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Capitalistic U.S. can use help at times

The political divide in America has expanded to include heated debate over the virtues and vices ascribed to two economic systems. The right rails against the socialists (conflating them with communists), while the left cries out against the abuses and injustices attributed to the super-wealthy corporate capitalists.

The rap on Socialism as a government system has been that it is not sustainable partly because humans naturally assume and exert power and privilege over others. And even if some kind of utopian sharing-of-wealth was feasible, the obligatory “equality” in local communities would mean same-ness, which is tantamount to mass mediocrity and dullness of creative spirit (see Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron”). It is a government of (over) all the people by some of the people which, ultimately, is not for the people. Moreover, the inability to compete with other nations would result in a vacuum to be readily exploited by radicals and zealots who thrive within social unrest.

The argument against Capitalism, with its disdain for governmental or moral authority, is that it is ultimately doomed because it begs the worst of human instincts: greed, material value (the Golden Calf), vanity, covetousness, and wastefulness. It promotes a social system that is inherently oppressive in which one must have money to begin with to make more money. The competitive spirit of free enterprise is fueled by the “greed is good” mantra and facilitates corruption and manipulation of the law. Moreover, “progress” is dependent on producing and marketing more and more stuff, so much of which is wasteful of natural resources and harmful to the environment.

It is important to point out the obvious: America’s socioeconomic system comprises elements of both capitalism and socialism. The entrepreneurial, competitive spirit is alive and well, as evidenced by the fact that our universities still attract some of the most gifted young minds in the world. Businesses still compete for profit and international acclaim as they push the edges of technology and science. And, despite the numbing and dumbing effects of so much of our popular culture, America is still home to some of the greatest filmmakers, musicians, writers, and artists in the world.

America also ensures an underpinning of social responsibility in which government is obliged to guarantee social security, postal service, military protection, public education, roads and bridges, and some degree of guaranteed health care (insofar as hospitals and emergency doctors cannot turn legally away patients).

The public sector also provides numerous safety nets for people in need. Despite the controversy surrounding abuses of our welfare system, we as a nation understand that some folks are less fortunate than others. It should be noted that concern for the welfare of others is more than a piece of American legislation; it is a moral principal of all major world religions.

In a comic effort to de-mystify the magic of money making in America, Father Guido Sarducci of Saturday Night Live once defined a college business course as something to be mastered in one simple stroke: you buy something for one price, and you sell it for more. To give capitalism its due nuance, I might add that if there ain’t much of something, people will pay a lot for it, and if there is too much of it, they won’t pay much. Therein is the art of the deal.

The real magic here is often a kind of sleight-of-hand: the mind-bending advertising that fuels the engines of consumerism.

On the other hand, there is an old saying that reminds us of the perils of socialistic complacency. To paraphrase (and embellish), if we give a man a fish, he will eat for a day (and expect us to feed him tomorrow). If we help a man learn to fish, he will eat for a lifetime (and enjoy the art of fishing).

We should know by now that we Americans are both socialists and capitalists, and a great deal of goods and services provided to us comes from the collaboration of the public and the private sectors. The real debate should be about whether certain goods and services are best delivered through private businesses, government agencies, or a hybrid version of the two.

To illustrate: From the capitalist perspective, it is true the quality of health care greatly improves when drug companies and other scientific researchers compete to produce better treatments, when doctors are paid based on their accomplishments and the quality of their work, and when hospitals vie for the best doctors and technicians.

The same cannot be said for health insurance companies. They do not create better treatments or new technology. They don’t perform surgeries. Rather, they complicate the system, competing as middlemen — agents, managers, ad-men, and executives who move money around in order to profit. An expanded Medicare program would simplify the process and distribute basic health care more efficiently and equitably.

Pete Howard is a Dunkirk resident, a musician and a teacher of English Language Arts at Northern Chautauqua Catholic School. Send comments to editorial@observertoday.com

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