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Why Do Americans Have to Crush Others to Get Ahead?

The competitive edge is always front and center in this country. But it's not the best way to run a society.

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In my world, “so what?” is always an appropriate question.  Isn’t an Android phone a wonderful thing and isn’t it the product of intense competition?  

The age of capitalism surely has been an age of technological innovation.  From the H-bomb to commercial air travel to washing machines to factory farms to endless gadgets such as “smart” phones to the Mars land rover “Curiosity” currently beaming back data endless streams of data,  the rate of innovation and invention has been breathtaking.  

But how much does “competition” deserve the credit? And is more of the same what we need now?  Unpacking the answer to these questions is not so easy.  Doing so however is essential to building an economy that better serves humans and the earth.  

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again:  human ingenuity created capitalism, not the other way around.  Humans have always invented.  That’s why we can go back thousands of years and find tools, musical instruments, weapons, the evolution of language, writing and reading, arithmetic, money and much, much more.  

Good inventions beget more good inventions and improvements in those that exist.  That process is itself “competitive” in the sense that if one tool proves better at say, cutting, because of its design or material, that’s the one that will be more commonly reproduced until something better comes along.  

The progression is anything but neat and tidy.  The past frequently exerts a pull.  Today for example, some people still prefer to hunt with a bow and arrow and play music on vinyl records.  England still has a queen, albeit with different duties and powers than in the past.

Thinking about how competition works now requires thinking about the capitalism we have now as distinct from the capitalism we had even a few decades ago.  It’s a very different animal.  Why?  Most important, it has near total hegemony.  At least since the fall of the Berlin Wall, capitalists have felt no threat from an “alternative” system.  This critical development is often overlooked, especially by those who are trying to “fix” capitalism.  They imagine the capitalism that now runs the economy of the globe can somehow be put back into a 1950’s bottle.  Not happening.  

Which brings us to the next point.  The enormous noise machine notwithstanding, what motivates the 1% masters of the universe today has very little to do with capitalism per se.  It has to do with staying in power.  This cannot be stressed too much.  The Koch brothers are coming from the exact same place as Bashar Assad. The purity of capitalist ideology is useful to them mostly as a cover story for consumption by a public they hope is both gullible and stuck in the past.  That’s why Charles Koch, of all people, recently penned an op ed for the Wall Street Journal decrying “crony” capitalism.  Seriously.  I am not making this up.  

Behavior is the ultimate expression of attitude.  One of my current favorite examples of capitalist behavior involves a bitter struggle underway in Michigan.  Republican Governor Rick Snyder is a self-described business nerd.  Prior to becoming Governor his history was entirely in the “private sector.”  On just about every issue he tows the Republican party line.  

Yet second only to his pioneering fight to impose “emergency manager” dictators over all of Michigan’s predominately African American cities and school districts, his next priority is get a publicly financed bridge between Detroit and Windsor Canada.  What makes this interesting and revealing is that the Ambassador Bridge already connects Detroit to Windsor.  It is owned by private sector billionaire Matty Moroun.  

According to Moroun—a notorious slumlord and all around sleazebag—traffic on the existing bridge has been declining for years and hence there is no need for a second bridge.  Whatever.  Snyder and his big business supporters want a new bridge and they want it financed by the public—in this case the taxpayers of Canada.  They have been ruthless in trying to crush opposition to the new bridge—even when it comes from fellow Republicans.  

To some, this looks likes corruption, or crony capitalism, or the pernicious influence of “too much money” in politics.  All the more reason, say many, that we have to overturn Citizens United.  Maybe so, but that misses the deeper dynamic of what’s at work here.  

Today’s capitalists actually have no opposition whatsoever to Huge Government (thanks to David Sirota for this useful phrase).  To the contrary—they are utterly dependent on Huge Government.  They love the revenue they get from government contracts, not to mention trillion dollar bailouts when they screw-up. They need government police power to suppress dissent.  They depend on military might to protect supply lines and friendly governments.  Government financed research and development that finds its way into the hands of their corporations is fine with them.  The Robert Rubins and John Corzines of the world appreciate the high level government jobs they rotate in and out of as suits their fancy.  Anything the government collects taxes for that is consistent with their agenda, they favor.  They are only against government that does something other than provide direct benefits to them.  Oh and they very much like transferring wealth from people with lower incomes to the government to pay for all the things that help them.  

Further, they are interested in promoting genuine economic competition only in very limited circumstances.   What the priests of capitalism preach is not what working capitalists practice.  From TARP to LIBOR, as scandal after scandal reveals, amongst themselves, capitalists are all about collaboration, cooperation and manipulation.  It’s the 99 percent that they want to be obsessed with the theory and practice of competition.  

Telling examples permeate the world of professional sports.  In the first place, in the US, professional sport operates under Congressional mandates exempting the privately owned teams from anti-trust laws.  Beyond that, professional sports leagues routinely employ draft schemes that requiring “winning” teams transfer the most promising young players to “losing” teams.  Salary caps, revenue sharing and other tactics also manipulate “competition” for the good of their common economic interests.  

This is not to say there are never conflicts among capitalists.  Of course there are.  George Soros and the Koch brothers really do disagree on some social and economic policies.  Apple and Samsung actually are fighting over intellectual property and market share.  There are remnants of old fashioned economic competition for markets, raw materials, intellectual property and certain kinds of labor.  
But they are increasingly rare.  And why not.  The global 1% has ever reason to unite and cooperate among themselves.

Among the 99% however, competition is thriving.  It is especially fierce within the confines of the global J.O.B. economy.  Capitalism is not now nor has it ever been a job-creation system.  In some places and some times corporations and businesses employ large numbers of people.  Other times and other places, they don’t.  Under both circumstances the number of J.O.B.’s is a collateral result of decisions by capitalists as to where and how to invest—you guessed it—capital.  

For at least two decades there has been a global surplus of labor.  There is every reason to believe that the surplus will expand, not contract.  Consequently more and more workers will be vying for fewer and fewer J.O.B.s.  

For that reason alone it makes sense to question the ideology that promotes all competition as all good all the time.  

Which brings us back to the entertainment/sports industrial complex.  It’s meta message is hidden in plain sight:  If are doing well—give yourself all the credit and be prepared to fight with all your might to hold on to what you have because the “unworthy” will surely come after you.  After all, does not American Idol and the NFL and the whole dang edifice prove that the winners are deserving and the losers are not?  

There is another way.   A whole new world of cooperation, collaboration and community is there for your consideration and participation.  It is both an alternative philosophical approach and available in a growing number of businesses and institutions of all kinds.  More and more people are finding that alternative every day.  

America surely does have talent.  Who will be more surprised when that talent is deployed on behalf of the 99 percent instead of the 1 percent?  We are definitely going to find out.