Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Danger of Trophy Capitalism in the US

By Bob Ferris
The legend of Robin Hood introduces the peril of Trophy Capitalism as well as hope for a solution (N.C. Wyeth). 
Much ado was recently made about a US dentist who illegally shot a lion in Africa as a trophy.  Now many would argue that killing anything is evil, but as a hunter I am not of that camp.  For me, killing something illegally or unethically—either through method or lack of need—is what gets my blood boiling.  In this instance, as with the woman who shot a giraffe because it was “dangerous,” my sense is that flying across an ocean to kill something that is rare simply so you can hang it up on a wall or make a check mark on your life (death?) list is unnecessary on so many levels and should be treated as such.  

The “need” issue in this is core for me, because I frequently get into discussions with the anti-wolf crowd who sneeringly (and incorrectly) refer to wolves as surplus predators killing more than they need and wasting the rest—a position which seems strongly inconsistent with their support for trophy hunters who frequently do this when not eating that lion, giraffe, elephant or wolf they just shot.  My sense is that these concepts of surplus and trophies should also apply to economics and wealth as what is a billionaire or multi-billionaire other than a surplus predator on economic activity bent on collecting more wealth not out of any need, but rather for the trophy it represents?

Now before I continue let me say a few things.  I believe in the American Dream and I do not have a beef with capitalism per se.  My issues arise when the American Dream is viewed by some as a Buzz Lightyear “to infinity and beyond” journey rather than a reasonable destination.  Moreover, I also do not believe that those farther along on this “journey” should be able to use their positions or accumulated wealth to put limits on the dreams of others.  Admittedly this latter part stems from my personal aversion to bullies, but I am OK with that.  
“[D]ream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.” Historian James Truslow Adams defining the American Dream in his 1931 book, "The Epic of America."  
For the above construct to operate and have meaning “reasonableness” needs to be defined.  What is rich enough?  How much is too much?  What level of economic harvesting would transition someone from legitimately pursuing the American Dream to becoming what should be termed as a "Trophy Capitalist" focused solely on collecting zeros rather than enriching their quality of life or the lives of others?  It is interesting that we as a nation seem to be able with reasonable precision to tell when pass interference happens during a football game, but lose those discernment skills when looking at someone or a family that has taken so much of our collective resources that they are infringing on the dreams of others.  So let me help a little.

I think in its most generous version the American Dream means “having it all.”   So let’s go extra-large and say that this expansive version of the American Dream includes having a bomb-proof income of say a $1 million annually; providing luxury for your two children ($10,000 per month each until 18); being well-endowed materially with multiple cars and houses in the city, mountains and beach (four $80,000 vehicles and three $5 million dollar homes); as well as putting your children through a quality four-year college.  The price tag for this extravagant dream would be about $100 million dollars or roughly 166 times the average net worth of an American couple or more than 1000 times the median net worth of an American couple (this skewed distribution should give you an idea of problem).  Right now there are about 5000 families in the US that meet this level of American dreaming.

Now before the cards and letters start flowing I will say that having a net worth of a hundred million dollars is really not about achieving the American Dream, but rather about perpetrating a ridiculously selfish act.  Which puts those people—i.e., billionaires—who have achieved a hundred times or more of this “more-than-you-could- possibly-ever-need” scenario in a position of transitioning from super-saturated success to serious sickness, because it is not about providing for actual needs or wants at this point.   

Much of this issue came home to me the other night when my wife and I watched the movie “Unbroken.”  In this film there is a scene where three World War II US Army Air Corps bomber crew members are in a life raft after surviving a crash at sea and they wake up to find that one of their raft mates has eaten their entire supply of chocolate by himself and in secret.  This scene was likely written for the 535 billionaires we have in the US right now—at least those unrepentant members of that group that have not signed the billionaire pledge or taken other similar actions.  

But this “don’t gobble up all the resources and think it is cool” messaging and the rightful consequences of this behavior are not new.  They are repeated in the Bible passage about camels (or ropes) and needle eyes, the Robin Hood legend, Disney’s 1937 classic “Pigs is Pigs” (see full cartoon here), Roald Dahl’s Willie Wonka  and in Monty Python’s dining scene in “The Meaning of Life.” (I wonder if Donald Trump understands that many of us think about Mr. Creosote and his buckets when Mr. Trump is going on and on and on about how rich he is.)

I mentioned sickness above in regards to Trophy Capitalism as I think that there is a deep psychological aspect to this behavior.  I am not a psychologist, but my sense is that the Koch family is a prime example of this.  Grandpa Koch came to this country in the late 1800's and sought his fortune, in part, because he felt neglected and ignored by his father who had remarried and had a second family.  His son Fred who made a fortune working for Stalin’s communist regime in Russia and later helped co-found the anti-communist John Birch Society seemed to perpetuate this pattern of sons using wealth as a way to gain fatherly approval and attention.   And skimming biographies of the current crop of Kochs we see distant parents and a father that never seemed satisfied acting as an engine for hyper-competitiveness and accumulation of wealth in the four boys molded by the manipulative Fred.

Excerpt from "Sons of Wichita: How the Koch Brothers Became America's Most Powerful and Private Dynasty" by Daniel Schulman. 
Now in these tellings of the Koch boys’ youth there is much talk about having to do chores like mucking out horse stalls on their huge estate or other properties held by the family.  But it is hard in this to reconcile these tales of deprivation with living in a house that had a Renoir on the wall (see above excerpt). And, trust me, I get the father resentment that a shovel can bring as I spent a good portion of my free time in high school hand-digging a new drain field for the family’s septic system and moving with shovel and contractor's wheelbarrow the mountain of dirt excavated for the pool my father had put in but was too thrifty to have the dirt hauled away.  But most of us navigated our way through these “I’ll teach you responsibility” exercises without debilitating harm.

I have taken us down this psychological side tunnel because I want folks to grasp the possibility that our country, our political system, and the future of our Planet might be in jeopardy because some small section of society was not loved enough at some point in their lives.  When we look at the gaming of our economic system including the massive migration of wealth away from the middle class, our artificially paralytic response to climate change and the purposeful dysfunction injected into Congress by what is essentially a cabal of billionaires it seems bizarre that we could have let this happen.  

Writer Naomi Klein in her fine book “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate” lays much of this at the feet of capitalism.  I am not entirely convinced as I think the adjustments needed at this point have to deal with the abuse of capitalism rather than the institution itself.  Perhaps what we need to do as folks come nearer to this hundred million mark is tax them like we did in the 1950s and use part of that money to provide them therapy to uncover and deal with the underlying causes of their trophy capitalism.  Yeah, that’s the ticket.

NOTE: I wrote this last fall and it was directed more towards the Koch Brothers, but it could just as easily be directed towards the Trumps who are Trophy Capitalists and Trophy Hunters.  It is hard for me to differentiate between  Donald Trump Jr's act of "conquering" and demeaning a dead elephant by cutting off its tail (see above) as any different than his father's coating their home garishly in gold and demeaning the economic suffering they and others have inflicted on the rest of us.

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