Guest Blog: What Kind of Country?

Here is the second guest post (the first was from Rhiannon Richardson), from the Montgomery County Community College Writers’ Festival workshop. Linda Hubbard-Cooke writes: “I grew up in a small town on Lake Erie in northern Ohio and have lived the past 17 years in suburban Philadelphia with my husband and two sons. The road from Ohio to raising a family in Pennsylvania included several years living outside of the United States. Living in other countries changed my life in many ways and has influenced my world view.” Her post, a reflection on the choices before us as a country, is below. The cartoon I added to her post belongs to the Occupy For Accountability site.

I have been very discouraged recently about the direction that America seems to be heading. What kind of society will we be in 10 or 20 years? What kind of country will my children and their children live in? What kind of country will I grow old in?

My thoughts return to the early 80’s and my time as an exchange student in Sweden, a country which had high levels of income equality and low levels of corruption. Sweden has one of the highest standards of living in the world. Then in the early 1990’s, I lived and worked in Venezuela, a country which was in many aspects the polar opposite. The middle class in Venezuela was shrinking while a small percentage of the country controlled over 50% of the wealth. Corruption and poverty were commonplace. Which country are we more like today and more importantly in what direction are we heading?

In the 90’s corruption in Venezuela was ubiquitous. When a Venezuelan policeman stopped me in my car, he did not want to give me a ticket but was looking for a payoff. He threatened to impound my car but a Venezuelan friend simply offered the policeman enough money to buy a nice dinner and we went on our way. It was common to pay off government officials whenever you needed something done, or undone. The company I worked for had an employee whose sole job was to use his political connections to pay off government officials when needed and he was known to have a number of politicians and customs officials in his pocket. I found this system of corruption hard to live with. Although illegal, this corruption was an accepted part of the culture and continues to date. The 2011 Corruption Perception Index, a ranking of countries according to perception of corruption in the public sector today ranks Venezuela near the bottom (164 out of a total 178 countries). In contrast, Sweden is 4th in the ranking and the United States is 22nd.

Corruption is defined as the abuse of power for private gain. One of the biggest issues America faces today is the corruption in our government. income-cartoonThis corruption however is legalized and systemic. The campaign financing system lends itself to corruption. Elected officials who govern taxation and set regulations are being funded through the money of large corporations and the very rich, those very people most impacted by taxation and regulation. As an example, the New York Times last week reported that Democratic Congressman Dan Boren of Oklahoma is co-chairman of the Natural Gas Caucus yet much of his family wealth is from oil and natural gas and one of his top donors is Chesapeake Energy. Technically this does not violate House ethics rules yet it is clearly a form of bribery – money flowing to a person of power to influence their conduct. The challenge in labeling this as corruption is that it is not easy to measure the impact of the money flowing through elections.

Some of the corruption is, however, more blatant and measurable. According to a recent article about the book Throw Them All Out by Peter Schweizer, the laws that prevent ordinary American citizens from practicing insider trading do not apply to members of Congress. Some have benefited financially through insider trading and by the laws they are enacting. As stated in the article:

“…some of Congress’s most prominent members are in a position to routinely engage in what amounts to a legal form of insider trading, profiting from investment activity that, [Schweizer] says, “would send the rest of us to prison.”’

So what kind of country will our children and grandchildren inherit? Any concept of fairness in our system will depend on an informed and involved public, the strength and character of our leaders and most importantly a shared vision of what our country should be. Continued unbridled corruption and widening income inequality will place America on a path towards a third world society like Venezuela where money opens doors, buys power and influence while the middle class and opportunity for our children will largely disappear.

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