Charles Misak’s praise for capitalism (Virginia Gazette, March 2) seems to confuse benefits to the wealthy with the good of the United States. Here's why.
During the time of Vanderbilt, Rockefeller and Carnegie, capitalists took active measures to keep their workers strictly under their control. Their belief — whether as beneficent fathers protecting wayward children or hard-nosed businessmen wringing every penny from their investments -- was that they controlled those workers’ existence.
Each year, one of every 20 of Vanderbilt’s railroad employees was killed or suffered major injuries because he wouldn’t pay for safety equipment. Rockefeller and Carnegie either ordered or approved strikebreaking, which resulted in labor confrontations that left scores of men, women and children dead and hundreds more wounded. All three, and their robber baron peers, maintained wages just above starvation levels, required workers to use company stores at extortionate prices, and forced families to send their children into mines and sweatshops. And if workers complained they could be replaced at will, thrown into the street and blackballed from future employment. That was capitalism in the 19th and early 20th century.
It was only through continued unionization that livable wages and the 40-hour work week were achieved, child labor ended and worker safety enforced. It was those efforts, not the mere fact of capitalism, which brought millions into the middle class and enabled them to buy houses, cars, TVs and college educations for their children. During that period, the wealthiest were taxed at rates between 77 percent and 95 percent, but that didn’t stop them from expanding their businesses, incorporating new technologies and making money for themselves. Capital working with labor made this country.
But many of those among the wealthiest weren’t satisfied. They began endowing think tanks and university chairs to sow the seeds of the economics we now see in full fruition. As Cory Doctorow points out, they created the witch doctors who told them they were rich because they deserve to be, and they deserve to be rich because they are.
Even worse, those ideas spread to mass media, with the result that we have people who struggle from paycheck to paycheck defending the right of the rich to keep more of their money to themselves. Thanks to phrases such as “death tax,” personal wealth has become a dynastic right with no obligation to work, innovate or even employ. And because of loopholes enshrined in the 2017 tax scam by the legislators they bought, the wealthiest will receive the lion’s share of the benefits long after the modest gains of the rest of us have disappeared.
In short, within 100 years we have seen workers and government go from creating the checks that channeled capitalism into a common good to a time when unrestricted capitalism is praised as the highest accomplishment of mankind. People such as Mr. Misak overlook the costs to a vanishing middle class and a strong country to call for lower taxes on the wealthy. The ultimate victory of the 21st century robber barons is to make themselves wealthy without risk. That isn't capitalism by any definition.