Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Revisiting Alexis de Toqueville's prescient prediction

There are some rather obvious, if not blatant, displays of new money popping up across the United States, that seem to signal an underlying national motivation and culture. Success is measured, in the American context, in numbers of dollars amassed, whether or not that amassing stretches the limits of ethics and law. The popular culture elevates those who achieve great wealth legitimately to the highest pedestal inside national boundaries. Those whose lives transgress legal limits, from a historical perspective, find their elevation in the entertainment world of television and/or movies and generate even more loot for writers, actors and producers as anti-heroes. American children grow up knowing, without having to be told, that financial success is revered by all, even churches espouse a “prosperity gospel’ (think Joel Olsteen).

By and large it seems the people have forgotten, or never integrated, such cautions as Henry Ford’s, a business that is concerned only with making money is not a good business, and the presidents of both Harvard and Yale who wrote to then Ford President Iacocca when he asked them both back in 1986 why he could not attract the best graduates into the auto sector. All the top students were stampeding to Wall street to amass their personal fortunes in the financial sector. The university presidents replied separately, “We have been teaching the wrong things to our students.”
Forbes perpetually publishes lists of the nation’s top billionaires, after decades of focusing on mere millionaires. Universities, rather than expand their liberal arts curricular offerings, have succumbed to becoming the “technical training” institutes that the business sector demands. Under the operating principle that the more forehead “brandings” from elite universities they have in their talent stable, the more likely they will be to attract the most affluent clients, both as individuals and as corporations, businesses offer signing bonuses to their best prospects in the same manner that professional sports teams offer contracts to their best prospects. Just this week, James Harden of the Houston Rockets NBA team signed a contract extension of four years for a reported $170 million. The Toronto Raptors’ Kyle Lowry also recently signed a three-year contract for $100 million.

People like Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates, two of the wealthiest among American people are considered social and cultural thought leaders, especially following their agreement to donate a minimum of 50% of their estates to “worthy causes”. And it is also true that wealthy American people are among the most philanthropic individuals in the world. David Rubenstein, for example, spends much of his wealth purchasing and then displaying original documents from history for people to witness first hand, in the reasonable conviction that a personal experience with those documents, like the Magna Carta and the U.S. Constitution, will stimulate greater interest and further investigation of those documents and the people who created them.

Performance, in the American landscape, even in churches, is measured by the number of dollars of growth in the operating budget and in the gross numbers in the investment account. The concept of “ministry” (here defined as spiritual growth, retreats, relationship and community building, restorative justice, reconciliation and social activism) is relegated to a much lower rung on the corporate “values” ladder than the collection of money, presumably in the belief and conviction that effective programs, products  and services will automatically lead to significantly enhanced cash flow. To state the obvious, the for-profit corporation is the cornerstone of the American economy, including the start-ups, all of which envision becoming “big” and successful just like the many models they emulate.

Individual human “freedom” is intimately linked to the “opportunity” for every American to “make it big” through the achievement of success and the wealth that accompanies the recognition of success in the arts, athletics, science and business. Every thing, and every human person has a “stock price” and is available to the right buyer for the right price. Horses, bulls, calves, sheep, rocks with minerals, water, fossil fuels, and every single working function (and the function takes precedence over the person)… they are all regarded as “raw material” in the pursuit of profit. From the circus-barking Barnum and Bailey, to the professional boxing promoters like Don King, to the theatrical archetypes like Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” selling techniques, salesmanship, promotion, self-promotion….these are the common national traits and skills that support all for-profit (and not-for-profit) ventures. And stories abound that demonstrate the collaboration of wealth with original art, without which money, many artists and their work would have died in obscurity. The endorsement of those with money, as if their money qualified them as legitimate critics of their favoured artists, elevates both the art and the artist to public consciousness, in the same way that an agent for an athlete or actor negotiates the most lucrative contract for his/her client.

In 2013, Amazon owner/operator Steve Bezos purchased, for $250 million the Washington Post, one of the most influential dailies in the country. Far-sighted, excessively entrepreneurial, and willing to risk everything on the originally envisioned internet supported radical shift in consumer behaviour, through on-line retail, Bezos has  through Amazon, amassed such wealth that for a while he held the levers of power and authority of the capital’s most read newspaper. Fortunately, for the writers and editors of the paper, he has kept Amazon and his personal “hands” off the newspaper, mostly letting it continue in the tradition established by the previous owner, Don Graham. It is now owned by Nash Holdings.

Former president George W. Bush, a member of another wealthy family, once had an ownership stake in the Houston Astros baseball team. Wealth gravitates to new agents either to make more money or to find tax havens to save on taxes.

Not so long ago, the Supreme Court decided that there would be no limits on campaign spending, unleashing a torrent of hard cash from the most wealthy quarters, both individual and corporate, into the political arena. After all, they argued, money is “free speech” in the political arena, just as time is money in the corporate world. This blog space has been crammed with protests against that move, on the strength of the argument that unlimited cash distorts the playing field against ordinary people in favour of those who write the cheques. So, people like the Koch brothers, who adamantly oppose environmental regulations, are effectively permitted to block any and all attempts at such regulations (except those permitted by executive order under Obama, most of which have now been erased by the current president). These wealthy people are also able and willing to fund the campaigns of candidates who agree to represent their respective interests in the Congress, or less obviously in state legislatures and in governors’ mansions.

Given the “natural” equation of “wealth with meaning, purpose and the highest ideals of the nation, endorsed by none other than the Supreme Court, how could anyone really object to the cultural trajectory outlined above. Certainly, those without enough money to counter the corporate influence that has effectively taken over both national political parties and their representatives (with the possible exception of a very few independents like Senator Bernie Sanders) can only rely on mass street protests, town halls, letters to the editors of local and national papers, to make their “public interest” agenda heard.

Even then, the voices, while garnering television cameras and news reports of their size, rarely have an impact on legislation. In fact, today with only 12% of American people supporting the Republican health care bill that will strip some 22 million people of their health insurance, the bill is still being pursued vigorously by Majority Leader in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, apparently deaf to the public opinion and public interest. Public money is bribing voters into believing that this bill is indeed a health care bill when, in reality, everyone knows it is a tax bill cutting the taxes of the rich with the $800 million cuts to Medicare.

Effectively, McConnell and his cohorts are bribing the American public with their own money, given the inescapable fact that it is American money that pays their salaries, their staff and all of their many expense accounts. George W. Bush did the same thing, bribing the American people with their own money, when he waged the 2003 war on Iraq, without a foundational cause of truth and imminent threat to the nation, to support the action. Proposing a $54 billion increase in the Pentagon budget, the White House is also attempting to bribe the American people, while simultaneously gutting  foreign aid, and selling billions of dollars of arms to “friends” like Saudi Arabia and Poland, as “job creation” projects for American workers.

It is time to evoke a treasured American visitor from France whose insight might put pause to some of the blatant and unabashed bribery that has become “de rigour” in the American political system.

The American republic will endure until the Congress finds it can bribe the public with the public’s money. (Alexis de Toqueville)

It would seem that time has come.

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