More comments on capitalism.

A good number of things came to mind when I reflected upon the rather heated discussion centering around my first blog entry (book review: 'Nickel and Dimed', Monday, April 18). Regardless of the tone, I did see some intelligent comments written by all and it is to these comments that I would like to respond. In so doing, I hope to do my part in extinguishing some of the flames I saw raging across cyberspace.

First, I wish to respond to the writer who (if memory serves) added my name to a list including the likes of, "Marx, Engels, Lee, Sean and Matt". Listing our names together is an interesting rhetorical practice, to be sure, but is one I find to be neither instructive nor helpful. If the intended message is that I am like Marx and Engels because I - like them - am capable of feeling compassion, I have nothing to complain about. I do have grounds for complaint, however, if the further implication is that I am some sort of neo-Marxist, utopian socialist or just flat out communist. I can assure the writer that I am none of the above and that, furthermore, I am sympathetic to much that she says.

The argument that there are many people who find themselves consigned to the lower classes because of their own poor choices and behaviors is, I believe, worthy of a fair hearing. There are indeed a lot of people who abuse social programs and who milk the 'system' for all its worth. It is thus with a certain appreciation that I receive arguments from those who say we must temper our feelings of compassion with a certain dose of realism. I agree completely. Various measures to help the poor do sometimes lead people to become dependent upon the assistance of others and that fact often hurts the very people who we try to help. The road to hell, as we are often reminded, is paved with the best intentions and a good many of these roads have been paved by well-meaning people of a certain liberal disposition. We need some hard-headed realists to keep those roads to hell to a minimum.

I also agree with the argument that for all its evils, capitalism is the best way we can order a modern economy. The twentieth century witnessed alternatives to capitalism - communism and fascism come most readily to mind - and the record is clear about how well those alternatives worked. Some people believe that capitalism only works for those who are rich and powerful. "Who does it (capitalism) benefit?", I have heard people ask, and the implied answer is that it is only 'the rich' who receive the fruits of free enterprise. Not so. For 'rich' and 'poor' are relative terms and even the poorest of us tend not have to line up for hours for an inadequate supply of the most basic necessities of life - something which has been quite common practice in communist societies. Nor do we have to worry about the extreme restrictions of freedom, the murderous purges, or the political prison camps that seem concomitant to those other forms of economic organization.

None of the above, however, is meant to portray capitalism as being perfect. It may be better than the alternatives, to be sure, but it is certainly not heaven on earth and it is certainly not always fair. To my interlocutor who argues that the poor amongst us have had access to the same publicly funded schooling from which the rest of us have benefited, I would respond that an education is not something to be found ab initio within the confines of the classroom. Arguably, the most important foundation of our education is established in the years before we ever set foot in a classroom. Moreover, it is to a large measure this foundation that determines the degree to which we will avail ourselves of the opportunities provided by the publicly funded schooling to which we ostensibly all have equal access. An environment of crime and poverty, of social dysfunction and violence will certainly bestow upon one an education. Less certain is just how salutary such an education will be. Throw into the mix the question raised by our esteemed colleague from Arkansas regarding just how equal our publicly funded schools are and we seem to have a problem with the 'equal opportunities' argument.

Another matter with which I must take issue is the matter of the writer who is often 'repulsed' by people of lesser economic means. I wonder to what it is about these people that she refers. Is she referring to their physical appearances or to their behaviors? It is without a doubt repulsive for individuals to brag about the rapes they have committed or for pan-handlers to threaten those who refuse them money, but is such behavior typical of most poor people? I think not. I also am quite certain that violent and other 'repulsive' behavior is not limited to the working poor. I do hope that the writer does not find herself 'repulsed' by the physical appearances of most poor people. Perfectly shaped faces and beautiful bodies may be wonderful things to behold, but most of us have not had the good fortune to have been born with those things. I, for one, try my best to not limit my approbation to only the most physically beautiful of people.

With regard to the argument that most people who want to be something other than maids can be something else, I wonder in my naivete what is so bad about being a maid. Ultimately, capitalism is a system marked by competition which results in people being divided into so-called 'winners' and 'losers'. Inevitably, no matter how hard everyone works, there will always be people who will occupy the lower socioeconomic classes. That is part of the bad that comes along with all that is good about capitalism. My argument is not that the lower socioeconomic levels should not exist. Rather, I am merely questioning whether conditions have to be so very bad for those people. My mother, admittedly no economist or political theorist, says something that strikes me as very wise when she observes, 'There are only so many hours one can work....." The point being made is that the differences in work output between the poorest and the richest does not seem to correlate very fairly at all with the extreme differences in compensation. The people Ehrenreich describes tend to work full time (often with extra jobs thrown in to make ends meet) with nary a moment to spare on the job for goofing of or even for engaging in such worthy and selfless pursuits as blogging. Maybe, just maybe, those particular hard-working people deserve just a slightly bigger slice of the economic pie.

To the person who noted with seeming annoyance that my previous blog entry is marked by a certain reticence, I plead guilty as charged. The book I reviewed raised a lot of questions for me and I haven't any easy answers. You and each of the other writers raised some important points worthy of consideration and I am thankful for that. I will go out on a limb here and venture the argument that if there were any easy solutions to the problems noted by Ehrenreich, said problems would not exist. Nonetheless, awareness of the problems - as well as a dose of compassion - seems like a good starting point.

For information about Nickel and Dimed look here.
For information about the informative book (from perhaps a different political bias than Ehrenreich's) by Peter Drucker alluded to in my previous blog entry, look here.