The Trouble with Wealth

We all want to lead the good life, but what does ‘the good life’ mean? In our world it means to live a life in comfort, economic and physical security and good health. It means being a moral person. It’s hardly ever pointed out, but being a moral person in our world generally means conforming to the ideals and goals of a market economy within a system of private entreprise and possessive individualism. Morality, although it’s often thought of as a set of abstract principles detached from everyday life, is actually determined by the dominant socio-economic structures of our society. Being a ‘good’ citizen is, undoubtedly, an aspect of being a moral person, but most of us never give a second thought to the role that nations have played in our history or what roles they play in our lives now. Countries or nation-states like Canada, the US, Spain and France, are political structures that support private entreprise and that nominally employ a representative form of government that is generally believed to be democratic. I would argue that the states I mentioned above as examples are not democratic in their essence and do not act in the interests of their populations except in rare circumstances and often tangentially at that. Of course, their main objective is to convince you that they do act in your interests. Most of us believe it because we have no knowledge basis to think otherwise.

We’ve been convinced that the key to leading a good life is to get a ‘good’ job, work hard, be frugal and buy things, as many things as possible because they are often what give our lives meaning. I’ve written about this before. Do a search of my archives. I don’t want to get sidetracked here, so I’ll move on. Suffice it to say that one major ideal in our world is the achievement of prosperity with includes good health and enough wealth to lead a comfortable, secure life.

So, what are the social consequences of the drive to achieve prosperity, especially from the perspective of those who have it? Well, the achievement of a certain level of prosperity and wealth is a major moral imperative in our world. So, if you have prosperity, you are a moral person. If you don’t, if you’re poor or somehow lacking in the trappings of wealth, you are an immoral person. It’s really just as simple as that. Yes, there are exceptions and not all of us, by any means, buy into this ideology. What I am arguing is that most of our social institutions are geared to supporting private entreprise, the pursuit of wealth, and possessive individualism. So, for example, our governments are set up to treat the poor, the homeless and those with marginal physical and mental health with disdain and as objects of derision and opprobrium. Being poor carries with it shame and guilt because a person’s poverty is a clear sign of their immorality, of their incapacity to achieve the prosperity to which we all aspire. We rub people’s noses in their poverty at all possible turns.

Human life, in our world, has little intrinsic value. The value of human life is contingent on how productive we are, how prosperous we are, how clever and smart we are. Unfortunately, those qualities are much more easily achieved for some of us than for others. We do not have equal opportunity. Racist exclusion, the marginalization of women and generational inheritance of advantage all play a role in how we ‘end up’ in life.

I’m not saying that individuals have no responsibility for how they ‘end up’. They do. But the structures of our society militate against certain groups of people making them immoral even before they attempt anything. From a start of immorality, it’s very difficult if not impossible to achieve the moral objectives of prosperity and wealth.

Of course, this is all very complex. We can discuss that if you like, but, essentially, the one thought I want to convey here is the idea that poverty in our world equals immorality. So much of how we organize the world and think of ourselves and our neighbours stems from that basic principle.

Trump and protectionism

This is just a short blog that is a reaction to a CBC radio interview this morning with a representative of the Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters Association (CMEA). The interviewer asked the rep from the CMEA how Trump’s presidency would affect Canadian manufacturers. His reply was that Canadian manufacturers are worried, but that Trump’s rhetoric is just that, rhetoric designed to appeal to particular gullible and self-interested audiences, and fact is something else. He said that if the US imposes tariffs on Canadian goods, then Canada should do the same with regard to American goods.

Problem is, there is a basic flaw in this perspective. Canada produces nothing. The US produces nothing. Corporations, sometimes registered in one country or another, produce things and services for sale. People produce things, not countries so why do economists and journalists still insist on using the country as their primary unit of analysis? When are they going to stop saying that Canada’s trade with the US is this and that, rather than focusing on the real situation which is that corporations are dominant and manipulate governments for their own interests? Ironically, many ‘Canadian’ manufacturers have their products produced in China or in other countries that provide them with tax breaks, lax labour and environmental laws, and cheap labour in export processing zones. And just because a corporation has a head office in Toronto and is technically a Canadian corporation that doesn’t mean that its prime motivator is to serve Canada as a country. No, its prime motivator is profit and as long as a Canadian head office serves its interests that’s fine, the moment it doesn’t do that anymore, its ‘loyalty’ will dissolve as quickly as salt in water and it will move its head office elsewhere. More to the point, of course, is that much of ‘Canadian’ manufacturing is controlled from abroad. That led Harold Innis (Google him) to note in the late 1940s that Canada is a country with its brains spread all over the globe.

Economists and journalists need to give their head a shake and stop letting corporate capital and its governmental lackeys lead them around by the nose.