Capitalism created, then spoiled prosperity

Over the last three centuries, capitalism has poisoned the very well of prosperity it has taken such pains to create.

The genie of capitalism, aided by the Industrial Revolution, can largely be credited with moving Western societies, and eventually much of the world, out of feudalism and the Malthusian trap.
Malthus, you remember, complained that humans never were able to increase our living standard through much of our existence. But capitalism’s advent increased the world’s productivity and living standard; it brought humanity ease, luxury and comfort, along with prodigious choice in
products and services.

Unfortunately, capitalism has turned on humanity, pushing us toward climate change and extinction. Industry and its products have used Earth’s resources to the breaking point, and have polluted the environment to the edge of collapse. Bankers have brought economic turmoil with their endless gambling. Corporate treatment of employees is pushing America’s middle class below the poverty line.

One particularly egregious practice of business is when firms take advantage of so-called “opportunities” that result from natural or manmade disasters. Naomi Klein, in her book “The Shock
Doctrine,” calls it “disaster capitalism.” It is the cynical practice of making huge profits from human tragedy.

Because of the results of such practices, economists are saying today that capitalism has outlived its usefulness to humanity. Certainly it’s true that business enterprise has lost its legitimacy because of the destructive ways corporations act toward the human community from which they draw both employees and customers.

The first step we need to take towards a better economic system is to forge a process through which we talk together publicly about what’s happened and whose fault it is, and what recourse we have as citizens.

Yes, I said “fault.” I know that’s become politically incorrect. One of the reasons why we rarely place blame these days is that corporate lawyers have fabricated the modern way of avoiding accountability: by allowing “mistakes,” fraud and intentional corporate strategy to be lumped together and receive public absolution. Corporate ownership of our communications media further promotes automatic public forgiveness for the sins of business and industry. In the end, no one is held accountable, and that’s the way corporations like it.

But it’s time we started naming the people and the entities responsible for decisions that poison our economic well. Assigning blame is a necessary component of human process that allows us to declare mistakes, learn from them, and become wiser. If we never hold anyone responsible, no one is accountable, so we’re always frustrated, never able to resolve the issue, learn from it, or get closure on it.

Once we have this public discussion, our next step is to create public policy that prohibits business interests from making a profit when trying to partner with public agencies, or with nonprofit organizations, particularly in times of disaster. Think of hurricanes Andrew, Katrina or Sandy. After each one, private enterprise, under the rhetoric of “helping people,” made huge profits after promoting policy decisions that catered to their greed. Business must be prevented from capitalizing on the state of psychological shock people are in after major disasters.

We must also make public policy that demands business interests are among the first and largest financial contributors to the nonprofit charitable organizations helping those harmed in any disaster. This must become the “new thing” in the business world. Business must serve the human needs of the community without charge.

We must see to it that the business community enters the disaster arena as a servant, an agency to do good for the community, at substantial cost to themselves. That’s the only appropriate way business can stand with the people, and be among them in ways that legitimize corporate existence.


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