Note: If you haven’t yet tried to understand the perspectives of Baltimoreans who are not white and upper-middle class, please do that. Then I’ll try to contribute to an understanding of America, Reaganomics, and Injustice, based on my reading of Gustave Speth’s America the Possible. It’s a lotta text today, but please stick with me ’cause I’ve got something to say.
Robert Kennedy said in 1968:
“Our Gross National Product…counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities…and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. Yet the Gross National Product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, of the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans”
Regardless of Kennedy’s ideas, our GNP/GDP has grown consistently since he spoke, and our per-person income has grown greatly. It wasn’t the destiny of America made manifest that caused our economy to expand so rapidly, but policies and practices which served specifically and exclusively that purpose. On the advice of economists such as Milton Friedman, we have for nearly a half-century sought growth that would reproduce the glory of our postwar boom.
Watching China rise around me, it’s not hard to understand the infatuation. People whose parents grew up in a countrywide famine are today raising families in a broad, secure middle class. Cars are new and proud, captivating my students’ imaginations (In China, 2005 had 51 times the car ownership of 1977). If we can sustain this trajectory, we think, there’s no limit to what we might do.
Friedman witnessed the power and freedom of the market in contrast with the socialist autocracy of the Soviet Union. As the West won the Cold War, it became apparent which system was the more powerful and productive. It was easy to make the argument that we had arrived at our most perfect system, that “there were no alternatives”
We haven’t, and there most definitely are.
The failures of free market capitalism took longer to show themselves, but today they are exploding into the view of the mainstream. Economists examining the well-being of our society warn us that it is rotting from the inside. Despite consistently rising wealth, our life satisfaction plateaued in the late 70’s, and since then depression has increased 10-fold. The US is now last or near last among developed (OECD) nations on most life quality indicators.
But do we really need experts to tell us this? All we have to do is look away from the radiant pinhole consumerism built (Read: TV news), and we see that the fires of Baltimore were set not by its residents, but by the apathy of affluent America. People all over this country are living with the weight of discrimination and the panic of poverty while 95% of US economic gains since the global downturn have gone to the richest 1%. Why? Because free market capitalism isn’t enough to solve our most pressing issues, because greed is not and has never been good, and because pragmatism lists towards brutality in the absence of a moral compass.
Laissez-Faire economics are not the best that America can do. Today, we see that the search for perpetual economic growth is doing more harm than good. We know that we have not arrived at the best possible system. We observe the social, health, and climate problems that have infected our society and acknowledge that they are different faces of the same beast, Injustice. We understand we’ve got to rouse ourselves and try something new. Today.
If your chest seizes up at the thought of new taxes and regulations, relax and think again. We all want freedom. My respect for the US’ protection of press, speech and internet has grown recently*. But our rights to property and the means to acquire wealth end the moment they hinder other people’s pursuit of happiness and security, whether it be by depriving them of the means to realize their full potential, or by polluting their homes.
So this is a call to end an era of weakness, callousness, and apathy in the face of injustice. To stand with Baltimore, to understand the human impact of a system perpetually fixed in favor of our privileged few. To move in our own distinct but connected ways toward something new, something better, something we can once again be proud of.