I blame Reagan, not simply because he is the paragon of conservatism and I am a flaming liberal, but because the extreme decline of morality in the U.S. is all his fault. He may not have been the origin of the new capitalist mode of thought, but he was the face of it, and his Presidency wrote these new rules in stone for the next three decades of Americans to live by.
These rules are not your grandpa’s capitalism. The new system is not the same one that lifted millions out of poverty and created an incredible boom in technological growth, not to mention spread the ideas of democracy and fundamental human rights around the world. The new system of capitalism took a look at all of that progress and decided it was enough, and it was time to consolidate. The billions still in poverty could stay put. Technology could continue to grow as long as it served the NASDAQ index well. Democracy and human rights would be upheld until they interfered with profits.
The change was simple but profound. Long-held social values were decoupled from the economy, and 1981 was the beginning of the end of the link between morality and money.
The Reagan Presidency certainly wasn’t the first time this decoupling occurred. The Gilded Age and pre-crash 1920’s come to mind. However, the Reagan era marked the beginning of the mindset not simply being prevalent, but being actively celebrated. Moreover, it was praised as the essence of freedom and America itself. It turns out that the new capitalism was there to stay. No Congress or Administration since has done much to change it.
The debate over taxes on the wealthy is an easy example of the new capitalist mindset. It is truly staggering that the common arguments against increasing taxes on the wealthy include that they are being unfairly victimized and punished for their success. A recent article in the New Yorker (“Super-Rich Irony: Why do billionaires feel victimized by Obama?”) shows that many wealthy people truly do believe that this is happening to them. That somehow, they are the victims.
In any sane democracy, no politician would campaign on protecting people with jets and car elevators. Nobody would ever seriously think that they are the ones in need of protection.
They would consider that tens of thousands of people die every year in their own country because of a lack of healthcare. They would consider that gang violence, a tried-and-true player in the poverty trap, claims thousands of lives. They would consider that millions can’t afford decent education; that child mortality rates in some areas are on par with countries fresh out of civil wars; hell, they would even consider that there are countries fresh out of civil wars that probably need help.
They would also see statistics on poor Americans owning cars and air conditioning, and understand that they do not necessarily have access to healthcare or healthy food, and that they might be homeless next week. In fact, those statistics would show the distortion that capitalism creates in product availability when something highly profitable, like a truck or an Xbox, is more common among the poor than health insurance.
But this is not the America we live in. The America of today is one where people point to the success of American markets and the failures of Soviet communism as proof that the wealthiest Americans can’t take a three-percent increase in income taxes. The poor can suck it up and be thankful they’re not in a gulag.
The source of this mindset is the supreme reign of profitability. Everyone can and should profit as much as they can for themselves, no matter what the cost to those around them. There are numerous examples of how this extreme profit motive has undercut key tenants of our society.
It undercuts our financial stability. Wall Street has long lost its original purpose of providing capital for businesses. It now maintains a market for endless get-rich-quick schemes balanced largely on pensions and socialized losses made possible by the Greenspan Put (named after Alan Greenspan, originally appointed by Reagan, unsurprisingly). The new capitalism led directly to the 2008 meltdown, which saw the livelihoods of millions destroyed around the world. The new capitalism did not hold anyone accountable for this massive failure.
It undercuts our environment. Many have made a conscious decision to ignore the environmental impacts of their business practices, most notably with the issue of global warming. Short-term profitability reigns supreme, even over potential upheaval of future generations’ ability to maintain their way of life. All this is happening in spite of the common talking point that we need to pay down our public debt immediately for the sake of our grandchildren.
It undercuts our education. Higher education is now profit driven in many respects, from actual for-profit schools, to the standardized testing oligopoly, to the entire student loan racket. Student loans have been growing quickly enough to worry some that it’s the next bubble to burst, but thanks to ridiculous giveaways from regulators, such as the inability to shed student loan debt when going through bankruptcy, the bubble is legally impossible to pop in most traditional senses.
It undercuts our health. In fact, healthcare may be the most shameful point of capitalism failure in the U.S. We have one of the highest GDPs per capita in the world, yet the health of our public is one of the worst of all the first world countries. It is no coincidence that we are also one of the only first world countries devoted to a profit-based private system. We are the source of countless medical advancements and train some of the world’s best doctors, but most of our citizens struggle to afford the care. That’s what happens when profit is tied to health. Companies make more money by charging more and providing less, and people die as a result. The number is somewhere between 25,000 and 45,000 deaths per year in the U.S. due to a lack of health insurance, depending on who’s counting.
The new capitalism undercuts our food system. It undercuts our diplomacy. It undercuts the arts. It undercuts our housing. It undercuts out transportation. It undercuts our security. It undercuts our very democracy. Nothing is left untouched by the new capitalism.
I don’t take issue with the idea of people making profits or with some people making more money than others. I take issue with these tenets of capitalism taking precedent over providing fundamental needs and protections for many U.S. citizens, not to mention people in other countries. Capitalism has done many good things for the U.S. and the world, but it has lost its sense of decency. In its place has come a relentless drive for more and more accumulation of wealth, and a near-total lack of desire to help those in need.
And I blame Reagan.