What’s Happening To Capitalism?

My call for a doctor’s appointment was on hold 15 or 20 minutes. Every 60 seconds or so a recording told me my call was important to them and … you know the rest.  

The only blessing was I didn’t have to listen to medical ads, too. Those are the sole content of the waiting room TV.

There is a reason for this: doctors don’t practice medicine any more; they practice capitalism.  Capitalism is the practice of making money; medicine is the practice of diagnosing and treating disease. The two used to coexist, but more and more they conflict.

That’s because medicine has been swallowed whole by insurance companies whose job is to lower medical costs, so they – insurance companies – can make more profits.

Well, duh! Right?

Except the doctor who used to need one office worker now needs many – just to deal with insurance companies’ efficiencies – thereby cutting the doctor’s income. 

It’s called “income shifting” – in this case from doctor to insurance company. Oh, and increased co-pays by the patient.

The least valued person in the chain of capitalism in almost every field, from retail to medicine to law, is the customer, the person to whom the robot says: “your call is important to us”.  

There are two components that once made capitalism successful for everyone involved, from innovator to employee to supplier to the final customer: competition and innovation. 

Mankind is essentially competitive. Whether it was a caveman finding the best cave or Tom Brady firing TD passes, we compete with each other. Over time, we’ve tempered competition by forming tribes, cultures and countries. Even there, though, competition reigns. Thus wars, from the Crusades to the current trade wars. 

The US has thrived on competition by harnessing the inherent strength of capitalism: innovation. Thus advances from the six-shooter to the aircraft carrier, from leather chaps to Dior gowns. It’s all about being faster, bigger, stronger, smarter, funnier, better looking… than the competition. The US has more inventions than most other countries combined, a major reason we have outstripped other countries.

But the US brand of capitalism has been sidetracked in the last few decades because of its sole focus on “increasing shareholder value”. 

Some people attribute the idea to economist Milton Friedman who, in a landmark 1970 NY Times piece said CEO’s who pursued a goal other than making money were “unwitting pup­pets of the intellectual forces that have been undermining the basis of a free society these past decades.”

Some say it was when Henry Ford was starting his car company and paid for transmissions made by the Dodge Brothers with stock. Ford’s success inspired the Dodge Brothers to start their own car company, funding it with Ford stock dividends. Ford responded to the new competition by cutting dividends. The Dodge Brothers sued and lost, because Ford claimed he was using the dividends to lower costs, thereby selling more cars, thereby “increasing shareholder value”. 

Raw capitalism is the law of the jungle. The lion wins every time. But capitalism’s strength is also its weakness, because, if the lion – the biggest company – wins every time, there is less innovation and competition, so capitalism stagnates. Think Comcast, Amazon, Facebook, Google, etc…

Two things are causing our capitalism to stagnate.

One is a lack of shared morality. We used to frown on cheating, lying, stealing, etc. We tried to codify those beliefs into laws, because we learned that, without regulation the lions win. In 1901, for example, Theodore Roosevelt tamed Rockefeller’s Standard Oil by outlawing monopolies. But in recent decades, new kinds of monopolies have circumvented Roosevelt’s law. 

Think Comcast, Amazon Facebook, Google, etc. again.

For every new regulation there’s a new loophole. It turns out we can’t regulate morality, even if we still agreed on what is moral.

The second is the focus on shareholders. It devalues everyone else, from employee to supplier to the final customer.

Socialism, which thrives on cooperation vs competition and on constancy vs innovation is starting to looking pretty good to those subsumed by the corporate oligarchies.

But socialism did not trigger Ford’s assembly line or The Wright Brothers’ airplane or the moon landing or Jobs’ iPhone or myriad other world-affecting innovations.  

Capitalism needs fixing, not replacement.

In a hearing last April California Rep. Katie Porter asked JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon how one of his employees could survive on the salary he paid her. He didn’t have an answer.  

Four months later, 181 CEO’s, including Jamie Dimon, came up with one. They issued a statement saying corporations should benefit all stakeholders – customers, employees, suppliers, and communities as well as shareholders. 

Innovative, huh.

(If you like this, pass it on. If you don't, pass it on anyway. Why should you suffer alone?)

Getting away from angry politicians, climate change, “Breaking News!”…

…Packing for a shore vacation for the whole family, including another  “Grandpa”. Let’s see, they’re coming from Brooklyn, Queens, Summit, Basking Ridge, Malvern, Florida. What to bring: Wash and fold towels, sheets and pillow cases. Don’t forget soap (dish, dishwasher and hand), then kitchen stuff. A trip to the grocery store for staples… remember favorite cereals, tea, coffee, beer, wine,… Oh yeah, there’s a birthday. 

And everyone is bringing at least one dog. That will be an event in itself.

Stuff it all into the SUV, including the… Oh no! He almost forgot the dog! Oh yea… and dog food, dog bed, leash, toys…. 

(Here’s a question: how did people go on vacations before SUV’s?). 

Finally on the freeway two hours later than planned, his back saying “what the *&^!8!”, he can’t remember if he locked the house or not.

He drives for an hour and a half, at… well, just a tad over the speed limit. 

(Now, what is that about?! Why would anyone get all pent up and race to a vacation place to mellow out? Because everyone else on the road is doing the same thing? Maybe it’s our competitive nature. Maybe to have more time to mellow out than the other guy. Maybe both – “I got more mellow-out time than you did! Hah!”.)

He gets there within fifteen minutes of everyone else – it turns out they all got a late start, too. 

Unload all the stuff (more complaints from that stupid back). Say hi to everyone. Decide who gets what room. Have that first beer or coke and try not to complain about Jersey traffic. (Unfortunately, we can’t all come from PA.)

They walk the dogs, then stroll a few blocks to a local restaurant for dinner. A woman in a long skirt and floppy sunhat riding a fat-tired bike weaves through desultory traffic. Cars don’t even honk at her. Hmmm.  

Shrimp scampi to drool over and on a paper plate. And some of the worst looking, best tasting french fries ever. There are quiet, catching up conversations, punctuated with occasional bursts of laughter.  

Grandpa’s a birthday boy today and he has presents to open. He brings his own cake – carrot cake – because it reminds him of his daughter’s carrot cake (the best ever! No contest. The best!). She’s told him she can’t be there for this birthday, or bring his grandchildren. So he decided to just get a store cake this year instead. So there!

But one taste and Grandpa details the store cake’s inadequacies. As good as it is (and – Yum!!), he convinces everyone it’s not real carrot cake at all. 

(What everyone else knows is that Grandpa’s daughter and grandchildren are going to arrive for a day-after-birthday-surprise the next day. The real surprise?  No-one breaks the secret).

The next morning he takes the dog for a long walk, past expansive Victorian beach houses adjacent to sleek contemporary ones. Next to a small park with swings is the town’s City Hall, a building that looks more like a college dorm than a government office.  A vintage MG TD purrs down the street, the driver looking left and right for attention. It has been beautifully restored and triggers memories of black and white British movies.  He passes an early 1950’s pickup truck, shiny red, with an upright cab and a long bed – also looking new.

They all sit in wicker chairs on the wrap-around porch after a late breakfast. There is some talk of current events, but more of childhood, jobs, the New York commute and, of course, jokes about the relatives who aren’t there to defend themselves. 

Sometime later in the afternoon, when he least expects it, Grandpa answers a knock at the door and there stand his daughter and his two grandchildren. 

Shouts of glee. Hugs. Laughs. And later, the carrot cake he had bragged about. And yes, it is as good as he said.

For the rest of the week: walks on the beach, reading books that they got two Christmas ago, long naps, reminiscing about childhoods and family lore, playing cards and board games, watching dogs peacefully work out a pecking order amongst themselves (well, fairly peacefully).

No radio. No TV. Checking email, maybe. 

Grandpatakes the grandchildren for a stroll in town. They see a newspaper stand, stacked with crisp, unread newspapers. 

Grandpa takes the grandchildren for a stroll in town. They see a newspaper stand filled with crisp new papers, stacked and ready to be read. 

“What are those, Grandpa?” 

“Right now, nothing of importance. But I had a great birthday!” 

(If you like this, pass it on. If you don't, pass it on anyway. Why should you suffer alone?)

It’s All About The Fear

It’s time for everyone to “take 5”, “have a cup of Joe”, “chill” – whatever you want to call it. Because this country is feeling like a CNN news crew at a Trump rally. 

The US we know today was started by white European Christians. And that’s been the dominant culture ever since.

In recent decades, millions of Hispanics have crossed the border from Mexico illegally. Being big-hearted and optimistic, Reagan gave 3 million of them amnesty, convinced Congress would stop the flow with stricter laws. Today, there are over 11 million. The two branches didn’t cooperate very well then, either. 

In some ways white Americans really like low-skilled – illegal – immigrants. They do the jobs we won’t do, like working in the fields or slaughter houses, washing dishes or cleaning toilets. And we don’t even have to pay them decent wages. 

On the other hand, now we have bilingual everything, from restroom signs to recorded messages. Not to mention a heavy dose of Hispanic culture. We’re not as happy about that. No me gusta.

Our culture has always valued immigrants, but the white, European kind, n’est pas? 

Today diversity in the US, once theoretical, is becoming reality.  So, with the influx of more non-white, non-European immigrants, a lot of white Americans are fearful of our culture being diluted and dominance weakened. 

That’s the fear Trump has been fanning for 4 years by focusing on criminal elements and terrorism. 

You see the fear in rural, homogeneous areas, more than urban areas. There’s a simple reason: cities, especially big ones, are melting pots with lots of diverse people crammed together. In these places, your culture or heritage matters less than your ability to get a job done. People rub shoulders and eventually get to know the person behind the ethnicity. As they do, fear is replaced by respect, even friendship.

Is the fear of immigrants justified? Not according to most national statistics. Two examples: in 2001, the crime rate in El Paso was higher than the national average but by 2017, as immigration increased, the city’s crime rate steadily decreased to below the national average;  according to the FBI, crime in the 10 cities with the most refugees also decreased between 2006 and 2015. 

Is Trump a racist, a xenophobe? His quotes imply both, for sure. But he also clearly stops short of direct racism. Is he anti-Semitic? He certainly stereotypes Jews, but he doesn’t denigrate them; he hires them.

So, I don’t know if he is racist, per se. That’s too narrow. I think he’s a “Poorist”.

He grew up with a silver spoon in his mouth, the son of a wealthy white European developer who cared only about winning and wealth. I think he dislikes and looks down upon poor people, those on the bottom rung, most of whom are black and brown. And he always has.

So he denigrates them. He highlights the poverty of Baltimore and talks about “sh**hole” poor countries that send rapists and killers into the US. 

But he’s very afraid of poverty and all its accouterments, from roach infestations to disease to crime. People’s skin color and ethnicity are tangential to their poverty. To him, wealth and privilege are protections from the great unwashed. 

The additional fears he promotes are extensions of that primary fear. Geo-politics is bad. Nationalism is good. Welfare is bad. Oligarchy is good. 

Let the poor eat whatever they can; the cake is for us. 

The biggest mistake for those who oppose Trump (Republicans or Democrats) is to counter his fear mongering by promoting their own fear: of unregulated capitalism, of authoritarianism, of climate change, of economic disparity, of abuse of power, etc…

Why? Because fear – especially his fear – begets anger, which is already tearing the country apart, not to mention killing people in Dayton, El Paso, etc…

What the country needs today is less fear, less anger. We need Franklin Roosevelt’s “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” after which he calmly led us to victory and the world to safety.

I have good friends who share traditional American values: integrity, love of family, hard work, patriotism, and the like. The major difference between them (beyond accents from New England to Texas) is the politics of fear. 

If those who oppose Trump meet fear with fear and fight anger with anger, the country will continue to turn against itself. If they meet fear and anger with inspiration and rectitude, with ideas and ideals, we will all win.

(If you like this, pass it on. If you don't, pass it on anyway. Why should you suffer alone?)

Dear Everyone Opposed To Gun Control,

Guess What!

A guy with an 100 round assault weapon killed 9 people and wounded 27 others in Dayton, Ohio!  And he did it in only 30 seconds! 

Yeah for you!

And guess what else! Another guy with another assault rifle killed another 22 and wounded another 24 in El Paso,Texas!

Two mass shootings in just one week! 

Double Yeah for you!

Oh, I know. It’s not the gun, it’s the person, right?

So… should we get rid of people?

Or guns?

(If you like this, pass it on. If you don't, pass it on anyway. Why should you suffer alone?)