Posts Tagged ‘capitalism’

I’m having a tough time with something and I invite anyone to help me understand what’s going on with our economy.

We’ve got high unemployment and rampant under-employment; falling wages; an increasing concentration of wealth and power in fewer and fewer hands; a lack of career opportunities for recent graduates who are crushed under the weight of college loans that could follow them forever; an increase in poverty rates coupled with a decrease in socioeconomic and class mobility; tragically high incarceration rates; and, perhaps most startling, the unwillingness of our politicians to acknowledge what’s going on.

To look at it another way, the purpose of our economy is not to hire workers but to produce goods and services. In fact, if goods and services could be produced without any workers at all it would be just fine. No, it would be better than fine: it would be the best that capitalism has to offer.

But what would happen to all the workers who are no longer needed by the economy? What about their American dreams? Should they just go away or, better yet, die? And with this as a backdrop we hear an endless stream of bullshit flowing from Washington calling for reduced entitlements and a diminished social safety net. Really?

No, the American people need entitlements and they should start with our being entitled to political leaders who have the balls to tell it like it is. The system is broken.

So please, anyone, explain why better days are ahead and that I have it all wrong.

While subbing at a local high school recently I found myself engaged with students in a discussion of free-trade agreements. Given my position as a teacher proxy I had an academic responsibility to be a facilitator rather than an advocate.

The students, all of them quite bright and surprisingly well informed, were pretty evenly split between  free-trade opposition and advocacy with the advocates arguing that globalism is a realty and to get used to it, and the opponents taking up the cause of American workers whose jobs got off-shored. The debate went back and forth until I suggested that instead of focusing on the offshoring of jobs (the effect of free trade agreements) they should consider the cause.  What role, I asked, does capitalism play in the loss of jobs and the decline in wages? I then had the pleasure of watching and listening to these young people wrestle with fundamental questions about the structure of our economy, the class stratification of our society and even the survival of our country.

My belief, which I did not share with the students, is that we are teetering on the edge of a political and economic abyss. We need to take a dispassionate look the basic nature of capitalism, which posits that labor is a cost to be minimized, while profit is to be maximized…often at the expense of labor. Through that lens there is absolutely nothing wrong with offshoring jobs despite what it means to workers, families, and the middle class. Through that lens corporations and big money rule; the rich get insanely rich, and everyone else eats their trickled-down cake. If anyone says this isn’t happening right now they just aren’t paying attention. And these economic problems didn’t just happen in the wake of the financial meltdown; they would have happened anyway, just not as fast nor as dramatically as they did.

In fact, this is an economic horror story that has been playing out since the 1970s when the trend lines of productivity and personal employment income crossed; workers produced more while earning less. The trend was exacerbated by women entering the labor force in greater numbers, increased migration from the south and, most recently, by the offshoring of good jobs in huge numbers. The result has been the gutting of the middle class, the dashing of dreams, high unemployment and destructive underemployment.

So, as the classroom debate unfolded and the bell about to ring, I asked one final question: If the problem that we were examining is structural rather than cyclical do you believe that the American people will be best served by an active and engaged government or should the government disengage and allow capitalism, as it is currently expressing itself in the United States dictate the fate of the people?

I haven’t seen the students in the class since that day. I can only hope that they challenge those who are far too content to accept the status quo, a condition that, all too often, serves the pocketbooks of those who advocate it.

Today (NBC program)

Today (NBC program) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I can’t imagine that too many people would argue that our economic system is working just fine. The fact is that it’s been broken for a long, long time. But getting any kind of consensus as to what’s wrong with the system is another matter altogether. A perfect illustration of this happened a week or so ago on the Today Show with Matt Lauer. He asked Jim Cramer, NBC’s on-air stock picker, whether Bain Capital’s strategy of firing workers to reduce labor costs illustrated a failure of capitalism or if it was just good business. Cramer said it was good business, and that seemed fine with Lauer as he cut for a commercial.

Hey guys, it’s both. In the context of capitalism reducing labor costs…regardless of the social consequences of doing so…is part of the play book. And that is a failure of capitalism. It is unsustainable. It is morally bankrupt. And, it will lead to a violent pushback against the oligarchs.

Isn’t it time that we started asking some tough questions about the hallowed ground of capitalism before it’s too late?

If people don’t want nationalized health care, will they be willing to give up Medicare or, if they are service men and service women, the VA? At the risk of sounding preachy, never underestimate the American people’s propensity to argue against their own interests. Often, they do so because they have been manipulated; the ideological right has it down to a science. Just mention the word “socialism” and rightees conjure up images of the Soviet Union or worse. Frankly, I think that the most vocal of those pushing back against the so-called public option wouldn’t know socialism if it hit them in the head.

Months ago, when the health care bill was in its infancy, I said to my son, Mike, wait until you see how the right plays this thing. The debate will not be on the merits of providing healthcare to more people; it will be about process…capitalism versus socialism…God fearing people versus the godless (aka secularists)…the founding fathers versus Karl Marx. And, sure enough, the debate ducked the moral imperative of providing for the least among us. Rather, it was about political ideology (or the misunderstandings associated with those competing ideologies).

As I said before, most people don’t know what socialism is beyond what they hear from the fear mongers. That can easily be expanded to include capitalism, too. After all, if capitalism runs the current health care system then capitalism doesn’t work, because the health care system doesn’t work. In fact, I would argue that the whole idea of for-profit medicine should be questioned, because profit and caring for the sick and infirm are at odds with one another. To make my point, a physician’s oath says nothing about economic systems, profit or anything of the like. It only defines the relationship between doctor and patient. Yet, standing between the physician and his or her patients is an insurance company whose responsibility is not to patients, or the doctor, but to stockholders and investors.

If that isn’t troubling on its face, let’s say your physician’s practice became so big that she sought an infusion of capital to make it even bigger. Being a good promoter, her capital needs were met by a few wealthy investors…you included. You were attracted by what you believed was a reasonable expectation of capital growth. Well, as it turned out, the projections were not met. During a visit to her office…you were desperate to get relief from a recurring nightmare in which you had to go to an emergency ward of an inner city hospital to seek routine treatment instead of going to your own family doctor…you voiced your disappointment in the financial performance of your doctor’s business. “What do you intend to do about it,” you demanded to know. The good doctor thought for a moment, and then offered two choices. She could either cut costs, thereby allowing a greater share of revenue to hit the bottom line. Of course, patient services would have to be cut, and people let go but, as she said, “business is business.” The other option would be for investors to simply accept the lower level of profitability.

With the options laid out, she then asked what you would do if you were in her shoes.

Well, the ideological right often talks about the founding fathers as if they could have anticipated the mess we are in. Of course, they couldn’t. Nor did they address things that are often attributed to them by some of the more outspoken right-wing manipulators. But, what the right fails to discuss is the concern that several of those founding fathers had about the inherent unfairness of capital aggregation at the expense of the common man. But that’s not why I brought up the Founding Fathers. I did so to ask if, given what we do know about the philosophical underpinnings of the Constitution, the founding fathers would approve of our current health care system. And, to take it one step further, if were they around now to start another nation somewhere, don’t you think they would include access to health care in with “promote the general welfare”? I do. In fact, I think that the founding fathers would expand greatly on the checks and balances that they built into our Constitution. And I think that they would be sickened by the influence that corporate money has on their political system, let alone our dysfunctional health care system. And I think that they would be angry as hell at those on both sides of the aisle who claim to hold the ideological high ground when all they are doing is holding on to their corporate benefactors.

The health care debate has never been about caring for the sick, or the needy, or the new moms, or the unborn, or the elderly, or the millions of children who have never had a well-care visit with a physician. It has only been about profit and greed and status quo. America, I fear, is ungovernable. While I believe that the things that divide us are more imagined than real, even imagined differences, when fueled by enormous sums of money, cause otherwise good people to lose their humanity.

Brian McCabe