April 2, 2013
My friend and long ago law partner, Keith Roberts, has published a thesis congratulating American capitalism on the advancements its technological innovations have brought to mankind. Not withstanding the ease and lucidity of the piece, it is just plain wrong.
I will approach this on a seriatim basis.
If Americans have creativity and invention written into their DNA, then that is because the natives of the countries that settled here shared that DNA. Open land, a tolerance for larceny and a paucity of law enforcement are more likely explanations for the economic growth of the nation in its early years and well into the Nineteenth Century. A peculiar strand that could be identified as American – democracy- often stood in the way of the reckless and the savage.
This country’s “troubles of recent years” were and remain a consequence of the same larcenous tendencies manifested in the ruthless tactics of monopoly building, getting ahead by crushing others and extracting value from cheap labor. The only innovation involved in that “trouble” was camouflaging lies and making money from it.
It cannot be seriously claimed that the American education system is or has been robust for many of the last forty years. Can a system that produces a higher rate of illiteracy than any other industrialized nation be called “robust”? Should we take pride in an educational system that produces members of Congress that believe the universe was created in a matter of days and only a few thousand years ago; that deny evolution; that insist that dumping hundreds of tons of carbon derivatives into the atmosphere everyday carries no adverse consequence for the planet?
As for marketing and financing, there is little doubt that the American experience has produced new forms, but there is doubt as to whether those forms have contributed to a healthy, if robust, economy and society. Marketing the “cornucopia” of goods to Americans is fraught with fraud, i.e. misrepresentations and undisclosed dangers. Attempts to ameliorate the dangers inherent in such marketing have been opposed mightily, ruthlessly and legally. The claim is that freedom to lie about one’s product is protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. One need only understand that truly native genius involved in marketing cigarettes to conclude that American innovation in marketing is probably not a good thing.
As for financing: banks and their endlessly varied progeny have combined regularly for nearly three centuries to destroy the economic lives of millions. This last disaster (that is to say, most recent) demonstrated to anyone paying attention that the American financial system is as dangerous to all of us as a trainload of nuclear waste. If “robust” is the same thing as a system that permits its participants to wreak havoc and then take home outrageously large paychecks, then “robust” is not something to be real happy about. Across-the-board rewarding of abject incompetence is hard to justify.
The design innovations that inspire Mr. Roberts’ enthusiasm, to the extent they are really American, are, upon close inspection, revealed to be unworthy. Carbon fuels have been with us for more than a century. Somewhere shortly after the end of World War II, there was a general awareness that petroleum was power, let alone untold wealth. Our manufacturing leaders made vehicles that required the use of petroleum products and, until 1970, took no steps to improve the fuel efficiency of its products – even in the face of competition of small cars from Japan. American auto manufacturers failed to make any serious effort to replace the gasoline or diesel fueled internal combustion engine until California and the Federal Governments began to require those efforts.
Innovations that we, as a society, require for our own “robustness” are not the subject of capitalist enterprise. Rather, innovations that return wealth to the wealthy proliferate. Overarching those efforts is the ongoing search of American capital for means to avoid paying labor the value it produces. The most destructive of the creative and innovative devices in recent years has been the evisceration of the American producing class by shipping jobs to overseas locations.
While it is with a great deal of affection that I celebrate my former partner’s celebration of American capital over a libation or two, I can’t, in conscious permit it to go unscathed by truth.