Ep 33: Ike The Barber

Communism has evolved.

Remember the old Soviet system?  It crashed in 1991.  In place of markets, Soviets used quotas, fashioned by committees.  Never mind what citizens actually wanted—or needed—stuff was chosen for them by bureaucrats, instead.

Of course, when the price system is undermined, disastrous consequences may follow.  For the Soviet system, economic and political revolution was among the outcomes.

Suppose—a few decades ago—you were managing a tractor factory and your bureaucrat uncle sat on a committee, making production decisions you resented.  If you could get him to change course, then your factory’s situation—even your situation—might improve.  Tragically, however, any favorable outcome you might experience, could come at the cost not only of tractor overproduction, but even, also, automobile underproduction.

Bad allocations certainly were the Achilles heel of seven decades of Soviet mismanagement.  But wait; there was even more bad news.

Suppose, to forestall shutdown of your factory, you raid its finances and pay off your relative.  Now, tragically, on top of misallocations, your factory’s problems are exploding more seriously than ever before, to include fraud, corruption, even tyranny.

Is there a way Marxists can save themselves from failings such as these?  Well, actually, Chinese communists have moved beyond where the Soviets were.  Consequently, the Chinese have become much more successful, economically.

Probably you don’t remember any world-class corporate brands associated with the Soviet Union.  That’s not the case for China, however.  Think of Alibaba, or Haier or Lenovo, or a host of others.

Let’s recap the primary difference between these two “flavors” of communism.  Simply put, while both eschew democracy, the Chinese embrace markets.  So long as their system determines politically, what is to be made, then their market economy generally is quite good at determining how it will be distributed and how it will be produced efficiently.

Trade and political tensions aside, does this mean our U.S. system and the Chinese system are moving somewhat closer together?  Perhaps.

Ike, who cuts my hair “just right,” is a “go-to” source to learn about what Christian conservatives may be thinking.  Recently, he weighed in on a crucial question, unleashing what follows.  How did he come by it?  Perhaps, initially, it came down from his pastor, seasoned with ample conversations with parishioners, customers, family members and friends.  No doubt the Internet played a crucial role, also.

Remember, from the Bible, Israel for a time had kings?  Do you remember righteous King David, Ike asks?  Well, perhaps America now needs someone to direct us, not unlike the good King David.

Wow!  Time to discard our democracy…to the dustbin of history?  One wonders.  In the meantime, I’m searching for a less authoritarian, more constitutionally-grounded hair dresser.  Hopefully when I find them, they will also cut hair as brilliantly as Ike!

So, here’s the point.  So much rides, not just on how we are doing today, but upon how succeeding generations will be doing, tomorrow, next year, the following millennia.  To move toward a beneficent future, a myriad of planning and funding decisions must be made, such as what our society shall make; that is, how much our society shall allocate to things such as medical care, higher education or retirement.  Will we fund and build vastly more miles of super highway, for instance, or will America move, instead, toward greater reliance upon public transit?

This is where the economic also becomes the political, and vica versa.  If we go down the pathway Ike is favoring, Chinese-style totalitarianism could be in the offing…could be the way of the future for large decisions effecting coming generations—impacting irreversible choices we will be making for those who follow after us.

What might we offer—what cost might “we the people”—be willing to bear—to forestall such totalitarianism?  For me, it rides, literally, upon words from a bumper sticker favored by many military veterans.

Freedom, the sticker admonishes, really isn’t free.

From Boulder, Colorado, this is Jim Sawyer for Capitalism in Crisis Dot Org.

Ep 32: FUNDAMENTALISM, American-Style

Let’s get down to basics.  The Washington swamp must be drained, NOW.

Sound familiar?  Right out of Donald Trump’s play book?

Right out of father’s play book, also.  Throw the bums out; in the Sawyer household was a familiar refrain.  Fundamentalists like Buss reduce Technicolor-like complexity, to black and white simplicity.  The only thing in the middle of the road, they bluster, is a yellow stripe.  Yellow symbolizes cowardice, of course; cowardice to take a principled stand.

Post-Nine-Eleven, this is the logic George Bush used to bully nations into compliance with his war agenda.  If you’re not with us, then you are against us.

Popular in Trump-style politics is imagery linked to Flight 93.  The morning of 9-11, doomed passengers wrested controls from terrorists, then diverted the high-jacked plane to ultimate catastrophe in a Pennsylvania field.  Their heroism forestalled a direct hit on the White House or Capitol Building.

In this Alt-right analogy, urgency is the fundamentalist’s byword.  Act NOW.  This is YOUR last chance to save America for “real Americans.”  Be a hero.  BE a heroic passenger on Flight 93.

Fundamentalism, writ large.  This is how political fundamentalism works, American-style.

Little difference exists between religion and politics.  Whereas Buss hated the Mormon Church, at some deeper level, fundamentalist thinking actually connected him to orthodox Mormons he loathed, in overlapping views of how the world is believed to work.

Organization politics, of course, play a huge role.  So also does authoritarianism.

To illustrate, a hypothetical, right-leaning church sets increasing Sunday School attendance as a measurable performance objective, to stand in place of a much squishier goal of saving souls.  If the objective is met, it is believed, then parishioners assume their church is meeting its goal; it is saving souls.

Sometimes truth is stranger, even than fiction.  What follows actually occurred at a Northwest medical clinic.  Physicians called an organization retreat, then lined up around the goal of experiencing joy—the joy of practicing medicine.

But how might they know if they are attaining joy?  Here’s how.

As the retreat lurched to conclusion, someone proposed physician income as a surrogate—as the objective—to stand in place of the much-squishier goal—finding joy through their medical practices.

Higher salaries would distinguish this physician group.  Not only would they be wealthier, but happier in their joyful pursuit of the joyous practice of medicine.  In every way they would surpass their peers.

Stranger than fiction?  Nope.  Often, organization politics are mystifying.

What does all this mean?  Stay tuned.

From Boulder, Colorado, this is Jim Sawyer for Capitalism in Crisis Dot Org

Ep 31: Old Men Like Me

Buss was a complex character.

I eavesdropped on father as we were closing our neighborhood store—the night before Christmas—marking the end of the busy shopping season.  Just then a man entered, distraught, and engaged Buss clumsily.  Next, spontaneously, he exploded in tears.

With a large family, he couldn’t afford presents for his kids.  Disabled and unemployable, he sobbed, there was little help—then—for families in his circumstance.

Grasping a large bag, together the two men moved thoughtfully from shelf to shelf, selecting multiple presents for each child.  No charge, of course; just big smiles all around as the distraught man exited into Christmas eve darkness.

I’d seen Buss do similar stuff before, spontaneously, and I wondered why he was so low key; perhaps to avoid mother’s wrath.  Our family lived far too close to the edge, financially.  Charity makes sense, Melba would have snapped, only when you pay your own bills, first.  Too often, bills went unpaid.

No doubt, mother harbored bitter memories of Buss’s failed attempt to help Betty and Jack.  An old friend, Jack had been hired by Buss during father’s brief stint as encyclopedia sales manager.  Later, Jack spiraled into alcoholism.  Betty, with no career skills, coped alone.

Even as a second-grader, I remember Betty coming to Sawyer’s Variety Store, weeping.  She had no money, she told Buss, to feed her kids or pay the rent.  Reluctantly, he co-signed on Betty’s loan, then picked up one more heavy burden when she defaulted.  Co-signing contributed, no doubt, to bankruptcy.  As with Donald Trump, it happened to Buss more than once.

As a middle-schooler, I stressed about family finances.  Was it fair for Buss to co-sign for Betty, then later declare bankruptcy?  When Buss gave away Christmas toys, I wondered, was he giving away stuff belonging to whomever he owed and could not pay?

Adolescent angst—percolated—then, eventually, blossomed into career choices favoring economics, even moral philosophy.

Always, I am appreciative of Buss’s tutoring, gained while working alongside him at our little store on 26th Street.  I lament, however, how his contemporaries—along with him—too often act contrary to needs of those who depend upon them.

Indeed, I ponder—now, as then—shouldn’t politics and economics lead old men like Donald Trump—and me—toward planting trees in whose shade we will never sit?

From Boulder, Colorado, this is Jim Sawyer for Capitalism in Crisis Dot Org.

Ep 30: Jimmy The Communist

Mom, as she required I call her, was actually my paternal grandmother. At sixteen, a Texan, she ran off with a Missourian; Dad, as he required I call him. Today, George probably would be busted for carnal knowledge—even child rape. He was five years Nora’s senior.

First they ran to turn-of-the-century Cheyenne where Nora lost Flossy, her infant daughter, in that very untamed place. Next stops included Tacoma and Seattle. Finally out of desperation, George took a job neither wanted in a place neither wanted to be. He became lard-maker for a meat packing plant in Ogden, Utah, even as they vowed to escape Mormon Country as soon as their economic fortunes improved.

Escape never happened. Eight decades later Mom followed Dad in death, still in Ogden, Utah. Love of place might be too strong, but among Nora’s last words were these. “You know, Ogden’s a pretty little town.”

Actually, Mormon country was a very mixed bag for them. In Ogden, Dad evolved into a successful merchant. Mom evolved into head reader—the leader of Ogden’s Christian Science Church. She bought motivating presents for her budding capitalist son. Among them was Buss’s collection of Ayn Rand titles.

Tragically, Nora’s flame extinguished—along with George’s—during The Great Depression.

Family stories abound. One, told by her, described how she accepted boarders to pay the mortgage and save their house from foreclosure. A water bill, among others, went unpaid many months, then two men showed up, located the shut-off valve and began the disconnect.

Suddenly Mom appeared on the massive front porch, shot gun in hand, loaded, cocked, aimed. “Turn that crank,” she yelled, “and I’ll blow your heads off” as she sighted down the barrel at the men’s faces.

She meant it; they backed off. As they climbed back into the truck, she followed, yelling that she ran a boarding house, that it was her family’s only source of income. Without water, she wouldn’t have boarders; couldn’t pay the mortgage; had no options; would end up in the poor house.

Mom became deaf as she aged, but never missed an opportunity to express love for me. In her eyes I could do no wrong. Heck, I might have mused; maybe she would continue to love me even if I was a communist. Even so, I hated how she always called me by my childhood nickname, Jimmy.

Once in her eighties, Mom asked me to sit close so she could hear better, during a family dinner. “So Jimmy,” she asked, “please tell me what it is that you do?”

I responded as clearly as possible: “Mom, I am studying to become an economist.”

“Well, Jimmy, could you please say that again?” she asked quizzically, with some pain in her face. I repeated, but Mom’s troubled look continued.

Again she asked, and again I answered that I was an economist.

Finally, Mom brightened and her love again showed through. “Well,” she mused. “We’ve never had a communist in the family before. But Jimmy, if that’s what you want to be, I’m sure you’ll be the best one, ever!”

Mom died a centenarian, still loving me and still believing her favorite grandson had become a communist. What a stretch for an acolyte of Ayn Rand!

From Boulder, Colorado, this is Jim Sawyer for Capitalism in Crisis Dot Org.

Ep 29: Take The Money and Run

In my family of origin, father did not consider it irrational–or unethical—to…act out…politically, contrary to long-term self-interest. Buss did so, repeatedly. It had profound consequences for his wife and kids, however.

Adam Smith, capitalism’s founder, was a moral philosopher, actually. He asked and answered questions about what constitutes moral behavior; both for individuals and for society.

Surely, Smith would have saluted an ancient Chinese parable that goes like this. The good society, it admonishes, is one in which old men plant trees in whose shade they will never sit. Smith, I think, would have encouraged Buss—indeed all of us—to pursue some shared sacrifice for the good of the whole.

Consider the narrative. At times, the parable admonishes, it becomes necessary to curtail one’s self-interest, to enable those who will come after us. Our children and our children’s children. Stewardship, if you will.

How often do you see people coming forward now, advocating shared sacrifice? Calling upon others for belt-tightening, today, so coming generations may live more abundantly, tomorrow?

Uncommon rhetoric, now, for sure. Why is that?

In contemporary America, the unbending pursuit of self-interest seems to be snuffing out willingness to accept healthy responsibility for others, especially for others who may be unlike us.

Donald Trump, developer and financier, operates from high-octane business strategies hell-bent on this: screw everyone who isn’t smart—or cunning enough—to get there ahead of him.

Given the chance, Buss would have been an Ayn Rand-style financier. He would have acted—then—as Donald Trump acts now. His mantra, I think, would have been: take the money and run. He might have liquidated forests, so to speak, and never looked back—introspectively—to consider unintended consequences.

Many voted for Donald Trump to even up the playing field as they understand it. Buss would have voted for Trump, also, in retribution against others—in his eyes—who cost him the American Dream. Now, as then, of course, his actions may have unintended, long-term consequences.

From Boulder, Colorado, this is Jim Sawyer for capitalism in crisis dot org.