Monday, January 2, 2012

Capitalism - A Xmas Story

Capitalism is under fire these days, and not just from “ultra liberal” filmmakers like Michael Moore. No, plenty of regular people have expressed doubts about our current model of capitalism. I guess a financial meltdown of epic proportions and the greatest economic crises since the Great Depression will do that.

I consider myself a capitalist. I once owned a TV production and syndication business that employed 25-30 people at any given time. While making money wasn’t our only and or most important mission, it was very necessary to keep the company afloat in order to fulfill our other, higher priority missions.

And while the more money we made, the more “comfortable” things became, my fondest memories were forged in the struggle of starting a boutique television business and attempting what seemed at the time, a near impossible task.

After 8 years of toiling away, I eventually sold the company, but once again it wasn’t solely about the money. My goals also included keeping the company going so that it could continue to pursue it’s missions and keeping our group of loyal and hardworking people employed and hopefully bettering their lives.

Now that I’ve had some time from the heat of battle of running a growing business and had the opportunity to travel, namely to developing nations, I’ve witnessed capitalism at work in other places. From what I can see with my decidedly non expert eyes is that capitalism has yet to pay off for the majority of people in most of these developing countries.

I’ve encountered a slightly different outlook on the role of capitalism than we have here in the “land of plenty”. It seems that in these developing nations, many capitalists are viewed, rightly or wrongly, as exploitative by a significant portion of the working class population.

When you consider that as many as half or more of the population of, Argentina or Guatemala for example, live well below their own country’s poverty lines then I begin to understand this point of view.

During my trips I was reminded of how fortunate I’ve been to live and work in the U.S., a country that not only has a high standard of living for almost everyone (relatively speaking) but where I can take an entrepreneurial risk if I so desire, and for the most part, be able to live or die by that risk.

So yes, I’m a capitalist, but not the “bottom line is the only thing” kind. I think this is partly because I’ve witnessed first hand the types of misguided decisions publicly traded companies make in the name of the bottom line.

I’ve seen from the inside, how Wall Street’s demands for bigger and bigger returns each and every year, can destroy an industry like the media business, an industry not only near and dear to my heart but vital to our national interest.
At what point is just making a good living and being a responsible corporate citizen enough? In Wall Street’s eyes it seems “‘never”.

Yet I was always heartened by those I encountered who bucked their bean counter bosses and refused to be slaves to a system that if rigidly followed, only rewarded the making of money. They recognized that beyond money, people mattered, reputations mattered and the pride involved in making a good product mattered.

Principles like integrity, honesty and doing the right thing can’t be measured on a balance sheet, but they do matter, big time. Though the wall street “masters of the universe” don’t make the connection, these principles, have a large, albeit intangible impact on bottom lines.

I feel the U.S. economy, which chews up over 20% of the world’s resources (with less than 5% of it’s inhabitants) is hopelessly trapped in a vicious cycle of consumerism that can’t possibly be sustained, by the planet or ourselves. But thanks to bets most of us had nothing to do with making, if this cycle of consumerism isn’t sustained, it could bankrupt us all and have global repercussions.
During last year’s Holiday season, I spent most of the month of December outside the borders of the United States in Mexico, Cuba and Colombia.

While in Cuba I encountered very little of what one could call the “Holiday Spirit”, which I guess makes sense when you consider the backdrop. Unless all you wanted for Christmas was a Che T shirt, the only reminder of the Holiday season was running into this Cuban character at night who bore a remarkable resemblance to Santa Claus. His “gift” was some kind of souvenir made out of a beer can that costs me a couple of Cuban pesos. Ho! ho! ho!, Merry Christmas from the Castro brothers! A cynic could conclude in Cuba that Christmas and capitalism go hand in hand, which is to say, not very prominent.

Unlike Cuba, Colombia really knew how to celebrate the holidays. The display of holiday lights, the festive atmosphere and parties are incredible.
While Colombians were heavy on the lights and celebrations they were decidedly less heavy on commercialism (at least compared to the U.S.).
Oh there were Holiday themed commercials on TV and the stores were anxious to sell the willing buyer stuff, but I had the distinct feeling the stores and corporations were more intent on celebrating the spirit of the season than convincing people to buy a bunch of stuff that they could ill afford.

It didn’t seem that gift giving was simply not the main or even secondary focus of the season. A festive spirit filled with cheer and goodwill and time spent with family and friends seemed the highest priorities.

In Colombia, there were no commercials featuring a Lexus with a giant bow on top suggesting this was the perfect year to buy your loved one a luxury vehicle. I mean does anyone remember when we moved from getting little Johnny a bicycle for Xmas to getting him a Lexus?

Looking back, I can’t recall a time where I was ever more in the festive holiday spirit than last December traveling through Latin America. The season felt special, not forced and it was fun without any relentless pressure to buy, buy, buy.
This realization didn’t really click for me until I returned to the U.S. and noticed how consumer focused our culture and the Christmas season were. The trip really prompted me to look more closely at our culture of consumerism during the holidays and throughout the year.

While Latin Americans typically wait until December before stringing Christmas lights, our consumer fueled economy is so dependent on retailers having a good holiday season (and thus a good quarter and thus a good year) that the barrage of crass commercialization seems to start earlier each year.

Case in point and proving it’s never to early to start making money off the holidays, it was October 9th when I first saw a Macy’s holiday themed commercial running on TV. It’s been on You Tube since September.

The commercialism of the “Holiday” Season is nothing new, but I believe that for a retailer to start banging the drum for people to buy in October for the holidays is a bit much. What happened to Thanksgiving before we kicked things off with the mobs, the debt, the stress?

Even for a country so dependent on consumers that our former President’s idea of healing the wounds of 9/11 was to urge every American to do their patriotic duty and “go shopping”. How heroic!

My extended family is large but we’ve never really gone overboard with tons of Holiday gifts. It just gets too ridiculous in a large family as ours. In fact, in recent years I’ve limited myself to giving gifts pick up from my travels abroad, usually something purchased directly from the person who crafted the gift.

I feel these gifts are more personal than something from a big, faceless department store or corporation. I’d rather the my money go to an individual artisan who might live on just $5 a day. My gift not only has a deeper meaning but maybe I’ve helped someone in the process.

Maybe I’m just a skinflint, a scrooge or just plain unpatriotic, but this year each member of my family is getting something completely different.

The fine folks from CHILD FUND INTERNATIONAL have done an excellent job of putting together a catalog of “GIFTS OF LOVE AND HOPE” for anyone that would rather spend their Christmas cash to help a family in REAL and DIRE need, than line the pocketbooks of fat cat bankers.

Instead of spending $200 for a faux cashmere sweater my mom will never wear, I figure why not donate $200 in her name that will be earmarked as start up costs for a chicken farm in Uganda that could literally change an entire family’s lives? Plus the look on my mom’s face when I inform her that I bought chickens for her this year? Priceless!

Each of my brothers are going to get a “goat” given in their name, to a family in Zambia, who can then breed them and start a goat farm.
My sisters are getting “sewing machines” donated to girls in India who can use them to generate much needed income.

It’s the first time I’ve ever done this and I have to tell you it feels great.
You know what? Maybe I was wrong. Yes, I know it’s only October but I’m already in the Holiday spirit but I’m pretty sure it has nothing to do with seeing that Macy’s commercial.

No comments:

Post a Comment