Economist Adam Smith’s idea is a powerful one: Individuals acting in their own interest to maximize personal profit will create economic benefits for all. But left unregulated and unrestrained, self-interest inevitably leads to the exact opposite.
To note one of many examples: Widespread mortgage fraud and exotic financial instruments pushed by financial elites brought the nation’s economy to its knees in 2008. Banks got bailouts — and no bankers went to jail — but millions of people lost their homes and jobs and what little wealth they had, a financial blow from which many have yet to recover.
A strong democracy — one that serves not individual self-interest, but the common good — can counteract the worst tendencies of the market. That’s why taxes and public services are important, to provide the foundation for our lives, whether or not we are prospering from the market. And that’s why we need regulations. By creating and enforcing rules that protect everyone, we can limit financial bubbles, monopolies, oligopolies, environmental destruction and other regular side effects of an unrestrained market.
The bulwark between the market and democracy is nothing more than a culture of honesty and the rule of law. Sound too simple? Ask yourself: If you knew your car’s odometer showed fewer than actual miles driven, would you sell it for more money or disclose the problem and make less? The only differences between those outcomes are your basic values and the rule of law.
If you’re a public official, it’s all the more important to keep a bright line between your personal interests and the interests of those you’re elected to serve. Unfortunately, there’s a real-life example of what happens when that line fades right here in Washington.
Washington Sen. Doug Ericksen (R-Ferndale) has taken a position on President Donald Trump’s transition team at the Environmental Protection Agency, and he’s also keeping his state Senate job, despite having missed quite a few workdays in Olympia. Most employees I know would be fired for absenteeism. Sen. Ericksen is drawing two paychecks instead.
It doesn’t have to be this way. A fellow senator, Sen. Brian Dansel (R-Republic), promptly resigned from the Washington Legislature when he took a position with the U.S. Department of Agriculture under the Trump administration. The now-former state Sen. Don Benton (R-Vancouver) retired from the Legislature when he joined the Trump administration. Sen. Michael Baumgartner (R-Spokane), is apparently considering joining the Trump team. He hasn’t yet, and he’s still showing up for work in Olympia, as he should.
Ericksen’s position as communications director for the Environmental Protection Agency’s transition team comes with a paycheck, as does his position in the Legislature. He says the Senate is functioning properly, even as he misses hearings held by the Energy, Environment and Telecommunications committees — which he chairs!
It’s past time for Sen. Ericksen to resign so that, per applicable law, a new state senator can be appointed by the Whatcom County Council. That would be the right thing to do, and it would also be the legal thing to do.
By holding federal office and acting as a state senator, Sen. Ericksen is violating Washington state’s Constitution. Article 2, Section 14 reads: “No person ... holding any civil or military office under the United States or any other power, shall be eligible to be a member of the legislature; and if any person after his election as a member of the legislature, shall be elected to congress or be appointed to any other office, civil or military, under the government of the United States, or any other power, his acceptance thereof shall vacate his seat.”
Our constitution doesn’t distinguish between temporary or permanent jobs, and it doesn’t afford a special exemption for Republicans elected to the Legislature. Ericksen claims that he has consulted lawyers, but he hasn’t made that advice public. While I’m sure it would be very interesting reading, he really doesn’t have to. A reading of our state’s constitution, a willingness to abide by the law, and the spirit of democracy would suffice. Is that too much to ask?
As President Trump leads the nation down a pathway of lies (I mean, “alternative facts”) and other deceits, maybe this is the new par for the course. I hope not. It might be good for Ericksen, but it’s not good for his district, for Washington state, or for our nation.
John Burbank is executive director of the Economic Opportunity Institute. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.