There are those who argue that the underlying cause of the angst and anger that fuels America’s incendiary political tribalism is the tenuous finances and fading prospects of a large number of Americans.
It is a plausible argument given the continuing and dramatic increase in the concentration of wealth in the hands of a relative few while more than half of Americans have little if any savings and live from paycheck to paycheck.
And, while even the poorest American is better off than most people in the world, that fact provides little consolation for those for whom the American Dream is but a shimmering mirage.
Essential elements of a middle-class lifestyle — like health care, housing and higher education — are increasingly beyond the reach of more and more Americans whose economic well-being has stagnated or declined while that of the top 20% has disproportionately improved.
This wealth and income imbalance is blamed on an economic system that primarily promotes and maintains the advantage of an increasingly entrenched economic elite.
Democrats blame Republicans, Republicans blame Democrats, and both parties continue to receive torrents of money from the forces of greed to ensure that the current economic system remains in place.
The perception that the Monopoly game is rigged so that most Americans can never land on Park Place isn’t doing much for social cohesion — as reflected in our belligerently and intractably self-certain bipolar politics that have spilled into every crevice of American life.
America’s looney left and wacko right continue to plumb new depths of mutually antagonistic asininity.
So now political tribal identity includes positions on patriotism, science, vaccination, mask wearing, what books kids can read and how history is taught, what vocabulary can be used, climate change, alternate energy, even the kind of car you drive — electric or gas.
Typically, the tribal discord distills to a debate between simplistic, stereotypical understandings of capitalism and socialism that so appeals to those who perceive the entire universe of human thought and possibility as a simple dichotomy between left and right ideologies. Ayn Rand versus Karl Marx.
If the root cause of America’s social delamination is indeed economic, is capitalism the culprit?
While America’s market capitalism has stimulated more scientific and technological advancement, and created more wealth for more people than ever in human history, it has also encouraged insatiable greed, rapacious exploitation, ruinous environmental degradation, debasement of labor, and a winner-take-all mentality that has transmogrified capitalism into a Darwinian economic jungle.
A few get fat while many get eaten.
Virtually everything in America has become a profit center — health care, justice, education, charity, even religion. We are increasingly a transactional society in which just about anything can be commodified to extract as much money from as many as possible into the pockets of as few as possible.
For example, Americans have been conditioned to believe that a college degree is a prerequisite for a comfortable level of affluence, and mostly it has been. Not that long ago, most anyone with the academic qualifications could get a college education if they wanted it.
But, today, the cost of attaining that education is so unconscionably high that many qualified students must forego college or incur mortgage-sized debt to pay for it. Meanwhile, college chancellors and a burgeoning administrative staff are given ever more lavish salaries and benefits.
Is the nation better off if more of its people get a higher education or if higher education is made a profit center for avaricious administrators?
Another example of cannibal capitalism is the law that prohibits Medicare from negotiating pricing with Big Pharma — allowing the latter to price-plunder the public. Both duopoly parties have been complicit in allowing this predatory greed that threatens the well-being of so many Americans.
We could fill pages with similar examples from most every sector of our economic jungle.
The shills of ideological idiocy, abetted by the forces of greed, want to convince us that our only choice is between two mutually exclusive approaches to organizing an economy, capitalism and socialism — one totally right, the other totally wrong.
Neither is either.
They are a toolbox of ideas, each incomplete alone but useful as a set, to use to various degrees as needed to run and adjust an economy.
Many other countries with advanced market economies, including much of Western Europe, Canada and Australia, have demonstrated an effective mix of capitalism and socialism. Effective meaning a high degree of social stability, contentment and economic comfort among their people — which tends to dampen desire for revolution.
Some people say that America has already become too socialistic because it taxes and spends so much. But, if spending tax money defines socialism, then defense, infrastructure, law enforcement, public education and corporate subsidies are socialism.
Rather than throw the baby out with the bath water, maybe it is better to consider what we spend tax money on.
Who and how many benefit from spending hundreds of billions of tax dollars annually on the military-industrial complex?
Are the majority of Americans better off because America spends more on defense than that of the next 10 highest spending nations combined, or would more Americans benefit by spending less on defense and more on public health and higher education?
In America, the forces of greed want us to believe that only free markets solve all problems and that government should not interfere in the magic. That line might have worked when America had vast unexploited frontiers and a much smaller population, but not today.
The obsession with the “rugged individualism” of a bygone frontier era or romanticized in two-dimensional Randian fantasies becomes justification for disregarding the general welfare, often resulting in a callous tolerance for the pain and misery of others blown aside by the winds of fortune.
No society can maintain social stability with an economic order that daily undermines the social contract, disregards the general welfare, and pushes much of its population into chronic anxiety or despair.
What America needs now, as it did in 1932, is a government that will save capitalism from itself. The alternative may be social upheaval that sinks yachts along with dinghies.
— Randy Alcorn is a Santa Barbara political observer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.