We can save our broken economic system from itself.
Despite the lowest unemployment rates since the late 1960s, the American economy is failing its citizens. Some 90 percent have seen their incomes stagnate or decline in the past 30 years. This is not surprising, given that the United States has the highest level of inequality among the advanced countries and one of the lowest levels of opportunity — with the fortunes of young Americans more dependent on the income and education of their parents than elsewhere.
But things don’t have to be that way. There is an alternative: progressive capitalism. Progressive capitalism is not an oxymoron; we can indeed channel the power of the market to serve society.
In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan’s regulatory “reforms,” which reduced the ability of government to curb the excesses of the market, were sold as great energizers of the economy. But just the opposite happened: Growth slowed, and weirder still, this happened in the innovation capital of the world.
The sugar rush produced by President Trump’s largess to corporations in the 2017 tax law didn’t deal with any of these long-run problems, and is already fading. Growth is expected to be a little under 2 percent next year.
This is where we’ve descended to, but not where we have to stay. A progressive capitalism based on an understanding of what gives rise to growth and societal well-being gives us a way out of this quagmire and a way up for our living standards.
Standards of living began to improve in the late 18th century for two reasons:
- the development of science (we learned how to learn about nature and used that knowledge to increase productivity and longevity) and
- developments in social organization (as a society, we learned how to work together, through institutions like the rule of law, and democracies with checks and balances).
Key to both were systems of assessing and verifying the truth. The real and long-lasting danger of the Trump presidency is the risk it poses to these pillars of our economy and society, its attack on the very idea of knowledge and expertise, and its hostility to institutions that help us discover and assess the truth.
There is a broader social compact that allows a society to work and prosper together, and that, too, has been fraying. America created the first truly middle-class society; now, a middle-class life is increasingly out of reach for its citizens.
America arrived at this sorry state of affairs because we forgot that the true source of the wealth of a nation is the creativity and innovation of its people. One can get rich either by adding to the nation’s economic pie or by grabbing a larger share of the pie by exploiting others — abusing, for instance, market power or informational advantages. We confused the hard work of wealth creation with wealth-grabbing (or, as economists call it, rent-seeking), and too many of our talented young people followed the siren call of getting rich quickly.
Beginning with the Reagan era, economic policy played a key role in this dystopia: Just as forces of globalization and technological change were contributing to growing inequality, we adopted policies that worsened societal inequities. Even as economic theories like information economics (dealing with the ever-present situation where information is imperfect), behavioral economics and game theory arose to explain why markets on their own are often not efficient, fair, stable or seemingly rational, we relied more on markets and scaled back social protections.
We are now in a vicious cycle: Greater economic inequality is leading, in our money-driven political system, to more political inequality, with weaker rules and deregulation causing still more economic inequality.
If we don’t change course matters will likely grow worse, as machines (artificial intelligence and robots) replace an increasing fraction of routine labor, including many of the jobs of the several million Americans making their living by driving.
The prescription follows from the diagnosis: It begins by recognizing the vital role that the state plays in making markets serve society. We need regulations that ensure strong competition without abusive exploitation, realigning the relationship between corporations and the workers they employ and the customers they are supposed to serve. We must be as resolute in combating market power as the corporate sector is in increasing it.
If we had curbed exploitation in all of its forms and encouraged wealth creation, we would have had a more dynamic economy with less inequality. We might have curbed the opioid crisis and avoided the 2008 financial crisis. If we had done more to blunt the power of oligopolies and strengthen the power of workers, and if we had held our banks accountable, the sense of powerlessness might not be so pervasive and Americans might have greater trust in our institutions.
The neoliberal fantasy that unfettered markets will deliver prosperity to everyone should be put to rest. It is as fatally flawed as the notion after the fall of the Iron Curtain that we were seeing “the end of history” and that we would all soon be liberal democracies with capitalist economies.
Most important, our exploitive capitalism has shaped who we are as individuals and as a society. The rampant dishonesty we’ve seen from Wells Fargo and Volkswagen or from members of the Sackler family as they promoted drugs they knew were addictive — this is what is to be expected in a society that lauds the pursuit of profits as leading, to quote Adam Smith, “as if by an invisible hand,” to the well-being of society, with no regard to whether those profits derive from exploitation or wealth creation.
Two Capitalists Worry About Capitalism’s Future
James Dimon and Ray Dalio are among the most successful capitalists in the U.S. today. So when they worry aloud about the future of capitalism, it’s worth listening.
“I believe that all good things taken to an extreme become self-destructive and that everything must evolve or die. This is now true for capitalism,” Mr. Dalio, founder of hedge-fund manager Bridgewater Associates, writes on LinkedIn.
Mr. Dimon, chief executive of JPMorgan Chase & Co., writes in his annual letter to shareholders: “In many ways and without ill intent, many companies were able to avoid—almost literally drive by—many of society’s problems.”
Captains of industry have always opined on the issues of the day. Still, these latest missives are noteworthy for three reasons.
- First, the authors: Mr. Dalio anticipated the financial crisis; his systematic management and investment style has made Bridgewater the world’s largest hedge-fund manager. Mr. Dimon is arguably the country’s most successful banker, having steered J.P. Morgan clear of the subprime mortgage disaster to become the country’s most valuable financial institution.
- Second, the timing: They are speaking out at a time when the free-market capitalism that has served them so well is questioned by many Americans, including prominent Democrats.
- Third, the content. Mr. Dalio and Mr. Dimon love capitalism and aren’t apologizing for it. But they recognize the system isn’t working for everyone, and they have ideas for fixing it, some of which might require rich people like themselves to pay more tax. Yet they fear the federal government is hamstrung by intensifying partisanship. So they are putting their money and reputations where their mouths are by speaking out, backing local initiatives and hoping like-minded business leaders join them. In effect, they are breathing life into the shrinking nonpartisan center.
In an interview, Mr. Dalio says many business leaders “don’t want to get into the argument. I can understand that. I say to myself, Should I get in? I do think if everyone keeps quiet, we’re going to continue to behave as we’re behaving, and it’s going to tear us apart.”
Mr. Dalio’s essay was inspired by a longstanding interest in the parallels between the 1930s and the present:
- the growth of debt and
- the relative impotence of central banks, the
- widening of inequality and the
- rise of populism.
Capitalism, he says, is now in a “self-reinforcing feedback loop”:
- companies develop labor-saving technologies that enrich their owners while displacing workers.
- The haves spend more on child care and education, widening their lead over the have-nots,
- whose predicament is compounded by underperforming schools,
- the decline of two-parent families, and
- rising incarceration.
Mr. Dalio thinks inequality has fueled populism and ideological extremism, which he fears means capitalism will be either abandoned or left unreformed.
But, like Mr. Dalio, he worries partisanship has crippled the country’s ability to enact basic reforms that elevate economic growth and strengthen the safety net, such as
- improving high schools and community colleges’ provision of useful skills,
- more cost-effective health care,
- faster infrastructure approval,
- more skilled immigrants coupled with legalizing illegal immigrants, and
- requiring fewer licenses to start a small businesses.
“Can you imagine me saying, I can do a better job for the Chase customer if I don’t get involved in details, the products, the services, the prices, how we treat people, how call centers work?” Mr. Dimon asks in an interview. “Policy has too often become disconnected from the analytics; we got slogans instead. It’s driving people apart.”
There’s a chicken-and-egg problem with these well-intentioned calls for nonpartisan problem solving: It requires a level of nonpartisanship that doesn’t exist; otherwise the problems would, presumably, have been solved.
If business leaders can’t persuade with words, they may by example. Mr. Dalio and his wife, Barbara, have donated $100 million to the state of Connecticut, to be matched by the state and other philanthropists, to create a $300 million partnership devoted to reducing dropout rates and promoting entrepreneurship in underserved schools and communities.
For its part, J.P. Morgan has under Mr. Dimon combined commercial and philanthropic resources to finance affordable housing, small business and infrastructure and job training in Detroit, announced $600 million in workforce development grants since 2013, and boosted salaries for lower-end employees. Mr. Dimon, in his shareholder letter, called on fellow CEOs to “take positions on public policy that they think are good for the country.”
It doesn’t always work. The Business Roundtable, which Mr. Dimon chairs, successfully pressed Congress and President Trump for lower business taxes, but unsuccessfully for more infrastructure and legalizing illegal immigrants. Says Mr. Dimon: “We should give it the best shot we’ve got.”
The Five Capitals
There are five types of sustainable capital from where we derive the goods and services we need to improve the quality of our lives.
Natural Capital is any stock or flow of energy and material that produces goods and services. It includes:
- Resources – renewable and non-renewable materials
- Sinks – that absorb, neutralise or recycle wastes
- Processes – such as climate regulation
Natural capital is the basis not only of production but of life itself!
Human Capital consists of people’s health, knowledge, skills and motivation. All these things are needed for productive work.
Enhancing human capital through education and training is central to a flourishing economy.
Social Capital concerns the institutions that help us maintain and develop human capital in partnership with others; e.g. families, communities, businesses, trade unions, schools, and voluntary organisations.
Manufactured Capital comprises material goods or fixed assets which contribute to the production process rather than being the output itself – e.g. tools, machines and buildings.
Financial Capital plays an important role in our economy, enabling the other types of Capital to be owned and traded. But unlike the other types, it has no real value itself but is representative of natural, human, social or manufactured capital; e.g. shares, bonds or banknotes.
To save capitalism, we need to create a new political party and reinvent the role of corporations.
But how can the economic and political power of the middle class be restored to save capitalism?
Capitalism can be saved through the formation of a new political party. For instance, did you know that the largest political party in the country is neither the Republican Party nor the Democratic Party, but the party of nonvoters?
Just consider the 2012 presidential election. Only 58.2 percent of eligible voters exercised their right to vote.
A third party could be founded to unite apathetic voters, returning a political voice to disenfranchised Americans. This party should endeavor to enable the economic success of the country’s majority.
But to do this, the party would need to reform America’s system of campaign financing, which currently allows wealthy individuals to leverage their money to influence politicians. Beyond that, the party would need to raise the minimum wage, give priority to labor agreements instead of creditor agreements and limit the size of Wall Street’s gigantic banks.
When that’s completed, the corporation too will need to be reinvented. As the system is set up today, the financial interest of corporations means lower pay for the average worker and extremely high pay for executives.
One strategy for changing this system would be to tie corporate tax rates to the ratio of what a CEO makes compared with the pay of an average worker. The greater the difference, the higher the tax. This would give corporations an economic incentive to increase the average wage of employees.
Capitalism is not lost. Yet if it is to survive, it will have to be reorganized to better distribute its profits.