Friday, March 20, 2009

No Giants, but Windmills

On the heels of the news that the loophole allowing fat AIG bonuses was deliberately written into the stimulus bill, with full support of the U.S. Department of Treasury, comes the revelation that at least 13 of the corporations receiving stimulus money courtesy of U.S. taxpayers owe back taxes—that is, they had not paid their fair share towards the public good that they are now benefiting from, not to say (more forthrightly) cynically exploiting.

Yes, I am back on my habitual rant against mammoth financial institutions and corporate capitalism, which, no, I neither trust nor believe are indispensable, despite a lifetime of hype over better tomorrows, what’s good for the country, invisible hands, and the privilege of “choice” and individual ownership of property.

And, again no, I tend not to blame the (yes, culpable) federal government for corrupting global capitalism, rather the reverse: for most of the nation’s history, big business and a wealthy elite have used the federal government to their own interests, not the common good.

“A banker,” said Mark Twain, “is a fellow who lends you his umbrella when the sun is shining, but wants it back the minute it starts to rain.” I would say “lease” instead of “lend.” And "wants it back" with interest ... and a user fee.

No expert in economics and possibly downright un-American in my distrust of profiteering, I probably have no right whatsoever to complain. OK, OK, I am part of the problem. There, I said it.

And, sure, the pure, spiritualized version of capitalism is indeed lovely, I admit it, where smiling faces exchange much needed goods and services, sprouting from perpetually fruitful cornucopia, based on individual needs—one bright face valuing more what the other bright face values a bit less, permitting a “profit” for both parties. My eyes well up with happy tears.

And it is no less (or more) a fantasy than the pure, spiritualized version of socialism—I concede that, too. Nothing is gained through idealizing or demonizing people or institutions, when the reality is fairly easy to see.

And while I am qualifying a claim that strikes me as just common sense (though it’s hardly common at all), let me also state that I think corporations and capitalism have done much good for the world and its citizens, too … though perhaps more as side effects than as their central mission.

But I would add that the most astounding of those contributions—such as computer, satellite, nuclear, and microwave technologies—have sprung from military (thus government) funding and state university research, which smart capitalists have acquired and effectively marketed back to the citizens whose tax money funded the studies and discoveries in the first place.

Having said all that, here’s my point ...

… that capitalism puts power, sometimes immense power, into private hands, creating and perpetuating unnecessary inequalities in a democratic republic, such as ours,

… that power tends naturally to protect its own interests, so once centralized in family dynasties or even modern virtual individuals such as corporations, power and wealth seldom leak out (or trickle down) to the general citizenry and, even then, mainly as means of galvanizing more power to those who already hold the larger portion of it,

… that the powerful tend to exploit the unpowerful, but …

… that the exploitation is almost always couched in terms of altruism and cooperation—so that those without power regard those with power as benefactors, protectors, and, most perniciously, indispensable realities, not acknowledging …

… that wealth and power alike are symbolic—that gold would have no value if, as in Thomas More’s fantasy Utopia, people simply would stop seeing any value in it, and that great armies would have no force if underpaid, underappreciated soldiers, always asked to risk more than they have to gain, would refuse to fight for vague, inconsistent, and ultimately false value claims, masking the interests of the already powerful to retain and enhance that power.

All of this is general and abstract, but the reality is ever present with us. The physical evidence to support this claim is part of the air we breathe daily. And while I am distrustful of revolution and promises of a perfect society, I do think real change still occurs and remains strongly probable for the future—despite there being so much cynical illusion of improvement, as new bosses replace old bosses. Real change occurs primarily through individuals’ practicing moral consciousness, consideration of the common good, as part of their own self-interest, and cooperation in taking the baby steps needed to make their world a better place for everybody in it.

And I say “their world” on purpose, not in the sense of ownership, but in the sense of responsibility and duty. We are not entirely dependent on the flagrant inequalities that we have come to accept as just the nature of things.

No doubt we do have a strong stake in some of the very institutions that sometimes oppress us (including not only AIG and the corporate structure, in general, but also an often arrogant and self-absorbed federal government), and we should not fool ourselves into thinking that the collapse of giants—even detestable, oppressive giants—does not pose considerable dangers for us little people, too.

But such giants have collapsed before, and the world kept turning.

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