CAN WALL STREET BE PATRIOTIC?
It’s storming outside today and it is rather stormy in America. I know that this will scare the bejesus out of some of my political friends but we need to press the pause button before Capitalism kills Capitalism. I’ve owned businesses for thirty years and I can sense that we need a systems adjustment. In a very interesting speech by creator of THE WIRE and former police reporter, David Simon, he argues that there are now two Americas. We once called it the haves and the have nots, but that easy description denies the complexity of the division and its implications.
Mr. Simon is certainly more eloquent that I can ever hope to be but his premise is something that I have thought about for a number of years – unbridled Capitalism has a lifeline and cannot last forever without considering the needs of society. My worry has always been that we are not being smart to leave a large segment of the population out of the American dream and that it is pragmatic to have a happy nation, even if it costs a little bit.
It gave me a chuckle to read the disclaimer language Simon inserts because he says the word “socialism” and “Marx” in his remarks but assures all that he believes that Capitalism is a central component of a healthy America. Isn’t this the point? We cannot have an honest conversation in America about what ails us because politically someone will call us a name or say that we are a Socialist because we want everyone to have healthcare. “OMG, they may call me a Socialist!” “Oh no, I can’t possibly question the manner in which Capitalism is not working.” The simple truth is that we are judging success too much around profitable outcomes and not smart futures.
Okay, so here’s the deal. The social experiment we have employed here in America and exported around the globe following World War II is showing fractures. Sure, some folks are getting rich, but our middle class is becoming upper and lower middle class or hey, just say it, the lower end of the scale who can’t afford all of the stuff expected of them to consume is growing. But, wow, we’ve figured out ways for them to go out and buy it while folks who have little or no money just desperately want the stuff. We weren’t supposed to end up this way. The “land of plenty” was supposed to provide for us all and we were supposed to create avenues for everyone to get ahead. And, excuse me, but that is not code language for welfare, social services or anything else. We are growing poverty in America and that is not right. In fact, Simon concludes that we are making it easier to “throw the brick” than live in peace and harmony.
We love to expose the outcomes of our problems rather than go to the heart of the matter and address the symptoms and sources. We love to show looting as the outcome of bad parenting. We love to say everyone has the same chance if they just work hard. We love to race bait and deny we have done any harm. As a white male, I cannot possibly know the path that everyone in America has travelled but I am smart enough to see that something isn't working and that understanding and not conflict is the only good solution for America and, yes, our bounty of riches – a healthy economy.
Let me tell you about a few communities where I have resided and what I see happening. In small communities, there are no workers who can make it on their salaries do their traditional jobs. There are old folks who must rely on the soup kitchens to have a square meal. There are no affordable places to live, which means we can’t find employees for our small stores. There is no social net when a Walmart comes to town and everyone who sold sundries, clothing, home and garden items and electronics is out on the street. It's a big problem because Capitalism proves that they can bring lower prices to the market, which gets the attention of folks of lesser means as they want to experience the ecstasy of buying. So the big fish eats the little fish and we say that will trickle down to those who need healthcare, a decent home, gifts for special occasions and a night out to Denny’s. It just doesn't work. So, for a few decades we have played like this is either not happening or that the cause of the problem is poor folk.
In the largest of communities, segmentation by race and class is historic and a festering sore. Locked in a web of neighborhoods with liquor stores on every corner, these places are not healthy to raise the new generations who are becoming the majority minorities of America. It’s really easy to ignore. It is unpleasant to confront. It is so distant from what we want that we call it ugly names and make it worse. We don’t apply reasonable actions to counter the fact that if left to fester, the wounds will infect a growing unrest. We need to get beyond the media hype and grandstanding to deal with our ugly truths in ways beyond those that resemble angry mobs on two sides clashing.
That’s no liberal mumbo jumbo, that’s the truth in the greatest nation on earth where our leaders call for American exceptionalism. Are they nuts? What is exceptional about a country who can’t face their deficiencies? What is exceptional about a crisis in the streets? What is exceptional about people eating bad food and growing fat or killing each other with guns? What is exceptional about putting a price on government and paying big bucks for it? What is exceptional is how we have mastered the art of social blindness and what consequences that ensures.
A few years back it was all the rage for corporations to open social responsibility offices within their companies. In some of my work I have seen this well intended approach go awry. In one example, a non-profit dedicated to building jobs in America sat cozy in their Boston offices collecting big bucks from the biggest corporate and foundation names doing their “social responsibility.” They were so involved in process and politics and being judged as leading the charge that very little resulted from the gifts. My point is that the manner is which the corporations acted was to export responsibility to a non-profit who fattened their operations and yielded little, save the funder checking off the box of doing good stuff. This sadly is the case far too often. So, years of doing this and being socially responsible now down the tubes we are faced with the dilemma of a nation so weighted toward metrics of Capitalism that little else matters.
People don’t live by quarters, as do big corporations. Profit is the fuel of Capitalism but it is not the only fuel of a nation. Social responsibility isn’t within the purview of a corporation, so to expect that is nonsense. We have lived with decades of society being judged solely on financial accountability and we are squeezing the life out of the proper role of government in a great nation. And, don’t charge that this logic is the whimpering of a bleeding heart liberal who wants government to take over everyone’s lives. That is a cheap, unfair and Un-American characterization for the many who feel this way and get up every morning, go to work and pray that another big fish won’t consume us. No, many of us feel this way because we believe in a democratic form of government that is about people and not only profit. And, if that is blasphemy, then true patriotism is blasphemy because it is and should be about “We the people.”
Around the world we are seeing a rise in the dialogue about Capitalism. Anger is not only stewing in the Middle East, it is found in the neighborhoods of London, Rio, Bangkok and Baltimore. As an intelligent society, don’t we owe it to ourselves to do what Marx could not do –– provide the answer to the successful arrangement between Capitalism and Society? That would be truly exceptional.
Reset our course or we will be without guard to guarantee the liberties and freedoms expected of America. Understanding that peace is tied to prosperity and that a civil society can never succeed when one feels the need to protect itself from itself is a profound necessity. Let’s not fall victim, as have societies of the past who throughout history have felt the destructive hurling brick when it was too late to change course. You cannot put a price tag on peace but you can ensure that humanity is not lost in the quest for a pure form of Capitalism.
THE PEACE MAN