Thursday, March 29, 2012

Ethical capitalism?

The New Orleans' Saints have incurred the wrath of the National Football League for not acting like saints. They promised a bonus of $1500 dollars to any player who hit his opponent hard enough to put him in the hospital. If you hit the opponent hard enough to have him carried off the field, you only get $1000. The National Football League wants it to be known that it does not allow players to get paid for injuring other players.

Some people believe that the ruckus is silly. Football is a business and all businesses give bonuses to employees who perform exceptionally well. Only look at Goldman Sachs. But the supporters of the National Football League point out that businesses ought not to give bonuses to employees who act unethically. Yes, the point of business in a capitalist society is to make as much money as you can, and if your employees are particularly productive, it is a good practice to reward them– but only as long as their actions are ethically justified.

Having said that commentators think that they have said everything there is to be said: capitalism is just fine as long as it is ethical. They assume that ordinary capitalist practices are of course ethical. Who would question that?

It is interesting, in that context, to think of Jesus cleansing the temple of the moneylenders and to remember that for the last 5000 years many religions – Jews, Christians and Muslims – have been very critical of people who lend money for interest. They certainly would not have thought that charging 17% or more interest on a credit card debt is ethically justified.

Medieval governments made illegal certain standard capitalist practices because they regarded them as unethical. Buying goods from a farmer or a shoemaker before the producer could come to market and then selling the goods at a markup was unethical and illegal. Manipulating supply by buying up large quantities of a commodity in order to raise the price, was regarded as unethical and illegal. Raising prices when supply was short, the central practice in a so-called “free market”, was definitely regarded as wicked. When harvests were poor, the millers and the bakers raised their prices and the people would riot because they felt cheated. In medieval trade everyone was supposed to observe a 'fair price.' Charging what the market will bear was definitely immoral.

Well, you say, times have changed. We are definitely more enlightened, we have discovered the free market and its blessings. Our ethical ideas are different and who is to say that our ideas are wrong?

The interesting question is why our ethical ideas have changed. 
We have lived under capitalism for close to 200 years. The capitalists have given generously to churches, to schools and have been able to spread their message through the media which they own. For 200 years we have been told that it is ethical to buy cheap and sell dear, that it is perfectly alright to get as much labor out of your employees as possible with minimal expense. It is all right to compete and put other people out of business. The sorts of things capitalists do regularly – think of Romney and Bain Capital – are ethical.

Some people have swallowed that message so completely they think that the unregulated market will bring us the millennium. We don't even need the Messiah to come to save us if only the government will keep its hands off the marketplace. Most people however, know better: we need someone to make sure that the food the supermarket sells us is not tainted and will not make us sick. We need to make sure that the doctors who charge large amounts for their services are qualified, and that the same is true of the man who builds my house. Capitalists unsupervised may well sell us poisonous food or build houses that will fall down on top of us. That, many people think, it is surely not ethical. 
Poisoning people with the food you sell them or injuring them with poorly built houses or defective appliances injures the buyer and that is unethical. But about paying people so little money that they need to go on welfare although they're working? New employees at Walmart are told how to apply for food stamps and Medicaid because the wages they are about to get are clearly in adequate. Is that not unethical? The same is true when the big box store or chain hardware store comes into town and puts family-run stores out of business. A lot of people lose out. They also lose when their jobs migrate to Cambodia. Is that ethical?

Capitalist procedures cause a lot of pain. Some of those injuries are considered unethical and have been made illegal. Others are still accepted even though they too inflict serious injuries. We should not be so quick to believe that what capitalists do is ethical.

If it is unethical for football players to be rewarded for inflicting serious bodily injuries on the opponents, why is it legal to put a small grocer or small hardware store out of business just because you are much bigger and have more money in the bank? Are the injuries you do here not unethical? If the Saints are to be penalized for the bonuses they give, why should we not penalize Walmart for the poverty they inflict on their employees?

If you want to know whether capitalism is ethical, don't ask the capitalist.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Whatever happened to the Rule of Law?

About half the first ten Amendments to the Constitution have to do with the rights of persons suspected of having committed a crime. The 4th amendment protects against unreasonable search and seizure. If the police suspects you of a crime they cannot just burst into your house, search the place and take stuff. The 5th Amendment protects you against just being arrested without a proper indictment. It prohibits compelling you to incriminate yourself or being “deprived of life and liberty” without due process of law. If you are accused of a crime, the 6th Amendment says, you are entitled to a speedy and public trial by a jury. You have a right to know what you are accused of, meet your accusers, and have an attorney to help you defend yourself. The 7th amendment lists one’s rights in civil cases and excessive bail is prohibited by the 8th Amendment.
Since 9/11 all of these Amendments have been violated by the US government. All you need is the government to accuse you of being a terrorist and all bets are off; the Constitutional protections disappear. The US government has assassinated US citizens; others have just disappeared at Guantanamo. Congress has passed a law that allows the military to arrest you and hold you indefinitely if you are accused of terrorism.
The principle of the Amendments is that the government may not act upon an accusation unless it has satisfied a jury in court that its accusations are true. Arrests must be followed by an indictment and a speedy trial. Anything less is a violation of the victim’s constitutional rights.
But you say, “These people are are terrorists. They do not care about our rights. They just kill Americans where they can. This is 'war.' ” But that is the whole point of the amendments: a person accused of any crime, including terrorism, has the right to speedy trial and all the other protections until they are found guilty in court by a jury.
But you insist “These people do not care about our rights. Why should we care about theirs?" That's true enough but irrelevant. The person who steels your wallet, the hit and run driver who leaves you bleeding in the street, the gang that breaks into your house to steal your valuables also does not care for your rights to secure possession of your property or to bodily security. The arguments applied to terrorists apply just as well to ordinary thieves and cutthroats. But we bend over backward to make sure that they are not punished for what we cannot prove they really did. How are terrorists any different from common criminals in their disregard for their victims' rights?
What is the argument for treating persons accused of terrorism differently from others that attack and injure you? The only argument available to those who want to deny constitutional protections to persons accused of terrorism is to say that we and the terrorists are at war and that constitutional guarantees do not apply to combatants.
But if its a war, the accused terrorists are not alone. We are combatants also and like our enemies in war we are not entitled to constitutional protections. We do not march into battle protected by peace time human rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
If there is a war on terrorism all rights, not only theirs, are suspended. If we are willing to kill them or make them disappear without trial for indefinite periods in some military brig or another, we also give up our own rights.
That is obviously not a good bargain for us. The price of denying constitutional rights to others is to surrender our own.
9/11 brought great grief to many families in the US and elsewhere. But the graver effect of that attack was that we adopted the lawless ways of our attackers. We are turning our backs on the rule of law that we have developed over two hundred years and are returning to the savagery of earlier systems of crime and punishment that the Founders hoped to make a thing of the past.
Presidents Bush and Obama have turned their backs on that project of strengthening the Rule of Law. American citizens who support that are making a serious mistake.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

One state for Palestinians and Israelis?

A conference at the Harvard Kennedy school last weekend considered a “one state solution” for the Israeli Palestinian stalemate. The idea is to have Israelis and Palestinians live in one state.
The conference, and the issue it examined, has provoked sharp criticism from some traditional Jewish organizations and individuals. The one state solution, they say, would spell the end of the Jewish state.
But what is a Jewish state? Originally described as “a homeland for all Jews” it suggested a place where Jews could find refuge from persecution they experience in many places around the globe. A Jewish state is often also described as a state where Judaism is the official religion. But for Jews like myself, whose family has been secular for a century or more, a religious Jewish state would not be a homeland because I would not be welcome there. Clearly a Jewish state cannot be characterized by any specific official religion.
A Jewish state is then often described as a nation state but one where Jews are in the majority. There is an American state, a German state, a French state and so on. In each, significant portions of the population are second-class citizens. America, even after the election of President Obama, is not very hospitable to persons of color, whether they be Black, Hispanic, or Arab. In Germany, until very recently, the German born children of Turkish or Greek immigrants were not German citizens. Similar discrimination against immigrants from North Africa exist in France.
Nation states, in theory, embrace different ethnic groups, but in practice few manage to avoid giving preferred status to some groups over others. Israel as a Jewish state is not even in theory hospitable to all the people living in Israel, Jews, Christians, Muslims, Arabs. In the Jewish state of Israel only Jews are full citizens, and, in fact, not even all Jews. Traditionally, the European Jews have had more power and status than, say, the Jews from North Africa, let alone those from Ethiopia.
Nations states do not make good homelands. Nation states provide homelands for some by making others homeless.
What is a homeland? The Jewish tradition talks frequently about welcoming strangers into your house and treating them as equals. A homeland is a place where you are civil and caring to people who are different. It is a place of trust, not of paranoia. It is a place where strangers are treated as equals and are welcomed. It is a place where an ethic of trust and welcoming of difference prevails. People living in a homeland follow a way of life not often observed by citizens of a national state. National states are violent and so are its citizens. By their distrust and paranoia, by their need to hate and to have enemies, they destroy their own nation as a homeland. Feeling always the threat from, mostly imaginary, enemies they cannot rest in their home, they cannot be at peace, they must root out their enemies.
In American terms: a homeland is a melting pot--a real melting pot--where everyone is accepted to make their contribution. It is not a place where we invent enemies, where we are filled with hate and fear. America is still wrestling with the question of what sort of homeland it is going to be. So, obviously is Israel.
So yes, let’s have a homeland for Jews. But let’s also have a homeland for Palestinians. They have, after all, lived in the same part of the world for a long time. A real homeland for Jews and Palestinians. A place of peace and mutual respect. Nothing less will do.