by Michael K. Smith
We have long since reached the point where the Consumer Product Safety Administration should issue warnings about consuming corporate broadcast and print journalism, which is surely as toxic as anything ingestable. The model has already been set in the tobacco industry, which long ago began warning buyers that "cigarette smoking has been found to be hazardous to your health." So why not a federal warning along the following lines: "Warning! Production and consumption of corporate media content has been found to cause brain damage in laboratory animals, i.e., consumers. If accidentally swallowed, dilute heavily with skepticism until normal brain function returns."
Exhibit A in the brain damage display case should be a recent Forbes column by John Tamny ("What You Don't Often Hear About Those 'Greedy' One Percenters"), which takes the Occupy Wall Street protesters to task for failing to realize that the fabulously wealthy 1% that dominate the political system are in reality our benefactors, and that we had best stop "demonizing" them and instead express gratitude for their heroically self-sacrificing efforts to enrich themselves, which deliver vast trickle-down benefits to all of us.
Such a tall tale would be embarrassing to read even to a class of toddlers, but such is the state of intellectual opinion in the U.S. that such claims are not only given wide dissemination but are typically accorded the status of self-evident truths. This makes the title of the article transparently ludicrous, as who can really believe that we rarely hear that the rich are hardworking benefactors of the general public? In point of fact, the rich are continually praised for the alleged public benefits their asset allocation bestows, so that even the most devoted monk living a completely renunciate life in the remotest possible location could not hope to escape this fatuous theme.
Below are more of the specific claims Tamny makes in his article. Let us examine each of these "ideas" in turn.
1. Critics of the 1% are motivated by envy. They rarely consider the work and sacrifice involved in making it to the top of the economic pyramid.
There can be little doubt that the hungry envy the well fed, but how does that justify a system that awards a tiny minority of investors more wealth than they could spend in a hundred lifetimes while tens of millions of impoverished people die every year from starvation and disease? It does no good to say that the latter group lacks the initiative to take care of itself, since it is obviously impossible to take care of oneself without regular access to food. This is precisely what the starving lack.
Where conditions are less severe than those that obtain under outright starvation, it is not clear that the rich are envied at all. The Occupy movement, for example, does not appear to even be interested in entering the ranks of the wealthy, but rather, seems to want to abolish their class power, so that wealth may be created and distributed differently, and all may live decently. In other words, the goal is not personal enrichment but social well-being: None rich, none poor, all gainfully employed and reasonably well off. The fact that some, many, or all rich people have undergone personal sacrifice to accumulate their fortunes does nothing to discredit this aspiration. In fact, it simply misses the point.
2. If anything, the 1% at the top are the exploited, since they are guaranteed no return and in fact risk their very capital, whereas the "exploited" 99% get paid for their labor no matter what.
Whose capital was risked on the pretext that banks are "too big to fail?" Obviously, the public's. Who sacrificed their homes, jobs, and retirement pensions so that financial swindlers could enrich themselves, often by betting against stocks they were avidly promoting? Obviously, the general public did. Who is currently sitting on trillions of dollars of bailout capital while tens of millions of Americans wallow in economic misery? That's right, the one percent, our economic "benefactors," who somehow never get around to investing in job creation, though they claim they are doing so night and day. But where are the jobs?
On the labor question, the idea that workers enjoy a guarantee of being paid for their labor is absurd. Most of the necessary labor in society is at best very partially paid, and much of it completely unpaid, like the raising of children. At present, the economic gains realized from rising productivity created by human labor are monopolized by a corporate elite that itself produces nothing. Commodification of production is not a productive effort! (Question: How many credit default swaps does it take to feed a family?)
3. Billionaire cable television "visionary" John Malone had to share motel rooms with his fellow owner Bob Magness on the way to the top.
Sacrifice on the way to the top does not justify having a "top." The pyramid structure of capitalism, in which the 99% resemble crabs in a bucket climbing all over each other, in order to arrive at the summit where the 1% reside, is simply unnecessary. Another world is possible, and urgently necessary.
4. Successful people have the nerve, drive, and self-assurance that the rest of us lack, and are extraordinarily hard workers. They "work a lot harder and smarter than do the rest of us."
Let us concede, for the sake of argument, that some combination of personal attributes correlates with financial success under capitalism. Tamny believes "being smart" has a lot to do with this, although without a scientific understanding of human nature we are not in a position to know what the relevant combination of success-breeding qualities are. It seems a reasonable surmise that greed and aggression are more prominent among these than "being smart" is, since these are the qualities capitalism most rewards, but let's leave this part of the discussion aside. What follows from the fact, if it is a fact, that 1% of the people have "success" attributes that the 99% mostly lack? The only thing that logically follows is a critical comment about the perversity of capitalist incentives and rewards, which breed moral indifference at the top and mass starvation and disease at the bottom. Why is such a grotesque social arrangement tolerable, much less praiseworthy?
5. "It's not where we start in life that dictates where we end it."
In fact, quite the contrary. If we are born with the attributes of a mathematical genius, but live in a nomadic society whose members only know how to count to ten, what are the chances that we will develop the ambition to be a mathematical genius, much less fulfill it? What are the chances that a child born with brain damage because his mother passed her pregnancy in chronic hunger, will become a great scientist, a great teacher, a great anything? For that matter, what are the chances that a child born to a billionaire will develop a healthy social conscience? In all of these cases, the chances are close to zero. Only a social revolution could change this, which is hopefully what the Occupy movement will become.
In short, whatever a society's capacity for upward mobility (and it is greatly exaggerated in the U.S.), it simply does not justify an arrangement where one percent of the population monopolizes social wealth for its own enrichment while starving the general public of the resources it needs for education, social services, and even survival.
6. People who criticize Wall Street investment bankers for merely "moving money around" are guilty of "staggering" naivete. These people dispense capital, the lifeblood of society, and their skills are so rare and valuable that work consumes their entire lives.
The frequently joyless grind that so many of the rich become trapped by may simply be added to the rest of the unbearable social costs of capitalism, so that it, too, may spur us on to revolution. There is nothing naive in this. In fact, the "naivete" rests with those who think capitalism, now subject to world-wide protest and virtually constant environmental calamity, is a sustainable system.
7. The 1% "make all of our lives easier, cheaper, and more entertaining."
Suicide is certainly easier and cheaper than living a long life, and the spectacle of an intelligent species being led to extinction by 1% of its members is, admittedly, highly entertaining, but such observations hardly justify a lemming-like devotion to suicidal leadership.
8. John D. Rockefeller thrived in spite of repeated rejections, unlike most people, so he deserved his wealth. This was also true of Steve Jobs and (author) Kathryn Stockett.
In 1914, John D. Rockefeller owned the Colorado Fuel & Iron Company, which owned the mines, the boarding houses, the campgrounds, the buildings, the saloons, the recreation spots, the schools, the churches, and the shacks of his coal miners.
Rockefeller employed the miners, the supervisors and guards who beat them, the spies who ferreted out the union members, the scabs that broke the strikes, the company coroners and judges who refused damages for injuries and deaths, and the detectives who ended up riddling the miners' families with bullets from a Gatling gun.
For years Colorado Fuel and Iron Company had ignored the miners’ leaking roofs, sagging floors, and broken windows, the old newspapers nailed to the walls to keep out winter, the thick clouds of soot that blanketed the ground and choked the air, the stagnant creek full of mine slag and garbage that ran behind the miners’ huts, the barefoot, hungry children that played beside the putrid water, the illiterate parents who could offer them no better life, and the inadequacy of $1.60 a day pay. The company summarily rejected the miners’ request for an eight-hour day, an honest weighing of the coal, a chance to shop in non-company stores, a 10% raise, and union recognition.
John D. Rockefeller, with $24 million invested in Colorado Fuel and Iron Company, was utterly devoted to perpetuating misery and preventing unionization: “We would rather that the unfortunate conditions continue...than that American workmen should be deprived of their right, under the Constitution, to work for whom they please.”
One fine day, the miners struck. Troops loyal to Rockefeller mounted a machine gun on a hill overlooking the miners’ camp and exploded two dynamite bombs. The miners grabbed their rifles and took up positions in nearby streams, leaving women and children alone in their tents.
At dusk, the militiamen descended from the hills with coal oil and set fire to the miners’ tents. The workers’ wives and children died like trapped rats while the rampaging soldiers looted their belongings. The next day, a telephone linesman lifted a twisted iron cot and found the “Black Hole of Ludlow,” a pit filled with the charred, pretzel-shaped bodies of two young mothers and eleven children.
Publicist Ivy Lee issued press releases announcing that Rockefeller’s strikebreaking triumph had cast a blow for “industrial freedom.”
Granted, few of us can match John D. Rockefeller in the personal attributes necessary to accumulate vast capital while producing such social disasters, but how many of us want them, or should want them?
Adamic, Louis, "Dynamite - The Story of Class Violence in America," (Chelsea House, 1958)
Chomsky, Noam, "Equality: Language Development, Human Intelligence, and Social Organization," reprinted in "The Chomsky Reader," (Pantheon, 1987)
Foner, Philip S., Ed. "History of the Labor Movement in the United States, vol. 5 - The AFL in the Progressive Era 1910-1915," (International Publishers, 1980)
Tamny, John, "What You Don't Often Hear About Those 'Greedy' One Percenters" Forbes, November 27, 2011
Tye, Larry, "The Father of Spin - Edward L. Bernays and the Birth of Public Relations," (Crown, 1998)
Yellen, Samuel, "American Labor Struggles," (S.A. Russell, 1936)