The worsening distribution of wealth is like a hidden bone cancer eating away at the stability of our democratic society. Our ability to withstand the inevitable, periodic seismic shocks of war, accelerating technological advances, religious and ethical value divisions etc. depends upon the underlying belief of the great majority of our citizens in the fundamental fairness of our financial and governmental systems.
There may be an opportunity now to transform free market capitalism into a more stable mode. This can be done without any required change to the current legislation governing taxation or corporate regulation.
President Elect Obama is in a unique position to initiate this transformation.
Similarly to how JFK "made it cool" (i.e. effected a shift in a cultural paradigm) to want to serve your country and the world (at age 9 I listened to him propose the idea of the Peace Corps, at 25 I joined) I believe it is now possible to make it "uncool" to aspire to ever-escalating avarice and selfishness, and "cool" to aspire to "win big" financially but live simply and use your winnings to transform the world. Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have taken steps in that direction, but as long as the portion of their wealth they keep for their private purposes is greater than that of the great majority of other financial winners, they incent others to keep acquiring until they reach at least that tremendously high level of personal wealth. Now you "win" by having the most wealth. We could transform cultural expectations such that you only "win" when you both acquire the most wealth and then use it for good. You get national recognition and praise only for "getting it" and then for "giving it"
A small core of cultural icons could transform "what is cool" and thus increasingly entrain the behavior of the bulk of the wealth in our system. You could still wish to "Get rich or die tryin" but you wouldn't get any respect unless you then spent it fixing your hood and the world
I dream that my great grandchildren will watch old episodes of MTV Cribs and Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous with the same sickened disbelief with which we watched "Triumph of the Will".
The below is a short story illustrating a way this concept could potentially take root.
Not with a Bang or a Whimper…
The death of capitalism as we had known it began with the sickening clank of a missed free throw. The Next (as in The Next Lebron) took the inbound pass with 5 seconds left on the clock, stuttered left, froze both defenders with a double pump fake, dropped his left shoulder, put the ball on the floor and drove to the hoop. The home crowd was one long scream as he cut by the strong forward and left his feet for one final thunderous dunk. The 7’6” 340lb center grabbed him in a bear hug and both fell to the floor.
With one half of a second left and trailing by one point, he stepped to
the line. The deafening crowd noise did not diminish until the first shot clanked off the front of the rim and dropped out. The remaining murmur dropped to a shocked silence as the second shot barely touched the front of the net, saved by an eyelash from being an air ball.
We all know the story of the last 5 weeks of what had been the most storied season in basketball history. As his free throw percentage dropped from 72% to 14% over the last month and consequently his ability to get off any shots from the field evaporated, the assured playoff berth slipped away, the standing ovations in competitors’ arenas gave way to constant boos in his home court. As his confidence increasingly broke, his entire game decayed to the point where he sat out the last miserable week.
The ensuing restructuring of capitalism was not a result of Nike stock tumbling, betting pools imploding or the ripple effect of the national horror on all sports’ Neilson ratings. It began with a conversation that would never have occurred, with a man who would never have listened, in a position in the world that would never have come again. It was the conversation that transformed The Next into The First.
The older man was tall and powerfully built, but his 6’4” 230lb frame seemed almost child-like as he stood in front of the 6’10” 290 lbs of misery that had been the most renowned rookie in NBA history 8 weeks earlier. A guaranteed $350 million from Nike, $200 million from Pepsi, $200 million from Foot-Locker, $150 million from Apple and another $100 million from 5 other sponsors had made him the billion dollar man before stepping onto the court his rookie year. His $180 million mansion in the Hollywood hills was halfway through construction. He had two private jets, a helicopter, a 100 foot yacht, a private island in the Caribbean and a virtual fleet of the most expensive cars ever made. He had attended, as a presenter, the Academy Awards, the Golden Globes, the VMAs and (as a hilariously successful novelty idea) the CMAs. He had been to the White House, had pictures taken with half the senate, and been a guest on every major talk show. When he had been averaging 40 points per game and a triple double, none of these activities were considered a distraction.
“What do you want to do, Slick?”
“I don’t know.”