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Politics and Capitalism — Truth and Virtue

Political discourse is thick in the air in the United States these days.  That the Republican Party candidates are insulting each other and trying to find some way to make themselves look like a winner, is not surprising.  That is what politicians do when running for office.  That is what it means to be the Opposition Party.  The rhetoric of politics for the Opposition must be to contradict the other party and in scrabbling for their own party nomination to make their competitors look bad.

Given this simple law of rhetoric, it seems to me absurd when commentators lambast politicians for “going negative.”  It is equally absurd when a candidate like Newt Gingrich (is his first name really Newton?) cry foul when his ex-wife exposes his non-traditional family values and some might say polygamous view of marriage.  “How dare the media get personal!”  Yet, the GOP has been getting personal with all citizens of our vast nation.  In the face of increasing diversity of cultures and religions withing the U.S.A., the Grand Old Party wages “culture warfare” to keep the nation Christian and uniform.   They are like the Tory’s of the nineteenth century: defending the rich and privileged “nobility” and the Established Church.

Not that there is anything wrong with that, as a political ideology.  Defending the way things used to be is a time-honored stance in politics.  It is a large part of what “Conservative” means.  Only fairly recently has conservativism had anything to do with balancing the Federal budget and reducing the national debt.  However, such rhetoric has long been a part of Populism — the appeal to the “common sense” and downhome values of the country folk.  The rhetorical turn that equates the running of a vast nation-state with running a family home is a key example.  Possibly there is some similarity — enough to make the metaphor hold up instinctively.  In other words, it appeals to a very simple kind of common sense:  Common sense that is founded on ignorance of the complexity of the world and our govermental system.  Yet, when you think about it more deepy, the metaphor is really nothing more than populist rhetoric.  A similar metaphor would be to claim that running the International Space Station is like running a rural or middle-class urban household.  With the possible exception of Bill and Linda Gates’s house, most houses and most families bear very little resemblance to the complex and vast structure that is the International Space Station and its administration.

The same thing is true with the Federal government.  To say that the United States Federal Government has to balance its budget just like every good American balances his or her household budget is a false analogy.  It appeals to the ignorant (which, admittedly is most of us) because it makes “sense” out of something incomprehensible.  The rhetoric is also disingenuous because very few of the people at the center of the GOP are simple country folk.  They take money from simple country folk (and simple city folk), but most of the party’s operation revolves around giant corporations, their owners, and stockholders.  For that core audience, the analogy that would be more appropriate to their understanding of the world is the analogy that the Federal Government is like a giant corporation.  It must turn a profit.

Oh, but wait.  Hmmmm.  We are talking about capitalism, of course.  That is the only idea of economics and corporate culture thinkable to the GOP.  And capitalism is founded on borrowing capital to start and to expand one’s business.

The Corporation Analogy and the Bloated Giant Metaphor

The free-market capitalist-competition economic system has driven practically all of the industries we associate with civilization.  It has been a successful model on the whole for the United States.  But running a corporation is also not much like running a government.  The analogy of “balancing the budget” gives over to that of “CEO=LEADERSHIP” but, again, it is false, however appealing.  There is some similarity between a CEO and a President of the United States: both have to have skill as leaders and the ability to pick their middle managers to make sure they are trustworthy and competent.  Both have to delegate their power.  Both have to take responsibility for any unforseen negative consequences of their actions.

But again, as with the “government=household” analogy, the difference in scale makes the comparison pretty much empty rhetoric.  GOP pundits and candidates scoff at President Obama, saying the only thing he ever ran was a non-profit organization.  Small potatoes compared to a big corporation.  Maybe, but both of them are small potatoes compared to the government of the United States.  Small business, non-profit organization, corporation making millions — these are all an order of magnitude below governing a country so vast as the United States.  And too, the job skills of a CEO are not going to apply to the job skills required of a President.  The job is far bigger and more complex.

There is also the “bloated government” image. This plays on people’s emotions and fears of things that are too much bigger than themselves to understand.  Some voters wish that they could understand the Federal goverment, and so want to cut it down to size.  The “bloated” image conjures up some gigantic glutton, or a dead whale on a beach. It is a rather vague metaphor, but nobody will respond to the word “bloated” with a positive emotional response.  There may be some appeal to childhood memories of being small and at the mercy of adults in the phrase “Big Government.”  Even in a culture where under every other circumstance Bigger is Better, for some reason the GOP can use bigness in a negative way when connected to “government.”   The logic comes from an implied enmity.  The “government” is somebody foreign, a big, scary Other.  It is trying to control you and take away your hard earned money to feed its gluttony.  It is like the giant in Jack and the Beanstalk, and our good old political candidate is like Jack the Giant Killer.  He’s going to save you from the big bloated giant.

The reality is that there is no other job on Earth like being President of the United States.  I suppose the only remotely reasonable claim a candidate could make to having demonstrated the necessary leadership skills would be if he had been president of another country.   A successful president.  That is constitutionally forbidden.  The next best thing, in most cultures is if a candidate was a high-ranking general.  Surprisingly few generals (and even fewer admirals) get involved in American politics.  Strange.  Or maybe it is the same reason professors usually avoid politics — they are too wise and too wary.

I doubt that anyone knows what it is like to be the American President until they get into the oval office.  Some past presidents clearly did not understand what they were getting themselves into and could not hold the reigns of a team of horses so large and powerful.  No, even the team of horses metaphor doesn’t wash.  The government of the richest nation on Earth and the one whose every move is scrutinized by the rest of the world and by watchdog organizations within our own country, is a quantum level of complexity beyond any corporation.

You Get What You Pay For

Governments, like giant corporations can borrow capital to make their ventures work.  But that is the end of the similarity with capatalist enterprise, for a government is in control of many aspects of the economy itself; its revenue comes from taxation, not from customers buying products in a free market.  People born in the United States, or who are made citizens take on the obligation to pay taxes, to share part of their own revenue with the Federal government, so that it can do what it does.  The same citizens are given the power to vote for elected representatives who, in theory, will convey their desires to the government.  Put another way, citizen-customers are required to donate part of their revenue to the corporation that provides the products which the citizen-customers are then given.  It is as if each citizen is buying services from the government.

We pay for the services of a justice system, a vast  complex of armed forces, regulation and policing of all manner of crimes, and many types of behavior that have been deemed destructive to the nation as a whole (polluting water, air, and land for instance, or exterminating species of plants and animals). We pay for the services of a commerce department and interior department that help encourage and foster the rational growth of commerce, industry, and wise use of land resources.   We pay for the services of an education department that is supposed to help maintain and improve our system of public schools, a profoundly important right of American citizens.  And, we pay for the services of a legal system that makes the laws under which we are governed and by which we are to govern ourselves as citizens.  Legislation by the people, for the people is the very cor of the American Experiment.  It was a new idea in 1776  and it is still an evolving idea.  It has been competing with the idea of dictators since it was conceived.

So, the Federal government is not like a giant corporation.  It produces a far more diverse menu of services and no “goods.”  If one were to compare it to a corporation (and the President to a CEO of a corporation), it would have to be one that produced services — like a law firm, an insurance agency, a security company, a printing office, a library, a shipping service.  I know that some within the GOP would like to see the Federal government stop providing some of its services.  Since the whole thing began in the time of Washington and Jefferson, American citizens have been arguing over whether the Federal government should provide any services other than maintaining a national standing army and navy (air force wasn’t an option then).  We have debated passionately for every one of the services we buy from the Federal government, from a central bank to a justice system that protects civil and human rights.

The fact is that the Federal government is the United States of America.  Without it, we would be a collection of separate states, or more likely part of someone else’s empire.  The structure of States as we know it would have never existed beyond the Mississippi, and maybe not even that far.  Indeed, if it were not for our  Federal Government under Jefferson, we could not have made the “Louisiana Purchase” or seized  imperial properties of the Spanish Empire, such as California.  Nor would we have railroads and most of the great works of American industry, which were supported and subsidized by Federal grants of land and tariffs.  Without the Federal government and its power, America would not be  No. 1 in anyone’s list of great powers.

The rhetoric of the political “right” in our country mainly works to support the idea of free enterprise and the rights of corporations to carry on making things, providing services, create jobs, and turn a profit.  We need that, and those services of the Federal government that support commerce and industry.  But that is not all we need.  The “left” in this country has, at least since the 1960’s lobbied for the Federal government to provide some of the services that were previously left up to religious institutions, such as providing food for the poor and making sure no American citizen is left behind on the roadside to suffer and die from negligence.  The GOP sometimes suggests this is too much, that charity should not be the job of the Federal government.  Yet, in a nation with freedom of religion, it is hardly logical to expect every citizen to be able to call upon the help of a church.  Moreover, churches are not rich.  They lack the resources to help all who are in need.  Indeed, they cannot help in the most fundamental way — that of providing housing for the old and jobs for the unemployed.  If the Federal government is not going to help the poor, then logically American corporations should do so, not churches and non-profit groups.

Moral Evolution, Anyone?

Apart from the possibility of a Scroogelike transformation of corporate culture, the outlook for such a revolution in the behavior of our barons of industry seems bleak.  We do see corporations developing programs to connect them better to the community in which they operate their business, so it isn’t impossible.  What needs to happen is that capitalist commercial entities will have to start behaving like good neighbors.  In the early days of capitalism, the owners of mills occupied a paternalistic role in relation to their workers and even built towns to house them.  Unfortunately, the profit motive made the lives of the children of such paters very bleak.  They were bad fathers, primarily interested in their own comfort at the expense of their children, and would not hesitate to throw their children out into the snow bank if papa did not need them anymore.

Yet, we do evolve morally as a people.  Slowly across the generations attitudes have changed.  The Paternalism of corporations did not work in the past, but that does not mean it could not work in the future.  However, that wasn’t how the United States was built.  It has evolved over the past century that government agencies provide the services of a good father (or try to do so).  Some American citizens, for some reason I cannot fathom, do not want their money to go to help the poor, to educate them, or to train them to join the Workforce, as we call it. We evolve morally as a people, seeking those great virtues of brotherly love, generosity to the poor, forgiveness, and service to others.  We evolve as a people, but that does not every individual among us is equally evolved.

Perhaps it is not surprising that those with the narrowest and most pinched sense of generosity to their fellow citizens, those least evolved spiritually, deny the reality of the theory of evolution.  I am not sure how we become more evolved unless it is by parents educating their children into new ideas, new knowledge, and encouraging them morally and spiritually to inculcate in themselves those virtues cherished in our society.  Does an enlightened attitude of virtue have any survival value?  Not much, perhaps.  Physical strength and violence still rule our moral world.  But in the long view of time, we can see that this has changed.  Perhaps there is more violence now than one hundred years ago.  I do not know.  But there is also more generosity, caring for others, imagining far beyond one’s own family and immediate friends, for the practice of relief.  Indeed, even beyond our own species.

We might as well ask whether the ability to understand rhetoric has any survival value.  It is hard to imagine it does on the level of individuals.  On the level of groups, however, we might be able to see that being able to see through the silly rhetorical turns of politicians (or anyone else) can prevent us from losing our freedoms.  Whenever you let someone pull the wool over your eyes with the rhetoric of politics and self-interest, you give away your freedom:  your freedom to know the truth.

Truth or Bloviation?

Mitch Romney in his campaign has been tossing out criticism of the president. He says that President Obama’s polities have made our economic woes worse over the past four years.  This is not a metaphor, but an emotional appeal to those unsophisticated enough to understand what is going on; an emotional appeal masquerading as a statement of fact.  It is an unsupported claim that implicitly makes a causal link between the policies of President Obama and the economic situation over the past four years.  It pains me to think there are really American citizens who believe such unwarranted claims.  Not only unwarranted, but impossible to prove. How does Mr. Romney imagine he would explain the details supporting his statement?  How will he (or anyone) show that the economic crisis that has gripped the Western World would have been handled better by a laissez-faire capitalist president?  It is purely hypothetical and does not even pass the “common sense” test.

The current unemployment levels and recession were caused by the near collapse of our banking system.  It was for different reasons, but it bears some similarity to the Wall Street collapse that set off the Great Depression which lasted for over a decade in the first part of the Twentieth Century.  There was fear among economists that another Great Depression was about to happen, and the leaders of the world followed modern economic theory using the power of the government purse to give the dying economy a transfusion of life-giving cash.  The move has been criticized, and is very probably flawed, but if the patient has stabilized and is still conscious, that is a fairly good outcome.  Recovery in our economy is a matter of healing.  The body economic will take time to heal from the heart attack given to it by a few greedy, immoral, and ultimately foolish men.

Whenever our Federal or State governments have turned a blind eye to racketeering of any sort, the country has suffered.  The Bernard Madoffs among us are nothing but racketeers, stealing other people’s money and, in this case, risking the collapse of the whole banking industry.  The crisis and the panicked attempts to bail out the ship happened under President G.W. Bush, not under President Obama.  Our president for the past nearly four years has been dealing with crisis after crisis — all because of policies of the Bush administration and the GOP.  And then the GOP has the gall to turn around and blame President Obama.  “The country has just gotten worse” says Mr. Romney.  Yes, unemployment increased after the crisis, but it was not caused by the current president’s policies.  If Mr. Romney can demonstrate how he would have done things differently to have created more jobs in a market that had closed in on itself like a hermit crab into its shell, then he could make such statements.  But he cannot.  Why?  Because the policies of lassez faire capitalism and free trade are no good in a crisis.  They have often caused crises, bubbles, boom and bust — but they work slowly and fending off unemployment when corporations and businesses are retreating and retrenching is not something good old capitalism can do.

The fact has been demonstrated again and again through the Twentieth Century, as governments have struggled to figure out how to make the system work without chewing up its own citizens and treating them like dirt.  The moral premises of capitalism do not include treating workers as human beings.  The fundamental guiding virtue of Western business is making more money for its owners.  There is no economic theory that would encourage justice, freedom, kindness, or temperance.  This is why we so commonly find powerful men (and women) in the news for having violated our culture’s code of common decency.  They take bribes, they steal, they commit marital infidelity and become addicted to sex, drugs, money, and power.  I don’t blame them.  They are only men, after all.  My point is that free market capitalism has no interest in such virtues as might have prevented those vices.  Put simply, it has no use for the Ten Commandments.

Viciousness and Masculinity in Business

So, in the United States and in many of the countries of Europe, attempts have been made to reduce the viciousness of free-market culture.  Everyone can appreciate its beneficent effects. Everyone dreams of being rich.  But democratic governments have sought a higher moral ground.  The Conservatives give that high moral code lip service, but they do everything they can to disguise the fundamental conflict between the profit motive and other virtues.  Our economic system promotes one of the seven holy virtues:  Industry or Dilligence (the opposite of the vice of Sloth or Acedia).

The others?  Let’s see.  Does our economic model encourage Chastity?  In its broader sense, Chastity is interpreted as more than just sexual restraint; it means dedication to the life of the mind and spirit rather than carnal desires.  One source also says Chastity includes the “ability to refrain from being distracted and influenced by hostility, temptation or corruption.”(1)  Does our system promote the opposite vice: Lust and Luxury?  Yes.

What about Temperance (self-control, restraint) versus Gluttony (taking more than your share and more than you need)?  Well, being a business man might required some delayed gratification, but the more succeessful you are within the system, the more instant and excessive self-gratification becomes a temptation.

I won’t even comment on Charity versus Greed.  Far from promoting Charity, our economic system promotes its opposite: the love of money.

Let’s try Kindness versus Envy.  Hmmm.  No, seems to be on the vice side of that one too.

Humility versus Pride?  No, definitely not Humility.

Patience versus  Wrath?.  Every businessman must exercise patience to succeed.  Unfortunately, exercising wrath often is more common.  Yelling at your workers, firing people for mistakes, getting even with your enemies.  The concept of competition in which two businesses try to kill each other off, metaphorically speaking, implicitly tell us that wrath is OK.  Our cultural ideas of masculinity are also at fault here, where being patient and taking any sort of abuse is seen as unmanly.  Our icons of maleness pretty much all can fight with their fists and know how to use a gun.  Look at any Western.  (A good recent example of the image is Daniel Craig in Cowboys versus Aliens)

And that image of the tough (indestructible) macho man is also a rhetorical device.  Oh, no doubt it has its biological roots in testosterone but it is endlessly elaborated in fantasies on television and in movies, and in popular literature.  Intellectual literature usually tears apart this image of male power, but popular culture is in love with it.  Pop psychologist of sex and dating gurus will tell you that girls love “bad boys.”  Meaning men who are tough and good with their fists — dominant alpha male types in the world of primates.  All of which is part of the culture of competition.  Does our economy create the images of masculinity?  Or has the machismo created capitalist competition.  Can you have capitalism without the machismo?

The one thing you can say about Newt Gingrich is that he forthrightly stands for all the vices of capitalist culture.  Lust, greed, corruption, intemperance, excess, rhetorical control of his fellow citizens who become for him only an audience.  He would be more convincing if he was less bloated.  But when Newt says that the number one job of the Republican Party is “defeating Barack Obama,” he is at least being honest.  Political parties, and for some reason especially conservative-thinking parties, only want to defeat their opposition.  Whoever is out villifies whoever is in.  The Democrats accused George Bush of turning the presidency into a dictatorship.  The Republicans accuse Barack Obama of being a socialist (veiled code for Commie Pinko).  There is another subtext, of course: the hatred on the part of many U. S. citizens towards a man of African-American descent living in the White House.  We should not underestimate this unspoken subtext.  It is a mark of our evolution as a society that Mr. Obama was elected, and it is a further sign of evolution that the White Opposition no longer feels safe coming out and saying what they think: that Black Men are trying to take over and get revenge against White Men.  Probably plotting to steal our women too.  Underlying all this empty rhetoric and all the manipulative emotional appeals, is American machismo, feeling inadequate and threatened, needing to puff itself up with sexual escapades and trumped-up fears that “Black Men” have more sexual prowess than they do.

For, we will find that those who use rhetoric to inspire fear and animosity in their followers are motivated at the deepest levels by their own fears.  And if there is one thing I do not want in a President of the United States it is a person motivated by fears of male inadequacy.  I understand those fears and am quite convinced that they make a very bad basis for action and will never be a power that will lead a man to virtuous strength.




Works cited

(1)  “Seven Virtues” Wikipedia article. Accessed 1/23/2012.

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