Simple Greed

As I’m certainly the least-popular and least-educated Sweet Talker, my ideas aren’t formed from a deep dive into the academic literature, they’re based on experience and observation. I won’t deny having read my fair share academic tomes, and like any good nerd I do read journal articles for pleasure. But that’s just my evening gig; by day, I’m a regular old beer-chugging Joe Sixpack who finds himself caught up in a volatile world, and who has occasionally been known to articulate his thoughts well. For my money, one won’t find real explanatory pay-dirt shoveling through the literature. Instead, we’ll find it in a person’s ability to fuse a workable and ever-updating narrative out of the details of his or her life. The more consistently one’s narrative anticipates and produces good real-world results, the more accurate it is.

sloppy-drunk-gorilla-meme-generator-you-think-you-think-you-re-better-than-me-do-you-4e7a87The reader, and my fellow Sweet Talkers, will kindly forgive me if I think my old codger of a grandfather had better explanations for human behavior than Wittgenstein. Some of you are control-L-ing me already, in favor of anything other than what Sweet Talker Randall so eloquently calls “horseshit.” There may very well be a Rawls quote out there that’s got my six on this, but I’m at a loss to find it right now. I’m three Pabsts into my Saturday morning and my wife-beater is starting to chafe the folds spilling over the arm-holes; what do you want from me?

The Anti-Capitalist Mentality, Episode One

There are two names you’re never allowed to use in any kind of conversation, no matter how casual it is, and no matter how closely trusted your interlocutors are. One of them is Ayn Rand and the other wrote a book about why people don’t like free markets. My fellow Sweet-Talkers don’t like either of these people, so the responsibility of trying to present their better ideas to a modern blog readership falls to me and my fourth Pabst. You’re welcome.

There are a lot of reasons why people don’t like capitalism, but I’ve had two personal experiences in my life that have informed my perspective on this more than all the others. Well, three experiences if you count the Pabst.

One of those experiences was a short span of years during which I had to switch to LaBatt’s Blue and during which my social circle consisted of the international community of competition law enforcement; and while I may or may not be lying about consuming sexy historical fiction while finishing a bottle of Crown Royal Rye last night, I’m actually being deadly serious about the competition law thing. We high-balled it in fancy international hotels and exchanged stories of all the business executives who got caught colluding in the marketplace.

All of those stories went the same way: Competition lawyers get a deep-throat, anonymous tip that Frankie and his CEO friends are forcing out the competition. Then, the lawyers set up an interrogation. During that interrogation, the lawyers say, “Have you ever, oh, say, [description of an illegal, anti-competitive act]?”

Then Frankie says, “No, no, man, that’s not how we did it. We did it like this… [description of an illegal, anti-competitive act].”

Then the competition lawyers say, “Did you know that [description of an illegal, anti-competitive act] is an illegal, anti-competitive act?”

To this, Frankie usually responds, “No, look, you don’t understand. We didn’t do anything illegal, we just talked about business over a golf game. I mean, you probably talk about business over a golf game. We were just talking about good business sense. That’s not illegal.”

One ought to sympathize with the Frankies of the world, for a couple of reasons. First, I happen to know firsthand that yes, competition lawyers do talk about business over a golf game and that they never get in trouble for it. Second, collusion in law enforcement isn’t against the law, so yeah, this pretty much is a double-standard. But third, and most importantly, Frankie genuinely believes he’s done nothing wrong.

We have in our heads the image of evil, powerful robber-barons who go around taking advantage of the little guy, exploiting the poor and extracting millions with their nefarious anti-competitive deeds. But this is mostly a pile of, as Randall would say, “horseshit.” robberbaronFrankie and his friends are, for the most part, Pabst-chugging (okay, okay, Leffe-chugging) bros-and-hos who are really just trying to make an honest (yes, honest) buck in an environment of stiff competition. They break competition laws, but they don’t mean it, they just don’t really understand that what they’re doing is against the law. One reason they don’t is because of that silly robber-baron image; they know they’re not that evil-looking guy with the monocle and the bag of money with a dollar sign on it.

In short, they love capitalism. They have no clue that they are enemies of the free market system. (For the moment, leave aside the question of whether competition law legitimately protects the free market system in the long run. I may have my doubts about that, or maybe it’s just the fact that I’m five cold ones into this and I can’t tell if I’m giddy with skepticism or sepsis.)

The Anti-Capitalist Mentality, Episode Two

Years later, I had another experience that taught me a lot about people who don’t like free markets.

I was talking to the owner of a music rehearsal studio. For those who don’t know what that is, it typically consists of an old, run-down piece of unwanted commercial real estate that a young bro picks up and fills with cheap PA gear, then rents by the hour to desperate musicians and weekend warriors who need a place to turn their guitar amplifiers up really loudly without getting in trouble. Well, let me be fair, sometimes nationally touring acts will also come through and rent a studio for a night or two to rehearse for their show in-town.

The owner of this particular studio was telling me about a problem he had. On weekends, he had no problem booking people into studios all day and night; but on weekdays, the bookings were not well-distributed. The after-work crowd would go home, eat dinner, tuck the kids in bed, and then aim to rehearse with their bands between the hours of 8 and 10 PM. Meanwhile, exactly nobody wanted a rehearsal studio from 6 to 8 PM, or from 10 PM to midnight. The studio was open every weeknight for a solid six hours, but only two of those hours would ever be booked. And they were booked well in advance.

So, the owner cooked up a solution: People had to rent studios in 3-hour blocks: 6 to 9 PM or 9 PM to midnight. It was the old cable TV trick, where you bundle some of what people want with a whole lot of what people don’t want, and profit from the disparity between the two.

Presumably under the influence of many several Pabsts, I pointed out to the owner that he was engaging in monopolist behavior, effectively pricing above marginal cost and reducing supply. The owner, an avowed free marketeer, had no idea what I was talking about. No, he assured me, he was just trying to make sure his studio was fully booked.

I let it go.

Wait, You Mean This Whole Post Was Supposed To Be About Patriotism?

Paul mounts a powerful defense of patriotism. I dissent.

My dissent, however, isn’t steeped in a generalized fear of the worst-case patriotism scenario. Like Paul, I strongly doubt that patriots are generally nationalist, authoritarian monsters who want to get away from A-rabs and stab the American flag into the top of the Parthenon. They’re not gun-toting kooks who drive their Harleys to mega-churches so that they can recite the pledge of allegiance and blame the rest on Obama. A lot of them don’t even like Pabst. (Nor, surprisingly enough, is my dissent based on these people’s distaste for Pabst, the poor, ignorant bastards.)

In point of fact, my dissent is based on my experience with, of all things, the anti-capitalist mentality.

Sooner or later, a lot of us Americans find ourselves in a pretty good situation. We gain steady employment, and the checks are coming in at predictable intervals. We find a romantic partner we can tolerate for more than a few months and who may or may not be willing to experiment in the bedroom with a can of Pabst, I’m just saying. We end up with 3.18 rugrats who look pretty cute and with whom we want to share the full gamut of nice experiences we had when we were growing up: Easter egg hunts, camping trips, school plays, breakfast in the local diner, lighting firecrackers on the Fourth of July, homemade apple pie, sneaking cans of Pabst out of daddy’s “special fridge,” playing stickball in the neighborhood street, etc., etc.

This range of experiences comprises our fondest memories. We had them, and they were good. We want all 3 rugrats – and even little 0.18, too – to have the same benefits of living a good life that we had. We probably can’t offer them millions of dollars in inheritance money (“Drain the college fund, Martha, we’re out of Pabst!“), but, we reason, we ought to be able to give them the benefit of hunting for Easter eggs in the same park up the canyon where we used to hunt for them.

Only then we go up the canyon on Easter and discover that everyone else had the same idea. There’s no room for our own rugrats to hunt for Easter eggs. Or maybe some other strange little kid picked up all the eggs we left out for our own rugrats, and now ours are left crying about not finding any themselves. Infuriating.

To make matters worse, a lot of these people are barbecuing funny-smelling meats and vegetables on hibachi grills. Like, it’s not steak and burgers, it’s stuff with funny names like kafta or chorizo. It cooks for hours, blowing smoke in our kids’ faces while they hunt in vain for Easter eggs that have already been collected by little Shreya or little Carmen. And at first that didn’t bother us until we realized that Carmen’s parents weren’t hipsters, but they were, like, real-live Salvadoreños who aren’t speaking English and who didn’t even offer me a pupusa. (“Who eats poo-poo, anyway?!“)

Why don’t they just go back to Africa?!

What’s The Point Here?

People aren’t evil; not unless they don’t drink Pabst. Nah, just kidding. Some of my best friends drink Heineken. (Nazis.)

More accurately, people are good and evil, and a lot of it really just depends on the situation they’re in. But one thing is for certain: we’re all rationally self-interested, and this is as true of our market behavior as it is of our social behavior.

In the marketplace we cook up anti-competitive strategies quite innocently believing that it’s just good business sense, because we want to keep the revenue stream alive, because we have a good situation going and we don’t want to mess it up.

Similarly, a lot of people had a really nice childhood – I count myself among them – with a lot of nice memories that we want to share with our rugrats. We don’t always deal well with the fact that the world has changed, our neighborhoods have changed, our communities have changed. It’s not that people have “an authoritarian button” (please, Jonathan Haidt!) that gets pushed when “the elite” foists “immigrants” upon them. It’s that there was once a rather nice sort of lifestyle going on with people, and that lifestyle isn’t available anymore.

Populations are larger now, cities – even little rural farming communities like the one I grew up in – have converted themselves into full-on suburbs where people argue about stuff like racism and sexism and whether we should move to a community with a better school district. We can’t play stickball in the streets anymore and firecrackers are illegal in places where cherry bombs used to be sold all year long.

The truth is, a lot of these are changes for the worse, not for the better. A less-articulate Pabst drinker might say something like, “When I was growing up, people spoke English and men were men!” That sounds hateful and chauvinistic, but what they really mean is, “Everything good that I grew up with is gone, and every time I want to light a cherry bomb with my little kid, somebody tells me that it’s against the law or sexist or something. This SUCKS!”

We can, I believe, correct some of these problems. America is more heavily regulated than ever before, and a lot of these regulations are for the worse. And yes, I’ve had enough Pabst today to speak freely: People are way, way too over-sensitive about political correctness and respond with truly nauseating levels of righteous indignation. Those people ought to knock that the hell off. Sorry, but it’s true.

That being said, it would be a mistake to frame these issues in the language and theories of group conflict. These are not questions of patriotism, much less the value of patriotism. These are not problems that can be solved by sending the “Moslems” back to “Arabia.” This is not a question of the left-leaning elite versus the right-leaning Joe Sixpack. (*Burp* I should know.)

When we falsely frame the issues, no matter how good our intentions are, we stoke the embers of group conflict. That’s certainly bad with respect to group conflict, but it’s also bad because it leads us further away from solving problems like over-development of rural space and unreasonable expectations for the future based on the past. It replaces accurate, mature, stoic thinking about life with simple academic dichotomous thinking about groups competing with each other for the national narrative or a sense of “flourishing.” (Sorry, guys.)

It is for this reason that a very wise man, whose name I can never use in any conversation Sweet-Talk or otherwise, ultimately came to the conclusion that group-mentality thinking will eventually and literally destroy us all:

Collectivism, in fact, can be stated in no other way than as partisan dogma in which the commitment to a definite ideal and the condemnation of all others are equally necessary. Loyola did not preach just any faith, but that of the Church of Rome. Lagarde did not advocate nationalism, but what he regarded as German nationalism. Church, nation, state in abstracto are concepts of nominalistic science. The collectivists idolize only the one true church, only the “great” nation; the “chosen” people who have been entrusted by Providence with a special mission; only the true state; everything else they condemn.

For that reason all collectivist doctrines are harbingers of irreconcilable hatred and war to the death.

And that, in 2,465 words, is why I disagree with Paul.

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