Bailing Out Corporate Greed and the lack of Commonwealth

I’ve been taking myself and my son to a new doctor on a new (the UUA) health insurance plan this week in the wake of the still breaking and still imploding financial crisis.  The experience has not only reinforced once again the need for National, Universal, Single-Payer Health Care (which, while it may not solve all our problems, will at least, most likely will ensure no more drops in anyone’s coverage ever again, sigh), but has me also thinking once again just how far American society has come from the idea of Commonwealth or Commonweal.

Poor man wanna be rich,
rich man wanna be king
And a king ain’t satisfied
till he rules everything

– Bruce Springsteen, “Badlands”

Pastor and teacher, the Rev. Dr. of Rock, The Boss sums up America’s approach to economics in four lines.  It’s not a boast or something to proud of however because the speaker in the lyric is no rich man and certainly no king and has little hope of becoming either.  The glass ceiling in America is the one over the American Dream. It’s the one over every kitchen table where women (and men) of every color and every faith sit and less and less hope of moving up an economic ladder.

Our society is not set up to allow a situation where everyone wins, but set up a situation where the few win at the expense of the many.  And when the few lose and lose big, they expect, demand the many to bail them out, so as to not lose the life to which they’ve become accostomed.  Sooner rather than later, the many are going to say, “get lost.”

The 14th century term “common weal” or “common wealth” means common good and comes from the old definition of wealth as “well being” not how much cash you’ve got on hand.  Commonwealth meant governing or at least thinking about society in terms of the common good, not in terms of the benefits of a landed, aristocratic (and autocratic), or royal, monied class that had all the power.

American society has just about completely lost any sense of commonwealth. When congress can move with, what is for that body, lightening speed to aim legislation at bailing out the monied, autocratic class of American society, yet things that benefit the commonwealth such as National, Universal, Single-Payer Health Care can’t get the time of day in congress, it’s clear indication of where our national priorities and our national soul are at.  As Unitarian Universalists, if we are going to take Interdependence seriously, this has to give us deep and great pause.

I take my hat off once again to my friends Mary (for pointing me to Eric) and Eric (for writing about it) for Senator Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) take on the current financial crisis (full op-ed available on Sanders’ web site):

In my view, we need to go forward in addressing this financial crisis by insisting on four basic principles:

(1) The people who can best afford to pay and the people who have benefited most from Bush’s economic policies are the people who should provide the funds for the bailout.  It would be immoral to ask the middle class, the people whose standard of living has declined under Bush, to pay for this bailout while the rich, once again, avoid their responsibilities.  Further, if the government is going to save companies from bankruptcy, the taxpayers of this country should be rewarded for assuming the risk by sharing in the gains that result from this government bailout.

Specifically, to pay for the bailout, which is estimated to cost up to $1 trillion, the government should:

a)  Impose a five-year, 10 percent surtax on income over $1 million a year for couples and over $500,000 for single taxpayers.  That would raise more than $300 billion in revenue;

b) Ensure that assets purchased from banks are realistically discounted so companies are not rewarded for their risky behavior and taxpayers can recover the amount they paid for them; and

c) Require that taxpayers receive equity stakes in the bailed-out companies so that the assumption of risk is rewarded when companies’ stock goes up.

(2) There must be a major economic recovery package which puts Americans to work at decent wages.  Among many other areas, we can create millions of jobs rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure and moving our country from fossil fuels to energy efficiency and sustainable energy.  Further, we must protect working families from the difficult times they are experiencing.  We must ensure that every child has health insurance and that every American has access to quality health and dental care, that families can send their children to college, that seniors are not allowed to go without heat in the winter, and that no American goes to bed hungry.

(3) Legislation must be passed which undoes the damage caused by excessive de-regulation.  That means reinstalling the regulatory firewalls that were ripped down in 1999.  That means re-regulating the energy markets so that we never again see the rampant speculation in oil that helped drive up prices.  That means regulating or abolishing various financial instruments that have created the enormous shadow banking system that is at the heart of the collapse of AIG and the financial services meltdown.

(4) We must end the danger posed by companies that are “too big too fail,” that is, companies whose failure would cause systemic harm to the U.S. economy.  If a company is too big to fail, it is too big to exist.  We need to determine which companies fall in this category and then break them up.  Right now, for example, the Bank of America, the nation’s largest depository institution, has absorbed Countrywide, the nation’s largest mortgage lender, and Merrill Lynch, the nation’s largest brokerage house.  We should not be trying to solve the current financial crisis by creating even larger, more powerful institutions.  Their failure could cause even more harm to the entire economy.

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