Just who capitalizes on 21st century capitalism?

My brother and I talked today about his employer refusing to deal honestly with him about his retirement benefits, after a 30-year career with 2 corporations now merged into one company. We agreed that big corporations all too often take advantage of their employees. 

Ken Lewis, former CEO of Bank of America where I once worked, is being sued by shareholders for misleading them about the size of Merrill Lynch losses prior to the 2008 shareholder meeting to approve B of A’s ill-fated acquisition of Merrill.

If corporate management tramples employee and shareholder interests, just who do they serve? Their customers?

Earlier this week, I called Duke Energy to add electrical service at a new address. Because I was going to have 2 accounts for a couple of weeks, my call did not fit the pattern that the automated phone service is programmed to handle.  I had to go through numerous automated menus before I was able to get a real person on the line to help me. At the end of our conversation I was transferred to someone else to “verify the transaction.” Prior to “verifying the transaction,” he insisted on trying to sell me something I did not want or need. I couldn’t get a real person to help me with what I did need, and I could not get rid of the person selling me something I did not need.

I think that many big corporations are clearly not focused on serving their customers.

In the 1980s when I worked for the bank, customer service Quality Assurance was just coming into vogue, and management gave QA the required lip service. But lip service was all it was, because then as now, top corporate managers primary focus is serving themselves.

Since participating in the May 9 Make BofAPay protest in Charlotte, I receive emails from protest organizers. Today a group called Jobs With Justice sent me an email with this content:

A Powerful Spring for the 99% – What do you think?

Submitted by Jonathan Williams on June 7, 2012

This Spring has been unprecedented.    Occupy organizers                     

In April, we launched the 99% Spring, a nationwide effort to train 100,000 people in organizing and direct action. Hundreds of people were trained, and within weeks they were hosting their own trainings for thousands of others.

99% Power turned that training into action. In a wave of protests confronting the worst corporate abusers, we’ve faced off with Wellpoint, Walmart, Sallie Mae, Verizon, Bank of America, and more.

And we weren’t alone. This shareholder season saw a record number of resolutions introduced by the shareholders themselves to cut CEO pay and to disclose lobbying expenditures. Shareholders of Citigroup, one of the largest banks in the U.S., successfully voted to reject a fat CEO compensation package. Meanwhile, dozens of companies have dropped ALEC, the shady organization responsible for creating model legislation such as the Stand Your Ground law that has received national attention in the Trayvon Martin shooting.

More importantly, we’ve begun to name names. We have begun to name the individuals responsible for destroying our economy and widening the gap between the 1% and the rest of us. Many executives were shocked to find their names and faces on signs lining the streets outside of their shareholder meetings.

Workers at CJs Seafood, a Walmart supplier, shuck crawfish

Now, we’re continuing the fight from every angle.

This week, guest workers at CJ’s Seafood, a supplier to Walmart, went on strike. The workers, who were hired under the federal H-2B temporary worker program, even went to the police to complain of forced labor and being physically threatened for not working fast enough. When manager Michael Leblanc found out, he threatened violence against the workers and their families in Mexico. Terrified, the workers courageously went on strike and filed a U.S. Department of Labor complaint against the company. You can learn more about the CJ’s Seafood guest workers on our blog.

Yesterday, Walmart opened an investigation–acknowledging that something has gone very wrong in their supply chain. While the nature and timeline of the investigation are still unclear, their acknowledgement of potential wrongdoing is a significant step forward in our campaign to change Walmart.

Our online petition, shareholder actions, and direct worker organizing have forced Walmart to acknowledge abuses in their business practices. Now, we must take the struggle forward. It will take a massive movement along every point of the Walmart supply chain to change the largest retailer in the world, but winning will change more than just Walmart, it will transform our economy.

The Old Testament, written long ago, tells the archetypal story of David and Goliath, the little guy against the giant. Google it if you don’t know who won.

This blog post is excerpted from the column “Otherwise Occupied: What Price Revolution” by Hal Crowther in the November 30, 2011 issue of The Independent, a weekly newspaper in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Triangle area of North Carolina. Crowther is singing off my hymn sheet, so I happily hand him the microphone:

Every time a citizen with good intentions provokes a police-state reaction from the local authorities, the angels smile and society moves one millimeter closer to salvation… in liberal, affable Chapel Hill,, a reporter with a camera recorded steroidal officers in full SWAT-team battle gear, pistols and assault rifles at the ready, charging an unarmed encampment of self-described anarchists who had “liberated” a vacant building. A few seconds later the reporter was arrested, handcuffed and forced to lie facedown on the pavement with the unfortunate anarchists, who had neither resisted nor threatened any crime greater than trespassing. Amazed bystanders chanted “Shame! Shame!”

Shame, indeed. Attempts by the police chief and the mayor to defend this preposterous cinematic overkill only added to the embarrassment. They claim that the assault rifles were not aimed at the protesters, but the photograph is there for everyone to see that they’re lying.

…The liberators of the derelict auto dealership in Chapel Hill were acting independently of the local “Occupy” encampment… But the Occupiers, whose critique of America emphasizes its mindless materialism, are no doubt delighted to point out what a sleepy Southern town full of Ph.D.s will do to protect abandoned property. …

Idiot force has been deployed against Occupy at dozens of its tent cities, although assault rifles have yet to appear anywhere other than Chapel Hill. Every image of belligerent overreaction to a nonviolent protest—diligently videotaped, instantly online—is a victory for this promising experiment in civil disobedience, which in the digital age commands an audience inconceivable to Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr.

But those great martyrs of nonviolence, who succeeded in spite of the violence they failed to survive, laid down the rules of this game. It’s about self-control: You conquer by conquering yourself. Your enemy is exposed, isolated and in the end defeated by his brutality and lack of restraint.

… You make a stern, life-altering commitment when you take your grievances to the street…It’s cold, dangerous and not always rewarding…My generation, the one that marched against segregation and the war in Vietnam, can point to major achievements and major disappointments. On our worst days we feel that we, as a generation, are a major disappointment. …how did the egalitarian dreams of the ’60s decay into the grim corporate feudalism that Occupy Wall Street so quixotically confronts? At what point, exactly, was it clear that greed had trumped altruism and cash had devoured representative democracy?

If this is a revolution we’re watching, perhaps it’s not so much class warfare as generational warfare. The most deluded members of my generation join the mock-revolution they call the tea party, funded by fascist billionaires, scripted by the usual talk-radio gargoyles and apparently so stunted by the brain plaque of advancing age that it imagines the government is its archenemy, to the great amusement of the corporate leviathans who operate that government like a hand puppet.

This cruel farce draws most of its recruits from my own demographic group, and I’m ashamed. Who knows why expired testosterone leads to big guns, silly hats and prayer breakfasts? …The truth, in spite of all the graybeards who keep running for president, is that our time is over…

It’s up to them now, the green, clean, unexpected revolutionaries one Manhattan office worker called “those terrific kids in the park.” It’s up to you, whoever you are, and encouraging polls indicate that most Americans don’t buy the predictable smears from the right-wing coven, the ones that dismiss you as spoiled children of privilege who would rather demonstrate than work. …

My sympathies are obvious. What you in the tents can accomplish remains to be seen. But what I think I see, through the media fog of polarized America, is the return of the full-fledged idealists …who seemed to go underground around 1980, possibly because the mass media abandoned them during the mudslide of self-celebration that began with Reaganism and culminated in Facebook.

I say God bless them, and God will if he still has any investment in the United States of America. … The good news is that “the kids” are right on target. Their diagnosis is bull’s-eye correct, and the patient is critical. For this country to survive, it must find saner ways to pursue and multiply wealth, and find them quickly. The cannibal capitalism that produced a Goldman Sachs and a Bernie Madoff is subhuman and obscene. …

…. The Industrial Revolution fueled the metamorphosis of capitalism into a ravenous monster that devoured resources, landscapes and human beings on a scale no wars or natural disasters had ever approached. The wealth generated by this devastation created colossal corporations and financial operations far more powerful than elected governments; long ago the individuals who controlled these giants learned that it was cost-effective to buy up the politicians and turn governments into virtual subsidiaries. …

Investment banks and hedge funds were designed as perfect engines for multiplying the assets of the affluent. The Wall Street elite of the 20th century—Masters of the Universe, Tom Wolfe called them—flew so far above the laws of the land that they began to imagine themselves exempt from all laws, including economics, physics and averages. This magical thinking came to a head with a wave of death-defying speculation in mortgage-backed securities, and quite suddenly, in 2008, the walls came tumbling down, exposing a phantom economy based on nothing but arrogance and sleight of hand.

… Instead of a stable economy and an affluent society we confronted a hemorrhaging scandal, a crime accurately portrayed as the looting of America. We woke up from our consumer coma to discover that the bastards had stolen everything. You’ve seen the numbers: The wealthiest 1 percent of Americans, the super-rich targeted by OWS, emerged from this shattered, looted economy with a net worth greater than the “bottom” 90 percent.

In the past 30 years they’ve nearly tripled their after-tax income—275 percent—while the poorest fifth gained a virtually stagnant 18 percent. Economist Paul Krugman emphasizes that it’s the one-tenth of 1 percent, the fabulously rich one-thousandth, who account for a lion’s share of the 1 percent’s gains. These high lords of lucre have increased their income 400 percent since 1979.

Meanwhile,…a full one-third,100 million—live in poverty or what The New York Times calls “the fretful zone just above it.” One in 15, the largest percentage since the Great Depression, falls 50 percent below the poverty line, with an annual individual income of less than $6,000…Meanwhile, …Wall Street banks on taxpayer life support continued to pay out billions in bonuses, monstrously inflated CEO salaries showed no signs of shrinking and the Republican Party campaigned for more of the bloody same, and a stronger dose of it: no taxes, no regulations, no unions…

A slate of demands from Occupy Chicago struck me as savvy and dead-on: repeal tax cuts and close loopholes for the rich, prosecute the Wall Street felons of 2008, separate commercial lending from investment banking, rein in lobbyists, eliminate corporate personhood and overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision of 2010.

This last demand is perhaps the most critical. The decision that defined campaign contributions as free speech, delivered by the court’s 5-4 Republican majority, removed the last legal obstacles to a wallet-based political system that leaves the 1 percent, or one-hundredth of 1 percent, in unchallenged control of our fortunes and our public lives. It opened the floodgates for a multibillion-dollar campaign to defeat President Obama, and any candidates who might resist corporate feudalism, in 2012.

In the words of the late Molly Ivins, “We either get the money out of politics or we lose the democracy.”

There’s a grave possibility that it has already been lost. But those “terrific kids” in the tents… seem to be the only Americans who are dead sure what’s at stake. “I want us to be the country’s moral touchstone, its unofficial conscience…” said one rebel named Katie…

(Katie) and her friends may be the last, best hope, if hope there is. Join them if you’re young and tough enough, send them money if you can still afford it, but for God’s sake listen to them. Their voices represent either America waking up at last, or its final, futile protests about to be smothered by dumb money and dumb force. Will you sit on the sidelines and watch?

Occupy Madison Avenue

November 11, 2011

As Luke and Mark say in the Bible “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

In a culture with an economy comprised 70% of consumer spending, how and where we choose to spend our dollars is often more important than how we vote. So I was pleased to run across this article today in the New York Times pointing out that shoppers are pushing back against the latest ploy by big retailers to grasp for Black Friday sales. Power shoppers who go after the post-Thanksgiving sales have said “Enough” to retailers who have moved store opening times to midnight or earlier on Thanksgiving night and are starting to boycott the Black Friday frenzy. The marketers have finally trespassed too far into personal lives, as the earlier start times interfere with the Thanksgiving celebrations of both shoppers and employees.

The “rituals” that Black Friday shoppers say they have come to enjoy appall me. But I realize the many of these bargain-hunters are people (the 99%) doing their best  to meet absurd cultural expectations for making Christmas “merry” with their limited personal resources. Finally, as individuals, the boycotters are throwing off these cultural shackles and voicing their opinions with their credit cards.

In the article a Target spokesperson refers to shoppers as “guests”, a euphemism I find particularly insulting. How many of us would invite guests to our homes for an event that starts in the middle of the night after an already exhausting Thanksgiving Day? Recently, however, I heard an NPR commentator describe most American interactions as “mutual exploitations.” And David Brooks described Americans in yesterday’s editorial as “a democratic, egalitarian people who spend our days desperately trying to climb over each other.”

We don’t have to be that kind of people, however, if we choose not to. Each of us simply must raise our individual consciousness and realize in how many ways the big institutional powers in our society have usurped both our goodness and our individuality.

For the record, today (11/11/11) is viewed by some New Agers as “a gateway to a higher opening of consciousness on the planet.” Let’s hope so.


Little Did I Know

September 13, 2010

In my last post I talked about new processes for bringing about social change. An August 14 article in The Economist put a name to this phenomenon: “social entrepreneurship.”  Googling “social entrepreneurship” led me to a breadth and depth of information on this new phenom.  The Future of Capitalism includes the pope’s thoughts on how the Catholic Church can improve capitalism (now that’s an organization that knows a thing or two about money, or at least it used to.)  The ability to bring social change “to scale” will determine whether social entrepreneurship will be a major shaper of society, or simply another flash in the pan.

The point is that something new is afoot in terms both of how we address social problems, how business activity will be directed, and in the nature of capitalism itself. Our society and culture are evolving and redirecting the course of history.

Just as the Founding Fathers led us to a higher plane when they devised a form of government that sanctified individual freedom, Abraham Lincoln and the Union Army brought freedom to the slaves, and activists in the 60s brought new rights to blacks, women, and gays….so today social entrepreneurs and other change leaders are leading us to new, more enlightened forms of economic and social activity.

Apocalypse Now

June 7, 2010

“Apocalypse Now” the cartoon jeers, satirizing the cuts in local government services. If only it were funny. But can we afford to laugh as we are forced to make dramatic cuts in the school budget, even as we fail to educate all of our children? We must drastically reduce library hours, cutting job-hunters off from the computers they need to search for jobs in a stubbornly sluggish economy. If you play tennis in a public park rather than at a country club, who will maintain your tennis court when the Park and Rec budget is cut? When the new budget year starts the first day of sizzling hot July, will the children who rely on public swimming pools to escape the heat be disappointed?

Listening to public radio in my car, I learn that AIDS activists in poor countries are angry that America is reneging on pledges for treatment of people who will die without our help. Americans are angry too, and are throwing tea parties to protest…what? That their taxes are too high, even as governments around the country are unable to provide even the most basic of services?

Forgive me if I seem confused. Because in truth I am not perplexed at all. An economics major in college, I have feared this meltdown for a long time, although I confess that I am stunned at the reality of my wealthy and beloved country faltering in such apparent disarray.

Economics, you see, is all about resource allocation. Where did all of our wealth go? You might start by looking inside the oversized houses located far from workplaces that no longer exist, houses that no one can now afford to heat or cool. Check out the kitchens where families eat their McDonalds take-out on granite countertops amid state-of-the-art appliances. Look in closets and consignment shops and yard sales and even in landfills for the purchases we made when 70% of our country’s annual spending went for consumer goods and services. Purchases of goods and services that were not necessary, and that I knew would be easy to forego when times got tough. But then, where would such belt-tightening leave our economy?

It left us right here, with bridges in our highway system no longer safe due to our failure to fund infrastructure maintenance. With a health care system capable of the greatest medical miracles on earth, yet unable to efficiently deliver basic care to tens of millions of uninsured citizens. With a government no longer able of to govern because its participants are incapable of compromise, the underlying principle on which this country was founded. With an oil well spewing millions upon millions of gallons of oil into the environment, while the people we trusted with our vital natural resources scramble about helplessly.

We have let each other down. We have let the world down, as we have allowed ourselves to squander our resources, exploiting one another in the process. We have even failed to take care of the planet that sustains us. We are indeed the “foolish school of fish on wheels” that James Taylor dubbed us in his elegy for the earth “Gaia.”

I am nonetheless optimistic. Technology has brought us a new world order, one in which the individual is empowered as never before. And some of those individuals, people who seem motivated by a different ethic than the ethic of greed that has for so long been condoned in this country, are creating enterprises that I believe will take us in a new direction.

I see this trend at the Apple computer store, abuzz with customers who paid only $100 for a vast array of resources to help them learn to use their computers, customer-friendly resources hard to imagine coming from any PC vendor. “We want our customers to know how to get the most out of our products,” an Apple trainer said sincerely. I see it in the human services organization Common Ground, started in 1990 by one woman in her twenties, now mobilizing resources worldwide to end homelessness. I see it in the revolutionary use of technology that helped to elect our current president.

It may look like an apocalypse now, but economics calls this a “dislocation.” Like a dislocated joint, this is a painful experience, confirmed by the yelling and screaming of those most fearful of the new day coming.  But from among the ruins, I expect to see new leaders with a new morality arise to mobilize the vast human capital now lying fallow. Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote, “The old order changeth, yielding place to new, and God fulfills himself in many ways.” May this fulfillment be a world in which we take care of our planet and of one another. Or we will be destined for Apocalypse Anew.

Why “free for all?”

April 27, 2010

Why did I name my blog “free for all?” Because I believe that it was destiny that led to the unfurling of individual freedom, starting in America. Going forward, people are destined to consciously, explicitly, and freely choose to live in ways that will benefit the good of all people.

Here’s the back story. Aboriginal people nurtured our continent in pristine condition for millenia, no doubt awaiting our arrival. Western civilization stumbled upon these shores, claiming to have discovered them, and soon appropriated a wide swath of the land. In time, our country gained political independence, and our Founding Fathers devised a brilliant new political system that allowed unprecedented freedom for the individual in this “new” land.

It has taken a few centuries, but we have now largely succeeded in extending basic human rights to all subsets of people in our country. The question now becomes “what are we to use this freedom for?”

Many people seem to believe that America was founded in order that the world might have “capitalism.” Was it not destiny that Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations was published in 1776, the year that America became an independent nation?

Smith’s work, in fact, referred to a free market economy–the term “capitalism” was not used until the 1850s. Smith believed that when individuals independently pursue their own selfish good, it is as if an “invisible hand” operates to bring about the greatest common good.

Undeniably, the partnership of free people and free markets has led to unprecedented innovation and wealth creation. But our country’s history is also a tale of exploitation of both human beings and natural resources. Repeatedly, the American people have chosen to limit the exercise of free markets by law in order to achieve what they perceived as a greater common good.

For better or for worse, the “invisible hand” has caused wealth to accrue disproportionately to the United States, and Americans consume a highly disproportionate share of the world’s natural resources. But as people and markets are freed around the world, other countries’ demands for their share of natural resources will increase. As predicted decades ago, the world now faces the limits of sustainable growth on our planet. Now that we have reached this barrier,  I don’t think we can expect the unguided “invisible hand” to automatically deliver the greatest “common good.”

Where do we go from here? I do not claim to know.

But what I believe, and what I plan to write about, is that history is the tapestry of the evolution of the human spirit. The circuitous path of history inevitably led to a world where an increasing number of individuals are free to live as they choose. Freedom allows the human spirit to grow and to soar. But freedom entails a requirement for self-management and self-control. Just as inevitably, destiny will allow the human spirit to continue its upward spiral, and free people around the world will learn to cooperatively manage market power to achieve the common good.

The alternatives are self-annihilation with the weapons humans have devised in the last century, as the world’s people continue the eternal battle over natural resources. Or the planet itself could bring a cataclysmic end to human existence.

What is the evidence supporting my faith in humanity’s future?

Visit my blog often to explore this question with me.

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