Capitalism Part One: Of Jungles, Market Basket and Oprah’s Yacht

I’m not going to lie. I’m a nerd, who completed every homework assignment given to me. Until 11th grade, that is. That year my English class read The Jungle, Upton Sinclair’s 1902 novel that looks at the deplorable working conditions many Americans faced during that time. The book’s representation of what happened sent me into a downward spiral of depression. My self-medication was to cease reading the book.
Even though I never finished it, images from The Jungle still haunt me. For most of my life, however, laws have governed the conditions of workers to prevent such conditions from reoccurring; I thought we would never return to a time when workers were of so little value. I was wrong. Although working conditions for most Americans are safer and more sanitary than the ones Sinclair’s characters faced, we are backsliding in regard to wages, benefits, hours, and respect, among other things, at a rapid rate. This has been happening for the last 13 years or so, for a variety of reasons that are too numerous to get into in brief blog post.
What I would like to discuss are the philosophical ideals, or lack there of, that have led to an economy that is cruel to workers and customers while helping those who do little work to gain most of the profit.
In New England we are witnessing this struggle first hand in the stand-off within a local grocery store chain, Market Basket. In a nutshell, the board in an attempt to increase their own profits, has fired the CEO of the company, Artie T. DeMoulas, and hired two corporate hacks to come in and change policies that have made Market Basket a favorite among its loyal costumers and its loyal employees for decades. The big fear here, due to recent decisions by board members to funnel $250+ million to their nine members, is that the low prices and excellent working conditions the company has passed on to its costumers while still making a substantial profit will cease now that greed and the new CEO’s have taken over. The histories of the co-CEO’s have not favored workers as seen in many recent news articles.
I will confess that I am no expert in economics. I’ve never even taken an economics course. I have, however, taken a few Anthropology classes and these have given me a lens through which to view economic systems. One textbook, Cultural Anthropology by William A. Havilland (Harcourt, Brace, Jovanivich 1993), defines economy as a system “by which goods are produced, distributed, and consumed” (178). Basically, economy is the means by which a culture produces and exchanges its goods.
The persons founding the United States decided that they’d go with Capitalism as their chosen economic system. Now, we all know that an economic system like capitalism relies on the exchange of currency for goods and services. The founders, however, could have gone with a barter system, for instance, such as that used by the people of Papua New Guinea in which status is obtained through a combination of yams, pigs and having enough wives to take care of them, but they didn’t. But it’s still important to note that capitalism isn’t the only, or necessarily the best, economic system out there and that many systems, in which people work much less than we do, do not include the exchange of cash.
Here is where my theory, not backed by any sort of economics-based education, comes into play. Businesses established under Capitalism as a system for the exchange of goods and services depend upon three functions in this order of importance:

1. Businesses must provide a quality good or service to their customers.
2. Businesses must provide gainful, life-sustaining employment to their employees (this may include the owner of said business).
3. Businesses can, at the end of the day and after meeting their societal obligation to the citizens of the country in which they are privileged to exist, provide a profit to the owner, board, stockholders, etc.

The current problem is that businesses are now looking at these three functions in a skewed order. Profits for those who do little – buy stocks, sit around at meetings, etc. – have become the most important, if not the only important, purpose of a business. Therefore, we see the quality of goods and services slipping. Just try to wrap up your food with cellophane these days. At one time, if a customer bought a brand-name cellophane product like Handi-wrap or Glad the product did what is was supposed to do. Now, you can’t even tear off an appropriate sized piece without the serrated edge of the box refusing to cut through the material or the box itself giving way as you try, and once you do finally get a piece of wrap, it just doesn’t cling to the plate like it used to.
In addition, the working conditions of most middle-class Americans are dwindling as well. Workers are being asked to do more for less, are losing benefits like healthcare and retirement, and are sometimes not getting the hours they need to receive any benefits at all. Job loss is, of course, the worst of this. Many of these jobs are not lost because the business is in danger of closing, however. Many of these jobs are lost to increase the profits of those at the top. We don’t even have a facade of “trickle-down” economic policies anymore. We have a full-on “suck-it-all-up to the top and keep it there” policy instead.
Last week as the Market Basket Drama was escalating, my husband and I visited Newport, Rhode Island. This city has an interesting history of economic flourish and depression. It rose from a century’s long depression during the so-called Gilded-age when millionaires decided to build their summer “cottages” there. If you haven’t visited, you should. The homes we toured rival Downton Abbey. The excess is ridiculous: walls lined in platinum, families hosting parties that would cost millions of dollars today, priceless works of art hanging in their bedrooms. Meanwhile, as the tycoons of the Gilded-age drank up and partied, the lives of most American workers were inspiring depressing works of literature.
Of course, Rhode Island also boasts modern excess as well. All you need to do is take a look at the large yachts moored off the coast or in dry-dock for services and repairs, as Oprah Winfrey’s Vango was. It seems that the current state of Capitalism is bringing back a new gilded-age, a situation that was awesome for a few elite people and had the rest of us hoping for their scraps.
If capitalism has come to mean that a few at the top get most, then perhaps it’s time to consider another economic system for the United States. Yams anyone?