The economy: one of the most interesting topics that can be found regarding a political system.
Most people think it’s boring. Who cares what people are doing to make money? It's regrettable that they even have to work, why should we waste our time talking about the various ways in which they sell their souls?
They’re wrong. It’s enthralling. It gets caught in the mind like a fishhook and stays there, festering. What we spend money on is a strong indicator of what we care about, both on a personal level and a national one. How we interact economically tells us how we really relate to each other. Are we as generous as we'd like to believe, or are we selfish backstabbing scumbags?
We, as a nation and as a culturally imperialist force, are capitalists. Oddly enough, most of us don't really know what that means exactly. We usually think we do, but we've missed something important somewhere and we don't quite know what or where. We get this nagging suspicion that maybe this thing that runs our lives isn't quite what we really want, but since we don't know what it is, and we can't agree on what it is that we really want, we don't even talk about alternatives seriously.
We think about capitalism as being synonymous with "free market economy," but it isn't. Capitalism is characterized by the investment of capital with the expectation of a profit, which will then be reinvested ad nauseam. This ends up meaning that the people with the money will make more money because they have the cash to invest, while the people without money can't fix that little problem, because they need all or most of what they have on hand. At first glance you'd think that the stock market would be the perfect fix to this situation, allowing people with only a little money to invest, but it isn't. It doesn't allow them much control of the companies in which they invest. Most of that stock is non-voting stock, because they'll never have enough shares to make a difference. Effectively, the stock market becomes a tool of the wealthy to make the less wealthy think that there's something resembling a level playing ground. In our capitalist system, the people with money get to start companies and make money, while the people without money have to work for them and buy goods and services from them. Money ends up back where it started with only a brief layover in the pockets of the workers. Investment doesn’t have to be a bad thing; investment leads to a buildup of capacity, which leads to more jobs and a larger supply of, and thus a lower price for, goods and services. However, the way we set the market up to receive investment is heavily weighted against the non-rich, or even one non-hyper-rich person.
Our modern economy is too big for a single capitalist to form a company that would successfully dominate a market. For that we need groups of rich oppressors. We call those groups corporations. Corporations have none of the good qualities that individual people have, even rich oppressors, and all of the worst. A corporation exists only to provide a return on shareholders' investments. Corporations have no consciences. Our rich oppressors don't have the means to oppress our citizenry - the sheer size of it prevents them - so the corporation has been created to be the new and improved oppressor.
So corporations, a natural product of capitalism, are evil. So what? We're free, right? We could do something about it if we wanted to. Well, maybe, but it wouldn't work. People who have ideas but no money can't get started in this system. Corporations have everything so wrapped up legally that there's not much leeway for anyone who can't employ an entire law firm. Intellectual property laws, stemming from the idea that everything should have an owner even if it isn't something that can actually be felt or seen, assist in the lock corporations have on economic life. If you've got a great idea, but it happens to threaten some major business, say you've got an idea for a workable alternative fuel vehicle and Ford's scared, a corporation can buy that idea from you and just sit on it, and it becomes illegal for you or anyone else to use that idea. Sure, they have to convince you to sell out, but they’ve got the money to convince most people. Basically, because they've got money, they get to make it illegal to produce things they don't like. That is not a feature of a free system. The whole ownership thing, while good and healthy for society when applied to material goods like clothes or furniture, but not material things like forests and bodies of water, is very damaging to society when applied to things like ideas. Non-material things, being non-material, cannot be owned. When they are owned, which in this case means when their use is forcibly and artificially restricted, society suffers.
So I've gotten a bit sidetracked. Oh well. Back to the topic at hand.
The free market is completely different. The free market, based on the freedom to make what you want, provided it isn't illegal to make that thing (illegal for everyone, not just for you), and sell it to whoever wants to buy it (not whoever is forced to buy it because they need it and you happen to be the only supplier, which isn't free at all), is the powerful force Adam Smith described. He wasn't really talking about capitalism. The free market actually is more efficient in terms of employing people and providing the goods and services they need at prices they can afford, but it's fragile and requires active protection to exist.
The free market economy is the traditional model of economic interaction. Anyone who wanted to could start up any business they wanted to and make a living, so long as someone else wanted what they were selling. Work made money. Now we've mixed it up. Work doesn't always make money. Look at the numbers. Federal minimum wage was, until very recently, $5.15 an hour. At that rate, which is the state minimum wage in the majority of states, a person would have to work about 75 hours a week to make $20000 a year. 20 grand barely keeps you out of bankruptcy in a lot of places, and that's with no vacation. Work alone doesn't keep people alive. Money, on the other hand, makes money. That just isn't right.