I had many very useful conversations with people in Hornell about how capitalism is lived. Carson Clancy, above, was part of a kitchen table conversation with Clancy family members. He remembered the definition he wrote down (above) from a recent class at the local high school about economic systems (including socialism and communism). It was good to learn capitalism is being discussed and the definition seems unusually straightforward about capitalism's focus and primary beneficiaries. He also contributed a shorter definition:
In the same conversations other family members (Carson's aunt and uncle and grandparents) contributed many interesting insights about how capitalism works in their lives.
Getting these conversations started is sometimes a little awkward. There are two main reasons for this, in my experience. First, many people believe they are not qualified to talk about capitalism and refer me to people they think are "smarter" or "more successful". People will refer me to a friend who has a prosperous business or to someone in a position of power. Talking Capitalism is based on the belief that the most important characteristics of capitalism are how it is lived and that all of us are experts on our capitalism. When encouraged,most people acknowledge their own expertise, based on years and decades of life and observations.
The second obstacle to conversations about capitalism is people's sense that it is a politically volatile topic and desire to avoid conflict. This is not untrue.; opinions about how capitalism works can result in arguments At the same time, no one denies that capitalism is the economic system we live in. The mechanics of capitalism - its basic physics - are not really up for debate. Sometimes I make an analogy to how we teach about sex ed: we teach kids the mechanics and we teach them what we think is right and wrong. The conversations of Talking Capitalism focus on the mechanics: how the system works. Of course, it also (often) ends up in areas of right and wrong. But, fundamentally, our lived experience of capitalism is about how we make a pay check, how we pay our bills. As Carson wrote, it's about profit. As his grandmother, Barb, wrote, it's about "income". As his aunt, Bridget wrote, it's about "Wegman's", the local supermarket chain, while his uncle Chris added that it's "investments".
But the judgments also emerge: not everyone has investments. Not everyone makes profit (especially not "big profit"). Not all businesses are big corporations like Wegman's. And sometimes judgments are explicit:
Some additional points about capitalism that emerged in my conversations in Hornell:
1) Work is very different now than it was a generation (or, especially, two generations) ago. Getting a job was much easier. I was told "it used to be if you had a good work ethic you could get a job out of high school". Several people also spoke of extended networks of family and community that made it easier to get hired. Also, in the past wages (and benefits, including for retirement) were better than they are now, particularly if you were unionized and worked for the State (as many retired people I spoke with had: in highway department, corrections systems, schools, etc.). In one conversation at J.C.'s Diner the idea that cutting taxes on corporate profits would result in higher wages was scoffed at; "it goes to the people at the top!".
2) Ownership of business has changed a lot. In Hornell many people's grandparents had owned their own farms, worked on the Erie Lackawanna railroad, or owned small local businesses. Family farming (particularly dairy) has declined dramatically; several people spoke of the financial impossibility of farming, except for large corporate farms (a couple of people spoke of the negative impact of Canadian milk imports). Several of the people I met continue to own former family farms in the hills around Hornell that are used mainly for hunting and recreation. Some parcels of family farm land were sold to commercial or housing development. At the same time, Carson (above) has worked this summer picking and selling vegetables for a local farm!
Small business ownership seems in decline. Downtown Hornell today has many empty storefronts and most shopping is done in the newer shopping areas along the "four-lane" highway (that cuts through downtown) built in the 1970s. One key business where changes in ownership has meant significant change is the newspaper. I met the former editor of the Hornell newspaper which was once published and printed in Hornell. He described a familiar story of the paper being bought by a larger, regional company and progressively consolidated and diminished so that now the much smaller paper serves a much bigger multi-town region. Of course, the owners of the Erie Lackawanna were investors who lived outside of Hornell. But higher level management lived in town (in grand houses) and participated in civic life. In contrast, its replacement French transportation company Alstom seems something of an enigma with an apparently very low profile outside the company gates.
I am very grateful to all the people I met in Hornell and for their willingness to speak so openly with me, a stranger asking strange questions. And, I' particularly grateful to Barb and Dick Clancy for hosting me into their home, for showing me their town and introducing me to so many people and for making me feel so welcome. Thank you!