Those Predatory Rich (Again)

The term in the title of this piece is from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s excellent book, The Bully Pulpit, about Teddy Roosevelt, William Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism. I have referred to her book previously, but I wanted to return to it and share some of the excellent points Ms Goodwin makes. I have noted the rough parallels between the “robber baron” days and our own — specifically, the widening gap between the rich and the poor and the almighty power of the corporations, or “trusts” as they were called then. A critic might well point out that we have made great strides from the days of child-labor and the 12 hour work day. And this is true. But we still have a pathetically low minimum wage and there are folks out there who would love to reverse those strides and take us back to the “glory days” of laissez-faire economics, free enterprise, as they imagine it to be — free from governmental interference and those pesky agencies that put restraints on the obscene increase in profits.

Roosevelt himself was very much aware of the mentality of the “predatory rich” (Goodwin’s words) and that is what most interests me, because while many things have changed I don’t think that mind-set has changed much at all. We can see examples of it all around us as the number of homeless and disenfranchised grow, the middle class shrinks, and the corporations and folks like the Koch brothers continue to amass fortunes. It is most interesting to note that Teddy Roosevelt was himself a wealthy Republican and staunch supporter of capitalism who grew to see more and more clearly the moral depravity that is bred by an unfettered economy when the government looks the other way and a small group of men are allowed to take the reins in their own hands and focus exclusively on accumulating piles of gold. He was, of course, a “progressive” Republican, a reformer who saw the need to put restraints on the greed of those who see nothing but profits and losses, whose world has shrunk to the size of a gnat’s testicle and who seem to have no conscience whatever. Describing his notion of the balance that is needed, Roosevelt noted in a speech to the Union League Club:

“Neither this people not any other free people will permanently tolerate the use of vast power conferred by vast wealth, and especially by wealth in its corporate form, without lodging somewhere in the government the still higher power of seeing that this power, in addition to being used in the interest of the individual or the individuals possessing it, is also used for and not against the interests of the people as a whole.”

One would hope, wouldn’t one? In any event, after McKinley was shot and Roosevelt became president — much to the chagrin of the Republican bosses who tried to bury him in the Vice-Presidency to get him out of the governorship of New York where he was a pain in their collective ass, — he faced one of his major challenges. The miners in Pennsylvania went on strike; as the strike grew in size and violence and as Winter approached and coal became increasingly scarce, he wondered what the Constitution allowed him to do. He was in sympathy with the miners as he was with those poor folks in crowded New York tenements whom he visited, living together, five in the same room where they rolled cigars in sweat-shop conditions struggling to eek out a living. He knew the miners worked 10 hour days from the age of ten until they died at an early age from black lung disease, seldom seeing the light of day. And he knew that the owners were bound and determined to see that their plight did not improve at the owners’ expense.

One of the things that outraged him, as it did so many others, was the arrogance of the owners who had banded together and refused to listen to the legitimate grievances of the miners until they went dutifully back to work. The owners had already turned down an agreed-upon raise of 5% that would have cost them a mere $3 million dollars a year against their estimated profits of $75 million. Their attitude was clearly expressed in an open letter published by mine-owner George Baer which included the following paragraph:

“I beg of you not to be discouraged. The rights and interests of the laboring man will be protected and cared for — not by the labor agitators, but by the Christian men to whom God in His infinite wisdom has given the control of the property interests of the country, and upon the successful management of which so much depends.”

Needless to say, these words threw gas on the fire. They aroused the anger of thousands of people around the country, including the president. And they drew dozens of angry responses from newspaper editors around the country. Eventually Roosevelt was able to work a compromise by some brilliant machinations which drove the Republican bosses mad while reducing his chances of gaining the Republican nomination he so dearly sought. But he knew what was right and he knew he had to act accordingly. And he knew how to use the power of the press against those who ruled the Republican party. And that knowledge proved pivotal.

But what I want to focus attention on is the attitude reflected in those extraordinary words written by George Baer. As one editor noted, it smacks of the notion of divine rights of kings, except the sentiment here, strongly felt no doubt by his fellow fat-cats, is that property owners have a divine right to their property and to what is done with it — regardless of costs in human lives. Indeed, it is doubtful if men like Baer had any idea about the moral costs of their stunted perspective. In this comment he seems to be lost in his own convictions about Christian his right to lord it over others, if you can imagine such a thing.

It is one thing to insist that folks have a right to determine what happens with their property, but even John Locke, who was one of the first to defend free-enterprise capitalism, realized that there must be moral restraints on the amassing of great wealth. He insisted that one had a right to amass wealth only to the point where it interferes with the possibility of others amassing wealth as well. Adam Smith, who wrote the Bible on free-enterprise capitalism, agreed. They both simply assumed that human sympathy, fellow-feeling, would enter in and make the rich realize that there are limits to how much wealth they can collect without making life miserable for others. How naive! On the contrary, Baer’s letter reveals an attitude which we can see to this day among the predatory rich, which rests on the unquestioned assumption (on their part) that they have a right to as much money as they want and any interference with the steps they might take to gain that money are to be squashed, whatever the cost. I give you the predatory rich. You can have them.

Hoist By His Own Petard

In a most interesting article on “Alternet” by Sean Illing the author refers to Charles Koch’s frustration over the lack of civility in today’s politics — as reported in an interview in the Wall Street Journal. Illing is delighted by the irony he sees in the Tea Party founder’s frustration over the Frankenstein he has created and now cannot control. As the story relates, in part:

The “lack of substance and civility” about which Charles complains began in earnest with the rise of the Tea Party between 2009 and 2010. To the extent that the Tea Party is a centralized movement, it is so because it has been mobilized by the groups Americans for Prosperity and Freedom Works, both of which are Koch-financed. As it happens, these groups were formerly a single organization, called Citizens for a Sound Economy, which was founded in 1984 by, you guessed it, the Koch Brothers.

The Tea Party, from the very beginning, was designed for disruption, and it was a pet project of the Koch brothers (they actually created the first national website for the movement). Charles Koch says he’s interested only in advancing “free-market, small-government ideals,” but what he’s done is manufacture a faux-populist movement that has whipped the conservative base into an anti-government frenzy.

In the process of serving his narrow and self-interested ideological ends, he allowed the worst elements of the conservative movement – the xenophobes, the nationalists, and the theocrats – to hijack the Republican Party. Initially this worked, because it sent obstructionists to Congress whose only mission was to shut the government down. But, over time, it’s created a political climate in which it’s nearly impossible to govern. And it’s prepared the way for someone like Donald Trump (whose campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, is a product of Americans for Prosperity), who exists only because he’s been able to tap into the sentiments let loose by the Tea Party movement.

As the article suggests, the problem goes much deeper than mere lack of “civility,” though that is certainly something to deeply regret. The problem goes to the very core of a democratic system which demands an enlightened electorate, open discussion, civil disagreement, and willingness to compromise. The Koch brothers and their ilk have turned over some rocks and the like-minded vermin that have crawled out have taken over the system and are determined to break it down completely — in the name of lower taxes and “free-market, small government” ideals. Their goals are absurd, of course, since the agencies they target are the warp and woof of our political system — not to mention the fact that this country has never experienced a “free-market” economy. There have always been economic restraints built in by various state and federal agencies.

Democracy requires a government committed to the common good, not huge profits for some. But this is the goal of the obscenely wealthy who can spend millions of dollars in order to turn our democracy into an oligarchy, which is precisely what is happening before our very eyes. The Koch brothers spent over $400 million on the last election and plan to spend $750 million on this one. And their goal is not to merely control the Presidency and the U.S. Congress, but also numerous key legislatures around the country. Their scope is large, indeed. Charles may have regrets, but it certainly hasn’t altered his goals at all.

Indeed, there is irony here. But there is also a terrible sadness due to the fact that the monster let loose by the greed of a few is threatening to destroy one of the greatest political experiments since the Roman Republic.

And So It Begins

A recent story about the ripple effect of Elizabeth Warren’s attacks on Big Banks in this country that are making huge profits with the support of the government that bails them out every time they stumble or bumble raises some interesting points. It begins with the following two paragraphs:

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Big Wall Street banks are so upset with Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren’s call for them to be broken up that some have discussed withholding campaign donations to Senate Democrats in symbolic protest, sources familiar with the discussions said.

Representatives from Citigroup, J..P.Morgan, Goldman Sachs and Bank of America, have met to discuss ways to urge Democrats, including Warren and Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, to soften their party’s tone toward Wall Street, sources familiar with the discussions said this week.

This gambit is not new, of course, but there are a number of facets to this version that strike the interested reader. To begin with there is the given that the large corporations, including in this case the Big Banks, are throwing money at political candidates on both sides of the political aisle in order to be able to threaten to take it away if they don’t march to the tune the corporations have chosen to play. This is the way the game is played, as the NRA has shown for many years in order to guarantee that Americans continue to buy and use guns in the name of the Second Amendment — which most of those who clutch copies of the Constitution in one hand and an assault weapon in the other have never read and certainly don’t understand. Money talks and large money talks loud. The Koch Brothers have leaped on this train with both feet and threaten to determine its course for the next decade, at least.

But Warren is a woman of courage who now looks like a possible candidate for the highest office in the land so the stakes are very high and the Big Banks have started to plot their strategy. Perhaps you have heard the talk about how she “has it in” for the Banks because they foreclosed on her father’s home when she was a child. As they tell the story, this makes her a nut-case who is just out to get revenge. It implies that the Banks are squeaky clean and have done no wrong. But we know this not to be the case and wait and watch to see what new smear tactic they will employ while they see whether the threat to withhold money from influential Senators will get her off their backs and halt her campaign before it can get off the ground.

It’s dirty politics, or politics as usual if you prefer. And it works. It is especially gnawing to those who have read their history and know how worried the founders were about the influence of Big Money on politics. They knew that allowing money to accrue in the hands of a few would give them immense power: virtually all of the colonies instituted laws to fight against primogeniture. For example, George Washington did not inherit his father’s estate, including Mount Vernon, until his older brother died. And folks like Jefferson regaled the glories of the agrarian ideal, folks on their farms working the land, close to nature, or working at their jobs and maintaining the virtues of their forefathers. Jefferson, in particular, worried that “a rich country cannot long be a free one,” because men and women would be caught up in the making of money and ignore the “common good.” But, for all their concern about the abuses of power, the framers ignored the threat of great wealth when it came to writing the Constitution, sad to say, and we are paying the price. Or, more to the point, good people who want to do the right thing like Elizabeth Warren are paying the price. Hold on to your hats, it’s going to get ugly!

Teddy’s Transformation

One of the most captivating political phenomena in this country to my mind is the radical transformation of Teddy Roosevelt from his early years to his run for the presidency in 1912. He began as a wealthy, landed Republican with strong convictions about the benefits of free-enterprise capitalism and became a radical proponent of the rights of the common man (and woman) in his run for reelection in 1912. Along the way he was known for his progressive programs, his growing sympathy for the disadvantaged, and his hatred of the predatory rich — those whose only goal in life is to accumulate wealth with no concern whatever for their duties as wealthy citizens (you know, like the Koch brothers). During this period he was close friends with William Taft who wore himself out stumping for his friend during Roosevelt’s first run at the presidency. Teddy, in turn, after serving as sitting president for seven years, worked hard to make sure Taft was elected as his successor to carry on with his progressive programs. It is interesting in this regard that, despite his bluster, Teddy was successful in pushing through fewer progressive programs than his successor, even though he later criticized Taft for being too conciliatory and too willing to compromise with the trusts.

In any event, when the split finally came between Taft and Roosevelt, it was deep and wide. After the Republican convention in 1912 selected Taft as the Republican candidate for president, Roosevelt accused Taft of stealing the nomination and split with the Republican party to form  an Independent Party that embraced his principles and promised him another term in the White House. He ran a vicious campaign, one of the first in which the man himself actually rolled up his sleeves and went on the campaign trail, something the old soldier loved to do. He continued to attack Taft, often personally, and the rift between the two men became wider and wider — though Taft refused to lower himself to the ad hominem level where Teddy was very comfortable, preferring to remain as much out of the public eye as possible and responding only to a list of Roosevelt’s charges against his presidency that were clearly based on untruths.

But what is most interesting during this period is the platform that Roosevelt pushed through the convention he called in Chicago that nominated him for president. It reflected Roosevelt’s growing populism, his conviction that the people, including women, should be more involved in the political process and entitled to government protection against the blind greed that was motivating the corporate giants. He even advocated a judicial override system that would allow citizens to overthrow the decisions of the courts through a referendum! As noted in Doris Goodman’s excellent study of the Bully Pulpit, his platform included, besides a call for the right of women to vote,

“a living wage . . .  the prohibition of child labor, federal regulations of interstate corporations, a graduated inheritance tax, an eight-hour workday for women, new standards for workmen’s compensation, and finally a system of social insurance designed to protect citizens against ‘the hazards of sickness . . . involuntary unemployment, and old age’ to which employers and employees would both contribute.”

As Roosevelt himself noted, “Whatever fate may at the moment overtake any of us, the movement itself will not stop.” He was right, but also aware that as an independent president he would have no allies in Congress and his chances of pushing through any of these items were slim at best.

Because of the radical nature of this platform, which resembled in many ways the platform Woodrow Wilson ran on as the Democratic candidate, Taft had to distance himself from Roosevelt and adopt a decidedly conservative platform — despite the fact that he was at least as passionate about the rights of the disadvantaged and the excesses of the trusts as was his former friend. Needless to say, they split the Republican vote and assured Wilson of a victory (sound familiar?). If Roosevelt had remained in the Republican fold, his party would have had the necessary electoral votes to reelect a Republican president, as he himself acknowledged later on.

As it happens,Taft, who was a gentle man not cut out for politics at all, and Roosevelt, who had supreme confidence in himself and a fierce love of political infighting, managed to mend their tattered relationship and once again became close friends in their declining years — due largely to Taft’s persistent determination to knock down the fences between them and repair the damage. But the fact that stands out above the rest is the strange fever that attaches itself to many in the political arena that inflames their emotions and blinds them to the obvious. I am put in mind of Socrates’ admonition that a person cannot become involved in politics and remain true to himself. Roosevelt’s ego was immense, doubtless a part of his charm, but it became so large — as a result of his love of power, perhaps — that he nearly lost a dear friend and caused a split in the party to which he had devoted his political life. Ironic and a lesson to be learned. The ancient Greek dramatists would have loved this story.

Movers and Shakers

Machiavelli (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Machiavelli
(Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Machiavelli’s Prince was written in the sixteenth century ostensibly as advice to the rulers of Florence — especially Lorenzo de Medici — about how to achieve and maintain power. Or it may have been written to alert the common folk about what their rulers were up to. It is so vivid and frank that people like Jean Jacques Rousseau have been tempted to insist that it is satirical: surely, politics isn’t that rough and cut-throat! The Catholic Church disagreed with Rousseau and banned the book soon after it appeared.  For my part, I think Machiavelli was being quite honest: politics is, indeed, a matter of doing whatever it takes to achieve the desired objective.  And the “objective” is always to gain and maintain power. In his day, it was the Medici family who pursued that goal. In our day it is the corporations where the CEOs make 475 times as much money as their average employee and “morality” is a word never used.

In fact, there is a most interesting and provocative parallel here that might have missed a great many readers of Machiavelli’s classic. The Medici were the wealthiest family in Florence. Today’s power-brokers are the very wealthy, as was the case in Machiavelli’s day. Money is power. Thus, while we like to delude ourselves about democracy resting upon the power of the people, Machiavelli would insist that the people who have the power are, in fact, those who hold the purse strings. The people simply go through the motions and exercise the very few options open to them.

Thus, while you and I might bemoan the fact that the planet is suffering from severe attacks by greedy people and something must be done and the quicker the better, as long as people like the Koch brothers are the ones who decide what will be done, the planet must suffer.  They hope to stack the political deck with hand-picked puppets and rid the country of restraints on “free enterprise” — by such as agencies as the EPA. To be sure, today’s movers and shakers failed to achieve all they hoped for during the past election, despite the millions of dollars they spent to guarantee that the puppets they had selected for public office were successful in the national elections. But they have sworn that this will not happen again in the mid-term elections. And given their determination together with the money they have at their disposal, success seems inevitable. The vision of the fore-fathers that was framed in the Enlightenment optimism of the eighteenth century, the vision that assured those who embraced their new nation that the people will in fact rule in this Democracy — as reflected in Madison’s statement in Federalist Papers that those in positions of political prominence would be removed if they failed to attend to the voice of those who elected them — turns out to have been a pipe dream. Sad to say.

In then end, then, those of us who care about our planet and our country will have to sit by with hands tied and watch those who rule — who are, in fact if not in principle, the movers and shakers of today. They are the ones who hold the reins of power by means of the amount of monies they have to spend on electing puppets who will respond only to the pull of the strings that are wielded by the power-brokers themselves. And, of course, those same people could care less about the planet or their country. They care only about the bottom line. They are blinded by greed and the love of power and care only about what will bring them what they want. So let’s not fool ourselves. Machiavelli told us all about it centuries ago, and things have not really changed that much since then. Those who have money and power seek only to maintain their positions of strength while the rest of us seek the latest diversion they provide us with.

Does this mean that I, personally, will no longer hope for real change, that I will no longer send in my piddling amounts of money to help support those few politicians who seem to have something resembling a conscience? Certainly not. One must free one’s hands and continue to swim against the tide if it is certain to be heading in the wrong direction. I will continue to hope and I will continue to struggle and raise my shrill voice. But though I am not a pessimist or even a fatalist, I am a realist who has learned from the wisest and brightest of those who have passed before me. I have a pretty good idea how things will turn out.

Bi-monthly Report

As is usually the case with this blog, I am going to summarize the Sierra Club’s bi-monthly report as included in the Sierra Magazine. It contains some bad news along with some very good news as far as human life on our planet is concerned. First the bad news:

BAD NEWS

The Baird’s sparrow is being pushed out of North Dakota and Montana and into Canada by climate change.

Rising temperatures and hybridization with non-native rainbow trout threaten Montana’s famed cutthroat trout with extinction.

May was the hottest month on record.

The West Antarctic ice sheet is in irreversible collapse according to a joint University of California, Irvine/NASA study. The ice sheet contains enough water top raise sea levels worldwide by four feet.

That last one is most disturbing, but it is countered by some good news.

GOOD NEWS
One-fifth of the world electric energy production now comes from renewables.

The EPA proposes a rule to cut carbon dioxide emissions from the power sector, including existing coal-fired power plants, by 30 percent by 2030. (You may recall that the EPA is one of the main targets of the Koch brothers!) Meanwhile, Finland (whose school system is the best in the world) aims to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by the middle of the century.

Tesla motors (makers of the world’s most efficient electric cars) has surpassed Toyota as the largest auto industry employer in California. Further, their CEO, Elon Musk, has opened his company’s patents to other automakers for free in order to help widespread adoption of electric cars.

America now has more solar workers than coal miners — (for those who think the pursuit of renewable energy will cost the country jobs).

And finally, Pope Francis says that destroying the earth is a sin. (Not to mention suicidal).

Go Get ‘Em, Harry!

A recent story tells about the attempts by at least one member of the political Establishment to restore this country to the democracy it once was. I am talking about Harry Reid who is nothing if not outspoken and certainly not everyone’s cup of political tea. But he is decidedly a man of courage in a political climate where the very wealthy are on the verge of taking total control of the strings of power. A recent Yahoo news story begins as follows:

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid amped up his crusade against the Republican megadonor Koch brothers Thursday,  backing an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to undo recent Supreme Court rulings on campaign finance.

In a speech from the Senate floor, Reid said a vote on the amendment would be held sometime in the summer, after the Senate Judiciary Committee marks up the amendment in the coming weeks. Reid also said there would be hearings on the amendment, giving Democrats a chance to elevate the campaign-finance issue to a higher profile in the thick of campaign season.

“Every American should have the same ability to influence our political system,” Reid said Thursday. “One American, one vote. That’s what the Constitution guarantees.  The Constitution does not give corporations a vote, and the Constitution does not give dollar bills a vote.”

The Republicans and others who are in the pockets of the wealthy will fight the attempt to amend the Constitution in the name of “free speech,” and from where I sit an amendment is unlikely, especially if mid-term elections go the way the monied interests want them to go. But it is necessary if the political game is to be changed back to some semblance of what the Founders had in view when they struggled so hard to establish a Republic in the wilds of America. As things now stand, the country has become an oligarchy — as a recent study has attested — and the ability of wealthy folks like the Koch brothers to have things their political way simply proves the point. In a word, they, and others of their ilk, are in the process of spending billions of dollars buying a government that will dance to their tune.

They have received considerable support to this point by a Supreme Court that seems determined to read the constitution with glasses provided by the wealthy and recent decisions have extended the power of corporations and the few very wealthy who can now determine the direction the political winds blow, as the story goes on to point out:

. . . the amendment would reverse some major recent Supreme Court decisions on campaign finance, including  2010’s Citizens United  case and the  recent McCutcheon v. FEC  ruling. Those decisions have eliminated limits on millions of dollars’ worth of donations to political campaigns from corporations, labor unions, and generally wealthy individuals.

A brief look at history will show that people like Madison and Jefferson worried about the effects of wealth on a free government. While they tended to focus attention on the Aristocracy they thoroughly distrusted, they were dimly aware of  rich men who could simply bribe their way to power. If anyone knew about power and its abuses, it was those men who gathered in Philadelphia in the eighteenth century, though the document they eventually came up with is flawed in many ways — the most serious omission being any reference to the power of unlimited wealth. It is an oversight that can easily be forgiven in light of the fact that in spite of their awareness of possible abuses of wealth in the future, they couldn’t have been expected to foresee a country in which both wealth and income are super-concentrated in the top 0.1% of the population, which is just one in a thousand.  But it is a flaw that an amendment could eradicate if it is possible to get this Congress to act as it should and not as it almost certainly will.

It is interesting to note in passing that former Supreme Court Judge John Paul Stevens has written a book in which he argues for six amendments to the Constitution. Unfortunately, he doesn’t mention an amendment to specifically limit the power of corporations, but he does mention the need to limit campaign spending, the need to prohibit gerrymandering, the need to articulate the principle of sovereign immunity which guarantees each state the right to sue without federal interference, the need to specifically include a prohibition against the death penalty, the need to modify the second amendment allowing for gun control, and what he calls “a supremacy clause,” which determines whether the federal government can compel state officials to enforce federal laws. Whether one agrees with Stevens or not, it is clear that our sacred Constitution is dated and in need of revision.

It remains to be seen if there are enough politicians of conscience to join with Harry Reid to push this particular amendment through. In the meantime we can only hope, though I honestly can’t see this group biting the hand that feeds them.

Bad News/Good News

It’s time once again to summarize the environmental news from the past couple of months as it appears in this month’s Sierra Magazine. Let’s begin with the bad news:

In the midst of one of the more severe winters we have experienced in the Midwest and Northeast in recent years — which has convinced the no-minds that global warming is a fiction invented by tree-hugging weirdos — it is sobering to realize that 2013 was the fourth hottest year on record. It was so hot during the Australian Open Tennis Tournament (108 degrees) that plastic bottles were melting and several players suffered from sunstroke. Having played tennis in hot temperatures, I can assure you that the temperature on the tennis court was considerably hotter than the air temperature as recorded.

In the face of the drought in California, officials have announced that farmers in California’s Central Valley will receive no state or federal irrigation water this year.  Some California ranchers have been forced to give up on grass-fed beef because of the drought in that state. And while this was happening, it was discovered that eight million acres of farmland in China are too polluted to grow crops — ever again.  As populations continue to grow and the globe continues to warm it seems evident that it will become increasingly difficult to feed the world’s hungry people. And it is not a problem that will go away simply because we ignore it.

In its wisdom, Congress allowed the tax credits for wind power to expire. Those credits were instrumental in getting 60,000 megawatts of clean wind power on-line in the last two decades. Simultaneously, by arguing that solar collectors have “saturated” the grid or that they are increasing costs to those without the collectors, the nation’s investor-owned utilities  have launched a full-scale attack on solar energy, “challenging the laws, rules, and programs that have made solar a formidable clean energy contender.” The attack includes anti-solar ads produced by a group affiliated with the Koch brothers. (Can there be any debate whatever about the question of who are two of the most wicked men in the world today?)  In the meantime, one can expect the $8 billion in annual tax credits to Big Oil to continue.

But, on the other hand, the 377 megawatt Ivanpah solar electric generating station, the largest in the world, went on-line in the desert southwest of Las Vegas.  Shell Oil has cancelled plans to drill in the Arctic in 2014 and the Los Angles City Council banned fracking. The EPA (which has been targeted by the Koch brothers) proposed fuel-efficiency standards for big trucks for the first time ever. And the Obama administration finally got off its duff and blocked the construction of the Pebble Mine, a massive gold and copper mine proposed for the headwaters of Alaska’s Bristol Bay, site of one of the world’s richest salmon fisheries. With food shortages looming, this would appear to be a no-brainer. I can imagine the federal government getting more involved as the food crunch gets worse. That may not be a bad thing.

Culture Of Sharing

A good friend of mine who  is kind enough to read my blogs when he isn’t chasing whales and seals around the world has recently challenged me to write about the generosity that is exhibited by significant numbers of people — who stand in sharp contrast to the people like the Koch brothers who get all the attention and all the well-deserved criticism for being grasping and selfish. He’s right, of course, and I will attempt to rise to the challenge as set forth in these comments:

Now I want to hear your thoughts on the merits, joys, and feelings of worth experienced by practicing philanthropy. I am very impressed how many people give from their heart to accomplish so many varied, worthwhile and often important activities. Your piece today emphasizes that the miser never considers what might be done with his amassed resources. In my view, real joy comes as a result of hard work and then what folks do with their subsequent financial success. . . . [W]e have all seen folks of modest means practice a culture of sharing.

I like to think Dante was right to put those who love only money deep in Hell at the edge of a pit of fire with bags of gold hanging around their necks. While experiencing intense heat from the flames they are forced to stare at the bags through eternity, transfixed forever on what they have loved all their lives but which has little real importance. But I also agree that there are a great many people who get real joy from giving to others, as my friend suggests. Indeed, it has been shown that Americans are extremely generous when it comes to helping those in need — especially after natural disasters. But even during tranquil times, such as last year, such charities as “Feeding America” collected $1,510,622,608  to help feed many of those who go to bed hungry each night in this country. An astonishing figure! While we might be able to attribute the motives of the miser to a hardening of his heart to those in need, there are a great many more whose heart goes out immediately to those same people. Generosity is even more common than miserliness, though it is less spectacular and therefore ignored by smart-ass critics such as myself. In the end, I suspect, charitable giving comes down to a natural feeling of sympathy that can be found in most, if not all, human beings.

While some might insist that charity cannot be found in our secular age, one thinker who would disagree is professor Charles Taylor. His position is supported by figures like those noted above in the case of “Feeding America.” He has analyzed in great detail our age in an attempt to understand it better and is convinced that the roots of our charity toward others stems from the remnants of religion that can be found even among those who reject the very notion of religion and appear to be the most self-involved. As he put it in his book The Secular Age:

People still seek those moments of fusion, which wrench us out of the everyday, and put us in contact with something beyond ourselves. We see this in pilgrimages, mass assemblies like World Youth Days, in one-off gatherings of people moved by some highly resonating event, like the funeral of Princess Diana, as well as in rock concerts, raves, and the like. What has all this to do with religion? The relationship is complex. On the one hand, some of these events are unquestionably “religious,” in the [strict] sense that it is oriented to something putatively transcendent (a pilgrimage to Medjugorje or a World Youth Day). And what has perhaps not been sufficiently remarked is the way in which this dimension of religion, which goes back to its earliest forms, is still alive and well today, in spite of all attempts at Reforming élites over many centuries to render our religious and/or moral lives more personal and inward, to disenchant the universe and downplay the collective.

One of the great minds to address this situation was David Hume who, in the eighteenth century, takes another tack entirely: he analyzed the “virtues” that were much talked about in his day — though we hesitate to even use the word any more. Most of the virtues, according to Hume, come down to utility, or their benefit to society as a whole — such things as justice, veracity, and honor. He argued in his Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals that these virtues are valued entirely for their utility while there are others, such as benevolence, friendship, and charity that are partially valued for their utility but also for the feelings of sympathy they give rise to in the recipient or the virtuous persons themselves.

But a third class can be noted, according to Hume, and those virtues are entirely due to the fact that they express in themselves the natural sympathy that humans feel toward one another (though it can be stifled when other feelings become paramount, such as the love of money and power). Those virtues, due entirely to what we might call fellow-feeling, are such things as cheerfulness, modesty, and courtesy. These things have no utility whatever, according to Hume, but we admire them and approve of them when we witness them. And, he insists, we hope to bring up our children in such a way that they will exhibit these virtues along with the others that may be wholly or partially of benefit to society in general.

Thus, whether we take the approach of Hume and argue that humans generally  feel a natural sympathy toward one another or we agree with Taylor that there remain the remnants of religion that teaches us to love one another, we can agree that there are sound reasons why a great many people still care about one another enough to help them when they are in need and we know that, when acted upon,  such fellow-feeling does indeed make the giver feel a genuine sense of joy. Despite people like the Koch brothers and their ilk, ours remains to a large degree a “culture of sharing.”

Gold As God

Have you ever wondered what makes people like the Koch brothers tick? What possesses a person to want to accumulate more and more wealth when they already have enough to buy a small country? Clearly, it’s a mania, but how does one penetrate into the psyche of such a type and figure out what lies deep within? Apparently this question, or one very like it, has occurred to a number of novelists who have examined miserliness. The classic example, of course, is Molière’s Harpagon. And then there’s George Eliot’s Silas Marner who is a bit of a miser but who comes out of the darkness in the end because of the love of a young girl he has allowed into his life. Eliot shows herself to be an old softie here, since Silas isn’t true to the type: misers love only money.

The writer I am most familiar with who seems to have been fascinated by the miserly type is Honoré de Balzac who wrote 92 novels, a number of which deal with the type. Balzac was deeply concerned about the consequences of the growing fixation around him for wealth in all its forms. It becomes a recurring theme in his novels, as it was in the novels of Anthony Trollope, George Eliot, and Charles Dickens. But the miser is a special case. There is the filthy rich Jérome-Niclas Séchard in Balzac’s Lost Illusions who is quite willing to see his only son, his daughter-in-law, and his grandchild starve rather than give them any of his money. But even more sinister is Eugénie Grandet’s awful father who whose first name is mentioned only once in Balzac’s novel by that name. He is simply referred to as “Grandet” who “towered above the other actors in [his town], exploiting enormous profits from [others’] pretense of friendship. . . . There, incarnate in a single man, revealed in the expression of a single face, did there not stand the only god that anyone believes in nowadays — Money, in all its power?” Old Grandet refused to spend a sou unless he absolutely had to. He gave his wife an allowance, a mere pittance every now and again when necessary — keeping her large inheritance for himself. And he insisted that she pay for all household expenses out of her allowance. He allowed his daughter to buy the material to make herself a dress every year for her birthday. They used the cheapest candles, and very few of them. And his rooms rarely saw a warming fire in the fireplace. His house was cold, bleak, and run down and he insisted on making essential repairs himself. He had a locked room in the attic where he went to count his gold and calculate rates of interest on his investments. In Balzac’s mind the miserly type was the result of the sudden awareness of the possibilities (very real in his day) of accumulating huge amounts of wealth. He saw this not as mere avarice, but as a sickness that drove the sick person to madness or even tragedy. As he put it

“Misers hold no belief in a life beyond the grave, the present is all in all to them. This thought throws a pitilessly clear light upon the irreligious times in which we live, for today more than in any previous era money is the force behind the law, politically and socially. Books and institutions, the actions of men and their doctrines, all combine to undermine the belief in a future life upon which the fabric of society has been built for eighteen hundred years. The grave holds few terrors for us now, is little feared as a transition stage upon man’s journey. That future which once awaited us beyond the Requiem has been transported into the present. To reach per fas et nefas [by fair means or foul] an earthly paradise of luxury and vanity and pleasure, to turn one’s heart to stone and mortify the flesh for the sake of fleeting enjoyment of earthly treasure, as saints once suffered martyrdom in the hope of eternal bliss, is now the popular ambition! It is an ambition stamped on our age and seen in everything, even the very laws whose enaction requires the legislator to exercise not his critical faculties, but his power of making money. Not ‘What do you think?’ but ‘What can you pay?’ is the question he is asked now. When this doctrine has been handed down from the bourgeoisie to the people, what will become of our country?”

As is clear from this stinging passage, Balzac connected the miser’s love of money with a spreading disease that has serious ramifications for the whole of an age and a people. It’s not only that the miser’s heart turns to stone — a phenomenon he explores in great detail in Eugénie Grandet — but that his disease is spreading. But what is of singular interest for my present purpose, especially if Balzac is on to something here, is the perception that the miser’s love of gold becomes all-consuming and his feelings die within his breast as passion takes over and those around him become mere instruments for the gathering of more and more wealth. There is no question why? since the miser doesn’t even consider the possibility of spending it. There is simply the question “How?” and the all-consuming passion for more and more of that which he already has in abundance. Balzac makes the following penetrating observation regarding Grandet:

“A miser’s life is a constant exercise of every human faculty in the service of his own personality. He considers only two feelings, vanity and self-interest: but as the achievement of his interest supplies to some extent a concrete and tangible tribute to his vanity, as it is a constant attestation of his real superiority, his vanity and the study of his advantage are two aspects of one passion — egotism. . . . Like all misers he had a constant need to pit his wits against those of other men, to mulct them of their crowns . . . . To get the better of others, was that not exercising power, giving oneself with each new victim the right to despise those weaklings of the earth who are unable to save themselves from being devoured? Oh! has anyone properly understood the meaning of the lamb lying peacefully at God’s feet, that most touching symbol of all the victims of this world, and of their future, the symbol which is suffering and weakness glorified? The miser lets the lamb grow fat, then he pens, kills, cooks, eats, and despises it. Misers thrive on money and contempt.”

I suppose this takes us part way, at least, to an understanding of modern-day misers who can see nothing beyond the process of maximizing profits at whatever cost to satisfy their own bloated egos. They have no better nature to appeal to: an appeal that is based, say, on the very real possibility that they are blind to the deterioration of the world around them, a blindness that will eventually destroy them and a great many others along with them. They care not: their only urge is to amass a larger and larger fortune. It becomes an end in itself. The means simply do not matter.