I Don’t Care Too Much for Money

I Don’t Care Too Much for Money

I’m reminded of the Beatles lyric, “money can’t buy me love” and of all the other things we know money can’t buy—self esteem, self respect, good character, integrity and pride in our career are a few that quickly come to mind.

The real shocker however, is the list of things that money can buy these days such as privileged access to congressional hearings, favorable tax legislation, government influence, and market monopolies, laws that terminate civil liberties, even immunity from prosecution—for bankers, telecoms and security contractors—and of course, elections.

The America some of us remember growing up in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s has since undergone an era of shifting values beginning in the 1980’s. This is when Ronald Reagan arguably undermined the integrity of our social fabric. With the help of professional economists, Reagan launched what should by now have been determined a questionable ideology—that economics is the unique key to enlightened public policy. He managed to convince a good majority of the populace—domestically and abroad—that “markets, not government, held the key to prosperity and freedom.”

This type of econometric thinking has since extended into new realms like family life, crime and racial discrimination. But what, in actuality has unfolded over the past three decades is that markets, and market values, have crept into spheres of life where some, like philosopher Michael Sandel would say they don’t belong.

Sandel explains, “A market economy is a tool—a valuable and effective tool—for organizing productive activity. A market society is a way of life in which market values seep into every aspect of human endeavor. It’s a place where social relations are made over in an image of the market.”

Our society has been adaptively transformed by bloodless market mechanisms in place of the social norms that once prevailed. America has since evolved from having a market economy to being a market society. In short, the calculating logic of quid-pro-quo economic models has transcended into less appropriate aspects of our existence. Some things that were once considered priceless like human body parts and access to political influence now have a price.

Wall Street hucksters, selling mortgage-back securities are the ones who caused the Great Recession and provoked a collapse of the housing market and millions of dollars in pension shortfalls. Yet, it’s the workers who are being demonized and asked to make the sacrifices while corporations with tax breaks launch a massive attack on unionized, public sector employees.

The bailed-out Wall Street megabank JPMorgan Chase gave a tax-deductable $4.6 million donation to the New York City Police Foundation which had Occupy Wall Street protesters asking: Who is the NYPD paid to protect, the public or the corporations—the 99 percent or the 1 percent?

In another example, a culture of criminality was exposed in a phone-hacking scandal and in much of the news gathering façade of Rupert Murdock’s now defunct News of the World newspaper in London. The scandal could have led to prosecutions here in the States for the bribery of British police officials under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. Yet Murdock received no rebuke from our political class in Washington and is now in the process of acquiring the Chicago Tribune. He also owns the Wall Street Journal and Fox Television, the crown jewels of his News Corp media empire.

So, while JPMorgan Chase Chairman Jamie Dimon receives a note expressing ‘profound gratitude’ from the NYPD and it is a crime to bribe a police officers in London, it is perfectly legal to spend $5 billion to influence the course of U.S. elections, and for powerful broadcasters like Murdock thereby to reap enormous profits.

These are not just transactions; they are matters of equality and fairness. The proper functioning of markets expands the range of choices optimizing both individual and collective satisfaction. The deficiency in this theory is expressed by Isaiah Berlin who, in discussing the guarantee of free-market rights said, “To men who are half-naked, illiterate, underfed, and diseased, is to mock their condition…What is freedom to those who cannot make use of it? Without adequate conditions for the use of freedom, what is the value of freedom?”

The words of Robert F. Kennedy too, remind us how easy it is to slip into a purely material calculus about the meaning of life and the means we adopt in the pursuit of happiness. Memorably, in one of his last speeches Kennedy said, “Our gross national product…counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials.”

So, in a society where nearly everything is up for sale two questions must be continually examined. The first is inequality or fairness. The second is corruption.

Defining the boundary between the realm of equity and aesthetics is difficult at best. Knowing the difficulty of this challenge we should really be asking ourselves whether there are some things money should not buy?

Our society now has an emerging elite class, whose lifestyle has them cocooned in gated communities, they’re educated largely in private schools and consorting only with like-minded and like moneyed others, and smugly insulated from many of the travails that affect most Americans in today’s society.

The distinction between the willingness to pay and the ability to pay is a bright line. These days some Americans can buy alternative versions of what were once regarded as public goods and they’re fleeing the public domain altogether—private schools, premium health care, and skyboxes instead of bleacher seats and the list goes on.

While theoretically these things are equally available to all, the reality is that most of us have little chance of purchasing the superior options. In short, increasing inequalities of income and wealth exacerbate that dilemma.

We need to think carefully and constantly about the parameters and definition of the good life and a just society. Our failure to be vigilant in this regard has led to some morally disturbing and politically worrisome problems for our country.

The predicate of fairness is equality. Today for example, the burden of defending our national interests is shouldered through economic proscription by our least advantaged members of society. Poverty is vital to the military industrial complex; our national defense depends on lousy wages. Otherwise, the pentagon couldn’t get anyone to enlist in their volunteer army. On the other hand, there are those who can buy access to the political process and garner lucrative contracts as defense contractors.

A September 2012 Census Bureau report revealed that there are over 46 million people living in poverty in this country. According to a Pew research report a full third of Americans identify themselves as lower class. They are what makes this system work and without poverty nothing in America seems to work for the political class who throughout the entire 2012 presidential election campaign never raised the issue of poverty.

Imagine how society might change if businesses like Walmart paid a living wage rather than be allowed to utilize business practices that force their employees to seek government assistance. Hasn’t this become a business model for a type of indirect corporate welfare subsidized by our government and the people themselves?

While the recession has certainly exacerbated economic inequality, the widening wealth gap also reflects the impact of years of government policy, decisions, largely administered through the tax code. Current policies perversely subsidize wealth building for corporations and high income earners while providing little or no benefit to low-income Americans.

Kicking-the-can yet again at year’s end became another lost opportunity to raise awareness about the ways that tax reform done right could reduce wealth inequality, promote mobility, shrink the deficit, and spur economic growth. All that is needed is political will. The time has since passed to directly address what money shouldn’t buy in this country and how to deal with the unfair “upside down” budget policy in our much too narrow national debate on deficit reduction and tax reform.

So, “I don’t care too much for money” when the heights of our political process can only be accessed by the most fortunate among us and the people—the 99%—are mislead, ignored and paid only in political lip service. We’ve started the year 2013 with 150 million Americans who are one paycheck away from the official line of poverty. Most of them would likely agree that the time has come to rethink the very concept of what money should NOT buy in America!

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  • Couldn't agree more. Into Obama's second term, and the corporate miscreants are yet to be put in jail.

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