Our collective response to the Houston tragedy is proof that greed and capitalism aren't the only ways to run society

Despite the cooperative response to Houston, we still face the absurdity of a winner-take-all capitalist system

Published September 6, 2017 3:58AM (EDT)

People evacuate a neighborhood inundated by floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey on Monday, Aug. 28, 2017, in Houston, Texas (AP/Charlie Riedel)
People evacuate a neighborhood inundated by floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey on Monday, Aug. 28, 2017, in Houston, Texas (AP/Charlie Riedel)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.


In the worst moments of the tragedy in Houston, something remarkable about America burst into view, as government, business, military, and especially ordinary citizens put aside thoughts of personal gain and dedicated themselves to the needs of their fellow human beings and their animals.

People in Texas and around the nation pitched in, through their labors and donations: neighbors and first responders saved lives; the Red Cross and other charitable organizations, including local churches, brought food, supplies and medicine to hurricane victims; many GoFundMe initiatives were set up; the business community (especially furniture man Jim McIngvale) donated their goods and services; government officials remained focused on the people they were elected to represent; and even the military contributed with rescue helicopters. No one seemed to care about the skin color, religion or politics of those in need.

The empathy and cooperative spirit — some might call it socialism — that gripped America was delightful to behold. But soon, we return to reality.

Capitalism Has No Incentive to Help the Poor, the Victims of Disaster, or Even Children

The New York Times summarized, "The free market often does a terrible job of providing basic services to the poor — see, for instance, the lack of grocery stores and banks in many low-income neighborhoods."

It is we the taxpayers who support the children, elderly and disabled who make up the great majority of the recipients of life-sustaining programs. The business world has little incentive to safeguard the population against pollution and industrial poisons, or to maintain infrastructure in the inner cities and rural townships, or to make sure everyone has the opportunity for a living-wage job. And except for brief surges of generosity after cataclysmic events, big corporations have little incentive to provide for the long-term well-being of people struck down by catastrophe. Large corporations also avoid many of the taxes needed to fund federal disaster programs.

Perhaps worst of all, there is little capitalist motivation to secure the lives of children. Righteous conservatives rally behind the unborn, but say little about the excessive deaths of children being born in the U.S. Our infant mortality rate is among the highest in the developed world.

The disregard for the lives of children reflects a disdain for poor women in America: their children are more likely to die than poor mothers in other countries.

How capitalism kills 

Drugs and depression: As the pharmaceutical industry keeps pushing opioids, Americans are suffering "deaths of despair" from drugs, alcohol and suicide. One out of every six Americans has taken a psychiatric drug such as an antidepressant or sedative in the past year. About 75% of heroin addicts used prescription opioids before turning to heroin, which is killing people at a rate three times greater than just seven years ago.

Americans are also dying from alcoholism at a record rate. Suicide is at its highest level in 30 years.

Job stress: The suicide rate is also clearly linked to unemployment and deteriorating work conditions, especially since the 2008 recession.

Dirty air and water: By one estimate, fossil fuels kill more people around the world every year than wars, murders and traffic accidents combined. Up to 4.5 million deaths each year are linked to our carbon-intensive economy.

Killing the public trust 
The public response to the devastation in Houston shows the perseverance and efficiency of people working together for a common purpose. The same should be encouraged in public education, health care and affordable housing.

Instead, we have profit-seekers promoting forms of "school choice" that eliminate the poorest and neediest students, while draining money from the public system, even as state governments continue to cut school funding. We have a privatized health care system that spends more and performs more poorly than most other developed countries. We have hardly any places in the U.S. where a working-class family can afford housing, and yet the federal housing budget is targeted for a cutback.

In capitalist America, we even face the absurdity of proposed budget cuts for FEMA and National Flood Insurance, both of immeasurable importance after Hurricane Harvey, and inevitably to the victims of future natural disasters.

Despite the overwhelmingly caring and cooperative response to the Houston tragedy, we face the continuing absurdity of a winner-take-all capitalist system trying to convince us that the words "public" and "social" are somehow un-American. That is twisted thinking. America at its best is a community of people working together without visions of dollar signs in their eyes.

By Paul Buchheit

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Alternet Capitalism Free Market Houston Hurricane Harvey Low Income Poverty Texas