The Real “Message” of Ferguson

… has almost nothing to do with Michael Brown. Nor does it have all that much to do with “police brutality.” Those who focus on either are missing the underlying point and will only make the situation worse by polarizing the fear and hatred without doing a damned thing to address the underlying cause… and that cause is not just the unfair treatment of blacks and minorities. The unfair treatment of blacks and minorities and women is just one aspect of something much larger. And no, I’m not a socialist, or a communist.

I’m a firm believer in personal responsibility at all levels, and the overall problem facing the United States and, from what I can see, all too many industrialized nations is that we have institutionalized and effectively legalized a system that all too often absolves those with resources from personal responsibility, and in some cases decriminalizes certain forms of unethical or irresponsible behavior on their part while retaining penalties on those who are poor, or otherwise economically challenged.

The great legal innovation that made possible the rise of large corporations was the development of limited liability or incorporation, whereby organizations gain the legal status of individuals, thereby shielding the officers or owners of corporations from both damages and direct responsibility for acts committed by the corporation. In practice, that means no individual can be prosecuted for murder, manslaughter or any other equivalent charge as a result of the faulty GM starter switch, the unsafe placement of the Ford Pinto gas tank, the sudden acceleration of certain Toyota vehicles. No individual in the banking establishment has ever been nor could they ever be prosecuted for developing and implementing the widespread financial tools that crashed the economy. Over the past century, company after company has engaged in acts and behaviors that have killed or ruined the health and environment of millions of Americans, and after more than twenty years in the environmental regulatory field, I’m not aware of a single prosecution of any corporate decision-maker on environmental grounds. Oh, there have been prosecutions of and successful damage lawsuits against corporations, but those violations and damage were paid out of “corporate funds,” i.e., revenues generated by corporate operations, usually the same polluting and/or unsafe operations that were found to be illegal. Slightly ironic, isn’t it, and more than a little hypocritical.

I’m not opposed to capitalism. In fact, I’m in favor of “pure capitalism” as opposed to the “unfettered” capitalism that so many business types claim as the pure thing… and isn’t. Unfettered capitalism was what the robber-barons of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century practiced, capitalism without rules or restrictions. In practice, this meant minimizing costs by paying workers as little as possible, providing few if any benefits, paying the lowest taxes for government services possible, not worrying any more than absolutely necessary about product quality, and despoiling the environment, and thus dumping the environmental costs on everyone else. In short, unfettered capitalism thrives on pushing off as much of the costs of production as possible on everyone else. Under “pure capitalism” [which I admit freely isn’t yet possible], businesses would be required to cover ALL the costs of production in the price of their products, including total environmental clean-up [zero pollution], safe products and working environment, and livable wages for workers. While a handful of businesses today meet this standard, most don’t, and possibly can’t under current economic and legal structures, especially with the insatiable American demand for goods and services at the lowest possible prices. As result, we have a considerable number of large corporations that employ huge numbers of part-time workers and send jobs overseas, where labor costs are lower and environmental requirements far less stringent. None of this translates into better wages and jobs for economically disadvantaged Americans, a significant percentage of whom are minorities.

In a sense, the same structural mindset is also true of government, in that no member of Congress or group of members of Congress can be prosecuted for giving tax breaks to specific firms [appropriately couched in general language that boils down in practice to applying to one or two or only a few corporations or individuals], even though such “tax breaks” that apply to a minute few of all taxpayers essentially amount to theft from all other taxpayers, which is ethically definitely a form of corruption.

As a result of this kind of governmental and legal structure, we have developed a business and societal structure that rewards unethical behavior by those with great resources, removes those individuals from personal legal sanctions and responsibility for actions that damage if not kill anywhere from scores to millions of people, and minimizes the impact of criminal penalties on those in the upper middle class and upper class. The legal penalties for so-called white collar crime are so much less stringent than the penalties for what might be called street crime, and even drug laws are effectively aimed at the economically disadvantaged.

Education falls into the same twin-level structure. Those with resources can obtain a better education for their children by either living in an affluent community with good public schools or sending their children to private schools. The poor – and the bulk of most minorities are poor – have no such choice. Add to this the fact that almost all the education “reforms” so far implemented [as I’ve discussed in great depth over the years] are largely ineffectual in improving education for anyone who is not affluent, except in the case of a comparative handful of charter schools, and “more” education isn’t helping the majority of the poor and middle class all that much. The skyrocketing levels of public college tuition [fueled largely by the reluctance of state legislators to maintain past levels of state contributions because of an unwillingess to raise taxes] impact, again disproportionately, those students who come from middle class or lower economic backgrounds, especially minority students.

Then add in the growing income inequality in the United States, which reduces even more the ability of those without resources to climb out of poverty and otherwise succeed.

Michael Brown was no angel. He wasn’t even close. But that isn’t the point behind all the demonstrations. In effect, Michael Brown was shot because he wanted more and stole a box of cigars to get it. That theft set off a chain of events which led to a confrontation during which he was killed.

On the other hand, Ken Lay and Jeffrey Skilling, who definitely wanted more, weren’t killed for destroying Enron and devastating the lives of the 4,000 employees. And recently Skilling effectively “bought” a reduction in the jail time he’ll have to serve. GM and Ford upper management weren’t prosecuted for approving cost-cutting designs that killed people. Although coal companies have polluted and rendered undrinkable almost a quarter of the surface water streams in West Virginia, causing thousands of health problems, and likely hundreds of deaths, if not more, I haven’t found evidence of a single criminal prosecution that has been undertaken against an individual. Not a single individual could be prosecuted under current law for the banking and financial manipulations that almost crashed the entire U.S. economy in 2008 and led to the Great Recession. These are just a few examples of what is a wide-spread pattern of corporate behavior.

But we can criminalize minor drug possession, and throw people in jail for life for three crimes, not involving murder, that might affect as few as three people.

The outrage over Michael Brown’s death, whether all those protesters realize it consciously or not, is an outrage over a system that has become more and more closed and more and more tilted toward those with resources.

2 thoughts on “The Real “Message” of Ferguson”

  1. Plovdiv says:

    Wow. And people say the art of rhetoric is dead.

    I wonder if you have had a chance to read Thomas Picketty’s ‘Capital in the 21st Century’. Essentially, those with resources, or capital, are able to perpetuate a cycle of growth in personal wealth because of the ownership of assets, which all boil down to capital.

    This, in conjunction with current corporate and political behaviour and practices, serves to set in motion a self-perpetuating cycle which fits your description

    It has been happening in America, with the UK, my home country not far behind. Unfortunately, I don’t see any of Picketty’s possible solutions being applied, given the situation.

  2. Wine Guy says:

    This isn’t news. This is history. And it is repeating.

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