Opportunism and Capitalism
Monday, January 9th, 2006
Pure capitalism is more about markets and less about services. A shrewd capitalist will firstly survey the consumer markets and determines the high-demand products. Secondly, he or she will outline a plan of action for advertising and production. Producing and adver-tising go hand in hand: one must invest in advertising for him or her to be able to “move” products because if consumers remain unaware of the availability of a product, they will not purchase it even if it is a high demand product. As a result, packaging and marketing one’s business is more important than producing the product itself.
Sometimes, a strong need arises due to natural or man-caused disasters and tragedies. Most of us are well aware that the last five years were full of events the new of which reached possibly every living room of every family worldwide thanks to the emerging global com-munity. This world interconnection is made possible in part by internationalized Television programs and globalized Internet.
The 9/11 attacks were shown around the world and so were the destructive earthquakes in Iran (twice), Turkey, and Pakistan. A year ago, the devastating tsunami that hit many coun-tries of South East Asia generated worldwide news and sympathy that brought friends and foes together to help. Here in the USA, the year 2005 was marked by murderous Hurri-canes and Tornados. This fall, Hurricane Katrina almost emptied the state of Louisiana from its citizens (by the end of 2005, only 50% of New Orleans residents returned) and possibly caused the federal administration all of its political capital that it claimed to have earned during the 2004 election. After each of these tragedies, humanity was shown for all that it is: generous, caring, and helpful. National and religious boundaries disappeared as citizens of the earth reached out to their fellow human beings who are hurting and who are in desperate need. These acts, though commendable, have seen enough coverage not be-cause they are not worthy; rather, because that is how humanity ought to be. We are ex-pected to reach out and help those in need.
What has not been adequately discussed however are the acts of the few, yet rich and pow-erful, entities and individuals who are further profiting from these tragedies. The time and space I have for this piece does not allow me to identify them all and show the extent of their profits, however, I thought I should reflect on some of the most obvious examples. I will not indulge in retelling the scam stories of those who took advantage of the goodness of charitable people. The media has shed enough light on the subject and was instrumental in raising awareness. I shall focus on the more controversial and yet equaling appalling practices by others who continue to take advantage of the public every day.
The first of these profiteers are giant airline companies that were struggling even before the 9/11 attacks due to their misguided business practices. Some of these companies arm-wrestled the government into bailing them out of bankruptcy even before the survivors of victims of the attack were compensated. It is now five years, and still most of these compa-nies are operating in the red. Since the statistics tell us that travelers patterns returned to normalcy soon after the attacks; it stands to reason then that the troubles these companies face are caused by their business practices and the greed of the few rather than external fac-tors. May be they should start by collecting from the CEOs, CFOs, and COOs who are not worth the hugely inflated salaries and perks they receive instead of collecting from con-sumers and taxpayers.
During the last couple of years, and even before the weather-induced loss of property and life in Gulf of Mexico, consumers were paying a hefty price for gasoline. Analysts attrib-uted the initial rise of oil price to the increased demand which was due to the emerging economies of India and China. That may be the case; however, the data also show that these oil companies did not invest enough money to increase the capacity of refineries and distribution despite the fact all major oil companies have increased their profits this year by more than 35%. In other words, each of these companies have pocketed somewhere be-tween $40 to $90 billion in profits while consumers paid more for the same service and for the same amount of oil.
In addition to corporations, there are many individuals who profited and continue to profit from tragedy. Chief among these individuals are the talking heads who are brought to prominence by Bin Laden. From sleeper-racists like Anne Coulter who now find the envi-ronment tolerant enough to spout her hatred by suggesting that the US should kill Muslim leaders and convert their people to Christianity. Some may argue that she is not representa-tive of all of Americans, but if that is the case, why is she paraded on every public and ca-ble Television station from ABC and MSNBC to FOX News? If she is not representative of American values then who is buying her books and making her a bestseller?
In addition to sleeper racists who are tolerated these days because of the political climate, there are many more disturbed “Muslims” who are profiting either by denigrating Islam and Muslims and making publishers and themselves rich. We hear of so-called “moderate Muslims” writing trash and making up for what they lack in knowledge by tailored packag-ing and slick marketing, shallow opinions generated by graduate students, and marketed as scholarly work, and provocative generalization by so-called analysts who can’t properly pronounce a single Arabic, Persian, or Pashto word. To all these opportunists, if they chal-lenge their characterization as opportunists, I suggest they donate all their profits to the vic-tims of these horrible acts or to a fund that will encourage further research and exploration.
The recent natural (and “unnatural) disasters have increased the number of people hurt by poverty, hunger, and diseases. The need is so pronounced that it is almost impossible to ignore; even “the rich and famous” were directly or indirectly exposed to the sight of peo-ple who suffer on daily basis. While this exposure moved many kind-hearted people to act; it also provided an opportunity for capitalists to polish their images and launch public rela-tion campaigns. For instance, many heads of corporations known for their cut-throat ap-proaches to emerging competitors and for years of monopoly and markets’ control, are now donating a fraction of the profits they pocketed for healthcare and aid programs. The ac-tions of some of these are clear re-enactment of the logic of Robin Hood with major differ-ence: the money they are using was not stolen from the rich and given to the poor; rather, it was stolen from the poor and given o the rich, and the rich are now sharing some of it with some other poor elsewhere. Some may dismiss this criticism as cynicism. However if one reflects on the policies of over-pricing, crushing of the small competitors, refusal to make available their applications as open-source programs, and the denial of technology and know-how to peoples of poor nations; he or she will see the root of the problem that cannot be solved by treating the symptoms. Instead of handouts, the developing world needs ac-cess to technology, science, and resources to develop their own economies and build their own societies. Sadly, very few will anonymously donate and help preserve the dignity of other human beings instead of advertised donations that rehabilitate the image of crooks, alleviate guilty consciences, and provide cheap therapy. In extreme capitalism, there is no place to such protocols of charity that are upheld in Eastern cultures that says: “the best of charity is that given by the right hand without it being noticed by the left hand.”
Finally, the entity that has a monopoly on the use of violence and power in all its forms—the government—did not pass the opportunity to add to its monopoly either. For instance, this administration which is led by a self-declared fiscally-disciplined leader, has presided over a government that grew in size and in spending. In its first term, it created the biggest bureaucracy in the recent history of this country when it added a homeland security de-partment that went AWOL when Katrina attacked. It also consolidated the various intelli-gence agencies and authorized them to do more spying even on American citizens without judicial oversight. And while taxes were being cut and the rich were rewarded, government spending (in non-security related departments) increased by 34% to 98% (see spending in-creases for the departments of agriculture, labor, and education just to name few). By turn-ing citizens into Pavlovian test animals thanks to the colored-system of fear, the admini-stration scared the public into allowing it to grab more power and more money. Subse-quently, the bureaucracy became so huge that it cannot communicate fast enough in time of need and the debt skyrocketed to numbers that are custom made just for this purpose (Tril-lions).
Sadly, all the money and programs that were financed in order to increase preparedness ut-terly failed during the time of need. If it were not for charitable organizations and other NGOs’ efforts, more people would have died in aftermath of the Tsunami, the Earthquakes, and the Hurricanes. For example, responding to appeals for help by South Asian countries, the administration pledged an embarrassing $15 million dollars, almost a tenth of that pledged by a single aid organization like World Vision. Which brings us to suggest again that, may be we should reroute more of our tax money to NGOs instead of leaving it under the control of power-hungry, morally bankrupt, and ethically challenged ineffective politi-cians. After all, civil society depends on the presence of civil institutions not on powerful governments. Powerful governments essentially give rise to dictatorships; effective gov-ernments on the other hand, promote cleaner streets, better transportation systems, reliable communication, and civil and public services. Ineffective self-serving governments patron-izing businesses and forgetting about the poor and the needy, the New Orleans’ disaster proved these assumptions about governments to be true.
Unfortunately, and to certain extent, we are all guilty of this state of affair. As members of this emerging modern civilization, we contribute—directly or indirectly—to its critical ar-eas that give it purpose, shape, and drive. We are either consumer or consumed; may be because we have not crossed a certain threshold that we continue to tolerate mediocre solu-tions in our public and private lives. Until we feel that we have reached that threshold, we will remain under the mercy of the extreme capitalist lifestyle where the human being has value only when he or she is in mass, in a large number, a market.