Deborah Hill Cone

Deborah Hill Cone is a Herald columnist

Deborah Hill Cone: Capitalism lacking in sex appeal

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Fortunes made by jiggery pokery, not hard work, give the system a bad name.

There is a problem with the modern economic system. Photo / Thinkstock
There is a problem with the modern economic system. Photo / Thinkstock

There is a problem with the modern economic system. But it is not the sort of thing you will read about in a learned Rod Oram column. The problem is that most people who call themselves capitalists are dicks.

Really, any of you want to put your hand up to join a club led by goobers such as Mitt Romney and John Banks? Thought not.

Yeah, I know, no one ever writes love songs about capitalism.

But there are sound reasons being a capitalist has a bad reputation these days. One of them is suspicion of the closeness between business and the Government. Ordinary punters take a sniff and it stinks. They suspect there are behind the scenes high-fives in which they are getting screwed. Take the SkyCity convention centre pact. Or the way in which Fletchers, a company with a torrid history of getting into bed with the Government, was quietly awarded two massive billion-dollar contracts for the Christchurch rebuild with a closed tender process or no tender process at all. Those kinds of cliquey backslaps make business feel slithery if not downright corrupt.

Ordinary people also feel quite justifiably cruddy about the large fortunes made by people in the financial markets through jiggery pokery rather than cleverness or hard work. Fair cop. Chris Hayes, author of the book Twilight of the Elites, says the failures of the past decade have created a deep crisis of authority and the ruling class has proved unworthy of its power. It's hard to argue with that.

But why do the "good" capitalists, who got rich the old-fashioned way, by starting businesses and earning money, never come forward and defend themselves?

Conservative writer Charles Murray admits capitalism has an image problem, not that he is terribly likely to help solve it, being the un-cuddly guy that brought you the Bell Curve.

But Murray is spot on when he says capitalism has become segregated from virtue. We have forgotten there is something noble about earning a living for yourself and your family through your own efforts.

I don't read Ayn Rand any more but I still have a soft spot for capitalism. Admittedly for rather girly reasons, not the kind Rod Oram would approve of; the sort that have more to do with being able to buy good shoes than macro-economics.

Although capitalism is generally abhorred by artists - I give you Kid Rock - crazily it is the only system, other than anarchy maybe, that embraces the chaos and mess that are essential for creativity. In her essay The Perverse Allure of Messy Lives, Katie Roiphe celebrates the television series Mad Men, as clear a representation as any of the American capitalist dream.

"The phenomenal success of the show seemed to rely at least in part on the thrill of casual vice, on the glamour of spectacularly messy, self-destructive behaviour to our relatively staid and enlightened times." Capitalism as a release for our wild passions in these repressed and uptight days is not the kind of capitalism you generally get offered by right-wingers. But perhaps we should. I'm just a jobbing journo and I can't make capitalism seem rock 'n' roll.

But I will paraphrase some words from a very cool writer, David Foster Wallace (who, for much of his life, was apolitical and did sometimes vote Republican but was certainly not a dick).

Capitalism that believes in individual freedom may "give CPR to those elements of what's human and magical that still live and glow despite the time's darkness." Let's make some T-shirts.


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