No shared war sacrifice for nation's corporate elite

November 08, 2001|By Kalman R. Hettleman

ROBERT Putnam, whose book Bowling Alone portrayed our country's decline in social cohesiveness, wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed article that the war on terrorism would solidify the nation. But solidarity is not the same as sacrifice. And it is not clear that the nation is ready for shared sacrifice.

For sure, the economic elite aren't. The Bush administration has skillfully rallied the nation and pursued military and diplomatic options. Yet, on the home front, it is business as usual. Powerful corporations and right-wing ideologues are calling the shots.

No day goes by without another example of self-interest and profiteering. The economic stimulus package pushed by big businesses is the most egregious. Corporations and upper-income taxpayers reap more than 80 percent of the benefits. Workers and moderate- and low-income taxpayers get the leftovers.

Then there are the windfall bailouts, first for the airlines and next for insurance companies, driven more by Capitol Hill clout than economic or defense necessity. At the same time, poor cities like Baltimore, which must divert funds from schools and basic services to pay for new security demands, are to get no relief, according to Tom Ridge, homeland security chief.

Government handouts aren't all that politically connected corporations are fighting for. They are protecting profits at the expense of national security, as when banks resist laws to prevent terrorist money-laundering, drug companies engage in price gouging and airline security firms cut corners.

The business of America is business, President Calvin Coolidge famously said. But shouldn't that be less true in war than in peace? At times like these, shouldn't we expect big corporations to balance their private special interests and the national public interest?

The answer is obvious, if our war effort is to mean not just unity and patriotism but shared sacrifice. The American people have shown a willingness to pay for the struggle against terrorism with their lives and pocketbooks. But big corporations are another matter.

In the best of times, there is a constant tension between principles of democracy, based on equality and collective well-being, and capitalism, grounded in the individual pursuit of inequality and advantage. The two are not incompatible, as this nation has bountifully proved.

But it is a delicate balance. Franklin Delano Roosevelt railed against greedy "economic royalists." President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned against the military-industrial complex. War profiteering has boomed through all our wars.

These days, even before Sept. 11, the pendulum of national political power had been swung sharply to the corporate right by the Bush administration. Since then, both the administration and Democrats (a loyal but ineffective opposition) have allowed mercenary corporations to flagrantly profiteer in the guise of patriotism.

This unprincipled antithesis of shared sacrifice must stop. Moreover, our national leaders must take a broader look at the relationship between what maximizes economic growth and corporate profits and what's required for national security.

For example, we sell our soul and endanger our security to protect our oil interests in Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries. U.S. companies peddle arms and technology to potential foes as well as allies. And we do too little to restrain multinational corporations that hoard the wealth generated by globalization.

The real bottom line is that if our leaders in Washington continue to cave in to big businesses, national security will be weakened, and the promise of shared sacrifice will be unfulfilled. Our war on terrorism is just, but the sway of special interests is unjust and will make victory in the long run much harder to achieve.

Kalman R. Hettleman is an education consultant, a former member of the Baltimore City school board and a former state human resources secretary.

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