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No Capitalists in Foxholes
by Ronald Bruce Meyer


Recently, I was visiting a friend in New York. I had met him in the Soviet Union -- when there was a Soviet Union. He wasn't interested in crowded places today, so we walked in the crisp, cool air of his beautiful Queens.

"Can you explain American capitalism to me?" he asked.

Oh, come on, I replied. You've been in this country for -- how long, now?

"I emigrated in 1992. I cheered this country from Russia in the 1980s. Ronald Reagan was my hero: He defeated Communism. He proved that capitalism was king. I thought I understood capitalism when I was over there, teaching English in a state-run school. Now I'm confused. Ever since the terror attacks on New York and Washington."

Yes, the World Trade Center was a monument to capitalism. Is that what you mean?

"No. I'm trying to understand the actions of the Congress and our president. I can't understand what they're doing with our tax money."

Oh, you're talking about the airline bailout?

"Yes." We rounded a corner and turned onto a quieter street.

What's to understand? Congress had to do something or the airlines would go out of business.

"Under Socialism, companies lose money but are propped up anyway. Like the airlines here. Under Socialism, companies that are poorly managed and unprofitable are not allowed to fail. Like some of the airlines here. I guess I can't understand how American capitalism differs from Socialism."

Are you saying that a Socialist economy would be better?

"I came to this country because I thought capitalism would be better -- or at least different. What do I see? Businesses are capitalist when they're profitable, but Socialist when they're bordering on bankruptcy. If the airlines are now supported by tax dollars, in what sense is that capitalism?"

So, to you, it looks like they're government-run corporations?

"No. If they were government-run, the taxpayers would at least have some say in how they operate; they might even share in their profits. Workers would have job security. Remember that `airline passenger bill of rights' that used to be in Congress? Where is that now? It seems to me that airline shareholders get to keep their profits, run their business recklessly, and get bailed out by my tax dollars when they fail."

So you think bankruptcy would be better?

"Why not? As I understand it, bankruptcy isn't the end of the world, especially if you're a corporation. Consumers have no taxpayers to turn to when they make bad spending decisions."

But the bailout is just an emergency solution, I protested.

"Many of the airlines were failing long before September 11. And the bailout they're getting is way more than they need for two days of business lost. Even for future losses: they cut tens of thousands of workers before they ever got a dime from Uncle Sam. Who's bailing out those workers? Congress made sure the bankruptcy laws would bite them."

Well, you can't have people run up big debts and then get off scot-free. That was to encourage responsibility with debt.

"So it's a moral lesson? Don't you think airlines should also be encouraged to be responsible with debt? Personally, I think bankruptcy might even help the airlines. It would force a reorganization."

Like the Chrysler bailout? The savings and loan bailouts? I said, triumphantly.

He stopped and looked at me. "I guess they were early experiments in corporate Socialism. But, if we're going to be honest about capitalism in this country and `socialize' corporate losses, why not give the taxpayers what they're paying for?"

You're talking about public control of the airlines? That'll never happen!

"You think not? Mr. Bush is already on record for federalizing airport security. He said it in your hometown of Chicago. That would at least eliminate the conflict of interest in the airlines promoting both security and profits. Why not go all the way? As Mr. Bush has said repeatedly, while giving tax breaks to rich people, `it's our money!'"

Well, I agree that the public should have a say in how public money is spent. But you can't tell me that there aren't some companies that are just too big to fail.

"That's why I'm having such trouble understanding American capitalism. Shareholders know the risks; they're happy to make millions in profits and buy off any regulations against recklessness; but they reach for the public pocketbook when they fail. Investors should act like capitalists, not part-time Socialists."

You mean, you want investors to be careful about investing from now on? No safety net?

"Not unless the workers get one, too. But I guess there are no capitalists in foxholes."
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Ronald Bruce Meyer is a freelance writer.