“A Vague Understanding of Capitalism”

KWH is a white, female college student from Northern Virginia with fairly liberal political views. She studies art and geography and has little interest in history or the economy. KWH, like many others, has spent very little time thinking about capitalism since she took Civics in middle school.
How would you define capitalism?
KWH finds it difficult to come up with an exact definition, but she says it was “something like corporations control the economy and profit and exports and goods. It’s not necessarily […] the state, it’s through private companies and corporations.”
What has your personal experience with capitalism been? What is your relationship with capitalism?
KWH points to oil companies manipulating gas prices, which have fluctuated wildly throughout her life: “I guess […] gas prices. Although right now they’re going down […], in the past they’ve gone up and up and up and it’s because of the oil companies.”
What do you think are some alternatives to capitalism? What do you think about them?
“Communism is an alternative to capitalism, but it’s not a good alternative. It would definitely not work.”
How does capitalism influence America? How has it influenced America in the past?
In modern times, KWH again refers gas prices. In the past, she mentions the Great Depression. One of the examples KWH gives is from the movie It’s A Wonderful Life, when “everyone was taking all of their money out of the bank at once; they were scared.”
What do you think are capitalism’s origins? Both globally and in reference to the United States?
KWH says that capitalism might have sprung from the feudal system in Europe. When Europeans began to colonize America, with the governors “directly reporting to the kings in Europe, I think it just transferred over.”
How do you think social issues have been affected by capitalism, both now and in the past?
KWH thinks of oil and railroad barons like Rockefeller and Carnegie, who “controlled everything” in the early twentieth century. She mentions the effect their power must have had on the people who worked for them: “There weren’t any labor laws and people died and got sick,” because these millionaire capitalists were trying to make even more money.
How do you think capitalism has changed over time? What are some examples?
“I definitely think that the government is more involved today than it used to be.” KWH believes that the government has more power now than in the past to fix what people “may perceive to be ‘not right’ or ‘unjust’ […], because the government is […] higher than individual corporations.”
Do you think capitalism is a natural fit for human nature? Why or why not?
“Not necessarily. I think it does […] happen because big corporations have a lot of influence so they can get what they want.”
How has capitalism been taught to you at different levels of your education?
“Not very well. I do remember learning a little bit about it in upper levels of elementary school and in middle school in civics class, and then I guess in government class in high school, but it obviously didn’t stick very well because I don’t really know a whole lot about it.”

One of the reasons I chose to interview KWH is because she, like many others, has only a vague knowledge of the details of capitalism. For most people, knowing exactly what capitalism is is not a priority. People are able to live and participate in the economy without fully understanding capitalism, and KWH represents that sizable portion of Americans.

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