The Bane of our Existence

“Sometimes people need to be fired, and sometimes they shouldn’t be hired at all. That’s reality.” So states Washington Post columnist, Kathleen Parker (“Romney’s rivals serve up a heaping helping of pious baloney”, published January 11, 2012). If only it were that simple…the gospel according to job creators.

Surviving the Great Recession with undisputable income inequality now the American norm, unfortunately not the un-American exception; too many unemployed, under-employed, foreclosed, and socially abandoned voters on all sides of the political spectrum are ready for something more useful from our political leaders this election year than a predictable and useless zero-sum debate placing all of the blame either on Wall Street or Washington D.C. In fact, the one percent versus the ninety-nine percent “occupy our public squares” protest-context frames this stand-off as the elites against the rest of us, fingering the collusion between big money and big government as the principal barrier to a more democratic prosperity. Extending this perception means that the powered and monied-up in both principal political parties are in the “peoples’ docket” with the “get out of jail free” verdict going to the most credible, the healers, the ones who lead by example, who turn their backs on trickle down and trickle up, who roll up their sleeves and get down in the ditch dregs with the rest of us as we dig our way out in ways we can believe.

The National Journal has run polls indicating that “reluctant self-reliance” is the new American working class norm. Reluctant meaning we have lost faith in the system and feel way too disenfranchised to even try to game it. What happens when “reluctant self-reliance” meets up with capitalism without a heart? Is this the immoveable moment when either something has to change or everything blows up? In today’s America, distorting the system has become a perpetrator-free crime with tremendous pay-offs but where the victims number in the millions. Private equity for multitudes of disenfranchised and shut-down Americans looks like the macro version of a payday loan with the payday lender calling all the shots at usurious rates.

But even this national self-portrait – while borne out by painful home videos as to how massive wealth is squirreled away in today’s oligarchy-forming America – misses the point. The debate before us is not about either defending free market capitalism or supporting redistributionist socialism but instead holding a truth or dare mirror up to our palaces, our ghettoes, and our shuttered main streets to question how capitalism is practiced in the United States, whether it is free market or distorted market, predatory or enlightened, and whether it represents the alienating pursuit of zero-sum advantages for the few at the expense of the many or the expression of individual freedom in its most perfect and productive form. The real question before the country is what kind of capitalism do we want and need for tomorrow’s economy and whether creative destruction is part of a two-way street that is anchored by creative construction at the other end with enlightened compassion and reinvestment generosity running down the middle lane, or just a one way ticket ride to more subtle but pernicious digitized slave-trading by distant boardrooms, financial manipulators, multinational outsourcers, other would-be Davos-travelers and power-seeking merchant marauders who, like the Miss Saigon musical line, treat America as an éclair so that they can suck out the cream?

With working class suffering and income inequality tire tracks running too deeply over the scarred and battered faces of our citizens, townships, inner cities and rust belt junk yards to wave off with convenient electioneering one-liners; neither “you’re-on-your-own economics” that puts free enterprise on trial nor a push for deregulated, downsized, and diminished government that puts collective outreach and community protection in chains will make the sale in this year’s debates beyond the base faithful on either side. Essentially, the country has to stop running against itself and answer a fundamental precept: in our American democracy, is labor sovereign to capital or is capital sovereign to labor? Is human labor merely a market-priced commodity or does America aspire to a more perfect union where place-based economies and worker equity empower families and communities to develop and manufacture the innovative and sustaining Apple corporations of tomorrow in today’s neighborhood garages?

Far beyond a simplistic and misleading “entitlement society” versus job creators characterization, what’s increasingly apparent is that white collar entitlement (such as raided company pension fund losses covered by federal government pay-outs meaning taxpayer bailouts, or privileged access to the Federal Reserve discount window) is no different in character if not in scope than salvation welfare and societal balancing programs for the less fortunate. Both sides believe with equal fervor that each has earned its benefits with massive wealth and privilege locked down by a very few on the one hand compared to multitudes of outstretched hands clamoring for a better chance, for economic justice, for equal opportunities, for a lot less of much less. In the end, welfare is welfare whether it comes in the form of tax code privileges, sole source public sector contracts, or food stamps.

The bane of our hypocritical existence is what the French philosopher, Jean Jacques Rousseau, noted over two centuries ago, that “man is born free but everywhere he finds himself in chains.” But in today’s social media driven economy, labor must be sovereign to capital and capitol, while necessary, must always be of service to empower labor to its fullest potential if we are to cast off these chains to live as free as the advanced mobile devices we employ. It is becoming common knowledge now that advanced and creative forms of employee ownership, cooperatives, and other hybrid forms of worker empowerment and collective bargaining are job-by-job recreating America’s performance heartbeat. These incremental victories along the rivers of our darkened communities represent the new economic Eden. Being on the side of the people, the ninety-nine percent, means a rebirth of worker-centered entrepreneurship coupled with a social conscience. Investors are flocking to this quadrant not because it feels good in our American soul but because it is backed up by metrics that inspire.

Showing how far the needle indicating the heartbeat of America’s free market inner self has moved from where it was involuntarily stuck with wheels churning but going nowhere since the beginning of the 2008 Great Recession, predatory winner takes-all capitalism is visibly on trial courtesy of the political right. This is a gift without disguise for those wishing to move compassionate market ideology and its lost community and family building practices back to a more enlightened civic quadrant centered on unpolluted American values where self reliance is no longer equated with naked selfishness, and where revolving door self-serving under the guise of serving others gets exposed as hypocritical and traitorous back-stabbing punishable by defeat at the polls, truth in advertizing, and even boardroom exile.

What Warren Buffet and others who follow his example understand is that if corporations are people then they must exist to serve their clients, also people, not the reverse, and that the only consistent path to sustaining profits is to ensure a sustaining, fully employed and fulfilled client base finding its most perfect expression in a rising middle class. Cutthroat competition on labor costs from command and control economies means that our nation needs to rediscover its inner cultural ownership ethos where we empower the settler, not just the baron, and where we make sure our system allows our people to earn enough to be able to afford to shop even in places where nothing on the shelves is made or produced locally by those doing the purchasing.

Free enterprise is not on trial in today’s political debates but freedom-producing enterprise is. If all we are able to exhibit in tomorrow’s America are more pyramids in our midst, more chains holding most of us down, more cliff versus cave dwellers with the latter working for the company stores owned by the former, more inherited or appropriated merit as opposed to earned meritocracies through a prism of ever-widening equal opportunities – then our national game show deserves to be shut down and rebooted and we must elect those capable of making this happen. The defining moment we face is not about class warfare or envy but about the massive, punishing income inequality that is currently strafing and straight jacketing America. We cannot act as a free people without equal opportunities and equal access, and this may no longer be possible when we so obviously live in two Americas, one that has more than everything imaginable where waste is a mere figment of imagination, and the other that is slipping off the edge right in front of our doorsteps, where American workers are bought, sold, and traded without a voice and without recourse as collateral damage and road kill for market practices that may look good on screens and paper before they waste our streets. Creative destruction sounds plausible unless you are the one being destroyed. We must do better than this or we will not make it out of tomorrow’s starting gate as a nation.