On the surface, three stories in today’s New York Times seem completely unrelated, but all reflect the underlying theme of our epoch: the politics of selfishness. In each story, someone or some group acts in its own selfish best interests, disregarding the interests of the nation.
Let’s start with the simplest example of selfishly acting in one’s own interest: “N.R.A. Sues Over Bulk Gun Sales Rule.” The beginning of the first paragraph says it all: “The National Rifle Association filed a lawsuit on Wednesday challenging a new federal regulation requiring gun merchants along the border with Mexico to report bulk sales of certain semiautomatic rifles…” The NRA calls it “a blatant attempt by the Obama administration to pursue their gun control agenda…”
Obviously, it’s in the best interests of the NRA and the two gun dealers it represents in its lawsuit to be able to sell as many guns as they like to whomever they like with no restraints whatsoever. But the greater security of the United States and our neighboring ally Mexico is at stake. The Obama Administration is trying to stop drug cartels from loading up on weapons for their wars against each other, the police and innocent victims. The sales that the Obama Administration is trying to prevent shouldn’t be made, and the NRA knows it. But they are too selfish to care.
Moving on now to a story on the Times front page symbolizing the last shoe dropping in a national rip-off of historic dimensions. This time, the headline conveys the essence of the story: “Even Marked-up, Luxury Goods Fly Off Shelves.” In this article, we learn that the rich “are again buying designer clothing, luxury cars and about anything that catches their fancy. Luxury goods stores, which fared much worse than other retailers in the recession, are more than recovering — they are zooming.”
The article focuses on luxury shoes, one pair costing $2,495, up from $1,575 in 2008. I understand that a good custom-made pair made of shoes for a diabetic or someone with foot abnormalities can cost $500 or $600. But when the cost of footwear exceeds $2,000, much if not most of the cost comes from the perceived added value, aka the sizzle— the brand name, sense of exclusivity, treatment by the sales staff.
And where are the ultra-wealthy getting the extra bucks to spend on these frivolities? It’s from the low tax rates on their incomes and wealth, which have increased the federal deficit and impeded job creation since they were enacted in the Bush II years.
The way the wealthy got their most recent infusion of extra cash reminds me of an old soft-shoe dance routine. The first shoes on the ground were the cuts to federal spending at the beginning of the year and the Republicans’ recent price for raising the debt ceiling. The final step is this giddy spending binge described in the Times.
Studies show that tax policy has led to a transfer of wealth from the poor and middle class over the last 30 years. Other studies show that nations decline when wealth is transferred up the economic ladder. Surveys show that the will of the people is to raise taxes on the wealthy and continue and grow government job-creation and social safety net programs. But these facts mean nothing to the ultra-wealthy and their many elected factotums. Again, they’re just too selfish to care.
Speaking of factotums, what do you think of the good little soldier Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta balking at cuts to our bloated military budget? Again, let’s let the Times article, titled “Pentagon Sounds Alarm on Threat of Budget Cuts,” tell the story: “Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and top Pentagon officials said that large cuts to the Pentagon budget — which has more than doubled since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 — would imperil the nation’s security.” With Osama bin Laden out of the way and no really large or powerful enemy at hand (except perhaps North Korea and our own ally, Pakistan), do we really need to be spending twice as much as before 9/11? These numbers, by the way, don’t include any of the trillions of dollars that we have diddled away fighting goalless and useless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Panetta is a long-time Democratic operative who goes where he’s needed. His past positions have included Head of the CIA and White House Chief of Staff under Bill Clinton. Surely he knows that federal government spending created the Clinton boom years and a budget surplus (before the housing bubble). And where did the Clinton Administration get the money? It came from raising income taxes and cutting defense budgets. It was called the “peace dividend,” and it worked.
Panetta knows these facts, but instead of acting in the country’s best interest, he protects his turf and the military contracts of private companies that spend millions of dollars a year in lobbying and contributing to the campaigns of elected officials. Panetta, the Defense Department and the contractors collectively pursue their own best interests, no matter what it means to the country they are supposed to be protecting.
The commonly stated theory behind the almost criminally selfish acts described in these articles is that if everyone in society seeks his or her own best interests, society as a whole will thrive. This bunk is a misunderstanding of out-of-context statements by the Scottish 18th century economist Adam Smith, but it justifies the predatory behavior of the wealthy and the powerful. And it won’t stop until we stop electing politicians that place the interests of the wealthy above those of the other 95% of us.
For those looking for actions of their own to stem this tide of selfishness, I suggest that you do not support any official who does not explicitly advocate raising income taxes on those earning more than $250,000 and on most capital gains. We should also be insisting that candidates support moves that strengthen unions and public schools, rebuild our infrastructure of roads and invest in alternative fuel technologies and mass transit. But at this point, raising taxes on the wealthy has to be the litmus test.