Not just a few rotten apples

The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart and other commentators have been having a field day with John Thain.

Forced to resign last month as head of Merrill Lynch (recently merged with Bank of America) after word got around of the millions in bonuses he lavished on top employees in December, apparently using taxpayer-funded bailout money, and the $1.2 million he spent redecorating his office last year, including $1,405 for a trash can, $87,000 for a rug and $35,000 for an antique-type bathroom furnishing referred to as a “commode.”

Thain’s personal haul was reportedly $83.1 million in 2007. His predecessor at Merrill Lynch made “only” $28 million.

Meanwhile The New York Times reports that even as layoffs and joblessness soar, revenue-starved states are pushing needy Americans out of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, the federally funded but state-administered aid program.

In Rhode Island, which ties Michigan for the nation’s highest unemployment, 2,200 children were cut from the safety net program last year as aid to families was slashed. Michigan started forcing applicants to spend a month in a job-search program before collecting benefits. This in a state with soaring joblessness and poverty as its auto industry lifeline hemorrhages jobs.

In another part of the rust belt, southwest Ohio, Jeffrey Diver, executive director of Butler County’s Supports to Encourage Low-income Families, told a local newspaper that the numbers living in poverty there are climbing. “We are seeing a very large number of people who are coming to our agency that have never had to ask for help before. We’re seeing a greater number of people in panic and seeing a greater sense of uneasiness by low and moderate income people,’’ he said.

Jon Stewart did a hilarious commentary about Thain, with the comedian/newscaster’s trademark eye-rolling and every-man sarcasm. Stewart provides the pointed bite that “real” corporate news shows steer clear of. We enjoy it as much as everyone else. But we’d like to offer a deeper point: It’s the system, baby.

Remember the 1987 Oliver Stone film “Wall Street”? The one where Michael Douglas’s financier Gordon Gekko offered the famous line, “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good”?

Last fall, Australia’s prime minister, Kevin Rudd, commented, “It is perhaps time now to admit that we did not learn the full lessons of the greed-is-good ideology. And today we are still cleaning up the mess of the 21st-century children of Gordon Gekko.”

Why is that? It is because we are not dealing just with a few rotten apples, a few greedy individuals succumbing to temptation. It’s the logic of capitalism itself. It’s a system that is based on the drive for ever-greater profits and the glorification of individual self-interest as the primary force in society.

In its earlier days, capitalism, even as it viciously exploited workers and robbed the public treasury, was a dynamic force that spurred industrial and technological growth. Today, formerly thriving cities like Detroit or Youngstown, Ohio, are monuments to a system that is failing the American people, a system that is being eaten by the logic of its driving force: “greed is good.”

Mighty struggles are unfolding to curb the excesses and regulate the conduct of today’s robber barons. With a worker-friendly administration in Washington, we are in a much better position to wage those vital

battles. Republicans and corporate America are calling any curbs “socialism” as though it’s a dirty word. Curbing the Gordon Gekkos, much as it’s needed, is not socialism. Ultimately, though, we will have to move toward an economic system that puts people before profits, human need before corporate greed. That’s socialism and it’s making more and more sense every day.