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Stephen A. Jones

Stephen A. Jones

Connecting the Dots

September 7, 2012

The madness and the histrionics of this year’s political discourse have prompted me, increasingly, to just turn it off.

Mainly that means turning off the TV, which feeds the insanity. Its merciless 24-7 news cycle demands something new every moment –even if the only way to meet that demand is to chatter endlessly about trivia.

I still follow politics. It is just that I’ve found that tuning out some of the noise enables me to be more cognizant of little nuggets of useful information that would otherwise get lost in the cacophony. Sometimes, if you can find the right dots to connect, the big picture starts to make more sense.

Take, for example, Mitt Romney’s penchant for verbal gaffes –which played so prominently in coverage of his trip to Europe and the Middle East. One of his least-covered misstatements on that trip was the one I thought most revealing: Romney’s misrepresentation of Jared Diamond’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1997 book, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies.

In seeking to explain the huge gap in economic development between Israelis and Palestinians, Romney summarized Diamond’s argument as saying that “the physical characteristics of the land account for the differences in the success of the people that live there” and that “culture makes all the difference.”

Diamond was so taken aback by Romney’s misrepresentation of his work that he wrote a piece for the New York Times pointing out that his book actually was an examination of the advantages –in plant and animal species and in the size and shape of the land mass– that made it much more likely that rich and powerful societies would arise in Europe and Asia rather than elsewhere in the world.

The great European empires of the last five hundred years and their descendants in the United States and elsewhere have been the beneficiaries of those biological and geographical advantages that gave them an edge 13,000 years ago, when the world emerged from the last ice age and all humans were hunter-gatherers.

That is not to say that culture is insignificant –far from it. It only means that some people in some places had a head start in developing agriculture, which let them create the essential attributes of complex societies: centralized government, armies, writing and metal tools –in short, the culture that is at the root of modern wealth and power.

It is a worthwhile lesson to keep in mind when we consider the roots of poverty and economic underdevelopment abroad –or at home, for that matter. Some folks had a head start and the advantage compounds over time, in addition to what is gained by talent, persistence and hard work.

Now, one of the most influential products of Western European culture has been the ideology of capitalism. It accelerated the accumulation of wealth and power and has rooted itself so deeply in our thinking as to become –like religion– a matter of faith. For many, it is their religion and to question it is apostasy.

That is why Romney so avidly touts his Wall Street experience at Bain Capital. The logic of the faith is simple: who better than a successful capitalist to run a capitalist nation? Many accept that without question.

It is important, though, to distinguish between capitalism as an economic system and capitalism as an ideology. Capitalism as an economic system is simply a method for organizing the resources to produce goods and services.

Capitalism as an ideology, however, asserts that profit is the only value worthy of consideration. Profit takes precedence over everything else. But there is a problem with that ideology: it favors profits over people.

Large corporations (we’re not talking small businesses here) are essentially just machines for consolidating wealth. Once consolidated, that wealth can be (and is) used to influence the political system to help corporations accumulate still more wealth –regardless of whether that benefits the average citizen.

If you question that point, look around for some of the reporting that has been done on the impact of the Citizens United ruling by the Supreme Court and the vast sums being spent by super-pacs to support candidates who favor lower taxes on the wealthy and corporations even if it means that everyone else’s taxes will go up.

Let’s bring in another dot to connect: a new book by Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco – Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt. Hedges, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, and Sacco, an award-winning cartoonist and journalist, spent the last two years working to illustrate the reality of life in what they call “the sacrifice zones.” Those are places “where the marketplace rules without constraints, where human beings and the natural world are used and then discarded to maximize earnings.”

Hedges and Sacco visited communities in South Dakota, New Jersey, West Virginia, Florida and New York City. The reality they present in the book will look very familiar to anyone who has spent any time in Detroit. Or Flint. Or Saginaw. Or Lansing. It is not a pretty picture because, Hedges and Sacco argue, “Corporations are disemboweling every last social service program funded by the taxpayers, from education to Social Security, because they want that money themselves.”

If you want to see how that works, just look at Highland Park, where school officials have decided to turn over their schools to a for-profit charter school company. A community that was sucked dry and trashed by corporations now is so poor it must turn its schools over a company so it can extract more profit. I understand that the schools are in serious trouble but is this really the answer –to transform our children into a profit generator for some corporation?

Does no one else find that concept morally repugnant?

Is everything to be sold to the highest bidder?

Is there to be no essential function of community?

That is not what founders fought a revolution for.

That is the big picture of what is at stake in this election. Both Democrats and Republicans have been complicit in the selling out of America to corporate power. It will take thoughtful, civic-minded and determined leaders of both parties to bring us back from that abyss.

And it will take thoughtful, civic-minded and determined voters to make them face up to the task.

Stephen A. Jones is a Detroit resident and assistant professor of History at Central Michigan University. He is co-editor with Eric Freedman of African Americans in Congress: A Documentary History (Congressional Quarterly Press).

September 6, 2012 · Filed under Detroit Prospect Tags: , , ,

6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Jarrett Skorup // Sep 7, 2012 at 12:23 pm

    A ridiculous post from top to bottom, but we’ll zero in on two parts:

    If environment is so important, as the author and Jared Diamond propose, how do you explain a country like China, that went from very rich, to very poor and back again – sometimes within a few generations.

    Also, the CIA factbook says South Korea has a GDP per capita of about $30,000 per year vs. under $2,000 per year for North Korea. They have the exact same climate and people group – why is one better off than the other?

    Next: “Capitalism as an ideology, however, asserts that profit is the only value worthy of consideration. Profit takes precedence over everything else. But there is a problem with that ideology: it favors profits over people.”

    Yes…because Socialism favors…what exactly? People?

    Collectivism favors politicians and centralized government making the decisions for people. And when they don’t go along with it, they are killed.

    As the economist Milton Friedman once said,

    “Well first of all tell me is there some society you know that doesn’t run on Greed? You think Russia doesn’t run on greed? You think China doesn’t run on greed? What is greed? Of course none of us are greedy, it’s only the other fellow who is greedy. The world runs on individuals pursuing their separate interests.

    “The great achievements of civilization have not come from government bureaus. Einstein didn’t construct his theory under order from a bureaucrat. Henry Ford didn’t revolutionize the automobile industry that way.

    “In the only cases in which the masses have escaped from the kind of grinding poverty you’re talking about – the only cases in recorded history – are where they have had capitalism and largely free trade.

    “If you want to know where the masses are worst off, it’s exactly in the kinds of societies that depart from that. So that the record of history is absolutely crystal clear that there is no alternative way so far discovered of improving the lot of the ordinary people that can hold a candle to the productive activities that are unleashed by a free enterprise system.”

  • 2 Jarrett Skorup // Sep 7, 2012 at 12:29 pm

    OK, one more for kicks:

    “If you want to see how that works, just look at Highland Park, where school officials have decided to turn over their schools to a for-profit charter school company. A community that was sucked dry and trashed by corporations now is so poor it must turn its schools over a company so it can extract more profit.”

    Highland Park was receiving almost $16K per student while spending nearly $20K per student. In the meantime, parents were pulling their children out of the district and fleeing because of how poor the education was.

    Profit is good. That is what incentivizes businesses to perform. If you don’t perform, you don’t get money. That is what leads to innovation and it is why the more “capitalist” a country is, the more wealth and innovation it possesses.

  • 3 Art Myatt // Sep 7, 2012 at 3:13 pm

    I more or less agree. However, I think it will take a substantial number of people willing to vote against both parties to begin a process of taking back power from the corporations.

  • 4 Scott Edick // Sep 16, 2012 at 2:27 pm

    While I strongly favor capitalist democracy, it is essential we recognize that capitalism and democracy are two very different things. In simplest terms, democracy is a system in which one /person/ gets one vote, where capitalism is a system in which one /dollar/ gets one vote. Clearly then, the tension between capitalism and democracy increases with disparity in wealth and opportunity.

    To make a capitalist democracy successful requires striking the right balance between the two. To insist on direct democracy in its purest, strictest form in a nation as large as ours would grind our economy to a halt. Conversely, insistence that capitalist principles be unfettered, in matters social as well as economic, allows the wealthy to continue tilting the playing field ever more in their favor until all wealth is in a few pockets and the notion of equal treatment under the law is little more than a cruel joke.

    Recent decades have seen us move far down the latter path. Corporations are considered people, and money is given the constitutionally protected status of political speech. Greedy bankers nearly collapse the economy and, rather than being punished for their excesses, they are bailed out via further sacrifices from their victims.

    Those still spouting Friedman after the meltdown may choose to believe otherwise, but it is clear the professor’s point is not that we should push back against capitalism toward socialism, it is that we should push back towards democracy.

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