The foundations of American industry, in theory, are trustworthy, sensible concepts. For one, the enterprising businessperson should have an impervious work ethic. In addition, responsible financial practices (saving, lending, earning) should underpin any viable business. Lastly, many of our business models have failure and risk built in, and that’s all right. Preparing for failure is the only adequate measure in a game of competition and volatility. Unfortunately, as the definition of industry has been warped to mean the backbone of individual conquest, all of that sensible talk goes out of the window. Although lawmakers sought to break up monopolizing forces of major business with the anti-trust laws, and the conservative powers of the country extol the values of personal striving, many of us have come to rely on oversized institutions for our welfare. Whether it’s the fine advantages of a college education, the steady paycheck of a corporate entity or the simple pay-in of a health insurance plan, our individual fates hinge on large self-interested groups shuffling even larger sums of our cash. Banks, manufacturers, creditors, mortgage brokers rely on our participation for their industries to thrive, and we often honor that agreement by pouring our life’s compensation into them. After all, what good is your money (read: value) if it’s sitting in a mattress?
Of course, that wouldn’t be such a peril to us if those groups were a) willing to be held responsible for the lives of those individual participants who invest so much and b) accepted their failures as a personal fault as much as our failures. The established idea of credit (extended from the idea of slavery) is that your work will somehow credit you for future purchases and worth. Should your work fall short of the goods you’ve bought and acquired, you assume debt. If you cannot pay back that debt, you file for bankruptcy and start over, your name and credit damaged for some time. Somewhere between the history of using paper currency instead of traded goods to using promised paper currency, Americans accepted the ordeal of permanent debt to those larger institutions. Can’t pay for college? Take out loans. Can’t afford a home? Take out loans, and leverage your salary against them. Need to send your kids to school with a new car? Refinance that first loan you took out and increase debt with little thought to repayment. After all, what’s debt when you die?
This confused process of imaginary money has led us to the demolishing trend of today: personal and corporate responsibility have dissipated. But even more offensive, the government’s knee-jerk reaction has been to safeguard the ones at the top, save their failures topple our lives in total.
Never has the argument for reparations loomed so prominently.
The previously prevalent notion of leaving the mistakes of the past to bear out on your credit line has been tossed to the wayside for a more communal approach; specifically, rescuing every Bob and Barry CEO in the nation with a gentle billion-dollar nudge into continued prosperity. In fact, the rescue language has become so brisk in the mouths of the Pelosis, Reids, Bushes and Obamas that it seems we’d collectively panic if not for the concerted efforts of the Treasury and Federal Reserve to give our industries life. When the mortgage lenders went under, we feared we would lose any homes not fully paid for. As the banks crumbled, businesses and universities worried about the ability to secure loans for another quarter. The pervasive language of anxiety over our declining capitalism made it reasonable to say that government funds should (gasp) help the citizens of our nation…albeit the richest one percent of our citizens, but we had to start somewhere.
Naturally, we should look to the labor force that built the garrisons of industry during the Transatlantic slave trade. Enslaved Africans have been mired in our economic future since the merchant class of New England used their hands and tears to make colonial farms and banks profitable. The tobacco industry gave way to the cotton and textile industry gave way to the sharecropping industry, all of which yielded millions for corporations still existing today. Since that debt has never been repaid, neither in cash nor in resources, the government has its biggest mortgage crisis yet in addressing that history. As automakers fly in private jets with hands outstretched to cushion their already luxurious lives of spendthrift, where are the billions set aside for the descendants of slaves to recoup on their education debt? Where are the billion-dollar bailouts for the men and women who were denied opportunity until recently for their access into higher industry and government? The Native Americans slaughtered by disease and deprivation have only detached casino revenues (which never reach their depressed population), and Black Americans have some stake in sports and entertainment (until we even, says Jay-Z).
As much as Obama’s electoral victory presented us with a new model of racial politics — or the beginnings of new racial politics — we have yet to see the same sympathy for our cheated countrymen of color that’s been extended to reckless executives and tiresome financiers. Supposedly, we should feel proud that the CEOs of GM, Chrysler and Ford have (grudgingly) given up their exorbitant salaries for $1-a-year nominal fees. In fact, I would feel more heartened by that tipping of the scales if descendants of Asian-American railroad workers got their cash retributions for their opening of the Western frontiers. Or, I would feel encouraged if the Mexican workers responsible for every part of our bottom-rung jobs were fairly rewarded with health benefits. As we make steps to provide safety nets for those elites who have toddled with their great-grandparents’ inheritance dollars, we should also consider those of us who never had the advantages (and never expected any), but have braved past those obstacles to create new wealth. Since reparations is an accursed term, I’m comfortable with just labeling it a “bailout” for now.