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Thursday, July 21, 2011 04:15 pm

Marching toward the new economy

I just read Gar Alperovitz’s article, “The New-Economy Movement,” which explained how the American Sustainable Business Council and the New Economy Network are demonstrating that companies can earn solid profits without exploiting workers or destroying the planet. Companies like Gore-Tex, Seventh Generation, and King Arthur Flour are treating their workers well and proving that American citizens have better options if they simply would ask: “What is the economy for?”

Is the economy supposed to function as a rigged game that channels enormous wealth to a few people while impoverishing everyone else and weakening the nation? Or is it supposed to channel the citizenry’s capital, talent and labor to create shared prosperity?

Seventh Generation sells “green” household products and, according to Alperovitz, it possesses “internal policies requiring that no one be paid more than 14 times the lowest base pay or five times higher than the average employee.” According to Seventh Generation’s website, bonus compensation similarly meshes productivity incentives with fairness. By comparison, many other CEOs now receive at least 300 times more than their company’s average employee. Seventh Generation’s compensation policy is not socialism but fair, sustainable capitalism; the gargantuan compensation at other companies ultimately results in the inequality that can trigger revolutions.

This knowledge offers progressives a simple way to live our principles. We should buy products from companies like Seventh Generation and urge our fellow citizens to pressure our business leaders to practice capitalism in more just ways. Eventually, American citizens from all walks of life should unite and remind our congressional leaders that they ultimately serve us, not their ambition or major donors.

Exiting a library recently, I encountered two carts stacked with books withdrawn from the collection. One book – Louis Fuller’s Progressivism and Muckraking (1976) – reminded me of a time, the opening decades of the 20th century, when American citizens tamed the savagery of robber-baron capitalism. The book’s location among the discards turned my thoughts to the strange paralysis affecting American citizens.

Day by day, as I talk to people of all political perspectives and income levels, I hear a level of dissatisfaction, disgust and outrage about the machinations of Wall Street and Congress, higher than any level I’ve heard before. Yet, particularly among the progressives and moderates, this outrage is not resulting in effective political action. On the radical right, it results in support for policies that destroy the prosperity of its rank-and-file members. The anomaly baffles me; it’s as if American citizens have decided to amuse themselves into powerlessness.    

Given the options that Congress is considering regarding the debt ceiling, most American households soon will suffer a decline in their standard of living. Our leaders in Congress, many of whom are millionaires, might irresponsibly push the U.S. and global economies into a financial catastrophe, but they certainly will make the so-called hard, but actually self-serving, choices necessary to protect the wealthy and punish poor and working-class citizens.

Perhaps this summer’s terrible heat explains why many American citizens have focused more on the Casey Anthony trial than on the debt-ceiling and spending-cuts debate. Heat increases languor, while typical American households’ levels of stress, exhaustion and poor health increase lassitude.

 Whatever causes this passivity, it creates a fatal cultural trajectory. All Americans, particularly progressives, would be wise to end this lethargic interlude.

As a first step, you might invite 15 of your closest friends to join you in your living room – if you still can afford a house – and agree on one collective action that will apply pressure to your elected representatives or ease the suffering in your community.

“Books can point the way,” John Kenneth Galbraith once reminded us. “Things happen when readers join the march.”

Nick Capo, associate dean and associate professor of English at Illinois College, writes as a public scholar and private citizen.
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