Thursday, January 31, 2013
800 Words: An Immodest Proposal for Corporate Power
If you can call it work, then I work at the very fringe of Corporate America. I work as an associate an incorporated real estate and investment firm whose partners, associates, file clerks, and amanuenses are comprised of myself, my father, my mother, and my two brothers. Though it would no doubt have its advantages, we do not hire so much as a secretary. Of the five of us, I am the employee with by far the least ambition for ‘advancement.’ I deliberately keep myself at the very bottom of the chain of command - working as close to the mailroom as one can get when five people work in a firm whose members are your immediate family. The reason for this is absurdly simple - I have little mind for business and still less interest. I hope one day to leave the boondocks of Corporate America before we find ourselves at the heart of it, and I have no doubt whatsoever that my brothers are as gifted at finance as I am incompetent, and can reach the peak of influence. My aim is simple, to remain the idiot son in a reasonably lucrative small firm for ten more years or so, and by the time I’m forty I hope to make enough money as a musician and/or writer that I can declare my partial independence from the partnership so I needn’t be known as the idiot brother in a much, much, larger financial firm with my family at the head.
Two years in ‘finance’ have certainly given me more appreciation for its importance to the world, and a bit more sympathy for the worldview of those who work within it. That doesn’t mean that there’s any great magic to it. “It’s no secret how to make a lot of money...” said Mr. Bernstein in Citizen Kane “...if all you care about is making a lot of money.” That’s certainly true. It takes very little imagination to make money, but it takes painstaking devotion and an overwhelming desire to work hard with an infinite variety of byzantine forms of analysis as means to maximize profits - and even then, the ability to do well in finance is by no means guaranteed. Would you make more money if you decided which companies to invest in on a dartboard? Well... I won’t lie, there’s still a 1% chance, but an ignorant investor is less likely in the extreme to make nearly as much money.
Because I’m in finance, I suppose I’m a member of what has increasingly come to be seen as the American Aristocracy. Please don’t misunderstand, if I am, I’m the lowliest country squire (and a pretty incompetent one at that), but it can’t be argued with: when you have enough money to base your occupation around money, it means you’re living with at least a very small silver spoon.
It’s very difficult to fathom what it must have taken for my family to get to this point. To think that a family that barely escaped the jaws of Hitler (and Stalin, and Lenin, and Czar Nicholas, and Pilsudski, and the Polish-Soviet War...) could have come to America and done something rather near to thrive is its own sort of miracle - yet entirely explicable.
For an upper-middle class man of his mid-to-late sixties, my father comports himself in a manner that can only be called abstemious to the point of caricature. He never uses a teabag less than thrice, scouts every store in town for their sales, gives fake names so he can get first-time customer discounts twice over, refuses to buy brand-name products (and upbraids his children for doing so), and regularly goes to Smythe Jewelers; not so he can buy jewelry, merely so that he can pocket the free freshly-baked cookies they give out to potential customers. But insofar as I know, my father never buried money in his back yard, or gladhanded salesmen with the same bottle of watered-down scotch he kept in his office for decades, or converted thousands of dollars to silver coins or visit the bank once every few weeks simply to make sure there was exactly the same number of those silver coins...
...In one of his many Yiddish sayings, Zaydie Tucker used to say: ‘All Ich Hob Ich Hob Far Aych” (All I have I have for you). He arrived in America virtually penniless in 1947, with my Bubbie and year-old father in tow. Within twenty-five years he’d accumulated enough business interests to turn them over to my father in early 70’s and live his remaining years in semi-retirement as a nominal member of the upper-middle class. But while all of us are technically members of it, we were brought up to penny-pinch like European peasants. Once I finally learn to reign in control of my spending (which, at least for a Tucker, is relatively extravagant), I hope I can preserve our peasant ways for another generation.
Downton Abbey doesn’t suck. It’s simply no more than a decent show which is somewhat ridiculous, absurdly overrated, and a little bit evil. The thought of hundreds of thousands of American Liberals going crazy over a show which advocates outright for the allegedly benevolent autocracy of the landed European gentry is more than a little creepy. We’re clearly meant to feel nostalgia for those simpler times in which everybody ‘knew their place,’ a nostalgia that would erase all the social progress since the French Revolution and have us all dwell in a world where we existed at the whims of feudal lords; not a single one of of whom, I can assure you, was as enlightened in his despotism as the Earl of Grantham.
And yet, every devil has his due. Downton Abbey, loathesome as it sometimes is, does make half of a legitimate point about the greatness of its era. If the world must be run by a form of authoritarian conservatism (though it needn’t be, especially not now), then the autocrats at whose whims the world is run should be people who are expected to be the height of well-behaved, well-read, well-spoken, well-mannered, and good hearted to all those serfs in all but name who exist at their behest. The English aristocracy of a hundred years ago was still an aristocracy, but they were instilled from birth with a sense of obligation to all those into whose care they were entrusted - including the places they ruled imperially, and if you doubt that, consider the fate of British (or French)-ruled colonies as opposed to Belgian-ruled colonies. If English aristocrats did not behave well toward their ‘inferiors’, there was no system of accountability that could hold them responsible except the contempt of their better-hearted peers. But there was, at least, a code of honor which made many of them act in a sense of duty to use their privileged position to make the world a better place.
The world can do, and has done, better since the breakdown of the ancien regime. But what happens if our new, liberal, model falls into permanent disrepair?
The Libertarian movement is not simply a forgivable flaw of people who like small government but support abortion rights and gay marriage. It is the single most dangerous, unnecessary, viciously fungal development in Modern American political life; and I’m ashamed by how many years it took me to realize that. Modern ultra-conservatism is merely the fascism of Franco and Salazar writ extremely small; if the paleo-conservative beliefs of Rick Santorum were exaggerated to their absolute nth degree, you’d establish a dictatorship which merely kills enemies of a Catholic government. The term ‘enemies’ would be defined extremely broadly in such a government, and it would cause untold amounts of suffering, but the point of the regime is nevertheless to coerce people into living, not dying, according to the way the Church instructs them. But an equally exaggerated form of modern libertarianism would be the obverse of Stalin and Mao themselves. Unlike Christianity, libertarianism is, at best, a philosophy indifferent to the life and death of others. But if libertarianism were exaggerated to the absolute nth degree, a government would be powerless to stop even a corporate entity which enslaves or deliberately kills its workers wholesale, or refuses to share its profits as millions of unemployed families starve to death. As unlikely and ridiculous as such a development obviously seems to us now, it may seem all too likely in fifty years if the libertarian movement grows much larger (and it certainly can). Much like the Marxists of a hundred years ago, today’s generation of libertarians may one day look upon what they have wrought with absolute horror. A Generalissimo Santorum would be a cataclysm for our country, but a Party Secretary Rand Paul would be as much the American apocalypse as Stalin was the Russian.
Much as Christianity was an heretical offshoot of Judaism, Communism was an heretical offshoot of Capitalism. To prove this, we’ll have to reduce the arguments of the two philosophies to an absurdly simplistic level:
As Adam Smith would define it, the single primary essence of Capitalism is that the greatest affluence to the greatest possible number of people is to be provided by a free market in which people can trade goods with one another through the means which a division of labor provides - a belief which a generation later would be categorized as ‘utilitarian’, and for all his imperfections, Smith has still never been disproven. However, Karl Marx would define Adam Smith’s utilitarian belief in providing the greatest wealth for the greatest number of people as a mere figleaf through which a select few lucky enough to control the means of production may enslave and alienate those manifold who don’t. Through Karl Marx’s misreading of Adam Smith, he comes to define the single primary essence of Communism - which is that the larger body of workers, an international union of them, will subsume the few who control production’s means and usurp them to create a free, communal, society in which workers control production for themselves.
As a philosophy, libertarianism is based upon a much more accurate reading of Communism than Communism ever was of Capitalism. Libertarianism is not an American idea, it is a Russian one, and based upon a Russian’s misinterpretation of America as much as Communism was based upon a German’s misinterpretation of England. To boil libertarianism down to its most simple essence would not relate it to Adam Smith’s capitalism in the slightest. In fact, it is related to the definition of capitalism by Karl Marx and cannot find an acceptable definition of capitalism except through the prism of Marx himself.
To define Libertarianism in its simplest essence (or “Objectivism,” to use the philosophical term which Ayn Rand acolytes prefer to distinguish their philosophy from their political beliefs), would mean to state that the pursuit of one’s own rational self-interest is the only moral goal on earth worth pursuing, and therefore the only moral government is the one which does not prevent people from pursuing said self-interest. Like many philosophical systems that are more valued by academics (including Marxism), Objectivism is very bad, two-dimensional philosophy which must take religion-like faith in the unprovable in order to believe; but it’s a very real philosophy, and intellectuals dismiss it as mere simple-mindedness at their own peril. But it is completely unrelated to capitalism as it’s been properly defined for nearly two-and-a-half centuries.
Libertarianism and Objectivism, as Ayn Rand defines them, are perfectly indifferent to the question of the maximum possible affluence for the greatest possible number. Randianism is, at its heart, an individualist philosophy, not a material one. But even if Ayn Rand’s philosophy is not materialist in its end, as Marxism is, it is materialist in its means. It begins from the exact same epistemological basis as Marxism, which is that all questions which cannot be proven by sensory perception are superfluous - an idea which Marx got from Ludwig Feuerbach, a Hegel pupil whose philosophy hinged on the thought that all metaphysical beliefs are nothing but a projection of a person’s inward nature. But from this materialist base, Rand’s conclusions are the precise reciprocal from Marx. Marx took Feuerbach much further to declare that since all metaphysics is simply a false projection of our innards, the beliefs of all the people which move history are completely immaterial - all that matters is the materials they control, and who controls them. Rand agrees with this Marxist conception completely. But whereas Marx casts a moral disapproval on those who control the means as exploitative, Rand looks upon them as heroic beings who have realized their best selves.
Libertarianism is at least as much a Communist heresy as Communism is a Capitalist heresy. With a little seasoning from Nietzsche in its views on morality, libertarianism is nothing more (or less) than Marxism on the side of the bourgeoisie. It takes what has always been inherent in rich people, a tendency toward plutocratic beliefs and the assumption of inherent virtue in their wealth, and then endows their world view with a more unbreakable philosophical and moral underpinning to these instincts than has been gainsaid in world history since the Divine Right of Kings.
But Rand stopped short of Marx in one extremely crucial way. She did not insist on an endpoint to her Objectivist philosophy. There is no true evolution to it - no plutocratic paradise at which the world must be made to arrive. Perhaps that is its consolation and what could eventually prevent it from going as wildly awry as Communism did. Rand’s philosophy is a philosophy of the few, but like Calvinism, the ‘elect’ could number quite a many, and what happens the pursuit of one person’s rational self-interest comes into world-shaking conflict with the pursuit of another’s?
Nobody needs to remind you, dear reader, that we live in a time of economic upheaval. Only three things are certain about our era: the Middle Class is dissipating, the Lower Class grows ever larger, and the Upper Class grows just as exponentially. When Occupy Wall Street talks about the 1%, that’s idiotic. It’s not the 1%, it’s the 5%. As of March last year, there were 8.6 million American households with a net worth in the millions. Even now, during The Great Recession, there are at least 1.1 million new millionaires since Barack Obama took office!
With a few exceptions like the Koch Brothers and Sheldon Adelson, it is not the billionaire class which champions of the libertarian point of view most vociferously. It is the millionaire class - in most cases, the newly rich who worked hard to resist the tide that would drop them from Middle to Lower Class, and are therefore perpetually insecure about losing their fortunes. And yet there is until now so little evidence of dwindling in wealth among the wealthy that such a fear is almost comical.
For the moment, America has an aristocracy that is roughly 8.6 million people strong. Unless Republicans are stupid enough to prevent the debt ceiling from being raised, nothing can take away their fortunes. Even if (when) their taxes go up to 35%, they will still be as financially secure as before, and perhaps moreso since so much government money ends up in the hands of businesses the government subsidizes at the expense of many who require far more assistance.
Furthermore, this aristocracy may not be permanent. If Barack Obama manages to tackle immigration and gun laws in his second term, followed by the election of Hilary Clinton in 2016, who spends her eight years tackling unemployment, the national debt, and banking reform, followed by the election of Julian Castro in 2024 who can tackle alternative energy, environmental regulation, and nuclear proliferation, Perhaps President Le Malon can be elected in 2032, and along with rebuilding American infrastructure and reforming American education, perhaps he can tackle the issue of wage fairness by introducing a more progressive income tax that can reestablish a firm middle class - the health of which class Ayn Rand assures us is indicative of the future prospects for any country.
But for the moment, there is a current population of roughly 300 million who will not be members of this aristocracy. What shall become of them?...
I shall now therefore humbly propose my own thought, which I fear will be liable to strenuous objection... if anybody cares.
In the 1950’s, the marginal tax rate in this country for every dollar over $250,000 was as high as 94%. God forbid we ever return to that Dark Winter Era of American Chaos and Impotence, but should such millionaires continue to insist that government intervention be so terrible, perhaps a private firm can collect such taxes as will keep a society functional without mob rule or dictatorship.
Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are the second and third richest men in the world. Together, their net worth is supposed to comprise $105 billion. When they die, whatever of their assets is not taken by inheritance tax (the large bulk of it) will be gradually transferred in the form of stock to the endowment of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a non-profit run by Bill and Melinda Gates which supervises charitable giving and is already estimated to be worth $36 billion. The Gates Foundation then distributes their money throughout the world as Mr. Gates and his wife see fit.
When one combines the foundation’s aristocratic $36 billion endowment with the current holdings of Buffett and Gates, one arrives before inheritance taxes at the princely sum of $141 billion. When one combines this with the “Billionaire’s Pledge”, made by 75 separate billionaires to give more than 50% of their money to charity, one can add $125 billion to the total charitable giving of America’s billionaires to arrive at a royal total (before inheritance taxes) of at least $266 billion of private donor money - enough, perhaps, to cure a few diseases in Africa, fund a few decades of education reasonably well for a mid-size American state, and teach the world’s children to be computer literate.
I shall be so bold as to propose to America’s wealthiest that they put their money to a different use for such divine sums. Rather than invest in charitable causes, I hereby suggest that this $266 billion be used strictly for the purposes of forming a private army with all the capabilities of the United States Army. All those unemployed Americans who wish to keep their semi-automatic weapons have the option of joining this private army for a fair wage.
This army is for but one purpose, and that is to compel each American millionaire to sign a ‘Millionaire’s Pledge’ that is exactly like the Billionaire’s Pledge in almost every particular: 50% of each millionaire’s net worth must be given away in the form of their investments and stock options to the Gates Foundation. As the average net worth of the American millionaire is $3.7 million, and there are 8.6 millionaire families in America, there is a reservoir of at least $16 trillion (before inheritence taxes). With such a sum the Gates Foundation can not only tackle whatever one of the world’s problems it desires, but triumph over it: it may pay off America’s national debt, or provide health care to the entire world, or give every child in the world a high school education, or provide a roof over the head of all the world’s homeless and displaced, or provide financial incentives for governments to maintain world peace and abide by human rights laws. And in doing such great works, The Gates Foundation shall restore America’s rightful place in world opinion as its benevolent autocrat.
Many corporations are large enough in our day that they have at least as much say upon the world stage as any small country. If corporate omnipotence has become an unavoidable fact of our lives, is our only option to make a better world then not to attempt the formation a benevolent super-corporate non-profit that can be an aristocratic force to do good? I can already hear the moral objections, the most important among them being that since millionaires have so much more money than billionaires, they can raise a far larger army. But as so many of these millionaires are consumed by rational self-interest, it stands to reason that few of them would possess the inclination to work in concert with one another to achieve such a goal when the raising of an army is such a huge feat of coordination and collaboration. Had they the ability for such feats of coordination, perhaps they’d become billionaires who sign Gates’s pledge.