In the United States, the right to become rich has become collapsed with the very notion of liberty. From the time we are children, Americans learn to confuse democracy (a system of decisionmaking and governance), with capitalism (a system for regulating and releasing money flows.
—From the Occupy Wall Street Frequently Asked Questions one-pager I picked up in Zuccotti Park last week
Why have we reached this point? Why does it seem that Capitalism as a pure American value has overtaken Democracy or Civic Responsibility as our defining national characteristic?
I think there are three reasons:
- An Aspirational Culture: In my last post I described America as suffering from a collective lack of empathy. When we see other people suffering from misfortunes greater than our own, we don’t identify with them, we don’t feel obligated as citizens in a Democracy to care for and protect them. In my town, you can hear mothers of perfect, healthy children on the playground complaining about the exorbitant taxes they pay to fund special education for children with disabilities. Rarely do we hear, “There but for the grace of God go I.” But when it comes to the very rich — billionaires and CEOs — we have an equal and opposite psychology: “There but for the grace of God go I!” We idealize and identify with the very rich because we think — or at least we hope — that one day we will get a lucky break or work hard enough and we, too, may realize great wealth. We offer perks and breaks for the very rich, because one day that could be us!
- A Way of Life: Let’s face it, most of us are active, practicing Capitalists, with day-to-day participation in a system, which even if it doesn’t make us rich, helps us pay for the roofs over our heads, the food on our tables and many other necessities and niceties that make living tolerable, if not downright enjoyable.
- Democracy is Messy: The exigency of every day life that makes us work actively at Capitalism — the preoccupation with putting dinner on the table, caring for our kids and doing our jobs — makes it really really hard for us to actively work at Democracy.
Sure we like our freedoms, but how many of us spends our (vast) spare time, pondering the complexities and nuances of what it means to live in a Democracy, let alone taking action?
Capitalism and its pursuit is easy to understand. It has an irresistible pull for us, reinforced both by our day-to-day activity in the here and now as well as by our aspirations and dreams for the future, for ourselves and for our children.
We idealize people who have made capitalism work for them. And we want to make sure that whatever systems are in place that made it possible for them to become very wealthy are available to us and our children as well. Fundamentally, we believe that being rich is a good thing.
Things are a little less clear in a Democracy where one person’s sense of civic obligation may impinge on another’s sense of freedom. My sense of social justice may impinge on your personal liberty.
In our increasingly Manichean culture of Good and Bad, Rich and Poor, Left and Right, the clear-cut pursuit of Capitalism is a much bigger draw than the murky practice of Democracy.
Even in Occupy Wall Street, there is an undercurrent of entrepreneurialism and capitalism, as I pointed out after my visit to Zuccotti Park. And, as I also mentioned in a previous post, there is a sniff of whininess in the OWS gripes that put personal sob stories front and center. (There is now an organized anti-OWS movement called The 53 Percent) You may wonder whether college grads saddled with student loan debt are maybe just frustrated that the bet they made on themselves isn’t paying the dividends they had hoped for. After all, most people go to college in hopes of qualifying for better-paying jobs; but in this economy, jobs are hard to come by all around.
Whiny or not, a great many people in this country today are suffering. As we see in report after report, individual prosperity is at a historic low, while corporate profits are at historic highs. (This piece by Henry Blodget in Business Insider includes a series of interesting graphs that show how individual wealth has declined while corporate profits have risen ).
There aren’t easy answers to the difficult questions we face in America today. If someone told me that I could take three simple steps and make life better for a vast majority of my fellow Americans, would I do it? Probably. But what would those three things be? And in a country so prone to pigeonholing people and ideas, is it possible for Americans to even agree on them?