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#348 - Ralph Nader's Democracy Toolbox -- Part 1, 28-Jul-1993

For several years, Ralph Nader has been advocating a series of changes
intended to strengthen our democracy. February 1, 1992, Nader presented
"The Concord Principles: An Agenda for a New Initiatory Democracy."
This week and next, we offer you the Concord Principles, with
commentary.

WHEREAS, a selfish oligarchy has produced economic decline, the
debasement of politics, and the exclusion of citizens from the
strengthening of their democracy and political economy;

WHEREAS, this rule of the self-serving few over the nation's business
and politics has concentrated power, money, greed, and corruption far
beyond the control or accountability of citizens;

WHEREAS, the political system, regardless of party, has degenerated
into a government of the power brokers, by the power brokers, and for
the power brokers that is an arrogant and distant caricature of
Jeffersonian democracy;

WHEREAS, Presidential campaigns have become narrow, shallow, redundant,
and frantic parades and horse races which candidates, their monetary
backers, and their handlers control unilaterally, with the citizenry
expected to be the bystanders and compliant voters;

WHEREAS, a pervading sense of powerlessness, denial, and revulsion is
sweeping the nation's citizens as they endure or suffer from growing
inequities, injustice, and loss of control over their future and the
future of their children; and

WHEREAS, we, the citizens of the United States, who are dedicated to
the reassertion of fundamental democratic principles and their
application to the practical, daily events in our nation, are committed
to beginning the work of shaping the substance of Presidential
campaigns and of engaging the candidates' attention to our citizen
agenda during this 1992 election year;

NOW, THEREFORE, WE HEREBY present the ensuing Concord Principles:

FIRST, democracy is more than a bundle of rights on paper; democracy
must also embrace usable facilities that empower all citizens

(a) to obtain timely, accurate information from their government;

(b) to communicate such information and their judgments to one another
through modern technology; and:

(c) to band together in civic associations as voters, taxpayers,
consumers, workers, shareholders, students and as whole human beings in
pursuit of a prosperous, just and free society.

SECOND, the separation of OWNERSHIP of major societal assets from their
CONTROL permits the concentration of power over such assets in the
hands of the few who control rather than in the hands of the many who
own. The owners of the public lands, pension funds, savings accounts,
and the public airwaves are the American people, who have essentially
little or no control over their pooled assets or their commonwealth.

The American people should assume reasonable control over the assets
they have legally owned for many years so that their use reflects
citizen priorities for a prosperous America, mindful of the needs and
rights of present and future generations of Americans to pursue
happiness within benign environments.

THIRD, a growing and grave imbalance between the often converging power
of Big Business, Big Government and the citizens of this country has
seriously damaged our democracy and weakened our ability to correct
this imbalance. We lack the mechanisms of civic power. We need a modern
toolbox for redeeming our democracy by strengthening our capacity for
self-government and self-reliance both as individuals and as a
community of citizens. Our 18th century democratic rights need
retooling for the proper exercise of our responsibilities as citizens
in the 21st century.

FOURTH, the new democracy toolbox contains measures for protecting
voters from having their voting powers diluted, over-run or nullified.
These measures are:

(a) a binding none-of-the-above opinion on the ballot. [If "none of the
above" received the largest number of votes, this would trigger a new
election.]

(b) term limitations, 12 years and out;

(c) public financing of campaigns through well-promoted voluntary
taxpayer checkoffs on tax returns;

(d) easier voter registration and ballot access rules; [Congress has
since passed the so-called "motor voter" law to make voter registration
simpler and easier, but the bill has not yet come out of conference
committee, so the exact provisions remain unknown.]

(e) state-level binding initiative, referendum, and recall authority,
and a non-binding national referendum procedure. ["Initiative" gives
citizens the right to propose legislation for consideration by the
voters, not waiting for a legislator to propose it; "referendum" allows
citizens to vote laws into effect themselves, circumventing
legislatures; "recall" allows citizens to un-elect particular elected
officials.] And:

(f) a repeal of the runaway White House/Congressional pay raises back
to 1988 levels.

FIFTH, the new democracy toolbox strengthens taxpayers who wish to have
a say in how their tax dollars are being used and how their taxpayer
assets are being protected. These objectives will be advanced by
according taxpayers full legal standing to challenge the waste, fraud
and abuse of tax monies and taxpayer assets. Presently, the federal
judiciary places nearly insurmountable obstacles in front of taxpayers,
thereby leaving the task to the unlikely prospect of government
officials taking their own government to court.

Further, a facility for taxpayers banding together can be established
by a simple taxpayer checkoff on the 1040 tax return, inviting
taxpayers to join their national taxpayers association which would be
accountable to members on a one-member one-vote standard.

Finally, obscure, overly complex, mystifying jargon pervading federal
tax, pension, election and other laws and procedures is a barrier to
taxpayer-citizen participation. The language of these laws and
procedures must be simplified and clarified as a matter of national
priority; otherwise, only special interests hiring decoders will be
able to participate while the general public is shut out.

SIXTH, the new democracy toolbox strengthens consumers of both business
and government services by according them:

(a) computerized access in libraries and their own homes to a full
range of government information for which they have already paid but
are now unable to obtain, either inexpensively or at all;

(b) facilities in the form of periodic inserts, included in the billing
or other envelopes sent to them by companies that are either legal
monopolies (for example, electric, gas, telephone bills) or are
subsidized or subsidizable by the taxpayers (for example, banks and
savings and loans). These inserts invite consumers to join their own
state-wide consumer action groups to act as a watchdog, to negotiate
and to advocate for their interests.

A model of this facility is the Illinois Citizen Utility Board which
has saved ratepayers over $3 billion since 1983 and filled the consumer
chair before utility commissions, legislative hearings, and courtroom
proceedings on many occasions.

This type of facility costs taxpayers nothing, costs the carrying
companies or government mailings nothing (the consumer group pays for
the insert and there is no extra postage) and is voluntary for
consumers to join. Had there been such bank consumer associations with
full-time staff in the 1970s, there would not have been a trillion
dollar bailout on the taxpayers' back for the S&L and commercial bank
crimes, speculations, and mismanagement debacle. These would have been
dipped in the bud at the community level by informed, organized
consumer judgment. So too would have costly and hazardous energy
projects been replaced by energy efficiency and renewable power
systems; and

(c) Citizen consumers are the viewers and listeners of television and
radio. Federal law says that the public owns the public airwaves which
are now leased for free by the Federal Communications Commission to
television and radio companies. The public, whose only option is to
switch dials or turn off, deserves its own Audience Network.

The Audience Network would enhance the communication and mobilization
process between people locally and nationally. The owners of the
airwaves deserve a return of their property for one hour prime time and
drive time on all licensed stations so that their professional studios,
producers, and reporters can program what the audience believes is
important to them and their children. The proposal for Audience
Network, funded by dues from the audience-members and other NON-tax
revenues, was the subject of a Congressional hearing in 1991, chaired
by Congressman Edward Markey.

Similarly, in return for cable company monopoly and other powers, cable
subscribers should be able to join their own cable viewers group
through a periodic insert in their monthly cable billing envelopes.
Modern electronic communications can play a critical role in
anticipating and resolving costly national problems when their owners
gain regular usage, as a community intelligence, to inform, alert, and
mobilize democratic citizen initiatives. Presently, these electronic
broadcasting systems are overwhelmingly used for entertainment,
advertising and redundant news, certainly not a fair reflection of what
a serious society needs to communicate in a complex age, locally,
nationally, and globally.

(d) Access to justice --to the courts, to government agencies, and to
legislatures --is available to organized, special interests, and they
widely use these remedies. In contrast, when consumers are defrauded,
injured, rendered sick by wrongdoers or other perpetrators of their
harm, they find costly dollar and legal hurdles blocking their right of
access. They also find indentured politicians and their lobbying allies
bent on closing the doors further. Systems of justice are to be used
conveniently and efficiently by all the people in this country, not
just corporations and the wealthy. Otherwise, the citizen shutout
worsens. [Continued next week.]

--Peter Montague

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Descriptor terms: ralph nader; concord principles; democracy; wealth;
initiative; referendum; recall; taxation; elections; electoral process;
rtk; access to information; government information; monopolies;
utilities; utility regulation; consumers; audience network; radio; tv;
cable access; justice;