Of Guns, Whales, Freedom, and Justice

After visiting an awe-inspiring women’s empowerment program at work in several rural villages north of Delhi, our host at the Ashram, scanning his Blackberry, related the news: a horrific shooting…assault rifle…children slaughtered…in a school…in Connecticut (my son’s school is in the state)…and then after what seemed like an endless pause as I grew more anxious…Newtown.

The momentary relief that my son was not in harm’s way quickly passed and the reality of what unfolded in the town next door to my mother’s, where I frequently dine with her, began to sink in.  One reality in these tragedies is that distance matters – the closer to home, the more poignant.  9-11 taught me that.

If 9-11 revealed that we live at a scary time in this world, with forces at work I was ignorant of and certainly could not understand, Newtown revealed that we live at a scary time in America, with forces at work I’m ignorant of and can’t begin to understand.  With 9-11 it was the brazen, horrific act.  With Newtown, it is not only the brazen, horrific act, but it is the response playing out on cable TV, and at gun shops around the country.

My personal effort to make some sense of my first-hand experience with 9-11 was to conclude that there must be some greater message to absorb from the mayhem than what could be deduced with the linear logic of immediate cause and effect.  Beyond the evil and unforgivable act, was there something profound that was amiss and was this our wake up call?

I concluded the answer had to be “yes” and set about questioning what it might be.  Had it to do with America’s place in the world, perhaps even our cherished and world-defining ideology?  The “World Trade” Center was symbolic; no doubt, raising questions about the looming limitations of globalization based on the ever-expanding flow of goods and capital across borders and cultures, and the associated imposition of a global security apparatus to ensure its uninterrupted function.

It is clear now that something profound is amiss, and Capital Institute is privileged to work with the many enlightened and courageous global citizens searching for answers.  A little over a decade following 9-11, even the Academy of Management, the leading, global membership association of business management academics has chosen the theme “Capitalism in Question” for its annual conference.

If capitalism is in question, it is no doubt a consequence of the near-collapse of the financial system, the stench of the bank bailouts that underwrote and socialized the cost and risk of irresponsible and fraudulent behavior of certain arrogant bankers, their entitlement culture, and their personal wealth linked to what otherwise would have been failed private enterprises.  And capitalism is in question because of the catastrophic fallout from the financial crisis, which includes depression-like economic conditions in much of the world that imploded public sector balance sheets, violent cutbacks in education, social services, and safety nets, reckless neglect of vital infrastructure, underinvestment in the critical energy transition off fossil fuels, rising suicides and mental health disorders, broken families and lives, and perhaps even a lost American dream here at home. Collectively, this systematic violence and pain is nothing less than an economic 9-11.

Something profound is indeed amiss beyond the cable news channels’ dramatization of the so-called “fiscal cliff.” Our unfailing faith in free markets seems suddenly shaken. We now question both the private sector’s ability to prudently manage its own affairs in such a way as not to put the entire system at risk, as well as our ability to regulate it.  JPMorgan’s “whale” trade reminds us that regulatory reforms have changed little and that even the best institutions are not in control of their overly complex affairs.

That capitalism is in question does not suggest that socialism or any other “ism” we know will provide easy answers.  The search for a more evolved, regenerative capitalism that mimics sustainable natural systems is underway.  The spectacular systemic breakdown of global finance, which overnight shifted our unit of account from billions to incomprehensible trillions (a trillion dollars is equal to a million dollars a day for 2,740 years), raises profound questions about the limitations of our individualistic free-market system itself, guided by an “invisible hand” that Adam Smith indefensibly equated with the natural laws of (now outdated) Newtonian physics.

Like the disaster of 9/11, Newtown points to a larger and more profound societal instability.  The gun question has exposed a troubling perversion of legitimate rights into apparently limitless entitlement far beyond what could be explained by logic.  It has stoked a flame, touching the root identity of who we are as “free” Americans, at least for a vocal minority.

America was born out of a quest for individual freedom.  It underpins our belief in globalization as the means to extend free enterprise and personal freedom around the globe in the name of progress.  It lies at the heart of our unwavering faith in free markets and in the free flow of capital into whatever real or speculative activity we dream up, on any scale we choose, regardless of the systemic consequences.  It is what drives the argument that our right to bear arms entitles us to own military assault weapons.  And it catalyzes both the gun lobby and the banker lobby to drop the gloves and fight with overwhelming force the “slippery slope” of regulation that might challenge this entitlement.

I would suggest that the message behind all the mayhem of Newtown and Aurora, Hurricane Sandy and the BP Gulf disaster, the sub-prime mortgage and whale fiascos, and all the way back to 9-11 is a not so subtle invitation to examine our understanding of freedom in a world that both science and all of our wisdom traditions reveal to be interdependent.  We must ask ourselves what freedom truly means in a world where physical limits ranging from the carbon in the atmosphere to concentrations of risk in the financial system have become manifest and clear to see.

Since everything is literally connected to everything, we must ask as my colleague Peter Brown does in our 3rd Millennium Economy Report, whether the moral underpinnings of political liberalism were flawed from the beginning.  He suggests that we have no choice but to recognize that as Thoreau articulates in Walden, “our whole life is startlingly moral. There is never an instant’s truce between virtue and vice.”

Freedom in the Anthropocene, as I first introduced a year ago, demands fresh thinking and uncomfortable adjustments for we freedom-loving Americans.  We must consider in particular how our ideas of liberty and freedom relate to our idea of justice.   This is not to say that we should devalue freedom, only that it needs to find its proper place in the hierarchy of our values.

Peter Brown suggests that liberty properly understood “lives in a modest room within the mansion of justice.”  Could this be the message in all the mayhem?