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Originally published January 3, 2015 at 4:00 PM | Page modified January 5, 2015 at 2:22 PM

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Guest: Travel writer Rick Steves warns that corporate profiteering comes with a price

If corporate America knew what was good for it, sustainability, economic justice, and a measure of compassion for the poor would come before corporate profit.


Special to The Times

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WATCHING cable news headlines about lower-than-expected holiday spending it occurred to me that here in America the business news is never allowed to be entirely good: “Purchases are up ... but weaker than forecast.” “The stock market is in record territory ... but leading analysts are concerned about the indicators.” “The numbers, while increasing, are lower than experts had hoped.”

We are among the wealthiest societies on the planet, with the shortest vacations anywhere. Yet, we’re told that our economic performance is perennially “sluggish” and “disappointing.” The real message? Work harder! We’re not productive enough! Our profits should be even greater! We’re becoming the Hamster Wheel States of America. And who’s hired to crack the whip? Commercial news media.

Yes, the last several years have been tough times for many. And if you’re out of work or your company just went bust, that certainly is a crisis. But as a society, we are far from “in crisis.” Ever since the first full year of the Great Recession (2009), our economy has been growing each year — just more slowly than we’d like. There’s no question that, economically, we are firmly established on top of the world. Yet, we are never reminded that half of humanity is struggling to live on $2 a day.

Maybe there is a crisis in this country — just not the one we keep hearing about. In reality, perhaps it’s a crisis of distribution within the vast and growing American economic pie. Or a crisis between our huge pie and the billions of desperately poor people elsewhere on our planet. What’s our response? A contemporary version of “Let them eat cake.”

I’ve just finished producing a TV show about the great palaces of France. These jaw-dropping châteaux were built by the Old Regime — the 17th century version of the 1 percent. Kings would spend half a year’s income of their entire realm renovating their hunting palaces, while their finance ministers squandered much of what remained building châteaux to rival the royals’. Rivers were rerouted to power the fountains. Pavilions were perched atop the palaces’ domes for aristocrats to gather and marvel at gardens that stretched for miles. From this elite point of view, the ladies would cheer as servants flushed deer out of the gated forest and their men made the kill.

The rich didn’t know what to do with all that money back then — other than to spend lots of it to ensure it stayed in their families. The First and Second estates (nobility and the church) colluded cleverly to keep down the Third Estate (peasantry). But eventually, the grinding reality of social stratification made the growing gap between rich and poor impossible to ignore. And the 99 percent marched.

Today, the headless bodies of that Old Regime are buried under gold-leaf domes, and their palaces are the domain of the commoners. Imagine: After making their king “a foot shorter at the top,” the people of Paris inherited the world’s biggest palace and its best collection of art. The Louvre Palace became the world’s first public museum.

While aristocracy-controlled religion was the opiate of the masses back then, corporate-controlled media is the opiate of the masses today. And, just as those who accepted the Old Regime notion that some were born to be fabulously wealthy and the rest were born to labor, many present-day Americans just keep working harder than ever for less and less — all while the TV pundits tell us the score and prod us on.

As a society, we are producing more than ever. So where are the fruits of our labor? The biggest companies in America have come out of the Great Recession with bottom lines that are healthier than ever. But what would those numbers look like if standard accounting practices addressed the real costs of their success, and the costs to make that success sustainable? That balance sheet would include needed infrastructure improvements, prorated payments on future environmental damage caused by climate change, treating our immigrant laborers with dignity, and providing the child care, health care and education that would help build a workforce of the future.

I believe that, in a strong America, sustainability, economic justice, and a measure of compassion for our society’s lower rungs should be a prerequisite for corporate profit. And if corporate America knew what was good for itself — and read history — it would agree.

Rick Steves hosts a public television series about travel and writes European travel guidebooks. His hamster wheel is in Edmonds.



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