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!