Robert Reich’s Saving Capitalism For the Many, Not the Few (2015 Penguin Random House)
Book Review by Christopher Nowlin
This review of Robert Reich’s Saving Capitalism For the Many, Not the Few is admittedly belated but perhaps timely for this very reason. As many critical works do, Reich’s book culminated on an optimistic note (“there is much cause for optimism”), possibly reassuring many 2015 and 2016 readers that the Titanic of the American socio-economy was not headed straight toward a mid-Atlantic iceberg. Hope springs eternal, but then Trump was elected, partly on the basis of a lot of tough talk about Wall Street and Washington, Reich’s main targets. The tricky financiers (on “the Street,” as Reich calls it) and the partisan cronies who generationally warm the benches of government were all going to get a good shaking-up from the celebrity capitalist, so Trump supporters were led to believe. Reich could not have asked for a more perfect presidential candidate, except for Bernie Sanders, who was a close second choice for many Trump supporters.
The fact that both Trump and Sanders could be so appealing to the same voters, but that the multimillionaire deal maker would rule the day (yes, it is understood that Trump was ultimately pitted against Clinton) speaks directly to a major issue that Reich never directly addresses in his book. In his discussion of “The Meritocratic Myth” he recalled something a blue-collar labourer had told him at a gathering of Calpine employees. (One can witness the exchange in Reich’s 2013 documentary, Inequality for All). Reich was explaining the economic value of unionizing when the fellow indicated that he had no moral problem with American capitalists who were “making their millions”. Indeed, he considered their situation to be “fantastic.” In his view, he was not like those people. He did not go to school and, in his words, he did not have “the brains” to make millions. “So,” he told Reich, “I’m a labourer.”
In his book Reich treats this man’s perception as a launching pad for an unending critique of the proposition that a person’s income neatly reflects the nature of that person’s employment or occupational contribution to the smooth operation of the broader socio-economy. Reich’s readers are routinely reminded of how little the millionaires on “the Street” contribute to the well-functioning of Main Street and the point is very well-taken, but it has been made thousands of times before by writers from many fields in and outside of economics. Surely Reich’s 21st century readers do not need to be convinced that meritocracy in America is a myth. Or do they? The Calpine employee intimated a dark truth about capitalist societies that Reich did not broach. Working-class and wage-earning Americans do think it would be fantastic to be rich. Many Amercans wish they were as wealthy as Trump, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Mark Zuckerberg, Floyd Mayweather and Oprah Winfrey. Emulation is real. Thorstein Veblen brilliantly documented its economic influence in Theory of the Leisure Class over a century ago. Today it drives many people to make risky investments, to buy larger homes than they can afford, to buy lottery tickets instead of food, and to gamble away paycheques in casinos. It explains partly why Trump could be more politically attractive than Sanders. Trump has towers in his name. Sanders does not.
Saving Capitalism For the Many might remind some readers of other commercially successful critiques of American capitalism, such as John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Affluent Society (1958) and Joel Bakan’s The Corporation (2004). The twin facts that such eye-opening examinations of corporate power and influence in politics could be bestsellers as the income gap for Americans increases, generation after generation, should raise important questions, the first one being, why? Reich’s nearly obsessive pre-occupation with the exorbitant and undeserved incomes of financiers on “the Street” leaves little-to-no room for an examination of why consumers behave as they do. Reich’s passing acknowledgment that “[w]e are the authors of our own fates” is as far as Reich goes in the name of documentary balance. He notes, for example, that the corporate colossus, Amazon, has become “the first stop for almost a third of all American consumers looking to buy anything” (his emphasis), without even suggesting that no American needs to buy anything from Amazon. They do so by choice. Reich observes that Walmart “siphoned away so much business from the Main Streets of America that many became ghost towns”, as if American shoppers were physically sucked away from their local mom-and-pop sellers toward impersonal, suburban box-stores. Surely he is not suggesting that in the early 1960s, when Target, Kmart and Walmart took root across the American landscape, average Americans simply could not afford to buy merchandise from their neighbourhood retailers. If this is the case now then indeed consumers have been at least partially the authors of such a fate.
Reich devotes many pages to forms of “countervailing power,” an expression that was “dubbed” by Galbraith (in American Capitalism), as Reich acknowledges. Whereas Reich focuses extensively on the decline of unions in this context, Galbraith emphasized the highly significant countervailing power that department stores, supermarket chains, and drug stores exercise over large-scale commercial producers and manufacturers of goods (see American Capitalism, 1952, p.120). In the 1950s Woolworth’s, Kresge’s, Sears, Roebuck and others were the conduits by which manufactured products reached consumers, so they had a real say in the price at which they would buy such goods. Today this same economic dynamic has made Amazon and Walmart the corporate superstars that they have become, but the ever-shrinking price of retail goods for consumers has been accompanied by wage stagnation, outsourcing and the loss of independent or mom-and-pop sellers.
Reich surmises that “unlimited production” could be controlled in the future by a “handful” of corporate interests and that the products themselves will get consumed only by persons who can afford them. The “underlying problem”, as he sees it, is not “the number of jobs but the allocation of income and wealth”. But unemployment or underemployment will remain a significant problem. In Inequality for All Reich was assured by Nic Hanauer, a self-described plutocrat, that mom-and-pop retailers are the economy’s best employers – that technologically efficient mass-production kills jobs. (Reich seems to agree that “a wave” of forthcoming “inventions and innovations will…replace countless jobs”). Yet he imagines that the institution of a widespread minimum income could offset the reduced buying power that accompanies underemployment. Here, as usual, he maintains a romantic view of the average American consumer. He writes, “The basic minimum would allow people to pursue whatever arts or avocations provide them with meaning, thereby also enabling society to enjoy the fruits of such artistry or voluntary effort.” So far this crystal ball image of a society blossoming with art, culture and charitable deeds, once liberated from the need for meaningless toil, is more than hopeful. To make it appear feasible Reich remarks, “It seems doubtful that the vast majority would choose idleness over physical and mental activity”. Rather, “we’re likely to see a reversion to a time when many jobs were considered ‘callings’.”
Despite Reich’s best wishes and hopes, nothing could be more unlikely to transpire over the next half-century than economically secure persons returning to the “callings” of the 19th and earlier centuries. Printing is not done with blocks but with software and in 3D. Painting and illustrating are not done with paint and ink but with plastic sticks and monitors. Photographs are not developed in darkrooms. Music is created digitally. Games and sports are handheld. Significant numbers of young persons and adults willingly handcuff themselves to smartphones for hours a day. Consciousness-raising is done with tweets. The ability to read and write (or what was once known as “literacy”) is at crisis levels. Et cetera, et cetera. So no, when “iEverything” finally hits the market and delivers at the consumer’s feet whatever the consumer wants – as Reich hypothetically postulates – the “only problem” will not be that “no one will be able to buy it” unless they have a basic minimum income. It will be that human beings have become inextricably acculturated to relationships among themselves and with the natural world that are significantly “virtual” in the sense of electronic, digital, synthetic, et cetera. It will be that human beings have become remarkably impatient and demanding just because they have become so used to routine actions and events occurring at ever-increasing speeds, as Marshall McLuhan understood so well.
Why Reich ultimately believes a future full of robots (“When Robots Take Over”) holds “much cause for optimism” and why a wave of new apps will “vastly improve our lives” is a head-scratcher. One can imagine how the heat and light of outdoor fires vastly improved lives, as did affordable tables and chairs, plumbing, penicillin, electrical light bulbs, et cetera. But it is more difficult to imagine how the lives of tens of thousands of people who jet across the world daily to float in the warm pools of island resorts, always with an eye on the nearest plug for their smart phones so that pictures of umbrella drinks can be sent magically to others in states and countries far far away, could be vastly improved. See my “Understanding and Undermining the Growth Paradigm.”
Reich dedicated his book, “In fond memory of John Kenneth Galbraith”. In 1958, when The Affluent Society was published, Galbraith famously satirized the state of American ”genius”. It was one in which nature had been recklessly polluted and commercially wrought for the recreational purposes of the typically harried middle-class American. Galbraith skewered prevailing economic policy in America as much as the American way of life, for lack of a better expression. In proposing ways that capitalism in the 21st century could serve more Americans better, Reich appears to share the same wish that Galbraith had over a half-century ago. This reader simply wishes that Reich was as circumspect and realistic about American consumer behaviours as he was about the excesses of Wall Street financiers and Washington politicians.