American Capitalism Ain’t All Bad

To many in the United States, “social welfare state” is a three-word obscenity. To many others, “American capitalism” is a two-word profanity. Since the FDR era, the U.S. been a little of both. There’s a lot I love about nations that tip the scales further toward the social-welfare side than we do in the U.S., but I want to focus today on capitalism.

Let’s get the faults on the table first. For the past 30 years or so, most of the large, publicly traded corporations — the ones we used to call blue chips — have been run not by entrepreneurs but by a financial/managerial class focused on the quarter-to-quarter stock price. That’s what executive bonuses have been based on. So these managers dance to the tune of Wall Street and huge institutional investors, not Mom and Pop on Main Street. They optimize their strategies for the next quarter and the next year without regard for the next decade or the next generation, when they will be retired and living off their generous pensions and copious stock options.

money growingWhen business people take a long-term outlook, they value their employees, their customers and their communities as well as their shareholders large and small. Some corporate executives do that. Usually, though, those are the entrepreneurs who built their companies — people like Warren Buffett, Elon Musk, Howard Schultz, Bill Gates. Once the managers and financial wizards take over the corporations, it’s rare to find a truly long-term view. And the annual corporate elections of board members and officers are just as undemocratic as Politburo votes.

Better regulations and enforcement would help, but it’s a primarily a cultural — and spiritual — problem. Many Americans, even those who have nothing, worship wealth. Two words will bring the point home: Donald Trump.

But here’s the thing. Buddhism teaches that there is no this without that. There’s a bright side to American capitalism that might not exist without the dark side.

My father and my maternal grandfather both immigrated to the United States from a village in what’s now Belarus because here they could work hard, have a family, and feed their children. They had faith that they could do better than their parents had. My grandfather bought watermelons at the docks in Philadelphia and sold them on the streets. My father delivered newspapers in the Astoria neighborhood of Queens in New York City. Then he owned a gas station, and after he moved to Philadelphia owned a business with a warehouse and a truck. He sold bushels and baskets to farmers. Every New Year’s Day both of my parents sold my father’s baskets in the crowds lining Broad Street for the Mummer’s Parade. Spectators stood on the baskets to see better.

Donald Trump’s grandfather, Frederick Drumpf, is reported to have worked in the U.S. without papers for six years as a barber. His son, Frederick Trump, Donald’s father, started a real estate development company and helped Donald become, well, Donald Trump.

Wave after wave of Emma Lazarus’s “homeless, tempest-tost” have made their way to the United States to pursue their dreams. Yes, there’s resistance to them, but there always was — to the Germans, the Irish, the Italians, the Jews as well as to the people of color. Yes, the tax laws and licensing requirements make it tougher, but still they come, and many do succeed. And let’s hope that when they do, they manage their businesses large and small in the long-term interest of their employees, their customers and their communities as well as — once they have grown large enough — their shareholders

There is no this without that.

Copyright 2015 © Mel Harkrader Pine

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