Tuesday, July 3, 2012

A choice between human dignity and profit

Now that some pollsters are starting to tell us that the Obama campaign's focus on Romney's record at Bain are working, there has been some return to talking about just what issues his business career highlights. I found what Matthew Yglesias said about it to be particularly prescient.
All that said, while I’m happy to defend the layoff business as a legitimate and even useful element of a dynamic modern economy, I’m sure glad it’s not my job. Normal people, if put in a position where layoffs are necessary, find them to be emotionally arduous in the extreme. I wouldn’t want to be the guy who takes over companies and shuts down operations for a living, and I don’t think I’d want to be friends with that guy. It seems like a job only an emotionally unbalanced jerk would want, hence Up in the Air... To walk into a dying factory or doomed corporate office and actually fire people, you need to be pretty callous.

So one question is simply whether that's the kind of disposition people want in a president. Maybe it is... But maybe market economy is a cold and unfeeling place full of Mitt Romneys and we want a public sector driven by compassion to temper it. After all, not everyone is as fortunate in business as Mitt Romney.
To understand my reaction to that, you need to know that I am a huge fan of the HBO series The Wire and its creator David Simon. Back in 2007 Simon gave a speech in which he talked about his own views that shaped the development of the show.  While my nature is to be more optimistic than he is, I found what he said to be prophetic.
We are in the postindustrial age. We do not need as many of us as we once did. We don’t need us to generate capital, to secure wealth. We are in a transitive period where human beings have lost some of their value. Now, whether or not we can figure out a way to validate the humanity of the individual, I have great doubts.
Simon then went on to lay out the question that confronts us, given this reality.
I didn’t start out as a cynic, but at every given moment where this country has had a choice - its governments, institutions, corporations, its social framework - to exalt the value of individuals over the value of the shared price, we have chosen raw unencumbered capitalism. Capitalism has become our god. You are not looking at a marxist up here, but you are looking at somebody who doesn’t believe that capitalism can work absent a social framework that accepts that it is relatively easy to marginalize more and more people in this economy. Capitalism has to be attended to. And that has to be a conscious calculation on the part of society, if that is going to succeed. Everywhere we have created an alternate america of haves and have-nots. At some point, either more of us are going to find our conscience or we’re not...

The Wire is certainly an angry show. It’s about the idea that we are worth less. And that is an unreasonable thing to contemplate for all of us. It is unacceptable. And none of us wants to be part of a world that is going to do that to human beings. If we don’t exert on behalf of human dignity at the expense of profit and capitalism and greed, which are inevitabilities, and if we can’t modulate them in some way that is a framework for an intelligent society, we are doomed.
When I read that in light of our current situation, I can't help but think of the many times President Obama has characterized this election as a make-or-break moment for the middle class. At its most fundamental level, it is our chance to make the choice Simon is talking about. The capitalism that Mitt Romney and the Republicans worship has to be attended to - that has to be a conscious calculation on our part. Its time for us to exert on behalf of human dignity as a priority over profit.

When Mitt Romney touts his business career at Bain as the foundation for his presidency, he's letting us know that he will come down on the side of profit, capitalism and greed...every time.

In contrast, here's President Obama at the 2008 Democratic Convention.
What -- what is that American promise? It's a promise that says each of us has the freedom to make of our own lives what we will, but that we also have obligations to treat each other with dignity and respect...

Our government should work for us, not against us. It should help us, not hurt us. It should ensure opportunity not just for those with the most money and influence, but for every American who's willing to work.

That's the promise of America, the idea that we are responsible for ourselves, but that we also rise or fall as one nation, the fundamental belief that I am my brother's keeper, I am my sister's keeper.

That's the promise we need to keep. That's the change we need right now.


  1. I like the Wire, too, and actually am in the middle of the third season, watching it for the second time. Bubbles is my favorite character, followed by Lester, who is the person I would want to be if I could be any television character, and not just because he ends up with Shardene.

    I participated in a Marx reading group a few years ago with a great bunch of people, and a recurring theme in our discussion was that of time. Discussing capitalism, it's easy to say what you're against, but we all know that the trouble for us socialists comes when we get to a concrete discussion of what we're for--what we want a future to look like. This is because it's harder to discuss what is not than what is.

    Anyway, the fact that mechanization reduces the amount of time it takes to produce X means that either people as a whole work less time or we just produce more stuff. The latter is capitalism. Produce more, consume more. Italo Calvino put it well in his description of Leonia in Invisible Cities:

    "The bulk of the outflow increases and the piles rise higher, become stratified, extend over a wider perimeter. Besides, the more Leonia's talent for making new materials excels, the more the rubbish improves in quality, resists time, the elements, fermentations, combustions. A fortress of indestructible leftovers surrounds Leonia, dominating it on every side, like a chain of mountains.

    This is the result: the more Leonia expels goods, the more it accumulates them; the scales of its past are soldered into a cuirass that cannot be removed. As the city is renewed each day, it preserves all of itself in its only definitive form: yesterday's sweepings piled up on the sweepings of the day before yesterday and of all its days and years and decades"

    The other option is the former. We can create institutions that facilitate people working less. In capitalism, we have surplus people, whom Marx famously labelled "the reserve army of the unemployed." We could very well create institutions that facilitate the distribution of surplus time.

    Practically: we know that in France there was legislated a shorter work week. This kind of thing is a start. The shorter work week did not stimulate the growth of profit. It was, however, a success.

    1. but we all know that the trouble for us socialists comes when we get to a concrete discussion of what we're for--what we want a future to look like. This is because it's harder to discuss what is not than what is.

      That pretty much nails it.

      It reminds me that one time I heard a speaker say that the mark of a true leader is to be able to "see what isn't there."

  2. There is a fundamental difference between republicans and Democrats. Republicans put money first. Democrats put people first.

  3. There is a fundamental difference between republicans and Democrats. Republicans put money first. Democrats put people first.