Thursday, June 16, 2005

The Good and Bad of Capitalism

There are so many great things about freedom and capitalism. It empowers and releases great creativity. It provides for great development. People can dream big and tap into their God-given potential. Generally, it greatly improves the welfare of the majority of people.

It does have a dark side though. It often creates greed and injustices among people. Someone comes in first (financially) and someone has to be the last (financially). Those who succeed begin to want more, and more, and more and often forget about those who fail as they struggle in poverty.

Recently I asked a small group to give their thoughts on the communal nature of the early church in Acts 4:32-37. One friend honestly said, "it sure sounds an awful lot like communism."

That statement and the following article keeps me pondering the dark side of capitalism. More on that later. For now, here's the thought-provoking article from the Sojourners e-mail update that I read earlier tonight. David Batstone talks about the contradicting values of capitalism breaking into Communist run Vietnam.

The money trail cuts across values in Vietnam
by David Batstone

I just returned from a two-week jaunt to Vietnam. As most of you know, Vietnam operates under one of the world's few remaining communist political systems. For the past 30 years, both North and South have been united under one government. Remarkably, about five years ago, the Vietnamese government made a public commitment to capital free markets. Once disdained, foreign investment suddenly became a welcome friend - that is, as long as the investment was made in venture with a Vietnamese-based company.

My trip started in Hanoi in the North, and continued to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) in the South. I have many Polaroids to share, but one in particular - the story of Thuy - is worth telling.

Thuy was one of our Vietnamese guides. The 30-year-old woman was born right around the time of the fall of Saigon. She never experienced the American war in Vietnam. The only enemy she knew was poverty.

Both her parents were grammar school teachers. The government paid teachers a small salary, but it was barely enough to live on. Thuy cannot recall more than a few meals in her childhood that involved more than rice and a vegetable. Some days there was not even enough rice.

Thuy's parents could feed her mind adequately. They put a priority on education for all their children. By the time they reached 18, Thuy and her siblings were prepared for university. Thuy wanted to be involved in international relations, so she applied and was accepted to study in Russia, all expenses paid by the government. She focused her studies on languages, becoming proficient in Russian and English.

Today Thuy works in a government agency for women's development. Most of the time, she manages a project that offers small loans to women entrepreneurs, as well as social service clinics that address women's health needs. Thuy occasionally acts as a tour guide for visiting foreign groups like ours.

Thuy told me her family is far from wealthy today, but they now enjoy an abundance of food. The free markets are booming and are making a major social impact. The entrepreneurial energy in Vietnam is palpable; every corner is a hub of commercial activity. The government now can afford to pay livable wages to teachers.

Undoubtedly that is why Thuy is so grateful for the Vietnamese experiment. She directly benefited from free education and health care. Her family members also have had their lives transformed by the changing economics of free markets. Her work today promotes both: micro-capital for one-person businesses and delivery of free health care. Thuy is the embodiment of all that is right with Vietnam.

A curious thing: Many of my students and I noticed that this sacrificial, yet adventurous spirit was not atypical in Thuy's generation. It was quite inspiring, to be honest. Among a younger generation, on the other hand, we detected more aggression and downright animosity in our interactions, be they social or commercial exchanges. I asked Thuy about this impression, cautious of making a generalization based on limited experience.

Thuy confirmed what we were sensing, confessing to the same concerns. She was quick to point out that we would find that attitude only among young people in major cities, not in the rural areas. Her explanation was fascinating: the current generation of urban young people, the first fruits of a free-market economy, have much higher expectations for material gain. To put in shorthand, they want their own iPod, and they want it now. The inability of most to find the financial means to match their desires caused great frustration.

A Hindu master once remarked, "Quenching our desires with material gain is like seeking to extinguish a burning fire with butter." It seems no matter how much better off we are today than we were yesterday, we cannot answer the question: how much is enough?

I will watch with great interest how the Vietnamese government manages to stoke a flame essential for warmth in a cold, cruel world, which is at the same time a force that threatens to spill over the fire trails it so meticulously grooms.


At 1:07 PM, Blogger DJT said...

It is interesting to me that one generation removed, there is a loss of key motivational information. It is also interesting that at times, this can manifest itself in both spectrums, the haves and the have-nots. If you could master passing motivational information along from generation to generation, it seems there would be less issues. Or, perhaps, the issues would change faces.


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