In recent decades, the peaceful revolution that is so important to the long-term success of democratic governments and those countries they serve has been hijacked by special interests. No longer is the old guard being replaced with fresh new faces who bring vigor and passion to their work.
Rather, many democratic governments are now completely beholden to powerful groups within their country, which bankroll politicians’ campaigns in an effort to keep things exactly the way they are, because the status quo is already making these groups rich beyond belief.
This has left many democracies unable to respond to the needs of the countries and people they govern or to the global challenges that the past century has presented.
It was 2 a.m., and I was sleeping in my office parking lot with my head resting on a moldy pillow. Next to me were several Chevy vans stuffed with envelopes containing many millions of dollars. As a tech entrepreneur, this was most definitely not what I’d had in mind when I’d started the business. The story leading up to my night of parking lot van babysitting is a case study in how government can go wrong, and how the democratic process has been damaged over the past few decades.
I was running my very first company after dropping out of college, and it had taken off very quickly. The basic idea was relatively simple: we helped students find scholarships and grants on the Internet.
Back in those days, searching the Internet (called Arpanet at the time) was a much more complex operation. Computers were more expensive, worked many times slower, and rarely connected to a network. So, to find scholarships on the Internet, students would send in their search request along with a sixty-dollar check, and we would key their search into our computers, scour the Internet, print the results, and send them back to them.
By developing software-based information crawlers, we had automated the process of trolling the computers of university financial aid offices and had amassed a large database of financial aid sources, similar to the way Google crawls the Internet today to build its search database.
As soon as our database was packed with hundreds of thousands of sources of financial aid, we gave students at my university (University of California, San Diego) first pass at it. Word of mouth exploded on that campus. Within weeks, word had spread to neighboring colleges. Only two months after launching, requests for our services were coming in from virtually every other college and university around the nation. To the best of my knowledge, this was the first commercially successful Internet search business.
Uaccountable Government and Runaway Bureaucracy
Unfortunately for us, the United States Postal Service became alarmed at the exploding number of envelopes that we were receiving each day and the amount of money they contained. This resulted in the Postal Service essentially holding our company hostage by seizing our mail and revenues, making it impossible for us to pay the rent or even make payroll. Our only option was to take up the case in federal court, in essence suing the federal government in its own courtrooms—a daunting task for a twenty-one-year-old with only a few months’ business experience who had never even seen the inside of a courtroom.
My lawyers advised me not to fight the case, given that a staggeringly high percentage of these types of cases are won easily by the government. But, in my almost naive belief in the U.S. justice system, I couldn’t fathom being taken advantage of in such a way without putting up a fight.
I will never forget the answer the prosecutor gave to the federal judge when asked why the Post Office had taken the action in the first place, and how many complaints they were responding to. “No,” he said. “There weren’t any complaints from customers. But, in our experience, when a company is doing this well this fast, they must be doing something wrong.”
It was then that I fully realized that not only was I being unjustly prosecuted by the government, but the people who were pursuing the case were doing so because, in their eyes, my business was simply too successful.
The United States government was too powerful and out of control.
On a quick side note, my attorney in this case also suggested that the investigators were probably quite happy to be in the city of San Diego at the time of year that our hearing took place. American East Coast cold is no joke, and it may well have been possible that a taxpayer-funded vacation to America’s finest city was just too tempting to pass up. Obviously, it’s just a theory…, but it does serve to give you an idea of how bad potential governmental abuse of power can be when there is no proper oversight by responsible elected officials. But I digress.
Long story short: in large part because of expert testimony from the University of California, San Diego (UCSD)’s Director of Financial Services Thomas Rutter, the judge ruled in our favor and ordered the Postal Service to release our mail and money. By that time, mountains of envelopes had accumulated containing checks that totaled, cumulatively, many millions of dollars. There were so many envelopes that we needed several large vans to transport them from the Postal Office to the bank. Since the bank just closed for the weekend, my business partner and I, along with some of our employees, had to take turns sleeping in the vans to make sure they didn’t disappear before Monday, along with all the money they contained.
I had been incredibly fortunate. If it weren’t for UCSD’s Thomas Rutter’s ability to really understand what our software was doing, plus his belief that the American justice system ultimately could reach the right conclusion, I probably would have lost. And if the federal judge hadn’t decided to allow me to bring in and connect up all my computers in her courtroom and hadn’t actually come down from her bench to sit in front of them and patiently learn what my software did—which was unprecedented at the time and occurred over the many objections of the government prosecutors—I surely would have lost.
In addition, if my 200 employees hadn’t believed in the company enough to stick around, even though they were not being paid during those few months when our money was held captive by the government, there would have been no company to come back to after winning. And that’s how powerful the government is: even in the slight chance that they lose, they still succeed at their objective of breaking the people and businesses they pursue.
In fact, just a few days after winning the case, I ended up resigning from my company. I didn’t shut it down, because I wanted the employees that had believed and waited so patiently to still have their jobs, but I simply handed my share of the company to my co-founder—for free—and walked away with only a promise that he would be kind to the employees. Sure, I was exhausted but perhaps more importantly, I was disgusted by what I had learned about the system and government that I had believed in with all my heart. I needed time to rethink what had happened before I could care again to muster up the energy to do anything in America – including live in it. You see, I was in love with America, and now I felt violated and betrayed, like I imagine one would feel when they first find out that their lover had cheated on them.
After having a chance to get some distance from the whole experience, it wasn’t hard to conclude that America had not betrayed me. Even though I had been unjustly persecuted and bullied by the United States government, America had ultimately—through its quite purposely separated and independent judicial system—kept its promise.
I decided that what I should do, instead of becoming bitter or jaded, is use my talents and energies to double-down on the concept of America and do my part to help correct its injustices.
Years later, out of curiosity, I reached out to the government investigator who had been responsible for starting the investigation. He apologized and admitted that they’d been “overzealous” in pursuing their case against us. Having a talent for understatement is, apparently, a prerequisite for a job with the government.
In any case, I try not to hold grudges, so I look at the entire thing as water under the bridge. That said, I do think the story provides a good example of why and how systems that are supposed to be democratic have become bogged down by their own bloated weight over the past few decades.
I don’t really blame the postal investigators for initiating the investigation. My company received amounts of money in the mail that grew exponentially, and I can totally understand how it might have looked suspicious. But when it found no evidence of wrongdoing, including and especially no unhappy customers, the government should have ended the investigation and let me go back to running my business. Instead, because of American democracy’s increasing inability to create “peaceful revolutions” at the top, the U.S. government poured tons of taxpayer dollars into a case that, early on, they had already figured out had no foundation.
One other very important thing that my experience with the government taught me: you should never back down from a fight if you believe your cause is just. No matter how powerful the person or organization you’re going up against is, you should you always stick to your guns. If your intention is to improve the world in some way, you will invariably face the very forces that have worked to keep it the way that it currently is.
This philosophy has helped me countless times throughout my professional life and has been a huge part of the success I’ve been fortunate enough to find. In fact, without learning this vital lesson, I would never have been able to build empowr and assemble the team capable of creating the Democratic Social Economy that powers it.
David and Goliath
Unfortunately for everybody, once organizations within governments get going in a certain direction, it’s nearly impossible for them to adjust course even slightly, let alone change course entirely. After the investigators started the investigation, they became slaves of a system that insisted they throw a crazy amount of resources at it, in order to justify their case against us. The system expected things to be done a certain way; the way that they had been done for decades, because of a lack of shake-ups at the top. And I bet that, if anybody involved in the investigation had tried to stop it, they would have been hung out to dry by their coworkers and superiors for endangering the case and the huge budget expenditures it had generated.
The government agency needs its budget to keep running, and, if it can be demonstrated that the organization wasted money on frivolous lawsuits, their budget is likely to be cut. So, by winning cases like this at any cost, they are “proving” that they are doing things right and saving themselves from both budget cuts and embarrassment.
In much the same way, the democratic process has been hijacked in a number of countries around the world. Politicians in a number of the world’s democracies are required to raise huge sums of money in order to run the campaigns they need to be elected to political office. While the most expensive campaigns are typically for national office, even state and local elections are becoming something that only people who start out wealthy (or who are successful at enlisting wealthy backers) can ever hope to afford.
Depending on the length of their terms, this phenomenon means that politicians are forced to spend far too much of their time in office worrying about how they are going to pay for their reelection campaign and not nearly enough time figuring out ways to fix the country’s problems. This is evidenced by the ridiculous amount of “pork” attached to many pieces of new legislation. Pork is just a succinct way of saying that a politician involved in the writing of a bill added something to it that ensured his political backers got a few vanloads of taxpayer dollars thrown their way.
As with the investigators from the U.S. government, I don’t blame individual politicians themselves for worrying more about getting reelected than about doing their jobs once they’re in office. Many democratic systems have been corrupted to the point where the people who run them are absolutely required to kowtow to the needs of special vested interests if they want to stand any chance of rising to or staying in political office.
Even worse, on the rare occasion that a politician is elected without leasing her political career to big money and then tries to change the way the system works, she is attacked from all sides by her colleagues and by the special interests who make a killing maintaining the status quo. For an example, let’s look to my home country, the United States.
Endangered Democracy and the Rise of the Post-industrial Oligarch
In the U.S., only a couple thousand companies have $1 billion of yearly revenue. Thanks to the erosion of campaign finance laws (which used to limit how much money these companies can give politicians), these 2,000 or so companies have a much larger say in the direction of political discourse within the United States than the vast majority of the American people. This is because politicians (especially those seeking national office) know that, in order to get elected and pursue their political agenda, they have absolutely no choice but to keep happy these couple thousand companies plus a number of billionaires and a group of special interests with big budgets. If they do so, they can afford the television ads required to get the vote. If they don’t, they won’t be reelected. Unfortunately, it really is that simple.
As a result of this warped democratic process, the peaceful revolutions that our elections used to usher in have become things of the past. Here in the U.S. (a shining example of democracy that is looked to by a lot of the world—or used to be…), we are now electing (and re-electing again and again and again) politicians who have no business being in public office. This happens to a large degree because, at one point in time, elected officials decided to make it easier to stay in power by attacking term limits (i.e., how many times they can run for reelection) and by rolling back campaign finance reforms. Because of this, the same stagnation that occurs within corporations that don’t introduce peaceful revolutions at the top (the ones that bring in new people, ideas, and passion) is also occurring within the government of the United States.
As a consequence, the great effects of a vibrant, thriving democracy that we once enjoyed here in the States are disappearing. Here are just a few examples:
● Since the U.S.’s most recent economic recovery began, roughly 95% of the new wealth created has gone to the top 1% of income earners.
● The United States now has more people in jail, per capita, than any other country in the world—even more than the most repressive regimes on the planet.
● Since 1990, the cost of living within our country has jumped over 55% while the purchasing power of the minimum wage has risen only by roughly 19%.
● U.S. roads, bridges and other public infrastructure are crumbling, with investment down to less than .5% GDP behind Australia’s 1.25% and nine other developed nations.
● The U.S educational system, once among the top in the world, is now in 14th place and falling, according to Pearson’s Global Education Index.
● Americans spend double the amount per capita on healthcare as other first-world nations, while at the same time our country ranks near the bottom of the industrialized world when it comes to preventing avoidable deaths through timely, effective medical care.
● Satisfaction with national government is at a near all-time low, hovering between 10% and 20%, depending on whom you ask and what branch is being discussed.
● During the late 19th and through the 20th century, the average years of service for Senators has increased steadily, from an average of just under five years in the early 1880s to an average of just over thirteen years in recent Congresses.
● Similarly, the average years of service of Representatives has increased from just over four years in the first two Congresses of the 20th century to an average of approximately ten years in the three most recent Congresses.
Given the public’s almost complete lack of confidence in congress, you might be shocked to know that the reelection rate of congressmen has never dropped below 80% for the past half century for our House of Representatives and has averaged over 80% for our Senate in the past thirty years.
If almost all the people don’t like their representatives but those representatives almost always get reelected, it doesn’t take a genius to conclude that the people have lost control of their government, which means calling it a democracy is inaccurate.
Once again, I don’t think it’s the fault of the individual politicians for doing what they need to do in order to be reelected. No matter how noble a politician’s ideals, if they can’t get elected and retain their office, they can’t do a damned thing other than complain.
However, this phenomenon of the constant reelection of politicians who comprise a government that the vast majority of voters disapprove of is a symptom of a broken democratic system that needs to change if it expects to survive. John F. Kennedy once said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable."