Sunday, August 10, 2008

On capitalism and conspicuous consumption

I've said before that I dislike capitalism but I've never really clarified or elaborated on that general statement here. However, I've been thinking more about it lately (thanks mostly to my boss) and I've edited my "shit list" on the main page of my website today to say "conspicuous consumption." instead of "capitalism. (why do we make so many shiny, awesome things?)"

I think this better reflects my views on capitalism than to just say that I don't like it and the many awesome products that it produces. I think that, as far as economic systems go, capitalism tends to be one of the better ones in practice, compared to other major economic systems that have been attempted. Human nature tends to completely kill any notion of the various socialist or communist economic systems. People aspire to improve their status in life as well as to strive to appear better than or, at the very least, to differentiate themselves from everyone else. This is where the whole notion of "keeping up with the Joneses" (which is also known as conspicuous consumption) comes in. (There are other proposed/theorized systems out there such as Natural Capitalism but they also seem to be compromised by human nature, as well.)

Pure Laissez-faire capitalism is an amazing system where the people who purchase products and services determine what is available (and at what price) by either purchasing or not purchasing that product or service until it becomes attractive or advantageous to do so. Competition between different providers helps to bring prices down and quality up among everyone offering a particular good or service. In this system the government (or regulators of any sort) should only step in to protect consumers from harm. (This system, however, is also not without it's own major drawbacks or problems... but that's a subject for another time.)

Our present system, however, seems to be a bastardization of that system where huge mega-corporations (economies of scale), government regulations/subsidies/taxes, price-fixing, monopolization/mergers/buyouts and intense advertising and marketing all are thrown in with a million other factors and shuffled up leading to a system that is unbelievably complicated but still called "capitalism".

Take that mess and factor human nature and the notion of conspicuous consumption into the whole mix we end up with a slew of products that people are led to believe will make others think that they're of a higher status than everyone else which leads to much more expensive (and exclusive) products (of no better quality) so that there can be something better still.

It's a vicious cycle that no one wins aside from the giant companies who sell us the crappy products (with the trendy brand name of the day) that are made in countries where workers aren't paid a fair wage with materials that are probably barely, if at all, different from the crap that you can buy at Wal-Mart. The only difference is that the one with the brand name commands a huge premium over the generic because we have been convinced to pay more for it just because of that brand name.

That is (part of) the side of "capitalism" that I dislike. I know that I (somewhat hypocritically) play into the whole system even just by purchasing anything that goes above and beyond just meeting my basic needs of food, water and shelter. Maybe I am a hypocrite because there are people out there that aspire to buy the products that I have, or things that are better.

I don't expect (or want) us to shift to communism. I don't want to have exactly what everyone else has, no more or no less, based on my needs. I want to be able to purchase the best quality product that I can afford and have many choices when I am shopping for something. However, I don't want to be bombarded with advertisements constantly. I don't want people to look down on each other because they don't drive a BMW/Bentley/Ferrari/Porsche or live in the biggest house in the best zip code. I don't want us to continue to rape and pillage the environment in the relentless pursuit of bigger and better products and higher and higher profits.

I'm not sure how we can change the economy, government and human nature to achieve this... or if it's even possible... but that's how I feel about "capitalism". It's better than many of the options out there but it's not without it's own set of problems. Human nature tends to make these flaws worse as we exploit the flaws in an effort to make more money and be better than the next guy...

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