Things I don’t get about capitalism

I like money.

I like having it and what it can get for me and I certainly wish I had more of it.
It’s true that money can’t buy happiness. But I suspect it’s also true that, as the nearly as old saying goes, it can buy you the boat that will take you there.

I don’t think it can be argued that money makes life better. Gives you more options, frees you up in ways that being strapped for cash can’t. People who have better financial means have been proven to have healthier and longer lives than those who don’t.

This isn’t to say that people with money don’t have problems. Of course they do. They just have problems that richer people have to contend with. I heard about a psychiatrist who deals exclusively with wealthy clients, because they of course need help, too. One of his clients was sweating hard over where to store the yacht one particular winter. Now, people without anywhere near that kind of money may be playing the world’s smallest violin for this guy, but please do appreciate that while it’s a super exclusive kind of problem to have, it is a problem that someone still had to contend with.

Having said that, not needing to worry about making bank loan payments and no longer wondering if I can afford a nicer cut of meat for the family this paycheque, or needing to watch gas prices to try to fill up when it’s considerably cheaper, would be a nice change of pace.

But having money can of course get taken to extremes that just become gross excess. And in such situations, the vast bulk of working class people who are left behind to struggle with shopping sales on groceries or figuring out which bill will or won’t get paid this month, are — I think fairly — unhappy about the state of things. And that often seems to be because the obscenely rich are only getting obscenely richer at the expense of employees so often left warily eyeing their bank accounts between paydays.

What I’ve never understood, and still don’t get, is why it is that companies, let alone individuals, who have literally more money than they could spend in many of lifetimes are fine letting that wealth accrue while the people at the bottom of their corporate food chains are making minimum wage (and if they’re thinking about forming a union to demand more money and better working conditions, think again, because in comes the union-busting crew to squash those hopes). Even those in more middle class tax brackets aren’t making as much as they should.

Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon as well as owner of the Washington Post and the Whole Foods grocery chain, is, as of this writing, worth in the neighbourhood of $127 billion.

Let’s look at that more closely, because the magnitude of these numbers is sometimes lost on people. A billion is a thousand million. To put it in time terminology, a million seconds is about 12 days. A billion seconds is about 31 years.
I ran some quick numbers not long ago and concluded that Bezos could personally give every employee in Amazon, the Washington Post and Whole Foods $250,000 cash — a lifechanging amount of money for almost anyone on the planet — and he would still be a billionaire. And counting, of course.

Alternately, all his employees could get a hefty raise to make their lives considerably better long-term (even insane, unprecedented raises), and it wouldn’t affect Bezos’s lifestyle in the least. Well before you’re a billionaire, how quickly you earn tens or hundreds of millions of dollars more is purely academic. You’re lightyears beyond being okay. So why not spread the wealth around?

Yet, some portion of Amazon warehouse workers are having a hard time making financial ends meet, doing hard work in a full-time position. Amazon delivery truck drivers have been reporting recently that there’s so much pressure on them to be quick, they don’t have time to stop anywhere to use a washroom. Some are literally resorting to keeping bottles on their trucks to pee into. A complaint filed in the last year or so had a delivery truck driver who was taking shelter from a dangerous storm, who was told by her supervisor to get back on the road or she’d be written up and potentially fired for failing to do her job.

I mean… what?

To clarify, I don’t think Bezos should be denied wealth. Listen, he made the right kind of company offering the right things at the right time for the right price, and it’s taken off and is currently a global juggernaut. That deserves a fat income. But when you start accruing billions, when you’d literally be hard-pressed to spend money faster than you’re making it (using his worth rather than his actual income, numbers from 2021 worked out that his value increased at more than $2500 per second), it’s time to look around and see what good you could on a global scale with that kind of money. And it would go a long, long way to helping millions if not billions people.

Wal-Mart is another example of boatloads of money being made by the founder of the company (and in this case, his family), while it employs some people who should’ve been retired decades prior, standing all day at the doors greeting people and offering shopping carts. If you’re beyond retirement age and working at a minimum wage job, something somewhere has gone very wrong with your finances, and that bi-weekly paycheque is badly needed. Would you, dear reader, like to see some of Wal-Mart’s waterfall of money go to a family who can’t spend it fast enough — for whom it makes zero difference to their lives because hundreds more millions are coming every month — or instead divvied among people like the great-grampa offering you a Hello and a cart as you step into the store?

This is one of the things I don’t get about capitalism. I understand that there are going to be people who make more money than others. Sometimes a lot more. No problem at all with that. But when you make so much that you literally can’t spend it fast enough while the people working in your company, earning you that wealth, are having to shop grocery sales or work in dangerous situations just to eat and pay bills, something about the system is fundamentally broken.

I know a guy who worked in a major bank as a money manager. Fantastic at his job.
One day years ago I’d heard the news that his bank had made a lot more, into the billions of dollars more, that fiscal quarter than had been projected. When I met him later that day, I commented that he must have gotten a nice bonus from that windfall. And he told me frankly that no, he didn’t get anything from it. Because, as he explained, the bank was still behind what they had made by that point the year before.
So a bank, whose very business is making money and is already netting tens of billions of dollars a year, gets billions more than expected in a matter of months. Yet still the people working at the bank — without whom, the business of course simply doesn’t exist, whose work and efforts made that money happen in the first place — don’t get any of that glut of unexpected cash.


I mean, I get that the reason is because it will go to the stakeholders and stockholders in the bank, etc. I get that money is made in part to go to them for “owning” a tiny piece of the bank. But again, why not give something — Christ, anything — from a bump like that back to the people who are making that wealth happen for the business? The bank could’ve given the bulk of its employees a few hundred dollars, even a full extra paycheque, and it would still have way surpassed its projected earnings. You know how much that would mean to employees? You know how jacked up they’d be about that, how much better that would’ve made their lives (even if only briefly)? Maybe get them a quick vacation or a new phone or a computer or some newer clothes for the kids? Think of how much more they’d want to do for their employer moving forward, because higher performance means another bonus.

But no. Instead, it’s “Hey, thanks for making us a billion dollars more than expected. Now get back to work.”

I don’t get that.

There’s a writer’s strike happening in the North American entertainment industry, wherein the Writer’s Guild members are asking to get paid more (their average wages have gone well down recently), and where the industry bigwigs are deciding that such a request isn’t feasible.
Online information as of this morning determines that the entertainment industry has lost more money in the last three weeks of the strike than they would’ve paid Writer’s Guild members over three years. An industry worth hundreds of billions of dollars won’t pay a fundamental part of that industry a livable wage, and is so determined to not budge on that stance that they’re ending up paying out way more money than they would’ve had they just agreed to the union’s requests.

Ladies and gentlemen, capitalism in action: “The business, and only the business, gets they money. The workers don’t.” We’ll just wholly ignore the fact that right now this approach is actually losing us money. Don’t think if something makes financial sense, just at all costs (literally), don’t give workers more, because dammit, that’s what the playbook says to do.


Then there’s the age-old capitalist take that if a company isn’t growing, it’s dying.


I don’t have any background in economics, and it’s dead easy to disprove that one: Any company anywhere can only get so big and sell to so many people. It doesn’t matter what you sell, from food to soap to furniture to entertainment to cars to vacations… there’s going to be a limit to how much you can earn because there’s a limit to how many people will want or need (or can afford) whatever you’re selling. That’s the reality of it. So for anyone to sincerely believe that their company can — nay, should — be doing double-digit percentages better year-over-year is sheer delusion.

And companies also don’t seem to take into consideration why sales may be down one year from another.

I have a friend who works in a big company. Online sales were up for the company during Covid lockdowns because of course no one could go anywhere, so more money was spent ordering stuff online. Then the lockdowns ended, and rather than understanding that, “Hey, now that people can travel again, and spend money elsewhere, maybe online sales will drop”, it was quite the opposite: Online sales were still expected to go up from the previous (lockdown) year.

Um… what?

I’m in a similar situation. I work in the province’s liquor store distributor. During Covid lockdown, sales were high because no one could travel anywhere, so hey, might as well grab some wine and stay at home and watch more TV. But even once the lockdowns lifted, sales were expected to beat lockdown numbers.

The how and why isn’t considered. Just make it happen or the company is failing.

The people in these businesses saddled with having to ensure that sales are higher this year than last year, the poor saps, will literally have their jobs — their very livelihood — at risk if the company doesn’t perform up to these ridiculous numbers.

Are these practical business decisions that weigh the facts? Or are they severely misguided, thanks to cleaving so closely to falsely created targets made by the nature of a system in which your company must improve on last year’s numbers, come hell or high water, or it means you’re failing as a business?

If I had a company where my workers were paid a good wage (and in my company, you can bet your ass they would be; I couldn’t live with myself earning wealth while people making me that money were struggling financially), and where I was clearing… I don’t know…$100K a year, I’d be ecstatic about how business was going. My employees are doing well for themselves, I’m making more money that I ever have or thought I would… wins all around. If the company kept going that way, I’d be just fine with it. If we gradually did better financially, great. I’d ensure that we all did better financially as a result, because they’re the ones making us do better, and they should earn more, too. But would we need to do demonstrably better year after year? Absolutely not.

Capitalism would disagree. It would say that if my business wasn’t growing, it’s dying. But if you think for a moment that I’d start buying into sales routinely needing to be up by X% over last year because someone decades ago decided that’s how capitalism just works, think again. I could make more than I ever thought I would, and my employees would be earning money they’re happy with, and the company and its stakeholders (if that was a thing) could still be making money.

That can happen, and it damn well should be happening. You can have a hierarchy of money earned — no problem with top dog CEO and company founder making more than anyone else — and not need it to be billionaires continuing to earn billions a year while their employees work extra hours just to pay rent and use coupons so they can buy food.

I like money. And I know that capitalism is widely considered to be the best way of making it. But there are better balanced, practical, and importantly, ethical, ways it could and should work.

I’m not sure what category that puts me in, what label all that opinion makes me. If there’s a socioeconomic term for it, let me know in the comments, along with anything else you’d like to share.

1 Comment

  1. Sounds like today’s capitalism is like Dickens’ Scrooge — the more he has, the more he scrimps, and the more he steps on his employees’ toes, using their penury to grow his own heaps of wealth.
    An exception to this is a story I heard about Bill Gates, who reportedly gave away all but 10% of his wealth. (I know, I know, I watch far too much TV!!) I was impressed!

    Another thing I heard, same “boob-tube”, was that employees who are contented with incomes, working conditions, and boss work more efficiently, more happily, and more productively — more wealth for all.

    I would like capitalism to start following the “treat-’em-better, get-better-results” kind of activity. Worker-lemons can get squeezed out.

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