Guest TWOG: John Breitner on The John Question

20 January 2015

In last weekend’s TWOG, I introduced The John Question, as part of how we can win-win for the radical renewal of our troubled world. John Breitner, an American friend and researcher who is now with the McGill University Faculty of Medicine, sent me an email in response to a draft of that TWOG. I reproduce it here, with minor changes, not only to give his take on the question coined in his name, but also because of how well he expresses the personal engagement necessary for that renewal.

“The John Question", as I have understood it, is not "how can we get the Johns of this world to become interested in the rebalancing issue" (as you put it in your TWOG).  It's "how is it that America, with so many idealistic, morally conscious people, can be leading the world into a downward spiral of predatory practices, legalized corruption, and growing alienation between the haves and have-nots (think of the ‘occupy’ movement) in matters of economics and the administration of justice?”

Read the idealistic, near-utopian words of the early settlers and the founding fathers!  What have they in common with Gordon Gekko (greedy lead character in the movie Wall Street)? Answer: "nearly nothing". What has changed?  Answer:  business used to be an individual matter conducted among men and women, among purveyors of goods and services and the customers who wanted or needed them, among people.

People have consciences. From the beginnings of civilization, human beings have struggled with the boundary between mutually beneficial business relationships and exploitation. For example, the laws of several of the world’s major religions have, in various ways, prohibited charging interest on loaned money. That probably went too far, but it shows the essence of the struggle.

What has changed is that, starting in the mid-19th century, corporations increasingly replaced individuals as principals in commercial transactions.  People have consciences and are held responsible (liable) for their deeds and misdeeds.  Corporations, by definition, do not and are not.  Instead, their predatory practices are held in check by the network of laws that governments have created as an artificial construct to embody the principles of morality.

The advances of technology and globalization have given ever-greater advantages to corporations in their unrestrained efforts to outwit and "game" the constraints put upon them by the law.  Thus we have ever-more complex and burdensome laws; yet, the corporations still manage to stay one step ahead.  In reaction, the law and the body politic become ever-more convoluted and paralyzed — hence the "gridlock" of contemporary American politics.

Is it an accident that the proportion of lawyers in the new congress exceeds that of their constituents by 60-fold? I think not. In the last presidential election, Mitt Romney said "corporations are people," echoing a Supreme Court judgment acknowledging this principle.  Mitt Romney is said to be a moral and principled individual. Because corporations are institutions, and not human beings, they can make no such claim. The struggle between the public sector, with its countless laws and regulations, and the private sector (now in the form of ever-globalizing corporations that "personify" greed) has led to a devastating decline in the quality of our social fabric.

The answer to this dilemma cannot come from the Public Sector (more laws, overbearing state institutions, etc.), and it cannot come from the Private Sector (now represented mostly by the corporations themselves).  It must instead arise from the sense of outrage at the violation of common human decency and morality that lives in us as Individuals.

How can we empower ourselves to create such positive change? Certainly, we can start by organizing into civic groups — indeed, (as you suggest in your book) starting with "you, me and we". But that won't get us very far.  We need a way to empower "us" as a coherent force representing the dictates of our individual consciences and desire for the common good.  How to do that, as you note, is "the Big Question".