The Bitter Logic of Capitalism

My Mom and Dad both worked in the candy factory in my hometown.  They knew the demands of hard work and low pay
My Mom and Dad worked in the candy factory in my hometown. They knew the demands of hard work at low pay

A friend of mine knew the big wigs at a leading manufacturer of agricultural equipment back in the late 1960s.  He recalls reading an article back then in the Wall Street Journal about the company being sued for the deaths of farmers.  The gas tanks on some of their tractors were exploding because they were on top of the engine and could overheat.   My friend recalls walking in to the office of the chairman and CEO of the company and asking him if as a result of the case they were relocating the gas tank.  The CEO replied they were not because that would be more expensive than fighting and settling the lawsuits.

That’s the logic of capitalism in a nutshell.  The bottom line has no ethics.  If you can save more money by settling lawsuits rather than reconfiguring an unsafe design, why not do so?  A few maimed or dead farmers is a small price to pay for added profit.  Right?

My father told me a similar story about the lack of empathy the rich have for the little people of the world.  In the 1940s my dad worked grueling shifts in a candy factory, where conditions were as demanding as the pay was low.  Several of the guys got together to demand a raise from the owners.  When the time came to approach the owners, some of the guys lost their nerve, but not my dad.  He told the owners that he deserved a dime per hour pay raise.  The owners agreed to a nickel, followed by another nickel bump in the future.  My dad agreed.

A month later one of the owners told my dad that the nickel pay raise was really stressing the company.

As my dad ruefully observed to me, all of the owners died millionaires.  For my dad, the moral to the story was “That the rich have no sympathy or use for the poor.”  That could stand as the moral to both of these stories.

Capitalism may be a great way for a lucky or plucky few to make lots of money, but its calculus is often bitter to those on the receiving end of its flawed products and feeble wages.  And if you don’t believe me, just ask all those fast food workers looking for a fair shake in today’s economy.  Or all those minimum wage workers running hell for leather in huge fulfillment warehouses to meet the needs of Amazon.com.

The rich may have no sympathy or use for the poor, but the rest of us need to hold the big wigs to account, else the legacy of uncontrolled capitalism will continue to be bitter.

W.J. Astore

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