Our Economy Was Built on Bull. Until We Admit That, We’re Screwed

We have organized society around a misguided belief in unfettered growth and unrestrained capitalism. The question of 2012 must be how we begin building a society based on something different.

By Kai Wright Dec 21, 2011

At the foot of Manhattan’s Broadway Ave., just below Wall Street, stands one of the city’s most reliable tourism draws: Arturo Di Modica’s 3.5-ton statue of a charging bull. Since 1989, the sculpture has been an iconic symbol of American wealth, of the aggressive capitalist spirit that, it is argued, made this country great and powerful. Visitors flock from around the world to rub the bull’s horns for good luck. Or they used to, at least. Now, tourists snap pictures from behind police barricades.

For more than two months, the raging bull of wealth has sat caged, facing eye-to-eye with a New York Police Department cruiser as cops have worked around the clock to protect it from the Occupy Wall Street movement. The park’s administrator called has the security "Orwellian." That’s to say the least.

If you’re looking for visuals to encapsulate 2011, look no further than the bizarre scene at Di Modica’s bull. Daily, the country’s largest police force mobilizes to protect the idea of American prosperity from an imagined threat, while the actual economy lays gored and gutted by demonstrable and ongoing crimes.

In the immediate, this perversity results from a spectacular failure of political leadership. We traveled a long, winding road to the point at which no-brainers like a modest payroll tax cut and an extension of unemployment benefits demand political brinksmanship. People of varying ideologies and partisan affiliations may debate endlessly who’s more at fault, but to do so is to truly miss the forest for the trees. The ugly reality is no leader in either party has yet shown the mettle to rise and meet the enormity of today’s challenges.

That’s not to suggest moral equivalencies. Republican leaders have been openly obstructionist, preferring a broken economy to a successful Obama presidency. Their cynicism has rarely been as bald as this week’s House vote on the payroll tax cut, but they’ve never made much effort to conceal it.

Still, even if President Obama had been given a willing Congress, the solutions he has championed aren’t nearly on par with the problem. Like his congressional opponents, he insists the structural foundation of our economy remains strong. Rather than confront the core issues–inequity and instability–Obama has thrashed around with Republicans in the margins–over how to control debt, over the degree to which health care should be a commodity rather than a right, over which borrowers were the least irresponsible and thus deserving of help. Meanwhile, at each crucial juncture in his reform-branded presidency, Obama has left financial players to voluntarily take responsibility for their behavior. They remain steadfast in their refusal to do so.

These bipartisan leadership failures have prolonged the immediate crisis, which dates back to 2007, when the foreclosures that would bring down the system first began consuming working-class communities of color in particular. Four years later, Republicans and Democrats alike are still working off of the optimistic notion that we need only contain the immediate problem until we can get back to growth–that we need only protect the bull with barricades until those pesky protesters disappear and allow its charge to resume. With each year that our chosen leaders have indulged this fantasy, a cancer has spread. Each year has brought new records in the poverty, hunger and inequality that will ultimately consume this country.

But that’s just the immediate crisis. As we move into an election year, in which U.S. residents will have prolonged debate over our collective priorities and values, we must pursue answers to a broader question. Since at least 1981, when the Reagan revolution overtook public policy, we have built an economy on two related fictions. The first is that boundless growth is sustainable. The second is that unrestrained capitalism, particularly in the financial sector, will create wealth for everyone. These are discredited ideas, and the question of 2012 must be how we begin building a society based on something different.

This broader question is crucial because, in truth, the problem extends past the economy. Look around and you’ll find one broken institution after another, each of them buckling under the weight of the late 20th century consensus that greed is good, that a winner-takes-all individualism will somehow improve our collective endeavors. Industries, communities, natural resources, even sports leagues have collapsed as Ronald Reagan’s corrosive vision has become dominant.

Meanwhile, racism and racial injustice remain rooted in our society in no small part because they are necessary to explain why unrestrained capitalism and unfettered growth fail so spectacularly in creating widespread wealth. The entrenched, generational poverty that has gripped so many black communities and the yawning racial gaps that persist in wealth and income, among other things, can only be explained if they are blamed on the individuals hurt by them. Thus "welfare queens" and "super predator" youth and cheating "illegals" and "lazy Indians" and on and on. These caricatures continue to inform public policy on poverty, education, immigration and more. They continue to explain away inequity and provide villians against which struggling whites can define themselves without questioning the larger system. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s quote about slave owners–the original unrestrained capitalists–still rings true: "The Southern aristocracy took the world and gave the poor white man Jim Crow."

Di Modica offered a quote on capitalism, too. In November, Newark’s Star-Ledger asked the artist what he thought about the security around his statue. He didn’t like it. "The bull is for the people," he declared. "The bull is for everyone, the people with money and the people with no money." If only it were so.

Wall Street’s bull markets have proven to be for the benefit of a very few. But as the financial industry’s largest players have been unleashed to pursue profit for themselves at all costs, the dreadful consequences have surely impacted everyone. Pensions have been wiped out. Family homes have been stripped of value, many taken away altogether. Small businesses have been locked out of credit markets. More than 14 million people are exiled from the labor force. A galling one in three black children and nearly as many Latino children are growing up in poverty right now, while the president brags about ferreting out fraud in the food stamp program rather than getting more money for it.

Our chosen political leaders have tolerated all of this in order to maintain the fiction that our economic system still works, that the organizing principles of our society remain valid. So the central question of 2012’s likely all-consuming political debate must be simple: How do we acknowledge that our current economy is built on lies and then start erecting a new one based on equity and sustainability?