The Failure of Capitalism

I keep touching on the subject of political and economic systems and it is constantly a topic of introspection. My prior essay on the topic identified socialism and capitalism and outlined their strengths and weaknesses. One of the questions on the online dating site OKCupid is: "overall, has capitalism made the world a better place?" — yes or no. I went back and forth on my answer and offered the explanation, "umm … yes, weakly. It is ONLY good for fast growth (like building a nation), and once we get to a point that we don't need fast growth, it is very very bad."

But you know, I'm beginning to think it's about as useful as using dynamite to go fishing. Sure it's the fastest way to get all the fish, but aside from that, no good comes from it. So now I declare capitalism a complete failure.

Here's why.

Let's move aside from any system and talk about what kind of standards would define a good system. Kind of like a scientific-ish way of looking at it — to look at how we would measure what makes a great system, or a great society.

My first take would be "everyone is genuinely happy all the time". That's the ideal target which isn't actually possible. So what would be acceptable? I'd lean toward "everyone is genuinely happy most of the time" more than "most people are genuinely happy all the time" — in other words, everyone in the society gets to be happy sometimes is better than some people never get to be happy. I'd further say that it be pretty balanced, so there isn't a group of people who are happy one day a year and another group that are happy 364 days a year.

So what's happy? I'm kind of a fan of Abraham Maslow's "Hierarchy of Needs". I learned about in an intro to psychology class in college and it's always stuck with me. The gist is that each human being must first have jeir "Basic needs or Physiological needs" met before jee can be content in having jeir "Safety Needs: Security, Order, and Stability" met before jeir need for "Love and Belonging" before jeir need for "Esteem" (feeling successful in life to yourself and others), and all that before jeir "Need for Self-actualization".

For reference, I'll quote the Wikipedia's chart of needs to identify the specific examples that Maslow defined, adding my own interpretation/clarification where applicable:

  • Physiological — breathing, food, water, sex [physiological sexual release], sleep, homeostasis [rudimentary nutrition and shelter; e.g. letting the body heal itself and not freezing to death], excretion
  • Safety — Security of: body, employment, resources, morality, the family, health, property
  • Love/belonging — friendship, family, sexual intimacy
  • Esteem — self-esteem, confidence, achievement, respect of others, respect by others
  • Self-actualization — morality, creativity, spontaneity, problem solving, lack of prejudice, accepting of facts

I claim this is the path to genuine happiness as it fits with my own life experience. For instance, I find it terribly difficult to have high self-esteem when I feel my life is unstable. I can't say whether the highest layers apply to everyone, in part because they're a bit more nebulous (e.g. everyone needs water, but what fosters "esteem" in one person may do nothing for someone else.) This is also because the "lower" needs are more primitive to a being, and the "higher" ones are more refined by intelligence.

I guess when I talk about being "everyone is genuinely happy most of the time" I mean more specifically that every citizen has a minimal baseline of needs that are consistently met, and that any individual's level of needs that are met does not radically change from day-to-day.

What a society should do, at a minimum, is to not prevent an individual from tending to jeir needs, then to protect each individual's ability to tend to jeir needs from interference by others, and finally that it provide for the needs of all individuals.

But because the needs of an individual are hierarchical, it's the permission, protection, or providing at the lowest level that counts. In other words, if an arbitrarily foolish society does not prevent anyone from having esteem, but does prevent them from having water, then it is only as good as any society that prevents individuals from having water.

I'm going to attempt this line of logic: the minimal society is no structure at all which does nothing to prevent self-fulfillment of needs, but also does nothing to protect individuals from one another, and does nothing to provide. So any society that actively prevents the fulfillment of any need is necessarily worse than the minimal society. Thus, all societies worth considering must not prevent self-fulfillment of any need at any level.

Next, better societies protect a higher level of tending to needs from prevention by others. For instance, a society that protects individuals right to tend to all their basic needs from intrusion by others is better than one that fails to protect an individual's ability to tend to the need for food, even if (because of the hierarchical nature of needs) it protects individuals tending to the needs of safety.

And finally, the idyllic society would technically fulfill all needs, but that is necessarily impossible as some needs are met through introspection, (which curiously, by my read the definition of Christian "heaven" seems to be a society that fulfills all needs in exactly that way). Thus the idyllic achievable society is limited to providing all externally achievable needs (idyllic in that it is unachievable, but intended as a goal to aspire toward).

So now I can finally start comparing systems.

Pure capitalism — pure competition — actively prevents no person's ability to tend to jeir needs, but it provides no protection and fulfills no needs. It is essentially a system predicated on the wild state, and therefore indistinguishable from no system at all.

More realistically, there is the United States flavor of capitalism which, as it stands today, has some socialist elements. In general, it does not prevent tending to needs (although by taxing people who earn less than a minimal living wage, I could argue that it prevents those people from tending to their basic needs.) The laws we have protect individuals tending to most of their basic needs, and a few needs of safety from prevention by others. It provides a bit of a safety net and provides for breathing, food, and water in the form of welfare. On the standard of "everyone is genuinely happy most of the time", it's limited to the most rudimentary basic needs — ergo, "everyone" is guaranteed not to starve to death, although you might freeze to death. By these standards, on the scale of how good things could be, it's pretty lousy.

To try and stay concrete, I'll turn to the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. It's a document that outlines a more substantial set of rights for individuals that includes fulfillment of essentially all the basic needs, and nearly all of the safety needs. On brief assessment, I see it as a far superior system, and something worth working towards.

My fundamental argument pivots on belief in Maslow's hierarchy, and that is the nature of humans to constantly attempt to attain their needs. When all the needs on a particular level are fulfilled, it is in our nature to strive to fulfill the needs at a higher level. And by depriving individuals of fulfilling the needs at a particular level, it is impossible to fulfill needs at a higher level (at least in any sustainable, genuine way). Look to your own life and comment if you can provide a counterexample — specifically that you have not fulfilled your needs on one level yet feel it would make no difference to do so to improve your ability to fulfill your needs at a higher level.

My point is that even if there are some people who will not strive to fulfill needs at a higher level, it is worth it to offer as much opportunity to everyone else who will. That is what makes a society great.

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Pure -isms

A long time ago, I wrote about political terminology, but I guess I'll give it another spin. Even then I was muddling political terms with economic systems and I'll do it again now. Actually, no: I'm pretty much just talking about economic systems. And pretty much just two of them: capitalism and socialism.

In my opinion, any purely applied economic system is doomed to its obvious point of failure. Pure capitalism leads to de facto slavery wherein a few people own all the necessary resources and everyone else is completely devalued (for instance, consider if one person or group owned all the drinking water — only those who owned water would have any power.) Pure socialism drains the desire to create as all of ones needs are met which, in turn, leads to economic collapse as there are no workers to provide the services.

As such, I think there are two viable alternatives: capitalism tempered by socialism, and socialism tempered by capitalism. At first blush they seem nearly identical, but I argue that there is a critical difference: how it affects personal priorities.

Let me start with a socialist system tempered by capitalism because, at this point that I'm writing, I think doing so will make a more interesting argument with a stronger impact. If someone comes up with a new idea, their socialist side asks, "how will this help people?" They'd tend to favor ideas that help people. Then — as their socialism is tempered by capitalism — an idea that really does help people will lead them to financial reward.

On the other hand, a capitalist system tempered by socialism leads one with a new idea to think, "how can I make money with this?" As such, they'd tend to favor ideas that make money. But tempered with socialism, ideas that are socially costly would necessarily be financially costly to those who manifest that idea.

I find myself frustratingly mired in the latter scenario. In particular, I tire of people telling me, "you could make a lot of money with that." I feel terribly alone making things that I think help people and not getting attaboy'd for that facet of it. When I build a tall bike, people never seem particularly impressed that it makes the world smile — that it makes everyone just a little happier. When I talk about some new bike safety blinker, nobody cares that it might prevent someone from getting hit by a car. [Yeah yeah, I'm on a bicycling kick.] All they seem to care about is money. And they think I am (or that I will be, or that I should want to be) rich because of it.

In essence, I'm mired in the same thing that burns the midnight oil of the anti-socialists: I tire of people lingering around waiting for a cash hand-out. I'm not some goddamned leprechaun with a pot of gold stashed away hoping you don't find it. I'm just trying to have fun. That's among the oldest and most tenacious of my philosophical thoughts (I remember arguing with my high-school guidance councilor that "having fun" was a valid life goal.) So I cannot believe in any alternative. Money is not everything. He who dies with the most toys most certainly does not win. And money can't buy happiness. (Ok, so that last one really is the pacifying aphorism.)

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Stefan Sagmeister at RIT

I thought 15 minutes was sufficiently early to arrive, but by the time I got to the The Caroline Werner Gannett Project, Ingle Auditorium at RIT (One Lomb Memorial Dr., campus map) was completely full and I had to watch a video-feed with another 60-or-so people in the 1829 Room next door. Designer Stefan Sagmeister was the speaker and he did indeed discuss Design and Happiness. You can get an idea of what the discussion was like through his similar TED lecture from a few years ago: Stefan Sagmeister shares happy design.

As I had expected, the lecture gave me some inspiration. I knew Sagmeister would comment on the tenuous balance of being creative — after all, he closes his design studio for a year in every five years to do non-work-related endeavors.

His observations on happiness reminded me of that which I often forget: that much of happiness is a temporary feeling. He divided it up into three layers: short-lived joy, mid-ranged satisfaction from accomplishment, and long-term fulfillment from pride in one's life. I forget that happiness at one layer is not experienced the same as at other layers: although my life philosophy has generally kept me fulfilled, that does not make me feel joyful in and of itself.

His lecture also reminded me that good design matters. It's good to have a world where we can feel pleasure, and we can feel pleasure from interacting with something well-designed. And by that, I mean everything. Like I think the Frederick Douglass — Susan B. Anthony Memorial Bridge (formerly the Troup-Howell Bridge) is a good design: it carries vehicles across the river just as effectively as a bridge that looks awful, but it has a certain elegance to its design that makes people feel good. On the other hand, The Monroe Community Hospital (435 E. Henrietta Rd.) is apparently having a chain-link fence erected around it: an ugly barrier that says, "we have problems with the likes of you entering our property" and makes people feel bad. And to think that everything in the world can effect a mood like that: wow.

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The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and Untraceable at the Cinema

Ali and I decided to check out the double-feature at The Cinema TheatreMySpace link (957 South Clinton Ave.) The two films were Le scaphandre et le papillon(The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) and Untraceable but I'll talk about them in reverse order. Oh, and this time Ali's lap was graced by Princess, the Cinema's resident cat — forcing her to be paralyzed for 3 full hours.

So Untraceable is a film about how the Patriot Act is good and how brainy people in universities are the source of all truly evil enemies. See, the FBI, NSA, and law-enforcement in general are all infallible organizations: when they go after someone, that person is guilty; otherwise, they wouldn't go after them, would they?

This is proven in the introductory sequence of the film where FBI Agent Jennifer Marsh finds someone using stolen credit cards on the Interwebs. She uses credit-card fraud techniques learned from a television commercial and deduces that it isn't the little old lady in the house whose IP address is the source of the transactions, but rather the next-door neighbor using her wireless access point. After all, the guy has guns which means he's a criminal.

Then a tip comes in about a website where someone's letting a kitten die on live-fed video. But the site is [wait for it …] untraceable. The film uses mumbo-techno speak to explain how the site is being redirected from foreign countries and stuff so it can't be traced. Then the guy starts killing people and the mystery is on.

Well, not the real mystery, but the attempt to find who the guy is who's doing all these mean things and why. The real mystery is how this evil, university-educated genius can transport and set up elaborate killing techniques that would make James Bond scriptwriters blush. He has access to all sorts of equipment, drugs, and chemicals that — to the average person — would be all but impossible to get, requiring lots of signatures, picture ID's, and money. It must be that pesky university! But even if we write that off, he is also able to transport his computer rig to anywhere in the city without anyone so much as blinking. Whatever explains these magical powers is probably the same one that lets him move around victims with equal ease and invisibility.

In stark contrast, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly was excellent. It's about a guy who was perfectly healthy until a stroke rendered him completely paralyzed except for being able to move and blink his left eye. He starts out feeling trapped, depressed, and annoyed. Once a speech therapist helps him to speak by reading letters to him and blinking when she gets the right one, his imagination and memories come to the forefront and he eventually decides to complete a book contract he had. It's an interesting movie exploring the will to live and the human need to find contentment and happiness in any situation.

I have heard reviews where people talk about it being "amazing" what this man went through, but in a way, it was more a demonstration of necessity than anything. Because of his condition, there was no way for him to kill himself — in fact, it was because of the quality of health care he received that kept him alive at all, so in a way, it wasn't that he was unable to kill himself, but that he was unable to prevent others from keeping him alive.

See, there appears to be a level of personal happiness that is unrelated to one's life condition. If happiness truly were tied to one's life condition, then extremely well-off people would be constantly overjoyed and poor people would beg for brevity in their miserable existences. Clearly, though, this is not true.

But remarkably, it seems to have no limits. It's challenging to imagine a worse fate than being completely paralyzed and kept alive irrelevant to your consent. Yet here was Jean-Dominique Bauby (the character was based on a real person) who lived that very nightmare. His personal disposition — once the trauma of the sudden, dramatic change in his life wore off — seemed to return to a level not dissimilar to himself in his past, fully ambulatory life.

Anyway, there's sort-of a game to see how the Cinema's double-features are related. This one is a tough one. Judging by how I personally felt, I think Untraceable was supposed to be as bad as The Diving Bell and the Butterfly was good — that the latter was to cancel out the former, and you were supposed to leave the theater feeling exactly the same as when you went in. In 10 years, I invite you to recall this combination and see which still has relevance.

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The Bothersome Man at the Dryden

I'm not referring to someone who was bothersome, that's actually the name of the movie: Den brysomme mannen (The Bothersome Man). Ali and I got a chance to see it at the Dryden Theater at George Eastman House (900 East Ave.)

It was a remarkable film. It documents the purgatory-like existence of a man after he tries to kill himself. Basically he's brought by bus to this city, given a decent job and a decent apartment. At first he's complacent, but he finds it irritating that everything is "72° pleasant" all the time. None of the food has any flavor or smell. He meets a woman who seems nice but is just as interested in him as she is in decorating the house. When he tells her he met someone else and wants to break up, she suggests that it wait until Saturday because they're having guests over.

The people of the town cannot understand why he is unhappy — after all, everything is pleasant. It very strongly rang true for me and I empathized with the protagonist Andreas [well, maybe he's the antagonist … no, perhaps just a pestisnist]. It seems a lot of people believe that complacency and safety are the pinnacle of human existence. Safety and comfort are good and fine, but continuing to grow and to achieve is much more important to me. And the way to do that is to increase interaction with other people — especially those that are bothersome to you.

I believe that I get and deserve a huge amount of control only of that inside my mind. When I encounter a situation that makes me feel that outside influence has that control then I want to understand why. It may be a situation that is dangerous — a manipulation that is destructive — but in my experience, it is more likely a situation that is a stimulus for growth.

I guess in a way, I feel that all growth comes from irritation and adapting to that irritation. Once you grow enough you no longer experience that irritation — even when the conditions present a similar scenario (i.e. if you had not grown, you would continue to experience irritation).  A physical example might be that of learning to play guitar: as you learn, your fingers get irritated from the strings, but after a while, your fingers develop callouses. The strings did not change and you did not avoid the irritation — and now you have grown the ability to deal with that irritation.

I remember years ago when I was living on Burkhard Place and people would come to visit the neighbors and use their car horn as a doorbell. It irritated me to no end because I had no way to stop them from doing that. There were vengeful acts I devised, but none could teach the world. I fantasized that I'd go outside and ask them to stop, then play out the sarcastic scenario that they would say, "my goodness! I thought that when I pushed this button that only my friend would hear — I am deeply sorry and won't do it again."

But in the end, I was awakened one morning at 3 a.m. and tossed and turned in bed until it finally hit me: it's just a noise. I can reassign all sorts of noises in the world and some — while pervasive (like the noise of the wind) or loud (like birds chirping) — I had already set up in my mind to be ignored. I learned that I could reassign the sound of cars honking on the street to just another noise. It was remarkable: I actually did it. And while I can still be annoyed by it, I no longer get impotently irate at people who do it.

Now, an alternative would be to move far away from people and their cars with horns. But there is a tremendous sacrifice in that — that one isolates themselves from the rest of humanity. And having selective interactions with people — especially with the behavioral pattern of always going away if it is irritating — suppresses personal growth.

And as populations increase and energy stops being so darn cheap, the necessity to interact in close proximity is a necessity. One way to do that is to impose the serenity of suburban life onto individuals — externally manipulating them to ensure they conform to the lowest common denominator. Another is to teach people to adapt and to grow — or rather, to rekindle and foster the capacity in all of us to do so.

Unfortunately, there seems to be tremendous pressure for the former. And this pressure leads to a milquetoast gray society. It does not foster a great civilization, but an impotent one. And as for the United States, there is a promise of opportunity — but that promise cannot be upheld simultaneously with a promise of serenity.  So as a conservative, I favor the tradition of opportunity that I was taught.

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