What if billionaires hold fast to bullion as ferociously as those of modest means cling to God and guns? Assuming history survives, what if it turns out America’s permanent legacy comes down to 1) adoration of money and 2) avarice for stuff? No longer the progress that lifts humankind, not heroic confrontations with earth-shaking (climate) challenges, nary a Congressional vote for the greatest good for the greatest number. Nah, instead, our image a century or two out would depress the Founders, displaced by a tiny elite grasping for the global wealth sweepstakes, an Illuminati lusting not for enlightenment but stock options.
At least Egyptian pharaohs (and their slaves) left the world awe-inspiring pyramids that outlive our noblest, oldest trees. Our now faded “beacon on the hill,” awash with talk of freedom, democracy and opportunity, glories now in spreading the gospel of consumerism worldwide — indeed, the worship of wealth for wealth’s sake. And until we explode this weapon of mass destruction, systemic reform of predatory capitalism will be hard going. Break down the false narrative, I say, then break open the system. After all, who but the deranged think materialism alone informs the good life? Is clinging to stuff now, or pie-in-the-sky later, what life is about? What happened to Proverbs: “where there is no vision, the people perish”?
Well, the richest aren’t perishing, nor backing off their self-serving fantasy: the greater their wealth, the greater the blessings to the “general welfare,” now promoted everywhere like corn flakes, iPhones and baloney. Too bad the numbers don’t add up, even less so as global population increases heat the planet. Not only can’t we sustain “every man a king” (thanks, Huey Long), we scoff at the earth’s carrying capacity, the ultimate “collective asset.” In fact, money obsessions addict with the force of drink or tobacco: sell your first business for billions, then rush for another grand prize you can’t spend. “How much is enough?” asks a terrific book by Robert and Edward Skidelsky, with this JM Keynes finale: “Once we allow ourselves to be disobedient to the test of an accountant’s profit, we have begun to change our civilization.” Imagine, economics not merely as crude Wall Street convenience but a “moral science.”
Justification by Wealth Alone
Obscene fortunes spread pandemic infections, conspicuously here via toxic “money as speech” across primary campaigns, thus election choices. Echoing the Calvinist fantasy about the favored elect, if today’s billionaires didn’t anoint great wealth as self-justifying, how could they defend their presumption to govern? Even without Calvinism, global tycoons assume election to special status, nothing less than “justification by wealth alone.” So much for acknowledging transparent “outside levers” like employee sweat equity, community infrastructure, technological wizardry, or fossil fuel-driven commerce, let alone WS pump-priming, cheap money, dismal regulations, and regressive taxation? Even the vagaries of good luck cut through “wealth by hard work and genius alone” patter.
To support this faux religion (and real cash), the top rung now purchase incredibly cheap insurance, even when combining costs for lobbyists and campaigns. In fact, the fabulous totals billionaires spend on influence-peddling fall short of ordinary sales taxes. If the infamous Sheldon Adelson tripled his estimated $100 million, election-year payola, that would still not equal 1% of his $32 billions. Were the craven Koch Bros. to multiply their palm-greasing, they’d still fall short of 5% of total fortunes. What mischief accrues from the other 95%? “Citizens United” divided the country but unified plutocratic kingpins, legalizing this “venture capital” to secure what’s “ours stays ours.” Thus, bad wealth distribution corrupts politics, ravages the landscape and assaults majority rule, reinforced by bad morality (the void that is “compassionate conservatism”) and bad religion (wealth is salvation). A trifecta of triumphalism.
Money Equals Wisdom, Too
Thus do robber barons inevitably reprise, if not modernize the divine right of kings, even if our plutocrats can’t directly lop off heads with impunity. You’d think in our advanced modern times the defenses for entitlement would have improved. But what bright sixth grader can’t demolish distortions of “wealth for wealth’s sake,” namely:
- Great wealth (and investment) are job-creators that lift all boats, with prosperity for all.
- Climate change, that ornery hoax, has zero linkage to burning forests or fossil fuels, drilling and fracking, mining and development, or farm and industrial pollution.
- Only talent, brilliance, and hard work justify why the 1% deserve all the treasures they amass.
And let’s not ignore the political offshoot: amassing a fortune magically elevates your public character and judgment above mere mortals (or fair elections). Money equals more than speech now but grants to tycoons the wisdom of ages, the conviction they know how to run everything. That’s also why “conflicts of interests” only apply to the infidels who dare interfere with the sacred free market. Thus government, when run not by plutocratic agents, steals from the rich only to give to the undeserving poor. Charles Dickens or George Bernard Shaw, where are you?
The Great Awakening?
All coherent, sustainable cultures, whether tribes or communities, gangs or families, temper the innate selfishness that jeopardizes the “general welfare.” When appetites run rampant, injustice and disorder loom. Even the infamous “law” of the jungle (might make right) co-exists with retaliation against heinous infractions. Thus the guillotine, thus deposing of barbaric tyrants, even revolution.
Will we ever reverse current inequality without disowning blatant commandments spouting growth for growth’s sake and thus wealth for wealth’s sake. One need not live like an indentured slave to insist no one family over time passes on more than, say, fifty or one hundred million dollars. If that much. The war cry against “too big too fail” parallels “too fat a wallet to inherit.” If that means indicting the love of money (plus how size, scale and leverage matter today), we will hardly be the first to inspire the pitchforks of equality against excesses of plutocracy.
In Northwest Coast native populations, regular “potlatches” (initiated by higher ups) reinforced community health by redistributing goods so no one starved, nor disrespected chiefs. In a sensible culture, when one group amasses disruptive wealth, there must be the rebalancing of communal redistribution. The wealthy now afford huge fortresses of all sorts, social, physical legal, and ideological (along with police power). Until we stigmatize wealth for wealth’s sake as a belief system anathema to America’s highest good, thick ruling class barricades will hold firm.
Here’s a Bold Idea: Tax the Rich
Fundamentalist blowhards like Mike Huckabee yammer on about “taking back this nation for Christ.” Fair enough if Christians honor Jesus. For the secular, let’s indict corrupt moneylenders, along with Paul Krugman, as “Wall Street Vampires.” Or address demolished democracy with FDR’s Four Freedoms. Pick your pitchfork. It ain’t rocket science. When enough folks on the right and the middle join the left to declare war on bloated plutocracy, that critical mass will disrupt the status quo. Compared to getting support for another Middle-East quagmire, organizing a mass confrontation against conspicuous consumption should be less daunting. Cross-cultural integration was the key, across income, religious, ethnic and regional lines, that powered America’s early populism and spawned the redemptive 20th C. Progressive Era.
When since the Pilgrims has the great Yankee battleground not set the gospel of rampant exploitation vs. humanistic and spiritual visions, signaled most dramatically by steady advances against racial, ethnic and sexual bigotry. In an era full of darkness, any prospect for reform depends on recalling our own progressive beacon, captured by Sam Pizzigati’s masterpiece, “The Rich Don’t Always Win.”
When do good Americans (even the religious) realize Mammon is eating their spiritual lunch, if not America’s legacy? Will the gospel of wealth continue to snooker too many people far too much of the time? The greatest positive today is the awesome clarity of inequality: not since the age of Robber Barons has the tension between abusive wealth and common good been more visibly dramatic. And that first demands shifting a monumentally false, national wealth narrative, then finding the political and legal leverage to put the breaks on a run-away train.