Imagining a New Economic Model

On the auspicious occasion of my previous post having been my first/last foray – however shallow – into geopolitical issues, I feel compelled to point out that as much as possible I actually prefer to not describe my worldview in terms of the many convenient and familiar labels (political, religious or otherwise) typically used for such a purpose. This is not because I’m my own unique snowflake and how dare you try to fit my identity into one of your archetypal boxes? (Though, admittedly, my happening to have been born within – barely – most accepted definitions of the ‘Millennial’ era would theoretically normalize my taking such a stance.) It’s simply because to apply such labels is normally too reductive to be of any great value.

What I mean is that in a world where so many attributes would be more appropriately described by way of a continuum, the routine practice of bucketing those attributes into a small number of discrete groups has the necessary consequence (I think) of there remaining considerable diversity within the supposedly homogeneous buckets. The problem is worse when the thing that’s being bucketed is actually made up of multiple constituent attributes, each warranting its own continuum. Politics, while we’re on the topic, is the best example of this.

Canada’s political landscape is dominated by three parties; in the US, of course, that number is only two. But in considering all the things that actually make up a person’s so-called political leanings, in some ways it’s a wonder that people are even able to pick a bucket into which to slot themselves. What happens, for instance, to those who have conservative fiscal preferences but more ‘liberal’ social views? (This particular example is one that I can’t believe isn’t talked about more. I believe that, very often, if you were to intervene in a heated debate between two people allegedly falling on different ends of the political spectrum, you might find that they actually agree – or don’t strongly disagree – on huge portions of what falls under a government’s purview. Whereas one might derive her political identity primarily from fiscal matters and the other might be chiefly concerned with social issues, the two of them may hold each other in deep contempt on the mistaken presumption that they are opposed where it counts. I propose that the distinction between the two aforementioned key dimensions in particular be made very clear at the outset of any political debate, so that the involved parties – again, I can’t believe I have to make this suggestion – may at least be certain that they’re arguing about the same thing.)

So, if I am to choose labels for myself, I’m not usually comfortable in doing so. As this relates to politics: I’m sure that, to some extent, there are portions of my worldview that are consistent with views held by each of the major political parties in this country. Hell, the major parties themselves agree on more than they willingly let on. Religion works this way too, though you wouldn’t know it by looking at some of the ugliness caused by religious differences. (How about we start here?: Do we all agree that it’s better not to be a dick? Perfect. Don’t look now, but I think I may have just advanced humanity by a few centuries.) Sexuality is another interesting arena in which reductive labels have historically done a pretty poor job of accounting for everyone, as evidenced by the rapid evolution – even in just the last decade – of the language used to describe it.

I bring all of this up for two reasons:

  1. I want to talk about another intellectual construct whose bimodal nature in common conscience is – if you think about it – pretty reductive.
  2. I’m setting the table for my unwillingness to do any research to support any of what follows. The ability to offer an opinion without properly backing it up is always the beauty of having one’s own vocal platform, but in this case I want to introduce an idea that has the potential to be unnecessarily complicated by dictionary definitions of the key words I’ll use along the way. (Alas, simplistic labels continue to fail us.) This paragraph is cryptic, of course, but don’t worry – I’ll explain as we go.

The bimodal construct that I’m interested in exploring is that of ‘capitalism’ vs ‘communism’. I was most recently prompted to think about these concepts by virtue of a conversation had with a friend who had been following this blog. This was around the time that I first wrote about my Big Idea, symbolically cementing my exodus from White-Collar Purgatory – with the latter having produced writings riddled with underlying disquietude at the state of the corporate world.

This friend – in the cautious, gentle tone that one might reserve for the first visit to a loved one institutionalized by an outta-nowhere bout of psychosis – observed that it sounded like I had become disillusioned with the concept of capitalism.

[Here’s where I go back and explain the point labeled #2 above. In the discussion to follow below, as I was in the real-time conversation I had with my friend, I am working with my own interpretation of the concepts of capitalism and communism. That interpretation may not be 100% consistent with related dictionary definitions, economic literature or any other authoritative source. But while this would be problematic if my aim was to advance the literature on those very broad, well documented ideologies, it happens that that is not my aim. Instead, I would like to introduce – as the title of this post suggests – a new economic model; one that is necessarily informed more by my own interpretation of things than by, to my knowledge, any existing literature. Of course, it could absolutely be the case that my supposedly “new” concept is not new at all, but either way it’s new to me, so – gotcha – don’t call the title I chose inappropriate just yet. Good?]

Seated in the dive bar, drinking watery beer on a Tuesday night (true story), I contemplated my friend’s gentle inquiry: had I really lost faith in capitalism?…I don’t ask the question in that way because I’ve ever held dearly the idea of being a capitalist, but because the alternative – communism, presumably – comes with a whole lot of baggage that is easily observed: simply pay attention to the associations that run through your mind when you read the word. All things idealistic, impractical or worse. And if you’re thinking of the person holding such views – assuming you’re not picturing an active political revolutionary – then you’re probably imagining a stargazing hippy type who hasn’t bathed in a while.

I mean, if I were to identify as having communist beliefs, I like to think that I wouldn’t be ashamed to admit it. But in the bar, I wanted to make sure that if I was to own up to the label (ugh), I was prepared to accept that everything that comes with it.

Here’s what I decided: I’m not a communist. I like bathing too much for that distinction. (Kidding. Deepest apologies to my communist readers for that harmless joke which should not have offended you.)

So here’s where the New Economic Model (NEM) comes in, instead. If we consider (alas, my promised interpretations) capitalism to be a system in which goods and services are supplied by private enterprise and communism to be a system in which goods and services are supplied by government, then I am not at all opposed to the former. The problem of poor fit (of the familiar impression of a capitalist society with my own views) arises out of the things that tend to – needlessly, I say – go hand in hand with all that we know as “capitalism”. Things like enormous wealth and wealth disparity, in particular.

I won’t spend much time talking about communism from here on out; aside from confirming that I wouldn’t advocate for such a system (for reasons of practicality, mostly), I don’t have much more to say about it. Back to capitalism, though, and sticking with my (I repeat: my) definition of it, I would like to describe my NEM by decoupling from capitalism all of the things that are – in the real world – incidental to it.

What if, then, all of the most familiar companies in the world were not owned by (one or more) billionaires and/or a whole bunch of millionaires? Walmart, Apple, GM, GE, Amazon, Microsoft, Citigroup, etc. What if these companies all operated exactly the same way as they do, except that instead of by 7- or 8-figure executive compensation packages and shareholders of patently unnecessary wealth, they were characterized by owners/chiefs of comparatively modest wealth and – on the flip side – massive economic contributions to combating poverty, sickness, etc.?

Let me stop you right where you are: I know this will never happen. To be clear, my purpose in describing my NEM is not to suggest that it’s the wave of the future. It’s to point out that nobody even talks about it as an ideal (as some do with communism), or at least I’ve never heard such a discussion.

I’m picturing a universe (not this one) in which people start and run companies so as to maximize financial surplus (so far, so familiar) for the purpose of giving the money to people that need it (yeah that’s gonna be a no for me, dog). And I do mean need it – not in the “shareholder needs a 15% return to bolster his 10-lifetimes’ wealth” way.

In a sense, we’re right back where we started, because the basic model of enterprise that I’m describing is exactly what I laid out as my supposedly Big Idea. The difference is, now I’m imaging what the world would be like if this model was the norm: the extrapolation from Big Idea to Big Ideal.

The reasons for which the NEM will remain forever ideal – and nothing more – are obvious, mostly having to do with money as the familiar root of all evil. But – if we even need to spell them out – the limitations of the Big Ideal go farther than just greed: there’s the no-small-matter of fact that nobody would be motivated to even start a private enterprise in such a universe. I would be, and literally am, the first one to admit this.

But since we’re talking ideals here, I might as well clarify a couple of things about what I’m picturing – you know, so that we can both at least picture the same thing-that-will-never-happen.

  • In the NEM, there need not be zero wealth disparity. How about if the richest people in the world had $10 million to their name, instead of $100 billion? ($10 million is inarguably more than any human needs to live for the rest of their life, while probably even setting their progeny up nicely in the process. And if I have that number wrong, so what? Pick a different one. Just have it be less than $100 billion.)
  • Down the line from the multi-billionaires, those with – say – multiple millions need not be destitute. How about if those earning seven-figure salaries earned (even high) six-figure ones? And those who earn high six-figure salaries topped out at, oh, a quarter-million? Etc. But oh, also – in my imaginary universe, nobody earns below a living wage.

My guess? Such a universe would look pretty radically different…in a good way. I’d bet nobody starves there. Nobody is homeless. Disease looks different. Climate-change issues (sup, Leo) aren’t the same. Sure, maybe there are some complicating side effects (overpopulation?), but let’s deal with those when we get there, k?

My point isn’t that capitalism is ‘evil’ or that there is nobody who is both rich and helpful to people. (Much has been told of the generosity of Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and other billionaires whose charitable efforts far surpass the wildest dreams of me and the overwhelming majority of people.) In fact, this particular essay has nothing to do with the current state of the universe at all. I simply mean to imagine a different ideal, because I think the mental exercise of simply imagining may actually have practical value, in that it may be enough to disrupt – even just a little – the notions which we so unquestionably hold in the real world. If more people even stopped to consider, for an instant, how much money is ‘enough’ for a person to have, then maybe the idea of limiting one’s fortune in service of others wouldn’t seem so crazy. And then maybe the number of people actually pursuing the ideal would climb – from (essentially) zero to one, then two, then…who knows? And, hell, maybe they would even enjoy the ride.

So no, I’m not opposed to capitalism. If my definition is correct (economic system wherein private enterprise is used to meet consumer demand), then I’m actually squarely in favor of such a system. I just don’t think that all of the things that happen to go along with capitalism are necessary outcomes of it. And if that makes me fall somewhere outside the categorical and reductive ‘capitalist’ bucket, then so be it. ‘Idealist’, perhaps – but a guy can dream, can’t he?

At least so long as he bathes?

*****

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