Eli Hans and Joseph Bennett, together known as the Sublime Guys, gave a talk at Sunday’s Unitarian Universalist Fellowship Service in San Miguel de Allende.
“After the passing of my father last month,” says Hans, “it became clear to our family that what truly matters in this lifetime is the legacy we leave inside people, not what we leave for them. What we can leave behind upon our departure from this world is what we impart in people’s hearts: joyful memories, acts of kindness, loving expression, and deep connection. Beyond material things, what truly lives on is the degree to which we allow ourselves to share love with others. Yet, it’s important to remember that love is something precious that we must first give to ourselves—not only in special circumstances, but as a way of life.”
Hans tells the story of how his father, Ben, used to say, “When confronted with a challenging decision, always ask yourself, what’s the most loving thing to do that will bring you the most peace of mind? It’s an act of love for yourself as well as others involved in the equation.”
Sunday’s talk explored the idea of living life from that perspective. The idea of living life by giving love to others and also to oneself is very attractive. It is an idea which is quasi-religious. But it raises the profound question of why our society focuses on grabbing wealth and power rather than giving love. After all, the United States supposes itself to be a Christian community. Such a community should focus on love rather than wealth and power. Shouldn’t it?
Richard Wolff, an economics professor, points out the problems with our present system throughout his work, but particularly in a Google talk “Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism.” He emphasizes the fact that American citizens believe that they are living in a democratic society. Yet they spend much of their time living and working in a corporate workplace, 39.2% of which belong to large or very large businesses. Such businesses are the antithesis of democratic institutions. Rather, they are controlled from the top down, with a very small number of people electing the board of directors, which determines all of the important decisions in the company.
This is why CEOs of very large American companies get remuneration far higher than the remuneration paid to the lowest paid workers. In 2018, pay for CEOs at S&P 500 companies rose to a median of $12 million, including salary, stock and other compensation. It would take 158 years for the typical worker at most big companies to make what their CEO did in 2018, seven years longer than if both were still at 2017 pay levels. If corporations were democratic, Wolffe points out, then the labor force would have a right to vote on important issues such as remuneration, as well as how the corporation is managed. That could well result in far different outcomes on these and other subjects.
Of course, in our capitalist system, the corporations are owned and controlled by a small group of wealthy stockholders. But Wolffe points out that there are successful corporations in which the workers have ownership. “Such ownership structures have already proven successful: About 17 million people, or 12% of the U.S. workforce, are employed at variations of worker-owned enterprises. These companies are not just small groups of artisans or craft workers. Agricultural cooperatives Land O’Lakes and Ocean Spray have become major players in dairy production and fruit farming, earning hundreds of millions in annual revenue. And some companies with employee majority-owned stock programs, such as Publix Super Markets and outerwear maker W.L. Gore and Associates, are leaders in their industries. The largest industrial federation of worker cooperatives in the world, Mondragon Corporation, is one of Spain’s top 10 multinationals, with about $13 billion in revenue from 105 cooperatives, and 75,000 employees stretching across Europe, Asia, South America, and the United States.”
One of the major social issues in the United States at this time is the egregious economic inequality, caused by the disparity inability to acquire wealth. When a large group of people are employed by a corporation and together generate income for that entity, but the upper management earns hundreds of times more than the lowest paid workers, it is immediately apparent that economic inequality will be a problem. This inequality compounds itself by leading to political corruption and other social issues. In the past, some of these problems were alleviated by laws such as the anti-trust laws. Such laws have been weakened over time. Similarly, the highest taxation of higher earners has dropped from over 90% in the 1940’s to about a third of that number, compounded by tax manipulation. Billionaire Warren Buffett, among others, has many times made the argument that he pays less in taxes than his own secretary because most of his income comes from gains in stock value rather than wages.
If one were try to imagine a successful economic system, without the issues of economic inequality and political corruption, and yet one not completely controlled by government, what would one do? My own view is that you would devise a society that focused on love between all members of the society and eliminated wealth as a measure of worth. This would be no simple task, but it could keep the major benefit of the capitalist society (innovation and competition as means of increasing production) while eliminating the bad parts of the system.
First, I would adopt some of the principles of worker-owned enterprises and apply them to all corporations. Voting in connection with the appointment of boards of directors would be done on the basis of one person, one vote, not on shares of stock. Inevitably, this would mean that the workers would control the management, not the other way around. Minimum worker compensation would be controlled by minimum wage laws, but at a level more consistent with the notion of at least $15 per hour minimum wage now being promoted. Compensation for management would be limited to (say) 8 times the pay of the lowest paid worker. This would prevent CEOs from grabbing huge parts of corporate earnings. If there were extra earnings, they could be put into raising worker salaries, or finding ways of improving the corporate product.
Government would continue to insure the safety of production methods, climate control, and the like. But the internal workings of the corporations (subject to a few changes) would continue to be independent.
If compensation were limited, what would happen if someone invented a new production method? Would he get huge income gains because of that? Under the system that I imagine, he would not. Instead, he would get love from the society: his invention would be named after him, and if possible his invention would display his name. There would be a celebration of all the inventions during the year, and his would be among them. If it were an important enough invention, it would be displayed in the National Invention Museum. For a really important invention, there would be a statue of him erected near where he lived.
The same would be true for CEOs. If the wages for the lowest paid workers in their company were limited to $15 per hour, then they would be limited to $120 per hour. But they might get perks of love. They could wear a medallion announcing their position. They, along with others so celebrated, would get special seating at theaters, on airplanes, and on subways. You get the idea. The society would not pay outrageous salaries to anyone. Instead, it would celebrate those whose hard work and initiation made the society better. There would be a small committee at the local level – elected by all of the people – who would decide annually who should be celebrated. And the celebrations would be FUN and really call attention to what those being celebrated had done.
All children would be fully educated at the society’s expense. And during their education, they would learn that being loved and celebrated by the society is the greatest honor that one can achieve in life. It isn’t the amount of money that one earns, but the recognition and attention that one gets for the things one does for others.
Second, what can one do about the outrageous wealth held currently by some people? I would suggest a very strong wealth tax, so that those with billions of dollars would find these stripped away and given to the society. But in doing so, we shouldn’t forget the need for love and recognition. If someone were taxed a billion dollars, in exchange some great building or monument would be named for him or her. Moreover, there would be a Billionaires Recognition Day, in which the names of those whose money had gone into the society would be remembered forever.
Third (and I have made no real decision on this), I think that we should really consider the politics of our society. First and foremost, campaign financing should be limited to money from the government, so that those with billions cannot buy the system from the rest of us. Second, we should consider whether we still want a separate Senate and Congress (with the number of senators having nothing to do with population). We should strongly consider a parliamentary system. Having two houses of Congress has delayed legislation in certain circumstances. We should eliminate all of the rules which make it harder for people to vote. (We should follow the rules in certain states that permit voting by mail). Third, while there is some sense in having a Supreme Court to determine if legislation is constitutional, the judiciary should not be a lifetime job. We might also follow the Canadian system, which permits the legislature to override the Court for a limited period of time (the “override” is effective for five years and then must be renewed). Or we should permit the voters to override the Court with a direct vote. There should be a provision for allowing all voters to express their opinions directly on important legislation.
Finally, with climate change staring us in the face, we should consider what can be done to limit (for example) fossil fuels and the beef industry to lower the amount of emissions into the atmosphere. Just a simple example: why do people travel hundreds if not thousands of miles to attend conferences when such meetings can be held effectively on the internet? Why do we drive automobiles with only a driver and no passengers when it would be easy enough to add passengers? These are the sort of questions that might be asked of the general population. We need to balance the risks of climate change against our desires for living. Who better than all of us to decide what to do? We love our society and we want its better aspects to continue beyond our lifetime.