Friday, March 20, 2009


Sam Smith

Reading all the articles these days about the fate of capitalism and socialism brings to mind that Virginia good old boy, Jimmy Jenkins. Jimmy went to college on the GI Bill and bought his first house with a VA loan. When a hurricane struck he got federal disaster aid. When he got sick he was treated at a veteran's hospital. When he was laid off he received unemployment insurance and then got a SBA loan to start his own business. His bank funds were protected under federal deposit insurance laws. Now he's retired and on social security and Medicare. The other day he got into his car, drove the federal interstate to the railroad station, took Amtrak to Washington and visited Capitol Hill to ask his congressman to get the government off his back.

The typical columnist isn't much more consistent. I imagine that even George Will rides the Metro subway from time to time, but I've never heard him complain about it.

Artificial dichotomies are the curse of American culture. And having more education doesn't seem to help. In fact, that's where many of our leaders learned to slice life in two, thanks to the curious notion in our universities that theory is more important than reality.

In fact, we have all lived in mixed economies our whole lives. And that's a good thing, Find me one Marxist who really wants the government running his favorite bar. Or a free market advocate who has never voluntarily driven on a freeway.

Our difficulty in facing this simple fact, and the lack of assistance from professors and the media, is one of the reasons we have such a hard time at moments like this. The times are screaming for practical solutions but we can't cast aside our ideological assumptions long enough to let them occur. It's like going to an evangelist to cure one's cancer.

One of the best descriptions of a complex economy can be found in anthropologist James Acheson's book, The Lobster Gangs of Maine:

"The relevant social unit for most fisherman is not the fishing industry as a whole; it is the men fishing for the same species with the same gear in the same area. They share skills and a common knowledge of the means to exploit and market a certain product . . . Although they are direct competitors, lobstermen are the most useful people in one another's lives . . The men in each gang are involved in an elaborate dance-like interaction in which cooperation must be balanced with competition, secrecy with openness, and sharing with self-interest."

Step this relationship up a few notches and you have the guiding principle of a town that works. . . or a state. . . or a nation. The secret of any well functioning community is a similarly elaborate dance-like interaction.

Or consider a band that functioned in the tradition of free market principles that have so badly damaged our country. One musician decides to take more than his share of the glory, won't end his solo and won't back up others when they finally get their turn. How popular would such a group be? One musician's free market principles has destroyed everyone's economy.

Similarly, the personal selfishness and greed that have characterized America's cultural values over the past three decades have not only brought down some of the practitioners - from Bernie Madoff to AIG, they have ruined the show for everyone.

It is hard to overstate the damage not just in dollars but in the cost to our collective soul.

The way out of this disaster will not be found in justice for those criminally involved, necessary as that is. Retribution can compensate but it can't create.

What we need to do is to rediscover the decent, practice it and honor it. We need to teach the mass media to respect integrity as much as it does power, cooperation as much as it does competition, and community as much as it does profit.

Fortunately, we need go no further than our own national past to uncover things like how immigrants advanced personally while not forgetting those around them. Or no further than down the street to the business that wins the community's praise yet still does well. Or no further than the alternative economies in our already midst such as cooperatives and condos.

At its best, America was built on a complex blend of ambition with cooperation, respect, integrity and community. It wasn't built on a free market indifferent to such values or on state control indifferent to human aspirations. We need to rediscover the role of the decency in everything we do, including business, for only then will we really start to recover.