Economists have the tough task of looking at hard data and making nonpartisan conclusions about the state of the economy. However, most Americans are not economists and our politics shape our views about whether or not the country is on the right track or if the capitalist system produces the fairest outcomes. The latter question defines my first interview.
In my personal life, politics and economics are common topics of discussion, so the convictions of most of my friends and family are known to me. My first interviewee is an active progressive, her name is KJ. She is an erudite student of politics and sociology, but her ability to organize her thoughts is what led me to pick her for this blog interview.
What is the definition of capitalism?
We started the interview with a basic definition of capitalism, which she said “is the buying and selling of goods, usually under some sort of market proposition, by owners of businesses.” We did the interview at 10:30pm on a week night, so after this warm-up question I moved on quickly to the most thought-provoking questions of the interview.
How has capitalism affected you personally?
As, KJ aptly put it, “You can’t live in an economic system where there’s winners and losers and not have it affect you.” The idea that capitalism yields people who are extremely wealthy and successful along with others who are destitute and disadvantaged was at the heart of the interview.
KJ went to a private high school in a wealthy area of Chattanooga, Tennessee. She was raised by an accountant and a middle school science teacher so her family was comfortable, but they could not keep up Chattanooga’s rich Joneses. Her private school required uniforms, but certain baubles like designer shoes and BMWs clearly defined who came from money and who did not.
Some of KJ’s best friends were able to go to that school on scholarships, while their families were living off of government assistance. These difficult circumstances contrasted with the “movie set” mansions of her peers led her to see gross inequities in the capitalist system and it made her feel “awkward and out of place.” By the time it came to pick a college, she knew that the Ivy League or another upper-crusty private university, were boats and summer homes were expected assets, would not be right for her.
It sounds like you think there are more losers than winners. Can you explain why?
When I asked this question, she let out an emphatic yes, “because you have multimillionaires with two or three houses and you have people who are living paycheck-to-paycheck and it’s just getting worse.”
KJ believes modern-day capitalism has allowed a few people to amass incredible wealth while most Americans are still struggling to keep their heads above water.
What do you think are alternatives to capitalism?
“Personally, I have socialist tendencies and I am a fan of government intervention in the economy. I think that subsidies are important, because if you have free market capitalism of essential goods then the price keeps going up and people can’t afford it.” However, she thinks that no alternatives have worked and that people just keep going back to capitalism. Even European social democracies have reverted back to capitalism.
What are capitalism’s origins?
KJ believes capitalism emerged as an alternative to mercantilism, but specifically how capitalism emerged in the U.S., she “has no earthy idea. That is something that should have been taught in AP history.”
How do you think social issues have been affected by capitalism?
In her view, “that’s half the reason we have a race issue now,” because in the U.S., race was used to pit white workers against African-Americans. Whites saw themselves as superior, so they did not recognize that they “were in the same boat” as their black counterparts. “The engine produces inequality and tries to keep it there.”
How has capitalism affected you as a gay woman?
Luckily for KJ, it has not affected her much because her parents did not kick her out after she came out as a lesbian. However, she says it could later because some states, like Virginia, do not have employment protections for sexual minorities, so a boss could fire her for her sexual orientation.
How has capitalism changed over time?
To KJ the most striking area of capitalism’s evolution has been in the realm of corporate power. She believes, “corporations are more powerful because they’re bigger, they can own each other, and now they can have religious beliefs,” in reference to the Supreme Court’s recent decision that allowed Hobby Lobby, Inc.’s owners to forgo paying for some forms contraceptive coverage because of the owners’ religious objections.
She does admit that the system has become softer over time, “we have made capitalism into a much safer system with child labor laws and such.”
Is capitalism a natural fit for human beings?
“Everything is socially constructed. Capitalism was created by people, it can be changed, and it has evolved over time.” “Is it human nature? I don’t know, mostly because I am having a hard time defining human nature these days. My gut says it is not necessarily human nature.”
At the heart of KJ’s interview is the growing concern about inequality in the United States, something that worries many progressives. Some are getting rich, but others are struggling, even suffering under modern-day capitalism. She sees the American dream as a myth, something to give people hope for a better life. As Bob Dylan puts it, “the loser now will be later to win.” In my next interview, I will to talk to someone who has lived the American dream, who arose from an unprivileged childhood to become successful.