My father had a very direct and simple way of speaking, and his explanation of how capitalism works was no different: “In America everyone is living off everybody else; it just depends how you do the sucking.” Now you can skip reading The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith. Consider my dad’s summary the CliffsNotes version.
However, perhaps we all need to carefully read The Grapes of Wrath—if only as a timely cautionary tale.
The basic capitalist model presumes that our buying, selling, and investment behavior is a direct function of our interdependence. I grow an ear of corn, harvest it, and transport it to market; you need that ear of corn and purchase it at an affordable price that still allows me to make a profit sufficient to support myself and my family.
21st century capitalism is, of course, complicated by transportation intermediaries, regulators, bankers, brokers, insurers, inspectors, and the many entrepreneurs and corporations who have today figured out a hundred ways to use that same ear of corn to manufacture processed foods, fuel, medical products, construction materials, cosmetics, abrasives, glues, cleaners, and varnishes.
However, despite the many complexities that now alter and enhance the sale of that simple ear of corn, the same mundane interactions of our daily lives are the foundation of the capitalist economic model. Without humans bumping together to drive spending, buying—and the encouragement of our spending and buying—the system quickly grinds to a halt.
This is why Coronavirus—and, in particular, our outlandishly overwrought reactions to it—will kill our livelihoods and shred our social fabric long before the death toll reaches that of a bad flu season.
The cascading effects of both the involuntarily voluntary and governmentally mandated shutdowns of huge chunks of America’s economy translate into a disastrously misguided attempt to produce public safety by creating economic catastrophe. The despair and stress produced by government policies that will steal our jobs and financial security—perhaps with a meager handout to somewhat cushion the shock—will produce death and dislocation that is far worse than the problem supposedly being solved.
The damage wrought by requiring our entire nation to crouch fearfully in our homes will silently and insidiously produce more drinking, more drug use, more domestic abuse, more depression, more hunger, more suicide, more anxiety, more crime, more homicide, more homelessness—and more dreams deferred.
Read about how the Great Depression fundamentally and permanently destroyed the lives of tens of millions of Americans, and you will get a sense of how short-term panic can rapidly turn into a long-term collapse that produces its own unending litany of horrors. Will the family of four sleeping in their car or the construction worker reduced to mowing yards someday be thanking the many layers of government that are today leading this mad dash to the abyss? I doubt this will be the case, but too many of our elected and appointed officials seem to believe otherwise for reasons that escape all rational understanding.
Unless we loudly and insistently push back against the doomsday cultists now masquerading as responsible leaders, the future is grim—and we must use our votes in November to punish the Chicken Littles who now seem resolved to ruin our nation, our people, and our futures.