Does Capitalism Work for You?

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The exhibit this week in Times Square (photo: Jake Schlichtin)

American artist Steve Lambert set up a massive scoreboard in Times Square this week asking the public for a true or false answer to the following statement: Capitalism Works For Me. On Wednesday, after five days, he tallied a final score — True: 522 and False: 599.

Inspired by the poll, the Moyers team wanted to know how our viewers would vote, and we asked for your thoughts on our Facebook page to learn what is or isn’t working when it comes to capitalism in America.

Our fans, for the most part, said capitalism was not working for them; they elaborated on the problems they have with it and offered some solutions.

The one percent

Some of our fans told us that although capitalism may work for them personally, they vote against it because the economic system leaves too many people in the dust. As Michael Feher put it: “It’s not working for me because it’s not working for my fellow man.”

For Sybil West it’s the income inequality resulting from capitalism that’s turning her stomach. “When I see the wild disparity in pay, when folks aren’t even paid a living wage while they work hard — I am sickened at what capitalism has become. Do we really want a ‘dog-eat-dog’ world here in this country?”

Like others, Vivian Nelson Gassan said her situation is difficult. “My husband and I are 63 and on unemployment. We have no medical coverage, no jobs program and are terrified that the Republicans are going to cut or disable the Social Security we have paid into for 55 years. We’re not sure we will even be able to keep our home.”

Some new members of the workforce, like Dan R. Interdonati, also had problems with capitalism. “I graduated college in 2010 with a social sciences degree and a 3.83 GPA. I have applied for well over 100 jobs since then. I only have part-time work and am struggling to pay back my student debt.”

Capitalism, many said, no longer works because it only benefits a small percentage of citizens to the detriment of others. “Capitalism should be one tool in a box with many tools,” Becky Swan wrote. “We have turned it into a religion, and the one percent are turning the poor into a human sacrifice. There must be restraints on greed.”

Many contributors said that the economic system in America can, in fact, no longer be called capitalism. Some, such as John Goodman, say the US is operating under a plutocracy, where a small minority of a country’s top wealthiest citizens dominates.

Goodman believes that the outcome of the McCutcheon v. FEC campaign finance case currently before the Supreme Court could exacerbate the problem. “We live in what is billed as a representative democracy, but what is represented are the wealthy of this country. It’s only going to get worse if the Supreme Court rules in favor of McCutcheon,” Goodman wrote.

Koch Brothers: Exit to the left

The influence of money in politics was on the mind of scores of fans who weighed in. Amy Cederlind agrees that the over-reaching influence of corporations is causing an array of insurmountable problems. “We are being screwed over by corporations in every area of our lives: the environment, what used to be democracy, education, infrastructure, workers’ rights, our food supply, healthcare, need I go on?”

And Lois McNulty wrote, “I may be doing all right, but as long as the Koch brothers and Monsanto are buying congressmen, capitalism isn’t working for me.”

Scott Orland Rogers said that while capitalism works very well for some areas of our society, it can be detrimental to others. “It is damaging or dangerous for some functions, such as the military, education and basic research. Eisenhower warned of the military-industrial complex and over the past few decades we have seen the tangible effects of this complex in the form of increased military actions, funding and suppression.”

As for solutions, a number of people pointed out that having company ownership through co-operatives could help spread wealth more equally. As Joseph Segal puts it: “We have to organize workers to switch from the dictatorial top down corporate economic control that squeezes every last healthy working hour out of us all for the minimum pay possible to worker owned co-op business.”

And then there’s this one from Max Izmenit that sums up many calls for a more progressive movement. “We need a sustainable system. Let’s call the new system progressivism incorporated in the best ideas of capitalism, adding in more fresh forward-thinking new ideas to meet the needs of humanity.”

Karin Kamp is a multimedia journalist and producer. Before joining billmoyers.com she helped launch The Story Exchange, a site dedicated to women's entrepreneurship. She previously produced for NOW on PBS and WNYC public radio and worked as a reporter for Swiss Radio International.
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  • jsegal

    Thank you for including me in your terrific article Karin Kamp! I recently wrote about how we can and need to move to a more cooperative employee owned economic model if we want to see wages rise and more equal and fair wealth distribution. This is my blog post about it http://josephsegal.com/cooperation-not-corporation/ hope you don’t mind my linking to it. It includes a link to a great organization that helps people learn to form cooperative businesses in their communities.

    We can do more by cooperating and collaborating together than exclusively competing with each other. Hopefully, we can cooperate and collaborate on how to organize for public financed fair elections that make the buying of our elections by the Koch Brothers and Supreme Court irrelevant! Let’s have regional conferences on cooperating for a fair and just economy. Maybe Mr. Moyers can moderate them?

    Thanks!,
    Joseph Segal

  • Scott Woodruff

    I read somewhere that there’s enough on this planet for EVERYONE to live a very comfortable life. I don’t recall where I read it, and it may or may not be true, however, I tend to believe that it’s true. Now here’s a fact that is woven throughout the business world. Walmart for example, Here are a few links you can refer to that shed light on the point I’d like to make. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walmart http://walmart1percent.org/family/

    Regardless of ones wherewithal to birth any kind of business, if not for the workers, there is NOTHING. Yet these folks seem to consider themselves to be so special . . . far more special than the one true key element to their success. The employees. Most of Walmart’s employees work full time, and are still below the poverty level, and qualify for food stamps. I’d like to reference a Bible scripture here. Acts 10:34 Look it up. God doesn’t look upon us, and choose those with whom are blessed with overwhelming wealth . . . because they are special. They ARE NOT!!! They are given stewardship over what is HIS. And I believe, they will all stand before Him one day . . . and will be judged by what they did with this blessing. I am certain that the almighty Father, in His perfect will, and infinite wisdom, has not given such a gift while there are still those among us living under bridges, in cardboard boxes, finding their meals in dumpsters . . . alone and cold. Matthew 25:31-46. In other words, if we deny each other, we deny him. Luke 12:48 is another pertinent scripture. I’ve heard so many misquote this one. The key word is “required” . . . not “expected”. There’s a big difference between a requirement and an expectation. It’s sad . . . the realization that it will require a world wide commonality of spiritual mindset for any significant changes to take place,one that appears to be 100′s if not 1000′s of years away. Selfishness and greed are the most powerful evils on earth. Matthew 19:24 It’s a shame that the most common shifting paradigms seem to be finding better ways to do what is wrong. It the TRUTH of SPIRIT that is missing today. Look around. The world as we know it is what happens when there is no true knowledge or essence of God’s Word woven through this thing we now call “capitalism”.

  • PTubs

    Look into R. Buckminster Fuller’s book, Critical Path. It describes, somewhat thoroughly, how everyone could live comfortably, and not even have to work (though many/most people will choose to anyway), simply by utilizing technologies that already exist for more efficient energy, agriculture, housing, transportation, communication, etc. (the book was written in 1980).

  • Jim Youngs

    Capitalism works fine, as long as it is correctly and accurately matched with taxation.

  • Hopie

    We are and have always been a mixed economy. I’m weary of hearing the word socialism/socialist attached to financial regulations and care of the poor, sick and elderly. Small business and large business if fairly run are always welcome but the public sector and public employment are also important and equal to civilization in my mind.
    Off the record, we could do a lot worse than being a mixed economy like most of northern Europe.

  • Colon

    You can no longer make that statement without defense. People are coming to realize that capitalism does not do what its celebrators say. But I’ll provide sources for my statement, by probing into the reality of the capitalist imaginary: innovation, use of resources, and distribution of resources.

    Innovation comes mostly from sources of spending not looking for profit. Discovery entails risk, and capitalist want to minimize risk. Innovation and capitalism are often inimical to each other. It is well documented now that the government is essential for innovation because of this. [1] Take a look at Silicon Valley, the innovative hub of California (though I only think they make toys, but that’s another argument). Look into its past, and you will find it only exists because of government spending on the military during the mid-20th century. [2]

    War is driven by capitalist desires for resources. Whether that was the Vietnam War to stop the Vietnamese people from determining their own destiny, or Iraq for oil. This is not new. Smedley Butler, the most decorated marine in the 1930′s, wrote a book called War Is a Racket. Here’s what he laid out “War is a racket. It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.” [3] One only has to look at all of the military interventions of the US around the world to see how this racket has continued. [4]

    It is a system that distributes resources unjustly. I should not have to tell you the staggering inequality that exists in the US. But what is less well known is the inequality on the world scale.[5] But that’s just the distribution of money in the system. How about distributing products? A good example of one way the system utterly fails is through pricing people out of products. HIV products are the most egregious. Pharmaceutical firms literally charge tens of thousands of dollars for products that can be made for a few hundred dollars. By doing so they price out millions of people around the world – essentially allowing them to die for profit.[6]

    Finally, and possibly the most urgent reason, is that capitalism is now recognized as the cause of our environmental problem. Climate change is the death toll of the system. This is not controversial anymore. To save the planet is to dismantle the system as we know it. Take a look at some of the guests Moyers has had. Naomi Klein, Kumi Naidoo, or Wendell Berry would do. Look at environmentalists like Lester Brown. Most mainstream think-tanks are now saying that growth, one of the main characteristics of capitalism, is contrary to the problem of the environment. [7] To be a serious environmentalist is to criticize the system for what it is – destructive.

    But this does not even begin to cover the full effects of capitalism on the world. The decline of journalism, the decline of public health, the cost of healthcare, the unhealthy food, the consumerism, the insurance companies, the lobbyists, gentrification, unemployment problems, the global instability, the justice system treating the poor and rich differently…

    The system does not work fine. Far from it….and as it continues to reveal itself, the public will know – too far from it.

    [1] http://www.amazon.com/The-Entrepreneurial-State-Debunking-Private/dp/0857282522/

    [2] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZTC_RxWN_xo

    [3] http://www.ratical.org/ratville/CAH/warisaracket.html

    [4]http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_United_States_military_operations

    [5]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uWSxzjyMNpU

    [6]http://www.democracynow.org/2013/1/23/fire_in_the_blood_millions_die

    [7] http://www.postcarbon.org/reports/Climate-After-Growth.pdf

  • trueblue30

    Look people, its really simple.

    Did you ever play Monopoly as a kid?
    That’s UNregulated capitalism.

    What happens? How do you win?

    When everyone else goes bankrupt.

    (ie. Detroit=Bankrupt)
    (ie. Americans=Bankrupt)
    (ie. Corporate America watches their millions turn to billions on the DOW)

  • Anonymous

    Marx was right about one thing, his famous line, “Capitalism will eat itself if it is allowed to.”
    What’s needed is regulated capitalism. Americans seemed to understand that until the past few decades. But then who could have predicted that literalistic religion would come back, and that the old robber barons would raise their ugly heads once again?
    Teddy Roosevelt would be weeping.

  • Anonymous

    Well, try to convince your bible thumping associated that what they were given was the result of God’s favoring them.
    That’s what most of them believe.

  • Anonymous

    Need to respond to the Luddite arguments with this idea.

  • JonThomas

    I’m not trying to disagree, or cast any dispersion upon your thoughts, but I would like to say that perhaps the term ‘Fascism’ is not an applicable descriptor at this time.

    Corporatism, Crony Capitalism, Plutocracy, militarism (among others) seem to be more apt.

    It is true that there are some who would want to go in a Fascist direction, but there is about the same who would want an opposite.

    It’s time we understand that, for now, it certainly is not the State that is all powerful, nor is it pulling the strings.

    The Government is simply the tool. Fascism tends to wield power from the State, to the State as an end. This is not what is happening.

    The use of the term Fascism, and it’s ideological baggage leads to divisions among people who’s interests are the same.

    Language is the stimulus, and the response…the cause, and the result… the direction sign post, and the sound of the march… the orders, and the morale. Words are the reason for believing, the adherence, and the actions.

    Divisions lead to a conquered status before the battle is fought.

  • AnnaFrieda

    The most destructive form of capitalism is the privatization of public goods. Privatization usually means “for profit” and when something is privatized, profit becomes the driving factor. However, conservatives want you to believe that anything privatized will lead to efficiencies and cost savings, that when competition is at play prices will fall. So based on that argument, health insurance for example, it being private in a competitive market, should be dirt cheap. But it isn’t. College education, with all those for-profit colleges popping up everywhere and heavily competing for students, ought to be very affordable. But it’s not. Some things just belong under the government umbrella where profit and competition are eliminated and services are provided to those who need it, not just to those who can afford to pay. That is not socialism, that is common sense.

  • Anonymous

    From the anti-trust angle Monopoly doesn’t have any rules. The goal of monopoly is to strategically own a certain combination of properties and colors to dominate the board and collect the most “rents”. Its a zero sum rent-extraction game. From the economic standpoint there is nothing else going on. Well, there is at least another part of the game: the inevitable property sell-offs of the losing players, but that is essentially the carrion crows coming in for the final kill in the rent-extraction-domination game. And lets not forget the people who don’t even have a passive role in Monopoly: you & me.

  • Anonymous

    Like others, Vivian Nelson Gassan said her situation is
    difficult. “My husband and I are 63 and on unemployment. We have no
    medical coverage, no jobs program and are terrified that the Republicans
    are going to cut or disable the Social Security we have paid into for
    55 years. We’re not sure we will even be able to keep our home.”

    While I understand well her concern, I wonder at the lack of concern she exhibits about Obama making offers to Republicans of cuts to Social Security, Medicare and domestic spending programs for the needy, in an effort to save his “Affordable Health Care” act, written by corporate insurance lobbyists!

    In other words, the Democrats, like the Republicans, are bought and damn well paid for being so.

    How many times in 2008 did farang warn of Obama’s love for Drones? Yes, BEFORE the 2008 election.

    How many times did I BEG my fellow voters to vote for ANYONE other than a damn Republican or Democrat? HOW MANY TIMES WILL YOU BEND OVER, AMERICA?????

  • Anonymous

    There was a typo in the first sentence. Read it now as corrected and see if it makes sense to you now. Then get back to me.

  • Varun Paranjpe

    Capitalism does not cause global warming. It is irresponsible capitalism that causes global warming. In fact, there are many new methods of generating electricity that release very little emissions into the environment. Also, read SuperFreakonomics. In that book they talk about a reputable scientist who has a novel method of siphoning carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Also, earlier in your post, you said innovation comes mostly from sources of spending not looking for profit. Actually, innovators are usually interested in profit. Look at Jim Clark. Bill Gates. Steve Jobs. All their original innovations were made for profit, not to help society. Although, of course, when they founded their companies, they created jobs, which does help society. Capitalism, or self-interest, is possibly the single greatest contributor to society. Adam Smith, author of the landmark text “The Wealth of Nations” says something along the lines of “A man, working for his own good, will eventually do more good for society than a man intentionally working for the good of society.” In short, capitalism is probably the best economic system we could have.
    P.S. I am, however, against political cronyism, special interests in Washington, and Monsanto style politics.