Think of this as Volume 16, Number 31 of A-Clue.com, the online newsletter I've written since 1997. Enjoy.
- In 1860, cotton was king and manufacturing just starting out.
- In 1896, monopolists owned the infrastructure and mass markets were trying to gain a foothold.
- In 1932, credit had failed but demand was resisted.
- In 1968, manufacturing was being replaced by technology and content.
Today's crisis is a lot like all those that have come before. The oil industry, Wall Street, creditors and content monopolies all face the rising tide of alternative energy, open source and the Internet. This “old money” is fighting to protect what it has, and most of the money in this economy remains old money.
- We know that the new economic arrangements are where the growth lies.
- We know that having people free to work together delivers better, more valuable software.
- We know that the Internet provides more growth when content is free of restrictions.
- We know that alternative energy can deliver new forms of abundance and slow climate change.
The problem is that the alternative energy, the open Internet and open source industries, or sectors, are still in their infancy. The money is in the old economy. Yet the old money also knows its current advantages may be fleeting.
So money is talking, loudly. Citizens United and the ill-starred Romney campaign are of a piece. They represent a revolt by the haves against the have-nots, of the have-mores against the have-less, and if that sounds like they're a threat to democracy, to liberty and to capitalism itself, you've caught my message.
Think of the industries arrayed against change today. Energy. Media. Even the patent industries. All of them pretend to be protectors of America against foreign hordes.
But in fact these industries are united with those foreign hordes. The oil industry is united with the Middle East sheikhdoms that attacked us on 9-11. The media industry is united with China in its effort to control what people are allowed to think. The patent industry is united in its search for monopoly that will stymie open invention.
That's why there doesn't seem to be any real political debate. There isn't one. That debate came four years ago, amid the collapse of the old economic order. The economy contrived by big oil was shown to be a fraud, and this was so obvious people changed their minds.
Now those changed minds face the full force of the old money. The Citizens United decision opened the floodgates. Democrats, at all levels, are finding themselves out-voted, assuming dollars are money, my friend. Their only hope is to convince enough people that dog shit is steak tartare to be competitive, then prevent enough Democrats from voting that they can steal your childrens' future for themselves and their heirs.
But here's what money doesn't understand. Dollars aren't votes. Dollars aren't speech. Dollars aren't hearts or minds. Dollars can be used to make speeches and gain votes, but they are not the people.
It's the same existential threat Frank Capra discussed in his 1941 film “Meet John Doe.” A rich publisher sought to bend democracy to his will, creating a hero to say whatever might draw in the hicks. The hicks bought the message but not the messenger. “The people. Try and stop that!” barks James Gleason's publisher Cannell at the end of the film.
All the money in the world can't control hearts and minds. That is the continuing lesson of America. Freedom is better able to harness our collective energies, and channel our contradictions, than any form of tyranny ever created. We have succeeded for 224 years because capitalism, democracy, and free discourse allowed us to adapt faster than anything created by our enemies, either foreign or domestic.
What most analysts fail to appreciate is just how often those enemies have been domestic. They were domestic in 1860, they were domestic in 1896, they were domestic in 1932, they were domestic in 1968. They're domestic now.
What is on the line in this coming election is the new economy, one rooted in our values of freedom, of economic choice, and of open invention. A lot of people are going to speak and write a lot of nonsense over the next three months, but that is basically the choice. A new economy based on our most deeply-held values, or the old economy of oilgarchs, vulture capitalists and intellectual monopoly.