THE ECONOMIC CHAMP--A LONG VIEW

I've read a number of related articles and mulled over something troubling my mind for several months. The disquiet and unrest that I couldn't vocalize has been too vague and unclear to put down in any ordered fashion. Last night, a snippet on TV about George Soros, the billionaire investor and currency trader, crystallized it. Mr. Soros was quoted as saying the enemy of capitalism is no longer communism, if it ever was. The enemy of capitalism is capitalism. Contained within it are the seeds of its own destruction, and what is taking place in the world today may ultimately be incompatible with democracy.

I knew what he meant. He was referring to naked, dog eat dog, take no prisoners, one man wins and the rest lose, survival of the fittest capitalism. The subject ties in with the flight of manufacturing jobs to countries where cheap labor is abundant. Capitalism has as its principal purpose the maximization of profits. When producing something for sale, the goal is to make it as cheaply as possible within the boundary condition of offering a quality product. In today's truly global economy, raw materials may be inexpensively shipped anywhere, machinery set up, and workers assembled and trained to operate the equipment. And that is what is happening.

The inhumane aspects of this process have recently been featured on television and in newspapers, and range from Kathy Lee Gifford's line of clothing being sewed in sweat shops, to soccer balls being assembled in India by child labor, to Nike shoes being manufactured in China with $2.00 a day labor. China has been blamed for a vast and growing trade imbalance, but in this case the profits were pocketed by Nike. Following the bad press that stuck to the people and companies involved, many or all of them have attempted to redress the most invidious complaints. Working conditions have been examined by independent consultants, and some type of minimum wage has been incorporated at those factories. Despite these reviews, manufacturing workers in low wage countries all over the world still toil for up to sixty hours a week, children less than 10 still work essentially full time jobs, and workers' wages are still a fraction of America's minimum wage.

Its effects are no better in America, where tens of millions of badly educated, largely unskilled, marginally employable people remain at or below the poverty level with little hope of ever rising above it. For the last two decades, they have subsisted on welfare supplements, but that former haven is being dismantled. Long term, their meager earnings will be further polarized, diverging from those of knowledge workers, and America will continue progressing toward a society of haves and have nots. Whether or not democracy can survive under such conditions is uncertain to me.

Theoretically, the problem is simple to remedy. All that must be done is to modify our educational system to enable students to work close to their knowledge potential. It requires teachers capable of both teaching science, math, and computer skills courses, and motivating our children to want to learn. In practical terms, it is insolvable. The home environments of nearly half our children are not scholastically focused, expectations are far too low, and the bulk of our teachers themselves lack the necessary hard knowledge and skills to teach that curriculum. All we can really do is to wherever possible direct our educational system to impart the necessary hard core learning our children must have to be employable in this modern, knowledge intensive world. The only practical solution that might work is to reform our capitalistic system by incorporating restraints to make it at least somewhat socially responsible. That is a tall order, and legislating such a modification would require a Solomon. A better answer might be to suggest adopting business practices that are tempered by ethical considerations. My suggestions are so ludicrously mealy-mouthed I hesitate to even write them, but my gut feel is unless American businesses develop a social conscience the system will fracture within two decades.

It seems hard to believe, but there are stalwarts who insist the results of global capitalism, though they be hard, are the way the system is intended to work. Survival of the fittest is nature's way of weeding out the weak and inefficient, much as lions, leopards, cheetahs and other predators cull out old, lame, and sick antelope from herds on Africa's Serengetti Plains. By analogy, they maintain, capitalism is nature's way of rewarding intelligent, perceptive, bold, and predatory human beings at the expense of people unable to cope with modern economic life. The strong devour the weak. If logic and reality were the grist of life, they would be right, but I do not believe homo sapiens is a cannibalistic species. We are herd creatures, joined in loyal social groups for mutual advantage and protection. Though we compete fiercely with one another we have compassion, and do not abandon other humans, in particular our young, to hunger, poverty, and disease. Those who do lack a soul.

How one reconciles man's basic social nature with the cruel economic jungle in which we live is a paradox. Our intellect, drive, and hard work have created an immensely sophisticated, specialized, and technologically driven culture that subverts the herd instinct origins which enabled our survival. It is mankind at conflict with itself.


Sam Orr sorr@metrolink.net
World Traveler
and Philanthrope
(Location Unknown)