Ben Paine, the self-styled Son of Common Sense, is a veteran of the American experience.
A Brooklynite born during the Roosevelt Administration, Paine— a self-published political scientist— saw San Francisco in the Middle Sixties. He was in the U.S. Army Reserves when Kennedy was killed in downtown Dallas. He was in New York on September 11, 2001. Just last week, I found him at a bar, drinking a Coca-Cola and editing his political manifesto, To My Countrymen.
Drawing upon ages of wisdom, Paine paints a picture of a political system chronically broken. Of course, this is not so unusual; it is his remedies that are unconventional. He advocates a 28th Amendment to the Constitution, a citizens’ march on Washington, and an Economic Summit to redefine the American economic landscape.
DHR: Does Ben Paine belong to a political advocacy group?
BP: For sure not. Anyone who has read my book would be tearing his hair out to figure out if I was a Democrat, a Republican, a Green Party member, or a libertarian.
What about a concerned citizen’s group?
No. I have a mind that’s very critical, in consequence of which, even the people I prefer for office, I have problems with.
Have you always been politically engaged?
I met my ex-wife at a Dump Rockefeller event. Rockefeller was running for governor of New York state as a Republican, and I was a Democrat at the time. So I was sort of politically engaged back then.
When I entered college, political science was my first major, and economics was my second major. To me, economics is political science for people who are good at math.
I re-engaged about ten or fifteen years ago, which is when I started reading and writing on my first love: politics. And maybe politics is the wrong word, but it will suffice.
Have you had jobs in politics?
No, but I have had a lot of volunteer roles in politics. A lot of my volunteer work was done in New Mexico, where they are so far away from the centers of power that they do have honest-to-God political organizations. When I’ve been in Maryland and Virginia, we’re so close to Washington, we don’t bother with a strong state-level party organization.
It says on the cover of your book To My Countrymen that the book is for “every American who is mad as hell and isn’t going to take it anymore.”
Why are you “mad as hell?”
Any American who is awake to politics and isn’t mad as hell is either stupid or has to think about putting food on the table tomorrow and doesn’t have time to think political thoughts. There is no other excuse not to be mad as hell.
We don’t live in a democracy. We live in a 100 percent suffrage country, but so what? When we elect theoretically “liberal” presidents and Congressmen, nothing liberal happens; when we elect
“conservative” presidents and Congressmen, nothing conservative happens.
The people are absolutely ignored. It doesn’t matter who they elect. Politicians true constituents are their donors. And if you donate to them, you’re just wasting your money, unless you’re really rich, in which case you’re not listening to this interview.
You admit that some people don’t have time to think political thoughts. Is it a civic duty, in your mind, to be politically engaged (and therefore pissed off)?
Absolutely it’s a duty, but if you’re worried about survival, you don’t have time, and you’re excused from my being pissed off at you. The irony is that it affects those people more than anybody else.
If you say politicians’ true constituents are their donors, then what power do the people have at all?
At some level, the people have always chosen the kind of power structure within which they live.
Even when Spartacus led a slave revolt against the Roman Empire, it was a case of one man being able to communicate to a whole bunch of other slaves. He didn’t succeed, in the final analysis, but it lasted a few years before he was squashed.
At some level we all are slaves, as the capitalist system is by definition run by capitalists— that is, the owners, the people with the money. If you work for a private organization, you are somebody who is sometimes called a wage slave. You are dependent on your job for putting food on the table.
Is the power structure in the United States now not too firmly entrenched—especially on the heels of the Citizen United decision— for true change by the people?
If you elect Joe Schmoe, Republican, 7th District, in order to throw out the Democrat that’s been taking money from so-and-so, chances are that Joe Schmoe is taking money from the exact same people.
Is the system too far gone?
I’ll answer that question with a bit of a parable.
Imagine you are a Senator, from wherever. It’s July 2, five years from now. There are three million citizens who have travelled to Washington, D.C. to tell you and your fellows that your jobs may be up for grabs— and maybe more than that.
Are you talking about—?
If there are three million people visiting Washington, D.C., and you’re a Senator, and you’re not pissing in your pants, there’s something wrong with your brain.
That’s my answer to your question.
The federal government has the United States Army at its command.
Three million people!
The United States Army has machine guns.
If you were a soldier, with one of these guns, would you fire on these people?
And perhaps not.
In the past, the United States military has been shown willing to use military force to disperse unruly citizens. I’m thinking of Kent State.
There weren’t three million people at Kent State. And even at Kent State, the soldiers didn’t go nuts. They killed a few people. A few people did some things that I will say, without hesitation, that to this day they regret.
Those four killings were enough to send all the Kent State students running scared. If you fire shots into the crowd of three million, do you think they disperse?
No. Some of them are coming armed.
So you’re talking about a potential insurrection against the federal government?
Potential? Three million people, potential?
They’ve come for something.
So you’re talking about real revolution.
I’m talking about the people asserting a right that they have to rule themselves.
We do not have self-rule. That is what democracy is, by definition. Demos kratia. Maybe we’ve never had it, but it’s becoming particularly obvious since the infamous Citizens United decision, which was, by the way, in no way the first time that the Supreme Court ruled that corporations could be involved in politics.
It sounds like your call to arms is a show of force.
The show of force is a means to an end. The end is that the people rule.
And the show of force is peaceful, until the other side gets stupid. Trying to disperse three million people— that’s stupid.
Hey man, three million people didn’t land on Normandy Beach. Three million people is a huge number. And it’s only one one hundredth of the country. Only one percent of people have to care. The United States does not have the army to disperse three million people peacefully gathered.
And at this point, do you demand changes? How? All laws pass through the legislature.
Ultimately, the end goal of this march is an amendment to the Constitution that makes it clear that, I’m sorry, corporations: the moment you get into politics, you lose your charter, and your CEO goes to jail.
How would the text of such an amendment read?
There are a lot of organizations that have different takes on repealing Citizens United. The organization that I like the most is called Move to Amend.
There are two parts of their amendment: the first is that only natural persons have constitutional rights. That’s a different way of saying that neither corporations, nor foundations, nor non-profits have a part in the political system. The second part of their amendment is that money is not protected speech under the first amendment.
Are you affiliated with the MoveToAmend organization?
I get e-mails from them. (Laughs).
You say you’re saddened when you meet someone who is not “mad as hell” about the political situation, and that these times demand “outrage.” How is outrage productive in solving political problems?
I would like to distinguish between rage and anger. Anger, it seems to me, is an irrational feeling or emotion. For the sake of the question, I would like to suggest that rage is rational, focused, and controlled.
However, I do not suggest that there would be no possibility of violence. I am not a pacifist.
Slaves are nice, or else they get whipped. Resistance that will not accept failure cannot be doctrinally non-violent.
If turning the other cheek works, then I’ll turn the other cheek, but what I’m interested in is winning by any means necessary. This is about self-rule, for God’s sake.
Self-rule is not always perfect. You say in your book that people are not entitled to opinions about science, and you cite climate change as an example, but much of the American public does not believe in anthropogenic climate change. Is there any room in pure democracy for executive authority?
On those kinds of issues, I am in favor of better education.
Self-rule demands an educated citizenry. The only kind of enforcement I would have on that is that people who vote should have to pass a citizenship test.
Are we talking about a math, science—
No. Citizenship test. The same one that immigrants must take.
There are a hundred questions— available online— of which the would-be citizen is asked ten. In order to pass, he has to answer correctly six times.
So it’s not your natural right to vote? You were born here, you live here, you are interested in your society, you have an opinion about your taxes, and you can’t vote on it because you don’t know that Herbert Hoover was the 31st president of the United States?
Clearly you have not read the test— nothing in it is that arcane. Ten of the one hundred questions are on the flag. What are the colors? What do the stripes stand for? What do the stars stand for?
That still has nothing to do with my taxes.
No. It’s all essential stuff about American history, the Constitution, and our institutions.
What about people who don’t have access to that education?
There is no such thing. An attentive eighth grader could pass this test. There’s no reason why we should give non-citizens the right to vote. A big part of that is psychological: “I’m an American.” If that psychology does not include effort from you, then I’m sorry, I have no sympathy. It’s really not a huge amount of effort. Go online and look at the test. If you were born here and you’re over thirty and don’t score a 95 or better, you should be ashamed of yourself.
If you want to vote, educate yourself. If you don’t know what the stars and stripes stand for, look it up on Wikipedia. If you have no computer at home and no library within fifteen miles, ask your neighbor. Easy.
Let’s assume that your revolution is successful and that self-rule in this country is established. There are still a lot of controversial things in this book.
You mention the top tax rate during the War and post-War era, as high as 94 percent from 1944-45. Then there were another eighteen years of 91 percent.
What ethical grounds does the state have for laying claim to 94 percent of your income?
Ethics be damned.
I don’t know how to respond to that.
In the first place, the 94 percent rate was not on anyone’s income. It was on income above a threshold that would not have touched 99 percent of Americans.
Still seems unfair.
Okay. Who cares?
I do. That’s “power issues from the barrel of gun” thinking.
You’re thinking that because you’re rich, you have a 94 percent tax rate. That’s not how it worked.
What I’m thinking is that, if you’re rich, the government claims a huge cut of your money.
Yes, they do. Let’s put this in context: 1944-45. We needed money to pay for the war. We were in a world war where civilization was being fought over. And then, eighteen years after that, taxes were still high, because we hadn’t paid it all off.
We still paid our debts in those days.
Would you be interested in seeing those tax rates again today? We have a 22 trillion dollar debt.
I would be in favor of raising taxes on the top brackets to significantly higher numbers.
You’re also in favor of a wealth tax.
It’s a different argument, but yes, I’m in favor of a wealth tax to replace the income tax and capital gains tax.
Number one: as it stands, the wealthiest people in our economy pay no income tax, because they have no income. If Jeff Bezos has an income, he paid it to himself, which he didn’t.
Number two: in terms of one’s ability to help the country, in terms of paying for the country’s operations, income is really the wrong thing to hit. Wealth is what matters. The amount that you have saved up: in your ownership of homes, in the stocks and bonds that you own.
Doesn’t that discourage investment?
No. And I have nothing more to say about that. There isn’t an economist in the world who would think that that would discourage investment.
Likely the top marginal tax on wealth would be something like 6 percent. It would begin at 1 percent.
Who makes the assessment of your wealth? The IRS?
People will be reporting on the value of their wealth. If the IRS has a problem with it, there is an audit, in which there is an argument. And audits are not simply a matter of “IRS wins.” In a self-rule situation, the people are ultimately responsible for everything. Everything.
As a citizen, you are responsible for what happens in this country. You. That is the job of a citizen.
There are 350 million citizens. That “you” feels a little personal.
It is personal. Why become a citizen otherwise? You’re saying that I want to be responsible for this country. If you don’t feel that way, then don’t vote. You can say “I have no power.” Okay. Don’t vote. Good-bye. I have no interest in you voting. Citizens are responsible for themselves and their fellows. And if they’re not, what is self-rule? To find a Caesar to inaugurate as emperor?
Philosopher-kings usually weren’t philosopher-kings.
Marcus Aurelius. The pax romana: peak civilization.
An accident of history.
Popular rule doesn’t mean we’re always going to be right. But if we don’t have self-rule, it means someone else is in charge of you and your life. It’s one thing to say, “My fellow citizens and I are in charge of our own destiny.” It’s another thing to appoint someone else— a dictator.
Are all citizens subject to a wealth tax? Every year, you pay tax on what you own.
That implies fundamentally that you don’t really own what you own. The state owns what you own, and you’re paying rent.
You can look at it that way if you must, but taxation always does that, doesn’t it?
No, I wouldn’t say so. I don’t pay tax on my record player. I bought it one time, I paid sales tax when I bought it, and now it’s mine. It doesn’t belong to the government. The same would be true if I bought and paid off a home.
Let’s start with reality. The reality is that most homes in this country are owned by banks. You’re paying a mortgage and calling it your own. And yes, it’s yours, sort of. But the fact of the matter is that, for the first twenty years, the bank owns more of it than you do.
But there is an end in sight. You can pay off a mortgage. If there’s a wealth tax, you will always be renting from the government. The state owns your home and you will never pay it off.
You’re not paying tax on things you own. The amount of tax you pay is dependent on your wealth. It is not the same thing as paying tax on your property. It’s a different determination, and it’s more fair.
In the first place, let’s be real. A wealth tax would not hurt you compared to an income tax if you’re in the bottom 99 percent. And I say that because the actuaries who would design the thing would make sure of that.
It’s a psychological difference.
I’m talking about reality. The reality is that Jeff Bezos and his ten thousand friends at the top have had a total tax bill of zero for the last twenty years. Not to mention the fact that the income tax tops off at 35 percent and the top bracket is 150 thousand dollars.
What social services do you claim the government is responsible for providing?
That’s up to the people!
But if I were in charge, I would say that military defense is always first. Also essential are services that everyone wants, which includes police forces, fire departments, public schools, public parks and forests. It includes something like unemployment insurance, some kind of social safety net if the economy we have is such that people will be injured without it.
Are you in favor of Medicare for All?
Ben Paine has a healthcare plan that has not been discussed. I don’t think we have the time to discuss it today, but it is on my blog.
You’re in favor of raising taxes and collecting more revenue, but you aren’t in favor of many of the popular expensive Democratic programs.
I don’t object to Medicare-to-All because it’s expensive. (Laughs). My objection is that when you ignore economics, there are unintended consequences.
Employment is going to be threatened by technology overtaking manpower. Why have we not approached this from the standpoint of an economic summit?
Let’s get fifty Americans, one from each state, together— economics professors, history professors, psychologists, regular people, CEOs of large, medium, and small companies, workers both union and non-union— let’s get thinkers from every place in the economy you can imagine. Let’s have them sit down in a room, essentially lock the door, and figure out what kind of economic system we want to have in the United States.
350 million people cannot have this conversation. Fifty people can.
Any constitutional amendments discussed at such a summit could be ratified by an Article 5 Convention of the States. According to Article 5, citizens can call a constitutional convention outside of the authority of the Senate and the House, and they can come up with anything they please. The catch is that it must then be ratified by three quarters of the states.
I don’t know that it’s necessary to subject the results of an economic summit to constitutional ratification. They’re not going to come up with something ridiculous, because it’s being agreed upon by fifty people from all parts of the economy.
That seems undemocratic.
I am not in favor of direct democracy. I am in favor of self-rule: by constitutional republic, as designed by a group of brilliant men in 1789.