Our contemporary capitalist system and its globalization of selfishness has evolved into a similarly grotesque distortion, as people are increasingly socialized into the goals of the system: accumulate as much money and power as possible, and refuse to allow any other ethical goals into the public sphere (we are allowed to pursue them in our own "private lives" but not together in social space). The human suffering that results is not only for the poor. As people internalize the ethos of the marketplace and its "looking out for number one" and its seeing others primarily in instrumental terms ("what can you do for me to further my goals or satisfy my needs?"), families feel increasingly unstable, education becomes training to "make it in a global competition," and politics increasingly focuses on how to best assist the most powerful in their aims to secure or increase their wealth, or to protect American corporate interests as they increasingly seek to dominate world markets.
The pursuit of money and power is a huge ethical distortion for human life and destructive for a society. Whether manifested in the failed wars in Vietnam or the continuing bloody conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and soon Pakistan and Iran, or in the collapse of our banking, insurance, and stock market systems, the ethos of selfishness and materialism are not sustainable in the 21st century.
Those who are careful and skillful are manipulating us into a mass hysteria that this all be worked out immediately and before Congress goes on recess to run for reelection, with dire predictions that nobody knows to be true, to rush to use our monies (currently proposing a trillion dollars, but there will be trillions more to come, because we will be nurturing a "culture of dependence" by the rich and their corporate holdings) to bolster this way of life. Democrats have bought in. Yet it is a huge error—it's like trying to put bandages on the Tower of Babel. Of course, the wealthy all think that this is an immediate emergency—they suspect that a Democratic President and Congress might be more willing to demand a better deal for ordinary citizens in return for using their tax dollars this way. And they think that our tax monies (of which they contribute very little) should be used to "provide confidence to the markets"—meaning themselves). Many of them don't care that the resulting inflation is likely to make most working people's savings, retirement accounts, and social security considerably less valuable in real purchasing-power terms. But they are wrong to fear the Obama election—the Democrats, including Obama, are as much committed to propping up the current system as the rich, in order to prove (to the pundits and inside-the-Beltway crowd and their wealthy funders who together constitute their primary reference group) that they are "responsible." So their demands for "accountability," re-regulation," and "limits on executive incomes" throw the merest little restraint, while the hundreds of billions that will be spent will resuscitate the system of selfishness and keep the majority of corporate executives benefiting from the excesses they currently enjoy, and will not even touch on the needed reshaping of fundamentals.
This is an extraordinary moment; a crisis like this is a precious thing and should not be wasted. If we had any ethically or spiritually visionary leadership, Congress would reject any immediate bailout, and instead talk of ethical and spiritual reconstruction of the society in accord with a New Bottom Line: that every institution should be judged efficient, rational and productive not only to the extent that they maximize money and power, but also to the extent that they maximize love and caring for others, generosity and kindness, ethical and ecological sensitivity, and awe and wonder at the grandeur of the universe.
To start that process, we should demand that any corporation receiving help from our government give a corresponding level of ownership and control of their venture to the people of this country. Moreover, any such corporation should be required to meet the terms of the Network of Spiritual Progressives' proposed Social Responsibility Amendment to the Constitution: that any corporation with an income of more than $50 million a year must get a new corporate charter once every ten years, to be granted only if it can prove a satisfactory history of social responsibility as measured by an Ethical Impact Report and as decided by a jury of ordinary people whose task is to represent the interests of the common good.
Meanwhile, the rest of us should be protected as the Tower of Babel collapses. So the hundreds of billions of dollars being thrown recklessly by our Congress into the hands of the very people and corporations that fostered the current meltdown should instead be used to create a national bank that would provide mortgage assistance at affordable rates, buy up and restart—in the hands of the people who work within them—any at-risk corporations providing socially useful functions at a price not dictated by the need to ensure that the wealthy prosper, recreate (for those who've lost them) and sustain (for those who still have them) pension funds for families with incomes under $300,000/yr., create a single-payer universal health care system of the sort now being used by Members of Congress, and provide strong incentives for alternative energy-oriented investment and a minimum wage that rises with inflation to ensure adequate compensation for working people.
Yet these are only baby-steps, and the moment is now to insist that the elections themselves be dedicated to exploring more visionary approaches to reconstructing our economy on the basis of caring for each other and rejecting the materialism and selfishness that has perverted our media and threatens to continue to destroy our economy in the years to come. Just say "no" to the demands for an immediate "bailout" of the wealthy with your tax monies—and take the time to use this amazing historical moment to put ethical and spiritual values back into our economic life.
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This story was published on September 26, 2008.