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Friday, February 28, 2014

Capitalism: The best system?

I posted this some time ago. Recent business closures in London, and the responses claiming capitalism is still the best system bar none, have made its reposting appropriate.
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"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]

I groaned when I read Brown's claims and then I thought this could be a blog post — and it is.

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 in which we're really interested is: "Capitalism is the best system." True or false?

This is a hard one to answer, especially for someone who is not an economist. I'll attempt answer, of sorts, but I'm going to come at the answer sideways. I'm not looking to get deep into an economic or political argument.

My first thought is that when I was young I would have agreed rather quickly with the statement. But with the passing of sixty 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 that mean in reality? Have the changes I have experienced during the passing of some six some decades made 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 one 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, make big bucks, 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. It was a different world.

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 while providing 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 taken over by the giant Shoppers Drug Mart chain. In 2013 Shoppers was bought by Loblaws in a deal worth about $12.4B.

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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