Often I wonder if this country’s ailments can be cured. Each of the major issues sometimes appear … just too hard.
Some even thrive on the processes we would use to solve them. What do you do when medicine causes a disease it was supposed to cure?
Laws are to minimize conflict between our different values, to guide interactions while allowing each maximum freedom. Still, there are many areas where values interact. Industries exist that maximize friction between us, businesses that have freedom to fan the flames of hatred.
I have no idea how to fix that.
I used to argue with a friend, a conservative from a military and law enforcement family, about police brutality. She felt police do an incredible job in very dangerous circumstances. I agreed with that, but also said some police departments had institutionalized a “cop culture” that pitted police against citizens, and had unions that gave them immunity from accountability. We could not agree on what should be done.
I have no idea how to fix that.
I have friends who say America has become the land of inequality. I respond that inequality is a fact of life, and the fight is against loss of opportunity. But money flows to oligopolists and oligarchs here in the U.S., and power follows the money, which is then used to concentrate even more money needed to provide the poorer a “pursuit of happiness.” But money means power and power won’t give up its money.
I have no idea how to fix that.
After a career as a journalist and a writer, of course I’m a passionate believer in free speech, and freedom of the press. I was there when “the press” was destroyed by the Internet. While I initially believed this “freedom of expression” would give rise to more liberty across the world, instead this revolution resulted in sophisticated tools of manipulation, and a wildfire of freely expressed and unaccountable hatred.
I have no idea how to fix that.
At one time I believed the trend line of humanity was upward, that we would achieve more as a species. Instead, I see striving for lowest cost, maximum consumption, and capitalist inspired growth leading to the strip mining of fish from the ocean, wildfires scorching forests from the land, seas rising to consume coastal cities and homes, plastics polluting the biology of every human being on earth. There are too many damn people, our planet is under great stress, and humanity has become a carcinogen.
The other evening over dinner, my daughter K.C. asked why all the sailing magazines scatted around my house showed “older white people” in ads for boats.
“Is that because those are the people who have jobs where they can afford those boats? Would it be good to show people with brown skin like me (she is of East Indian heritage) in the ads?”
Since I published a small newspaper for most of my adult life, I explained that advertising costs money, advertisers wanted to aim their ads at those most likely to buy the product. Yes, demographically, older white people are more likely to have the income to buy boats. It’s just business.
It took a few days, but I have a lot of barnacles to grind off. K.C. supplied the grit.
To what extent do visual images in ads not just attract the target audience, but also create a negative landscape for others? Do ads aimed at upper income whites also convey the message, “This is not for you” to lower income, non-whites? How deep does it go? “You can’t achieve this?”
I’m not suggesting government dictate what advertising should look like, nor how companies spend their advertising dollars. But K.C.s question prompted a raft of my own questions about how social assumptions affect business, and how that in turn might affect social assumptions.
I think what K.C. was getting at is that there are many thumbs on the scale of injustice, some of which we don’t even see, at least if we have no reason to look.
Office Depot put my local stationary store out of business, then the men’s store downtown that carried shirts I liked closed their doors because of the new mall. And there is always Walmart. Capitalism may be efficient and creative, but has some serious side effects.
I think of myself as a capitalist (and a liberal, but those are not really incompatible). But I worry that unintended consequences of unfettered capitalism may harm “we the people” it ostensibly serves. Since we’ve given the rights of “personhood” to corporations, perhaps we’re the servants.
Lower costs certainly benefit consumers. The savings may come from efficiency gains and purchasing power. I love Costco, but it’s instructive to listen to companies that sell to that big-box giant. Walmart sells t-shirts made so cheaply in China that consumers in America, at least those who still have jobs, can buy new ones whenever they want. That does not include out-of-work textile workers in Alabama.
Amazon sells for less by eliminating the cost of brick and mortar stores. Of course, I can no longer go in and feel if a product is well made, but I can always return it with the cost carried by the seller. They may lose money, but they have no choice because Amazon has become the market place. If a seller is not there, they’re nowhere.
Wealth and profit are driving forces of capitalism, and are not dirty words. But when profit is the primary motive of company leaders, and a higher stock price rewards executives who cut costs by stepping on workers and buying back shares, then capitalism can lead to wide-scale destruction of value, and often of corporate values. See Boeing, 737 Max.
Why does VISA own our money, charging the businesses we buy from a couple of percent off the top and setting us up to fail so they can charge usurious interest on underpayments when we get in a jam? Of course credit cards are convenient, and possibly cleaner as we consider coronavirus, but what is the true cost of VISA to national productivity? Would it be wise to bring money back under national control?
The “free market” does not serve us well when it comes to health care. Proof is easily found by anyone who cares. I won’t waste effort defending the statement.
These trends will accelerate, and hardship become worse, when Amazon buys Tesla robot semi trucks to move goods, further reducing Amazon’s cost by eliminating truckers, one of the last sorta kinda well-paying jobs for the undereducated. Then all those truck stop cafes will close, putting all the Serving Shirley’s and Grillin’ Gary’s out of work, too. Then the companies that provide the pre-prepared chicken fried steaks, and frozen blackberry pies.
Car manufacturing is increasingly done by robots, as recent photos of factory floors and employment numbers from Michigan have shown. It’s not just that jobs are going to Mexico, though they have, but it will be even worse when we start importing electric cars from China made by robots built in Germany. Even logging in my home town uses huge cutter/buncher machines that do the work of seven or nine men with only a crew of three.
Capitalism makes companies more efficient, they make more profit, and can compete more effectively in the “free market.”
So capitalism may lowers costs (unless there’s a monopoly, or collusion in the market to keep prices high — see AT&T, Verizon), but when the primary cost is labor, that means jobs are lost. Politicians owned by corporations sell it as “freedom” in the “free market” and giving people the “freedom to choose.” Capitalists say, “… the unemployed should retrain for jobs that are in demand.”
Okay, maybe some of those unemployed loggers will retrain and get a comparable job writing software. Maybe they can go into real estate. By the way, thanks for cutting funds for their education and health care while they’re out of work, and for making student loans unassailable so those with dreams can live in servitude for decades after getting a worthless degree from Trump Chump U.
Of course many give up. Change is happening so quickly now, retraining for most is a pipe dream. So pass that pipe, because “worrying about all this shit aint getting me nowhere when there aren’t no jobs in the first place, and big business has bought all the companies that used to pay a living wage.”
So perhaps there’s an element of self destruction in the creative destruction of capitalism. After all, workers who are getting squeezed are also consumers that power 60 percent of the economy. At some point, would it be wise to consider the total impact of individual decisions, and protect the system that supports all of us? Might that be the role of government?
Ultimately, we’ll also have to confront the question of our indvidual value in this brave new world. Traditionally our value, to ourselves, to our families, to our society, was measured at least partially in terms of our work. That’s different than our value to the market, defined by capitalists who manipulate our consumption, which is primarily as a consumer.
What happens to our “value” when we no longer have a job, and not enough money to consume?
Years ago when I published a small town weekly newspaper, on occasion we covered controversial issues. There were differences of opinion, and sometimes bitterness. Letters to the editor were occasionally “difficult.”
We strove to publish every letter, though at times we had to give writers a second chance to moderate their language. On very rare occasions, we fulfilled our responsibility to the community and refused to spread bile. Importantly, when doing so we acted in our role as journalists and mindful of responsibilities conferred by the First Amendment to the Constitution. Of course, not everyone agreed with our interpretation.
But there was one rule that was not bent, let alone broken: Opinions had to be signed. Our philosophy was that if one wanted to speak up, one had to own their speech.
I personally believe that guideline would greatly benefit social media, and in fact, American politics.
I believe each post on Facebook and Twitter and every other platform should be linked to its author, which should be a verified individual. Every political contribution should be linked to its contributor. If the Supreme Court wants to grant “personhood” to corporations (a decision I disagree with, by the way) then that corporate “person” should be identified when entering into the political area with vast sums of money.
The free market, to the extent it exists, depends on transparency. The “marketplace of ideas,” in the words of Jefferson, is no different.
Eliminating anonymity in the American conversation would go a long way toward improving our dialogue.