Monday, March 23, 2009

Wealth, Capitalism, and Greed.

I'm not super-rich. By the standards of this country I'm not even sort of rich. As I'm fond of saying, I want to make a living, not a killing. I'm a single wage earner in a household of six people, for cryin' out loud. But I paid attention enough when I was a kid to know how well off we are today.

My father was a native American. He was born in this country with nothing. My grandparents on my mother's side were Hungarian Jews. They arrived in this country with nothing. My stepfather was born in 1922 in Andersen, South Carolina. He went to school in a one-room schoolhouse with no plumbing. At lunch the children would get drinking water from the creek. That's because that's how people lived. He once confided to me that when he was 12 years old he never imagined that he would one day be rich enough to live in a painted house. All of these people came from the poorest of the poor. They all made something of themselves. Remember that phrase.

Why is it that some places in the world are wealthier than others? It's not about natural resources; Switzerland and Japan prove that. It's not about taking or withholding from others. It's not geography. For instance, during the cold war, West Germany created wealth at a breakneck pace while East Germany did nothing. How did that happen?

It has everything to do with Capitalism.

Wealth is not a zero-sum game. You can create wealth directly out of your imagination, as an author does when writing a book. J.K. Rowling's net worth is roughly a billion dollars. Yet her only real assets are the products of her imagination! And this isn't some kind of trick accounting that simply to account for money that she sucked out of other people... When she wrote Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, she had something of newly created value even before it was sold. This is literal creation of wealth. Wealth is created when human beings use their imagination to produce something new... something that someone else wants. This is capitalism.

Capitalism is not about greed. It's not just about acquisition. It's about reaching a level of comfort and satisfaction that's right for you, whatever that level may be, and not having impediments to the attainment of those goals. Capitalism doesn't promote the collection of wealth at the expense of other people. Rather, it's about creating an economic environment where anybody can succeed. Remember, it depends on production to work. and capitalism has worked so well in this country that not only can anybody succeed, nearly everybody does. In industrialized countries like the United States, capitalism has raised the level of the "poor" beyond the definition of "rich" in the rest of the world, as our workers are paid to participate in the creative process and share the rewards. You don't believe it? Go visit some other countries. There, it's a blessing to simply eat, and having no shoes is normal. What we call "poor" in this country is anything but poor. Here it's a shame not to have a television or new shoes. This is because our "poor" work for capitalists. (There are some real poor in this country, but they are very few. That's not a consolation for those who are poor; it's simply a fact.)

The redistribution of wealth -- socialism -- is not about creating anything. Rather, it's about taking the wealth created by someone else and simply spreading it around. It might sound great on paper (between the covers of the Communist Manifesto or Obama's economic plan), but in practice it falls apart almost immediately. That's because once you go down this path; once you vilify and steal from the entrepeneurs to give to the idle; once you've spread all the cash around, you soon discover that there's no more to spread. The cash flow... doesn't.

Witness the Soviet Union. Despite the iron fist of a government willing to use its military against its own people, it fell apart not because of foreign military opposition, but because they couldn't pay the bills. It fell because SOCIALISM DOESN'T WORK. Why? Because socialism removes any incentive for creation of wealth by stealing that wealth from the people who created it. Without incentive, entrepeneurs cease to take risks and artists become daydreamers. They cease to create wealth, and there's no one left from whom the socialists can steal.

The redistribution of wealth is motivated by envy and greed. It's not about improving your own lot... it's about taking something away from someone else so that they are more like you. It's about institutionalized theft. It's saying "I want what he has, but I don't want to work for it. I don't want to create wealth, I want to steal it." It's about the promotion of class warfare; it deliberately incites people to alienate themselves from the people most likely to help them succeed. In so doing, it perpetuates hatred and distrust and mediocrity.

Leading the charge to institutionalize this despicable behavior is our own President, Barack Obama, who waved the promise of change, but failed to mention that it was most assuredly change for the worse. After enduring a week of this Administration's inept blundering, I I experienced the proverbial "final straw" this morning when an Administration apologist defended the admittedly socialist agenda by ignoring every question he was asked in order to repeatedly decry the "discrepancy between the very rich and the very poor". Folks, this "discrepancy" is a red herring. It's a distraction to keep you focused on envy and greed to keep you from realizing some very true things:
  • First, someone else's good fortune is not your misfortune. Remember, wealth is literally created from imagination and effort. As such, the potential for wealth is unlimited.
  • Second, you can create wealth for yourself. You have as much opportunity as anyone else. If you have ability as well, you will be successful.
  • Third, even if you lack the ability to create wealth, you can work for someone who does, and thus collect wealth by assisting with their creative efforts.
  • Fourth, our economic problems will not be solved with redistribution of wealth, bail-outs using borrowed money, and taxation.
  • Finally, if you open the door to stealing someone else's wealth, it will happen to you, too.
Remember that phrase? "They made something of themselves." In the capitalistic society of the United States, that statement is literally true.

My father joined the military, then the fire department. He never made a lot of money, but that's not what capitalism is about. It's about reaching your level of comfort and satisfaction. He was a fireman; he saved lives.

My mother's parents worked hard and mastered the English language. They made their own way without public assistance, and contributed three children to society: My Uncle Ben became a successful anesthesiologist; Uncle Vic was a translator for the US Army; and my mother, Lillian, was an amazing seamstress and factory worker who managed to provide a comfortable home for her children (and hers is an incredible story by itself).

My stepfather, Terrell, who ploughed with mules and drank from the creek, was a proud Marine who joined the rest of his generation in literally saving the world from tyranny. After World War II he became an engraver and was eventually foreman of the engraving department of the largest newspaper in South Carolina. He bought the land on which stood the unpainted house in which he was born and ran it as a Christmas tree farm in his retirement.

These weren't amazing tales of rags to riches; they were just ordinary folks who, starting from nothing, earned themselves ordinary, comfortable lives. But all of them believed that you are limited only by your imagination and desire. In the country they were born in, migrated to, and fought for, this was true. I hope it remains true in the years to come. I'll have more words on that tomorrow.

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