Confessions of a Capitalist

After Newtown, I have spent much time devoted to considering the society I live in, the possible conditions which could give rise to such a tragedy, and my own responsibility.  We have all been listening and reading and thinking about this time in the world, and our place in it.  And at the end of the year, we reflect back.

While there is no scientific basis to suggest that the Mayans were able to predict the future, it can be fascinating to know that anthropologists and astronomers have decoded the Mayan calendar to find that it points to roughly this moment in history as a transitional or revelatory time.  The earth and sun are now aligned with the center of the Milky Way, to where a “deep rift” resides, cleaving the galaxy in two.

Duality is nothing new.  Since early civilization we have been pitting night against day, good against evil, and creating mythologies to illustrate these dichotomies.  In a more complex society, and perhaps in times of stress, the rift between our poles is greater, our attitudes more resolute.  The din of our collective voices tends to glom together into two camps, often with radical results.  However, it remains that most of us are not “one way or the other.”  We each contain multitudes.

Considering all of this, I have attempted to arrive at what I hope to be an enlightened “conclusion” about this difficult time in history; more pointedly, what I refer to as “it” in my last post, and what my role is in relation to “it.”

What I believe transcends the war between Right and Left is that we live within the structure of a money-market system, affecting both sides and all types in between.

Every day, I participate in and contribute to the money-market paradigm.  Let me just briefly explain what it is, and then I’ll address why I am part of the problem.

This is our economy, in two broad strokes.  One: The Federal Reserve Bank loans money to the government, to be repaid with interest.  There is no gold or other standard to back the value of a dollar bill – it is what economists call “fiat currency.”

Fractional Reserve Banking is another part of the money-market system, and the way all banks operate.  A fraction of a customer deposit is held in reserve, while the rest is loaned out to be repaid with interest.  This incurs debt, and a need for more money in the system, so more money is printed.  This is where inflation comes from, and why our debt will never be paid down – there is nothing of actual value to pay it.  This is “Finance 101” and is the “money” part of the paradigm.

Two:  Whether a mom ‘n pop store or a mega corporation, a business is created to make money.  If it is selling a product or providing a service, the business must operate with minimal costs and aim for maximum profit in order to be successful in the market place.  This is “Business 101” and the “market” part of the paradigm.  Together, finance and business comprise the economy, which is, in our case, a mainly capitalist, free enterprise system.

The theory of capitalism is that competition in the marketplace will give rise to the best products and services, thus benefitting the society.  In other words, to do the most good for one’s self will do the most good for all.

This is an excellent theory (I’m a huge fan of Ayn Rand), and would work well if it weren’t for three things.

First, it requires that banks and businesses function in a way that is antithetical to basic human need.  Human beings, according to every bright mind in the fields of biology, psychology, and sociology, need love, empathy, and equality to be healthy and flourish within a community.  In the capitalist economy, a lack of empathy is rewarded in finance and business, great stratification occurs within the society, creating inequality, and love is not germane.  There is no level playing field, since the marketplace shows preference towards those with certain backgrounds, and negative biases towards those without (one need only to look at women’s historic struggle or the persistent black ghetto for examples).

Second, using the most scientific knowledge, the most advanced technology and employing the highest skilled workers (paid the best wages) is counterproductive in business.  It is far more profitable to cut costs, so the businesses which are the most successful offer inferior goods, creating “intrinsic obsolescence” (meaning products that will soon fail).  This is a one-to-one equation; in order to succeed, a business needs to operate more cheaply and make more money than its competitors.  This means an imperative to pay low wages, minimize benefits, and often outsource, taking jobs away locally and infecting foreigners with the system.

Third, sustainability is acidic to businesses.  Any product or service that is acquired once, or shared, and never needed again is the opposite of what a commodity business needs – cyclical consumption; repeat customers. This is known as “planned obsolescence,” or, creating products which are intended to fail, need to be replaced or, upgraded.  (Often it is one component of a product which needs the upgrading, but the entire thing is thrown out or traded in for the new thing, as with phone, computer, or car.)  This system is threatened by anything which sustains itself.

Each day, I contribute to the money-market system.  I buy the products that will need to be replaced; I participate in cyclical consumption.  I pay into our national debt when I buy something I cannot afford by taking a loan, and then pay interest on that loan, thus feeding the system.  By my actions, I endorse a paradigm which considers the basic human needs of empathy, love, and equality as mutually exclusive from an economic structure which inherently requires inefficiency and social stratification in order to keep going.

I am part of a system of stratification which, by definition, creates inequality.  Inequality breeds a variety of problems.  When asked what the most violent people he worked with for over forty years shared in common, Dr. James Gilligan, a Harvard-trained Criminal Psychologist, said (you guessed it): “Inequality.” I can then deduce that human emotional needs are not mutually exclusive from the society’s economic structure, nor are they served by its compunction to progress.  Instead, they are a direct result of it.

When we hear the term “inequality,” we tend to think of those less fortunate.  I know I do.  But, more objectively, inequality affects everyone from the top down in a stratified society; the Newtown shooter, for instance, came from a well-to-do family.

In a series of experiments conducted on volunteers with annual incomes ranging between $16,000 and $150,000, some fascinating results arose.  One was that the wealthiest among the participants were most likely to cheat in order to win a $50 prize.  They were also most likely to take candy from children, and pocket extra change given to them by mistake.  Those who drove more expensive cars were four times more likely than those who drove cheaper vehicles to cut off other drivers and pedestrians.  The author of the study, Paul Piff, concluded that being wealthy seems to insulate a person from the outside world and make them “less likely to perceive the impact” that their behavior may have on others.  In other words, they are less empathetic.  (This is also considered a symptom of psychosis – a loss of touch with reality, which Paul Steinberg, a psychiatrist, writes about in a recent New York Times Op-ed piece.)

I cannot say with any degree of certainty whether or not Adam Lanza committed the atrocious crimes at Sandy Hook because he was too “insulated” or alienated from reality.  I cannot diagnose him as schizophrenic, or say that I endorse more stringent mental health policies – like hospitalizing people with mental health issues sooner and for longer than is currently legal.  I can’t know whether or not Lanza was psychotic, had Asperger’s syndrome, or anything else.  While I may know that Lanza’s mother kept an arsenal of weapons (the media speculates that she was paranoid of economic collapse), and that Lanza’s affluent suburban home was acquired through the money-market system, there is no way I can know exactly why a young man walked into a school with machine guns and did what he did.

What I can diagnose is my own guilt in contributing to an economic system which places the needs of money, business, and “progress” over the intrinsic needs of its citizens – that does, in fact, mask its agenda as “good” for the citizens, when it is anything but.  And I can certainly extrapolate that this very system creates people like Adam Lanza.

Personally, I don’t need any more goods or services.  95% of what I have goes above and beyond my basic physical needs for food, shelter, and clothing, and none of what I have that ever cost a red cent serves my emotional and spiritual needs for love, empathy, and equality, no matter what Madison Avenue, Hollywood, or Wall Street might try and convince me of.

At heart, I’ve always been something of a capitalist (or, at least a fiscal conservative).  I’ve never joined a union, never taken a government handout (though I was a single father for three years), and always believed that persistence and diligence were the keys to success.  And I still do.  But what I have come to understand is that my beliefs in the power and rights of the individual are not necessarily wrong, but simply plugged into the wrong economic paradigm.

It is that paradigm which, by vice of its inefficiency and inequality, manifests extreme violence and horror. And while tragic shootings draw our attention, they are merely one symptom.  Gandhi once said that poverty was the worst violence of all.

I am responsible. I desire money and recognition, when creativity and innovation are their own rewards.  I buy questionably nutritious food and cheap goods, because sustainable products and processes require effort, and I’m busy.  I am impatient to live beyond my means, so I consider a bank loan to buy a house, or get a new, comfortable car.

The cure?  I need to be moving myself and my loved ones towards a resource-based economy.  I need to be making inroads to an economic paradigm in which sustainability and reciprocity beget equality and render greed and power obsolete.

It can seem like a pipe dream, yet I know it is within my grasp.  I’m certain it is within all of our grasps.

And by writing this, I hope I am taking the first step.


1 Comment

  1. i understand , i can empathize fully.
    i buy so much more – than what i actually need.
    im a sucker for packaging and especially while living in Seattle.
    i think its time to escape.

    Taj Mahal said it best –
    “im gonna move out to the country- paint my mailbox blue.”


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