Capitalism and Its Contents
by ALEX CARNEVALE
Walking through Times Square at evening is dangerous proposition. Not because of makeshift hoodlums who lurk to sell you their rap CDs. It took good old-fashioned psychotherapy to teach us that while we like choices, we don't like many choices.
This aphoristic point of view is largely a lie - most of us prefer an infinite number of choices, and modernity is not sufficiently variegated for us not to be able to account for them.
Times Square is more like a square than ever, with tourists sitting on a beach of madness, and Radio City Music Hall hiding in its shadow. It's never been pretty to look at it, but at least it's daytime forever somewhere besides Alaska. For many out-of-towners, Times Square is Nuevo York, but for me it's just a place I pass on the way home, walking. And believe me, not bragging.
We are finding out in California what driving the away the rich really does. With an exorbitant demand on a minority of Californians, the system was bound to end up losing out to states with fairer laws about these things, e.g. no income tax: Texas, Florida. The government's entitlement to an out of proportion income tax is a sin akin to murder -- because it is the economy that dies. New York is the corraborating witness.
In Times Square, nobody seem to be making very much money, and sitting around and staring is preferable to other activites. On a normal day, the marks can't get enough of the show, although Broadway is unable (or unwilling) to capitalize on the available market and do theater for less than the cost of a bagel. In addition, New York has the highest income tax rate in America. Why should that be?
Ironically, the most useful aspect about this capitalist orgy from the tourist's point of view is that it doesn't really cost anything. Like Madison Avenue (moments away!), the glitzy storefronts are merely for show, whether it reads Ernst & Young, News Corporation, or ESPN Zone. The companies themselves are taking a bath - they just have to keep up appearances.
Closer to 8th Avenue, things begin to get a little seedier. Nudie booths, virtuals, Starbucks. It's not really comforting to know that commerce goes on in these places. Frankly, New York used to be much better at doing what a city does - conducting business. Now its prohibitive prices push real people away, tourists simply gawk or purchase cheap souvenirs of a fake city, and net, it's a loss.
Long-term it wasn't just our banking system that was phony to its core. The advertisements that blaze on screens are a declining proposition, and network ratings dropped right along with the stock market. The new culture is good at casting the attention of the masses on the relatively inconsequential - and even the extremely consequential - but it can't manage to get the public's attention regularly, or even profitably. Capitalism becomes harder, not easier, in a depression.
There's too much else to distract people - that's why the internet is fearsome to old media types and goofy new Luddites who write bad novels alike. The essence of what American capitalism is changing, and whether the end result will be better or worse is a complicated question. Right now, it's not terribly better for the consumer, as corporations that can afford to lose money crowd small businesses out of the marketplace, and bailouts only help the already strong. But the lesson is that all things that don't earn will die - no company is strong enough to eat losses forever, even if Obama would have saved them if he could.
The end result is what matters, not how you got there. The consumer will be the final decider, and even if his choices are becoming progressively more complicated, he's better at making them then bureaucrats and thieves that stalk the corridors of Washington, propping up companies that haven't made a decent car since the Model T.
My folks returned from their first European vacation recently, and all they met from that part of the world asked them why they'd leave America to come there. There is still some free, admirable quality to this country, a redeemable element that we don't fully grasp since we've grown spoiled by it. The neon lights and billboards used to frighten me with their excess, but now they seem like the storm before a calm, pushing air out of a toothpaste tube before the blue comes out to clean.
That's why capitalism is the greatest - when it's dysfunctional, it repairs itself. It doesn't matter how many silly altruists wish to rescue companies that can't make it on its own. Even here, in this place, it is comforting to trace your finger in the air, in the shape of a dollar.
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He tumbls here.
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