One of the most interesting classmates I got to know a bit while in Mount Vernon’s Humanities Program was a guy named JD. We were hardly friends. But despite our fight in seventh grade, the attempts to intimidate and the put-downs, we talked frequently about politics, religion and philosophy. It was a strange acquaintanceship.
Among many other things, JD saw himself as a Marxist sympathizer, someone who could defend the Soviet Union despite its violations of human rights and propensity for keeping its failures secret. Of course, naive and impoverished me often defending the U.S. against JD’s Marxist mantra that the country was an “imperialist pig” and promoted “greedy capitalism” above all else. This was often a running conversation that we had through our junior year at Mount Vernon High School. That is until he became preoccupied with dating and other issues in his life.
Despite my protestations of JD’s portrayal of America and Americans, I knew that he was right. I mean, who could defend David Stockman and supply-side, trickle-down economics when a generation of American workers — my mother included — were losing jobs or having their wages cut? I knew intuitively that supple-side economics meant that the wealthy would be become wealthier and that families like mine would be left behind. I understood that Reagan would never give a speech that addressed my concerns or my family’s concerns. I felt insulted when I watched as Reagan’s Secretary of Agriculture John Block pretended to live off of a welfare check and food stamps for a month in ’83 — in his own house! Ultimately, I knew that greed was at the heart of American conservatism and capitalism.
Of course, in my responses to JD, I couldn’t fully articulate this. I did sometimes say that communism couldn’t work because it didn’t account for greed. And as it turned out in the former Soviet Union, communism didn’t account for greed. Among the Russian mob, with leaders of the Politburo. Greed, of course, is but one of the so-called Seven Deadly Sins. Greed, though, is based on a desire to have more, to obtain something that may or may not belong to you, to garner something that you may or may not deserve. Capitalism, in a nutshell, is controlled, regulated greed.
That doesn’t make capitalism evil. It is a philosophy of economic realism. Without stocks, bonds, merchants, bankers, traders, businesses and corporations, the only way to become wealthy in human societies would be through raw aggression. You know, when someone could just bully or kill someone to obtain their property. Capitalism allows for folks to obtain wealth in civilized, if unequal means. Besides the reality that capitalism in its purest form can and does create huge gaps between the rich and the poor, the fact is that there is no such thing as pure capitalism or a pure free market. In order for capitalism to work at all, there must be rules and regulations around trade of goods, services, information and money.
For most of American history, American capitalism has had rules and regulations that favored big business, supported industrialization over industrial workers, blocked free trade and and the free flow of information, and put money in the hands of affluent. Only since the New Deal era has American capitalism contained elements of socialism, or what the highly educated call social capitalism. That the rules and regulations of capitalism also account for the needs of workers for living wages, the ability of folks of relatively modest means to obtain access to money, goods, services, information and property, to “raise all boats,” as some like to say. Since the Carter years, American capitalism’s rules and regulations have favored businesses and the affluent over ordinary people. That’s the reality of American life for the past 30 years.
What has happened as a result of this is that that basic human desire of greed has been unleashed in a way that has been unhealthy for all of us, but especially for the poorest among us. Unlike the JD I knew in my Humanities years, I don’t believe in communism or in looking at the former Soviet Union as a shining example of economic equality. But without social capitalism, America isn’t much better than the Soviet Union. We can’t continue to afford feed the needs of those possessed with need and expect to have economic prosperity. Unfortunately for me, all of those years living in poverty during the Reagan years in hopes for a better day may all be for naught if greed continues to win out over social responsibility.