Paul Andersen: Economics as if morality mattered
Few investors know what their investments support. Most are happily complicit taking profits from the corporate economy that’s undermining local communities, destroying the biosphere and endangering democracy.
In matters of personal wealth, it is far easier to be opportunistic than scrupulous. How convenient it is to rationalize morally questionable investments as a necessary evil, dismissing the contradictions between self-interest and the greater good.
Everybody does it, so why shouldn’t I cash in, too? Why should I question the economic system that puts shelter over my head, food on my table, gas in my tank and a smartphone in my hands?
Here’s why: If you voted in the midterm elections, you cast a ballot that reflected your values. That’s the obligation of citizenship. It’s the same with every dollar invested and spent. Our dollars are votes that show our preferences and stand as measures of our collective conscience.
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As citizens and consumers, most of us give proxies to money managers, politicians and corporate executives who determine what’s best for us in economics, education, environment and myriad lifestyle options so plentiful they are confounding.
Philosopher/farmer Wendell Berry puts responsibility where it belongs: squarely on the individual.
“We have an ‘environmental crisis’ because we have consented to an economy in which by eating, drinking, working, resting, traveling and enjoying ourselves we are destroying the natural, god-given world.”
No matter how we defend our so-called “green” consumer choices, every financial transaction obligates us morally as consumers whose actions speak louder than our best intentions. “A change of heart or of values without a practice,” writes Berry, “is only another pointless luxury of a passively consumptive way of life.”
Antitrust specialist and professor, Tim Wu, explained in a groundbreaking op-ed in the New York Times last week that concentrations of corporate wealth through mergers and acquisitions serve to concentrate political power at risk of despotism and tyranny.
“It is a story that should sound uncomfortably familiar,” he writes. “An economic crisis yields widespread economic suffering, feeding an appetite for a nationalistic and extremist leader. The leader rides to power promising a return to national greatness, deliverance from economic suffering and the defeat of enemies foreign and domestic. Yet in reality, the leader seeks alliances with large enterprises and the great monopolies, so long as they obey him, for each has something the other wants: He gets their loyalty, and they avoid democratic accountability.”
Wu cites Hitler’s Germany where huge industries gained control of the nation only to be brought under Hitler’s hoke in a war of global conquest. Bereft of controls, vast aggregates of economic power are allowed to exist beyond the law, eroding the civilizing influence of liberal, constitutional democracy.
By accepting the seemingly benign rule of huge global monopolies, Wu warns, “We have cast aside the safeguards that were supposed to protect democracy against a dangerous marriage of private and public power.”
In the U.S., he writes, “we have witnessed the anger borne of ordinary citizens who have lost almost any influence over economic policy and, by extension, their lives, … their stagnant wages, tax policy, the price of essential goods or health care. This powerlessness is brewing a powerful feeling of outrage.”
The result is an outraged president dividing the nation and the world with mocking tirades, caustic tweets and nationalistic rhetoric that excites the disenfranchised middle class.
Corporations and governments defend themselves under the banner of the supposedly “free market,” which Berry identifies as a corporate entitlement: “The global free market is merely capitalism’s attempt to enlarge the geographic scope of its greed, and moreover to give it its greed the status of a ‘right’ within its presumptive territory.”
Short-term thinking with long-term consequences is the accepted capitalist paradigm. The individual is a passive player who denies their role as a cog in the grinding machine of commerce and industry serving the domination of the total economy.
“A total economy,” warns Berry, “is an unrestrained taking of profits from the disintegration of nations, communities, households, landscapes and ecosystems. It licenses symbolic or artificial wealth to ‘grow’ by means of the destruction of the real wealth of all the world.”
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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