Thursday, June 21, 2018

Conservativism

In this age of instant communication, we have become exceedingly poor communicators. Outrage and condemnation are the default modes for public discourse. Only rarely do we find a fair, reasonable voice on today's issues.

We have to work on listening. With that in mind, I want to consider the term, conservative. As my pastor during my graduate school days said, right is right. And I agreed. I ascribed to conservative theology and conservative politics.

But if conservative means holding on tenaciously to the status quo, then I have to think again. There are clearly problems with the way things are. Women have been mistreated. Justice has been denied to large categories of citizens. Too many indulge their greed and take advantage of the poor or uninformed.

The term "conservative" sounds to a lot of people like, "defender of the status quo." So a conservative is one who wants nothing to change. The system is just fine. If the poor and disadvantaged would just get with the program, they would find their own slice of prosperity. The real world treats everyone the same, so deal with it. Stop whining.

I don't want to defend the status quo. I'm beginning to see the problems with our culture and society. I see injustice. I see my own privilege. I see how the good-old-boy culture has tainted politics, sports, and entertainment. I see the dark underside of capitalism.

Meanwhile, I do believe in small government, personal responsibility, traditional morality, compassion, and freedom.

It's hard to hear voices of reason now, because everyone is yelling. No one is listening. There is plenty of reason not to trust anyone, because everyone seems to be promoting some corrupt agenda. Maybe shedding the labels is a good place to begin. I'm not a defender of the status quo.


Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Money Economy

Watching a documentary about Wendell Berry (Look and See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry, available on Netflix), I heard him use a phrase that struck me: "a money economy."

The term almost seems redundant. What other kind of economy is there? When we talk about "the economy," of course we are talking about money and wealth. The word economy comes from the Greek words oikos (house) and nomos (law). So economy means the rule of the house, or how we do things.

Berry's phrase helped me see that there can be many kinds of economies. Relationship economy, reputation economy, moral economy, friendship economy, intellectual economy, compassion economy...

So, which economies do I pay attention to? In which economies am I investing? Am I learning about the economies that really matter?

In our society, we know which economy really matters. Economists believe that every resource will be used in whatever way will produce the most profit. So, you won't find a vegetable garden along the street in Manhattan...or virtually any other city. That prime real estate can make more money with retail, office, or housing. The pressures of the market force the property to be used for more lucrative purposes. If not now, some day that property will be used to make money--as opposed to food.

(And why would anyone grow food if not to make money. I don't know. . . maybe to eat.)

And that's the way we think. We just assume that money is everything.

Show me the money.
Follow the money.
Go and make money.
Live long and prosper.
Win the lottery.

What would our world be like if we paid more attention to other economies? How would I be different if I cared about the economies that really matter?

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Rethinking Capitalism


I have heard a lot of criticisms of capitalism lately. Those evil capitalists are exploiting the masses.
All they care about is profit.



For those who criticize capitalism, I wonder if they know what capitalism is, and what the alternatives are. Dictionary.com defines capitalism as: an economic and political system in which a country's trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit, rather than by the state.


Capitalism can also be described as free enterprise, free market, private enterprise. In this system, people who own things can use those things as they choose. They can use their property to produce something. Land can be used to produce food and fiber. Buildings can be used to store goods. Ships and trucks can be used to transport goods. Equipment can be used to manufacture goods. (And of course there is the exchange of information and services as well as goods.)


When people own things, they have the right to use those things to produce something worth selling. That's freedom. The theory of free enterprise was spelled out in The Wealth of Nations, by Adam Smith, published 1776. He goes into great detail about specialization of labor, means of production, and the labor force. Many European governments operated as monarchies at the time, so Smith advocated for a system driven by the marketplace, not the whims of a king.


One alternative to capitalism is socialism, as defined by Dictionary.com, a political and economic theory of social organization that advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole. Typically in a socialist system t
he government makes all the business plans, determining what will be made, when, where, and by whom. It is all done for the common good, so everyone has to get with the plan to make it all work. Socialism tends to limit personal incentive to work, as the fruits of one's labor simply go into the collective pile of everything made by everyone. 


I found a list of other alternatives to capitalism, and they are esoteric and complex. Really, they are more like philosophies than economic systems. So, when people criticize capitalism, I wonder what they really want instead.


However.


We need to rethink the way capitalism works here today.


Government interference in the marketplace distorts the market. 

Lawmakers work with big industry to enhance private sector profits, favoring large corporations over small businesses. Small farms, for example, are squeezed out of existence as U.S. farm bills subsidize grain production. 

  •  Subsidies create artificially high prices, which keep farmers growing grain.
  • Struggling farmers, of whom there are many, seek to plant more and more grain, knowing they can turn a profit, thanks to the government.
  •  Government policy explicitly encourages large operations, giving the message, "Get big, or get out."
  • Large farm operations buy up the smaller ones and work their farms with huge, expensive equipment.
  •  Farm equipment manufacturers gladly sell bigger and bigger tractors and combines.
  •  Production of grain keeps increasing, yielding an overabundance of grain.
  • Meanwhile, the food industry has a growing, cheap supply of grain, which is processed into all sorts of food products. 

This crony capitalism forces small farmers out of business, results in a glut of grain, and allows food producers to create cheap processed foods. Cheap, abundant, unhealthy food then creates an obese, sickly population.


The pursuit of the dollar above all else harms society. 

Disregarding the health of the population, private industry markets foods that harm consumers. At some point, food companies need to consider public health above higher profit. 

  • Food companies give grants to universities to do food studies. Over and over, these studies find that people need to consume more of the foods produced by food companies. Ever wonder why the base of the government food pyramid is grain? Follow the money.
  • The health issues resulting from the American unhealthy diet provide great opportunities for the pharmaceutical industry. They make pills that fix the ills of unhealthy eating.
  • The public pays the price for the profits of big industry with diabetes, high blood pressure, chronic pain, and autoimmune diseases.

Today, capitalism in America is missing a key ingredient, emphasized by Adam Smith: morality. The free market system only functions well when capitalists care about consumers, when factory owners care about workers, when marketers care about truth.


I’m not ready to throw out capitalism. But it can do a whole lot better than this.