This is the personal blog of Rick Staggenborg, MD. The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect the official positions of Take Back America for the People, an educational 501.c3 nonprofit established by Dr Staggenborg.

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Wednesday, December 26, 2012


It is often said of Mussolini's fascist dictatorship that "At least he made the trains run on time." The point is that without freedom, an authoritarian government can create a society that is efficient. What people who have not lived through fascism do not seem to appreciate is the high cost that comes with that efficiency. It is also often pointed out that democracy is a messy business, but too many do not appreciate their own part in creating the disorder that makes fascism appear to be preferable. Is it possible that in a democracy we could in some sense "make trains run on time?" I propose that a test of whether we are capable of governing ourselves is whether or not we can make freeway traffic flow smoothly. 

For a democratic society to be viable, citizens must understand the responsibility that comes with the power to make decisions that affect us all. In the same way, drivers have to understand that their decisions on the road determine whether traffic will flow smoothly, to the benefit of all. The individual determines whether decisions based on short-sided self-interest upset the orderly process of getting from one point to another or whether they will frustrate our common goal of getting to our desired destinations efficiently. Only when the great majority of citizens act in the interest of the common goal of driving the US in the direction of  democracy will democracy become possible.

I was driving to Portland over the Christmas weekend when I experienced an event that showed how difficult it will be to establish democracy in the chaotic society that the United States has become. Anyone who knows Portland knows that it has been a hotbed of resistance to authority at least since the Vietnam War. It witnessed some of the largest demonstrations in the country against the effort to impose corporate Empire upon the citizens of a distant land while trying to shut down resistance by its own citizens. As I was crawling along the freeway for the last 20 miles, I asked myself how in a city that embodies coordinated resistance to government power have citizens become so blind to the effects of their individual actions? How can it be that a city that recently saw one of the highest turnouts in support of the Occupy movement people could fail to see that only by acting according to what was best for all could they achieve their common goal of getting home as quickly as possible so they could spend time enjoying the holidays with family and friends?

I believe the answer is that while Portlanders truly want democracy to achieve what is best for all, they do so out of self-interest. They understand that our government does not represent us, but fail to recognize that in a democracy a government can only be made to serve their interests when voters understand how their decisions affect us all. That is not to say that Portlanders don't consider this when voting but like Americans everywhere, they do not make it a habit to consider the effects on society as a whole in their individual decisions. There are of course many exceptions to this rule, but the fact that there are not enough citizens who think in this way to make traffic flow smoothly proves that this way of thinking is not as pervasive in the Portland area as they would hope.

Of course, the phenomenon of people who want to create a society in which the government operates in the best of all failing to order their personal lives around this commitment is not unique to Portland. The effects of this failure are being felt around the nation as a whole and by extension, the citizens of nations around the world. The actions of a US government unchecked by the collective power of the citizens it is supposed to represent are the greatest threat to the survival of human civilization in history. Only by acting in cooperation can Americans gain control of the government and save themselves and future generations around the world from the scourge of a permanent fascist New World Order.

To return to the comparison of driving on the freeway to directing a government to head a nation in the direction that the majority of people want to go, consider how easy it would be to make traffic flow efficiently if drivers keep in mind that driving conditions depend on the individual decisions each of them make. All it would take is to remember what each of us learned in driving safety class in high school: Keep a safe distance between cars by allowing one car length for every 10 MPH you are travelling. This allows for safe braking in an emergency and for smooth lane changes, both of which act to allow for the mistakes of others. By analogy, keeping in mind that the country can only move forward when citizens allow a respectful distance between competing interests of our fellow travelers in reaching their individual goals is the only way to avoid collisions of these interests that prevent us all from arriving at our selected destinations.

Imagine a freeway having become a parking lot because of stalled traffic, with cars spread out along a 10 mile stretch of freeway. If these cars were travelling 60 MPH they would cover that distance in 10 minutes. If the drivers are stuck in stop-and-go traffic they might be lucky to travel 10 MPH on average, making a 10 minute trip take a full hour. At the risk of stretching the analogy, I would argue that the US government is stuck in gridlock because Americans have become unwilling to allow space for differences, aggressively pursuing what they perceive to be in their self-interest while ignoring the fact that they are collectively responsible for where we find ourselves at a given time. If those who wanted to travel slowly were to stay to the right and allow those on the left to pass them, each of them would get to our destination at their chosen time. 

This is the roadmap to democracy. Every citizen can choose their own destination, but they cannot get there without mutual cooperation. None of us should expect or want to tell others where they must go. When each of us values our personal space over the right of others to share it, some are forced to travel with traffic to a destination others chose. They may miss their chance to go in the direction they choose if others do not give them the space to exit the freeway and go their own way. While each of us would like to believe that we can control the direction we take, most of have been cut off or blocked from the exit of our choosing at one time or another.

If we try to assert the right to choose to exit a road that seems to go in the wrong direction, we may cause a chain of braking that can bring a halt to each of us reaching our chosen destination. On the road, this may even cause a chain of accidents that can make us arrive too late to accomplish our goal in traveling in the first place. In civil society, those who threaten to upset the orderly flow of events by such means as Occupying public spaces are seen as dangerous and are subject to infringements of their civil liberties. In either instance, each of us bears some responsibility if we are not obeying the rules of the road. In the same way that tailgaters endanger others by making lane changes difficult, every one of us who impedes the movement of the nation as a whole toward democracy bears a part of the responsibility for our collective failure to get there.

Democracy is a messy business, but it would not be if we understood that we are so interdependent that we must consider the effects of our individual actions on others and on society as a whole. We can continue to accept the myth that each of us travels the road of life according to our own decisions, or we can accept that we do not control our destinies independent of those of others. Each of us is subject to the effects of decisions made by others. We can choose to be part of the decision making process or we can allow others to make those decisions for us, as Mussolini did for Italians in a fascist society where corporate interests were placed above those of the people. That is what happens when people do not work together to achieve common goals in a democratic way. A complex society can only realize these goals with the help of a government that puts the interests of all above those of the most aggressive among us. Such a government cannot exist unless the people it represents assure that all are represented equally.

I predict that when America passes the Mussolini test, it will have proved that democracy is possible. When the freeways of America move smoothly, Americans will have demonstrated the capacity to determine their collective destinations by allowing each other the freedom and means to choose their own paths. For those who have never driven on a freeway because they live in a part of the country where a tradition of private ownership of roads has persisted or where they have allowed government to make every driver individually pay the cost of using roads that belong to all of us, this will be a particularly meaningful change. 

The United States has a system of government designed to allow the existence of a democracy. The road to democracy has not been smooth, but Americans have always been able to get back on the path when the collective interests of all have been threatened by the economic elite that would choose their destiny for them. Americans have the ability to make any changes the majority collectively wants when individuals choose to accept a few basic principles of democracy: respect for differences of opinions, awareness of our interdependence, a willingness to accept the will of the majority and an expectation that our government does the same.

Is there hope for democracy in America and the world? That depends on us. If enough individuals show to others the value of recognizing our interdependence by less aggressively pursuing our individual goals, we might just teach enough others to consider how the effects of their actions on others influence our individual and collective  destinies. The simple expedient of demonstrating the importance of common courtesy on the road would be a great way to start. 

Wednesday, December 19, 2012


Despite assaults on unions that have galvanized workers for the first time in decades and amid growing concern about the environmental effects of fracking, global climate change and endless war, the left in the United States has failed to make discernible progress in unifying a progressive movement capable of wielding real political power. While publicly criticizing Democrats in Congress, union leaders continue to rely on them to represent their interests, despite overwhelming evidence that they do not. Environmental and peace activists, health care reform proponents and groups working to take down the banksters who crashed the U.S and world economies have for the most part abandoned the political process. A similar decision may have been a potentially fatal mistake for the Occupy movement. What can we do about this?

The first thing is to stop depending on self-appointed leaders to tell us what to do and start telling them what we want to do. The Occupy movement in the U.S. and Europe started with this great idea, but in the U.S we have failed to capitalize on it. Occupy activists rejected working with established organizations out of fear of co-option, so rejected an opportunity for co-operation.  Meanwhile, activists in these groups failed to hold their leaders responsible for listening to them.

In Europe and the Mideast, rank-and-file union members organized with ordinary citizens to demand real political change. When existing justice advocacy groups in Europe saw the opportunity to join forces in fighting austerity with mass strikes and sustained protests, governments fell throughout Europe. From Greece to Egypt, the common denominator was  the fight against government corruption. These techniques of coordinated resistance are being noticed around the world, except apparently by most leaders of such groups in the U.S.

There is nothing to stop those who participated in Occupy and their supporters from organizing a true grassroots movement starting in their own communities and linking up statewide, nationally and internationally to build a united international front against fascism and war the like of which has never been seen in human history. At a time in that history like no other, when the survival of human civilization itself hangs in the balance, that is exactly what must be done to stop the expansion of a global New World Order that will make us all economic slaves at best, and literal slaves of the corporatocracy at worst.

The unifying theme of protests from Cairo to Athens and Madrid is the control of governments by special interests that are ultimately those of international corporate terrorists who presume they have a divine right to rule over the rest of us. Those in the US who are aware of this existential threat to the prospect of democracy   need to emulate the model of the rest of the world. Together, we can create a unified national and international movement to establish democracy, liberty and justice in the world. Citizens can decide how to deal with the international bankers who have destroyed their economies and now want to extract the last pound of flesh through austerity measures. They can hold their governments responsible for acting in an environmentally responsible way and assure that the basic needs of all citizens are guaranteed. A global democratic wakening that unites Peoples around the world in this cause can make the end of war is possible.

Progressives on the left in the U.S. must confront the problem of the complacency of most Americans in the face of these grave threats. They need to understand that they are feeding that apathy by overwhelming potential supporters with a barrage of information about seemingly disparate concerns without tying these issues to the central problem of corporate corruption of the government. With dozens or hundreds of groups all presenting their own message in their own way and competing for funds and attention instead of working together, it is small wonder that most Americans are feeling powerless. It is not as if average people can put all their time and energy into so many causes, especially when leaders on the left do not present realistic solutions. Each group seems to think that if it gets enough media attention and funding it can lead the various movements, not seeing that by competing instead of cooperating they are fracturing their own movements and the progressive movement as a whole.

There are many encouraging signs that a shift may be occurring. Jobs with Justice is leading the way in showing how union locals can come together to promote not only the interests of union workers but all workers and their families. The Working Families Party aspires to become a real voice in electoral politics. Unfortunately, the current realities of third party politics have resulted in state parties tending to endorse only Democratic candidates, which defeats the purpose of having a third party. Of course, if they get enough members they can challenge the Democratic Party by giving voters choices of candidates who do not represent the interests of corporations. However, acquiring that power means stepping out of the shadow of the Democrats and endorsing candidates of other third parties that better represent the interest of working families than corporate Democrats, when they cannot field a candidate of their own.

Partnerships are also forming among groups in some movements and more recently, across movements. Of these, the most important such coalitions are forming between groups working for constitutional and legislative reforms to address government corruption. A conference was held in Washington, DC on December 10 that brought together representatives from dozens of groups in the environmental, civil rights and other social justice movements. A central theme of the conference was how to address the government corruption that is frustrating all their efforts.

There was a recent conference at the UCLA law school that brought together experts on the legal aspects of various legislative and constitutional approaches to ending government corruption. This was to my knowledge the first such attempt to bring together those of us who adamantly believe that only a constitutional amendment can get at the root of the problem of corporate corruption of elections and elected officials and those who believe that a legislative approach is more realistic. The important thing is that both are shining a spotlight on corporate corruption of the US government. It is conversations like this that will eventually lead to the conclusion that the two camps will best advance the cause by working together to keep this issue in the mind of the public until it realizes that it must be dealt with before Congress will address the many other critical issues that affect all Americans.

While many people wrote off Occupy when groups across the country failed to create an American Spring in 2012, its diehard members continue to organize. Some are thinking more strategically, identifying core issues that they hope Occupy as a whole will adopt as its central themes. They do not want to co-opt the movement or dismiss any of the causes Occupy promotes. What they want to do is identify issues that connect the dots for a public that has largely concluded that Occupy is a lost cause because it has failed to identify a focused set of issues and demands that could inspire coordinated actions across the country.

I met with the governmental reform working group of OWS in October and was pleasantly surprised to find that the group had developed a strategy that I have been promoting since 2009: Making support for a constitutional amendment to deal with corporate corruptions of elections a campaign issue in congressional elections around the nation. While the person who developed this plan feels that the issue of corporate personhood detracts from what he considers the main issue of money not being speech, he agrees that individual groups and individuals should promote whatever version of an amendment it favors. While this could potentially cause a problem if legislators support different forms of amendments, in the end it is Congress that will decide the final form of the amendment. It is during the deliberations about the issue are taking place that groups and individuals will be able to lobby for the amendments and legislation they favor.

Contrast these flexible, cooperative attempts at movement building with those of the faux “coalition” of Move to Amend, whose steering committee purports to represent hundreds of groups and over 100,000 individuals who have signed its petition. In reality, all the signers and organization endorsers were agreeing with was the need for a constitutional amendment that would declare that money is not speech and corporations were not people.

It was only after getting dozens of groups to endorse MTA that the steering committee announced that Move to Amend supporters were backing specific amendment language that few of the endorsing organizations had a say in writing, let alone those who had signed their petition. The steering committee assured that there would be no effective opposition within MTA for this usurpation of authority to speak for all by making it a condition that MTA chapters and affiliates had to support without question the decisions of the steering committee. They took upon themselves alone the authority to dictate amendment language and strategy for its passage. Needless to say, they have made it clear that they will not work with any organization or individual who does not swear fealty to this small group of self-appointed leaders.

If people come to understand the manner in which the steering committee of Move to Amend has attempted to co-opt the amendment movement, it is likely that defections from the ranks of their supporters will increase. The self-limiting nature of their top-down attempt at movement building will eventually become apparent even to them. Let’s hope that they will be willing to put the cause over their pride. I welcome them to join those of us who want to build a real movement around the principles of cooperation with and mutual support of those who may not share the exact same vision of the ultimate goal or the path to get there.

One hopeful sign is that MTA spokesman David Cobb has stated publicly that MTA is going to form a 501.c4 to identify and promote candidates who will pledge to support their version of the amendment, which is the essence of the Pledge to Amend campaign aside from the fact that Pledge to Amend does not promote specific language, only the minimum components of an acceptable amendment. If the steering committee of MTA follows through with its own version of Pledge to Amend as described by Cobb, its efforts will be welcome. Let’s hope that they come to see the value of cross-promoting the pledge effort of United Republic, which is gathering signatures in support of their reform legislative agenda as the first step in their RepresentUS campaign. They want to hold candidates for Congress accountable for supporting their agenda once they get 1 million endorsers.

Many of us who believe a constitutional amendment is necessary agree that it is not by itself sufficient to end corporate corruption of government. It would be foolish for us not to work together in the common cause of establishing true democracy in America. No one group can do it alone. Both pledge campaigns are non-partisan and should draw wide support from across the political spectrum. Divisive efforts will ultimately prove self-defeating, but how many will die as a result of an out-of-control government that puts the cause of corporate Empire above the needs of its own people while we argue?

Thursday, December 6, 2012


There is a historic debate taking place in Congress that could determine what kind of America we will have for the foreseeable future. We can choose to reduce government investment in the well-being of average Americans, rebuilding the middle class and protecting it from the ravages of globalization or we can continue to transfer the wealth of the nation to an economic elite that has acquired an ever growing share of the wealth produced by workers and used it to increase their influence over a government designed to be of, by and for the People rather than corporations.

If your opinions are based on what you read in the corporate media, you are likely to believe that there is a debt “crisis” that can only be addressed with a mix of tax increases and entitlement cuts. We have been told there is a deficit “crisis” that will require sacrifice for all of us. The truth is that the fiscal cliff that could occur when expiring Bush tax cuts and across-the-board spending cuts automatically take place at the end of 2012 presents a great opportunity. If we address the real problem of excessive debt by making changes that end the growing inequality between average Americans and the investor class, we can rebuild the American economy while expanding the social safety net that is being threatened by austerity measures designed to protect the wealthy at the expense of the rest of us.  

Analysts agree that the combined effect of higher taxes and the slashing of entitlement spending would have the immediate effect of reducing the deficit by about $1.3 trillion. It would also throw an estimated 4 million people out of work, reversing the anemic employment gains since the Great Recession began in 2008. This in turn will reduce tax revenues, making it even harder to pay for remaining entitlements just when they will be needed more than ever. Nonetheless, it is argued that these draconian cuts would eventually lead to the elimination of federal debt, albeit at the cost of Greece-like austerity. 

What proponents of austerity do not seem to realize is that they risk awakening average Americans to the fact that the entire economy operates in the interest of the wealthy investor class at the cost of sacrifice by the rest of us. In Europe, this has sparked riots and an international strike. With 80% of Americans favoring increased taxes on the wealthy, politicians who support austerity may just cause a class war the likes of which they cannot imagine. Fortunately, some members of Congress understand that the only way to build the economy and pay down the debt is to strengthen the middle class and the social safety net for the poor. 

There are many benefits to increasing entitlements. Increasing payments to people on marginal incomes will increase the circulation of money, which has a multiplier effect of about $1.60 for every dollar spent. The poor and middle class spend most of their income, while the wealthy hold on to their wealth, investing in industries that profit them but do not produce American jobs and increasingly do not pay taxes. Offering security to older Americans through guarantees of Social Security payments and Medicare allows more to retire, opening up jobs for young workers who will be expected to pay for these benefits yet are asked to sacrifice them for themselves.

Reducing Social Security is unnecessary and manifestly unfair. Removing caps on FICA payments would ensure Social Security solvency forever and assure that the wealthy pay the same proportion of their income to the system as people who work for a living. Since life expectancy for US workers has fallen for the first time in history, the idea of making them work longer for Social Security and Medicare benefits is reprehensible.

Medicare represents the largest non-military expense to taxpayers. The simple solution is to cut overall costs of health care by creating a truly universal health care system. In other nations, this has cut costs by nearly half. The problem is that both parties are so dependent on campaign contributions from the medical-industrial complex and other corporate interests that neither is willing to work for a real solution to the problem of health care costs that are approaching 80% of GDP.

Ultimately, it is We the People who will determine what kind of future our children have, if we stand together to demand an end to a system that favors the few at the expense of the many. We can hold our elected officials responsible if we put aside partisanship and vote for candidates of any party who support a constitutional amendment to clean up campaign finance by banning corporate campaign expenditures and limiting contributions from the rich. That is how we take back America for the People.