“Tom, you gotta learn like I’m learnin’. I don’t know it right yet myself. That’s why I can’t ever be a preacher again. Preachers gotta know. I don’t know. I gotta ask.” – Casey in “The Grapes of Wrath” (Movie)
“As a small percentage of the nation lives at the pinnacle of wealth, an increasing number of Americans are sinking into third world economic and living conditions – and being blamed for their plight… Shake a stick in post–financial collapse America, and one hits poverty. It’s everywhere: tent cities in municipal parks, under freeway overpasses, along river walks. Food lines stretching down city blocks. Foreclosure signs dotting suburban landscapes. Overstretched free clinics providing a modicum of healthcare to people no longer insured. Elderly people whose pensions have vanished and whose hopes for a decent old age have evaporated. Unemployed men and women looking for clothes for their kids at thrift stores and food for their families at pantries.” – Sasha Abramsky in The American Way of Poverty: How The Other Half Still Lives.
In their ground-breaking book, “Winner-Take-All Politics – How Washington made the rich richer – and turned its back on the middle class,” authors Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson identify the culprits behind the great economic crime of our time— the yawning, and still growing, income inequality gap between the vast majority of Americans and the richest of the rich.
They found that runaway inequality and the present economic malaise reflect how a political system that traditionally has been responsive to the interests of the middle class was hijacked by the super-rich.
Hacker and Pierson trace the rise of the winner-take-all economy to the late 1970s when, under a Democratic president and a Democratic Congress, a major transformation of American politics occurred with big business and conservative ideologues organizing themselves to undo the regulations and progressive tax policies that had helped ensure a fair distribution of economic rewards. Deregulation got under way, taxes were cut for the wealthiest, and business decisively defeated labor in Washington. The transformation continued under Reagan and the Bushes as well as under Clinton, with both parties catering to the interests of those at the very top.
The cause of the transformation is most often attributed to a memo written by Lewis Powell on August 23, 1971, to the US Chamber of Commerce that outlined his recommendations to the Chamber to combat what he felt was a serious “attack on the American enterprise system” by “leftists” and “perfectly respected members of society.”
During the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations and continuing thru the mid-1960s, while America and The Soviet Union were locked in the Cold War, some American business leaders enjoyed places of privilege and responsibility in American society. E.g. the so-called “Rockefeller Republicans.” But by the late ‘60s, with President Johnson’ escalation of involvement in the Vietnamese War, more and more people began to perceive business as complicit in the war in order to help profits. Business lost much of its cache’ of a contributor to social welfare.
After the war, reflected by the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, business rode a resurgence of public acceptance of its values to increased political power. Making lots of money became an accepted and valid goal in itself. During this time a fundamental change in the way business was conducted steadily took hold in the business world. Corporate officers jettisoned their affinity for social responsibility in favor of the single goal of making money. Management to “meet the numbers,” epitomized by Jack Welch at GE, resulted in ever more severe policies to increase profits at the expense of people.
Over 40 years later a more sinister perspective of business emerges as we are able to see and evaluate the accumulating effects on society of business’s fixation on profits at the expense of people: a rapacious, no-holds-barred, champion of cancerous capitalism that in its quest for power and profits is literally destroying not only the American and world economies, but democratic government and the planet’s environment as well.
Business exceptionalism’ typically rationalizes this excess by invoking the defense: business/capitalism cannot be held responsible for its negative effects on people, society and the environment because it is the integral, sustaining, essential part of the American economy; it is responsible for allowing us to live the American Dream; business ‘efficiency’ must not be curtailed under threat of collapse of the American Way-of-life.
But its single-minded fixation on increasing profits at the expense of other social goals highlights the basic philosophical difficulty inherent in capitalism: it is like a cancer. To survive it must continually grow at the expense of its host. It takes control of society, appropriates people and resources according to its requirements, but ultimately kills society.
In stark contrast, humanity cares about its members; it is concerned with and works to improve each individual’s welfare. Humanity’s concern for its individual members is reflected in the way society and social institutions including schools and government are constructed so that they support this purpose. As might be expected, the difference in philosophical purposes between capitalism and humanity results in dramatically different societies, with the latter resulting in far better individual welfare than the former.
This then, according to George Lakoff, is the battle between capitalism and caring, between hegemony and participation, between authoritarianism and freedom. It is a stark contrast, but if freedom is to prevail, the battle must be waged on all possible fronts simultaneously. The next posts will begin to explicate how that might be done.