Readers Write: America exceptional in lacking compassion

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When I was a teenager in high school I remember having a discussion with my father about capitalism. 

Actually, we were talking about his being a salesman and the infinite possibilities he envisaged. 

My dad always thought success and affluence were just one sale away. Whenever I recall our conversation, Willie Loman in “Death of a Salesman” comes to mind. 

Speaking at Willie’s funeral, his friend Charley describes a salesman: “He’s a man out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they start not smiling back — that’s an earthquake.” 

My Dad experienced a lifetime of earthquakes, but he never lost hope in the American Dream. I, on the other hand, thought of it as a hoax — a big lie to keep the proletariat in line. 

To be sure, there is an argument to be made in favor of capitalism. 

Every schoolboy knows that incentives are part and parcel of our economic system. We all work hard because of rewards which lead to innovation, a higher standard of living, and a growing middle class. 

As the rich get richer, there is supposed to be a “trickle-down effect” so that the poor benefit as well as the affluent. 

Finally, the argument is made that economic freedom correlates with political freedom. Laissez-faire means that the government does not intervene with debilitating rules and regulations that stifle growth and creativity.

Arguments against capitalism include monopoly power, wealth inequality, boom and bust cycles, and the unfairness of inherited wealth. 

But the most damning critique is that capitalism is predicated upon greed…unregulated, unimpeded, unrestrained greed. 

Translated into layman’s language, citizens are maimed, injured and killed by unfettered corporate behavior. If accusing an economic system of “murder” sounds harsh, examine the following case history.

On April 14, 1994, the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health and the Environment held hearings in Washington, D.C.  

Testifying before the Subcommittee were the CEOs of the seven largest tobacco companies in the U.S. Grilling them were, then Congressman and now Sen., Ron Wyden of Oregon, and Henry Waxman, Democrat of California. 

During six hours of testimony, viewers learned that Philip Morris suppressed studies carried out in 1983 and 1985 proving that animals could become addicted to nicotine.

Equally damning was evidence that smoking causes cancer, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, emphysema and chronic bronchitis. 

But the most dramatic moment occurred when Wyden asked each CEO whether cigarettes were addictive. 

He didn’t want lengthy, evasive answers…just a simple “yes” or “no.” 

One by one, these titans of free enterprise looked Wyden in the eyes and said “no.” 

This, in spite of much data from medical groups as well as the 1989 Surgeon General’s Report which proved that they were all liars. 

In a book by Dr. Allan Brandt about the crime of the century, the author references the CEOs: “They murdered roughly 100 million people worldwide between 1950 and 2010.” 

A few of these industrial giants lost their jobs for lying to Congress, but not one was indicted. Some were found guilty by a federal judge of RICO racketeering, but did not go to jail for their crimes. 

One must wonder what system of jurisprudence puts young people in jail for selling marijuana, but allows millionaires to get away with murder? The answer is simple — it’s called capitalism.

But the times, they are a changin.’ 

Today, I don’t have a single friend or relative who smokes. I view the smoking scourge to be a thing of the past….. I couldn’t be more wrong! Cigarette smoking still accounts for 480,000 deaths per year in the U.S. 

On average, smokers shorten their lives by about 1- years. 

The CEO of the Atria Group which makes Marlboros earned 12.1 million in 2012 and Big Tobacco still spends billions each year on advertising and promotions. 

It’s as if the captains of industry were repentant like the man who prayed to God saying: “Lord, make me good…..but not yet!  

If cigarette manufacturers are murderers, what does that make climate deniers? The Union of Concerned Scientists published a study called The Climate Deception Dossiers. 

It contained internal memos from the  major fossil fuel companies proving that as far back as 1981 they knew that the burning of oil and gas caused irreparable harm to our planet. 

The thrust of the “Dossiers” can be summed up this way:

Spanning nearly three decades, these documents reveal that the world’s largest fossil fuel companies BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, coal giant Peabody Energy, and Shell were fully aware of the reality of climate change but continued to spend tens of millions of dollars to sow doubt and promote contrarian arguments they knew to be wrong.

Many reputable scientists maintain that we have come too far…that we cannot reverse what we have already set in motion. If this is so, we can blame our selfishness for the demise of our species on earth. 

BP, one of the above-mentioned culprits, is largely responsible for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill which occurred on April 20, 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico. 

For 87 days oil gushed until the pipe was capped. The result: Eleven people died and 4.9 million barrels spewed forth. It was the largest accident in the history of the petroleum industry.    

Blame for this horrific event goes to BP, rig operator Transocean and Haliburton a company formerly run by Vice President Cheney. 

In November 2012, BP settled pleading guilty to eleven counts of manslaughter and a felony count of lying to Congress. But legal proceedings continued to determine payout under the Clean Water  Act and the Natural Resources Damage Assessment. 

Finally, in July 2015, BP agreed to pay $18.7 billion in fines. Once again, it seems as if justice prevailed with this massive, punitive award.  

But wait! BP has $320 billion in annual revenue so the fine is a drop  In the bucket. 

And lest you worry about BP, they have 18 years  to pay the money. As Matt Davis wrote in Newsday, “Take that  corporate polluter!” 

There are important lessons to be learned from this narrative. 

We must acknowledge the systemic problems of capitalism. We must do battle with the corporate ethos of greed and selfishness. We must fight the elites of Wall Street, Washington and the corporate boardrooms. 

The  Republicans, with occasional help from those across the aisle, have destroyed our nation’s historic journey toward egalitarianism. 

We, too readily, accepted the idea of “too big to fail” and its unspoken corollary “too big to jail.” 

We lack commitment to promoting the general welfare and it is this lack of compassion that truly defines American “exceptionalism.” 

We have lagged behind other Western European nations when it comes to social legislation. And finally, we need a “mixed economy” with a great deal more government regulation.

Given our history, the likelihood of these things coming to pass is not great. 

But there’s a line about golf in the film “The Legend of Bagger Vance.”  

“It’s a game that can’t be won — only played.” I suspect this is true for politics as well. 

Dr. Hal Sobel

Great Neck

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