The argument for regulating business and supporting a strong safety net is usually made on social or environmental terms. You may argue that corporations are paying wages that are too low or sending too many American jobs overseas. Or, you may demand more environmental legislation to curtail corporate pollution. These claims are valid. But one can also make a business-oriented argument for regulating corporations and providing a strong safety net. When corporations get too big, they can box out the competition. We see this happening all over America, as local stores are put out of business by big-box retailers and start-up companies are bought up as soon as they become successful. Corporations continue to merge without government interference, which leads to a consolidation of power and lay-offs. Furthermore, the costs of starting-up a business are often too much to bear without the support of a strong safety net. It is difficult to start a company when you have to worry about healthcare and student loan costs. An increased government role in regulation and services may actually help increase competition, encourage entrepreneurship, and foster small business, since there would be fewer barriers to starting a new business. We can turn to the example of Norway to catch a glimpse of what this might look like.

Prescient.

Is anybody in control? Many people may have their quick answers to this question–media executives, the federal government, the financial industry. In truth, however, no one is in control. In the past, powerful individuals controlled countries and companies, for better or for worse. The president could actually dictate national policy and kings could set the course of their kingdoms. Now, although wealth is still concentrated within an elite, power is diffuse. The most wealthy and powerful people have little control over the direction of the world economy or the fate of their countries. Even the president–supposedly the most powerful man in the world–is still subservient to the forces of the market.

This democratization of power has had its benefits: fewer countries are controlled by a single king or strongman than in the past. Many of us have more individual freedom than ever before. However, it seems that reducing the influence of individuals–instead of leading to democracy–has allowed larger, systemic forces to take over. Market forces are in the process of destroying the environment and uprooting people from their communities. Corporations, which are driven by the profit motive, are rapidly extracting resources, manufacturing (stuff that pretty quickly turns into) trash, and polluting the earth. And no one is in a position to control or slow down these market forces.

The genius of the system of capitalism is that it buys out the most powerful and educated people in any community or country. It creates a class of elites who are stakeholders in the economic system because they are benefitting from it. We are very familiar with this process in the West. Everyone in positions of power–politicians, journalists, educators, businesspeople, and even heads of non-governmental organizations–make a lot of money. As a result, they are interested in allowing economic growth to continue more or less unabated. Even if a few radicals think otherwise, this class as a whole is interested in keeping their money and making more of it in the future. Moreover, globalization has created an elite class throughout the Global South. Members of this class are willing to sell their country’s cheap labor and natural resources to the North in return for high levels of personal wealth. Essentially, the North pays off the leaders of Southern countries to persuade them to integrate with an international system that will do little to benefit their populations. This process is creating a separate class of elites throughout the world who have more in common with each other than with their own populations.

Note: this graph depicts earnings in the United States.

The elites are certainly living comfortably and appear to have a lot of power. Yet none of them are actually in control of their country’s destiny. They are constrained by the Golden Straightjacket, which imposes restrictions on wages and taxes. Rule 1: If your wages go too high, corporations will leave for cheaper labor elsewhere. The US is no stranger to this dictum: in the past 30 years most people’s wages have barely increased and many jobs have been outsourced. Rule 2: If you tax corporations too much, they will leave for a “freer” country. Many governments–especially in the Global South–give major tax breaks to corporations and advertise low corporate tax rates to attract investment. Corporations can shop around for cheap labor and low taxes, leading to a race to the bottom.

Quick note: I do not mean to demonize corporations. They are merely doing what they are designed to do: they make money. It’s the government’s job to represent the people and control the influence of corporations. The government has not been doing its job.

When is this global system of rampant economic growth going to stop? Your guess is as good as mine. I think that natural resource contraints and pollution will play a big role. Cheap oil, for one, is not going to last, and the whole system runs on it. But to return to an earlier point, it is essential that the educated and powerful of any country be converted into elites. Educated but unemployed people are a huge threat to the system. As a group, they have the power to change the system, since they do not have a stake in it. Look at the example of the rioting in Tunisia. A young, college-educated man sets himself on fire because he is not able to find a job. His act sets off a month of rioting that ends up overthrowing the government. Throughout Europe, young, educated people are taking to the streets to protest tuition increases and the lack of jobs. In China, the government relies on the promise of continual economic growth to pacify the population. Recent inflation has begun to undermine their efforts. Here in the US, we have less of a tradition of street protest. Nonetheless, in the US, we should expect have a growing number of college-educated people who do not feel like they have a stake in the economic system because they are either unemployed or underemployed in a low-salary job.

In a recent article in the New Yorker (which is based on an upcoming book), David Brooks addresses a new topic, but sticks with the same characters: the upper class. He clearly likes to write about them. He explains all sorts of findings from the fields of neuroscience and psychology through the fictional story of an upper-class elite named Harold. I like his approach. Too often, psychologists do studies on upper- and upper-middle-class Americans and extrapolate their findings to cover the whole American population. But we are not all the same. Poverty and quality of education have a huge impact on psychological development. Also, many upper-class Americans don’t even think of themselves as upper-class. Hence terms like “upper-middle-class”, whatever that means. In fact, most Americans categorize themselves as middle class. Even though a lot of us are poor and some of us are very rich. So it is worthwhile to turn the spotlight on rich elites, especially since they do not even consider themselves to be rich.

Brooks argues that studies of the human mind can pick up where theology and philosophy have left off. Philosophy and theology have left us in a tough spot, leaving us ill-equipped to deal with a complex world. They have left us with the desire to see things in black-and-white, in absolute terms. But the world doesn’t work like that. For instance, our governments and businesses are currently devoted to economic growth at all costs. We assume that more growth will lead to more human well-being. But in fact the sources of human happiness are a lot more complicated, and constant growth and change may actually undermine happiness.

This article has an important message for the young people of my generation. Happiness does not usually correlate with achievement and pursuing the right career. We’ve been taught to seek high grades and big accomplishments. But, more often than not, true happiness comes from your relationships with your partner, friends and family. In pursuit of this happiness, we develop varying amounts of social intelligence to navigate human relationships and make the right choices. Not only is this brand of intelligence important for personal well-being, it is also important for employers and businesses. To be an effective employee you need to be able to work well in a team. Teamwork requires a level of emotional intelligence and interpersonal awareness that colleges and high schools do not teach or evaluate. Your ability to understand others, build relationships and recognize your own shortcomings is in many ways more important than traditional academic achievement.

Brooks describes a typical member of the young upper-class in a passage that I think is spot-on:

Many members of this class, like many Americans generally, have a vague sense that their lives have been distorted by a giant cultural bias. They live in a society that prizes the development of career skills but is inarticulate when it comes to the things that matter most. The young achievers are tutored in every soccer technique and calculus problem, but when it comes to their most important decisions—whom to marry and whom to befriend, what to love and what to despise—they are on their own.

We young elites focus on career advancement and devote much of our time to our jobs, and yet neuroscience and social science (and common sense) are telling us that most of our happiness comes from who we choose to spend our time with and what we care about. In the end, according to neuroscience, your community and relationships matter a whole lot more than what you accomplish in your career.

Check out this article in the Atlantic about where gun deaths happen…

…and which statistics correlate with them, at the state level:

Unfortunately, this graph is based on statistics from states. It would be interesting to see a graph making comparisons between different urban areas, or even counties. Nonetheless, the correlation between presidential vote share and gun violence is illuminating. If your state is voting for McCain, you are more likely to support mass gun ownership, which leads to a more dangerous society.

Be sure to see Jon Stewart’s reaction to the shooting. Here is the link and here, a quote:

I do think it’s important to watch our rhetoric. I think it’s a worthwhile goal not to conflate our political opponents with enemies if for no other reason than to draw a better distinction between the manifestos of paranoid madmen and what passes for acceptable political and pundit speak. It would be really nice if the ramblings of crazy people didn’t in any way resemble how we actually talk to each other on TV.

Also, Nicholas Kristof wrote an op-ed about gun control today that is definitely worth reading. Here is his opening paragraph:

Jared Loughner was considered too mentally unstable to attend community college. He was rejected by the Army. Yet buy a Glock handgun and a 33-round magazine? No problem.