Commentary: Re-envisioning capitalism

The Myrtle Beach SunJanuary 6, 2012 

Issac J. Bailey | Capitalism’s higher calling By Issac J.By Bailey A Different Perspective

“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me … Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” — Jesus

Over the past few months, I’ve been participating in some rigorous back-and-forth with defenders of capitalism, including business professors and relocated retirees who happen to be former executives of major corporations.

They first and foremost believe in capitalism and free enterprise. (Let’s pretend for a second that the current tax structure and other policies don’t distort the market in favor of the wealthiest among us and we really are dealing with a true form of free enterprise.)

They frequently remind me of the good that comes from such a system, which provides millions of jobs for needy Americans, solid retirement benefits, innovation that makes all of our lives better, funds charitable organizations, and a host of other great things we don’t appreciate enough.

The risks taken and the long hours worked by the most successful among us have trickled down in the form of the world’s greatest economic engine, they constantly remind me.

Denigrate or dismantle that system, even a little, and there’s no telling how far this country will fall.

It’s funny, though, that they keep repeating these truths even after I say I agree with their premise.

It’s as though they can’t see that there’s a larger point that also must be made, that as good as that system is, it isn’t good enough, that it can – and needs to be – better.

It’s not about dismantling capitalism but re-envisioning it, because some time during the past few decades, many of the most powerful, in government, the corporate world and elsewhere, have perverted the system.

For the longest time in this country, a healthy focus on self-interest led to all of the wonderful things mentioned above. But something changed.

Self-interest was no longer just about working hard and being rewarded for something that enhanced a greater good, it became an end unto itself.

Self-interest without sacrifice from those on the top morphed into greed.

The pursuit of profit to underwrite a noble purpose became the pursuit of profit for the sake of profit, no matter how many everyday workers and their families had to be hurt, no matter how much greater of a tax burden would be pushed onto the backs of ordinary taxpayers.

That mindset helped create the recipe that almost led to the collapse of our entire economy.

Reckless risk-taking was encouraged more than prudent planning because spikes in share prices led to spikes in compensation packages.

For too many at the top, counting the number of zeros in someone’s annual salary became more important than counting the number of people helped by the product produced or the service rendered.

That’s why when I ask those former executives why the richest among us don’t seem to believe that enough is enough – that forfeiting some of their out-sized bonuses and other perks to save a few jobs for everyday employees or to reinvest in the company in a tough economic climate – they seem offended that such a question would even be asked, or that it is naïve.

Their vision of capitalism is that you take as much as possible, for as long as possible – simply because you can.

But that’s not mine. It is more in line with the higher standard articulated by the words of Jesus printed at the top of this piece.

Back in the first century, that man was seen as a revolutionary and a danger because he did not accept the status quo, which enriched a relative few and left so many with too little to lead productive lives.

He was setting a higher standard for the world.

That’s all I’m asking the executives to do among themselves.

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