Common Threads

Overall, I greatly enjoyed this assignment throughout the semester. Instead of just reading and posing questions about capitalism and its impact to class members who were learning the same things, we actually got to put in practice what we were learning to those outside of our classroom community. When deciding who I would interview, I chose a variety of people who were different ages, genders, socioeconomic standing, etc. in order to try to get a full view of what people believe capitalism to be. I come in contact with each of these individuals on a regular basis, so I was fairly sure I could understand the basics of what each person would say, but some surprised me more than others. The interview I enjoyed doing the most was the second one; the interviewee intertwined each answer about capitalism in connection to Christian faith which was interesting to hear about. There were also a few themes that I saw that were woven between each of the interviews: all focused at one point on consumerism, all interviewees had general views that capitalism was beneficial to society, and all of the interviewees had benefited themselves from the capitalist system that exists in the United States. 

Another theme that was brought up throughout these interviews, whether spoken or unspoken, was politics. As discussed in class, I believed that each of my interviewees aligned capitalism and its ideas to a specific partisan political party and let that be the lens the interview was given through. Prior to this class, I would agree with this mindset, but following the many readings and interviews, I know that there are so many more factors than politics when thinking about capitalism and its ripples. 

My first interviewee was very well versed in the world of capitalism, and I would say that she had the best balance of talking about the benefits of capitalism while still acknowledging the downsides of it as well. As an economics major in college and a small-business owner, I think she was trained to notice these things in the everyday, which made her a very interesting person to interview. Her definition of capitalism was textbook, her idea of where she fits into capitalism society was well thought out, and she was also aware of other economic systems that exist. One thing that she was very quick to bring up was consumerism and how she affiliates capitalism and this idea of the free market to the accumulation of stuff. I thought this was interesting because a lot of times when thinking about capitalism, it is about the production of goods, but the consumption is just as important.  

My second interview, like I said, was the one that was most interesting to me. This interviewee was definitely less knowledgeable about the capitalistic principles, but still created an exciting and thought provoking interview. The interviewee was a minister, which definitely influenced the way that he sees this capitalistic world. The quote that I think really stood out to me and encompassed what this interview was all about was this: To people of faith, let’s consider how capitalism can be a good thing that we get to be for. There has to be an interconnectedness between faith and business/economics. Is capitalism good… yes; you just have to know what’s in your hand and think justly about it. These views were ones that I had never encountered before, and even as a person of faith, I have never thought about how interconnected beliefs about economic systems and faith could be. Interconnectedness was a common thread among all of these interviews whether it be politics or otherwise. He discussed consumerism as a “symptom” of capitalism as well, which was similar to the first interviewee. 

The third interviewee in my opinion had the least knowledge about the capitalist system, and it showed throughout the interview. I felt as if this interviewee knew what he knew because of what he had hear from others or the media, but did not personally have very strong opinions on the topic. In order to elevate capitalism, I feel that he pushed down other forms of economic systems that do have positive sides to them. 

All of the interviewees created and wove very different narratives when talking and thinking about capitalism, and one of the most interesting parts to me was that even though each person had the same level of education and were generally close in age, they all had such different views about capitalism based on their life experience. When talking to the second and third interviewees, I felt that they were both trying to make themselves seem smarter and more well versed about capitalism than they actually were. The first interviewee definitely had the best and most knowledgeable thoughts about capitalism. Overall, this process of interviewees helped to widen my own view and opinions on capitalism and I loved being able to put some of the thought provoking questions I’ve learned in class into these interviews. 

“… what’s not to like?”

My last interviewee I connected with is a college educated man born and raised in Virginia. Born in 1966, he attended a 4-year university and received a degree for marketing from the school’s college of business. Now, the interviewee is a Territory Manager for a nationally known insurance agency, specifically focusing on business insurance. These questions were ones that had come up in conversations before, so I generally knew what opinions would be shared, but it was interesting to hear from another person who had a business background. 

I started with the question that I have started all of my past interviews with: How do you define capitalism? (*interviewee yawns*) I would say it’s like a free market and being able to do what you want to do to have the freedom to make the money you want to make without any restrictions. Right off the bat, this is a pretty similar answer to the past interviews that I have had. This interviewee has the basic principles of capitalism down, but I was interested to see if there were any more opinions that would come out later in the interview. (I also have to laugh that this interview started out with a yawn!)

Next, I asked: Do you like capitalism? Yeah, what’s not to like? … it allows open market for almost anybody to make money in the way that they want to. It’s not all about the money, but it is also about the money… and the opportunity of making money. Capitalism is pretty much me telling myself how to live my life and having no one else tell me that, so yeah, I like it. I feel like this is an opinion that could be shared by people who are employed, in the middle class, college-educated, home owning, etc. crowd. This interviewee was someone who very obviously benefits from a capitalist system and therefore has more positive opinions than some others might. He hits the principle that at its root, capitalism is all about money. 

Following, I asked whether or not he believed that capitalism is inherent to society? (going even further, I asked whether or not he thought that it was specifically related to American society.) The interviewee stated, I think that countries are bound to have some form of economic principles, whatever they may be, and I happen to think that capitalism works for the most part. I think that America was basically founded on capitalist principles… I don’t know if it was for sure but the fact that we were under British rule and we found our way out of that was because we didn’t want to be under their thumb and wanted freedom… we found capitalism through that, I think. This was a question I had never asked in an interview before, but I think it was a productive one. I’m not really sure if I think a clear answer came out from this question, but I think it was good to add in the specifically related to America part… I think he was able to foundational he trace the beginnings of capitalism in our society, which is something that we’ve been doing throughout our readings and discussions this semester.

I then asked, What role do you see capitalism in your daily life? Responding, In my personal life, I think being able to buy the house I wanted to buy, being able to invest money into companies that I want to and not ones that others tell me to, to buy the car I wanted to, to give my kids an education… In my work life, I think all of my independent agents wanted to start and run their own companies, so that’s what they did to be able to work for themselves. They wanted to make as much or as little money as they wanted and wanted to do it themselves… there is no better example than an independent insurance agent that represents capitalism. My interviewee works for a very large, national insurance agency, and works with people from around the east coast to figure out how to best serve his customers. A lot of the people he works with have started their own agencies, which is an example of capitalism at work; a person seeking their own way of making money through their own means. 

Next, I asked: What are positive/negative aspects of capitalism? The interviewee listed off some points for positive with negative points following and then providing commentary: positives: you can do what you want, you can start your own business, you can make as much/little money as you want, you can mold your own future. Those are the biggest positives. The market also takes care of itself and things ebb and flow based on what people want… Just look at the gas prices during the pandemic and now and how wide things have swayed. There are some negatives too though… I think there is a lot of greed in capitalist society. I also think capitalism can cause a divide between the “haves and the have nots,” kind of like socioeconomic divides. I think this question relates to the question of whether or not this person likes capitalism. I would take his answer as yes, and these positives mentioned are why. He first said, “you can do what you want,” which is only so true; he can do what he wants because he was college-educated and is in the upper middle class and had opportunity from the get-go with the family that he was born into… not everyone is so lucky. The points about making your own money and starting your own business go along similarly; some people have privilege from the start and others do not. He seemed less sure about his negative points; he connects greed (which I would connect to consumerism) to capitalism and socioeconomic divides that can be connected to capitalism, but doesn’t necessarily experience that monetary divide, so this is not as strong as a negative as it could be for some people.

A question that has come up a lot in conversations in the past is, What do you think of other economic systems besides capitalism? He responded first discussing ideas that link to politics and stated: I don’t care for the way places like North Korea work… people do not have the same opportunities; you are just put into buckets and that’s what you have to do. Media is controlled and therefore everything is controlled. I don’t think there is as much room for people to do what they want to do or create their own path… economic forms other than capitalism can be suppressive. The interviewee then turned to talk about more economic systems, Thinking about socialism, I think of Bernie Sanders, he wants an environment where people are more equal and get the same access to things like healthcare, education, and stuff like that. That is what I think about when I think about socialism. There are certain parts of it that I don’t mind, but there has to be a means to pay for those benefits, and you can’t expect the government to pay for everything or else taxes would be through the roof. In my mind with socialism, you get all of the free stuff and pay more taxes for it, or with capitalism you pay for it yourself and people can do what they want and work hard for it. There are links to politics within this argument as well which is a whole another story… I think that it was interesting that my interviewee connected media to capitalism despite not being asked about it; the way things are portrayed have everything to do with marketing and business, so of course media controlled states could have the possibility of having different, and more controlled, economic systems. He also related the economic and political sides of capitalism when talking about American political figure Bernie Sanders and his closer-to-socialist ideas than the average American politician. This interviewee seems to be in the system that would do the most to benefit him (parts of capitalism), and not what would benefit each person and community as a whole (parts of socialism). 

A question that intrigues me each interview is, How is your parents view of capitalism different than yours? He responded, I don’t really think it is too different to be honest with you. I think my dad would define it the same way that I did… I think that generationally the more liberal values that are at play now and are way more common… and that more conservative views were more prevalent when they were younger that were closer to the purest capitalism. I think there has been a shift in values, and therefore a shift in ideas about economic systems like capitalism (and socialism). This question also brings in the relationship between politics and economics that definitely exists in our society. I personally don’t think that one could function to its full potential without the other. 

Overall, I would say that this interviewee has an okay idea of role that capitalism plays in their life and community, but I don’t feel as though they had a true understanding of the deep roots of capitalism in American society. That wasn’t necessarily something I asked about, but I was able to realize through the questions that I asked that those would not be the most relevant in this interview. I thought it was interesting that so much of this interview was centered around the relationship between politics and economics, when most of the other interviews have just been focused on just the economic side of capitalism. It was interesting to hear another interviewee talk about their perspective through a business lens and how capitalism influences the way that they do their work and live their life. I share some of these same views, but feel as though I am much more community-minded and focused at this point in my life; perhaps this will change as I leave college and step into the working world, but for now I am figuring out where my beliefs lie in this system. 

“There has to be an interconnectedness…”

My next interviewee I connected with is a college educated man from Texas who was born in the late 1970s. He studied speech communication during his undergraduate studies and later received his Masters of Divinity. Now, the interviewee works full-time doing ministry, mentoring, and writing a book. Some of these questions were ones that we had talked about loosely in the past, but this was the first formal discussion. Unlike my last interview, I was able to weave in a few more questions based on their related category heading to create a smoother conversation. 

I first began with the question that I started my last interview with: How do you define capitalism? The interviewee said, [capitalism] is private ownership… people can own property and resources in order to buy/sell/trade in the free market… That’s at least my cursory, uneducated opinion. Off of the bat, it is evident that there is basic knowledge about the economic system that is capitalism from this interviewee. 

Continuing on in that category of basic understanding, I asked: How do you think that capitalism impacts the economy? Stating, It is the free exchange; you do have to have a level of government control [and] it’s hopefully it is free exchange where people can make money and a better life for themselves. My philosophy though about capitalism is shaped by my faith; I think about everything theologically and you can think theologically about money. If you don’t think about it theologically, then you’re doing yourself a great disservice. If we can freely exchange, how do we respond to that freedom? A lot of people think we’re free from certain government regulation, and I would flip that on it’s head and ask what are we free for? What can we do with that freedom? America is founded on individual freedom and liberty, and as a Christian I would move that view towards persons rather than individuals. To me an individual is a category as a person is someone I would have to know/interact with. Consider what my ability to freely trade/sell do to affect others? I may own land, but if it is sold to a developer who will build something that will have an impact on a neighborhood poorly, I would have to consider who I was selling that property to. So, capitalism is good because it frees us, but as a Christian it frees us for good. I cannot separate economics from spirituality. There is social responsibility that goes alongside capitalism. This answer is different than my past interview and offered an interesting perspective on the ways that capitalism can be an idea that is closely weaved with the Christian faith. Capitalism in my eyes is a very individual opportunity for each person, but what if it could be more than that, like the interviewee was saying?

When asked, How do you see yourself as a capitalist in society?, the interviewee responded: I see myself as a capitalist and I ask myself the question of if you really separate economics from spirituality? I don’t think you can or should. Certain things should inform our decisions and we should make responsible decisions. Frankly as a white man in America, there is a lot that I get to do, but there is a lot of weight in our economic system about debt and we’re called the land of the free?… How am I as a responsible capitalist thinking about saving and investing and charitably giving? These are the thoughts that I feel like are the opposite to what much of capitalism is about. As stated above, I feel as if his ideas about capitalism/consumerism are very different; his ideas are way more community based than I think could be possible in our current economic/political climate.

I then asked whether there was a specific event where capitalism played a role in his life. He talked about growing up saying, my grandparents were tomato farmers and grew far more than we could consume or sell, so my version of a lemonade stand was my own tomato stand growing up. I sold the tomatoes, of course with no cost from my supplier, and was taught about the value of earning money as an individual. This is a memory that most of us could probably relate to, selling tart lemonade out of sticky cups for a few dollars during the hot summer. But, those early moments for all of us were us participating in the practice of capitalism. 

Following, I asked: What do you think about other economic systems? Communism failed and the government owning everything failed because there wasn’t meaningful work. Socialism of course has a greater social safety net, but there is more placed on people who have more to pay more taxes. Does our economic system need repair? Is it perfect? Of course not, because people are involved; that is my call… trying to lead Christian community in a way that the theology is aligned with the economic world. It all goes back to the main narrative of discovering how we should do capitalism responsibly. How are we informed? The funny thing about this question was that it just led to more questions about other economic systems. He then discussed how to cultivate a community where the theology is parallel to the economic world; I am interested to see how this connects to one of our later readings about the connection between conservative Christianity and the business world…

Generational differences are something that I am very interested in as the interviewer, and we discussed this together: My grandparents were Great Depression kids and gained wealth after WWII, and [my] parents experienced great wealth as kids and were the first ones in their families to go to college. I grew up in Houston in economy fueled by oil and gas, which usually does well if the overall market is doing well. [My] parents came from a silent boomer generation and had a lot of stuff that was “important;” my sister who lives abroad as well as I place less value in stuff. Once again, consumerism is brought in as a sort of “symptom” of capitalism, which I happen to agree with.

When asked, what are the positives and negatives of capitalism?, he responded: The largest positive is the ability for anyone to come to the U.S. and make something of themselves. He talked about a family he knew growing up that moved to Houston and bought a store and said they lived there while gaining wealth responsibly before buying more stores. Some negatives he mentioned were, if you come from generational poverty, you won’t get ahead without some serious unlearning/relearning of how life in the United States works. He also mentioned the media and how that ties in negatively to capitalism and in turn, consumerism. Because of the media, people know they have less or more than others; there are many people who invest in outward appearances rather than other meaningful ways. The interviewee definitely understands that there is a wealth of opinions and thoughts when it comes to not just capitalism, but other economic systems as well. 

My interviewee ended by stating:  To people of faith, let’s consider how capitalism can be a good thing that we get to be for. There has to be an interconnectedness between faith and business/economics. Is capitalism good… yes; you just have to know what’s in your hand and think justly about it. 

Overall, I would say that this interviewee has a very good idea of the role that capitalism plays in their life and community, but has very different opinions than I expect some other interviews won’t have. It was interesting to hear from someone who didn’t think of economics as its own discipline, and that it could be woven into other disciplines/practices like the Christian faith. The interconnectedness of it all in his opinions were interesting to analyze and think about following the interview. Overall, this person believes in the practice of capitalism can be good if done well, believes that it could be improved in some ways, and overall believes in it more than other economic systems. I look forward to hearing from my last interview soon!

“Everywhere and all around us.”

The first interviewee I chose to connect with is a college educated woman from the Midwest who was born in 1970. She studied economics in college and owns a marketing and grant-writing business. These questions were something that we have discussed in the past in ways that weren’t so structured, so it was very interesting to get to see opinions based on specific questions. I sent her the whole list of questions beforehand, and her and I worked together to chose ones that she felt resonated with her.

I first started with the basic question I plan to begin all of my interviews with: How do you define capitalism? Capitalism is where an economy is driven by the market – demand and supply set prices, economic actors focus on profit, and companies and property are owned by individuals, not the state. What she responded was very textbook, but gave me the idea that there was a deeper level of knowledge surrounding this topic and would lead to answers that were illuminating. She also elaborated to say that some of her college experiences shaped how she thought about capitalism, which she elaborated on later in the interview.

Getting more personal, I asked: What is your role in capitalism? Where do you fit in? Responding, The individual’s main role in capitalism is as the consumer. But, in a capitalist society, an individual can also be an owner of private property, the founder and owner of a business, a producer, a competitor, and someone who accumulates personal wealth/capital. This was less about her experience personally and more about the role of individuals in general. In her life, capitalism allowed her to own her own business, own property, etc.

When asked, what role do you see capitalism in your daily life?, she responded similarly to other questions, stating: Capitalism is everywhere around us, in almost every decision we make. Of course, we are spoiled by the huge variety of goods and services available to us. Efficiencies in business (next day shipping from Amazon, for example) make it easier to consume. The supply chain struggles over the last two years have shown us how reliant we were as a society on the capitalist structures but how seemingly fragile they are in some ways (shortages of key goods, the ability of interruptions messing up the entire supply chain – ship stuck in canal). Who would have thought that the supply chain would still be so messed up after two years? Prices are going up for many items because of the increased pent-up demand, supply chain issues, etc., so it costs more to buy things. Even though wages have gone up during the pandemic, much of this wage growth is being erased by the inflation. Getting into the nitty gritty, these issues that she is talking about effect those who are reliant on a capitalist society to function as an individual.

Following, I asked: How do you think capitalism has evolved over the years? Knowing that she had moved through corporate life into owning a small business and working alongside non-profits, I knew that she would have a good answer. Responding with: An interesting thing to me is how America’s capitalist economy has gone from first being built on people making/producing things and buying and selling goods to second, an economy of services, and most recently, an economy of “non-things” – you can buy, sell, and own digital music and films, NFTs, companies are built on ideas, etc. This would look and seem very strange to someone born in 1900, who knew the biggest companies as ones that produced items like steel, oil, and farm equipment. Now, the largest companies include Facebook, Alphabet, Apple, Amazon, etc. – many of whom don’t make anything. This answer fit very well alongside our class topics as we move throughout the generations and changes of capitalism in American society. Even in the interviewee’s lifetime, things have changed dramatically in terms of what can generate capital and support; this is something I look forward to discovering over the course of this class.

She next answered: What do you think of other economic systems other than capitalism? This is something that we talk about a lot when we are together; what are the good and bad things that capitalism and other systems bring to the table? Can those systems be combined? Are there examples of that? Stating, I was fortunate enough to study in Vienna in college in 1990, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the emergence of the Eastern Bloc countries from behind the Iron Curtain. The focus of the program was understanding the geopolitical and economic implications of these changes, and we spent time in former Soviet Bloc countries like Russia, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. It was an opportunity to see communism/true socialism falling apart first hand. When we visited Russia, we were still required to have a Russian guide with our group the whole time, who managed what we saw, whom we spoke with, and didn’t allow us to be on our own. We were forced to change dollars or other western currency into rubles upon entering the country to provide the government with hard currency. We saw lines snaking around huge city blocks, and when we asked the guide what the lines were for, we would be told that if people saw a line, they just got into it (regardless of what it was for or if they needed the item), because there were shortages of virtually everything and even if a person didn’t have a use for an item, it could be sold on the black market. Anytime we bought anything in a market, the seller would always ask us for dollars – even they didn’t want the rubles because of the inflation and devaluation of the currency. I remember buying a piece of art and having to meet the seller on the next block to pay for it because it was illegal (I think) for ordinary citizens to have foreign currency. Based on this first-hand experience with communism, I can say that it wasn’t working well. Her experience in Vienna shaped how she viewed the different systems that different states used. Even the way that she describes some of her experiences really displays how different other states function. 

Responding to, what are the positive/negative aspects of capitalism, she got very passionate about something she is on the journey of unpacking in her own life: consumerism. For me personally, living in a capitalist society has allowed me to start my own consulting business (competing against others and earning profits from the business), own property (our home and land it sits on), and save money/accumulate capital. All of these are positive aspects. The most negative aspect to me about American capitalism is the societal focus on consumerism. The tendency is to want more, buy more, waste more, and overconsume. We want the newest, best, biggest, etc. I believe we’ve lost sight of needs vs wants and the focus on excess materialism is bad for mental health, saving, and the environment. As I get older, I find that I want less and am hoping to live in a more minimalist way. I believe that she very much associates capitalism with consumerism, which is true in a lot of ways. I would also go even further to say and agree that this “stuff” focused culture of consumerism and capitalism may make other social systems more appealing.

Overall, I would say that this interviewee has a very good idea of the role that capitalism plays in their life on a personal level, a business level, and at a larger scale state level as well. I was lucky to have an interview where the speaker was concise and helped to clarify any points that I was unsure about. I look forward to interviewing more people to hear and gather their thoughts as well!