Consuming Life

I write on a hot summer day in Saint Louis. The newspaper notes that Communist China, the great new rising capitalist and consumer society, has made a bid to buy a mid-level American oil company for $1.5 billion more than offered by Chevron. The networks announce that crude oil has reached $60 a barrel. Some forecasters think it will hit $80 before it drops back to $40. The Supreme Court decided this day that any lustful corporate enterprise could take your house at fair market prices, even if you’ve lived there for 50 years.

Does anyone else wonder where we are heading?

The initial architect of China’s move to capitalism, Deng Xiaoping, is often cited for his proclamation, To get rich is glorious. Imagine what happens when 1.3 billion Chinese start believing this. Perhaps they want to live the way we 285 million Americans live. But figure it out. What happens when China’s 20 percent of the world consumes at the same rate as the United States (5 percent of the world), which now consumes 20 percent of the world’s natural resources? No world.

Of course that’s an oversimplification. So many variables, we are told. But the Chinese are not known for being oversimplifying people. That’s why they want the oil. That’s why they allow us to owe them $217 billion. Maybe they look forward to a time when they can just buy us at fair market value. All that needless worry about being taken over by atheistic Communists; we’ll just be taken over by friendly capitalists.

Capitalism has not only eaten up Communism. It may also consume us. This is one of the reasons why the Supreme Court decision is so troubling. State socialism does not threaten our home-castles. State capitalism does. All you need is public purpose.

The old notion of eminent domain, whereby private property could be taken (and paid for fairly) in the name of serious and strategic public use, has been expanded to include public purpose. Translation: we can make more money.

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote in her dissent, Under the banner of economic development, all private property is now vulnerable to being taken and transferred to another private owner, so long as it might be upgraded.... Nothing is to prevent the state from replacing any Motel 6 with a Ritz-Carlton, any home with a shopping mall or any farm with a factory.

But we are stuck with a president who believes in capitalism’s freedom, especially the freedom to spend our money the way isolated individuals want to. He can accept private investment on embryonic stem cell research. He wants to privatize social security. And of course, he wants to put tax money back into our pockets to do with as we see fit. After all, it’s ours.

Taking office after the great boom and surplus of the 1990’s, President George W. Bush, rather than invest the national treasure in infrastructure, health, education and military requirements in a time of war, pushed through tax cuts in 2001 and 2003. Former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin has estimated that if the tax cuts for earners over $200,000 were repealed and the reformed inheritance tax were continued rather than eliminated, over 75 years the savings would cover the Social Security shortfall. Instead we got the tax cut and a mountain of deficits.

If some of you readers are upset at what I write here, please consider the following remarks culled from a Wall Street Journal opinion piece written by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, Cheer Up Conservatives, You’re Still Winning:

The essential conservatism of Mr. Bush’s approach is all the clearer if you compare it with the big-government liberalism of the 1960’s.... Mr. Bush is not using government to redistribute wealth (unless you own an oil company), to reward sloth or to coddle the poor. And government in America remains a shriveled thing by European standards. Some 40 years after the Great Society, America still has no national health service; it asks students to pay as much as $40,000 for a university education; it gives mothers only a few weeks of maternity leave.

These gains are supposed to make us feel proud. It shames me. And I wonder how it affects all those who voted for this president.

Two questions haunt me. Am I living in a time where our government decisions will destabilize the world and empty the national treasury? More troubling: If we are successful in remaking the world in our own image, will the earth survive?

What, then, might a less reckless President Bush do? He might cancel his improvident tax cuts. He might call us to conservation rather than extravagance. He might wage peace rather than war. He might ask us whether we are willing to lead the world as an example of constraint on economic freedom rather than of the wild celebration of it.

The developing world must go through its narrative, as all nations will. But it would be a boon to humanity if there were a model of civil community that had discovered the truth that being rich is not glorious. Having unmasked the delusion that objects bring happiness, there would be a nation living the truth that once our basic needs are met, the joys of contemplation, relationship and service are the things that lift the human heart.

Our present president will not do this. We can only hope that someone, some day, will.

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