Cautions of Capitalism

Capitalism came up a lot this week.

Well, really, it comes up a lot, but this week in particular I found myself having several conversations about the pitfalls of our capitalist economy.

One friend told me that, despite having a perfectly lovely, middle class job, she couldn’t buy fall clothes because they were just too expensive. I’ve had those moments.

It’s one of those times when you realize just what it means that wages have been stagnant.

Making matters worse, the clothes we buy – despite being more expensive – seem to be lower quality than they used to be. The fabric is generally thinner, meaning I need to wear (and buy) more layers than I used to. Also, they tend to easily rip, tear, or otherwise be worn through.

I had a hole in my sweater when discussing this.

And there’s a dangerous cycle in all of this. On the one hand, there’s the average consumer – squeezed by stagnant wages, increased costs, and the need to consume, discard, and replace more frequently. In this environment, consumers become much more discerning. I’m not going to replace my sweater because no one can really see the hole in the sleeve. Also, I can probably mend it. Also, that sweater’s pretty comfortable. So I won’t buy another.

Then there’s a business – squeezed by decreasing sales and increased costs, desperately trying to meet their quarterly goal by lowering production costs and increasing purchase frequency by making items more disposable and replaceable.

That cycle doesn’t really work for anyone. (Not to mention the environment.) But that seems to be the way capitalism is supposed to work? Each character works to meet their own interests. But doing that just continually makes the situation worse.

And then there’s debt.

I told someone this week something someone else once told me: You will have debt for the rest of your life. You’re supposed to.

It took me a really long time to wrap my head around that, and frankly, I don’t really understand it so much as I accept it. To fully participate in many aspects of our society, you need to have a (good) credit history. And if you don’t have debt, you don’t have a credit history.

I continually fight the urge to pay off my student loans as quickly as possible. That’s the way I tend to think about finances. Take on some debt, pay off your debt, save for future investments. Don’t over borrow, don’t over spend. Sounds pretty logical to me.

But, that’s kind of not how it’s supposed to work. I’m not supposed to pay off my student loan debt. It’s good debt.

Like clean coal.

I understand it, but I don’t really understand it. Does it really make sense that our system intentionally works this way? That seems crazy.

It feels like there must be other options.

Economist (and personal hero) Elinor Ostrom did a lot of work around collective action. Her work looked largely at collective management of limited resources, but the consumer/business cycle above has many connections.

Ostrom looked at communities where each person acting in their own interest would lead to failure for all. If you over fish, it might be good for you in the short term, but it’ll be bad for you in the long term.

She looked at how people worked together – collectively defining rules and regulations that worked for them. So everyone could fish, and everyone could keep fishing – because fishing was done in a way that allowed the fish population to sustain over time.

We’re facing a serious capitalist collective action problem. Having companies watching out for their own interests isn’t working. It isn’t working for us, and frankly, it isn’t really working for most companies.

But what’s the path to collaboration? What’s the sustainable system?

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