“Skin in the Game”: Inequality, Sacrifice, Obama, and the Fate of the Earth

Barack is here is to increase the abundance, but to spread it around a little more…

 – Billionaire Investor Warren Buffett at a country club fundraiser in Omaha, Nebraska, August 15, 2007


Our economy could fall $1 trillion short of its full capacity….Only government can break the vicious cycles …where …an inability to lend and borrow stops growth …The true test of the policies we’ll pursue won’t be whether they ate Democratic or Republican ideas, but whether they create jobs, grow our economy, and put the American Dream within reach of the American people…

– Barack Obama, Economics Speech, George Mason University, January 8, 2009.



To escape any reevaluation, the oligarchy keeps repeating the dominant ideology according to which the solution to the social crisis is production growth.  This is supposedly the sole means of fighting poverty and unemployment…The pursuit of material growth is the only means of getting societies to accept extreme inequalities without questioning them.

– Herve Kempf, How the Rich Are Destroying the Earth (2007)





Last Sunday on ABC’s "This Week," Barack Obama agreed with George Stephanopolous that his presidency’s economic agenda will present the American people with a "grand bargain" in which "everybody in this country is going to have to sacrifice something, accept change for the greater good." Consistent with recent news reports, Obama responded in the affirmative to Stephanopolus’ query as to whether so-called "entitlement reform" – cutbacks and/or deepening privatization of Social Security and Medicare, in essence – are on the table of his presidency. 


"Everybody is going to have to give," Obama said, adding that "everybody is going to have some skin in the game" [1].


An interesting choice of words.  I wonder how many viewers knew that "skin in the game" equated ordinary working and poor Americans with leading members of the business class. As Forbes’ Financial Directory reports, the term was coined by the billionaire U.S. investor and Obama-friend and sponsor [2] Warren Buffett .  It refers to a situation in which top company insiders use their own money to purchase stock in a corporation they are running.  The idea behind having this situation is that executives’ confidence in a company is enhanced when they put their money on the line along with outside investors [3].


The President-elect’s use of this investor- and executive-class phrase to describe "everybody" is – along with his call for "everybody" to "sacrifice" – richly emblematic of the U.S. political class’s official obliviousness to – and deep complicity in – the critical problem of class oppression [4].





At one level, the Stephanopolous-Obama "sacrifice" exchange could be reasonably welcomed by left progressives and others who care about a livable environment.  Post-World War II America has long been dangerously addicted to more.  Its ecologically toxic and spiritually empty habit of mass consumption has produced a rolling "crisis of profligacy" (Andrew Bacevich’s term) that is intimately related to its foreign policy "elite’s" deadly involvement in the oil-rich Middle East and to deepening environmental crises (global warming, rampant pollution, and drastically accelerated species extinction) at home and abroad.


As the conservative historian Andrew Bacevich reminds us in his new book The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, President Jimmy Carter made a semi-valiant effort to warn America off the vapid path of wastefulness. "Too many of us," Carter observed in his famous 1979 "malaise" speech, "tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption.  Human identity is no longer identified by what one does, but by what one owns.  But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning.  We’ve learned that piling up material goods that cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence of purpose" [5].


By Bacevich’s interesting take, Carter rightly criticized America’s "mistaken idea of freedom" for being "quantitative."  That false notion, Bacevich writes, "centered on the never-ending quest for more white exalting narrow self interest."  Carter’s "conception of authentic freedom was qualitative: it meant living in accord with permanent values.  At least by implication, it meant setting for less" [6].


Tellingly enough, Carter’s speech killed his chances for re-election. "Optimistically" rejecting Carter’s call to accept less material gratification and to elevate "permanent values" over narrow self interest, U.S. political culture moved on to the Reagan era’s glorification of materialism and greed.  An opportunity to tackle the energy and related incipient climate crises was squandered.  Middle-class Americans were steered into a generation of fierce attachment to the credit card, gas-guzzling, and the shopping mall.


In the wake of the 9/11 jetliner attacks and the United States’ proclamation of an all-or-nothing Global War on Terror pitting Western "freedom" (supposedly headquartered in and championed by the U.S.) against Islamist slavery, George W. Bush admonished Americans to shop.  The American Way of Life was defined to mean endless mass consumption and personal enjoyment – "an ethic of self-gratification and excess" – while war-fighting and other forms of "service" and sacrifice were imposed on the small percentage of Americans enlisted in the All Volunteer Armed Forces.  As Bacevich darkly reflects:


"Washington may have fancied itself to be at war; the nation most assuredly has not…While soldiers fought, people consumed.  With the United States possessing less than 3 percent of the world’s known oil reserves and Americans burning one out of every four barrels of petroleum produced worldwide, oil imports reached 60 percent of daily national requirements and kept rising.  The personal savings rate…dropped below zero and remained there.  Collectively, Americans were now spending more than they earned…."


"…In February 2006, a provocative argument in the New York Times Magazine posed the question ‘Is freedom just another word for many things to buy?’ Through their actions after 9/11, as before, tens of millions of Americans answered in the affirmative" [7].


Meanwhile, the carbon- and consumption- generated climate catastrophe continued to deepen to the point where livable ecology is at profound risk for future generations.  Climate change is accelerating rapidly, producing a potentially drastic reduction of planetary habitability. Biodiversity is declining like no time since the collapse of the dinosaurs. Chemical, radioactive, and electromagnetic contamination of air, water, land, food and bodies is epidemic and rising. Deforestation is outstripping the earth’s capacity to re-grow trees.  The planet is being stripped of key resources too quickly to recover as humanity’s ecological footprint – nowhere bigger than in the United States – transcends the Earth’s "bio-capacity." [8]


Americans would do well to revisit Carter’s forgotten advice to settle for less.  So would the rest of the "advanced" capitalist world.  "Together," Herve Kempf notes, "North America, Europe, and Japan include a billion inhabitants or less than 20 percent of the [world's] population.  And they consume about 81 percent of global wealth." In an age when that global wealth and consumption is drastically exceeding the biosphere’s human-friendly carrying capacity, Kempf notes, "these billion people must reduce their personal consumption" [9].





But part, at least a fourth, of this billion cannot be justifiably told to reduce.  And the wealthy Few at the top of the corporate skin game mu

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