Chapter One The Good Old Days: I Remember When . . .
There’s an old story about the drunk who came before the judge charged with setting a mattress on fire. He said, "Judge, that bed was on fire when I got in it!"
It’s a silly thought. But I’ll bet there are a fair number of young people in our country who look at what has happened and what is happening in our country in just the past decade and make the same point: "Hey, that was happening when I showed up on the scene."
Remember, those graduating from high school this year were in first grade when the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal enveloped the Clinton administration. They were in fourth grade when we were attacked on 9/11. They were in fifth grade when President George W. Bush started making plans to invade the country of Iraq. They listened all through high school to a U.S. President insist that our country had the right to torture certain prisoners who might be terrorists. They heard their President claim he had the right to order wiretapping on telephone conversations in our country in order to protect us from these terrorists.
They were in grade school when Enron collapsed and we found out that one of the largest energy companies in the United States was also, in part, a criminal enterprise making money the underhanded way—by cheating its customers. And they would have seen the television commercials advertising home mortgages to people who had bad credit and couldn’t pay their bills. They may not have known how out of line that was as compared to a time when their grandparents and great-grandparents saved up to buy things and knew that keeping their financial house in order was essential.
They have, during their school years, attended class about 12,000 hours and watched about 20,000 hours of television. They have been fed a steady diet of sex and violence on television since they were first able to handle a remote control.
And in 2008 they saw the meltdown of the stock market and an economic crisis unparalleled since the 1930s.
In short, those graduating from high school this year have in their brief lives seen, heard, and experienced so much in this age of instant communication.
Even in the middle of an economic crisis and cultural change, I know there are plenty of positive things in their young lives as well, starting with computers and the Internet, which brings that ability to communicate with the world to their fingertips in just a nanosecond.
Still, it’s probably not surprising that, having grown up in the past decade of these strange times, young Americans, especially, seem determined to change things. And they are deciding to get involved in politics. That is a healthy sign. For the first time in many decades, the 2008 political campaign was marked by an outpouring of energy and commitment by young people. They were demanding change.
And, not surprisingly, in the 2008 campaign candidates from both major parties called for change. Change.
But "change"is just a word. What exactly needed to change?
In a word, I think the issue was trust. The American people had lost faith in their government’s ability to tell the truth and to lead.
By mid-2008, President Bush’s approval rating had dropped to a historic low of 26 percent. No institution can survive long without confidence in both the honesty and leadership of those in charge.
Frankly, while some in politics might cheer the sinking poll ratings of a President of the other party, it gives me no pleasure. It hurts our country when the American people have lost confidence in their leadership. But the American people have a right to demand change when they feel our country is off track.
Clearly, many of our problems have been brewing for some time. But the flaws of the past administration have on nearly every issue, from budget deficits, the war, and torture to the economy, the environment, and more, shaken the faith of those who long to respect and trust their government.
I have learned that sometimes government is able to move forward despite itself, but it rarely moves very far without the push of the people behind it. America cannot advance if its citizens do not have the information and the will to do so. The purpose of this book is to provide a measure of both. Nothing happens without you.
It seems as if we are in this big boat together and, though there is some splashing going on, we are not rowing together, and it is unsettling to note that for too long no one appeared to be steering!
When government is unable or unwilling to effectively lead, it is the place and the duty of its people to lead government. Not only do you have a right to be heard, but you also have an obligation to speak out when America takes a wrong turn.
But as I pointed out in my introduction, let’s not lose sight of the many things that are right about America even as we address the things that are not.
AN ANGRY OLD MAN
It was at a town meeting I was holding in a small North Dakota town one evening that a thin old man got to his feet shouting, "Our government is worthless! There isn’t one damn thing it can do right."The veins in his neck bulged and his red face and narrow eyes made it clear that this anger wasn’t just for effect.
I know that government sometimes does things that make our blood boil. So I wasn’t surprised by the passion shown by the old man. But I was curious what prompted his anger.
Following the meeting, as people were filing out of the hall, an elderly gray-haired woman came up to me and said, "Don’t mind Ernie! He just had open-heart surgery and he gets pretty upset and emotional about a lot of things these days."
Interesting, I thought. This old guy must have had his heart surgery paid through the Medicare insurance program. So I went over to him as he was headed out the door and said, "Thanks for giving me your opinion. Let me ask you, do you have Medicare?"
"Yup,"he said. "I just had heart surgery with my Medicare plan."
"So, you must think at least that one government program works?"I asked.
"Medicare ain’t government, it’s Medicare!"he snorted as he stomped off into the night muttering to himself.
Well, in these situations you win some and you lose some. Of course, Medicare is a government program. And it does work. Not perfectly, and not without modifications from time to time, but time and time again it outperforms private health care when it comes to cost and efficiency. But in the years since then I have thought a lot about that old man and his anger about government and what it means for our country.
While skepticism is required of citizens these days, the loss of trust between Washington, D.C., and people like Ernie is troubling. Government has long been a target of critics and comedians, and I believe this is not only often well deserved but also healthy. But it is easy to lump all of it into one mass of human incompetence. And believe me, I have seen plenty of government waste and incompetence and spent much of my time in Congress trying to stamp it out. But I have also seen so many examples of people working together through government to move our country forward.
Our 24/7 media and talking-head culture help reinforce the notion of government’s incompetence. However, life is never as black and white as it seems. Gray areas abound.
When have you ever heard the evening newscast begin with a positive story about a government program that worked to help a family get through tough times with food stamps or unemployment benefits? Have you heard a news story about the young man or woman who was able to go to college only because there was an opportunity for a Pell Grant from the government? Or perhaps the government researcher at the National Institutes of Health who makes a breakthrough discovery of a vaccine that provides a cure for a disease? No. Good news doesn’t sell. The evening news largely reports accidents, crime, scandal, incompetence, and what doesn’t work. I understand that it is all news, but it leaves the impression that everything is wrong and nothing is right. And, of course, that is not accurate.
Skepticism in America is necessary. But if we allow it to destroy our capacity for optimism, we cannot maintain any measure of greatness. I am not speaking about false optimism. I’m talking about the enlightened involvement by the people of this nation that I believe offers nearly unlimited potential. My belief has never changed. But after these years in the U.S. Congress I understand more than ever that our government has a lot of work to do to regain people’s trust and help restore that optimism.
And in 2008, when the American people most needed a government they could trust and leaders they could count on to steer us through the economic and financial crisis, the distrust in government undermined the ability of the government to lead.
For the sake of our country, this has to change. And it starts with each of us. It is our job to create a government we can trust and rely on to represent the real "public interest."
MY JOURNEY TO THIS PLACE
Let me share with you just a portion of my journey from a town of three hundred people in rural North Dakota to the U.S. Senate. It has been one that helped form my values and passions about public service and public policy.
When I left my small hometown to go off to college and then left my home state to get a graduate degree, a political career was the last thing on my mind. I grew up in a family with a progressive philosophy rooted in the Farmers Union movement. And while in college and in graduate school I became increasingly interested in government policies—especially prompted by the controversial debates about the war in Vietnam.
It was for that reason I moved back to my home state at age twenty-five and accepted an offer to work in state government with a new, interesting thirty- eight-year- old Harvard Law graduate who had just been elected State Tax Commissioner (an elective office in my state). He was from a small town of eighty people in northwestern North Dakota. He had gone off to study at Harvard and had come back determined to make a difference for our state, and when invited by him, I decided to move back and become a part of that effort as his deputy in a sizable agency in the State Capitol Building.
During the following year and a half, we became good friends as we worked together on tax and economic policies. I admired him a great deal.
A phone call I received early one morning changed everything for me. It was a call from the tax commissioner’s father asking me to check to see if his son was in his capitol office. He had been staying temporarily at his parents’ home because of some marital difficulties and his father said he had not returned home the past evening. I told his father I doubted he was in, because his office lights were not on. But I would check.
As I unlocked his office door in the State Capitol Building that morning at about eight o’clock, I sensed something was wrong. I could not possibly have known how what I was about to discover would change my life for decades to come.
I was stunned by a sight that took my breath away. My boss, my friend, was slumped over his desk with his hand on the telephone. I could tell immediately that he was dead. And I could tell by other things in the room that he had taken his own life.
I was devastated.
First, and foremost, he was my friend. And I was filled with grief.
We had over a hundred people in the State Capitol Building office that morning, and I knew as his deputy I had responsibilities to find a way to take care of things in the middle of what was sure to become a shocking, sensational statewide news story. I was twenty-six years old at the time. When it was all over, I felt a whole lot older.
Medical teams and people from law enforcement and, finally, the coroner’s office converged on the eighth floor of the State Capitol. I called the Governor, and he and I called the employees of the agency together to tell them of the tragedy. It was one of the saddest, most chaotic, and tragic mornings of my life.
Six weeks later, the Governor called me to his office and asked me to accept an appointment to fill the vacancy as state tax commissioner.
It was both an unexpected and bittersweet opportunity, born of sorrow at the loss of a friend. But I hope my years of public service are recognized to be an extension of the work of both my friend the tax commissioner as well as the Governor who gave a very young man a chance.
In the ensuing years, I stood successfully for election as state tax commissioner. Then I ran successfully for the U.S. House and finally for the U.S. Senate, pinching myself along the way to make sure it was all real.
The memories I have of the man I succeeded under those tragic circumstances serve as a reminder to me that an elected position makes one neither greater nor less human and vulnerable.
While the majority of my compassion is reserved for the people I represent, I save some for my colleagues and opponents whose work is not easy or often appreciated. I try not to lose sight of the fact that most of us want what is best for the country. We just don’t always agree on the method.
THE UNSHAKABLE FAITH IN THE FUTURE OF OUR FOREFATHERS
My roots in a small farming community have also been a steadying force in my public service in the intervening years. I learned a lot even if I did not realize it at the time. Almost all of my public service has been informed and influenced by the culture I grew up in.
I realize now that although the immigrants who came to settle the northern Great Plains had faced much harder times than most of us, they possessed an unshakable optimism about this young country. Those pioneers who came to the prairies to raise a family and work a farm as a result of the Homestead Act had to fight hard to overcome the challenges of the weather and the elements. But they also had to battle the big banks, the railroads, and the large grain companies that wanted to overcharge and underpay them. It wasn’t a fair fight, but as long as they felt there was someone else fighting for them, they trusted that things would work out in the end.
One of the populist political warriors in the early part of my state’s history was Governor "Wild Bill"Langer, who later in life became a U.S. Senator. He was born in the culture of those who homesteaded the land and struggled to make ends meet against the efforts of the bigger economic interests that sought to take advantage of them. Legend has it that he would travel around the state giving speeches, raising his fist in the air, shouting, "If you put a lawyer, a banker, and an industrialist in a barrel and roll it down a hill, you’ll always have a son of a bitch on top."
It was a passionate and clever way to describe the adversaries faced by family farmers who were engaged in a mighty struggle to stay on the land during tough times. His description of the big interests was a reference to the understanding in a farm state that the big grain millers, the big bankers, the railroads, and the industrialists in the east (that used to mean Minneapolis in the old days) were economic predators taking everything they could from farm families . . . just because they had the economic power to do it.
I grew up in, and was molded by, that populist movement and tradition. No, I don’t think the big economic interests are "sons of bitches"as Langer used to declare. But I think some of them always have and still do try to take advantage of those who have less economic power than them.
THE FREE MARKET NEEDS REFEREES
There are times when we are required to challenge the big interests to make sure the public is being served. Teddy Roosevelt, North Dakota’s adopted son, was fearless in taking on the entrenched economic powers.
As both business and government become bigger and stronger it is critical that government enforces the rules that give everyone a fair opportunity in our country.
The past eight years, and further back in some cases, have been an experiment in nonregulation, or what the Bush administration called self-regulation. I hope this book will expose the results of this folly—although given what we have been through in 2008, it hardly needs exposure to the American people.
It all comes back to trust. Americans have lost trust in their government to rein in corporate abuse. For too long they were witnesses to administrations driving the getaway car for bad behavior.
I recognize the frustration the American people have with the intrusions of both government and business into their lives. But sometimes there is a need for government to take on the excesses in the private sector when individuals cannot do it themselves. I am a Democrat, and I think my political party gets a bad rap on this point. We don’t want a bigger government. We just want a better government . . . one that stands up for the interests of average Americans. When the big interests pervert the rules and regulations to take advantage of others, it is the government’s responsibility to intervene.
In recent years, when war profiteering and high finance and oil market manipulations have screamed out for oversight, Republicans blocked efforts to hold these cheats and lawbreakers accountable. And even when the Democrats regained control of Congress, an obstructionist minority party fought tooth and nail for the status quo.
Some of that blame must be shared by Democrats who were no bargain during much of it. Too many of them were willing to accommodate their friends in high finance. But the facts are quite simply the facts. The Republicans were the ones who have long felt that the term "regulation"was a four- letter word.
While Congress has an obligation to expose fraud and waste, we must also sweep our own dirty little corners in government, if we are to regain the trust of the people. These corners include Congress!
The fact is, the federal government has become big and bloated. And that is another reason people have lost confidence in their government. The big federal agencies just keep getting bigger and more bureaucratic, and every attempt to cut the agencies back to size is met with charges that it is an attempt to cut programs that help people. That’s nonsense.
We need government to administer necessary programs and to regulate where needed. But we also need to understand the American people are sick and tired of dealing with a larger and larger government that seems unresponsive to its citizens.
There has never been a time when some people didn’t harbor frustration and distrust about their governments, but the difference in America has always been that citizens have had a certain confidence that they could change things. That attitude made America special because people truly believed they had a voice. They did. And they still do.
WE THE PEOPLE
For many immigrants who came to make their home in "the new country,"it was the first time that they were going to be able to be involved in the decisions of their government. And that ability gave them a stake in defining their future through government. They would have a voice on issues big and small, from decisions at their local schools and town councils to the national decisions about priorities, and because they were stakeholders in decisions about their future it gave them faith that better times were ahead.
My great-grandmother Caroline was a wonderful example of that faith. She was married in Norway to a man named Otto, and they came to the new country, settled in Minnesota, and had six children. But when Otto died, Caroline gathered her six children and took the train to western North Dakota to homestead. She pitched a tent on the prairie, and then in the years after she built a home, raised a family, and ran a farm. She had nothing but hope, but against all odds she was convinced she could do it. She had faith in the government promise in the Homestead Act that if she settled on 160 acres of land and improved it, she could own it. What a marvelous, generous government policy that offered so much to immigrants who had so little! When I see the vast expanses of wheat or the cattle herds on the very same ground that today help feed a hungry world, it is proof enough to me that government can work in magnificent fashion.
Because of the opportunity provided by the Homestead Act, I believe those pioneers generally developed a positive view of their government. They had a sense that policies were designed to help them get ahead. And they knew they could have a voice in public offices.
In those days, the institutions in the lives of people, such as business and government, were smaller and less intrusive. State and local governments, and the federal government as well, were not so large, and America for the most part was still a nation of shopkeepers and businesses that, with a few exceptions, were small and family owned. That meant that people could have a more personal relationship with both their government and the businesses that they patronized.
But over time that changed. Both government and business grew large and powerful, with the potential to have more of an impact on people, creating a sense of estrangement between ordinary citizens and these growing institutions.
As business and government grew, conflicts between self- interest and the public good more often were resolved in favor of the big interests. In recent decades self-interest has grown far more powerful, with government and big business now, in ways large and small, eroding the freedoms of individuals.
TIME AGAIN FOR REFORM
Maybe it’s just human nature. But society and government have always provided a counterweight to greed—society through peer pressure, morals, and celebration of philanthropy and government through laws, which generally aimed to keep things as fair as possible. But today private industry and government too often seem like coconspirators, celebrating the triumph of self- interest.
Government policies seem tilted toward the powerful. Businesses have grown bigger and more powerful and have a greater ability to affect workers and consumers in ways designed to benefit the businesses and/or upper-income Americans. Political debates about things like who benefits from tax cuts have become a staple of political campaigns as government policies exacerbated the inequality of income in recent years.
In the past two decades the wealthy were accumulating more wealth at a dizzying pace. Meanwhile, most Americans were struggling just to keep up with inflation.
In the first half of this decade the income for most American workers was smaller than five years before. In 2005 the average income was 1 percent below the average income in 2000. But that wasn’t true for all income earners. The growth in incomes was concentrated among those on the upper rungs of the income ladder, those making at least $1 million a year. The top .25 percent of income earners managed to capture nearly one-half of the income gains during that same five- year period, even as the average worker was losing ground.
The Bush tax cuts were generous contributions to those in the upper income class. It was reported that nearly 30 percent of the tax savings as a result of the Bush capital-gains tax cut went to taxpayers who made $10 million or more. On average, each of these some eleven thousand taxpayers saved $1.9 million. Yes, that is a tax cut of $1.9 million for each of them. At the same time, nearly 90 percent of the American income earners received only 5 percent of the benefit from the capital-gains tax cuts. And these cuts were advertised as being aimed at ordinary American taxpayers.
The assertions by the Bush/Cheney administration about its family-friendly tax cuts remind me of something Will Rogers once said: "It’s not what he knows that bothers me. It’s what he says he knows for sure that just ain’t so."
From the tax code where wealthy folks who get their income through dividends pay just a fraction of the taxes that working people do, to the speculative and sometimes predatory financial ventures on Wall Street, to the nearly unbelievable escalation of executive compensation while workers at the bottom are losing ground— all of this cries out for reform and change. And I believe change is coming.
In farm country, we have a weed called leafy spurge that has proved almost impossible to kill, yet if farmers don’t control it, it will strangle their crops. So, with timely application of herbicides and introduction of spurge- eating beetles, we have learned to control it. There is a lesson here for the garden that is America. Pulling weeds is something that is necessary from time to time. Weeds will always exist in our system; it’s our job to identify them and keep them under control.
In recent decades there has been an exhausting parade of shady deals and shady characters that have blurred the line between big business and big government. I explored a great deal of that corruption as it relates to the exploitation of trade and labor with my first book, Take This Job and Ship It, and there will be more to come in this book.
Every day we see energy speculators, war profiteers, managed health-care providers, media propagandists, and/or financiers given some unfair advantage over the average consumers and taxpayers, and the cumulative effect of the American people watching selfishness prevail over the public interest has been an undermining of the public’s trust in government.
This "anything goes"approach to capitalism has injured the very economy we have aspired to create. It is a philosophy that corporations and markets can be counted on to police themselves. Who needs pesky regulations?
This claptrap has long been the game plan in neocon circles in industry and government. It is easy to see the results as U.S. jobs have been outsourced and low-wage workers "imported"to fill other jobs. And small businesses are unable to compete with the big interests that utilize predatory business practices.
This is nothing new. As I said, it is the nature of the beast. While many people refer to the olden days with fondness, those were also a time of exploitation of workers and the abuse of women and children in the workplace.
But fortunately, those dark days were followed by days in which labor laws protected workers and set basic compensation standards and allowed a middle class to grow and a real working democracy to take root. The two Roosevelt presidencies demonstrated how to take on the monopolies and how to empower workers. Teddy Roosevelt took on the role of a trustbuster to end the monopolies that were hurting American families and crushing small business. Franklin Roosevelt gave to workers the legal tools needed to organize and fight back. Things started changing for the better. For these actions we still remember the two Roosevelt administrations. And some still despise them for it.
Consider this. After World War II, the biggest economic boom in history—the expansion of the middle class—was not born of trickle- down economics! It was a time when government helped provide a climate in which small businesses and the ordinary worker could thrive, and it percolated up. . . . That’s right; prosperity percolated up!
I’m a big fan of the free- market system. I don’t know of any better method of allocating the goods and services. But in a free- market economy it is not unusual to see the big interests pitted against the little guy. When they are allowed to run unchecked or to rig the system, the big interests have the potential to drag down the very economy they need to remain stable and healthy. That is why it is so important we fight for a new era of reform and change to put our country back on track—giving working people and small businesses the voice and the power to make the changes necessary.
This is not about a liberal or conservative philosophy. It is about making sure our economy and the free- market system work for everybody.
Every business ought to embrace this, because the strength in our economy is measured not only in dollars and cents but also in the confidence of the people.
Excerpted from Reckless by Senator Bryon L. Dorgan.
Copyright © 2009 by Bryon L. Dorgan.
Published by St. Marin’s Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.