Our two most significant institutions, democracy and capitalism, exist today in name only. Our political system has abandoned us, and our economic system has consumed us.
Politics and social media have given us extremism on a national scale. Our economy is delivering an environment in collapse and a prosperity gap never before witnessed in this country. The richest soar to unseen heights of gluttonous consumption, while a shameful number of our fellow citizens live in tent cities, undernourished and impoverished.
A healthy democracy requires the consent of the governed. It requires citizens who are educated and informed regarding their civic duties. It requires credible institutions, capable of responding to the challenges of the day while pursuing long-term goals. It requires leadership that is able to lay down the tracks for a bright and achievable future for generations to come. In short, a functioning democracy offers the civic expression of our collective will and embodies our shared vision, values, and morals.
A healthy capitalist system includes open markets and real competition. True capitalism requires both a free exchange of goods, services, and ideas as well as rules that level the playing field and prevent the accumulation of so much wealth that entrepreneurism, creativity, and class mobility are stifled. Left to its own devices, capitalism consumes our human and natural resources.
This is not a value statement. Capitalism is amoral — neither moral nor immoral. It has its own laws and appetites that need to be regulated and directed. True capitalism rewards innovation and efficiency and can produce vast prosperity, which, if properly shared, can benefit us all.
While democracy, in theory, builds the tracks to our future, a vibrant economic system could build the engine to take us there. In an ideal world, these two institutions work together in dynamic tension to deliver outcomes that would serve all of us — and future generations.
This is not the world we live in today. Instead of an economic system serving the needs of citizens defined in a democratic process, we have a political system serving the needs of corporate owners and management.
In his farewell speech in 1961, President Dwight Eisenhower warned of the dangers of the military-industrial complex. He was worried that corporations profiting from military production would become too powerful and overwhelm our democracy. Now, we face the same danger in almost every sector of the economy. Beware the pharmaceutical-industrial complex. Beware the agra-industrial complex. Beware the insurance-industrial complex. Beware the health care-industrial complex. Beware the utility-industrial complex. Beware the mass media-industrial complex. And, of course, beware the techno-industrial complex.
These are all real examples of our government serving the interests of corporations and not those of our citizens, as defined and articulated through a rational democratic process.
During the years I spent campaigning for and serving in the state legislature, I tried to live at the intersection of honesty and hope: honest about our history and the challenges we face as a society to live up to our ideals, and hopeful that, through thorough and thoughtful democratic processes, we could create a government and an economy that embodies those ideals.
Honesty and hope, in 2022, both seem more elusive and more precious than ever. We still have our lives, and where there is life there is hope. For hope to survive, however, we must be willing to tell the truth.
Dan Wolf, the founder of Cape Air, represented the Cape and Islands in the Mass. Senate from 2011 to 2017. He lectures at NYU, Northeastern, and Harvard’s Kennedy School on economics and policy and will speak at the Eldredge Public Library in Chatham at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 23. Wolf lives in Harwich.