American capitalism is suffering from a serious problem. The banks, Wall Street, marketing firms, and the US government have conspired to convince Americans that they can, and should, afford increased rates of consumption by taking on a substantially increased debt burden. Now the bubble is burst, and everyone is pointing blame and running for cover. Personal savings are down to an all-time historical low, and the simultaneous "wealth" of consumer goods flooding the market should be a telling point that we cannot afford all that the corporations want to produce and sell. That American capitalism works by making people spend themselves to death should be a pretty strong indication that the system does not work as well as its protagonists argue that it does. The American economy has become the "wealthiest" in the world by creating an illusion that the American people can afford all that they desire and that they should have all that they desire. That "wealth" is now proving itself to be the hollow shell that it always was.
Capitalism can work in moderation. In fact, in moderation it works extremely well, rewarding innovation, enterprise, ambition, and ingenuity. It also, of course, has the down side of rewarding these things in direct proportion to the pre-existing wealth enjoyed by the individual in question, so that "opportunity" is most enjoyed and taken advantage of by the wealthy, much less so but still to a significant degree by the middle classes, and rarely if at all by the poor. "Opportunity" is abundant in America, indeed; but it predominantly protects and reinforces the class structure of American society. Nonetheless, capitalism encourages businesses to operate effectively, and can act as a Darwinian environment for business, rewarding those who make the right decisions and punishing those who don't. Capitalism, when properly regulated, taxed, and controlled, will add immeasurably to a society's ability to operate effectively and economically.
But in America, we have let the dogs off the leash almost entirely. Regulations have been struck down, the government has canceled its own tax system in order to promote corporate lobbying (which our own politicians cash in on in ridiculous quantities), and the government is openly protective of corporations' "rights" to destroy our environment and produce harmful commodities. The government has given to the corporations protections originally guaranteed to the individual, while at the same time taking it away from the individual.
The government has openly encouraged the banks to engage in predatory lending, and has also encouraged consumers to sell their own lives away in order to purchase immediate consumption of disposable products and temporary services. Where our parents worked and saved, and therefore kept themselves safe from levels of consumption that they couldn't afford, our generation works to buy and spend, leaving ourselves with nothing. We do this, by the way, at the same time that long-secured medical benefits that our workplaces used to pay for are now disappearing, while the government warns against "socialist" universal health care. We are going to run out of money and out of medical benefits at the same time, when the conservatives take away Medicare and Social Security.
And yet, as we happily march on to the great collapse of the American economy, with Americans earning less and less, and saving nothing at all, and watching conservatives take away the last of our social services and giving these benefits instead to companies already rich by promoting uninhibited consumption, we still harp on about the great advantages of capitalism. The Republicans argue that now what is needed is tax cuts for the rich; and somehow, people don't see that eight years of Republican tax cuts, and spending the Clinton surplus in Iraq, has not brought forth the jobs that they miraculously are supposed to bring suddenly under McCain's "change."
All of this diatribe has, by the way, ignored the progressive destruction of the biosphere by the use of fossil fuels and various other harmful behaviors of excessive capitalism. We have to a great degree been living off of the future generations of this planet who will have to face the greater temperatures, and greater ranges in weather patterns caused by our negligence and inability to limit our own destruction of our own home. Capitalism doesn't favor green policy for the most part, so the millions of people who will die of hunger, disease, and war because we need to drive our very own car to work will just have to accept their fates as their parents' and grandparents' sacrificial victims. Remember how our parents scrimped and saved so we could have better lives? Instead of passing on that fine tradition, we have sold ourselves into debt for our McMansions, SUVs, cell phones, and MP3-players; and we are quite knowingly destroying the planet our children and grandchildren are going to try to inhabit.
Capitalism unfortunately is like the problem with drugs. Do you blame the supplier, or the user? It is easy, and in fact very frequently perfectly justified, to blame corporations because they often (especially when the laws allow them to) engage in harmful activities for the financial benefit of their stockholders. But Wal-Mart would not be the profit-earning giant it is if millions of people did not flood through its doors to purchase its wares. Big Oil makes big profits because we spend our time bitching about high gas prices while pumping fifteen gallons of the earth-killing substance into our gas tanks. Consumption-hungry people create a demand; and a corporation fulfills that demand. Both sides are to blame. If we are going to make our nation stronger and our world better and healthier, we need to come up with a better plan than this, because if we don't the next century is going to be a bleak time of war, disease, death, and destruction.