An Ode to Capitalism

I’ve been struggling with this for a while, and once again I find the best way to express and crystallise my thoughts is by – surprise! – writing them down.

Now, I’m a Seventies baby and an Eighties kid. I don’t know for generations, but I’m somewhere around the tail-end of Generation X[1]. I was raised by decent and honest Baby Boomer parents who provided me with everything. In a country where education and medical care and an assortment of other things cost a lot after tax, they paid for me. Don’t believe everything you read – mine was, and is, a life of incredible privilege.

[1] In fact, my brother and sister are ten and nine years older than I am respectively, and they are absolutely Generation X. My relationship with Generation X has always sort of mirrored my “oops here’s a new arrival who will always be the baby of the group” relationship with my siblings. And I say that without bitterness – it was a fine place to be.

I was also raised on the concept of an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work, and all the accompanying ideals of independence, honesty, contribution to society, and self-reliance. The idea that if you work hard, in short, you’re guaranteed success.

Okay, that’s not entirely accurate. My dad has always been a bit more pragmatic than that, and never sugar-coated the fact that I could work hard and do the right thing every day of the week and every week of the year, and still get screwed over. I’ve done my best to continue that up-front approach with my own kids because … well, let’s just say that out of all the parenting techniques I learned from my mother and father, that’s impressed itself on me as one of the more beneficial ones.

Anyway, here’s where it all gets a bit uncomfortable. Because it’s become obvious to me that, while I can comfortably subsist on the hard work and ethical behaviour I currently exhibit, it will never be enough to make me wealthy or successful by what are increasingly fantastical and old-fashioned standards.

And that’s alright. I consider happiness and quality of life to be far more important than fancy cars and luxury speedboats. And let’s keeep it real, the level of luxury I currently enjoy, and with which I will be well-satisfied for the rest of my life, is obscenely higher than the level most of the planet’s human population can ever hope for.

It’s just that, when it comes to money, I’m stuck between an ideological rock and an economic hard place.

I’ve got an ingrained disdain for people who ask for – or even just accept the offer of – handouts. I can’t shake the conviction that if I can’t afford something, it’s because I have failed to earn it. And yet each month, as we scrape through our power and utilities bills and car and house payments by the skin of our teeth and just hope no middling-to-major expenses pop up (they almost always do), I can’t help but feel bitter about how those basic quality-of-life expenses would be barely even a drop in the ocean to the Boomer Wealthy.

Another thing my dad told me once has stuck with me. When I went to school, he said, if you were thick, you left school and became a lawyer. If you were really, really thick, you left school and became an accountant.

Just think about that for a second.

Anyway, it’s always been obvious to me intellectually if not on an instinctive level, that of course “an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work” is a fairy story. Just because some people can live that fairy story doesn’t make it a universal condition. Equally, just because some people do live that fairy story doesn’t automatically delegitimise their hard work. Think about that for a second too.

There are millions – billions – of people, in the First World as well as the Second[2] and Third, who will never succeed by those measures. People who can barely even subsist. People who can’t subsist. No matter how hard they work and how decent and honest they are. Oh, and there’s also a lot of lazy freeloaders and whiny parasites out there, too, just in case you thought this minefield was going to be fucking easy to navigate.

[2] Did you know the Second World was actually a thing? You never really hear anyone talk about it, but it apparently refers (or referred) to former industrial Soviet states. Finland still isn’t one, though.

Even so, the idea that we all have the same opportunities and abilities, and anyone can thrive with the right attitude and enough hard work, simply does not hold water. Show me a rich and successful person who built themselves up from nothing by sheer elbow grease and true grit and the occasional tug on a bootstrap, and I’ll show you ten feckless sociopaths whose daddies gave them everything and who are now deluding themselves that they did it all themselves.

And even the opportunity to work hard and earn success is a matter of vanishingly minuscule odds and extraordinary luck.

I’m fortunate enough to live in a country where, yes, we pay a lot of tax and yes, our social services are as cumbersome as the lead actor in 2016’s Doctor Strange, but at least I don’t have to pay for my kids’ education and healthcare. How much of the USian (and to a lesser degree Australian and British) disdain for higher education, I wonder, is rooted in its expense, and therefore its perception as something reserved for upper class wastrels? Because I don’t see as much of that attitude here in Finland, except in the truly exceptionally fucking thick. And I simply don’t care about them. In give-a-fuck triage, the stupids get no fucks from me.

The same is also – bizarrely, somehow – true of healthcare, by the way. But these are tangential discussions at best.

Now, after this extended sociocultural philosophical preamble, I want to talk about a specific case. The case of our septic tank.

As I’ve mentioned, our household septic tank recently imploded, and buying a new one and installing it has been a massive undertaking. Massive, and expensive. It’s a series of expenses (pending final bill delivery and assuming a merciful instalment plan) that we can live with, but not without a certain amount of stress. And naturally, as a will-be-a-homeowner-in-a-few-more-years-after-the-mortgage-is-all-paid-off, I am all about paying for these upkeep expenses my own independent self.

My dad, in the interests of helping out and easing Mrs. Hatboy’s stress, has generously offered to help us cover the cost if it looks like being prohibitive. This payment will come as part of the estate that will pass to me and my siblings after Grandpappy and Grandma Hatboy shuffle off.

To put it in context, my parents (and my sister’s father-in-law) recently helped out my sister with high school fees for my nieces. That was expensive. I’m talking all-the-mortgage-and-car-payments, all-the-possible-home-repairs, septic-tanks-everywhere expensive. And that’s fine. My nieces are going to an expensive boarding school and private schooling costs a fortune in Australia. I’m glad the folks can help out, and – and this is the important thing – I don’t consider my sister as taking a handout or in any way getting something for nothing.

Leaving aside the whole question of inheritance as a bit grisly, what this basically means is that a private education for two students – an education my parents already paid for, tidily, for their three children, ie. me and my siblings – is now beyond the practical reach of a fifty-year-old citizen who has been gainfully employed all her adult life. My sister works, but she cannot afford to pay for this. Or she could, but – like the Finnish branch of the family and our septic tank – it would be a long, budget-reaming scrape to the finish line.

Yes, there are cheaper schooling options and yes, this is still a sign of privilege at work. That is a fact. But the bottom line is, the same product or service today is far more expensive than it was 40 years ago, and the wealth – and opportunity to gather said wealth – has pooled in the retiree demographic.

I’m still uncomfortable with my feelings of unworthiness and failure, for the fact that these sorts of bailouts are even a subject of discussion.

Did my dad work harder than me? Shit, probably. I have a pretty easy job. I work standard hours and while I do put a lot of effort in, it’s not particularly stressful. It’s not back-breaking or otherwise physical. Are those the criteria? I guess that’s another question. What is honest hard work, and how many of the world’s disgustingly wealthy have done it?

My dad took over his father’s company. That was a lot of work. He worked his way up, probably somewhat more softly and with more advancement opportunities than non-owner’s-offspring employees, but still. He did the grunt work, and he earned his place. He retired (at pretty much the age I am now, goddamnit that’s another thing) when I was still basically a kid so I don’t remember much about his work, but he seemed well-liked and popular, and he involved himself with the messy stuff as well as lounging around the head office[3]. He was a decent and honest boss who gave a fuck, and you can’t ask for much more than that.

[3] When I think about my after-school visits to the office, mostly on those rare occasions mum was doing something else and dad had to pick me up from school and then take me to work instead of dropping me home, I remember shades of brown, leather chairs, a printer with one of those huge continual paper-reams in it with holes down the sides, and the smell of cigarettes. There you go, some patented Hatboy Nostalgia™ as a reward for reading so far.

Perhaps critically, he was following in his father’s footsteps. Was that something he wanted to do, or was it just his obligation as a son? It’s something I have never asked him, and I think I will next time we’re hanging out.

Because I’m doing what I love, and what I am good at, even if it doesn’t pay all that well. I’m following my star, to Finland and technical writing and independent publishing and beyond. I wouldn’t have wanted the helm of P. Hindle & Co if it was offered to me. If my dad was doing it because it was his passion and his calling, then all power to him. It left him the weekends to surf and the holidays to ski, and as far as I know those have always been his stars. I’ll accept a certain dip in economic success as the price of doing what I want like a big spoiled entitled Generation X baby.

But all of that aside, answer this honestly: Did my dad work and suffer and strive ten thousand times more than I do?

Because that’s the ballpark of our economic disparity. When he finished his professional life, he sold the company and the property it occupied in the centre of the city that had essentially grown up around it since my grandfather’s day. So it wasn’t all hard work, unless you count that sort of sale as reaping the fruits of one’s labours. I won’t disagree with that. When I retire (in another 20 or 30 years), there will be no business or property to sell. Because that wasn’t the path I took.

Of course, “effort” is impossible to really quantify, or even formulate criteria for quantification. But you don’t need to be able to put a number to the concept of hard work to know that it’s impossible for a single human being’s productive worklife to be ten thousand times greater than another’s.

I know there are people – the heartbreaking and overwhelming majority of people, in fact, worldwide – who work far harder than I do, by any measure. And they will never have a fraction of what I pretend to have earned through my work ethic and civic responsibility and honesty. They will never have my wealth, my food, my home, my family life, my education, my health (or healthcare when my health fails, for that matter).

The world is full. There is exactly the same amount of resources in it as there was, but twice as many people and orders-of-magnitude more pressure to succeed. We can’t just go to another country and buy a block of land on the edge of a growing town, and expect it to be city-central property for our children to sell. That opportunity no longer exists[4]. My daughters will not be able to depend on anything I own being worth enough to see them through, although it’s just possible that their grandparents’ wealth will still benefit them. God knows it seems to be more than I can envision ever needing.

[4] And don’t even get me started on my line of work back in my father’s and grandfather’s day. Authors in the 1950s could basically write any old trash and get published. I could have been a fucking megastar. But now the old masters sit around and tell themselves that they landed publishing deals and agents by being good writers. That’s a whole other area of Boomer privilege that we don’t have time to get into.

There is no “entitled” here. There is no “earned” or “deserve”. Everyone is entitled to this abundance of wealth, resources and opportunities, and nobody is. Those who have it, have explained their good fortune in various ways, so they can sleep at night. Yes, they’ve justified it – and that’s not really their fault. It’s a necessity. Selfishness – to one’s self and one’s family and one’s tribe – is an inherent part of human nature. I might feel bad about how much I have, but no matter how little I have, someone will always have less. And far too many people will have nothing. I will redress that as much as I am able, but selfishness has a billion years of evolutionary impetus so don’t expect its braking distance to be small.

The fact that all humans are the same – that they all have the same basic rights and should all have the same privileges and opportunities – and the fact that this is self-evidently not the case in a class- and race-separated global civilisation, is a fundamental dichotomy that has no practical reconciliation.

All the Dude ever wanted was a big tank to shit in.

About Hatboy

I’m not often driven to introspection or reflection, but the question does come up sometimes. The big question. So big, there’s just no containing it within the puny boundaries of a single set of punctuationary bookends. Who are these mysterious and unsung heroes of obscurity and shadow? What is their origin story? Do they have a prequel trilogy? What are their secret identities? What are their public identities, for that matter? What are their powers? Their abilities? Their haunted pasts and troubled futures? Their modus operandi? Where do they live anyway, and when? What do they do for a living? Do they really have these fantastical adventures, or is it a dazzlingly intellectual and overwrought metaphor? Or is it perhaps a smug and post-modern sort of metaphor? Is it a plain stupid metaphor, hedged around with thick wads of plausible deniability, a soap bubble of illusory plot dependent upon readers who don’t dare question it for fear of looking foolish? A flight of fancy, having dozed off in front of the television during an episode of something suitably spaceship-oriented? Do they have a quest, a handler, a mission statement, a department-level development objective in five stages? I am Hatboy.
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15 Responses to An Ode to Capitalism

  1. Well said. It’s a very complicated question and yet, at the same time, it isn’t. Because ten thousand, and because retired at the age you are now. Because if you love your kids equally you’d equalize the inheritance. Just saying, in case there are any wealthy parents reading this. Yours, mine, or any others.

    And further in case those people are reading this, maybe it makes sense to lay all this out. Is it helpful to walk your dad through his life compared to yours, at least the main points? Because looking at it from this far away, it seems to me eminently rational that he consider himself lucky. And whether he passes that luck on to his kids while alive is up to him, but he has ALREADY passed that on to one of his kids.

    And so far he’s going to “help” with the septic work “if” it turns out to be really costly? Only if?

    Again if you rich parents are listening, honestly what the fuck?

    • stchucky says:

      Heh, not exactly what I was aiming for (was really just a series of assumption-free ramblings and half-thoughts), but the sentiment and support is deeply appreciated!

  2. dreameling says:

    What’s your take on capitalism as an economic system? Good, bad, somewhere in between? Worthy of a genuine ode? (I’m asking sincerely. My feelings about it have gone back and forth over the years, hand-in-hand with the development of my wealth and understanding.)

    • stchucky says:

      It’s great if you’re wealthy and fortunate. Not so much if you’re not. If we could be brutal enough to wipe out 75% of the population it would probably work fine and the automation we currently enjoy could become full-fledged post-scarcity, but that’s not going to happen.

      So what (Finnish, USian, Australian) Capitalism really is, is end-state failed Socialism / Communism, with an illusion of everyone having an equal share and benefitting from social programs, where in reality a corrupt and wealthy elite have taken the vast majority of resources for themselves and are living in grotesque luxury at the expense of the ignorant who have been sold the fantasy of ever being able to make it into that circle by hard work.

      • dreameling says:

        That went dark fast.

        For my money [1], I like capitalism and the free market. In principle. I like to own shit. I like to buy shit. I really like to buy even better shit with more money. I like that we have competition. It’s a good engine for progress. I like that we get to vote with our wallets for the best shit (products, services, solutions). Which is to say it would be nice if it actually always really worked like that.

        What I don’t like is unfettered capitalism and a fully free market that reward predatory behavior (selling genuine shit but still making a profit) and that allow a tiny rich elite to exploit the rest, leaving us with ever more inequality.

        Which is I guess is why I’m a social democrat.

        I don’t get that “end-state failed Socialism / Communism” part, since we’ve never been socialist/communist states, but I can’t really argue about the corrupt and wealthy elite. As to the illusion, I think that in a capitalist economy it’s generally understood that there’s no “equal share”. The carrot is that you can increase your share through work (even though it obviously doesn’t always pan out like that). But there’s at least a decent base share that a state could provide for everyone, and we’re clearly failing there, some more than others.

        [1] Haha!

      • stchucky says:

        I mostly agree with that.

        I wasn’t implying that our Capitalist nations started out as Socialist or Communist ones. What I’m saying is, the big lie of Capitalism is the same as the big reveal of Communism, a’la Animal Farm. They’re revealed to be the same system with the same flaw – specifically, that humans are a mindless greedy garbage species that will never be satisfied.

        And for “doesn’t always pan out like that”, I would substitute “it never pans out like that”, or so rarely that it is not statistically valid. Massive “winning Capitalism” levels of wealth are never made by hard work. It’s a lottery of accidental success like your famous tech moguls of recent decades, or pure neo-feudal inheritance.

      • dreameling says:

        I’ve done pretty well as far as my career goes — although I rarely think about my work as a career, because I just can’t do that sort of adult thinking — and I (along with my wife and daughter) lead a fairly comfortable life economically, which is to say there’s usually something extra left at the end of the month. So this probably colors my view of capitalism. Hard work does pay. But certainly you (almost always) need more than just hard work if you want that pay to be in the millions or billions, yeah.

        No arguments about humans being greedy. Not to mention short-sighted, irrational, and violent.

      • stchucky says:

        Fair to say. And obviously I’m very comfortable too. Doesn’t mean I have to like it, or support it. It sure beats the alternative though.

        We are all very much in the fortunate 1%, worldwide. Just not in the ludicrous 1% in terms of the western world. And our wealth is entirely a matter of our having the good fortune to have been born in this time and place. The opportunities and resources we have at our disposal are shockingly abundant compared to almost everybody else on the planet. We won Capitalism because we were born on the last goddamn square.

      • aaronthepatriot says:

        Yup. Born on third base, thought he hit a triple, kind of thing we say about men like Trump and Dubya. To the rest of the world even we were born on third base and need to remember that.

        A concept comes to mind from my shows, about how US is in “late stage Capitalism”, which I believe implies that all Capitalist systems can be expected to turn corrupt and imbalanced to an extreme degree, given time. Not sure if I accept that or not, but money and the prospect of it surely does corrupt.

        I’m sure the right-wing has similar late-stage socialism philosophy to keep their kids up at night, but then again they just seem to hate it outright so who knows?

      • stchucky says:

        Heck, I’m not even going to say they’re wrong, because Socialism too is a human system and humans are garbage. But shit, let’s at least try it.

        As I tried to say in my original post, I have no intention of shitting on people who are living the Capitalist dream. Yes, hard work can pay, but even that truism is very dependent on the opportunities one gets. I would hesitate to say that someone working four jobs just to remain in crippling debt is living any sort of dream.

        As for the idea that anyone can make millions, let alone billions, on hard work alone … I’d disagree. But that’s a matter of semantics: what constitutes opportunity? You could slave away for years digging a gold mine and become rich. You worked hard but you also got super lucky in striking gold. So sure, let’s just say it’s vanishingly unlikely but not impossible, depending on our definitions.

        This is an interesting and relevant article:

      • aaronthepatriot says:

        Good point about fully unfettered Capitalism, meaning “criminality” is allowed and scams abound. I hadn’t even considered that one.

        Here in the US we have regulated Capitalism, but with the negative aspect that the big businesses can legally bribe the government (and do) to get special handouts and exemptions, giving them the competitive advantage and therefore removing true competition as you describe it. AND we have the lawlessness, the scamming, and the get out of jail free cards for those same big businesses.

        So it’s fair to say I’m against the Capitalism I’ve gotten to experience. And I’m not even in the struggle over here. Can’t imagine what that’s like, really.

      • dreameling says:

        I’m very much for state-regulated capitalism, which is what we have in Finland and, I’d imagine, everywhere in the West, in one shape or another. [1]

        And big businesses certainly should not be able to lobby and bribe their way into tweaking regulations to their benefit. I’m pretty sure that’s happening everywhere in the West, Finland included, but the US sadly seems to be the leader here.

        [1] Or maybe the proper term is “mixed economy”, but that’s still capitalism-based.

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