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."