"If you want to have people avoid you at a party, just ask them if they want to talk about capitalism," artist Steve Lambert says. "So I thought, how could I do that in a way that wouldn't totally be off-putting, and make people run away in fear?"

Lambert's solution was to create a 20-foot-long sign that reads "Capitalism works for me!" And, like a football field scorekeeper, the sign keeps a tally of whether people respond "true" or "false."

Last week, Lambert displayed his work in New York City's Times Square. The final count: 93 true, 109 false.

This isn't the first time Lambert's invited people to respond to the question. He's carted around the sign to Cleveland, Boston, Hartford, San Diego, Los Angeles, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Europe.

But when I ask him if he's noticed any major difference between cities, Lambert says that the differences are largely found between neighborhoods within cities, not cities themselves. "

Of course, the final count is probably the least interesting aspect of the project to Lambert. "I encounter thousands of people--I don't really care what button they press," he said. " What I want is for them to think it through and not have a knee-jerk reaction."

If capitalism doesn't work for someone, Lambert might play devil's advocate and ask the person why he or she doesn't have a different job.

If it unequivocally does, Lambert will challenge that, too.

Lambert's installation will be returning to Times Square on October 6, where it will run for four subsequent days. If you missed the installation the first time around, that's when to cast your vote. It even comes with free "I voted!" stickers (unlike New York City's mayoral primaries).

2013-10-08

Co.Exist

Does Capitalism Work For You? Let The World Know

An art project currently in Times Square asks passersby that simple question, with surprising results.

"If you want to have people avoid you at a party, just ask them if they want to talk about capitalism," artist Steve Lambert says. "So I thought, how could I do that in a way that wouldn't totally be off-putting, and make people run away in fear?"

Lambert's solution was to create a 20-foot-long sign that reads "Capitalism works for me!" And, like a football field scorekeeper, the sign keeps a tally of whether people respond "true" or "false." Last month, Lambert displayed his work in New York City's Times Square for the first time. The final count: 93 true, 109 false.

This week, Lambert's back on the streets to collect more responses and initiate a second round of challenging conversations.

Times Square isn't the only site where Lambert's invited people to respond to the question. He's carted around the sign to Cleveland, Boston, Hartford, San Diego, Los Angeles, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and cities in Europe. But when I ask him if he's noticed any major difference between cities, Lambert says that the differences are largely found between neighborhoods within cities, not cities themselves. He's also gotten some counterintuitive responses. Last month, he met a working, but homeless, man who told Lambert that capitalism worked for him, personally. "He needs it to work," Lambert said. "Life is depending on it; all his hopes are pinned on this job working out and him getting out of the situation that he's in."

Other responses detailed just how devastating a deregulated economy playing hard and fast with capital can be. In the last interview compiled in the video above, one woman tells Lambert the story of her parents, both entrepreneurs who started small businesses. "When the economic collapse happened in the early 2000s, basically everything fell apart," she says. Her mother and father lost their businesses, their home, their marriage, and health. At one point, her mother resorted to living inside her store, trying to make the business succeed, and attempted selling her food stamps just to get by.

"I attribute the recession to capitalism, and the recession resulted in my family falling apart," the woman told Lambert.

Because of these stories and perspectives, the final true/false count is probably the least interesting aspect of the project, Lambert said. "I encounter thousands of people—I don't really care what button they press," he added. " What I want is for them to think it through and not have a knee-jerk reaction." If it capitalism unequivocally works for someone, Lambert will prod his interviewee as to why, or ask how capitalism might be reformed for the better. If our current economic system doesn't work for the interviewee, Lambert might play devil's advocate and ask why he or she doesn't have a different job.

It's no surprise that the sign's creator cites the Diggers as inspiration. In the mid-to-late '60s, the radical street theater group and ideological movement popularized by the Grateful Dead set up a similar space for rethinking the economy. Idealizing a society in which everything was free, the Diggers served free food to hundreds of people throughout San Francisco. In order to receive it, one had to step through a "Free Frame of Reference," a large yellow picture frame that symbolized entering a zone in which people critiqued the status quo and imagined different modes of living.

Primarily, Lambert says he'd like people to slow down when they approach the sign and give the question a good think. For Lambert, if you're wondering, capitalism doesn't work. But if you'd like to talk to him about it, or if you missed his contemporary riff on the frame of reference the first time around, you have until tomorrow to show up and cast your vote. It even comes with free "I voted!" stickers (unlike New York City's mayoral primaries).

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3 Comments

  • Greg Black

    I personally think that capitalism should have a sliding scale.

    At a local level, entrepreneurs should be able to have a dream and work hard on that with out much government interference. This breeds self sufficient people.

    But as a company gets larger so should government regulation. This is to strike down monopoly, and "Being too big to fail." As well as a compnay being so large that it can effectively buy government.

    Ted Cruz said on CNN that his answer to the health care issue was to open the markets and let free trade and competition drive down the prices. But i look around at the Comcast's and Verizon's of the world, and I all I see are monopolies and price gouging. I very much believe that if they opened up health care to nationwide markets it would only be a matter of time to when consumers only had a small hand full of providers to choose from, and those companies would work together to ensure that prices are at a set level.

    Another example is gas. The price of a barrel of oil was cheap last year or so. We should have had really cheap gas. But speculators and companies were able to artificially keep the price of gas high. That's not how I am told that capitalism is supposed to work and be good for people.

    My utility company wants to raise the price of natural gas, even though we have so much they can't even store it. Supply and demand simply isn't true.

  • James Foye

    Capitalism is ultimately nothing more than private property rights and sound money. We don't have that in this country, we have a mix of crony capitalism and socialism and a fiat currency that is forcefully made legal tender for all debts. People don't understand economics and history very well and get confused, thinking they are let down by capitalism. The lady who laments her parents losing their business during a recession has no clue that the entire boom-bust cycle is a side-effect of the planners at the Federal Reserve monkeying with the money supply, and would not occur in a free market, where people cannot just print up gold coins.

  • Marco Ricci

    I fully agree! It's encouraging to know that there are still people who understand the basic principles of economics.