Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Capitalism and me

I'm starting this post with the assumption that I'm not the only person who occasionally has self/self dialogues! Occasionally I'll hear or read about something that makes me start thinking about what I believe in and why I believe that way. Except for the voices in my head, I think this is probably healthy and not just a sign of getting older!

Lately, I've been considering capitalism and socialism, and, although I'm still working out the details (one of me is, anyway), I've come to the conclusion that they are not opposites, nor are they mutually exclusive. I believe in capitalism - I believe in ownership of houses, cars, bicycles, microwave ovens, coffee pots (especially coffee pots), and the other trappings with which we surround ourselves. Oh, yeah - and computers. Don't forget computers.

I believe that people should be compensated for their ideas, their creations, their work. I believe that if Bill Gates, Paul Allen, and Steve Jobs had the creativity, knowledge, and discipline to develop corporations, they should benefit from that. I also believe that those who work for them should benefit as well, as should anyone who works for anyone else. I'm not talking about equal share, because there certainly wasn't equal risk. But I am talking about livable wages, recognition of contributions to the growth of the company, etc.

I also believe that, with great success comes great responsibility. I am thinking here specifically of Bernie Madoff and Ken Lay, two men who reached great financial heights while defrauding people of their money, most of which will never be returned. But there are also companies who are still in the process of defrauding the American public through their off-shore tax havens. Among them are Boeing, Halliburton, BellSouth, Pfizer, PepsiCo, American Express, and Marriott. (You can find a longer list here.)

These are companies that pay their top executives the Big Bucks, along with performance bonuses, and who also sell to us, the public, while finding ways to avoid paying their share of Federal taxes. They don't mind taking your money, but they sure don't want to give any of it back.

Admittedly, they are doing so legally, due to loopholes in the Federal tax law. And, also admittedly, a number of Presidents and Congresses - both Democratic and Republican - have failed to close the loopholes that allow this to continue. And the signing of NAFTA during the Clinton Administration allowed them further squeeze plays by making it more profitable for businesses to outsource jobs to countries where labor is so much cheaper that shipping parts overseas and finished products back here is still cheaper than paying US labor costs.

This brings me to the issue of labor unions. I have long had a love/hate relationship with labor unions. I recognize that unions often protect lazy workers and reward those who manage to stay out of trouble even if they aren't productive. But I also know that, without labor unions, we'd probably still be running sweatshops and employing children for pennies a day, and have working conditions that most of us can't begin to imagine. If you don't believe me, check out your local migrant workers - their wages, their living and working conditions, their shortage of benefits of any kind, not just health care.

Several years ago I managed a local branch of a national fabrics and crafts store. Only my assistant and I were provided with benefits, and I was forbidden by the home office to allow any of my employees to ever work enough hours to qualify for benefits. That meant several things: they didn't get health care, paid sick days or holidays, or overtime. It also meant that if anyone failed to show up for work (which is more likely to happen when people don't have loyalty to a company that has no loyalty to them), then either I or my assistant had to cover their shift. It didn't matter, you see, if we worked too many hours; as salaried employees, we were required to work a minimum of 45 hours a week, often working 60 or more. And we weren't paid overtime! Neat, huh? What if every industry worked this way? Well, too many of them do.

And, despite all of the yammering about cutting into corporate profits and job creation, the simple facts are these: Corporate income frequently does not translate into jobs in this country; Corporations often do not pay a fair share of taxes; the large numbers of people who are losing jobs are not the ones making hundreds of thousands - or millions - of dollars a year.

Capitalism should not be synonomous with unbridled greed. Rush Limbaugh often says that anyone who works hard can get a better job. He says that he wishes everyone makes as much money as he does. Well, tell me, Rush: Who would be left to shine your shoes, wash your car, serve your drinks or your dinner, or sell you that airline ticket?

So to be realistic, we will always have those among us who, for a variety of reasons, will never rise to even the median income level in this country (currently at about $53,000 per year, per person). I think capitalism is a workable idea, but we need to find a way to narrow the gulf between the haves and have-nots. Otherwise we'll soon find ourselves in a society of economic revolutionaries.

Next: Socialism

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