"The universe is made of stories, not of atoms."
—Muriel Rukeyser


Everything I’ve wished for, hoped for, or thought of in advance, the Obama for President campaign—of which I have been a modest contributor--was one or many more steps ahead of me. Maybe this is no exception.

As a former professor of classics, author of books and articles about ancient Greek democracy, I’ve spent a lifetime comparing how the democracy of Athens handled governing, especially in crises. I suggest the following, from that perspective:

Instead of automatically raising taxes for the most affluent individuals and corporations, we could try the following:

Two meetings at the White House. First, for the 100 wealthiest men and women in America. Ask Warren Buffett to finance the assembly and its attendant infrastructure.

Announce to them that you don’t like taxes anymore than anyone else likes them. What you’re proposing to them instead is volunteering to “give back” to the country that made their wealth possible. On a businesslike basis. You and Warren will provide a White House liaison for each of them, to assist with working out the feasibility of THEIR PROPOSAL for assisting the economy with THEM as the provider of funds, i.e., investor. On a profit basis, with their profit limited to a most amount, say 5%, and matching the profit of the American people.

Let them choose which of the fix or six most troubled sectors of the economy they want to create their new social business in (on the model of Dr. Muhammed Yunus’ social businesses, like the one Grameen Foundation is doing with Dannon, for example). Their investment must equal what they would have paid in increased taxes, but it would be under their control, monitored by the White House liaison. It will put money back into the economy and start a contagion of socially-focused businesses doing the same.

Do the same thing with the 100 most profitable corporations, thanking them for what they’ve already done for society, but asking that they do more—at the level of the equivalent in increased taxes.

Tell both groups that you will give this a 12-month trial period, and promise a moratorium on raising taxes for them during that period. You can revisit the program once you’ve seen signs of progress and impact on the economy.

In ancient Athens, if a war came along, or even time to plan next year’s Great Athenaean Festival, the wealthy assembled in the Agora. One merchant would volunteer to outfit six ships (“as long as I can name them after my family,” etc.), another to front the expenses of the Festival, another to provide prizes, another to provision the army, etc.

It’s the “atmosphere of willing volunteerism” that can turn the economy around and do it in a way that does not make the affluent antagonistic to the incoming administration. In the climate of hope you’ve now created, I believe this will catch on like wildfire and turn the tide.


Anonymous said...

I say...this is certainly a creative and out-of-the-box solution. It makes sense on many levels.

Would you be concerned, however, that it would nudge the country even further into oligarchy territory than it already is? Make it not only mainstream, but, in fact, institutionalized?

That would be my concern.

And, of course, that I feel beaten over the head enough with the proliferation of advertising. Using your example of the ancient Greek ship magnate who wanted festival ships name after his family...can you imagine the US Social Security System brought to you by Ameriprise?

Yet, I see your point, and I think it's a good one. With the right controls, something like that just might be the ticket.

Anonymous said...

Great comment, Bill. But cultures rise and fall through the enterprise of their individuals and we’re already saturated with advertising—from figure skating to hockey rinks, to Olympic venues, all bearing every company’s signs imaginable. As for oligarchy—it’s simply the tip of the pyramid of democracy.

Anonymous said...

"But cultures rise and fall through the enterprise of their individuals...As for oligarchy—it’s simply the tip of the pyramid of democracy."

Touché, Dr. Atchity.

On the "we’re already saturated with advertising" front, though...I guess I am still enough of an idealist to hope we can evolve beyond accepting things as they are because it's the status quo.

Yet, I stand behind the idea that this would be a great experiment given the right controls. I mean, on the polar opposite side of the equation, that guy Marx had some interesting ideas to solve some economic problems and look what happened when those were put into practice?

The trick here would be to control the, IMHO, single most devastating force that mangled Marx's ideology in practice: greed.

Whereas I agree that cultures rise on the enterprise of their individuals, I think greed (aka. "enterprise" taken to far?) is what brings them down. Until we can (or IF we can) get this in check, vigilance will always be in order to make certain everyone stays on the right side of the line.

Now...the question would be what are those controls and how to you keep everyone honest and stay outta their way enough for them to be effective at the same time. THAT is the real challenge of government, isn't it?

Anyway...good post, Ken. I really enjoyed this. Lots to ponder.