Westmoreland Coal Company’s spokesman said it wasn’t the company’s fault that those who spent their working lives mining coal for the company find themselves old and with neither pensions nor health insurance. He blames capitalism. “It’s just the market,” the corporate mouthpiece bellowed.
Remember Martin Shkreli, the pharmaceutical company exec who raised the price of a lifesaving drug from $13.50 a pill to more than $750? He said he regretted he didn’t go higher. After all, he reasoned, “This is a capitalist system, and capitalism rules.”
Indeed, it is capitalism without a conscience, the kind ballyhooed by many members of chambers of commerce and most conservative lawmakers.
Conservatives will spend the next several months warning of the evils of “socialism.” They define socialism to include everything from Medicare for all and changing corrupt campaign spending laws to requiring greedy employers to pay livable wages and asking the absurdly wealthy to pay their fair share of the costs of being American.
People like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Elizabeth Warren and other Democrats are not socialists. They are pragmatists who know capitalism doesn’t work unless it has a conscience, and that it won’t grow a conscience on its own.
There was a time when Wyoming politicians didn’t blindly adopt conservative talking points to substitute for rational dialogue. Once upon a time, they did their homework, contributing to the national debate over issues as serious as the structure of the nation’s economy. In days of old, there were giants like Joseph C. O’Mahoney and Thurman Arnold roaming the state and finding themselves on a national stage.
O’Mahoney was Wyoming’s U.S. senator, known among colleagues as the “trust-buster,” the “most effective and able” member of the Senate when it came to protecting the free enterprise system. He believed capitalism was best protected when it exhibited a conscience.
Arnold was born in Laramie in 1891, and was elected to the Wyoming Legislature in 1920. If you think Democrats are lonely today, consider Rep. Arnold was, then, the sole Democrat in the state House. He nominated himself for speaker, standing a second time to second the nomination and a third time to withdraw it. It was great humor, something he couldn’t see in the predatory capitalism that led to the Great Depression.
Later, he was elected Laramie mayor before leaving Wyoming for a career of significance in Washington. Arnold’s considerable legal skills were recognized by FDR, who appointed him assistant attorney general in charge of the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division and subsequently to the District of Columbia Court of Appeals.
Arnold earned a high level of respect wherever economic policy was discussed. He was a strong advocate for capitalism, but not as he witnessed it being practiced. He saw how it had been turned into a tool of the wealthy to avoid treating their workers with the fairness and respect they deserve in a truly capitalistic society.
The insecurities of working people cannot be attributed to capitalism, Arnold wrote in his classic economics text, “The Folklore of Capitalism,” published in 1937 by Yale University Press. Arnold’s erudite book argued persuasively that “capitalism is an ideal which has never been achieved.” Judge Arnold urged that before capitalism is jettisoned, Americans should give it a chance to work. In other words, transplant a conscience into what pretends to be capitalism.
University of Wisconsin professor Joel Rogers would call Wyoming’s version “low-road capitalism.” Low wages protected by law. Employees fired at an employer’s whim. Women legally paid less than men. Workers denied protections of strong, robust unions. Employers legally discriminating against employees because of their sexual orientation. Morally and financially bankrupt coal companies pay executive bonuses while depriving retirees of health care and pensions.
Wyoming legislators pick winners and losers, passing laws interfering with economics-driven decisions to close coal-powered plants, while planning to spend tens of millions propping up a fossil fuels industry gasping for air in an economic hospice.
There is little wonder that Wyoming politicians and business leaders who practice “low-road capitalism” fear people like AOC and Elizabeth Warren.
Rodger McDaniel lives in Laramie and is the pastor at Highlands Presbyterian Church in Cheyenne. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.