Cooks and Capitalism

There’s always a risk people in a democracy might actually choose tyranny. For various reasons people hold beliefs or vote against their own self-interest. In 2009 I was part of a group of people working with the homeless in Washington, D. C. I met some interesting individuals through that work, e.g. a former professor of computer science who lost his job and all of his books because of mental illness; a seven foot tall African-American man aptly nicknamed “Too Tall” who was HIV positive who liked to sing an x-rated version of When the Saints Go Marching In for money; a number of veterans and families living in their minivans; and the former cook of the Nixon and Carter administrations. The conversation I had with the white cook, more than any other, stuck in my mind for some reason.

The former White House cook was battling both cancer and diabetes. He explained to me he had a pension but it wasn’t enough to cover his medications, an apartment and food. So his money went to purchasing his medication/apartment and he begged for food. I asked him about the election of Barack Obama and the new president’s proposed healthcare reforms. I explained the system Obama proposed was similar to what we had in Canada and that he likely wouldn’t have to choose between food, shelter and medication any longer. He was adamant any change to America’s healthcare system would bankrupt the country. He didn’t consider the possibility that by removing the insurance companies from the equation healthcare would actually end up costing less (because of less un-necessary bureaucracy). I responded by asking a straight-forward question, “Wouldn’t you favor reforms to that healthcare system if that meant you could afford your medicine and have a place to say and food to eat?” He remained opposed. Here was a person afflicted by two major diseases and he was opposed to reforms which would benefit him, and millions of other Americans, concretely.

Why?

The fact many people support policies against their own self-interest speaks volumes about the propensity of people to be more or less driven by emotion and shaped and molded by the propaganda mill. This goes for both people on the left and right of the political spectrum. For example, on the political right a conservative might have unqualified acceptance of “trickle down economics” as the best approach the country can take towards economic growth; while on the left, progressives might, also without qualification, support political correctness. In both instances are some obvious problems with the logic involved that gets short shrift, e.g. in the case of trickle down economics, or this notion cutting taxes for the wealthy that the rich will spend, rather than hoard, that money to encourage economic growth is demonstrably absurd, e.g. since the time Allan Greenspan and President Reagan sold that myth to the American People in the 1980s more wealth has become concentrated in fewer and fewer hands; this wouldn’t be so problematic if capitalism, the very thing Greenspan and people of his ilk were trying to defend, didn’t depend so much upon mass consumption and wealth being not in fewer hands but in more hands (traditionally called the middle class); and in the case of political correctness, the political left has lost its way because in an effort to generate greater awareness around sensitivity (which is important) it has virtually abandoned its fundamental role to act as a counter-balance to corporate control of the Congress; the political order is now almost entirely controlled by the political right while the left is busy worrying about whether or not it is appropriate white college students should be allowed to wear Pocahontas costumes. Not a good trade off in my honest opinion.

In the great scheme of things, I think we are seeing the end of capitalism as you and I know it. I’m not anti-capitalist by any stretch. But I think Marx was at least partly correct when he observed unregulated capitalism was truly revolutionary. I think he should have used the word reactionary instead. Unfettered capitalism, by its very nature, favors the pooling of wealth and the maintenance of a small elite at the expense of the majority. Again, for capitalism to work you need consumers; and if the potential consumers don’t have any money then capitalism doesn’t work… Marx figured capitalism would destroy itself and come crashing down under its own contradictions.

President Theodore Roosevelt once remarked that “the business of America is business.” This nod to America’s staunch defense of capitalism is both accurate and ironic, in that, although the United States contends to be a great defender of free market capitalism in theory, in practice corporations receive all sorts of federal handouts contradicting the very notion that companies are competing on a free market. Well competition isn’t entirely dead, e.g. homeless cooks and others of his ilk are expected to live within the bounds of a genuinely free market where there’s little to no government involvement/interference; and that is ironic, in my opinion, because the corporate champions of free market capitalism fight for those public dollars instead of fighting one another on the free market where only those companies who are lean, mean and efficient should survive the rigors of competition. Such a strange situation to contemplate that corporations are treated better than people and that the people themselves, who pay the very taxes which support federal spending on bankrolling corporations like Blackwater, might convince themselves to support policies favoring corporate support programs at the expense of direly needed social support programs.

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