Civil Society at a Crossroads – Part 1

To quote from The Economist: “Civilization works only if those who enjoy its benefits are prepared to pay their share of the costs.” The above was the lede to an editorial about something like $20 trillion dollars stashed in off-shore accounts and other tax dodges used by wealthy individuals and corporations. A recent article in The New York Times reports it is estimated that there will be, by 2020, $900 trillion in such hidden assets. As of February 25, 2013, the big number in spending cuts caused by the failure to pass a national budget is a mere $85 billion, which those with hidden money could easily front us and have significant pocket change left over. But that is, of course, beside the point, the real point being the unfair, unproductive and socially destructive effects of this massive imbalance. And, as over the course of history, such dynamics place any society at a turning point in its history.

What our friends at The Economist did not discuss are the social costs of an economic system that disenfranchises more people than it elevates, that takes more from working class families than from the über rich. That this, in fact, is the fatal flaw of capitalism. To give it a name, it is greed, plain and simple. It is a much larger problem than merely the rich doing their utmost to avoid the social responsibility of paying their fair share of taxes while enjoying all of the benefits of what the rest of us without clever tax lawyers pay into the system. This has, after all, been going on for centuries, if not millennia, but most certainly never on this scale. According to a recent study reported in The New York Times, between 2009 and 2011 the income of the most wealthy of Americans grew on average by 11%,  while for those of us in the 99% it shrank by nearly a half percent.

Tax dodging with the help of loopholes provided by their friends in Congress is only one among many behaviors that have led to the enormous disparity between the wealthy and what used to be a middle class. It is a matter of unbridled greed, not unlike an image of someone stuffing his mouth with food until he vomits, except in this case it’s money being stuffed into hidden accounts, where it draws interest and contributes nothing to the common good. I’m reminded of the image of Donald Duck’s Uncle, Scrooge McDuck, diving into his swimming pool, full to the brim with money. It is about wealth that corrupts everything and everyone it touches. It’s about behavior that deprives and impoverishes the world at large. This is the real world tragedy of the commons: too few taking too much, and thus depriving the many of that most essential aspect of a viable social contract—opportunity.

It is not simply a matter of poverty of means anymore, so much as it has become poverty of opportunity. It is the latter which is the tectonic fault in the maintenance of civil society; it is that which will ultimately destroy civil society because of its intrinsic unfairness, in that it hollows out the future. It isn’t as though this has never happened before now, quite the opposite. It is, however, that the present scale is overwhelming in the sheer numbers of economically disenfranchised people vs. the minuscule number of those possessing wealth beyond the dreams of avarice. And not only is the majority disenfranchised by lack of economic opportunity but of political opportunity as well. As one writer has said of New Mexico, only a “select few” can afford to run and serve in the legislature. “In truth,” he says, “citizen Legislature is another version of bittersweet victory – an oxymoron of New Mexico politics.”

We have come the point where, realistically, the only people who can run for public office are those who can afford to, and many of those are willing to take money from interest groups like ALEC, private foundations such as the Walmart family’s, the Koch boys, and similar sources of funding. Of course, it’s like taking money from the Mafia, they expect pay-back, meaning that you have been bought; it means you have sold the public’s trust in you and in your office. What we end up with are legislatures composed of minions who have sold themselves and serve those whose money supports them. It’s a retelling of the story of Huey Long and his coterie, when he explained why they should accept the generous proceeds of a bribe to pass certain legislation. Huey told them, “Come on boys, we have nothing to lose but our honor.”

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