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The triumph of gray

Perhaps the answer to growing concerns about capitalism is not in black or white – it is in the perpetual reconsideration and recalibration that reveals the symphony within the gray.

Mark Lennihan/AP/File
American flags fly in front of the New York Stock Exchange.

Extremes can certainly be alluring. For many years, I had at my desk a classic “Calvin and Hobbes” comic strip in which Calvin laments: “The more you know, the harder it is to take decisive action. Once you become informed, you start seeing complexities and shades of gray. You realize that nothing is as clear and simple as it first appears. Ultimately, knowledge is paralyzing.” Then the punchline: Throwing a book over his shoulder, he says, “Being a man of action, I can’t afford to take that risk.”

Today, there’s the temptation to be “a man of action” like Calvin. Social media goad us, as do political parties and our own desire to turn the murky shades of gray into black and white – something easier to assimilate. But the cover story this week by Mark Trumbull and Eoin O’Carroll is a wonderful example of the need – even the triumph – of loving the gray.

Their story looks at growing concerns about capitalism, particularly among the young. These young people see abundance but don’t think it’s being distributed fairly. In short, the upper and upper-middle classes are hoarding it.

Is the answer socialism? Some think so. That, after all, is the other extreme. If the concern is that wealth is being unfairly hoarded, then more enforced sharing seems a logical response. But Mark and Eoin’s story also makes clear that capitalism has created unprecedented wealth in recent centuries by unleashing the individual. Free markets create the conditions for individuals to be rewarded for their innovation and hard work. Economies that lack that incentive have lacked the dynamism essential for growth.

Perhaps the answer is not in black or white – it is in the perpetual reconsideration and recalibration that reveals the symphony within the gray. True, our ideals must be in black and white. Our bedrock is fairness and compassion and responsibility and honesty, for instance. But in the thousand million collisions of these ideals among different peoples, traditions, needs, and nations, the genius is in finding the notes that blend them most harmoniously – the road that moves us closest.

What’s interesting is that the greatest potential for free market capitalism lies in the potential inherent in every single person. In that way, the goal is both individual and collective. Individuals have ideas. The collective needs them. The stronger the individual, the better the ideas. The stronger the collective, the bigger the market. Done right, free market capitalism is a powerful virtuous cycle.

Doing it right requires some regulation to ensure opportunity is spread as widely as possible, but not so much that it chills individual innovation. How does that symphony of gray look? In their book “Our Towns,” James and Deborah Fallows offer a glimpse. In smaller towns, where a strong sense of community means everyone is an “us,” companies and the wealthy often act differently. From Holland, Mich., to Columbus, Miss., they invest in local schools and art and health. They spread wealth naturally and without compulsion. The answer to the challenges of capitalism, then, might simply be wrestling with how we can best expand the concentric circles of “us.”

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