Sunday, September 20, 2009

Capitalism: the best system?

"Even Paul McCartney has admitted capitalism is the best system. And he was a big pinko back in the day." [source: Dan Brown of The London Free Press]

When I read the above I groaned, then I thought — this could be a blog — and finally I thought, "Whoa! There is a lot buried in those 20 words. If I'm not careful, those words could also bury me."

Paul McCartney caused a stir in 1972 with his song "Give Ireland Back to the Irish." The song was banned on the BBC. I'm old enough to recall all sorts of silly stuff being said about the Beatles when they were at their peak, but I don't think Paul McCartney was ever a communist — but that's just my opinion. Go google this and get back to me. I did, and failed to find a solid connection.

But, I don't think McCartney's politics are really relevant. You might say this talk of his being a pinko is a bit of a red herring. The statement we're really interested in is: "Capitalism is the best system." Is this true?

This is hard one, for someone who is not an economist, to answer. I'm going to answer but I'll come at the answer sideways. I want to slip out of this unscathed, I'm not looking to get deep into an economic or political argument, but it may be difficult.

You see, my first thought is that when I was young I would have agreed rather quickly with the statement. But with the passing of fifty some years I've changed and it is has not only me that has changed but capitalism. Capitalism today is not the capitalism of my childhood.

I believe the boosters of capitalism would say this is a strength of the capitalist system. It adapts to meet the demands of the day. This sounds good on the surface but what does it mean in reality? Are the changes that I have experienced through the past half century making capitalism better? If not, maybe the best system was some version of capitalism now adapted out of existence.

My grandfather was born on a farm in Princeton, Ontario. He was an outstanding student and I understand that at his graduation it was said he was the youngest pharmacist in the province of Ontario. It's hard to prove the truth of this statement as he graduated back in the early 1890s. Let's just agree that he was a very bright young man.

On graduation, he went to the States to work for Cunningham Drug Stores. This was an up and coming chain. My grandfather had a chance to get in on the ground floor, so to speak, but he declined.

He moved back to Canada, to Brantford, Ontario, where he started his own independent neighbourhood drugstore. He didn't get rich but he did have a beautiful wife and he raised a fine family. He never owned a car; he didn't need one as he walked to work. He lived in the type of walkable neighbourhood that is today thought so desirable.

Today, a young man graduating as a pharmacist would have a difficult time starting his own independent corner drugstore. The large chains pretty well control everything in the pharmacy business.

The Cunningham's Drug Store chain, the one my grandfather snubbed, went on to become one of the major players in the American Midwest but a few decades ago it was taken out by another player in the capitalist game. A lot of people lost their jobs.

When I was a boy, my neighbourhood had a least three independent drugstores. Each one employed people in the neighbourhood and provided an important service. There were no big parking lots at any of these stores as big parking lots weren't necessary. Most people walked to these drugstores — even the staff.

I worked for one of those drugstores; it became one of the first Big V pharmacies. Big V was formed by a small group of independent Windsor, Ontario, pharmacists intent on saving the neighbourhood drugstore. A few years ago Big V was bought by Shopper's Drug Mart. Today Shopper's is owned by Loblaws.

Capitalism, the best system? I'm not sure that my grandfather would recognize today's capitalism. And I honestly believe that he would tell you the system under which he started his business, a business that lasted him a lifetime, was better.

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