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Robber Barons and the Banking System

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In the new year, the looming question is: How can our economy recover and prosper in ways that will benefit not just the wealthiest, but all the people?

As I note in Hoodwinked, it is shocking to realize the extent to which we have all been deceived by the robber barons of our time -- and by the very governmental bodies that are charged with preventing such abuse.

The bad news is rampant. Rich bankers continue to receive their end-of-year bonuses while we all wait to see economic relief in our own cities and homes. About 8 million Americans are out of work, bankruptcies are up 32% over last year, and foreclosures on homes continue to rise.

We now must admit to our part in this downfall. We the people must insist on changing this dysfunctional system. Franklin Roosevelt said, "We must lay hold of the fact that economic laws are not made by nature. They are made by human beings." Us.

In Hoodwinked, I detail five areas where we all can work to turn this system around. One of those deals with our icons, the men and women we revere as heroes.

We have placed abusive CEOs on pedestals, glorifying their excessive wealth, multiple mansions, mega-yachts, and luxurious private jets. For years we have empowered these people (almost exclusively men) to create a system that is scandalously wasteful, overtly reckless, and -we see now- ultimately self-destructive.

We too often justify the unscrupulous actions of modern robber barons because they contribute money to philanthropy and the arts. We pay tribute to a person who has accumulated billions of dollars and in doing so has caused others to lose their jobs, closed the doors of small businesses, or ravaged the environment, and then donates a small percentage of his fortune to correcting those problems or to the arts. We must understand that he would have served the world far better by making fewer profits, while increasing employment, supporting small businesses, and insisting that his executives practice good environmental stewardship.

In my travels around the United States I often hear students pointing to Bill Gates as a model of capitalism. "I can get rich," they say, "and then donate some of my money to good causes." My response to them: "Why not run a company that concentrates on improving social and environmental conditions through its daily operations instead? That's a lot more efficient, and ultimately more satisfying."

As we've seen in this crisis, the only guarantee is that it's going to get worse unless we insist on change. We have a new opportunity to wake up to our role and to stop glorifying jets, yachts, mansions and modern day robber barons, and get back to the real work of creating sustainable resources and new jobs that will lessen our reliance on predatory capitalism.