To the 10 million-plus unemployed, to the 141,000 businessmen who saw their companies go bankrupt in the past three years (the 1981 rate was 44 percent over 1980, which was 56 percent over 1979) and to the managers of 240 large firms whose profit margins have dropped in the last three months, Treasury Secretary Donald T. Regan has a comforting thought: Capitalism has "its moorings in morality."
In a recent speech at Bucknell University titled "Morality and Capitalism," Regan became the Deep Ponderer. The moral code found in democratic capitalism, he said, "encourages thrift, discipline, hard work, public spiritedness and, yes, honesty." And yes, too, "the philosophy of capitalism that I have gone through is also at the heart of this administration's economic policy."
It's time to worry--really worry--when the policymakers come forth to cover their programs with a veneer of moral rectitude. It's what the generals say when sending the young to be killed in battle: "God's on our side." Regan, without a program to defend, now opts to defend a faith.
But who's attacking it? Regan doesn't say, except to create some straw men: "Past leadership in Washington has falsely led too many of our people to believe that somehow our system of democratic capitalism caused our economic problems at home and around the world."
This imprecision runs through Regan's speech. He says that "in the last 15 years, the cost of our food-stamp program has gone up more than 16,000 percent." This is a discredited figure that even Ronald Reagan, as loose with facts as any politician in Washington, has stopped using. The growth is 16,000 percent because 15 years ago the program was barely in existence.
A jab at the poor is standard fare in speeches from this administration. Regan may even see himself as one of the new poor, since he took the $69,000-a-year Treasury job at a salary loss of $950,000 from his chieftaincy at Merrill Lynch. Regan didn't tell his Bucknell audience about his old Wall Street paycheck, but he did say that 'I stand before you as a capitalist . . . I am a part of this country's phenomenal process of production. I have been contributing to the growth of our society--increasing its well-being, not just spending its benefits." He let it pass that stockbrokers are in a trade that produces nothing except what can be earned in profits from the labor and production of others.
Regan's posturing with his own self-importance was prefatory to a larger delusion. He spoke of the administration's efforts "to protect" the elderly, handicapped and poor from inflation. In the mind of Rep. Andy Jacobs (D-Ind.), who as a member of the Ways and Means Committee is regularly exposed to Regan: "For this administration to brag about reduction in inflation is like saying that the patient died but the good news is that he's eating less."
Regan's speech could have been much more than another Mailgram from the piety front. Instead of "Morality and Capitalism," why not a discussion of the moral responsibilities of capitalism in the 1980s? The capitalism of this decade needs major alterations that go beyond the tinkerings made in the earlier decades. The current chaos--unemployment, bankruptcies, inflation--is caused by a mix of flawed choices, ranging from longstanding public and corporate policies that treat the natural ecology as endlessly exploitable, to an increasingly militarized economy that creates few jobs and closes the market to innovative businesses that want to serve or produce for human needs.
It isn't enough, as Regan does here and others elsewhere, to point out that the economic systems in communist countries aren't working. This is old news. Gloating about the impoverishment of communism--in whatever forms, from China to Cuba--in no way means that the American form of capitalism is using its wealth wisely or humanely. At best it invites the cynicism of the Moscow street joke, quoted in "The Russians" by Hedrick Smith: "Under capitalism, man exploits man. Under communism, it's just the opposite."
Instead of an our-system-is-better-than-their-system approach, which is mere economic nationalism, men like Regan ought to be examining ways to rebuild a capitalism that has gone soft or sour. In "Our Overloaded Economy," Prof. Wallace Peterson of the University of Nebraska argues rightly that "capitalism is not a static or weak system . . . It has always had an extraordinary capacity to change."
The capacity is there, but leaders like Regan appear to cower before the challenge.