Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Give A Man A Ride

So I found a little snippet on LinkedIn that goes something like this: "A guy looked at the Corvette the other day and said, 'I wonder how many people could have been fed for the cost of that car.' I replied, 'I am not sure, it fed a lot of families in Kentucky who built it, it fed the people who make the tires, it fed the people who made the components, it fed the people in the copper mine who mined the copper for the wires, it fed people who make the trucks that haul the copper ore.' That's the difference between capitalism and welfare mentality. When you buy something,you put money in people's pockets and give them dignity for their skills."

I've never been a fan of telling people that you'd spend their money better than they did. But in this case, I prefer the saying about teaching a man to fish. It's shorter, leaves out the smug self-satisfaction and tells us how the guy is going get by during those times when 'Vette sales slump.

But for me the wonky thing about this is that it claims to illustrate "the difference between capitalism and [a] welfare mentality." The alleged "dignity of work" has nothing to do with capitalism. I'm pretty sure that in communist China right now, there's someone finding dignity in work, while at the same time, someone else is finding mindless drudgery. Whether or not a person derives some level of personal dignity from labor is completely independent of whether or not they are paid a wage or supporting their family by that work.

Rather than being a tale of how capitalism brings people livelihoods and dignity, this is a defense of consumer culture that claims that to "buy something" can be seen as a form of charity that's just as effective as direct giving - mainly by ignoring the percentage of a purchase that goes to middlemen or is skimmed off in the name of "shareholder value." And this isn't to say that the corporation-driven American consumer culture is a bad thing. You can make the argument that it is, and if you want to hear that argument, people will line up around the block to tell it to you. But the argument that I'm making is lets see it for what it is. Buying luxury items, like cars capable of driving faster than is legal on any public stretch of road in the nation, should not be recast as a favor we're doing for the working classes. It's something that we do for ourselves as individuals, because we derive something from it. That something could be dignity, enjoyment, the attentions of people we want to have sex with or any number of other things.

The welfare state, as it exists in the United States, and in other places, is there because there is a recognition that left to it's own devices, society would gladly confine itself to that set of people it deemed necessary to keep things going, and consign the rest to fending for themselves - preferably somewhere far away. Corvettes are nice (I like driving them myself sometimes), but there isn't enough demand for them to take up the slack in the labor pool that's been created by the combination of historical gains in efficiency and the primacy of the 40-hour work week. We shouldn't tell ourselves that there is.

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