American Individualism - A Myth

Ed Raymond

I have followed the life of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar since he was 18-year-old Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor covering black civil rights protests for his school newspaper as a senior at a New York City high school. At 7’2” he helped his high school team win 71 straight basketball games, led UCLA to NCAA championships, and played for 22 years in the National Basketball Association. At one time he held most of the individual records in the NBA. After his retirement he acted in several movies, coached a basketball team, became a best-selling author, was appointed the U.S. global cultural ambassador by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and in 2016 was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama.

I have followed him all of these years because while he was wowing a national TV athletic audience by becoming one of the greatest college basketball players in history with his famous “skyhook,” he was wowing his professors at UCLA with his ability as a student of history. He is now writing columns for a number of newspapers. I read them all because he is a thinker. His latest is “The Way Americans Regard Sports Heroes Versus Intellectuals Speaks Volumes.” As both an intellectual and a sports hero, he is concerned about the over-emphasis on all sports now—and the rising anti-intellectualism, starting with facts, in the fields of science and logic. He uses as examples the anti-vaxxers currently opposing measles vaccinations, the growth of the flat-earthers, and the climate-change deniers dominating the Republican Party. He writes: “President Trump is the figurehead of celebrating irrational thinking as a patriotic act. He’s the rabble rouser in the saloon whipping the mob into a lynching frenzy. Every time there is a snow storm he comments about this being proof that there is no global warming. And he keeps doing this despite the scientific experts explaining there is a vast difference between weather and climate…The lesson for our children: ignore facts and evidence if it disagrees with what benefits you personally. Even if it means everyone else suffers. Ironically, that’s the opposite lesson that sports teach about sacrificing for the good of the team.” 

Over his 72 years he has earned an honors doctorate of philosophy in the current battle between sports for profit and the accumulation of anti-intellectualism plaguing our society. Here is his battle cry: “A culture can admire both the physical and intellectual. The achievements of athletes inspire us to push the boundaries of what our bodies are capable of…..Equally we can be inspired by the insights of our poets, the vision of our philosophers, the medical breakthroughs of our scientists….We accomplish this by understanding that the elegant idea is as uplifting as the slam dunk. And that a triple play is as graceful as a balletic arabesque.”  He has learned his lessons well from self-education.

Extreme Capitalism And The Myth Of American Individualism

Nobel Laureate in Economics Joseph Stiglitz says we have a broken economic system from practicing extreme capitalism. He suggests progressive capitalism will bring us back to reality. Minnesota poet Doug Wilhide has summed up progressive capitalism and the Nordic Model in one exquisite paragraph about human beings: “Everyone needs to understand we are temporarily able-bodied. Even if we are healthy human beings, we are capable of taking care of ourselves only some of the time. Not when we are babies. Often not when we are old. Not when we are sick or injured. We may believe in our own self-sufficiency, but for chunks of our lives we are absolutely dependent on others. This is true, in varying degrees, whether we are rich or poor, whether our skin is black, white, brown, or some other color, however many degrees we hold and whatever gender we claim.” Amen to that.

What do a large majority of Americans want? Over 70 percent of Americans have wanted a universal health care system since Harry Truman first asked for it in 1946. Since that time every other developed country in the world has adopted workable systems, many with a combination of private insurance and public money, but evidently the Republican Party feels Americans are too dumb to run it. Germany has managed it from Otto von Bismarck in 1881 through Kaiser Wilhelm II through Adolf Hitler through Angela Merkel and is the better for it. The three top executives of UnitedHealth Group Insurance certainly love the U.S. model. The three made $51.5 million last year selling health insurance. Remember when United Health CEO William McGuire had that little stock options scandal that forced him to resign and pay back the paltry sum of $468 million? Of course, this is the “best health care system in the world”—for insurance CEOs. By the way, last year Germany produced more than a 100 percent of their electrical needs for a few days. They do have some manufacturing plants to run.

Two-thirds of Americans believe we should have free trade, vocational, and college educations for anybody intellectually capable of attending and passing the courses. Currently 44 million Americans owe $1.5 trillion in student debt. Some student debtors on regular Social Security have had their monthly benefits reduced! The Trump-Republican tax cut just added $1.5 trillion to the national debt, now up to $22 trillion. The already rich bought stock back to enhance their own ballooning salaries with their “share,” paid tiny bonuses to some of their employees, did not raise hourly wages in most cases, and pocketed the rest.

Eight out of ten Americans think taxes should be raised on the rich, but the Republicans think that would cause chaos in the economy. Last year over 60 of the largest publicly-held companies paid no federal taxes. Why didn’t Amazon, led by the world’s richest man Jeff Bezos, pay even a dime in federal taxes? Does that make any sense? As for the threat of climate change, 81 percent support the Green New Deal developed by progressive Democrats.

Billionaire Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook Spends $23 Million On Personal Security

We currently have over 540 billionaires in the U.S. and seem to add a few more each week. About a half-dozen have expressed that the extreme capitalist system that made them rich is not going to survive—and they must learn to share their wealth or spend it all on security and hideaways in far-off countries. Capitalist Peter Georgescu is a wealthy American who at one time cleaned sewers, turned off street lights, and dug holes for electric poles when he was young boy in a Romanian labor camp. Now 80, he came to the U.S. in 1954 as a 15 year-old-refugee with no formal education and speaking one word of English: “Coke.” With the help of many Americans, he graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy, Princeton University, and Stanford University Graduate School of Business. He later spent his entire business career at Young & Rubicon, one of the largest ad agencies in the world. He is now Chairman Emeritus. 

He has published “Capitalists, Arise!” urging other rich capitalists to solve income inequality in the U.S. His major arguments: “Capitalism is a brilliant factory for prosperity. Brilliant, and yet the version of capitalism we have created here works for only a minority of people. Stakeholder capitalism has given way to shareholder capitalism. Profits have soared at the expense of worker pay. Life expectancy has actually fallen in the last few years. Not since 2004 has a majority of Americans said they were satisfied with the country’s direction. To my mind, government action—including higher taxes on the rich and more bargaining power for workers—is necessary to bring back broad-based prosperity.” He also writes about the signs of frustration in Europe. He has seen many European societies fall apart in his life and writes that many people in the U.S. are underestimating the risks it could happen again. He adds: “We’re not that far off.”  While the federal minimum wage is still at $7.25, it was just announced that the 25 top hedge fund managers in the U.S. averaged $850 million in income last year--and the average ratio of CEO pay to ordinary worker is now well over 300 to 1.

It makes for fascinating news that Abigail Disney, the wealthy grand-daughter of Walt Disney, announced in a tweet that the $65 million paid to Disney CEO Bob Iger was way too much. She said it was “insane.” He made 1,424 times what the median Disney employee made. At a conference, Disney added: “I like Bob Iger, I think he’s a good man. But I think he’s allowing himself to go down a road that is the road everyone is going down. When he got his bonus last year, I did the math, and I figured out that he could have given personally, out of his pocket, a 15 percent raise to everyone who worked at Disneyland, and still walked away with $10 million. So there’s a point in the system into this class of people who—I’m sorry, this is radical—have too much money. There is such a thing.”

Is American Capitalism In Crisis? You Betcha!

Democratic Representative Ro Khanna of Palo Alto, California was just elected to a Congressional district where many Silicon Valley billionaires reside. When he is home from Washington he spends most of his time with billionaire constituents discussing an unpopular situation: the growing unpopularity of billionaires and all of their giant tech companies. Khanna has an unusual personal situation because of his Congressional salary of $174,000. he can’t afford to live in the district he represents! His wife and two children live in Washington because, although an expensive place, it is much cheaper than Silicon Valley where small ramblers can sell for more than $2 million. In San Francisco, Palo Alto, and other cities of Silicon Valley the service members of society, teachers, firemen, and law enforcement personnel, cannot afford to live in cities they serve. Many have two-hour commutes—if they can find a place to live that close.

One of Khanna’s constituents is Chris Larsen, who with $59 billion in assets from three start-ups, is the fifth richest person in the world. Larsen is beginning to realize that the path of American capitalism and what is happening in Silicon Valley is unsustainable for any society. Khanna’s billionaire constituents, members of America’s business elite who attend the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and the Harvard professors who teach at the Harvard Business School are beginning to realize the greatest inequality in the developed world is creating anger in the United States that is tearing the country apart. Even Harvard Business School students recognize that extreme capitalism must change. Seven years ago a class on “Reimagining Capitalism” drew only 28 students. This academic year almost 300 of our future business leaders are taking the course. Believe it or not, progressive capitalism as promoted by Stiglitz is an important part of the discussion. So is Democratic Socialism. Lebron James will make $82 million this year playing basketball. Next year at least a dozen NFL quarterbacks will make $40 million. Even Kareem, who made a fortune with his skyhook, thinks that’s economic insanity.