Part II of a Socioeconomic Evaluation
“The greatest trick the devil ever played was to make man think he didn’t exist.”
The Usual Suspects
Some of the most blatant evidence of the corruption of the economic system is its hidden and un-hidden partnership with politics. Despite the enforcement of numerous laws, regulations, restrictions and principles to discourage financial bribery of elected officials, none of these measures has worked for long. The latest in the long list of measures that sidesteps the fairness process in politics is the infamous Citizens United vs FEC decision that flung the door wide open for unlimited spending on PACs. Not coincidentally election funding has consistently shattered all previous reported amounts and continues to do so during each successive election cycle. Hence the rise of the super PAC and the ability for organizations to anonymously receive unlimited funding from “non-profit” sources. The 2014 McCutcheon vs FEC removed limits on private donations, further empowering the ability for PACs to raise unlimited funds. The direct result of this is seen in relaxed legislation of industry standards from environmental restrictions, to product disclosure and regulation, to taxation. The terms of Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and Donald Trump have seen the lion’s share of federal deregulation and relaxation on business that have helped certain corporate industries/markets maintain or increase profit margins while suppressing more progressive and developing ones. The fact that the oaths of those elected to office have become increasingly compromised by corporate bribery exposes the corruption of both our political system and economic system simultaneously.
The ability to influence policy making has always been manipulated by those who possess the most wealth and power to maintain control in their favor. To this end, those who stand to make the most from the way the system is set up have the capability to buy their way out of taking responsibility for any damage or harm they bring upon others. Those who suffer the most from this type of abuse of the supply/demand marketplace are also in the least likely position to change the results or control regulation. Lately the most salient evidence of ignorance concerning public welfare in favor of profit is the fossil fuel industry and the influence it has had on environmental and climate policy. Some would even argue that the behavior of the wealthy class and its stalling of more aggressive measures to curb carbon production and reduce fossil fuel use is nothing short of environmental treason. However this type of behavior may be curtailed by the fact that disasters caused by climate change are having an increasingly expensive effect on the global economy. Figures to the tune of the $160 billion dollars from 2018 are only expected to rise as do sea levels and the drought index.
Noam Chomsky points to a moment in U.S. history in the late 1960’s when conservative candidates in the the country forced the hand of political alignment for the entire country. He is referring to the movement of the Republican party that landed Richard M. Nixon in the white house and with it dragged the Democratic party, the left, with it. Subsequent presidential administrations have reaped the benefit of a decidedly more conservative approach which saw the peak of the nuclear arms race, deregulation of numerous domestic services, increase in American military involvement abroad, decrease in social welfare and the steady growth of corporate and privately owned wealth. Coincidentally, this movement also involved the inclusion of the Christian Right who seized on the opportunity to correlate conservative policy-making with stricter religious and moral standards.
In addition to a marked reduction of progressive policies and renewed focus on more modest social policy, this adaptation forced Democrats to seek an increasingly more conservative stance itself in order to appeal to the American demographic that had followed the conservative shift. The Republican party who now found a devoted following in religious leaders and decisively polarized itself against the “rampant liberal agenda” that had been hijacking the country’s morals for decades. What this really allowed conservative policy makers to do was to frighten their base with unsubstantiated claims that not only had the liberal progressives eroded American morals but that it posed a grave danger to the country’s foundation itself. Politics has always taken sides, now it was more than ever used as a divisive force to distinguish political alliances. In addition to altering the political landscape to left vs right, it also spelled the end of third-parties as viable political parties on the national scene.
America Inc. part II
Sir Thomas Moore and Gene Roddenberry both wrote about Utopia, one here on Earth and the other in outer space. Both these men were idealists who created a fictional narrative of the world they would like to live in. Neither men lived to see the day that they did, and it is likely that if both were alive today neither would still. When one considers the issue of capitalism and if the system is actually the best for the United States of America, or the world for that matter, it is a debate that does not have a conclusion. Arguments for how it has made our societies better are as abundant as those for how it has corrupted them. Everyone has their own opinion of it but no one can agree. Both the World Wars exhibited American valor in the face of the darkness of humanity, but subsequent conflicts and results of the U.S.’s “empire building” tarnished the reputation earned from the great wars. One thing is clear, however, those who have profited the most from capitalism will argue that it’s opposites, Socialism/Marxism/Communism, are pure evil. Nothing of these socioeconomic principles will bring anything but suffering, inequality and eventually revolution.
Capitalist states have not experienced the level of upheaval that their opposites have. The latest example being the U.S.S.R. When the mighty colossus was felled by the juggernaut of the west, the U.S., it was reborn based upon the capitalist model! There is no greater example of conquest than your rival falling at your feet only to be resurrected as a clone of its vanquisher. Argument ended, case closed, right? However, there’s that niggling detail of rankings among developed nations. The U.S. consistently doesn’t rank at the top of such metrics as best healthcare industry, lowest crime rates, lowest infant mortality (we’re actually the worst among developed nations), lowest unemployment, highest wages per workers, education system, and, perhaps most importantly, happiness. In fact, in regards to that last factor, we are one of the world’s most stressed societies. Not ironically, we’re also one of the most fatigued societies as well.
Number one? The U.S. leads the world in citizen incarceration, mass shootings, preventable diseases (diabetes, heart disease, cancer), individual financial debt, firearms owned per household, suicide rates and vehicles per household. Some of these are very telling as to why our citizens experience such unhappiness and stress. Statistics indicating physical and mental illness, including addiction rates, can be correlated directly to poverty, as can those such as incarceration rates, mass shootings and firearm ownership. As I said in the beginning, no society, no matter how well intended is perfect. Flaws inevitably are inherent due to human nature. In a country with the most powerful economy in the country and greatest collective wealth, some of these aforementioned social problems have solutions that can and should be practically addressed.
The Turn of the Screw
I mentioned that there hasn’t been a defining moment or event in American capitalism’s history that can indicate its role in determining catastrophic political or social events. Yet. We are now poised to bear witness of whether or not our system can be used as a means to bring relief to millions and provide the resources necessary to deal with catastrophe. Except this time it isn’t a war against evil forces, it is a conflict that has been created by humans themselves: climate change. Doing nothing could result in one of the worst moral crimes in history, allowing an elite class to shelter itself behind the walls of wealth and separation they have carefully constructed and guarded through purchased policy. In the early going, things do not look good. In 2016, the United States of America allowed one of our most elite, business biased citizens to assume the role of President. The result has been the typical conservative litany of relaxed regulation, tax code adjustment and policy making favoring businesses and industry that one would expect. However there is a decidedly more insidious side to President Trump’s bolstering of his corporate, wealthy constituents. As an overstated climate change denier, his policies have far more that weakened the country’s ability to approach the issue of adaptation that it must face in the next centuries to come. His policies have been a boon for carbon fuel exploration by reducing or eliminating penalties for emissions, slowed the development of alternative energy products, left millions of acres of public lands open for development, and has stripped departments such as the EPA and National Parks System of resources necessary to enforce, research and understand the way climate change is affecting the environment. The fossil fuel industry would surely like to see Mr. Trump in his position for at least another four years. Eventually another person will assume his role, but his Presidential term will be marked as one in which precious time was wasted to reduce our carbon footprint. Instead, a handful of crony capitalists focused on short term gains were given free reign to grab as much profit for themselves as they could. This constitutes exactly the type of behavior that not only exhibits the faults of capitalism, but places the well-being of an innumerable number of others at risk. In the least it exemplifies the corrupting influence of wealth on morals.
Climate change may be like a slowly spreading virus that can’t be measured in days or even months, but the runaway effects of disproportionate wealth are evident in many other forms. The United States leads the world in incarceration of its own citizens. This is aided in fact by the country’s aggressive drug laws and the mass proliferation of privately owned prison systems. This too has evolved into a market where the business elite has benefited from the strict policy changes of the 80’s “War on Drugs” which set the rules by which the laws conform the general population to higher rates of jail sentencing. The resulting sudden influx of inmates created by these drug policies exploded the demand for facilities within a decade. To ensure the billion dollar prison industry stays supplied with “product”, the private corporations running them spend millions per election year to ensure measures stay in place to keep their industry profitable for years to come. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this is that the commodification of prisoners reduces humans to goods, not unlike the way slavery treated individuals as property 100 years ago.
The medical system in the U.S. has long been maligned for its shortcomings. As the country’s population has grown, the system has faced many challenges to address treating patients as well as maintaining their for-profit approach. This isn’t to say that health advances haven’t improved the general quality of living or well-being of recipients, but crushing expense has too often been the result. Most at blame in this are pharmaceutical companies who are at the forefront of the lobby to fight FDA regulation. It took more than 10 years for Purdue Pharma, makers of OxyContin, to finally be taken to court after years of accusations concerning unnecessary prescriptions of the drug to patients and accounts of bribery on the company’s part to encourage distribution. This in the same period that the country has experienced the worst opioid epidemic in its history. Not only has this resulted in increased overdose and suicide rates, but the thousands of Americans it has sent into a spiral of bankruptcy, depression and sent to correctional facilities accounts for millions of hours of lost productivity and unnecessary suffering.
The End of Wealth
Capitalism has resulted in a high quality of life for societies around the world for centuries. It has assisted in the pursuit of happiness and freedom, inspired the arts and sciences and elevated the human spirit. However when it is allowed to be used unchecked the human nature of greed and vanity has often perverted it into narcissism, demagoguery or worse. Too often the case is that our race cannot be trusted with absolute power and in a capitalist society, wealth equates directly to power/authority. Our race should strive to do better; absolutism to a single philosophy is seldom the solution to any problem. The system of capitalism is no different. The 21st century is a crossroads of history that will witness technological advances never thought possible as well as an environmental threat unforeseen by most. How we handle both may determine the fate of generations of populations for decades or centuries. Indeed we may never attain the Utopian fictions of Moore or Roddenberry, but our race has risen from the oppression of the Middle Ages and worse. We owe it to ourselves to aspire to what defines the greatest qualities of humanity and this means that even a system such as Capitalism leaves room for improvement.