November 29, 2011

Capitalism and Its Problems (and Its Problems’ Problems)

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I don’t know who you are or where you grew up. If you’re like many people I’ve met at Cornell, you may come from somewhere very inviting and very nice. My friends here have told me, fondly, about progressive Midwest college towns, Northeastern suburbs with upscale restaurants downtown and hamlets on the Atlantic with flower boxes on the street. I can’t help being jealous of their pride. Except for the old Dutch estates along the Hudson, now all arboreta and national parks, I can’t pull up any images that make me proud of where I’m from. Mostly I remember the networks of strip malls and the chains of chain restaurants. This is, of course, the landscape of most of settled America. This is, of course, problematic.

One immediate counterargument is that this isn’t problematic at all. It’s prosperity, rather — unprecedented prosperity enabled by our robust American capitalism. I’ve never disagreed with the reality that the free market tends to provide consumers with better and more goods and services. As in an ecosystem, open competition allows the good to thrive and forces the bad to die. When we don’t let this happen, as, for example, in the public education system, the results are not as good as they could be. In contrast, these strip mall towns provide access to an abundance of every basic human need. Who starves in suburban America?

No one starves in suburban America, obviously. Our poorest people are our fattest, and we have capitalism to thank. And yet, thinking past how well capitalism meets these basic needs — being, as I am, someone who likes to believe that there’s more to human life than finding effective mechanisms for feeding and clothing oneself — I also realize that there’s a trade-off between literal starvation and starvation of other kinds. With material prosperity we accept a sort of spiritual and cultural impoverishment. Capitalism meets those needs which are most incentivized while missing some of the things which are less incentivized but which some of us value just as much. Witness the destruction of the environment, or the obesity epidemic: in our relationship with the Earth, expediency is incentivized over sustainability; in food, speed is incentivized over healthfulness.

One could argue that the free market naturally corrects these problems. As we consumers become more aware of the health costs of obesity and unnatural eating, for example, we’ll give more of our money to companies that offer healthful products. And as the terminal illness of our planet starkly and suddenly looms, renewable energy will be incentivized and its developers rewarded. Yet even my staunchest libertarian friends admit that this may be far too little, far too late.

One could also argue that I should just get over it. Better that the market flourish than that our souls do. The natural condition of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short, and if I want that, then I can have it. I can read my Shakespeare and live like the average Elizabethan Englishman, forsaking all the advancements brought on by capitalism. I can keep my Lear, drink my beer and eat my bread and die in my forties from tuberculosis, emaciated with a mouthful of rotten teeth.

This, furthermore, makes the questionable assumption that I would be literate and have the money for hand-bound books. As the descendant of poor immigrants, I should appreciate that my ancestors (drawn to America by capitalist abundance) bore my parents into freedom, that my parents (enabled by the capitalist valuation of hard work and ability over inherited right) then bore me into comfort, and that I now even have the rare opportunity to treasure high culture over low and to imagine a past where this culture was the dominant. I would have to ignore, moreover, that it enjoyed this dominance only in the parlors of the less-than-1-percent while I, the never-enabled-by-capitalism everyman, died, I reiterate, of tuberculosis.

But assuming we let capitalism run free/amok, unrestrained plenitude presents other problems. Suppose we reach a tipping point where the economic ecosystem self-compromises: What if we meet all our basic needs so well and neglect our subtler needs so completely that our complacency does us in? Surely there’s more to a nation’s success than its markets; surely at some point considering only the markets is actually a market liability. Rome fell in no small part because of a weakening in its national character. Suppose we all become so generally fat, stupid and depressed that, as well as withering culturally, we undo ourselves economically. How long can we thrive — how long can we survive — after the American dream turns into the American stupor? And is this fearful tipping point, perhaps, now?

I’ll review the issues. Overall problem: Capitalism marginalizes great things (e.g., the environment, personal health, artistic richness) and proliferates merely good things (e.g., lots of fossil fuels, not starving, not dying of tuberculosis).

Challenge: Capitalism eventually addresses those great things, too.

Counter: It doesn’t address them well enough.

Challenge: Even so, the proliferation of the good is worth the marginalization of the great, and besides, capitalism provides access to the great for a larger number of people than ever before.

Counter: Maybe, but aren’t we seeing now that abundance of the great or the good inevitably threatens itself?

After that crescendo of argument, you expect me to calm my composition as I choose my side, and then end on a punchy pianoforte. But I can’t do that this time. The problem with these problems and also with their problems is that trying to fix them causes different problems. What gets lost among the soundbyte policies of the Republican presidential candidates and the chants of Occupy Wall Street — a discursive style caused, incidentally, by the incentivization of transmissibility over thoroughness — is that decisions are hard, because you have to choose which problems to solve, even after the colossal step of figuring out how to solve them. When you choose, other problems persist or worsen. In the everyday, this is what makes being an adult so difficult. Yet, in policy, many seem unwilling to grow up.

I don’t know who you are or what you believe. Maybe you love the environment and want to limit manufacturing; maybe you want to feed the world and not read to it; maybe you’ll be an advocate for the 99 percent, maybe an advocate for a pharmaceutical giant (who can say which helps more people?). Please, go forth and make the world better, whatever that means to you. But think it through. And, seeing that a perfect world is the stuff of dreams and nightmares, decide what you value. Talk about it with others. Be smart (which you already are). If we well-educated have a duty, it’s this. I might not believe in idealism — I’m just a centrist, here to make everyone angry — but I will be damned if I can’t believe in us.

Elias Wynshaw is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at ewynshaw@cornellsun.com. Imperfect, Tense appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.

Original Author: Elias Wynshaw