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Commentary & Opinion

Unrestricted Capitalism Eating The Heart Out Of America

I keep searching for a formula that catches on to say that America does well when we ALL do well. The prosperity of each of us is good for the prosperity of all of us. America does poorly when we are left fighting for the scraps off the tables of wealth.

Some of our politicians want us to believe that what they call “a rising tide” will actually lift all boats. But of course, that depends on where the boats are. They want us to believe that prosperity depends on capitalism. But that depends on whether capitalism is played like a game of monopoly where all but the fattest capitalists on the board end up bankrupt. That’s a game that weakens America by impoverishing many of us, by reducing what is available to share, by limiting what each of us can contribute, and by turning us against each other.

That’s the real problem that Trump capitalized on – the sense of grievance when the few have been grabbing the wealth for themselves led to a battle for the scraps. That sense of grievance led to claims that some people’s own selfish desires should be treated as more important than anyone else’s – where no lives matter except their own, and efforts to be counted, like saying Black lives matter, have been treated as attacks on the lives of Trumpists and the very idea of mutual support has come under fire.

Many writers, economists, political scientists and others have been warning for years about the danger of rising inequality in America, a danger to our democratic system and the danger of a takeover by a despot feeding the people empty rhetoric instead of the blessings of general prosperity. It actually goes back to about 1970 when corporate America started cutting labor out of the rising tide, when workers were increasingly excluded from the benefits of rising productivity and corporate wealth was increasingly siphoned off for the benefit of a few. But the people who controlled the money also controlled the media and convinced Americans that corporate wealth was the solution instead of the problem, that we should all pay tribute to our oppressors, that they were entitled to larger and larger shares of the pie and workers less and less.

My last book was aimed at that problem. I’d have done better telling readers to start at chapter 9 and read backwards, or, better yet, convincing my publisher to republish the book with a revised sequence of chapters. Unfortunately, the book also came out too late. Trump was already on the march and the problem became much more immediate – not how to fix America but how to short circuit Trump’s preference for nastiness and brutality over sharing and good citizenship.

I think it’s pretty clear that President Biden understands what needs to be done – to govern for the general welfare of all of us – but whether we still live in an America where that’s possible remains to be seen, whether we are so focused on ourselves that we can no longer see the benefits of cooperation and mutual support.

I plan to follow up next week. I hope you’ll be listening.

Steve Gottlieb’s latest book is Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and The Breakdown of American Politics. He is the Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Albany Law School, served on the New York Civil Liberties Union board, on the New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Iran.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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