If you’ve ever been exposed to Robert Reich‘s “Wealth and Poverty” course at UC Berkeley, perhaps through the film Inequality for All, or heard him speak in public, you know that there are few people alive today who are his equal in the ability to explain complex economic and social issues so cogently and compellingly. And few indeed are as funny as he is, either: the man could make a go of a career with a standup act.
However, there’s not a lot of humor in Saving Capitalism, Reich’s fifteenth book. In this brilliant long essay, the former U.S. Secretary of Labor takes on the economic issues of the day from a perspective that rarely comes to light in public discourse: he rejects the widespread assumption that a “free market” exists independent of government. Yet the book centers around his concern of how to make capitalism work.
“A market — any market — requires that government make and enforce the rules of the game,” Reich writes. The size of government, the preoccupation of the American Right for the past four decades, is a distraction from the reality that big corporations and the country’s wealthiest people have steadily rigged the rules that structure the economy — through lobbying, massive political contributions, and the courts. Society’s biggest challenge today, inequality in wealth and income, was the inevitable result of the steady shift of power to the “1%” from the rest of us, as Occupy Wall Street so famously pointed out. “The critical debate for the future is not about the size of government,” Reich adds; “it is about whom government is for.” This is a view of American society from 30,000 feet.
Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few by Robert B. Reich ★★★★★
Reich cites a study by two scholars who set out to gauge “the relative influence . . . of economic elites, business groups, mass-based interest groups, and average citizens.” The study concluded, “The preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.” In other words, everything you ever feared about the influence of the 1% is true.
As Reich explains in a particularly enlightening chapter, “The Decline of Countervailing Power,” the principal reason why Wall Street, the corporations, and the superrich have managed to enrich themselves at the expense of the middle class and the working poor is that the counterweight to what we call the 1% today has steadily withered away since the 1970s. Reich refers to the “interest groups and membership organizations — clubs, associations, political parties, and trade unions — to which politicians were [once] responsive.”
The labor movement was the key to prosperity for many
The most potent of these factors was, of course, the labor movement. Following World War II, labor stood toe-to-toe with Big Business when it came to employees’ wages and working conditions and wielded huge influence in Washington. As we’re so painfully aware, that is far from the case today — but the decline of organized labor didn’t happen by accident. It was engineered beginning in the early 1970s by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, and their Republican allies, working from the top down through the courts, the Congress, and state governments across the country. Reich doesn’t tell this story, perhaps because it’s so well known.
Saving Capitalism should be required reading for every American who wishes to understand the way our society works today. Unfortunately, though the book has already begun to climb on the bestseller lists, we can be sure that will never happen in an era when a megalomaniacal reality TV star is topping the polls in the Republican presidential primary competition.
About the author
Robert B. Reich served three presidents — Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton — in the course of a long and distinguished career in academia and government. Currently he is Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley.
For more great reading
You might also check out Robert Reich’s newer book, The System: Who Rigged It, How We Fix It. It’s reviewed at Robert Reich explains how the ultra-wealthy have rigged the system.
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