Although countless plans for job growth and solving the debt crisis are swirling around us, what would real recovery mean? One can see fairly clearly what it doesn't mean. Neither the left nor right is going to fight and win. As long as ideologies clash, any victory will leave scars and bitterness. Real recovery requires an answer that reshapes the issues so that society as a whole benefits. Occupy Wall Street deserves to see justice done. Free-market corporate interests need to be able to prosper.
There are two bottom lines to recover, not just one. That's why most of us feel so divided. One bottom line is prosperity. No one can doubt that economic growth requires strong businesses and a healthy financial sector. The other bottom line is fairness. A society marked by repression and rigid authority -- which is the general political picture in China -- can enforce economic growth, but that's not America. Likewise, a completely unfettered free market of the kind that existed in the robber baron era, can generate profits galore, but that's not America, either. We decided long ago that people deserve dignity, a healthy workplace, a clean environment, and lack of ruthless exploitation by owners and bosses.
So how can we reach real recovery by achieving both bottom lines, prosperity and justice?
The great recession is testing America's resolve on both fronts. Clearly the right wing would prefer to wipe out progress in social justice. For them, the only bottom line is economic growth. With corporations attaining higher profits and more productivity than ever, the right continues to push for injustice. Governors attempt to abolish negotiating rights for workers. Pensions and other safety nets are being reduced or abolished. Regulations to turn back the reckless practices of Wall Street and to protect the environment are attacked. One can foresee the day when this whole approach may win, given the prospects in 2012 for a Republican President and Senate.
Such a victory would almost surely erase the second bottom line of social justice, or at the very least push it back. People will attempt to pretend that what America has needed all along was more free market behavior, not less. Such a conclusion -- hammered home every day by conservatives -- is grossly mistaken, because it ignores one glaring fact: the great recession was caused by deregulation and free-market behavior of the kind that gave us subprime mortgages and the runaway derivative markets.
I'm not speaking as someone who opposes the right, although personally I often do, or as someone who believes that President Obama has a better vision of social justice, although clearly he does. The goal here is "just capitalism," a system that gives us real recovery because it aims at both bottom lines. Roosevelt's New Deal was the last attempt to push for social justice during a time of crisis. Then as now, the right battled hard against such measures as Social Security, as they battled later against Medicare. Then as now, great hordes of private capital sat on the sidelines and refused to invest in jobs and productivity.
We will fail as a society if panic continues to push us in the direction of unjust capitalism. Some would say that we are already there. Economic inequality has reached outrageous levels. Social safety nets have been shredded. Health care reform was greeted by a selfish "I'm all right, Jack" attitude as millions of people were convinced that helping your fellow man is worthless while helping insurance companies and big pharma is our duty. There has always been an ornery streak in the fabric of American society, but the success of our democracy has depended on balancing what's good for the individual and what's good for everyone. Even if President Obama were to disappoint me on various fronts where progressivism is attacked vehemently by the right, he speaks for the balance between economics and justice.
It all comes down to human nature, really. In every person there's an impulse to get and spend, to look out for number one, and to want to be left alone to pursue our private desires. But there's also another side that sees the value of justice, that feels compassion for the weak, and that wants to work for a better future for the next generation. In the turmoil of history, these two sides of human nature contend, and as they do, the scene looks confused and conflicted. It doesn't have to be that the present crisis leads to one-sided thinking. Crisis can lead to progress; it can open our eyes to injustice. So despite the Tea Party and feckless Wall Street, the push for a just capitalism is alive. The next generation will look back and judge us by what we did to keep it alive.
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