"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street–Both Wrong

The accumulation and consolidation of wealth and power has been around forever.  Every empire under the sun – the Persians, the Mongols, the Romans, the Muslims, the Greeks, the Christians, and many more – has started small and grown through acquisition.  The so-called depredations of Wall Street are nothing compared to Genghis Khan who stampeded out of the steppes and marauded his way in all directions.  The slaughter he left in is wake was legendary, and his name always comes up in discussions of The World’s Worst Tyrant.  He was right up there with Stalin and Hitler, way way up there.

The Arabs burst out of Mecca and in a few short years, overran North Africa, and although they were stopped by Charlemagne, saving Christian Europe from the barbaric hordes, they extended their reach far to the east.  Even the peaceful, philosophical Greeks, they of the City State, the originators of debate, politics, civil society, rampaged east as Alexander the Great got as far as India.  The Romans, of course had the biggest empire the world has ever known.  I was thoroughly impressed when I saw the plaque in Rome showing the reach of the Roman Empire at its height – all the way to Britain, down to Africa, across to the Eastern Mediterranean.  Very impressive.  The Catholic Church? One of the great world empires which was as expansionist as any secular power.  To bring Jesus Christ to the world, the Vatican said; but we know the historical truth – the acquisition, accumulation, and consolidation of power and wealth.

The colonial period was nothing to sneeze at – the Spanish and British especially were able to build and extend empire far from their small European homelands.

The point is, everyone started small and had this irrepressible and unstoppable urge to get bigger, wealthier, stronger.  There was certainly some logical justification for this outward expansion – the need for resources for a growing population was usually the case – but that explanation has never been enough.  Genghis Khan really didn’t have granaries in mind when he went on his bloody rampages through China.  The Romans definitely needed the bounties of North Africa which was fertile far further south than it is today, but those of England?  The Spanish needed the gold and silver of the New World to finance its European wars, and wanted to spread their bloody version of Christianity to the natives, but throughout the Americas?  Enough is never enough history teaches us.

An parable from the late 20th Century.  I know a non-profit organization in Washington that kept growing and growing, expanding into new areas of development, adding staff, renting higher floors, additional buildings.  Now, this would have been understandable if the organization had been for-profit where expansion equaled more sales which equal more profits; but a non-profit could easily stay one size and still do good, accomplishing its mission, controlling quality, maintaining a high reputation and client base.  The senior management and board of this non-profit claimed, however, that by expanding they would do more good for more people, spreading their particular philosophy in a wider and wider reach.  The truth of course, was that the CEO simply could not stop getting bigger.  His appetite, like his ego, was enormous.  Size mattered, even though there were no profits.

America is based on small-scale enterprise.  The North fought the South in the Civil War in part over Free Labor – the work of the little man on his little farm and little crops.  Slave labor was a corrupting, anti-Puritan enterprise which softened the will (of the plantation owners, of course), and impeded spiritual growth.  It also was a formidable economic model which threatened that of the North.  What these 18th Century clerics didn’t realize, however, was that small-scale anything never lasts.  You are small until you are profitable, then a bigger something buys you up at an attractive price, allowing that something to realize economies of scale, new markets and territory; and allowing you to start a new small-scale enterprise which in turn will be bought up, and so the cycle continues.  It is not surprising, therefore, to see the predominance of big industry – big banks, big auto, big pharma, big everything.

There is nothing wrong with this per se.  If it hadn’t been for the Medicis and their early banking enterprises, Florence would never have become the industrial capital of Europe.  Florentine banks lent money, industries expanded, wealth was increased and concentrated; art, literature, learning grew exponentially.  The Romans and the Arabs conquered great territories by war and hostility, but they left public administration, infrastructure, and the tradition of scientific learning behind.  The Crusades were brutal and barbaric, but they spread Christianity and the civilization it represented.

It is quite natural for the young people demonstrating against “Wall Street” to feel disenfranchised, overlooked, and cast aside.  There is nothing pretty about the concentration of wealth except to the wealthy, and it is natural to blame bigness.  Bigness has to be bad, even though it is inevitable.  It also natural to blame “Wall Street” which is simply a name for wealth and size.  If the demonstrators thought about it, they would realize that their parents’ pensions and IRAs are invested in the stock market, the real Wall Street, their homes mortgaged through large lending institutions which although not traditionally Wall Street might as well be.  Their parents’ jobs rely on loans from Wall Street, etc. etc.   Wall Street, like the hated cookies in computers, serves a very useful purpose.  Without it, everything would fall apart.  And even if it did fall apart, it would reassemble itself piece by piece, and grow back to its present size.

Perhaps more than anything else we criticize Wall Street because of what we see are excesses – big salaries and benefits, a luxurious life style, homes on the Riviera and in Squaw Valley, elegant furnishings, the best food and clothes.  These ‘excesses’ have always been part and parcel of empire and wealth.  The Roman villas recently excavated in Italy and Tunisia show a sumptuousness never thought possible.  The Egyptian pharaohs led lives of unimaginable wealth, fitting not only for a king but for a god.  The Persians, the Greeks….everyone who created and acquired wealth spent it, or at least a part of it.  We should not forget that although spread unequally, created wealth was not only for the wealthy.   Why should we care what car CEOs drive or where they eat?  We care because we can’t live that way, that’s why.

The Tea Party has a stronger case to make – get rid of the bloated federal bureaucracy, slice and trim fat, curb waste, fraud, and abuse, and get back to the old Puritan principles of Free Labor and small government.  However, they too, either do not know history or quickly forget it.   Ronald Reagan famously said “Government is not the solution.  Government is the problem”, and then went on to increase the size of government more than any of his predecessors.  George W. preached the same gospel, and Washington – thanks to Homeland Security, the various spy, spook, and cloak-and-dagger institutions, plus the Big D – is bigger than ever.  If there is no money to be made a la Wall Street; if there are no lands to conquer and riches to plunder a la Genghis Khan; then bureaucracy will have to do.  One of the nice things about living in Washington is that it really is recession-proof.  No matter who is in power, Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal, the size of government just keeps on growing.

So, I wish the Tea Partiers well in their crusade to ‘downsize’ government; and I wish the OWS protestors good luck in transforming capitalism to become as George W. said softer and gentler.  Neither group will be successful, but I suppose it is a good thing to make some scraping and rasping noises in front of Park Avenue buildings.  It will keep the CEOs up and disturb their visions of sugarplums.  And perhaps the OWS people will figure out where to direct their anger and frustration – not at Wall Street perhaps but towards Washington which was at best asleep at the switch and at worst, complicit in Wall Street’s rapaciousness.  The Tea Partiers will perhaps slow the growth of government.  Even the best cars cannot operate without breaks.

As for me, I can’t help reading history and these days the Histories of my beloved Shakespeare who is the most eloquent of all about  wealth and power.  They are here to stay.

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