Friday, January 20, 2012

The moral race to the bottom

Morally bankrupt ideologies go through three stages before reaching their full offensive maturity in our political culture.

What begin as recognized evils become justifiable or necessary evils before at last transmuting into positive virtues that brook no argument.
Thus, in the early decades of the republic, slavery was widely acknowledged as a corrupting evil and an affront to the principles of individual rights as set forth in the Declaration of Independence; this was recognized by none more clearly than prominent slaveholders themselves (Washington, Jefferson). By the 1850s the defenders of slavery were braying that slavery was a divinely ordered institution and the bulwark of liberty itself ("the association of the white and black races in the relation of master and slave is the appointed order of God, as set forth in the Bible, and constitutes the best social condition of both races, and the only principle of true republicanism," declared a Southern clergyman in a widely circulated pamphlet published in 1851).

Likewise, there was no controversy for much of the 19th and early 20th centuries about the fact that large numbers of guns in the hands of urban saloon denizens, rowdies, wife beaters, and other assorted petty criminals and half-wits was a dangerous condition for civilized society. The NRA gun nuts evolved from saying "yes, but . . ." whenever a gun outrage or mass murder took place to their current uncompromising and sweeping assertion that guns are a positive good everywhere under every circumstance.

Accompanying this evolution to virtue is a portrayal of one's opponents as the true evil; abolitionists were cast as defying God's will and as moral hypocrites, even the mildest gun regulation proponents (those who dare to suggest that a license be required to carry a concealed weapon, or who want to keep  schools and bars gun-free zones) are today denounced as un-American and enemies of liberty.

The best way to maintain a morally reprehensible position, it turns out, is with absolute moral certainty.

So it used to be that even ardent defenders of capitalism admitted routinely that it has costs and takes a human toll; and, moreover, that not all ways of making money were good for society.

Good Republican Theodore Roosevelt spoke passionately about the evils of great concentration of wealth in a republican society and the economic toll taken by financial maneuvering and machinations that produce private gain with no corresponding public good. Even the most Darwinian turn-of-the-20th-century capitalist recognized that progress leaves a trail of destruction along the way, in jobs lost with the advent of new technology and innovation, in lives displaced, in savings destroyed.

To listen to the Latest GOP Frontrunners, apparently the defenders of capitalism have now completed the evolution to smug certainty. This was most despicably displayed by Newt's not very subtle race-baiting to a cheering white Southern audience in South Carolina the other day, in which he explained that the reason poor people are out of work and on food stamps is not because the economy went into a tailspin as a result of financial speculation in the loan industry, but because they lack a work ethic and proper respect for the wonders of capitalism. Capitalism can do no wrong today in  GOPland.

Romney's defense of his great business success at Bain Capital—which made hundreds of millions for him and his fellow takeover artists by stripping assets and firing people—has followed similar lines; to criticize him for what even Rick Perry aptly termed "vulture capitalism," Romney angrily retorted, was to attack "free enterprise" itself.

Of course so much of the GOP hot air about "job creators" is really referring to the worst aspects of competitive capitalism; what is being labeled as  job "creation" in such measures as lowering tax rates on capital gains and dividends, providing tax breaks for offshoring assets, undermining the National Labor Relations Board's power, racing to break unions and pass "right to work" laws, and doling out hundreds of millions of dollars in state money and tax breaks to lure industries is not creating jobs at all, nor fostering innovation that benefits the greater good, but merely stealing jobs from one state to another (along with a race to the bottom in worker protection and decent wages), encouraging financial maneuvers and the merging and acquiring of companies that eliminate jobs and competition, and diverting wages to profits.

I've quoted Herbert Hoover before, but it's worth repeating what he once said: "The only trouble with capitalism is capitalists. They're too damned greedy."