Mean Money: Why Capitalism Doesn’t Work Without Compassion
“I think people should be allowed to reap the benefits of their hard work,” said one of my friends late last night in conversation, and I agreed. Capitalism as a system works better than any other. But unfettered capitalism, the reign of the free market? That leads nowhere good.
When even the most caring person acts in their capitalist role, all focus rests on the goal: making money. That’s what it’s all about. And concerns about things like ethical behaviour or human tragedy fall by the wayside when there’s a moneymaking opportunity. People don’t mean to be cruel and heartless . . . but, after all, they have a debt to the shareholders. If we’re not extraordinarily mindful of our choices, money can make us mean.
I’m not immune to the money sickness, of course. Mine usually manifests itself in the form of extreme miserliness: “you spent five dollars on socks???” Other people might experience extreme envy, panic and anxiety, or harshly judgmental feelings. And many people don’t have a very strong awareness of how their money reactions affect them or their relationships to other people.
But here’s something to think about: five things nobody tells you about being poor, and about how brutally hard it is to escape from a life of poverty once you’ve fallen into it. I’ll warn you: it’s from Cracked.com, so it’s expressed pretty crudely (read: unpleasant sexual metaphors for the ways capitalism punishes the working poor for their lack of funds). For those who’d prefer to forego such colorful metaphors, allow me to summarize:
- The Bank-Balancing Act: It’s almost totally necessary to have a bank account in the modern economy, but unless your account planning is impeccable, bank fees can deplete your pay. And if you refuse to get a bank account, you need to get your paycheques cashed by some other business . . . which can deplete your pay.
- Mandatory Credit: If you decide to avoid the potential for bad credit by refusing to buy things on credit, you essentially have bad credit. There’s no opting out. No one will trust you unless you have a good credit history laid out for people to see, even if you know yourself well enough to know it’s a bad way to handle your money.
- You Can’t Save Without A Surplus: It’s impossible to save for a rainy day, because there’s always a huge money-draining event that comes to suck up your savings. And usually it involves missing some work, which makes it harder to get them back.
- Cash Advances: Because it’s impossible to save, in emergencies you may need an advance on your paycheque just to survive, which can land you in a formidable financial hole. You may get gouged by interest, but one way or another, you’ve still got to pay the bills somehow.
- Work Sucks: That’s not in the sense that people are lazy and hate having to work, but in the sense that most jobs are low-wage, part-time, and benefit-free. That means no continuity in hours of work, no compassionate or sick leave, and no health coverage if you fall ill (see #3.) So for many people, work sucks in the literal sense of ‘suck’, like how leeches suck – it takes all your time, energy, and resources while giving the host little more than the bare bones of survival, and that only because it’s necessary for the leech to survive. Gotta love leeches. And conservative “leech” metaphors turned inside-out.
I’ve often heard it said that people are poor because they’re lazy and unmotivated, but for the working poor in North America, that’s not the case. These people are poor because, increasingly, the jobs that went to teenagers trying to save up money for a new car are becoming lifelong careers for those who can’t find anything that pays better or offers more stability.
Perhaps, you might say, they could get more education – but that means more debt, and there’s no way to pay it if your chosen field of study doesn’t yield a plum career any time soon. As part-time, low-wage, and contract work increases, that’s the reality for more and more university graduates, even people who got practical degrees like science or law. So we’re left with employers like McDonald’s and Wal-Mart, jobs that can’t guarantee any given level of hours or income and will leave you with nothing in a time of crisis.
Pull yourself up by your bootstraps? Not so easy if you can’t afford any.