What Happened to the Moral Center of American Capitalism?

by Robert Reich, Truthdig, Sep 7, 2015

An economy depends fundamentally on public morality; some shared standards about what sorts of activities are impermissible because they so fundamentally violate trust that they threaten to undermine the social fabric.

It is ironic that at a time the Republican presidential candidates and state legislators are furiously focusing on private morality – what people do in their bedrooms, contraception, abortion, gay marriage – we are experiencing a far more significant crisis in public morality.

We’ve witnessed over the last two decades in the United States a steady decline in the willingness of people in leading positions in the private sector – on Wall Street and in large corporations especially – to maintain minimum standards of public morality. They seek the highest profits and highest compensation for themselves regardless of social consequences.

CEOs of large corporations now earn 300 times the wages of average workers. Wall Street moguls take home hundreds of millions, or more. Both groups have rigged the economic game to their benefit while pushing downward the wages of average working people.

By contrast, in the first three decades after World War II – partly because America went through that terrible war and, before that, the Great Depression – there was a sense in the business community and on Wall Street of some degree of accountability to the nation.

It wasn’t talked about as social responsibility, because it was assumed to be a bedrock of how people with great economic power should behave.

CEOs did not earn more than 40 times what the typical worker earned. Profitable firms did not lay off large numbers of workers. Consumers, workers, and the community were all considered stakeholders of almost equal entitlement. The marginal income tax on the highest income earners in the 1950s was 91%. Even the effective rate, after all deductions and tax credits, was still well above 50%.

Around about the late 1970s and early 1980s, all of this changed dramatically. The change began on Wall Street. Wall Street convinced the Reagan administration, and subsequent administrations and congresses, to repeal regulations that were put in place after the crash of 1929 – particularly during the Roosevelt administration – to prevent a repeat of the excesses of the 1920s.

As a result of that move towards deregulation, we saw a steady decline in standards – a race to the bottom – on Wall Street and then in executive suites. In the 1980s we had junk bond scandals combined with insider trading. In the 1990s we had the beginnings of a speculative binge culminating in the dotcom bubble. Sad to say, under the Clinton administration the Glass-Steagall Act – that had been part of the banking act of 1933, separating investment banking from commercial banking – was repealed.

In 2001 and 2002 we had Enron and the corporate looting scandals. Not only did this reveal the dark side of executive behaviour among some of the most admired companies in America – Enron had been listed among the nation’s most respected companies before that time – but also the complicity of Wall Street. Wall Street traders were actively involved in the Enron travesty. And then, of course, we had all of the excesses leading up to the crash of 2008.

Where has the moral center of American capitalism disappeared? Wall Street is back to its same old tricks. Greg Smith, a vice-president of Goldman Sachs, has accused the firm of putting profits before clients. Almost every other Wall Street firm is doing precisely the same thing and they’ve been doing it for years.

The Dodd-Frank bill was an attempt to rein in Wall Street, but Wall Street lobbyists have almost eviscerated that act and have been mercilessly attacking the regulations issued. Republicans have not even appropriated sufficient money to enforce the shards of the act that remain.

The Glass-Steagall Act must be resurrected. There has to be a limit on the size of big banks. The current big banks have to be broken up using anti-trust laws, as we broke up the oil cartels in the early years of the 20th century.

We’ve got to put limits on executive pay and have a much more progressive income tax so that people who are earning tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars a year are paying at a rate that they paid before 1981, which is at least 70% at the highest marginal level.

We also need to get big money out of politics.

These changes can’t come about unless we have campaign finance reform that provides public financing in general elections and a constitutional amendment that reverses the grotesque decision of the Supreme Court at the start of 2010, in a case called “Citizens United versus the Federal Election Commission.”

None of this is possible without an upsurge in the public at large – a movement that rescues our democracy and takes back our economy. One can’t be done without the other. Our economy and democracy are intertwined. Much the same challenge exists in Europe and Japan and elsewhere around the world, where systems profess to combine capitalism and democracy.

Massive inequality is incompatible with robust democracy. Today, in the United States, the top 1% is taking home more than 20% of total income and owns at least 38% of total wealth. The richest 400 people in America have more wealth than the bottom 150 million Americans put together.

As we’ve already seen in this Republican primary election, a handful of extraordinarily wealthy people can virtually control the election result – not entirely, but have a huge impact. That’s not a democracy. As the great American jurist and Supreme Court associate justice Louis Brandeis once said: “We can have huge wealth in the hands of a relatively few people or we can have a democracy. But we can’t have both.”



The Violence of Organized Forgetting By Henry A. Giroux, Truthout, 22 July 2013

Wisdom: The Forgotten Dimension?  by Mary Jaksch…Wis­dom means hav­ing the moral will to do right by other peo­ple, and to have the moral skill to fig­ure out what doing right means. This is not a new idea; it is some­thing that Aris­to­tle taught in ancient Greece…a wise per­son has four aspects:

  1. A wise per­son knows how to make an excep­tion to every rule.
  2. A wise per­son knows how to improvise.
  3. A wise per­son knows how to use these moral skills to serve other people.
  4. A wise per­son is made not born.…

A wise per­son takes the overviewCom­pas­sion­ate action – the out­flow of wis­dom – hap­pens when we stop being the cen­ter of our concern. Then we can open up to a wider view of real­ity that includes the suf­fer­ing of oth­ers, as well as our own – and  respond with compassion.

Did the Dalai Lama Just Call for an End to Religion?

Well, not exactly—here is what the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism actually told his four million friends on Facebook earlier this fall:

“All the world’s major religions, with their emphasis on love, compassion, patience, tolerance, and forgiveness can and do promote inner values. But the reality of the world today is that grounding ethics in religion is no longer adequate. This is why I am increasingly convinced that the time has come to find a way of thinking about spirituality and ethics beyond religion altogether.” 

It is easy to sympathize with the Dalai Lama’s frustration. After millennia of being preached at by priests and prophets, humanity is still addicted to war; we continue to lay waste to the planet’s fragile ecosystem; we torture animals, repress ethnic minorities, and ignore the plight of the poor.

Worse still, religion has often in service of the very sins of intolerance that its prophets have railed against. Abortion clinics are bombed to support a “pro-life” agenda; religiously inspired hatred in the Middle East have fueled ongoing war—religiously inspired hatred everywhere have led to countless horrors. 

In the past, such moral failings, while contributing to human misery, did not put life itself at risk. But that has changed. Our once-marginal species is now the dominant life form on the planet numbering over seven billion souls. Granted, there are still more microorganisms in a shovelful of prime agricultural soil than human beings on Earth. But bacteria don’t have brains, and the crux of the problem is that we do.

To call the brain a “problem,” of course, is only half of the story. The human mind has created art, science, philosophy, government, education, and the miracles of modern medicine. Religion, with its exalted ethical and spiritual teachings, is another example—whatever Richard Dawkins might say—of our human capacity for creating good.

The New Atheists are right of course when they fault religion for not living up to its own ideals. They would get no argument from the Dalai Lama on this. But His Holiness would be quick to point out that the moral principles themselves are not to blame—it’s our failure to act on them.

The Dalai Lama recommends a radical new approach: a religionless religion, if you will, stripped of myth, superstition, and narrow dogmatism, and focused on the practical work of transforming human behavior. He wants to incorporate the insights of the hard sciences as well as psychology, philosophy, and sociology into a broad-based new discipline to address our current moral crisis.

But can religion be rationalized into a pure system of ethics without losing its (historically) persuasive power?

Some have pointed to Buddhism itself as an example of just such a system. Western practitioners like to think of Buddhism as a methodology for self-cultivation rather than as a religion per se. But Tibetan Buddhism, with its pantheon of deities and arcane practices, certainly looks familiarly religious to those of us brought up on Western religious myths and symbols.

I suspect that His Holiness would agree that these religious elements are not a bad thing. Because religion, for all its faults, seems to have an unrivaled capacity to move us, and to motivate us.

Perhaps that has something to do with stories—we want to know how our private stories fit into the greater cosmic narrative. The Dalai Lama seems to be saying that religion needs to work harder to bridge the gap between the story that it tells and our actions in the world. It is not enough to provide believers with a comforting world view; religion should give people tools to act upon the sacred ideals that it preaches.

The way to accomplish this, according to the Dalai Lama, is spiritual practice. “We are now in the twenty-first century,” writes Tibet’s leading monk.

“The world is also facing a lot of new problems, most of which are man-made. The root cause of these man made problems is the inability of human being to control their agitated minds. How to control such a state of mind is taught by the various religions of this world.”

The Dalai Lama advocates prayer and meditation as an antidote to the mind’s capacity for mischief. But he insists that we need not limit ourselves to traditional spiritual techniques. He has written a book on the convergence of views between Buddhism and science and he helped to organize conferences where religious thinkers meet with scientists to explore their common ground. This is because, in his view, science can help religion to fine tune its own methods. (Neurology has already gone a long way toward validating the reality of spiritual states by documenting, for example, similar changes in regions of the cerebral cortex in Cistercian monks during prayer as it has shown in Buddhist monks during meditation.)

The Dalai Lama believes that the fundamental ethical discoveries of religion are scientifically verifiable. When we actually live religiously—and don’t just profess a set of beliefs—we become more forgiving, peaceful, tolerant, attentive and inspired. This in turn leads to profound psychological and physiological changes which can be studied—and even measured.

It is time, the Dalai Lama says, to take the discoveries of spirituality out of the monasteries and into the world. While mindfulness meditation has been introduced into schools, hospitals, and even corporate boardrooms as a technique to lower stress, improve concentration, and help resolve conflicts, Tibet’s religious leader is acutely aware that none of this is enough. “It is all too evident that our moral thinking simply has not been able to keep pace with such rapid progress in our acquisition of knowledge and power,” the Dalai Lama told a group of scientists in 2005. 

The bottom line is that taming the mind creates more peaceful and contented human beings. This is the crux of the Dalai Lama’s message—because, as his urgency suggests, we are running out of time to get it right.

Richard Schiffman is a spiritual author, poet and journalist. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Christian Science Monitor and he is a regular blogger on The Huffington Post.