Democracy, socialism, capitalism, neo-liberalism -- none of them do justice to who we are and where we're headed. Socialism left the planet several decades ago, except in the minds of Fox News pundits. We're not sure what capitalism really is anymore, now that we've bailed out the entire financial sector. Neo-liberalism is so passé, as major governments around the world intervene to halt the financial collapse. And democracy is still with us, we hope, but we wonder for how long as our politicians and policies seem so easily bought and sold.
Perhaps we need a new vocabulary, one that helps us describe a society that promotes the accumulation of vast riches, bails out the rich when they take too many chances, and avoids responsibility for the common good. Even Milton Friedman would have trouble calling that capitalism.
How about the Billionaire Bailout Society?
Here are its salient features:
1. We promote accumulation of vast fortunes without limits.
2. We shun progressive income taxes that could narrow the gap.
3. We keep most of finance deregulated even after it has collapsed so spectacularly.
4. We let the minimum wage atrophy.
5. We discourage unionization.
6. We let middle class jobs disappear.
7. We allow a revolving door between public office and high paying private sector jobs.
8. We let our public infrastructure deteriorate.
9. We belittle government and public service.
10. We promote private gain as the best way to promote the common good.
11. We force our children to pile up debt in order to get an education.
12. We live with a porous safety net.
13. We encourage health care to be a profit maximizing enterprise.
14. We allow institutions to become too big to fail.
15. We bail out the largest financial institutions when they do fail, even if that means transferring trillions to Wall Street.
16. We allow Wall Street to use its bailout money to lobby against the public interest.
17. We let Wall Street keep its bailout-created "profits" and bonuses.
18. We have no clue if the financial sector provides any real value to our economy.
19. We permit financial hucksters to buy up solid companies, load them up with debt, take the cash, and then drive them into the ground.
20. We bad-mouth as protectionist all efforts to keep jobs in this country.
21. We don't have any serious plan for returning to a full-employment economy.
22. We live in awe of billionaires.
Of course, it takes a billionaire to help us understand how the billionaire bailout society really works. Here's what George Soros said recently about Wall Street's latest profit binge:
"Those earnings are not the achievement of risk-takers. These are gifts, hidden gifts, from the government, so I don't think that those monies should be used to pay bonuses. There's a resentment which I think is justified." (Reuters)
Yes, there's resentment, but most of the action has come from the tea-baggers who are the foot soldiers for our new social order. Although the vast majority of Americans are upset about the financial casino, the bailouts and the loss of jobs, we need a progressive infrastructure to mobilize it. Perhaps the recent demonstrations at the American Bankers Association meetings in Chicago signal the start of labor and community mobilizations. It's long overdue.
It would be easy to give up. Apathy is Wall Street's best friend. But we've been here before. It took the populists several generations before they were able to bust the trusts when Teddy Roosevelt rode to office. It took decades of labor agitation and the organization of the Progressive movement before its ideas became the core of the New Deal. It took even longer for African-Americans to build a successful civil rights movement to end Jim Crow. We shouldn't expect it to be easy to build an alternative to the billionaire bailout society.
We drank the cool aid of deregulated markets and private gain as supreme values. We got drunk on its bubbles until they burst. Now we're bailing out the super-wealthy while 29 million of us need work.
Turning that around is going to take hard work and planning for the long haul. It's going to take years of education and organizational development. Twitter is a great tool, but it can't substitute for organizational structures. Most of all, it's going to take a new vision that focuses on the common good, on what ties us together, on something more precious than private gain.
What does that mean? Imagine what we could do if we had the courage to institute steep progressive taxes. Today, the top 400 wealthiest Americans have a combined net worth of about $1.5 trillion. Had progressive taxes reduced their wealth to "only" $100 million each, we would be able to endow every public college and university, two-year, four-year and graduate school, so that all of our children could go to school free, in perpetuity.
Wouldn't that be worth it?
Les Leopold is the author of The Looting of America: How Wall Street's Game of Fantasy Finance destroyed our Jobs, Pensions and Prosperity, and What We Can Do About It, Chelsea Green Publishing, June 2009.