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Thursday, October 1, 2009

Capitalism's Dulled Star

So I'm perplexed... how is it that perhaps the world's penultimate and foundational capitalist city – New York – is so appallingly disparate and poverty stricken? I mean, if capitalism is such a great system then why wouldn't its bright shining star be able to provide for all (or at least almost all)?

“The city and surrounding region had its share of grim news: The Bronx remained the country’s poorest urban county; the income gap in Manhattan was still higher than in any other county; and the poverty rate in Connecticut rose faster than in any other state.”

Nearly 20% of the city's people live in poverty. Obviously this is not abject poverty of African standards, but the word still means the same thing. “The state or condition of having little or no money, goods, or means of support; condition of being poor; indigence” (dictionary.com). This poverty also falls more excessively along racial, ethnic, gendered, and locality lines. Even Connecticut's poverty rate is almost 25% - a quarter of the population in poverty!! Think about it. Even the suburbs have risen to 20% there.

I would expect a great metropolitan region and socio-economic system to be able provide for all. But maybe that is really the biggest misnomer. The concept that a rising tide rises all ships, omits the concept that waves by definition still produce great crests and troughs, and also – in attempting to navigate the turbulent seas of a storm – many an overturned ship. This is the crux of our current situation, as the difference between rich and poor, the amplitude of these 'waves' is immense... “The median income among those in the top 5 percent was $857,000, and that group collected nearly twice the total income of those in the bottom 60 percent. The top 20 percent made about 42 times as much as the bottom 20 percent. Income disparities were higher in New York than in any other state.”

Think of the social implications here, of want and desire. If we all have nothing, there is no desire as there is no knowledge of something to want. And again, if we all have everything, there is nothing to want. Yet if some have and others don't, there is want, there is desire, and there is a motivation to have what one doesn't. Who is to say that this desire manifests itself cooperatively and peacefully? If the social system is predicated on cooperation and sharing of resources for all, this could be a functional distributive mechanism, however, if the system – as is that case with capitalism – bases its cultural norms on the self interest of individual actors and on satisfying wants and desires for one's self, competition, contention, and eventually conflicts arise. It is not about sharing, or working together, it is about working within the system enough to try to get yourself onto the crest – above the rest, not with the rest. The disparity of means is a great motivator, but is it for 'me' or 'us'? I think it is pretty safe to say that Capitalism – and its grand showcase in New York – are not about 'us', and they are not providing for all of 'us'. Rather it is providing for a few and suppressing most. Why is it that we believe in it so much as for it to be our greatest export? Capitalism is not the answer.

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