Well, the Masters of the Universe have screwed up again. Jamie Dimon and JPMorgan, the so called "good" bank, went out and squandered $2 billion of their depositor's federally-insured money, playing with the same stick of credit default swap dynamite that nearly blew up capitalism four years ago.
So, as Wall Street greed has once again ignited demands for America's reckless, out-of-control financial sector to be reined in, be prepared for the backlash -- the awesome onslaught of windy odes to economic "freedom," "individualism" and "American exceptionalism."
Once upon a time, the architects of today's swashbuckling capitalism sold their anything-goes laissez faire with the promise that if we would just leave the rich alone to do what they do best (create wealth for themselves) everyone else would benefit, too -- a rising tide raises all boats, and all of that.
But as free market capitalism failed to deliver the goods - and as most households saw their debts rise and their wages stay flat while 25% of all income was hoovered up by the top 1% -- free market boosters switched gears, touting capitalism not on its economic merits but on its moral and psychological ones, even going so far as to impugn the manhood of anyone who criticized it.
Don't be a wuss and whine that Corporation X outsourced your job to China or Big Bank Y cheated you out of your house and life's savings. Stand up. Be a man. Take control of your life. Don't be such a loser!
That's the message of Arthur C. Brooks, President of the conservative American Enterprise Institute who, in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, trotted out his new role as New Age, self-help guru when he asserted: "What sets the United States apart from countries like Spain is the difference between earned success and learned helplessness."
Earned success, says Brooks rhapsodically, "means defining your future as you see fit and achieving that success on the basis of merit and hard work. It allows you to measure your life's profit however you want, be it in money, making beautiful music, or helping people learn English. Earned success is at the root of American exceptionalism."
Learned helplessness, he says, is what they've got in "socially democratic" Spain where unemployment is 24% and nearly half of adults under 35 live with their parents - the result, says Brooks, of unions, governments that care about the poor and unemployed and a "recession" whose causes Brooks conspicuously leaves unspecified.
Thank God we believe in the free market here in America, says Brooks. But there are storm clouds on the horizon. "America faces a new culture war," he says, not over guns, gays or abortion -- but whether "America will continue to be an exceptional nation." And by exceptional, Brooks means "organized around the principles of free enterprise and limited government whose rewards are determined by market forces." The only other course America might take is a move toward "European-style statism grounded in expanding bureaucracies, a managed economy and large-scale income redistribution."
Most of us thought we've been living under a mixed, capitalist/social welfare economy for the past 70 years. But Brooks says freedom or statism are the only two options we've got. They are not divisible. They are not amendable. They are not reconcilable. "We must choose." And the stakes, says Brooks, "are not just economic, they are moral."
Jonathan Chait, now of New York magazine, once called Brooks a "prototypical member of the modern Republican elite" who had internalized a conservative movement ideology firmly rooted in a class war mentality that divides America between "makers" and "takers" in which the former "are being hounded nearly to extinction by the latter."
It is an ideologically-charged assertion, says Chait, that like a depressingly large number of conservative arguments these days, "is long on hysterical rhetoric and very short on data."
In a similar vein, Boston Globe conservative Jeff Jacoby last week sought to reframe efforts by Democrats to write rules that would prevent the strong from preying upon the weak as being a symptom of some malevolent, off-with-their-heads leveling impulse to "impose egalitarianism" on American society.
Most Americans don't hate the rich, or even the very rich, says Jacoby, and the equality Americans do support is confined to the legal and political kind, not equality of income or material circumstances. True enough. But also true is that Americans think people should pay their fair share. And by overwhelming margins, the American people think the top 1% do not.
"A policy agenda that has as its top priority the elimination of income gaps not only encourages resentment but also threatens the American economy," says Jacoby. This sounds like a legitimate complaint except for the fact that the Democrats' top priority is not the elimination of income gaps. It's peace and prosperity. And if wage gaps happen to close after taxes are raised to fund programs that promote economic opportunity or when rules are put in place to prevent billionaires from unfairly exploiting the markets and other people, then so be it.
Tellingly, in conjuring up these images of Soviet-style gulags in which Democrats "impose egalitarianism" on Americans who are compelled to wear uniforms of matching olive green, Jacoby never once uses the words Wall Street, or Corporate America or even Capitalism when he talks about the free market. Instead, he hides behind the virtuous if unrepresentative "entrepreneurs" like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs who made their fortunes by actually creating things, not by legally looting what others had built like the vulture capitalists at Bain Capital.
And then there is C. Bradley Thompson, political science professor and head of a special institute on capitalism housed at Clemson University. Thompson occupies a chair endowed by a right wing banker which was specifically donated to the university on the understanding it would be used to promote the moral superiority of banks and banking.
With a mission like that, it was only a matter of time before Dr. Thompson published ideologically-driven drivel like this: "Socialism is the social system which institutionalizes envy," whereas capitalism is "moral and just" because it requires human beings to "deal with one another as free moral agents, trading and selling goods and services on the basis of mutual consent."
Further, says Thompson, "coercion and fraud are anathema to the free-market system" whereas socialism "rewards sloth and penalizes hard work."
Thus, thanks to the New Deal that is Thompson's unstated mission to undermine, America now has two distinct classes of citizens: "a debased class of dependents" who survive on "the forced expropriation of wealth from working citizens;" and the "hardworking, law-abiding, taxpaying citizen who minds his or her own business but is forced to work for the government and their serfs."
And this is from a tenured professor of political science at one of the nation's premier universities, not some pajama-wearing wingnut blogger who bloviates in his basement.
The Too Big to Fail banks and the Robber Barons of the New American Oligarchy who now hoard more than 93% of all profits earned since the onset of the recession in 2008, is the stark reality conservatives like Brooks, Jacoby and Thompson don't want us to see while they distract our attention with metaphysical disquisitions about freedom and personal agency and their ludicrously idealized laissez faire fairy tales.
For the truth is that the free market is just a tool. Within limits, it allocates economic resources and rewards more quickly and more efficiently than human beings can do themselves operating in some centralized bureaucracy where every decision must be consciously made by a finite group of men and women with their limited information and talents.
But as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman explains, The Free Market has also become a religion, embraced by the narrow plutocracy who benefits most from the market's undemocratic and anti-egalitarian outcomes and the after-the-fact "moral" legitimacy the market grants to those outcomes, provided you believe the market is neutral and impartial and not a rigged system manipulated by insiders with their out-sized economic and political power.
But there is a flip side to all this talk of the connection between free market capitalism and moral values that does not cast those consumed with making profits at all cost in such a flattering light.
Reviewing a new book by Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel, What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, Friedman quotes the author when he says that over the last three decades since the election of Ronald Reagan, America has "drifted from having a market economy to becoming a market society" in which everything is up for sale, including the values that govern "every sphere of life."
Some of the examples Friedman offers are trivial if offensive: the Russian rocket blasted into space with a Pizza Hut logo emblazoned on its side; the deal New York Life Insurance has with Major League Baseball wherein play-by-play announcers must recite every time a runner slides safely into home plate: "Safe at home. Safe and secure. New York Life;" and even the elementary schools that are getting into the act by courting corporate sponsorship, such as the New Jersey school whose "ShopRite of Brooklawn Center" made it the first public school in America to rename a gym in exchange for a corporate donation, in this particular case the $100,000 it got from the grocery chain giant.
But Friedman asks a good question: Why should we worry about this trend? And his answer: "Because market values are crowding out civic practices."
When public schools support commercial advertising "they teach students to be consumers rather than citizens," says Friedman. "When we outsource war to private military contractors, and when we have separate, shorter lines for airport security for those who can afford them, the result is that the affluent and those of modest means live increasingly separate lives, and the class-mixing institutions and public spaces that forge a sense of common experience and shared citizenship get eroded."
The seamless equating of free markets with the public good - and with democracy itself -- that is now such an automatic part of Republican Party rhetoric and orthodoxy is an invitation to the erosion of those cultural values and habits of mind upon which a democratic society rests, as any conservative who has not already sold out to the New American Oligarchy will tell you.
"Throughout our society, we are losing the places and institutions that used to bring people together from different walks of life," says Friedman, in what Professor Sandel calls "the skyboxification of American life."
Unless the rich and poor encounter one another in everyday life, says Friedman, it is hard to think of ourselves as engaged in a common project.
"At a time when to fix our society we need to do big, hard things together, the marketization of public life becomes one more thing pulling us apart."
Exactly. The income gap between the top 1% and the middle class that is both steep and climbing is only the most obvious symptom of the fracturing and polarization of society along many other axes as well, which those who benefit from this status quo are loath to talk about as they bully anyone who does with charges of "class warfare!"
"The great missing debate in contemporary politics," Sandel writes, "is about the role and reach of markets."
It is therefore not enough to say "let the markets decide," because given what we now know about the operations of markets and the ability of a few to manipulate those "free" markets to their own advantage, such thinking is an invitation to the dismantling of a republic in favor of rule by a few -- an oligarchy.
"Democracy does not require perfect equality," says Sandel, "but it does require that citizens share in a common life. For this is how we learn to negotiate and abide our differences, and how we come to care for the common good."
And these are values too, richer and deeper and more consequential than the superficial marketing slogans Republicans have coined, like "earned success" and "learned helplessness," by which they hope to sell us on the idea that capitalists should be free to do their thing -- whatever that thing might be - no taxes, no regulations, no nothing.