Three things came across my desk in a mere two days that made me feel like I needed to blog about capitalism again. I have critiqued America’s capitalistic society many times under the heading Social and Economic Justice here on this blog. The three sources that inspired this blog are: economist and Nobel Prize winner, Paul Krugman writing a piece entitled “Elizabeth Warren Does Teddy Roosevelt”; a surprising critique of capitalism from none other than Tucker Carlson (!); and a wonderful statement by “The Wizard of Omaha”, Warren Buffett. Here is enough about each of these surprising and refreshing ideas about the limits of capitalism in modern American society.
First up, New York Times columnist, author, and professor of economics, Paul Krugman. He was inspired by Senator Elizabeth Warren’s public policy initiative, and entitled his byline: “Taxing the superrich is an idea whose time has come – again.” I think that in this era of decline, we need big ideas to right the ship. America ain’t what it used to be; this is a truism whenever anyone, in any decade, utters it. Though we have come a long way in certain ways, we are also in a period of moral, social, political, cultural, and spiritual malaise and challenge. Crisis may be too big a word, but it’s not more than a decade away if we continue on this path. This obviously is a big contention I’m making, but as a teaser I would point out – a week after the government was electively shut down by Donald Trump (a decision protected by Mitch McConnell and innumerable GOP members) – that we are ruining the planet and not caring all that much, are headed back to a $1 trillion annual deficit, and social media is wreaking havoc on many aspects of society (for all its benefits). Well, I digress.
Krugman points out that Warren is the first American of such high station to formally suggest we do something creative and decisive to reverse the trend: now, 1/10thof one percent of Americans almost have almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent combined. That is astonishing. If it doesn’t give you pause, you should reflect on it further because it’s not sinking in.
The original opponent of such outsize financial, political, and cultural power was, of course, Teddy Roosevelt. Krugman: “America invented progressive taxation, and there was a time when leading American politicians were proud to proclaim their willingness to tax the wealthy – not just raise revenue – but to limit excessive concentration of economic power.”
“It’s important to grapple with the problems connected with the amassing of enormous fortunes” because many are “swollen beyond all healthy limits.” In an era when a supposed billionaire and economic genius ascended to the highest position in the land and then proceeded to stretch the fragile cloth of American governance, we need to take this very, very seriously. Trump was made a millionaire by his father at age – brace yourself – eight, and has been running amok ever since. “Grab ‘em by the pus$y” was our hint at what kind of president he would become. I will never forgive the Democrats for running a mediocre and insipid candidate (Clinton), despite the availability of a fine competitor (Sanders). Thank you, Debbie Wassarman-Schultz. But, I digress.
Warren’s proposal and more by Krugman can be read HERE.
Tucker Carlson is usually a repugnant fellow, in my opinion. Thus, I couldn’t predict he would spend a fair amount of time developing a very surprising thesis: The free market is failing us.
Yes, you read that right. We knew that politicians in America, mostly on the right, stay up at night trying to figure out how to enrich themselves, their wealthy patrons, and their cronies. America can be fairly called crony-capitalistic. The New York Times points out that new data show that the recent Republican-engineered tax cut bill is not working as planned. It shaved $1,500,000,000,000 off of revenues (taxes) and was allegedly supposed to pay for itself with all the economic growth it would spur. It’s basically the myth of supply-side economics – what George H. W. Bush called “voodoo economics” in 1980 when he was trying to defeat Ronald Reagan for president. Indeed, although the economy did grow by nearly three percent in 2018, federal tax revenues shrunk by 2.7 percent. This percentage represents $87,000,000,000 in money the American system left on the table. The budget deficit: now almost $1,000,000,000,000 a year. A year! Well, I hope the wealthy are happy, because they are encouraging politicians to put their narrow interests above those of the nation as a whole. Thank you, gentlemen!
Yes, the very wealthy are almost all men. And my estimation is that they are 98% white, 97% heterosexual, 85% Republican, and 94% Christian. This dovetails into the point of diversity and equal access to power, but alas, that is a topic for another day.
The point about Tucker Carlson’s surprising tone isn’t just striking me as unpredicted in the extreme: Matthew Walther, in TheWeek.com, pointed out: “You know you’re living in extraordinary times when Tucker Carlson is the most incisive public critic of capitalism in the United States.” The article goes on to read: “In a remarkable monologue on the state of American conservatism, the Fox News host denounced the Republican Party for its cult-like obsession with the free market.” Yes, you read that right.
Carlson’s point is (from a Vox article) that “unbridled capitalism” has done as much as anything to destroy traditional families. The family, as you know, is one of the pillars of American greatness, and there is evidence to support notions such as having fathers present in homes, or mothers caring for children (and this can be shaken up to be much more egalitarian, and still have the same effect). Kids need structure, support, guidance, stability, and love.
Carlson is, amazingly, pointing out what liberals such as myself have been saying: if money is the goal sought above all else, as is often the case with Americans, it is going to have a pernicious effect on the fabric of our society. This was, of course, the case in the lead-up to the Great Depression (think: the Roaring 20s, The Great Gatsby, and Roosevelt trying to bust the trusts and rein in unbridled economic and political power).
But the love of money and the engineering of our society around the interests and preferences of the rich has been in ascendance since Reagan. Clearly, in the run-up to the Great Recession of 2008, folks were using their houses as ATM machines, speculating on and flipping houses for quick profits, and taking advantage of a feeding frenzy by applying for “liar loans” where income was merely stated, not verified. If you watch the movie Panic: The Untold Story of the 2008 Financial Crisis, you get the distinct impression that money is all-too-powerful in the modern U.S., and that we are risking our happiness, health, well-being, and perhaps our souls when we elevate the free market (with cronyistic aspects, as it were) to a place that is not justifiable or wise.
Denmark and Finland have wonderful societies, and they do not worship at the altar of the Almighty Dollar (source). A quote: “That Scandinavian life is famous for its sense of well-being. The UN’s World Happiness Report, in fact, now ranks Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden at the top of their happiness list. By contrast, the US – a country accustomed to being the best in the world at everything, except perhaps humility – is in a period of happiness slippage, having wilted from third place to 19th in ten short years. The stated reasons for that drop are declining social support and increased corruption.” The next time you hear a Republican tell you that if you just paid less in taxes or if Medicare was prevented from becoming an option for all Americans, think again.
More from the author of a piece about Scandinavian happiness, Brent Giannotta (and spoiler alert, “wealth” is not the highest goal of Scandinavians): “The number one thing Scandinavians cite as the source of their happiness is their ferocious dedication to actually enjoying their lives. The time off from work Scandinavian governments allow their citizens is absurd by American standards. It’s almost as if people’s well-being doesn’t correlate with long hours at the office.” Here is a source, a book entitled Were You Born on the Wrong Continent?
“’We’re very productive,’ said Dorte Riggelsen, Denmark’s Consul-General in New York. ‘But we also have a respect for time off for your family. You see Danes on bicycles early to work, and then they leave late afternoon in order to spend time with family – that makes for a better environment for kids and adults.’”
It makes intuitive sense. Have you heard of the lottery winners who, in this dog-eat-dog society plagued by child hunger, homelessness, and 30,000’ mega-mansions, become less happy in the subsequent years following their win? That is an astounding finding. As well, wealthy people tend not to be happier, on average, than folks who make about $75,000 – $100,000. Turns out that having to manage your gardeners and maids, spending $50,000 on a private jet flight, and taking your Mercedes in for a $250 oil change isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Money is only really valuable for what it buys that contributes to health, well-being, happiness, and fulfillment. An excess only leads to more things you will stay up at night worrying about. Indeed, the human brain longs for more, more, MORE of all manner of goods – sex, food, substances, power, autonomy – but when fulfilled, the brain adapts and then wants more, more, MORE. Why else would wealthy people kill themselves after a big setback in the stock market? Clearly, they felt that without wealth, they wouldn’t be good enough; wouldn’t be happy enough; wouldn’t be respected enough.
This phenomenon is aptly termed affluenza, and is about as dangerous to your happiness as influenza. We had better be very careful raising generations of children to be entitled and think they are special just because mommy and daddy told them they were, or because they have privilege and elite opportunities. Here is a litmus test: if your teen is obsessed with a particular Ivy League university and can’t imagine attending a non-prestigious school such as UC-Berkeley, they are in the throes of affluenza. They have been conditioned to believe that achievement is akin to godliness; that they are valuable to the degree that they stand out from their peers and dominate in some endeavor; that economics and marketing and finance are as valuable to their psyches and to society as teaching, nursing, and inventing.
Jane Coaston of Vox writes this about Tucker Carlson’s unexpected critique of capitalism: “America’s ‘ruling class,’ Carlson says, are the ‘mercenaries’ behind the failures of the middle class — including sinking marriage rates — and ‘the ugliest parts of our financial system.’ He went on: ‘Any economic system that weakens and destroys families is not worth having. A system like that is the enemy of a healthy society.’”
Astonishingly, Mr. Carlson, I couldn’t agree more!
Carlson: “Republicans have considered it their duty to make the world safe for banking, while simultaneously prosecuting ever more foreign wars.” Wow, who wrote that? Howard Zinn? Medea Benjamin? Rana Foorohar? Michael Parenti? No, I re-read it and it was Tucker Carlson. What’s next, Rush Limbaugh noting how full of shit Trump was with his “birtherism” and “Mexico will pay for the wall!”?
Coaston opines: “More broadly, though, Carlson’s position and the ensuing controversy reveals an ongoing and nearly unsolvable tension in conservative politics about the meaning of populism, a political ideology that Trump campaigned on but Carlson argues he may not truly understand.”
Moreover, in Carlson’s words: At some point, Donald Trump will be gone. The rest of us will be gone too. The country will remain. What kind of country will be it be then?
That leaves me floored, and for once, in agreement with this unlikable bowtie-addict.
I will finish with an absolutely astonishing take by uber-capitalist, Warren Buffett. I’m not sure how much you know about him, but he is a phenomenon in the world of capitalism. He has made an absolute killing in the stock market, by buying companies, and yet he eats at Dairy Queen and drives an 8-year old standard kind of car. No 30,000-foot mansion, no third and fourth home, no belief that Harvard is his children’s only shot at success. In a remarkable question-and-answer session from 18 years ago, he decries the use of credit cards, urges the young to study and put their potential to the test, implores the youth to work hard and believe that they can succeed, and touts a life detached from the idea that more possessions and more wealth equal more happiness. In fact, he lives in Omaha, Nebraska in the same house he has owned all his married life. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Kim Kardashian!
His answer to a question is stupendous. My only complaint is that he was essentially rehearsing a theory from the American philosopher, John Rawls. Called “The Original Position” by Rawls in his extremely influential book “A Theory of Justice”, it is a visionary and awe-inspiring take on what I would consider being values such as humility, true conservatism, love, and political liberalism. Here is Buffett’s wonderful and little-remembered monologue (you can and should listen to the whole 55-minute talk here):
“We have an enormously rich society – and it will get richer. Everyone isn’t going to participate in that. Some won’t participate because of physical disabilities; others because of mental disabilities; others because of shortcomings of the education they received when they were growing up – all kinds of reasons. We have a prosperous enough society to be able to take care of those people, and we should take care of them. How we do it so that they feel most useful in life, and how we do it so that we continue to encourage people to be more productive and all that – those are not easy questions. But that shouldn’t take our eye off the ball of perceiving that we should do something about it.”
He continues with a brilliant metaphor (pioneered by John Rawls): “I sometimes propose this problem to people. I say: Let’s assume it is 24 hours before you are born. A genie comes to you and says, ‘You look pretty promising to me; I think you’ve got a sense of fair play, and a good mind. So I’m going to let you have an extraordinary opportunity. You get to design the world into which you will be born shortly. It’s up to you. You pick out the political rules, the social rules, the economic rules. Yes, you will design the world, and in 24 hours when you are born, you will be born into that very world – which will exist for your lifetime, your children’s’ lifetimes, your grandchildren’s’ lifetimes.’
Having heard so many “genie jokes” in the past, you would say ‘What’s the catch?!’
The genie replies: ‘It’s a very slight catch. When you’re born, you will emerge into this world you designed, but what you don’t know is whether you’re going to be born black or white; male or female; rich or poor; bright or retarded; able-bodied or infirm; in the United States or Afghanistan.’
‘All you know’ the genie tells you, ‘is that you’re going to reach into this barrel that now has six billion balls – each representing one person – and you’re going to participate in what I call ‘The Ovarian Lottery.’ You’re going to take one ball out of that barrel, and you’re never going to pick another one; that’s you.’
‘Now, what kind of rules do you want to have for that society, not knowing which ball you’re going to get?’”
“Now, that, I would put to you, is the way people should think about social policy. If you’re lucky enough to be born in this country, you’ve already won the lottery. But we should have a system that encourages the Jack Welches and the Bill Gateses and the like far beyond a time when it has any economic significance to them. We need people commanding those resources who are extremely able to command them; that’s how the standard of living moves forward. We should want Tom Osbourne coaching at Nebraska University and we should want Bill Gates designing software – and we don’t want to mix up those two!
So, you want a system that directs people to their potential and puts them in a position where they could do the most for society. But you also want a system for people who get the unfortunate ball. Somebody’s going to get the ball that reads ’80-I.Q.’. Somebody’s going to get the ball that reads ‘A disease early in life that cripples them’. We’ve got a rich enough society that we can take care of those people, and I think that society has the capability of moving more and more in that direction as our resources and our output increase. And I think it has the general will to do that, although society has always had its fits and starts [in regard to social justice and moral progress].
There is no shortage in the United States of resources. There’s no shortage of output. You have to have a system that encourages people to fulfill their capability and achieve their potential and puts them in the right place. But then you have to make sure that everybody gets taken care of, too.”
Buffet’s fantastic retelling of Rawls’ oft-cited philosophical thought experiment amounts to a startling three-point shot for liberalism, empathy, care, social welfare, and justice in American society. Combined with Tucker Carlson’s amazingly unpredicted perspective, and Paul Krugman’s trademark critique of capitalism, it amounts to a full-throated and high-minded critique of capitalism, yes, but also of positive values such as fulfillment, morality, and justice.
Of course, taxing wealth at 70% is absurd. Who should work for 30% of the proceeds? But somewhere between Mitt Romney’s now-known average tax bill of 17% (and Donald Trump’s unknown tax bill, because he is too shysty to release his tax returns) and 91% (the top tax bracket in 1950) lies wisdom. Right now, I think it is inarguable that the wealthiest Americans are carving out a second America, and leaving the growing lower class and a shrinking middle class to their leavings. This amounts to a sick society.
Today’s richest and most powerful persons (in and especially outside of government) have an attitude that can be best characterized by Marie Antoinette. When the last Queen of France before the French Revolution was told about the suffering and the privation of the peasants, some of whom were too poor to even get enough bread to eat, due in large part to the lifestyle and decisions of the monarchy, probably looked at the sumptuous and conspicuous panoply of food and drink at her gilded dining table and replied, “If there is not enough bread for them, let them eat cake!”
Change is coming to America, one way or another. Conservatives and liberals can and should find ways to agree how to reform government and improve society so that we stop our precipitous moral, social, economic, and cultural decline, and reach more of our potential. The American Indians have a saying: “We had better turn around now, before we get where we’re going.” The Scandinavians do much better with many less resources, and it ought to be a lesson America takes to heart before we get where we’re going. Ω
Photo credit: Sharon McCutcheon
Keywords: capitalism, a critique of capitalism, society, social justice, social decay, merit, democratic socialism, potential, social engineering, political liberalism, Warren Buffett, Tucker Carlson, Elizabeth Warren, Paul Krugman