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Pirates Plunder Capitalism

May 23rd, 2021 by dk

The endgame for American capitalism may be coming into view. It’s beginning to look a lot like piracy on the high seas, or gangs of thugs intercepting railroad cars in the middle of nowhere. It’s even become associated with a patriotic name for its headlines as it redefines “the home of the brave.”

Colonial Pipeline was not the profile of courage. They reportedly paid $5 million to cybercriminals who had seized control of Texas oil flowing to the Eastern Seaboard. The private pipeline company might have tried to resolve the issue without paying a ransom, except the American public panicked at the news and gas stations ran dry.

Who knows whether Colonial actually resolved the problem? Why wouldn’t criminals return to plunder another $5 million a few months from now? Cowardice only increases vulnerability. The criminals could have hidden malware and back door access while they had control, making future attacks almost automatic. They were fools if they didn’t.

They took their payout in cryptocurrency, so there’s no hope for tracing the ransom money after the fact. Pirates don’t need to bury their cash somewhere safe while authorities hunt them. Like pirates operating off the coast of Africa, government officials know they’re out there, but lack the resources to bring the bad guys a fair fight.

This is what unbridled capitalism looks like. It also looks like Texans receiving $5,000 power bills after an unexpected cold snap because rates fluctuate by demand without any limits. It looks like Wal-Mart, sending more employees to hospitals’ COVID-19 wards than any other employer while earning record profits.

The public seems able to intuit the razor’s edge that American daily life has become. We hoard toilet paper or gasoline at the first signal that something might be awry. Closer to home, lumber prices have never been higher. Thousands of Oregonians hope to rebuild after last summer’s wildfires, but homebuilders’ bids keep rising with lumber costs.

We don’t think very much about how supply and demand formulas actually work. Long story short, if everyone demands at once, there won’t be enough supply. Of anything. We neglect companies who can adjust to spiked demand. We’ve taken our business to the everyday low-price leader instead.

Businesses that compete on price are seldom investing enough in security, maintenance and resiliency. Those expensive add-ons cost money! We reward those who stretch their supply lines thin in pursuit of efficient operations and low, low prices. We shouldn’t be surprised when it doesn’t take much for those thin lines to snap.

The pirates are seizing on an opportunity that we shrewd shoppers have created for them. Companies promise that they are taking every precaution, but who hasn’t opened a strange email by mistake or hit “reply all” in haste? Humans are not built for excessive efficiency, regardless of company policy.

And so disruptions will occur, probably with increasing frequency. Minor inconveniences will become catastrophes. Panic is becoming the next public pandemic.

This rule of capitalism cannot be escaped: “You get what you pay for” — whether it’s a soup spoon or a society.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and archives past columns at

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