemed that Fascism and totalitarianism might triumph throughout Europe and Asia. Now, since 2016, it’s seemed that America itself might be heading towards a populist dictatorship, under a Fuhrer who’s palled around with like-minded strongmen from Russia and Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia to North Korea, the Philippines, and Brazil, while snubbing the democratically elected leaders of Western Europe, Canada, South Korea and New Zealand.


Apparently, many Americans had already concluded that Enlightenment themes like democracy and equality were only a veneer used by the liberal intelligentsia and the Wall Street and dot.com elites as they ignored the masses who struggle to keep afloat in the face of wave upon wave of technological change, globalization, and financial booms and busts. Center-right politicians had already sold most Americans on the idea that government was their enemy, and now Trump was adding to this the brain-rotting narrative that the “liberal media,” intellectuals, and those ideals of racial, gender, and political equality that continue to echo and evolve out of the spirit of the Enlightenment, are also enemies. Trump treasonously sided with Putin against his own military and intelligence chiefs, faked an agreement with Kim Jung Un rather than protect the security interests of the U.S. and its South Korean and Japanese allies, refused to defend America’s Kurdish allies against Turkish and Russian aggression in Syria, and pressured the fragile democracy in Ukraine, a country in desperate need of U.S. assistance to defend its territory against Russian aggression, by demanding that it manufacture political dirt on his expected political rival. In his most appalling hour, Trump declared himself a wartime president at the start of a pandemic which has now taken seventy-five times more American lives than the 9-11 attack. Instead of leading, however, he proceeded to impose racist barriers to immigration rather than actual medical screening and contact tracing. He discouraged testing and mask-wearing, and through his antagonism to science and disregard of Americans’ health and safety, he directly caused tens of thousands of American deaths by the most conservative of counts. Instead of holding him accountable, tens of millions of Americans found these actions to be perfectly fine, and thousands came out to his maskless rallies, making themselves fodder for the virus’s spread and human sacrifices at the altar of his vanity. While many died from these needless exposures (a Stanford study put the estimate at 700 deaths due directly to those rallies), the Secret Service and White House doctors continued to protect the President himself, giving him gold-plated treatments not available to other Americans to help him quickly overcome his own case of the disease. If America had the world’s beacon of hope prior to 2016, surely the time had come for despair.


Much as in the early 1940s, the fate of civilization appears to hang in the balance. More opponents than supporters of this President, who openly questions the legitimacy of our democracy and refuses to commit to accepting the outcome of vote tallies, will be voting by mail. Trump is already calling for the election result to be announced without counting mail-in ballots. He is calling the counting of mail-in ballots that requires more than the one day of Nov. 3 to be ignored, with a result based only on tallies as of the 3rd, contrary to hundreds of years of American history. He will in all likelihood declare victory before the votes have been counted, wil engage in legal maneuvers to disqualify or not count votes, and will depend on a Supreme Court substantially hand-picked by himself and his enablers in the Senate in order to engeneer a reversal of the ballots cast by the majority of Americans.

Given this dire threat to the ideals for which American long stood, those who haven’t already voted MUST come to the polls in droves, wearing whatever face masks and face shields they can find, trying to socially distance, but making sure that they vote to achieve the landslide that will be needed to stop this American Mussolini from seizing power and ending the two century struggle for democracy in our country. We have to be ready to take to the streets on November 4, November 5, and however many additional days are necessary, to insist that this power grab not stand. We must make our voices heard until the White House can be freed from the moral rot and restored to constitutional government.


A high quality of life for all Americans requires synergy between a government and market forces, not the hobbling of government that clears the way for a few giant corporations to keep their boot on the necks of America’s families. We need a government accountable to us, protecting us from threats to our environment, food and pharmaceuticals, a government that assures that our economy works for us, and a competitive marketplace that brings out the entrepreneurial talents and drive of our people, rather than allowing over-grown corporate behemoths to suppress and coopt those talents and that drive. Accountability requires enabling people to vote, not suppressing it. Like those European countries in which a better balance between the state and market forces has brought a higher standard of living, more education, more economic stability, and higher quality medical care at lower cost, America can achieve so much more if markets, enterprising workers, investors, managers and innovators work together with a government accountable to the people, not beholden to peddlers of anti-government, anti-democratic, and racially divisive propaganda. Democracy and good government are central parts of the solution in the well-functioning advanced countries, a club of countries that Trump and his enablers have been dragging us further and further below and behind. We can make a better America than ever, or we can continue our slide by staying home from the polls or allowing our votes to be suppressed. America and the world as a whole are counting on us to save the experiment that is democracy and the dynamic mixed economy which built the world’s strongest economy in the aftermath of our previous great civilizational test. It is the dark days of World War II all over again, but this time we can turn things around in a single week.

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