Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Changing the Neocapitalist Channel

[Neocapitalism] has persuaded many Americans that the problems it has produced, such as a quadrupling of the national debt since 1980, are really the result of welfare liberalism even though welfare liberalism has not set the American policy agenda for over 20 years. It manages to interpret problems arising from the drastic reduction of public provision for the poor as caused by the pitifully inadequate welfare system that still manages to survive despite decades of cuts. It holds that it would actually be charitable to the poor to cut them loose from their "dependence" on the state.
Robert Bellah, Habits of the Heart, 2nd Edition (1996)

It's time to reject the notion that advocating government programs is a form of personal charity. Generosity is a reflection of what one does with his or her resources--and not what he or she advocates the government do with everyone's money.
Ronald Reagan

The Bush tax cuts are set to expire all the way across the board. The president seemed to lay down the gauntlet a few weeks ago, saying that he was going to play the class warfare card...
John Boehner, Oct 4, 2010

A bad theory can lead us to false solutions that amplify the actions that caused the problem in the first place. Indeed, a bad theory or story can lead whole societies to persist in self-destructive behavior to the point of self extinction.
David Korten, Agenda For a New Economy (2010)

The wise and virtuous man is at all times willing that his own private interest should be sacrificed to the public interest of his own particular order or society.
Adam Smith

...Jesus had a clear and unambiguous vision of the healthy world that God intended and that he addressed any issue--social, economic, or political--that violated that vision.
Obery Hendricks, The Politics of Jesus

When Robert Bellah and his fellow scholars collaborated to research and write Habits of the Heart in 1985, I'm sure even they would be surprised at just how timely their conclusions would be 4 weeks away from the mid-term election in 2010. In chapter 10 of their book, they describe the competing American economic systems as welfare liberalism and neocapitalism and they longed for a couple of alternatives which had not emerged at the time of their 2nd edition in 1996, let alone today. In addition, Bellah et all write that neocapitalism, an uber-individualistic narrative summed up by Reagan above, has won the day (even with Democratic Presidents like Clinton). Indeed, neocapitalism is alive and well today, prophesying a sky-rocketing of the national debt due to "Obamacare," allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire for the wealthiest 2% of Americans, the "failure" of the Obama stimulus package and the "uncertainty" in the market due to the prospect of future tax hikes. It's a little early for halloween, but all of these scary diagnoses of 20 months of a Democratic monopoly of both executive and legislative branches are quite contested and disputed by the facts on the ground which suggest that our economic issues would be much worse without the stimulus (which created or saved 2-3 million jobs by propping up aggregate demand) and that our national debt is largely a result of Bush-era economic policies.

Indeed, neocapitalists' claim that "government is always the problem" is a problem. Bellah again:

Neocapitalist ideology aims to convince us that all government social programs have been disastrous failures. Millions of beneficiaries of Medicare and Social Security find that position hard to believe, in spite of its ideological appeal...Americans over 65 are, largely because of Medicare, the healthiest people in their age category in the world. But for Social Security, 50% of our citizens over 65 would be below the poverty line, as they were as recently as 1940, instead of the 10% who are presently poor...But reductions in Medicare and Social Security under present conditions will not be used to help needy younger Americans. They will simply go to reduce taxes for the rich.

Bellah and his crew conclude their study of waning civic engagement in the United States with a plea that our rapidly disintegrating middle class is due to neocaptalist policies. The wealth simply has not trickled down as Wall Street booms, bubbles, gets bailed out and booms again. Meanwhile, folks on Main Street lose their jobs, homes and pensions. The updated edition of Habits even goes so far to proclaim that class issues are to the 21st century what slavery was to the 19th:

We believe the degree of class difference today is wrong in the same sense that Lincoln believed slavery was wrong: it deprives millions of people of the ability to participate fully in society and to realize themselves as individuals. This is the festering secret that Americans would rather not face.

Fox News and their GOP lapdogs (I watched Hannity fill in the blanks for Boehner for 8 minutes last night) have repeatedly trumpeted that Obama's plan to raise marginal tax rates 4% on those individuals making more than $200,000 is "class warfare," but sociologists like Bellah and economists like David Korten (and plenty of others) are boldly reminding us that neocapitalist policies have, in fact, been a gruesome form of "class warfare," earning the wealthiest among us bundles while the anxious class and the poverty class have suffered. Korten posits that many fortunes in the US have been made as a result of:

-financial speculation
-government subsidies
-the sale of harmful products
-the abuse of monopoly power

...and that Wall Street all-too-often maximizes financial return by perfecting the art of:

-financial speculation
-corporate-asset stripping
-predatory lending
-risk shifting
-debt-pyramid creation

Yet in Agenda For a New Economy, Korten calls not for "socialism" or even "welfare liberalism," but instead for what he claims Adam Smith longed for back in 1776 when he penned Welfare of Nations:

In a true market system, democratically accountable governments provide an appropriate framework of rules within which people, communities, entrepreneurs, and responsible investors self-organize in predominantly local markets to meet their economic needs in socially and environmentally responsible ways...A true market economy absolutely needs government, not to direct every aspect of the economy but to set the framework of rules that provide a context within which the daily decision making of people and businesses balances individual and community interests.

When businesses get so large and multinational that the boards who lead them overlook the community at large (whether city, state or nation) it was chartered to serve, then government must step in to protect the interests of its people. This proposal is exactly the truth that neocapitalism cannot handle, as Bellah reports:

The Neocapitalist vision of national life has its origins in the economic and social transformation of the late 19th century. It derives from the creed of business, particularly corporate business, which was able in that era to emancipate itself from the strictures of local communities and explicitly to celebrate the flourishing of business as the principal means toward a better future.

When the business of America is business, and not the interests of everyday people, then it no longer serves the common good and our economy cannot be called a true market system. For disciples of Jesus, those who call themselves "Christians," economic policy cannot simply be shelved in favor of a private faith committed to the status quo (except in regards to personal piety issues like abortion and sexuality). Systems deeply affect individuals and this economic system is destroying people. In his Politics of Jesus (2006), African-American bible scholar Obery Hendricks calls these types of political, social and economic policies demonic and evil:

We must call by name tax laws that favor the interests of the rich: evil.

We must call by name corporate boards and executives who underpay their workers while giving corporate executives annual salaries and bonuses so large that it would take the average worker centuries of labor to earn as much : evil.

We must call evil by name to remind the people that public officials are supposed to be public servants, and remind public servants that it is the welfare of the many that they are to serve, not the whims and wants of the privileged few.

We must call evil by name when pensions are sqandered, when Americans are dispossessed of their livelihoods by greedy executives who export American jobs to regions in which they can better exploit workers' desperation.

Too many Christians are stuck in an alliance with Wall Street, not willing to see how destructive the system has been for so many of those at the bottom (I will hold off quoting Bible verses that plead for the people of God to care for the orphan, widow, resident alien, etc). When Christians echo catch phrases like "free market," they are campaigning for too many at the top who are ironically getting government help in the form of protections and subsidies, while those in the middle and bottom are given scraps and told to "work hard and play by the rules." For too long, the rules have been stacked against everyday people and they need to be changed. Now's the time.

--Theological Autopilot


  1. Here's a suggestion: pick smaller topics and write shorter blog posts.

    Your blogs are always rich in content but not kindling for conversation. They are like huge (b)logs dumped on top of a roaring fire.

    I would like to have a conversation with you about these topics via the comments, but there is just way too much to tackle in one sitting. The dilemma is if I respond fully to the post it will take me hours to write. If I comment about one thing it sounds like I'm nitpicking.

    If that is how you want your blog to be -- chapters of some real-time monolith -- then that's fine. I will read it but I won't be keen to respond.

    This isn't a criticism of you or your writing/blogging style. Just a suggestion for ramping up the dialog.

    Perhaps one of these days you could write a bleg (http://www.blogossary.com/define/bleg/) asking your peeps what they want you to blog about?

  2. Timmy T...thanks for the feedback...very helpful. I even made a (half-hearted) committment to make my blogs shorter during the summer and that didn't happen. I really am curious as to what readers are interested in so I'd love to hear more of their honest feedback.

  3. After rereading my comment I hope it didn't sound as harsh to you as it does to me right now. If it did, I'm sorry.

    I would still like to see shorter blog posts, and I hope your other readers would agree. For example, this one blog post titled "Changing the Neocapitalist Model" could be a series of posts. I bet you could get at least three or four different posts out of this.

  4. I've just installed iStripper, so I can have the sexiest virtual strippers on my taskbar.