Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Elizabeth Warren, Forging Ahead in Calm Seas

There is a beautiful piece of music composed by Felix Mendelssohn — Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, first performed in 1828 and inspired by both a Beethoven cantata of 1815 and poetry by Goethe. The contradiction in the title may be lost on most people today. In the age of sail, a calm sea was potentially disastrous. The Horse Latitudes may have been so named because horses were cast overboard when water supplies fell too low on a becalmed ship.

Elizabeth Warren strikes me as a seafarer making headway in a calm sea. There is plenty of bluster in Washington but little if any progress on much of anything. Warren is a real force opposed by Obama and Republicans alike. Yet she perseveres.

I find Elizabeth Warren a particularly interesting phenomenon. In some respects, she reminds me of Brooksley Born — someone with great insight and catching the entrenched powers unprepared. Warren is a very rare breed at Harvard Law School, someone who did not go to the big five Elite God-Blessed Law Schools. When Elena Kagan was named (pathetically predictably) by Obama to the Supreme Court, there was some comment that only Harvard and Yale would now be represented among the justices. Warren went to Rutgers. Obama has been a hardcore Harvard lackey in many, even most, of his appointments.

This is not a trivial observation about "old school ties." The issue is one of concentration of power. A particular school affiliation is only a symptom. As more and more are noting with greater and greater frequency, a tiny percentage of Americans are benefitting at the expense of the vast majority. This is reflected in the coddling of Wall Street at the expense of the entire country.

In the case of Obama specifically, there is a question of psychology. He shares with the president he most resembles, Bill Clinton, the experience of being abandoned by a parent. In Obama's case, from the sound of it, he was completely abandoned by one parent, his father, and substantially abandoned by the other. He demonstrates a pattern of behavior that psychologists likely understand — a desperate need to please power figures. But this is just armchair psychologizing.

More important is a problem evident in the growing pattern of political decision-making that isn't just indifferent to the welfare of the overwhelming majority, but is directly repugnant to it. A huge percentage of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the United States systematically disregard existing law (as Obama has now in Libya or in his treatment of Bradley Manning, among others, or as the Supreme Court did in Citizens United or in Bush v Gore). This huge percentage also disregards the general welfare — and the longterm wellbeing of the United States — to serve a tiny fraction of Americans, arguably numbering no more than 10,000, and perhaps far fewer than that.

The three branches of the US government, under the Constitution providing checks and balances with respect to one another, are instead a collective agency capture by American Oligarchy. The system of checks and balances exists today only in the petty bickering between two very similar pseudo-parties. Otherwise, it is absent. So what are We the People to do when (1) the entire government is failing to serve our interests and (2) that same government has very effectively ensured its longevity and continued capacity to serve those interests it does prize?

This is not idle rhetoric, nor is it a view isolated to the left (as it was in the past). There is a growing, very respectable literature on the decline or failure of American democracy. It includes scholars like Sheldon Wolin, Larry Bartels, Joseph Stiglitz, and Paul Krugman. And that's just four.

Elizabeth Warren has sailed on through American doldrums. Why, I don't know.

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