Welcome Back Kowalski, Part IV
Neutron: Probably some of you have wondered why I’m the interlocutor in this long interview with Kowalski. It is because I am a Neutron. I’m a little like Dick Cavett used to be, but of course I am much, much smaller — practically invisible really, except that I have the single virtue of making up many of the important parts of the nucleus of atoms. One atom in particular. Kowalski didn’t choose me, I chose him.
Now aside from that, Mr. Kowalski, what do you think about Capitalism versus Socialism and Communism and other -isms?
Kowalski: This is one of the easiest questions you’ve asked, of course I’m a capitalist, probably petit-bourgeoisie if such a thing can exist here in America. But I’m also one of the workers who owns his own means of production, which is probably the single biggest “Up Yours, Freak!” that America ever gave to Marxists: the idea that almost anyone could own their own means of production. And I do! I have two big rooms full of machines and I understand all their various theories of operation, some less well than others, but for the most part fairly well. Nobody gave them to me. I traveled more than 50 thousand miles across the country buying them and then bringing them in here and most recently, worked to keep them running. They weren’t gifts from some wealthy, privileged White Guy, and in fact in some cases they absoultely were more trouble than they were worth to acquire. Neverthess, I have them. I’m going to be throwing a couple of them away in the next few weeks. If anyone outside of Mexico wants a couple of Xerox 4890s, let me know, but not unless you have your own truck, please.
Recently of course the idea of being able to do that, to be middle class in terms of that, is kind of under siege because of how things have developed in terms of our economy. The High Capitalists really screwed up in my view: they did a lot of damage to the rest of the people in this country who basically didn’t want to become super-rich. They got very greedy, and it was both Democrats and Republicans who held hands in a kind of deadly embrace to do it, and then they concocted a rationale to attempt to make it work, based on really awful investment mechanisms, and they severely damaged the idea of capitalism throughout the world.
If anything I’m probably a “small C Capitalist” meaning that I think overleverage is dangerous. Once you get out into the realm of 30:1 or 60:1 you don’t even know what you’re doing any longer, and you start making all kinds of crazy decisions to transfer risk away from yourself and throw it on to other people’s backs. That’s not very honorable, it really isn’t very humane, and it’s been punished again and again. Also, people are not always very observant of the folks they entrust with their money. I’m sure Brandeis University is at this very moment ashamed of having ever trusted Bernie Madoff with anything other than a “Hello.” They should have seen it, certainly people at Brandeis are smart enough. Liberals want money probably more than a lot of Conservatives do, and the only thing you can do is look at some of the people they associate with as a result. Shame on them.
On the other hand, the idea of starting a business and being independent and making a profit is a terrific idea and it helps a lot of people out. In particular, it helps them keep good records and learn exactly what things really cost, and good businesses are profitable not just for themselves but for the towns and states and countries they reside in. They compete with each other, and strangely enough they also cooperate, although those conversations are not necessarily what you see in the news media. The idea of being independent and starting a company and making a profit is a good idea, it’s something that lots of people should try, but many of them will not succeed. It is people’s capacity to keep trying that has made America a vibrant economy.
Most people who start businesses don’t know initially what they’re getting into, they don’t really comprehend how difficult it will be. I didn’t. It’s a lot like getting married or having children or even being a participating member of a large, Conservative/Republican blog: you really just don’t know what you’re getting into, but you find a way to deal with it, and if you have a little luck and a lot of attention to detail and brains, you can succeed. There’s no question that it’s been a good thing for our country: even though we’re suffering from all kinds of maladies, I still think Americans are the most entrepreneurial and exploratory people in the world, and most of them are good natured and willing to take a chance and try hard. That should be rewarded, not discouraged.
Politically we have to make sure they can still be rewarded for that spirit.
Neutron: But what about Socialism?
Kowalski: It’s such a romantic idea, it’s just beautiful. I loved Kurt Vonnegut as an adolescent, I really honestly did. I don’t even really intensely dislike Dennis Kucinich on a personal level: I met him, and he’s an articulate and committed and very heartfelt person who I am sure honestly believes what he says, and that’s why he keeps getting elected. He also happens to be someone I could never vote for. I just can’t agree with him politically. I really think Socialism begins with the idea that human beings can produce everything they need to satisfy each other, and everything will just magically work out all by itself because of that mutual regard, and actually it’s kind of a self-love idea. It’s a kind of Buckminster Fuller idea: that if we just stopped all the selfishness we could achieve a kind of paradise. Livingry not Killingry, as Fuller would have said. It’s a very seductive and powerful group of ideas, and it appeals to a lot of us. Fuller’s ideas were visionary and I still to this day wish that a few more had been realized except in places other than Disneyland and in the geodesic domes that have covered the radar antennae of our ballistic missile systems. He did understand sustainablility on a level that Al Gore cannot even attempt to approach — but his designs were more beautiful and he was also thwarted by unions (which is not well known but it is true – his Dymaxion houses were so easy to construct that they wouldn’t require Union labor, and that wasn’t something they wanted to hear, because they required no formal sewer hook ups. Try that in Massachusetts.)
Generosity and love of other people is wonderful when it happens spontaneously. The problem with institutionalized Socialism is that the generosity is enforced, and like it or not, among most people most of the time, it sours almost immediately and becomes corrupt the instant you try to enforce it. Someone becomes someone else’s slave before you can even figure out what has happened. The mutual admiration society lasts about 10 seconds and pretty soon, everyone is grasping for everyone else’s stuff. It’s disturbing to some people that it’s better to let people be relatively more selfish and rely on their generosity than it is to insist on their generosity or try to legislate it, but it’s true.
As far as Communism is concerned, we came very close to annihilating those bastards and for a very good reason. And sometimes for not so good reasons. We’re lucky we’re alive, and that’s about the best thing I can say.
[More to come in this interview from Neutron, your friendly Classical Particle]