Democracy and shared prosperity

Democracy and shared prosperity

Now that the dust has cleared on the US elections, it will be interesting to see what President Obama has in store for his second term. He ran on a platform of “Change” in 2008 and a platform of “Forward” this time around. He still has his work cut out for him. During the midterm elections of 2010, where the Democratic party lost control of the House, Obama was quoted as admitting that not enough Americans had felt the effects of the economic recovery. This was particularly ironic since the Obama campaign achieved a record level of electoral participation and contribution from all levels of people, especially the middle and lower classes.

Meanwhile, the US Census reports that poverty has been increasing since 2008, when Obama was elected, and has levelled off at 15% for 2010 and 2011. Average household incomes have been declining during this time. A recent report by The Economist says that in the developed world the US has the highest income inequality. Most troubling is that a number of analysts have traced these developments to cronyism, corruption, lobbying and outright maneuvers to undermine the democratic process to favor the interest of the wealthy. Some of the more critical books that have come out are Twilight of the Elites: America after Meritocracy by Christopher Hayes, The Rich and the Rest Of Us: A Poverty Manifesto by Tavis Smiley and Cornel West, Predator Nation: Corporate Criminals, Political Corruption, and the Hijacking of America by Charles H. Ferguson and The Price of Inequality: How Today's Divided Society Endangers our Future by Joseph E. Stiglitz.

Stiglitz, who won the Nobel Prize for economics in 2001, had this to say about how power tends to be used to maintain economic inequality in America: “That’s why “power”—political power—matters so much. If economic power in a country becomes too unevenly distributed, political consequences will follow. While we typically think of the rule of law as being designed to protect the weak against the strong, and ordinary citizens against the privileged, those with wealth will use their political power to shape the rule of law to provide a framework within which they can exploit others. They will use their political power, too, to ensure the preservation of inequalities rather than the attainment of a more egalitarian and more just economy and society.”

With Obama enjoying a second term, how will he muster the political resources to counter the undemocratic tendencies of the elites in the US? He will be getting some needed help from newly elected Senators. Ellizabeth Warren, a noted Harvard legal scholar and staunch critic of the financial abuses which triggered the recent financial crisis, is Senator-elect for Massachusetts. In her online column for the Huffington Post, she declared: “When I'm sworn in just a couple of months from now, I want to fight for jobs for people who want to work. I want millionaires and billionaires and Big Oil companies to pay their fair share. And I want to hold Wall Street accountable.”

In the Philippines, it is interesting to observe what our government is prepared to do to balance the opportunities provided by our growing economy. While income inequality remains and poverty hovers around the mid-20 per cent, the number of billionaires is increasing. The social justice philosopher John Rawls famously argued the principle that inequality in society should not be a moral problem as long as everyone’s incomes are increasing together with such inequality, especially those of the least advantaged. Anyway we look at it, our society faces a grave moral problem. Sad to say, I am not seeing much effort from the current administration aimed at making the wealthy share their prosperity.

Who can be our Elizabeth Warren? Who will help ensure that our democracy will produce shared prosperity?

Ben Teehankee is the chairman of the Management and Organization Department of De La Salle University. He may be emailed at