Thursday, May 31, 2007


my dad and i were having a discussion about capitalism a while back, and i was trying to explain why i thought that capitalism was a harmful and exploitive force to many people, especially in developing countries. not that i want to be communist, just that i don't think that capitalism is necessarily "christian" or more virtuous than other forms of commerce. and, in fact, many times it harms one person in order to bring cheap goods to another person. (i.e. sweatshops in china so that walmart can sell me cheap stuff.)

however, i am not all that eloquent, and so i found a post on No Impact Man's blog about this very subject, and he talks about how capitalism in it's purest form allowed one person's altruistic idea to benefit himself and others buy selling a needed item (benefitting those who buy it) at a profit (benefitting him.) this is what i think that my dad was trying to say, that capitalism is positive when used this way. right now in our country, however, much of our consumerism is a negative form of capitalism, where most of our needs are already met, so the market tries to create artificial "needs" in order to sell us stuff. the newest cellphone. the fastest computer. the biggest house. benjamin barber wrote an article for the l.a. times that says it much more eloquently than i can.

a way forward from this gluttonous cycle could be to turn our capitalistic market towards fulfilling some real global needs. instead of marketing botox, market malaria medicine. instead of selling a bigger gas grill for the yard, create clean water systems for a third world market. creating inexpensive, useable items for developing countries benefits those with little money, and using those same resource-conserving items could benefit wealthier nations who are beginning to realize that they need to make changes in the amount of energy they consume. read no impact man's post here.

so, dad, this one's for you.


Anonymous said...

Dear Sweet Daughter,

To answer your question on this I would like to pose a question of my own.

Suppose you are a father living in a developing country with a family you are trying to provide for. Already this is a bad analogy since there are many fathers who abandon their families in developing countries just like they do in the U.S. But suppose it is true and that your country has a 50% (or worse) unemployment rate for skilled workers much less people like you who have limited skills. Now suppose that a company comes to your city that will give you some basic training to do some manufacturing and best of all, give you a job. Sure, the laws in your country don’t require the same safety standards, environmental standards, health and other benefits, or pay that the same job would have in the U.S. but it will pay for your house (that would be a walk-in closet in the U.S.), your family to eat at least 2 meals each day (now they are lucky to have 1), and maybe even have enough for your kids to get primary and high school education that you never got because now you can buy their needed uniforms and books.

Here’s my question. Would you not jump at the chance and be glad for the opportunity?

The thing to understand is that for that company to come to your country capitalism had to exist. They came there because the company had to compete in the open marketplace for selling their products. To keep prices low, the company moved manufacturing to the developing world. This meant that someone in the developed country had to lose their job and find a different one so that you in the developing country could have one. My position is that the people of the developing country are ecstatic that they have a job pure and simple.

I realize that their pay and benefits are not the same as in the U.S. but I contend that the pay and benefits are what is normal for that developing country or the company wouldn’t be able to find workers there. Unless we are going to move to socialism, differences in pay and benefits will exist. I believe that socialism ruins societies because there is no incentive to excel or innovate. The result is shown again and again in history as to why this doesn’t work. The fact of the matter is that, for all of its ills and foibles, our country is the best place to live in the world. Look at the flood across our borders if you doubt what I am saying. I can say that this is a great place to live because I have been to most of the rest of the world and I have to say, I wouldn’t want to live there.

Considering all of the above, I would say that capitalism does have its problems too in that, as you rightly mention, the marketing aspect brings the message that somehow we need to buy the newest, buy more, or better yet, buy more of the newest.

I have a corollary question for you to noodle on. Is the problem with capitalism because it asks the individual to buy more or is it a problem with individuals who live in a pagan world where “he who dies with the most toys wins” mentality is the rule of the day? If the individuals were to change their “desires and wants” wouldn’t a capitalistic system adjust to provide more of what is needed?

To your point on philanthropy, I would suggest that some of the biggest philanthropists in history were men and women who, through capitalism, made lots of money and gave lots of it back. Sure there are some who didn’t. There are others who did. I believe that we all have to take what we are given by God and decide how we can provide for others in need around us. I choose to do it through several methods. The question for all of us is how am I using what I have been given?

Finally, if I was to take the track of alternatives to capitalism, in this case socialism, and we were to set the “living wage” what would that wage be? Would $10,000 per year be enough? Wouldn’t $20,000 be better? How about $50,000? $100,000? You can see that setting wages doesn’t work because the cost will be passed on in the price so the higher salary doesn’t mean anything if we have to pay $100 for a loaf of bread. So is Wal-Mart a bad organization for providing inexpensive goods that you, who don’t have a big salary, can provide for your family?

That’s my rant for now. I love you no matter what. See you soon.


christy said...

dad--i think some of what you are saying i can definitely agree with. it makes total sense that someone in a developing country, jobless, unable to support a family, would jump at the chance for a job regardless of how dangerous or low-paying. a tiny bit of money is generally better than no money at all, and desperate people will often do many things that they wouldn't otherwise do if given other options.

however, where is the ethical or moral highground when the dregs of our society are the only things that stand in the way of someone watching their children starve to death? how dangerous or low paying does a job have to be before it would be better to decide that we (the developed countries, the ones with all the "stuff") should just do without that plastic doo-dah or that $0.99 whatchamacallit? how young is too young for work in a factory with no safeguards for worker health and safety? 18? 12? 9? should nicholas do it? (i am *not* trying to say you really think he should, just that i am sure there is another family somewhere who is having to make this choice, quite possibly because of our way of life.)

i guess what made me think of you when reading those articles was that they seemed to be describing a better way out of some of these dilemmas, this dark side of capitalism. instead of putting all of our energy into making the next "big thing" that we Simply Must Have, put the creativity and energy that you (rightly, i think) say comes from a capitalistic market and focus it on technologies that would hopefully alleviate some of the desperate situations that make people in developing countries willing to take on the dangerous and low-paying work in the first place.

i am definitely not saying that i think that socialism is the answer; however, i do think that if we continue to allow ourselves to play this thing out to its logical conclusion, the morality of this ideal of capitalism that you describe will be lost to the rest of the world who must sacrifice health, safety, security in order for us to continue to keep up with the cool kids next door. and while i do know that there are examples of people who use their wealth to better others' situations (bill gates comes to mind), i think that those people are far from the majority. every other week, some millionaire ceo guy is in the news for stealing more money for himself, at the expense of many more are doing it secretly, or by virtue of "legal" means?

i struggle with this daily...i am the main consumer in our family. i am the one who buys the food, shops for clothes, decides where to spend the majority of the money that chris works so hard to bring home. and, as a young growing family, every dollar counts. but, in the face of what you describe of families living in poverty, how can i really say that i *need* to demand cheaper goods at their expense? from their perspective, is that really just? and where should i, christy estoll, mother of 3, draw the line?

i do think that christians have a responsibility to model a better way than the "he who dies with the most toys wins." i think that we of all people should have the ability to see beyond the lie of a consumer society to know there is a better way to live, a way created by the grace of God and pointing to an eternal world beyond this one. but, i think too that even the models in the christian world are hard to spot, that we as a group don't often look all that different. i drive two cars, have a cellphone, have been known to eat strawberries in the dead of winter--how does that make me any better than another person using more than their fair share? and even if i give 10,20, 30 percent of my earnings away, how does that stack up when each day i am still spending more than some families do in a month?

anyway, i have very little conclusions. this is just something that i am having a hard time knowing how to best navigate my desire to provide the best life i can for the family that i have and also balance the damage that i am causing to some other person's family. it would be much easier to have a black and white blueprint...

i love you dad!

Anonymous said...

Loving Daughter,

I have a couple of more thoughts on this subject.

You indicate in your response that capitalism should focus on technologies that alleviate some of the desperate situations for developing countries. I would suggest that it has. For example, there is an organization in Denver ( that helps people in developing countries build and sustain water purification systems for their villages. They do it as a micro enterprise and teach them how to maintain the systems and sell the clean water in countries that don’t have any - capitalism at its best. Did you know that in many countries the poor actually have to pay more for their pure water (assuming that they can get it) than the rich do? (I have never looked at the difference in where this occurs between capitalism and dictatorships but it might be interesting.) There are other examples of help to developing countries from history such as tractors, farming methods, drip irrigation, etc. I don’t know of any of these that didn’t come from a capitalist need to solve a problem and make goods cheaper.

I disagree with your assertion that somehow capitalism and the quest for the “next big thing” drives what I “just have to buy” because I think it is greed and a part of human nature is to be greedy. That happens whether capitalism exists or not. Socialism has it too except the “regular folks” get the dregs in the form of “government help” while a few of the top bureaucrats get rich. That happens in other economic systems as well. The fact of the matter is that because of our nature people are going to want more “stuff” whatever that may look like.

If we lived in a nomadic tribe we would want more horses and clubs and perhaps livestock (wives? No we won’t go there. ). These were the “things” of the day. I would agree that they are different now and more related to pleasures rather than necessity (but maybe that assumption is not entirely true). So I think the question is more of a spiritual issue rather than and economic one. People will stay greedy until they are changed due to salvation or the Lord comes.

So here’s the question of the day along with a statement. The statement is that I have come to the conclusion that life is not fair. I see this played over and over in our society as well as (perhaps more dramatically) in the developing world. The fact is that some will have more than others all of the time. The question is this: If you were the mom of 3 boys in a developing country would you rather have your boys work in a factory with some dangers that makes “stuff” for the developed world or would you rather have them pick through trash at the dump, become pick pockets, or perhaps worse yet, sell them selves for a few cents? Knowing you I know your response would be none of those but I would suggest that there is always going to be more poverty in the world. It’s not right and I am convinced that most of it is because of sin but that’s a different discussion.

I would suggest that our approach is that we might give some of what we have away to the developing world to help kids and ultimately their whole families break the poverty cycle. I know an organization that does that (  ). We can’t individually change the world. But let me ask you, what is the affect for that child? I would bet that you would change their world! All that said to be an encouragement to you that I love the fact that you care. Keep doing that! You can change what you purchase and do. You already are. Then the question you need to deal with is how you can make your small difference in the world. The combination of lots of folks doing that results in making a big difference. I agree that the problem is great.

Love talking to you. Maybe we’ll do more this weekend.