This one is going to get tricky, so I’m going to start with a story from what Thomas Carlyle called the “Dismal Science;” economics.
My granddad made a good living as a grocer. A capitalist. He owned his store in Pierce, Nebraska, a town of about twelve hundred. By the time I was beginning to become aware of how things worked, my dad ran the business and grandpa took care of the produce, greeted any and all customers, and could afford to head on down to Brownsville, Texas, with my grandmother, for the warmer temperatures in the winter.
I never really thought about it much, but my brother and 4 sisters and I grew up in the merchant class. Our family had plenty to eat, a nice home, my sister Diana went on to nursing school, Pat took some computer training and went to work for Blue Cross & Blue Shield, I went on to college….
In our town we were comfortable in fact, but rich in relationships.
Dad built a new store in the late 50s to replace the wood-floor, narrow isles of the building where grandpa started German’s Grocery, and German & Son became small town state of the art. Dad was very good at research and design, at logistics and scheduling, at organizing and managing. He eventually opened another store about 65 miles from Pierce, a good business move in principle, but ill timed from the point of view of global politics. But that’s another story…
The point is, I was born and raised a capitalist and hardly knew it. It was in the air I breathed. I took a degree in journalism, all the while working in the trades to support my education habit, became a journeyman carpenter and eventually settled into my own business.
I’m a good carpenter and good with people, but not a particularly good businessman. Despite my lack of acumen, the business provided a living for my family. I never thought too much about “being in business for myself.” I just did it. I worked for and with others over the years, entered and left partnerships, but at some level I craved the autonomy that ownership afforded.
I had that opportunity given me by the gift of my birth here in the USA, and through the mentoring of two very different men; my dad and my grandpa.
My grandpa loved the grocery business; my dad did not. Shaped by both men, I fell somewhere in the middle, not in love with business but born into a culture that accepted it as a norm.
Most of my Pierce High School classmate’s families owned their own businesses; farms, auto repair, gas stations, dental office, implement dealers. A few worked for others at those same businesses, but the field was wide open to make it on your own. Growing up in Pierce, a town of 1,200, we had three grocery stores besides ours, a meat market, variety store, movie theater, two doctors, a pharmacy, a dentist, creamery, two lumber yards, grain elevator, dairy queen, three filling stations (two of which did auto repair), mechanic and body shop, café and bowling alley, and six bars, to name a good chunk of them.
It is the capitalist business model I knew though I never thought of it as capitalist.
I doubt that my grandpa did either. I doubt also that he thought of himself as a socialist, though he helped found the Pierce Volunteer Fire Department, as the subscription fire department of the early 20th century didn’t seem, well, fair. My dad and mother helped found the Pierce Rescue Squad, and dad served as chief of the volunteer department for years, reshaping it from a good ol’ boy beer-drinking social club into an efficient, modern, effective fire department. Both my grandpa and my dad served in the military, WW1 and Korea, respectively. I attended Pierce Public High School, as did my siblings. Most of the farmers relied on the County Extension Agent tied into the land grant college to resolve questions of pest control and fertilizer application, and modern farming techniques, and there were farm set-aside programs and subsidies. But I doubt any of that was thought of as socialism or government over-reach.
I grew up with the twin streams of capitalism and that form of socialism in my blood, though I never thought of it that way. It was in the breathing in and out in a small town in the middle of the USA.
You worked for someone for a while, you got out on your own when you could, you served your community as needed, and you count on government to supply those services best supplied by a communal effort.
That balance is what I learned without studying.
The ability to get out on your own and be your own boss coupled with a recognition that some things are better left to the pooling of resources, for example education, military, policing, fire and rescue among many others.
The businesses we owned were invested in the community where we lived. That provided immediate and tangible feedback for us that had a direct impact on our way of life.
As businesses grow into international corporate boxes they lose touch. They are run by number crunchers that have no feel for the people being crunched in those numbers. My grandpa did. I think as far as being a ‘good’ economic model, the capitalist system begins to fall apart at the point where it loses touch with the communities it should be serving.
Local businesses become a “profit centers,” one of many in the corporate conglomerate run by bean counters and a board of directors divorced from the reality of manufacturing, or the reality of living in the town affected by that manufacturing. Safe and secure in sanitized board rooms, the directors move the pawns that bring them fortunes, the crunch and grind of the pawns scraping raw earth never heard over the soft subtle Muzak soothing their ears.
Businesses buying businesses that buy businesses bring value to no one. Note that that is not saying it doesn’t bring profit, because it does. And that adds gains on the plus side of the ledger for investors. But it does not bring value. It merely adds layer upon layer of upper-level managers requiring ever-increasing salaries, until those salaries at the top reflect nothing relative to the value of what is actually produced, or what service is performed. Those bloated salaries reflect a recognition that other corporate salaries are also bloated, and by comparison, they keep ratcheting up, all in comparison to a phantom shadow of what a CEO is worth.
My grandpa and my dad were well worth the salary they paid themselves. So was I. We gave value for what we did, value you could taste, touch and see. That’s what’s missing as businesses buy businesses, and sell businesses, and buy businesses. The business of businesses buying and selling businesses has outstripped any value that might inhere in the process.
There is no sense that those CEOs owe anything to anyone else, other than the pursuit of profit. Everything else falls away in pursuit of that obsession.
Our grocery store was part of the fabric of our community. There was reciprocity between what we gave to the community and what the community gave to us.
In the world of corporate conglomerates, there is no reciprocity. There is only taking, until the decision is made to close an underperforming profit center. And no pain in the boardroom when the business closes. Just a check mark on a balance sheet.
But on that street where boarded up windows and weed-choked sidewalks reflect one more hole in the fabric of the town, there is pain.
And as those corporate functionaries view the landscape of America, they see little that can’t be incorporated into the free-for-all of capitalism; schools, prisons, social security, health care…all viewed from a corporate eye as a chance for profit.
The idea of giving back to community, the idea that is part and parcel of growing up in a small town with small businesses, the idea of looking out for each other, is totally foreign to the eye of Big Business. The idea of community coming together for the good of all is branded as “Socialism” and dismissed out of hand.
Hence the move to move students to schools run for profit; to incarcerate prisoners at a profit; the selling off of military support and even tactical military operations to private contractors; buying the license to life-saving drugs and inflating the price by hundreds of a percent.
This is capitalism gone mad.
It is predatory and unsustainable.
There is a balance between the common good and the personal, and without that balance capitalism spins out of control to the detriment of all. It is the role of government to add that balance, as government is the only entity large enough to have an impact on the corporate leviathans.
Which is why corporations work tirelessly to undermine those same controls.
And they have been remarkably successful in the last 40 years, chipping away at regulations designed to curb the unquenchable corporate appetite for more, almost eliminating the American middle class as wealth shifts more and more to those in the top 1%.
Next up: How this relates to Peace.