Saturday, December 19, 2009

Am I a Commie or A capitalist?

My car is festooned with bumper stickers. Some favorites include “Abstinence Makes the Church Grow Fondlers”, “Alternative Energy is Homeland Security” and “These Colors Don’t Run… the World”. This last one in particular seems to provoke the ire of right wingers.

Recently I picked up a new deer rifle at a local sporting goods store. As I returned to my car, I found a note on the windshield that said “Expletive you and your Expletive Commie Bumper Stickers”. It also had a rather fetching smiley face drawn at the bottom as a lovely coda.

Sure, ‘Commie’ is one of those all-purpose epithets that has essentially lost all meaning to most who wield it, but since I’d just seen Michael Moore’s film about Capitalism, I began to wonder, am I a Commie?

With apologies to Michael Moore, I think I’m actually a bit of a Capitalist. Certainly, I do not believe in an equal share of wealth for everyone. For example, I do not believe that a lazy person deserves my standard of living.

I also believe that this thing called the ‘profit motive’ which Moore seems to find distasteful, obviously works. One has only to look at China and Russia: when their collective farms were given the opportunity to sell some of their harvest on the open market and keep the profit, giving them a direct incentive to work harder, their production soared.

This is human nature. In fact, when you take studies of such diverse animals as chimps and macaws into account, one might even make a case that it’s a near universal natural law of social economy, replete with ancillary laws such as ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’.

I believe in a meritocracy. You work hard, you contribute; you live better. You’re lazy, shirk your duty, you live worse. And I believe in private property. I’m hardly a ‘Commie’.

But that doesn’t mean I believe in the greedy, self-destructive form of Capitalism we have today. Our current system is like a snake eating its own tail. It is so obsessed with short-term profit that it is actively consuming itself.

The environment is despoiled for short term gain. Dishonesty and poor workmanship are rewarded for those well-connected. And most alarming, human capital – the experience and skills of innumerable workers, is squandered and often thrown away like scrap iron.

And, because the true cost some commodities, like coal and nuclear power, are not rolled into their market value, they remain artificially cheap when compared to more environmentally benign technologies like solar and wind.

The system is rigged. It’s not a free-market at all. It’s not true capitalism. It is, indeed, a bit closer to the tenets of fascism, which might be paraphrased a bit like ‘what’s good for business is good for America’. That, assumes, of course, that this thing we call business, has America’s best interests at heart. It doesn’t. Corporations are soul-less creations with no morality and only one imperative: make a profit at all costs. If a human were so constructed, he’d be called a dangerous psychopath.

Instead of free market Capitalism, we have the worst of both worlds: a largely unregulated economic system that rewards greed, human degradation and environmental destruction, and a nice safe back-door policy that has made sure, since at least the 1880’s, that the truly huge players are protected from their own recklessness.

The irony is that if we lived in an actual laissez faire Capitalist system, while many things would be worse, there would also be no bailouts, no ‘too big to fail’.

Halliburton would go broke because their shoddy construction that electrocutes troops and their vastly overpriced consulting fees would fail in a truly free market.

No bid government contracts would cease to exist.

Large banks and brokerage houses that took daredevil risks with their investments would go bust, probably triggering a vast meltdown as their underwriters, like Goldman Sacks, also failed.

In a true ‘free market’, who you know, and who you contributed campaign dollars and other forms of bribery to, wouldn’t matter; which is, of course, why the idea of a true ‘free market economy’ is a total fiction. We are chattel, bought and paid for by transnational corporations just like coal or soybeans. There’s nothing ‘free’ about it.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Welfare State

I have a friend. She’s been a self-employed craftsperson involved in home construction and renovation for 25 years down in South Carolina. For all those years she’s paid her taxes and social security, her own health insurance, and reared a son largely as a single mother.

Recently, her business has all but disappeared due to the recession and the housing crisis. She was having trouble paying the mortgage, so she decided to seek help.

She’d had her first workshop in a rundown part of town, and had seen innumerable welfare families provided with not only housing, but TVs and furniture paid for by the state from the local rent-a-center. Given her neighbors experience, Welfare seemed like an obvious candidate. So, she went down to the office to see what help there was, what the system she’d paid into so loyally all these years as a hard working entrepreneur could give back to her in her time of need.

After her meeting, she called me, incredulous. Yes, they offered to help. They would give her 554.00 a month, garnish her monthly 500.00 in child support, and put a lien on her house. Wow – she could sign over control of her house for a net gain of 54.00 a month! She just couldn’t understand it – what about all of those families that had cars, TVs, apartments, food, medical care, and never, ever worked?

This is the great failure of liberalism. The remnant of LBJ’s Great Society is a social support system that rewards sloth and dysfunction, but has nothing substantial to offer someone of means who has hit a rough patch.

If you own nothing in this country and you’re adept at gaming the system - especially through warehousing foster children – you can live well. Perhaps not luxuriantly, but you can have food, shelter, medical care, and even entertainment. But if you have a job, and own a house, a car, and things get rough, that same network of social services is indifferent to your plight at best, hostile at worst..

There is something wrong with a system that completely neglects the working and middle classes in favor of the welfare class. In fact, there’s something wrong with the entire idea of welfare, except for those who are profoundly disabled. I’ve come to believe that Liberalism jumped the shark with welfare. A state that protects people from dire misfortune and shelters the helpless is to be lauded. But one that coddles the lazy and dishonest, in fact creates entire generations of people for whom hard work and responsibility are alien concepts, is bound to rot from within.

Instead of welfare, America should have committed itself, should now commit itself, to full employment for all who want to work. The recent ‘workfare’ programs were an attempt to reverse this dysfunction, but they are deeply flawed, as they’ve often forced people into little more than indentured servitude – dangerous and humiliating work at less than the minimum wage. People need and deserve a living wage, and their dignity.

There must be better solutions out there. Our government subsidizes crops, the oil and gas industry, the elderly and infirm, and yes, the lazy. Could they subsidize a permanent worker training and employment program instead of the latter? Massive 1930’s style public works projects that trained and then employed millions? I don’t know. I only know that the system as it stands is broken - that if you give generations of people something for nothing, you breed dependence, not freedom.

And we also need to help the struggling working class! They’re drowning and no-one’s throwing them a life preserver. My friend doesn’t have any big credit card debts. Her mortgage is modest and at a very low interest rate. Her distress is not due to rampant personal greed or living beyond her means, as Limbaugh and his ilk would have it.

Rather, she’s a victim of the business cycle, the booms and busts that have accompanied capitalism since perhaps the first barter of labor for grain was made in ancient Sumer.

The question is, do we want a society that buffers hardworking members from these implosions, provides a port in the storm for its workers, or one that leaves them to drown while its right flank protects the fatcats and its left, the layabouts?

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Obama Sells Out

Shortly after Obama was inaugurated, I wrote a commentary that was quite critical of his economic team, which was composed of the very people who had created the financial crisis in the first place. I ended the commentary by suggesting that the age of Obama was starting to sound more like ‘meet the new boss, same as the old boss’ than ‘a change is gonna come’.

But disillusioned as I’d become about his domestic agenda, I still hoped that Obama would shine on foreign policy – that he might truly turn the ungainly ship of Empire around and return it to port. After all, it’s quite clear that America is following a long line of Imperial mistakes before it, vitiating itself with ever more military adventures, while provoking the ire of subjugated peoples, who are increasingly fighting back, weakening America like Lilliputians tying down Gulliver.

But here, again, Obama has either caved to his corporate masters, or is showing his own true colors. He hasn’t extracted us from either of the costly wars we’re mired in; he’s escalated our involvement, apparently heeding the specious advice to ‘listen to the commanders on the ground’. Those commanders not surprisingly say what such men have always said, everywhere, throughout history: give us more men and arms and we’ll get the job done. Because their only tool is the hammer of military might, they perceive everything as a nail that must be struck repeatedly.

Obama’s taken the Bush position that suspects can be held indefinitely without trial at our new Guantanamo, Bagram Air Force base.

His administration has decided to continue the Bush policy of rendition, wherein suspects are picked up the world over and sent to ‘friendly regimes’ for questioning. The administration reassured the public that this policy would be closely monitored to prevent ‘prisoner abuse’. The entire purpose of rendition is to move a suspect to a country that has more brutal interrogation methods than our own! It’s extra-legal government-executed kidnapping that completely undermines American verbiage about ‘respecting the rule of law’.

Then Obama refused to do anything more than lightly slap Israel’s wrist when that country once again threw gasoline on the fire by confiscating more land, tearing down more Palestinian housing, and going on a spree of new settlement building. The Palestinians have wisely refused to negotiate with Israel until this madness stops, but Obama is offering no carrot, and more importantly no stick, to compel the Israelis. Even George Bush senior was tougher on them, once suggesting that he would cease supporting loan guarantees for Israel if they didn’t stop building.

President Obama is going to Copenhagen for climate talks, it’s true, and on the environment he is clearly a better president than either Bush was, but it’s still too little, too late. The massive public-works projects in renewable energy that this administration could have spent the stimulus money on have been largely swapped for bureaucratic expansion and conventional highway construction. His approach is more fiddling while Rome burns, than ‘change we can believe in’.

White house visitor logs show that our president is eschewing meetings with progressive voices on health coverage, the economy, the environment, and economic justice, meeting instead with corporate interests and their lobbyists on these very subjects. Sound familiar?

And this week, Mr. Obama topped it all. Our newly-minted Nobel Prize winner’s administration stated that the United States has decided to maintain the Bush administration's refusal to sign an international treaty banning land mines.

But that makes sense: not only does America spend more on defense-related matters than all other countries on earth combined, but it’s also the biggest arms dealer, the biggest supplier of weapons of destruction, both mass and individual, on our planet as well.

Frankly, I’m disgusted. Far from being instruments of seismic change, Obama’s policies support the status quo with an almost slavish fealty. I can’t for the life of me understand the hysterical comparisons of Obama to Stalin and Hitler on the right. These must be engendered by racism, pure and simple, because far from being on the radical fringe, Mr. Obama appears to be a middle of the road, bought-and-paid-for tool of corporate America, offering us a sort of ‘Bush Light’ foreign and domestic policy.

At the end of the day, the man who wrote the brilliant, touching and humane ‘Dreams from my father’, and promised us sweeping change, has sold out himself, and all those who believed in him. But it’s our fault; for once again we wanted, needed to believe that this country could change, even though all of its institutions, from the legislative, executive and judicial branches to its ‘free’ press, are now basically appendages of multi-national corporations.