The Flaws of Capitalism

January 13, 2012

So, I realize I’ve been blog-absent for a bit. It’s been a busy time. I lost a friend, as you know, and the baseball world has been taking much of my writing energy. I’ll probably have a longer post soon, but I’ve come across some little nuggets lately that I wanted to share in response to all the capitalism-is-perfect bloviating coming out of Republican primary candidates lately. They go like this:

“All of our antibiotics are 50-years-old because it’s not cost effective for drug companies to come up with new ones.”

That might not be an exact quote, but it’s pretty close. I caught that snippet listening to Science Friday on NPR today. The discussion was about a strain of TB that’s been found to be resistant to all the drugs we have. Good thing capitalist companies are making money selling old and increasingly ineffective antibiotics while sending there R&D to work on problems you didn’t even know you had. Yea capitalism!

“There are no private schools in Finland.”

That’s from an article in The Atlantic. The Finland it refers to would be the Finland with the best education system in the world. All of its teachers are also unionized, but that flies in the face of what we know here in America – that unions are the devil and just encourage slackers and hangers-on to drag down the system.

Living in a Plutocracy

November 16, 2011

As is probably obvious to people who know me and regular readers, I have been thinking a lot about the OWS movement, where it comes from, and what it says about America. I haven’t said anything because I didn’t feel like I had a lot to add. Then Zuccotti Park was cleared out, and I feel like I have to comment, even if I have nothing new to say.

I could go with lots of charts. I like charts, but I’m not going to do that. If you want charts, go here. They will tell you plenty.

Instead, I’m going to go for context in words. Let’s see how it works.

Right now, the distribution of wealth in America is more skewed than it was during the Gilded Age or the Great Depression. Think about that because those are not shining chapters in America’s history. I recently read The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton. It’s set in the Gilded Age, and has an interesting perspective. The characters in it, generally speaking, take their wealth so for granted that it’s almost impossible for the reader not to be offended. It’s a society that concerns itself almost entirely with wealth.

It feels a lot like right now.

Right now. 1% of Americans control 35% of the country’s wealth. 10% control 72% of the wealth. These are the people who control virtually everything in America. They are captains of industry. They are elected officials.

Tell me again about how the tax system is unfair.

I am a teacher. A teacher. Cate does not have a paying job. Yet, somehow, our household income places us in the 56th percentile in America right now. We are something approximating upper-middle-class. I always thought that if I eventually made it to upper middle class I’d be able to buy a book or go out to eat without worrying about how much those things cost. Of course, in those fanciful musings, health insurance didn’t take up 20% of my take-home pay while still leaving my family with significant medical bills.

Tell me again how socialized medicine is a bad thing.

Plutocracy is rule by a wealthy class. The goal of the wealthy class is to maintain their power.

Even adjusting for inflation, the cost of attending college has gone up 300% in the last 30 years. College is supposed to be the great equalizer. Everyone my age was indoctrinated to believe that if you Worked Hard and Went to College. You would Be Successful and Wealthy.

Of course everyone can’t be wealthy. And now, everyone can’t go to college. This is where all the complaints about student loan debt come from. College has become so expensive that a great many people can’t do it. Of course, they’ve all been told that college is the only way.

America is supposed to try to at least approximate equality of opportunity. Rich kids are already going to have a lot of breaks. Their parents have connections and can open doors for them, after all. But we have also become a nation that saddles its bright, but disadvantaged youth with tens of thousands of dollars of debt that wealthy youth do not have to face simply to keep up. It’s a sad thing. If we really cared about equality of opportunity, it would be hard, but not this hard.

I know what I have written here is fractured. I know it doesn’t describe all the problems with money in this country right now, but I hope it makes clear that there are problems. I know a lot of people are upset by the OWS movement, but its purpose is a good one. These people are trying to create a more equal country. One where who parents are doesn’t play as much of a role in your success as your talents and your willingness to work. There have been times when America got close to these ideals. Sadly, we are not living in one of those times.

Reinventing the World

August 5, 2011

This is a long and meandering post. I’m not entirely sure what the point is. This is the luxury of a blog.

As you, dear reader, are likely aware, I spent a good part of last month plowing through A.S. Byatt’s wonderful novel The Children’s Book. It is centered in England at the beginning of the 20th century up to WWI. The main characters are, primarily Fabians, Socialists, and similar derivatives. What they generally have in common is a desire to make the world into something different. They live in a time of enormous injustice and are generally aware of it. They hold political meetings or write editorials or participate in protests in an attempt to change their society for the better. They do not, generally, succeed, but that isn’t the point. The point is they tried, and much of what they started did lead to real changes over time.

Beyond that, there was this idea/feeling of optimism. It’s something the US really had after WWII. I can remember the last strains of it from my childhood.

And then I look at the absurd mess that is the United States right now and I am totally flabbergasted. We have now reached a point where some of our elected officials are willing to destroy the economy of our country to ensure that rich people get to keep every-damn-penny they have. There is no sense of optimism. There is no sense that we are all working together to make something new and good. There is only division and selfishness.

Never mind that there is no evidence – none – that conservative economic policies work. What is most disgusting to me is how utterly uncharitable it all is. America has become a place where money is the only thing that matters.

You may be familiar with the concept of Gross National Happiness. It is a concept introduced by the king of Bhutan in an attempt to better measure how well the people of the nation are doing. It attempts to measure several things. Let’s look at each one for the US:

1. Economic Wellness: This is bad and getting worse. Republicans haven’t totally destroyed the economy yet, but they’re getting close. Real wages haven’t gone up in I don’t know how long and unemployment is high. No one thinks the recent deal in Washington is going to make things better.

2. Environmental Wellness: We are currently in the process of gutting a lot of our environmental standards (at least where enforcement is concerned) and it’s impossible to get any new regulations through congress because we don’t want to hurt industry. Someone remind me, again, how it is that industry has been helping the general populace lately?

3. Physical Wellness: Well, once the rest of Obamacare kicks in, things should get a little better here. That said, every year I’ve been teaching, the cost of health insurance has gone up (often matching exactly whatever raise I was given) and benefits have gone down. A great many Americans are still uninsured, and we rank near the bottom of the industrialized world in health care. But again, at least this one figures to get a little better.

4. Mental Wellness: I don’t really know much about mental wellness stats in the US, but since basically everyone is worried about losing their job, I have to believe this is kind of a downer, too.

5. Workplace Wellness: Yeah. Do I even need to explain?

6. Social Wellness: We live in a nation where religious discrimination is almost status quo. We live in a nation where sexism, misogyny and violence against women are horribly rampant.

7. Political Wellness: Oy. vey.

And here’s the thing, we could fix most all of these things. Much as the Republicans have been trying to tear apart the New Deal for decades, it freaking worked. Why can’t we do something like that now? Why can’t we make a giant investment and agree, as a society, that we want to make a better nation. Things we should do:

1. Economic Wellness: We’re going to need some kind of rational tax system. Rich people benefit from the society that allows them to be rich. In most instances this comes in the form of inherited wealth. In other instances, someone is simply lucky enough to have their particular talents valued highly by the society in which they live. A stock broker is very important in America. Less so in nomadic Mongolia. If you are rich, you are also almost certainly very lucky, thus you should pay a higher percentage of your wages to keep society going.

2. Environmental Wellness: It is time to go the route of green energy (if you don’t think global warming is real, you are an idiot, I’m just going to state that as a fact) via direct government. The US government has invested in industry infrastructure before (think railroads, among others) and it’s time to do it again. The primary problem with green energy is the upfront cost. If the government starts to offset that, suddenly green energy is much less expensive.

3. Physical Wellness: Socialized Medicine. Single Payer. Do it. I know socialism is a bad word, but if you really hate social programs, I hope you’re sending your children to private schools and hiring a private security force to take care of crime in your neighborhood. Why basic health needs aren’t considered on par with these other things is beyond me. Also, socialized medicine works way better than our current system as about a million studies will tell you.

4&5. Mental Wellness & Workplace Wellness: I’m tying these together to talk about human-friendly labor policy. Why on earth don’t we have paid maternity and paternity leave? Why don’t most of us have decent amounts of vacation time? This one would be pretty tricky as it really requires a mental shift to the idea that time can be more valuable than money. Less work would lead to less production, overall, but I don’t know why that’s a bad thing. Economies can’t grow forever. Eventually, we need to stabilize, and I would be willing to bet that most people would be way happier without the 60-hour work weeks and constant fear that you could be fired at any moment. Stronger unions would certainly help this along. Interestingly, despite this idea that lack of job-security makes people more productive, every study I’ve ever seen says the more secure a person feels, the harder they work. This comes, I suspect, from feeling like and important part of an organization instead of like a nearly-worthless cog that can be replaced at any time.

6. Social Wellness: Let’s start by trying to value all members of society equally and go from there. It would certainly help if a certain political party could drop the sexism, homophobia, and mad-crazy religious intolerance.

7. Political Wellness: This comes down to the anti-intellectualism in place right now. I don’t know how this happened, but it now seems to be decidedly uncool to have any idea what you are talking about. I suspect a lot of it stems from the political power ultra-conservative religious groups currently have. You can’t be a member of some of these sects without stomaching a lot of cognitive dissonance (I’m thinking of the things that come out of Michelle Bachman and Glenn Beck’s mouths). Basically, you can’t believe that nonsense if your willing to actually research information. Thus, researching information (also known as learning) is bad and ignorance is good. This explains how the Tea Party got so many people elected during the last go-round. If you could take care of this and get everyone thinking that it’s a good idea to listen to people like Paul Krugman (who has been very, very right about what’s been happening in the economy) because, you know, they actually have some expertise and don’t say stupid things like, “You know, where I grew up, we believed in common sense…”

So what if we did all this? Well, we’d end up with a sustainable nation where people are mostly happy. Instead, we have an unsustainable (oil is going to run out eventually) mess with high unemployment and an overwhelmingly unhappy populace. But it could change. We just need to realize, as a nation, that what we’ve been doing isn’t working. It’s time to try something else. We can reinvent the world. We have the means, we only lack the will.

More than just about anything else I’ve written on this blog, I should preface this post by saying that I have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about. I’m presenting ideas that are based almost exclusively on personal observation.

Last week, Borders announced it was filing for bankruptcy. Correspondingly, on Saturday our nearest Borders announced its going out of business sale. No one who spends any kind of time shopping for books and music is surprised by this. All I can say for them is that they send out some pretty decent coupons, but otherwise Cate and I avoid shopping there. Borders is a terrible store. Nearly every one I’ve ever been in has been horribly organized and their customer service has never been great. That’s not what did them in though.

Borders is the book equivalent of a big box store. They rely on the consumer believing that they have everything. Of course, they don’t have everything. Cate and I have often failed at using the awesome coupons they send out because, well, they just didn’t have anything we really wanted. Add to that that Border’s is often significantly more expensive than Amazon, and you’re forced to wonder if it’s even worth going to the store in the first place.

This is the same problem that a local music store (Ear X-tacy) ran into recently. They were something of an institution, but now they’re struggling to survive because everyone just downloads music or orders from the internet or whatever.

Ear X-tacy and Borders both want to be all things to all customers, but they can’t be. You can’t stock every book. You can’t stock every album. There are too many. What you have to be willing to do, if you want a presence in the physical marketplace, is to become boutique.

What does this mean? It means you acknowledge that you can’t stock everything. Instead, you appeal to the educated consumer. A local bookstore (Carmichael’s) has mastered this. Their fiction section, for instance, is excellent. Does Borders have more fiction titles? Of course, but Carmichael’s survives because they stock the right titles. They don’t, for example, stick Ralph Ellison next to some unfortunate African-American erotica just because both authors happen to be black. They don’t even bother with the erotica. This means that people like me will go there because they’ve already separated a lot of the wheat from the chaff. Discovering new writers is hard, especially when there is so much trash out there. If I want to do all that work myself, well, I can just go to Amazon.

The second part of knowing what to stock is realizing that while, yes you have to stock Justin Beiber if you’re a music store and Dan Brown if you’re a bookstore, you better find plenty of space for the Jenny Lewises and William Maxwells of the world.

I’ll end this with a story that illustrates my point: Cate and I tried hard to support Ear X-tacy. If we could buy something there we did, but then Robert Cray put out an album. And they didn’t have it. Derek Trucks put out a new album. And they didn’t have it. Finally, Jenny Lewis put out a new album. And they didn’t have that either. None of these are huge mainstream artists, but they are artists that you have to carry if you’re catering to music fans and not people who listen to top 40 radio on the way to work. We looked around and realized their selection wasn’t really any different from your local FYE. After the last incident, we stopped shopping there. It wasn’t worth the trip anymore. If they cared about my business, they’d stock music you can’t hear on the radio. Amazon has it cheaper anyway.

Okay, before you read this I need to make something clear: This is not me talking to any individual. This is a very abstract post about the differences between two generations, one of which I happen to be a part of and one of which my parents happen to be a part of. I love my parents. They have been wonderful and supportive. If all Baby Boomers were like them, I think the world would be a lot less screwed up right now. So, just to be clear: THIS IS NOT TARGETED AT INDIVIDUALS. That is, unless you are guilty of griping about some of this stuff, in which case, you need to stop it. Alright, let’s get on with it.

Today, I heard yet another in a long line of media rants about how baby boomers have it tough, what with the economy collapsing, and how my spoiled-ass generation needs to step up. I think it is hilarious that baby boomers have the nerve to call anyone spoiled. Let’s take a look and do a few comparisons.

College: A lot of the talk I here revolves around how everyone my age and younger should take out loans or whatever to foot the bill for their education. Fun fact: when you adjust for inflation, college today is three times as expensive as it was in the 70s when baby boomers went to college, and they had a lot more grant money than we did. How many baby boomers are remotely aware of what an education really costs today compared to when they were going to school?

Work: And then there’s this: when my parents were graduating from high school, you could get a factory job making the equivalent of $20 or $25 dollars an hour. I had to go to school for six years before I could make that kind of money. And I’m glad I got out when I did as it’s only getting harder even though the economy has pretty much been in the toilet since my senior year of college (thanks GWB!). Also, Boomers have stayed in the work place longer than any generation before them. This, of course, means that opportunities that were open to them because people retired or died are not open to us.

Health Care: I don’t know if any of you have noticed, but health care is pretty damn expensive right now. Way, way, way more expensive than it was twenty or thirty years ago. Why, you ask. Well, without getting into a long post about the health care industry, it has a lot to do with the quest for profit by compaines like Humana and a fucked up food industry (also, all about profit) that encourages obesity and other health problems. All of these changes were instituted (of course!) by the Baby Boomer generation. Also, it can be argued that the cost of providing health care to employees is depressing wages (because it’s so damn expensive) and discouraging companies from hiring full time employees (hello contract labor!).

Tax Policy: For all the cries about socialism, our current tax structure does an excellent job of redistributing money to the top of the economic ladder. Go here to see just exactly how much easier rich people have it today than they did when baby boomers were growing up and enjoying all that cheap education and whatnot. Baby boomers want to hold on to their money, though. They earned it, why should they have to look out for future generations?

Economy: Look, things are a total, utter, unbelievable clusterfuck right now. I’m not placing all the blame on Baby Boomers. I do, though, want to point out just briefly that, generally speaking, they were the ones making ridiculous sums of money and instituting ridiculous monetary policy.

Look, I’m not saying my generation doesn’t have its shortcomings. It does. But my god, our parents and grandparents have gone and left us with the biggest mess since the Great Depression and all they can do is look down their noses at us and say, “Hey, pick yourself up, buster” when they, as a generation NEVER, EVER, EVER had to deal with anything like this. So this is what I want the Baby Boomers to do: Stop YOUR whining and griping about how entitled we are. We’ll be just fine, but don’t blame us for being pissed that because you screwed things up so much, we’ll likely never have it as good as you did.