by Ron Kenner
Baldwin Hills, Calif.
November 30, 2012
Part II: THE UNMENTIONABLE CONUNDRUM
LOS ANGELES, Calif., Nov. 30, 2012 -- Sometimes our interests and their consequences are so fixedly contrary that a kind of moral paralysis occurs, so much so that it seems to make these matters impossible to discuss except in a partisan or advocacy context. These conundrums, in my phrase, become "unmentionables."
And talk about unmentionables. The way things are set up, business has to grow to stay in business, yet the Earth's resources and capacity to absorb environmental degradation are limited. Clearly, that's a conundrum: We need to keep the economy going and balance the needs of the company, the environment and the worker.
The alternative to many consumers maxing out on those credit cards would be a fairer distribution of the nation's wealth, including a greater and fairer share of company profits, in the form of wages, going to workers who helped generate those profits. Is that idea really subversive?
Even without full profit-sharing, if a worker is better paid, and pays taxes on a fairer share of a company's profits, we'd surely be a lot closer to balancing the budget and reducing our $16-trillion national debt.
Admittedly, it's sometimes hard to pinpoint blame, or more importantly, responsibility. For decades we've enjoyed a good many consumer prices that are actually not too high but way too low. And if we can't blame a multi-millionaire CEO for taking legal advantage of a "good thing" - from cheap raw materials to paying a lower income-tax rate than his secretary does, to receiving an extraordinary salary and bonus (even when worker salaries and benefits are cut to make a company more competitive) - why blame the general public?
Similarly, it's difficult to blame the businessman, shareholder, or consumer. The big businessman has to fight for "market share" just as the little businessman or the paid worker has to fight for market share, without which there would rarely be any pay raises. Too little "market share," of course, and the worker is out of a job. So even as salaries and benefits are cut, the CEO can claim to be acting in the best interest of the company, the shareholder, the general worker, and the consumer, many of whom can barely afford what they they're buying now.
Such company actions, from boosterism to scroogism, are in part a response to the "free market," a concept with a historical record that persists not only unquestioned but unmentioned for decades. You'd think we would have raised a few questions about the economic future of the United States and capitalism when the Soviet Union and communism collapsed just over 20 years ago. But the fuller conversation - about consumption and the depletion of resources - has not yet occurred. As one poignant Paul Williams song about beginnings puts it, "We've only just begun."
In recent years, we've had to wait not for investigative reporting but for a few street stragglers to stage an impromptu protest against Wall Street for more widespread public consciousness, The burgeoning Occupy Wall Street movement gives new hope that public power on the street - as with majority public power in the Obama re-election - can make up some of the loss as the likes of Rupert Murdoch take over more of our media communications.
Eventually, with or without a newspaper industry now well on the way out, we'll probably figure out that most of what comes "free" or even "on the cheap" is typically a deferred bubble - with the result, as one example, that residents in certain mining areas go to sleep with their clothes on in case the mountainside starts rumbling and they have to escape before the house slides down the hill. Sometimes fatalities occur because the mining companies have a history of not reclaiming the land after mountaintop mining; and all this comes about not merely in search of greedy profits but to be competitive against other companies and countries, and to keep prices low - for us consumers, too. Who, me? So it's not just some fat cat polluting the atmosphere and profiting in the bargain. We are, too.
We still complain about the price of things, but if some peon got paid a living wage for picking coffee beans in places in South, Central and North America, or if there wasn't plenty of cheap labor available in China, et al, we'd be paying far more for our morning coffee and the cheap goods manufactured abroad (often at the cost of U.S. jobs and on the backs of child labor).
For decades, we consumers never complained about many of these "bargains," even as we became increasingly sophisticated in hunting them out at the expense of more environmental degradation and greater contributions to global warming. Most of the cheap labor affecting our trade imbalance has long been coming from Europe, Latin America, Asia, Africa and elsewhere in the Third World.
To get even, we spent millions during the Cold War to support anti-nationalists, anti-neutralists, and anti-communist Frankenstein allies in the Mideast and elsewhere, on coups against democratically elected government, helping install Shah Reza Pahlavi in Iran, supporting the autocratic Saudi family, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, and Bashar al-Assad in Syria. We sold weapons almost simultaneously to mutual enemies Iraq and Iran in the name of the balance of power, and gave unquestioning one-sided support to Israel against the Arabs for years without wondering how many friends that might make for us in the Middle East.
Even when President Reagan and the American Ambassador to Egypt were personally known to be outraged, we reacted mildly, and mostly off the record, to Israel's role (during the regime of President Ariel Sharon) in building tolerance for the deadly Christian Falangist invasion of the Shatila and Sabra refugee camps - supposedly looking for terrorists - in Beirut.
The 1982 invasion resulted in the slaughter of many hundreds of Palestinian and Shiite Muslim civilians but turned up no terrorists. It did help spark the Palestinian Intifada that has persisted for years. Who can guess - with a little more judicious action or inaction - how many terrorists or terrorist sympathizers, or simple enemies, we might have avoided, or stopped? Perhaps, using our influence with allies to prevent highly questionable actions, we can make new headway, at low cost, in the War on Terror.
Over the Cold War years, we supported many corrupt and brutal anti-communist governments: in The Philippines, Marcos; in Indonesia, Suharto; in the Congo, Idi Amin; in Vietnam, Premier Ky, who once claimed his hero was Adolph Hitler - and reportedly kept a picture of Hitler on his wall; President Diem, whose sister-in-law, the late and infamously outspoken "Dragon Lady" Madame Nhu, later bought a bank in Paris, allegedly with American aid money; and, not least, the notorious and genocidal Pol Pot regime in Cambodia.
We supported corrupt and brutal governments in Central and South America, ranging from the overthrow of the democratically elected government in Guatemala to our longtime support of the President and drug lord Manuel Noriega of Panama, to tyrants and thugs from El Salvador, Argentina and Colombia to Peru and Nicaragua, to corrupt Cold War tyrants and thugs in South America. "Missing," the Oscar-winning Jack Lemmon film by Costa-Gavras, was a true story about an American journalist who went missing in Chile after a U.S.-supported coup there that ousted the democratically elected government of President Salvador Allende. You'll get the picture, if it's not already painfully obvious.
It's perhaps understandable that we'd make mistakes in pursuit of winning the Cold War while so many were making so many billions of dollars on the arms race. It's less understandable that some tyrannical figures, such as Bashar al Assad of Syria, were tolerated by the U.S. for so long.
Nearly two thirds of a century after the close of World War II, "the last good war," it's remarkable that there's still much appreciation for our frequently heroic and sacrificial role in that war, and for U.S. reconstruction efforts such as the Marshall Plan that stood Europe back on its feet after World War II.
Yet it's also little short of incredible that despite overwhelming evidence of such tragic missteps for democracy - to put it mildly - under both Democratic and Republican Administrations - many people have no idea why so many people still don't like us very much. Blaming that dislike on our materialistic attitudes hardly covers the topic.
The awesome complexity of running a nation suggests that the presidency is becoming too much for any one man. That depends. To act like a king and run the nation - to the satisfaction and welfare of the public - either by pandering to the poor or to Super PAC benefactors, is surely too dfifficult.
It's also too much for any group of autocrats to run things. But despite any limitations or disappointmentsnin his first term, President Obama has demonstrated that he is no king or autocrat. Thus, with the help of others - not just on the other side of the aisle but among the broad electorate - and with his recent voter mandate for progress, he has a reasonable chance of becoming a successful transformative President.
One key condition applies to many or most of the disparate conditions discussed here, and to many other issues facing the President. The American public has become increasingly disenchanted with "efficiency experts" in and out of government.
But consider how we might benefit from "inefficiency expertise" - if, for example, we sought to avoid repeated failures of the past. If we don't spend millions on "intelligence" and then superimpose the bad intelligence work of a few mavericks on the rest of us - as done in the second Bush Administration's invasion of Iraq.
We don't always know what works or will work, but we have a wealth of accumulated information from past Administrations about what doesn't work. We need to avoid the same old approaches that have repeatedly failed. We might save a bundle.
Imagine what it would do for our deficit, for example, if we avoided needless wars; if we didn't needlessly make enemies; if we took today's challenges seriously and prepared well to meet future ones. Imagine what it would do to the deficit if we took full advantage of our most important resources - our citizenry.
The President needs Cabinet and other official appointments to be approved where feasible and not obstructed. We need the public to participate with a better understanding of why and how things work.
Without detracting from any other-worldly faith, we need, as suggested, a new faith - in this world. I believe President Obama does have a good deal of faith, in this world and in this nation. If he wants to have a successful transformative presidency, now he has to act.
AR Correspondent Ron Kenner is a celebrated author, editor and longtime AR Correspondent based in Baldwin Hills, Calif., where he heads RK Edit. The next installment in this series is "Taking Exception to Exceptionalism," which ran on Dec. 5, 2012. Regrettably, links to that story are broken and cannot be fixed.