Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Reich is not a Red, But an Optimist: On Saving Capitalism for the Many, Not the Few

First thing first, Robert Reich isn’t a red communist. The title of the book is “Saving Capitalism,” to get that point across. But there is further proof. There are multiple places where he defends Reagan’s firing of the air traffic controllers. He makes of point of saying in an aside that the strikers had no right to strike (129), but I would say that everyone has a right to withhold their labor in an action of collective will. It’s a weird aside and a debatable point, but just one of several places where Rob and I diverge. Another place is where he unquestionably praises large foundations like the Gates foundation (146), without noting that the political pushes in places such as school reform are part of the problem.

I mention all of this because for the most part, the book as a whole reads like a very learned critique of the capitalistic system as it exists in America today. A note I wrote myself is that Rob and I have some of the very same critiques, so it was treading familiar ground. The issue between us is if the capitalism that he wants to save is saveable. For the most part he holds up the economy roughly during the Bretton Woods system as one that we want to return to. I am doubtful that we can retur to that since we have moved more towards an information econimy than the industrial one we had back then. Reich acknowledged this, with a chapter later that looks at what can happen when the robots come and take all our jobs.

What I really like about this book is the framing that Reich uses. He emphasizes that the market is not free, so there is no real fight between the government and the free market, but that the free market is created by rules set by the government. There is no market without the rules, and the state makes the rules. Like I said, there is a lot of parallel between Reich and the Reds, but ultimately the question is if capitalism is saveable or if it is even worth it. The history he covers shows the swing between greater and lesser equality and more and less power for the people and the elites. The history is one of movements from the trust busting progressives to the new deal to the great society to what we have now with a  multiplicity of angry groups but little action. Reich sets a clarion call heeded by both the supporters of Trump and Sanders, keying into a populist anger, but even if successful I am not optimistic that in my lifetime we wouldn’t need new books that were sequels to the book - Still Saving Capitalism for the Many - because it is a great cycle.

Ultimately, he comes down on the answer that a basic income would be the best way to soften the blow to capitalism as it really exists. It sounds like a nice reform that would free up people from the worst excesses of capitalism, but it is just that - a reform. I don’t know if even the ambitious plan that he outlines in his prescriptive chapters is half implementable politically because they involve so much reform in the face of concentrated power and the people's power is diffuse and unfocused. That means that for the time being we will keep snipping at the edges. When it comes down to it, Reich is just so much more optimistic than I am.