WASHINGTON -- Shortly before the election, new Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti, a distinguished economist who took the place of the fun-loving Silvio Berlusconi, was in Washington, and he paused several times to express his wonder at Germany's economic attitude.
"Why, they see economics as virtue," he expostulated wryly to Charlie Rose. "It is virtuous to be not in debt and to save. Power flows from virtue."
Over and over, he expressed little short of amazement at how the Germans, having arisen from the ashes of 1945 to become the powerhouse of Europe, have been so uniformly successful in building their industries and commerce. Even accepting (more or less) the "sharing of sovereignty" that has come with the European Union, and "sharing markets," something German Chancellor Angela Merkel has become an expert at.
But with all due respect to both the German "miracle" and Italy's good sense in finally getting a fine man like Monti to lead them (whom one can hardly imagine having sex parties in his basement, like Berlusconi), there is nothing new about societies seeing economics as virtuous. Particularly capitalism.
Indeed, perhaps once the election craziness is really over, foreign policy groups, civic societies and simply concerned citizens would do the country a great favor by holding meetings and seminars on the subject of "Capitalism Today." Or, perhaps it should be, "Capitalism: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow." You get the idea.
The idea that the economics of a society should be based on virtuous principles began at the dawn of large-scale capitalist management in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries in Europe. Even then, the idea that the means of production should be privately owned and dominated by markets came hand in glove with the morals of the polity.
What a change this meant! Before, under the feudalism in which a few wealthy royal families held virtually all wealth tightly among themselves, there was little reason for hard work and frugality to be valued. That was for the peasants. But with the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, all this changed -- it was precisely those values that were prized, and the new idea took form, as capitalism grew, that the wealthy should also be virtuous.
At the same time, early capitalists and Protestants helped form the new national states that replaced feudalism. Capitalism grew with the Industrial Revolution in late 19th-century England, only to see international markets shrink after World War I, bringing greater state regulation after the 1930s depression, and explode in prowess again after World War II.
So, what does this have to do with us today? Only that it is the new trajectories of capitalism that are tormenting the American republic and may well be what lead to the recapturing of our power in the world, or our decline.
We ought to know by now that, over the last 30 years, we have seen a dangerous change in the distribution of our wealth. It is no laughing matter to say the top 1 percent of Americans hold the great mass of the wealth. They do. It is also no exaggeration that the campaign rhetoric about the decline of the middle class, which is necessary for any democracy to function, is all-too-terribly real.
Mitt Romney never, so far as I heard or read, even mentioned the criminal excesses of Wall Street in the last 10 years, even though new cases seemed to be written about in the papers every day. Barack Obama appeared to have more of the right vibes, talking about financiers making billions of dollars not by producing goods, but by playing the most esoteric types of financial games.
When Obama was elected president in 2008, I said, in my ever-charitable way, "He has to hang someone." Of course I was writing metaphorically, but I was right. Yet he never came across as a tough guy, willing to take on Wall Street's financial mafiosi.
What I heard from the American people during the campaign and before -- and what they MEANT by what they said -- is that they do not want this "casino capitalism." They want, perhaps not a return to the severe Calvinism of the early capitalists, but at least a return to the virtuous capitalism of our own past, or to Germany's style today.
Instead, we get the big bankers' immorality or, at best, amorality. They have no understanding of what American society has given to them and, from the proof of their greedy actions, little loyalty to it. Indeed, they live so far apart from our ordinary lives that we cannot even guess at theirs. Why, after all, would someone really need billions of dollars, when a few million used to do the trick?
Americans are tired of being "had." They feel, on just about every level, a terrible hunger for morality. Yet, politicians continue to refuse to force Wall Street billionaires to pay anywhere near their fair share. And sociologists keep wondering how long it will be, as the mass of Americans get poorer and more ignored by its leadership, till those "masses" revolt.