Monday, August 10, 2009

Mammon: the Reagan Years

A lot of people think that Reagan caused a lot of damage to this country, and they're right. He set expectations of military spending so ridiculously high that the US spends more than almost the entire rest of the world combined on its military. He fought to bust unions, and he fought to support the rights of the wealthy to dump on the poor, and he fought to make people believe the very government he was in charge of was completely incompetent. He didn't succeed at that last bit, of course - it took George W. to turn "the government is the problem!" into something approaching truth.

But it wasn't Reagan so much as a part of the Reagan era that caused the most damage. It was during the Reagan era that the worship of money started in this country.

The lowering of the top tax rates were a part of it, but it was more of an attitude than a set of tax brackets. The attitude was that making money was a good and noble thing, in and of itself. For example, if you could sell 100,000 widgets at $5 profit per widget or could sell 90,000 at $6 profit, you should sell them at $6 a widget; otherwise, you're giving up $40,000 in profit. That you could make 10,000 additional would-be widget owners happy is nothing compared to the nobility in taking home an extra forty thou.

"But that's not a terrible thing!" you might say. And it's not... not if widgets are luxury items, at least; if they're some basic necessity, keeping them from 10,000 folks who need them isn't anywhere near as neutral.

Still, the attitude goes beyond "let's find the price-point that hits the profitability sweet spot." It also goes to "if you can get 10 workers to make you a million dollars a year, at a salary and benefits cost of $500,000, you should see if you can get 9 workers to do the same thing. Making a worker happy is nothing compared to the nobility of taking home an extra 50 thou."

And "if you can make a million bucks a year, but have to pay $100,000 in making sure your products are safe and your workers aren't being injured, you should see if you can lobby Washington to cut regulations so you can take home more money. The safety of your workers and consumers is nothing compared to the nobility of taking home some extra cash!"

And so on. Making money is all too often seen as noble and good for its own sake. And if something is good for its own sake, well, then, if it causes a bit of harm, we have to balance the harm it does with the good it does, don't we?

Sure, higher prices, layoffs, and loss of consumer and worker protections hurt... but think about how they help! Think of the money they allow people to make!

This wouldn't be nearly as ironic if the Republicans, who champion this idea, didn't push their Jesus-credentials so heavily. One of the biggest ideas Jesus constantly pushed was that you can't worship both God and money... first and foremost, you have to care about what's right, and loving, and what serves humanity - then you can figure out how to make some cash.

But then, if Jesus showed up at a Republican convention, he'd probably be one of those troublemakers who the police proudly haul away before they can be noisy or visible.

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