Tony Judt's piece in the latest New York Review of Book, The Wrecking Ball of Innovation, presents quite a telling assessment of Robert Reich's new tome, Supercapitalism: The Transformation of Business, Democracy. While Judt agrees with much of Reich's account of what's gone wrong, he despairs at the lack of an alternative. An excerpt:
This is all well said. But what is to be done? Here Reich is less forthcoming. The facts he amasses appear to point to an incipient collapse of the core values and institutions of the republic. Congressional bills are written to private advantage; influential contributors determine the policies of presidential candidates; individual citizens and voters have been steadily edged out of the public sphere. In Reich's many examples it is the modern international corporation, its overpaid executives, and its "value-obsessed" shareholders who seem to incarnate the breakdown of civic values. These firms' narrowly construed attention to growth, profit, and the short term, the reader might conclude, has obscured and displaced the broader collective goals and common interests that once bound us together.
But this is not at all the conclusion Robert Reich would have us reach. In his version of our present dilemmas no one is to blame. "As citizens, we may feel that inequality on this scale cannot possibly be good for a democracy.... But the super-rich are not at fault." "Have top executives become greedier?" No. "Have corporate boards grown less responsible?" No. "Are investors more docile?" "There's no evidence to support any of these theories." Corporations aren't behaving very socially responsibly, as Reich documents. But that isn't their job. We shouldn't expect investors or consumers or companies to serve the common good. They are just seeking the best deal. Economics isn't about ethics. As the British Prime Minister Harold Mac-millan once observed, "If people want morality, let them get it from their archbishops."
In Reich's account, there are no "malefactors of great wealth." Indeed, he contemptuously dismisses any explanation that rests on human choice or will or class interest or even economic ideas. All such explanations, in his words, "collapse in the face of the facts." The changes recorded in his book apparently just "happened," in a subjectless illustration of the creative destruction inherent in the capitalist dynamic: Schumpeter-lite, as it were. If anything, Reich is a technological determinist. New "technologies have empowered consumers and investors to get better and better deals." These deals have "sucked...social values... out of the system.... The story of what transpired has no heroes or villains."
There is a familiar triangulation at work here. The author gets to display indignation at the downside of modern capitalism, without ever having to attribute responsibility ("we may feel," etc.) or pass a judgment of his own. Corporations just do what they do. To be sure, if we don't like what that means for us as a society, Reich would have us don our citizen's cap and change it. But this doesn't really square with the book's repeated insistence on the iron logic of technology and self-interest. And so, not surprisingly, the solutions that Reich proposes to these epochal developments and the risks they pose are curiously humdrum: a few marginal tax changes, trade pacts to contain minimum wage clauses, some legislative regulation of lobbying.
But even these small amendments to current practice are at odds with Reich's framing assumption: that our interests as "investors" and "consumers" have triumphed over our capacity to act as "citizens." If his account of the workings of modern economic life is true—if, as he puts it, "under supercapitalism, the 'long term' is the present value of future earnings"—then tinkering with campaign finance laws is either irrelevant (because it would change nothing) or else impossible: because it would be opposed by those same "competing business interests" which caused the distortion in the first place. In any case, why would we or our representatives choose suddenly, in Reich's terms, to act as disinterested "citizens" rather than the self-seeking "consumers" or "investors" we have become? What—for any individual citizen—would be the incentive? At whose behest would we suddenly opt for our "civic" identity over our "economic" one?
Thinsg are a mess but no one is to blame, and in any case there's not much we can do about it. That sounds like one or two previous books by Reich I have read. Think I'll wait for the paperback...