Capitalism Doesn’t Add Up

I’m a teacher, not a fighter or a political organizer. I was a math professor for 35 years, and now I’m trying to apply the same skills to politics and economics: I try to explain the truths that I have seen, as simply and clearly as possible, to anyone who will hear me. When I finally looked critically at capitalism, rather late in my life, I was surprised to discover that it’s all wrong, and nothing like what we’ve been told. If it were a calculus exam, I’d mark a big red “F” across its front page. I’ve had an awakening that I want to share.

Here the crucial math skill is not numerical computation, but simply the training to notice when someone makes unwarranted assumptions. The terrible current state of the world stems from erroneous assumptions about culture and human nature that mainstream economists and politicians make at the beginning of their reasoning, before they ever get to their numerical computations. We’ve been misdirected away from the truth by corporate news media that, as Chomsky has said, encourage lively debate within a very narrow spectrum.

The most frequent lie is that “the market is efficient.” Efficient for whom? Efficiency is only possible regarding measured costs. But any trade negotiated between buyer and seller has unmeasured side effects, externalized costs, on other parties who are neither consulted nor compensated. The fundamental principle of capitalism is “get all you can, every man for himself, and to hell with the commons,” so the commons is being destroyed, including the ecosystem. That will kill us all if continued.

A second lie is that capitalism makes our lives better. I don’t think so. It’s true that voluntary trade benefits both traders, but it doesn’t benefit them equally. Greater profit goes to the trader who was already in the stronger bargaining position; that makes him stronger still. Thus trade increases inequality, which has become enormous in our society. So capitalism concentrates power. And power corrupts those who have it and attracts those who are already corrupt. We can see that in workplace bullying, police brutality, prison torture, wars based on lies for profit, etc.

And that’s just the material side of capitalism; its spiritual effects are devastating too. Our workplaces are dictatorships making us commodities to be exploited or discarded; that’s why we hate Mondays. Separate property gives us the illusion that we have separate lives (belied by pandemic and global warming). Competition kills empathy, spawning greed, hate, lies, fascism, and random shootings. Gun legislation won’t stop a suicidal madman from 3d-printing terrible weapons in his basement.

We’ll only be safe in a culture of caring and sharing that leaves no one behind, so no one wants to hurt us. That paradise has always been within our reach. Sure, we’ve hoarded for 10,000 years, and now it’s hard to imagine any other way of life – but for 200,000 years before that we shared as equals, and that’s still our instinct, still what we teach our children.

The capitalists themselves can’t bring the reforms we need, because they’re all competing against each other. Any capitalist concerned about anything but his own short-term profit will fall behind his rivals and cease to be a power. Thus, only global ecosocialist revolution can save us from imminent extinction. Join the discussion.

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2020 Aug 31, version 3.04. The leaflet version fits on two sides of 1/2 page. ♦ (An older, longer version of this essay can be found at https://leftymathprof.wordpress.com/transcripts/#capitalism-doesnt-add-up-old; there is an 8-minute video based on that older essay. The first version of this essay was in March 2013.)