Power of Pride, Part I

8 03 2010

Have you ever read The Wealth of Nations?  Neither have I.  Unless you have, because so did I.  Bits and pieces of it, actually.  Excerpts, really.  You may call them quotes.  The point is, any American has been taught about this book.  It’s supposed to be this brilliant treatise that informed the makers of our economic system of the efficacy and moral rightness of capitalism.  And you have to admit, when you hear about it in school, it sounds pretty good.  The values it extols make perfect sense.  In capitalism, the people always get what they need because the market will adjust to suit the needs of the day.

For instance, everyone can’t be a farmer because we’d have way too much food and the food prices would drop so low, and the farming implements prices would rise so high (since everyone would need them and there would doubtlessly be a shortage)  that nobody could afford to be a farmer.  I guess then, a huge load of the farmers would give up the farms and go into the farming implement business.  Probably too many of them, frankly, and then there would be very little expensive food and cheap, bountiful farming implements.  But eventually, in capitalism, the market would correct itself and balance would be struck, leaving everyone with a job to do and reasonably-priced food and goods to buy.  That’s the point of capitalism—there will be some difficult times, but if you persevere in the system, it’s a self-balancing unit that, (presumably) sooner rather than later, will serve well all those living under its auspices.

So Adam Smith’s book gave us all the confidence to believe in our economic system, which is lovely.  Until you recognize, of course, that our current capitalism scarcely resembles the capitalism of today.  Under the original model of capitalism, there are no $700 billion corporate bailouts.  In real capitalism, companies that are inefficiently run, or that make terrible decisions out of sheer greed and fail as a result, well, they’re left to die.  They weren’t fit to survive in the market because of their poor execution, and their resources, according to pure capitalism, should be redistributed so that a more intelligent company can arise and do it better.  The point is, pure capitalism knows that if you failed, there’s a reason, and you don’t need to be a part of the system any longer.  It’s one of those growing pains that the market must inevitably incur.

The bailout was a terrible idea.  It was like taking all of the farmers in our previous example and saying “Well, since there’s so much food that nobody can sell their food and have money for farm implements, we’re going to invent more money to give to everyone so you can continue right along doing what you’re doing.  You’ll be able to afford farm implements, you’ll continue farming, and the farm implement people can continue making farm implements to sell, since you can all afford them.”  That is not giving the market that we all claim to believe in the opportunity to correct itself.  The bailout was no less idiotic.  The fact of the matter is that we all think we’re so special that we shouldn’t have to experience any difficult times.  We convinced ourselves that what we had built on the corporate landscape was so exquisite that it simply couldn’t be wrong, and we had to preserve it at any cost.

I’d like to say that it was purely panic that had us clambering to re-capitalize these obvious failures, but I think it’s deeper than that.  I have this feeling that everything we have going on is so big—that we’ve put so many of our eggs of confidence in this one rickety basket of business—that we don’t want to imagine the social and economic upheaval of doing things the right way…. the way we claim to still be doing things but so clearly aren’t.  We’ve come to believe that our conveniences and our toys are our birthrights, and the moment a thought of giving up a stitch of our expected daily lives enters our heads, the AMERICAN chip activates to blind us with a waving flag and a chorus of the “Star Spangled Banner” sounds in our ears, reminding us that we made this world what it is, we still control it, and there’s no way we’ll ever have to suffer the indignity of taking a step backwards.

After all, what is a step backwards except an admission that we’ve made a mistake?  The thought of Americans, or any self-coddled Westernized society in the world, admitting that we’ve made a mistake puts me in mind of a popular bumper sticker from the early 2000’s that appeared after the September 11 attacks.  It was a simple but powerful message that really let you know what we thought of ourselves as a culture.  An American flag in full colors waved behind the text “Power of Pride.”  The reference was to the whoopin’ we were about to put on the perpetrators of the attacks.  But American pride is dangerously strong and far-reaching.  I wonder if we’re capable of saying, as a people, that we’ve strayed from what actually makes capitalism work, and that what we’ve been doing to ourselves, our neighbors, and our planet isn’t right.

I don’t want to sound cynical, but I have to admit I don’t have a lot of faith that we are capable of such a feat.   You should see the look I get from my fellow countrypeople when, after they proclaim their dedication to and pride in America, I remind them that pride is one of the seven deadly sins that their (likely) God warned them against.  It’s a chilling silent ire they display, that someone could be so impertinent as to remind them that two of their strongest beliefs are at odds with one another.  My fear isn’t necessarily that they’ll choose the wrong principle by which to live between them; it’s that they already have.