Twinkies, Black Friday and contemplating capitalism

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Several times already this holiday season, my stepdaughter has asked whether her father or I will take her shopping on Black Friday.  Sadly for her, the answer is a unanimous, “No.”  It doesn’t seem that there’s anything specific she’s looking to purchase at a Black Friday sale.  She just likes the idea of sales, and apparently, there’s something exciting in her 11 year old mind about getting up at two o’clock in the morning to line up outside a store in search of bargains.Being the daughter of several professors and at least one liberal, feminist, Buddhist, sociologist is a lot to handle when you’re on the cusp of adolescence.  So I spared her the lecture that was forming in my head about the evils of capitalism and consumerism, a speech that would have culminated with the glories of community and buying local, and elected to save it for my blog instead. You’re welcome.

Charles Barsotti
Cartoon by Charles Barsotti

My stepdaughter’s interest in Black Friday is really just the latest manifestation of a new, and sometimes intense, concern with the acquisition of money and the buying of things.  She does chores around our house for which she receives a small allowance, but she is clearly–in her mind–coming up against the spending limits of that small allowance.  Her father and I are coming up against the limits of how many things we can find to realistically pay her to do around the house.

On the one hand, the concept that if you want things, you will have to work somewhat to get them seems like a good lesson to learn.  Of course, we buy her things, too, but it seems to me beneficial for a child to learn that not everything she wants will be magically provided.  The big lesson seems to be that earning money provides a kind of freedom that relying on others to get you things does not.  This lesson sounds much more disturbing written out on the page than it did in my head.  I’m teaching my child that money = freedom?  And yet, explaining to her that real freedom comes from non-attachment and learning not to want things seems like a lot to grasp at that age.

Next door, the regular wake up we would get at about 4:00 every morning when our neighbor heads out to deliver the bread is gone.  Amidst all the joking about Twinkies and Ho-Hos and Ding-Dongs, our neighbor finds himself suddenly without a job right before the holidays due to the demise of Hostess.  An older man who has worked hard all his life unexpectedly finds himself, through no fault of his own, able to sleep in.  And in a very real way, he has less freedom this week than he did before because he no longer has a job.

This, many economists would tell me, is just capitalism doing what it does.  Though Hostess executives blame the union for shutting down the company, this is their second trip through bankruptcy, indicating there were more problems than just labor costs.  Among the problems are changing consumer tastes.  A lot of people claimed to be upset about losing their Twinkies, even though not many of us have actually eaten a Twinkie for a long time.

So this is the invisible hand of the market at work.  As consumer tastes change, some companies go out of business.  Some things stop being made.  Some people lose their jobs.  It all makes sense in the abstract.  And in fact, as the Twinkie can be argued in many ways to be the epitome of what’s wrong with the way we eat, perhaps we should be cheering the downfall of Hostess.  It all sounds perfectly acceptable in the abstract.  Except that my neighbor lost his job.

I would like to teach my stepdaughter that there’s a value to working towards the earning of something, but that “something” doesn’t necessarily mean a pair of shoes.  I would also like her to understand someday that there’s often a kind of emptiness in the wanting of things.  But if I teach her to buy less, I’m hurting the economy.  Her budding acquisitiveness potentially keeps someone like my neighbor employed.  Parenting truly brings the complexity of the world into a harsh new light.

“So what’s the solution?” my students would ask at this point.  Or probably they wouldn’t ask, because compared to them, I’m a virtual Pollyanna, and so they actually would have already resolved themselves to the inevitability of the way things are.  But I believe there is never anything inevitable about the way things are.

Systems that create casualties as a part of their natural functioning seem just fine to most of us until we come face to face with one of those casualties in a way that makes it suddenly unacceptable.  Who cares that roads and cars kill millions of animals until it’s your pet?  Who cares that the operation of the free market economy inevitably puts people out of work until its your neighbor?  Or you?

Philosopher John Rawls suggests that if none of knew for sure that our pet would not be killed or that we would not be the one left without a job in the capitalist game of muscial chairs, the world might look very different.  Our ideas about what is “just,” Rawls argues, are deeply tied to our own expectations about whether or not we will ever be affected by the consequences of injustice. If you don’t believe you’re ever going to be unable to pay for health insurance, what do you care whether it should provided to everyone universally?

Rawls’ theory might help explain why the prevailing temperament in societies tends to get a bit more anti-capitalist in the midst of economic recessions and depressions.  Suddenly, large swaths of the population find themselves in those very positions in which they never thought they’d find themselves, and from that vantage point, everything looks a little less right.

I don’t know exactly what a better system would look like in regards to our economy, though I have my suspicions that it would involve less consumerism and a little more humanizing of economic transactions.  But I believe that we can do better than tolerate a system that causes such anguish, destruction and pain as a part of its natural functioning.  I have faith that the amazing ingenuity of humanity certainly makes it possible.  The important question is whether or not we find it desirable.

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