I’ve just finished reading What Then Must We Do? by Gar Alperovitz, a political economist with extensive political experience in Washington, and now a professor at the University of Maryland.
Fundamentally the book addresses the question: if you think capitalism as it has evolved is not the answer to the needs of the majority, but if you are equally not enamored with the various versions of socialism which have been tried, what are our options?
Despite its drawbacks, I have long thought that capitalism operating within the context of a democracy was the least worst option. But I am no longer convinced that this is still the case. Today in America, 400 people at the top of the income scale possess more wealth than the bottom 180 million people put together. It doesn’t bother me in principle that some people have a great deal more money than others. But what does bother me is that these numbers suggest that a very small number — that famous 1% — have a great deal more political power than millions of people each with our famous “one vote.” Just as worrisome, fewer and fewer people are able, in practice, to improve their standard of living by working hard, by creativity, ingenuity and saving.
I think that fundamentally this gigantic income, power, and opportunity gap is undermining democracy.
But most versions of socialism with which I am acquainted make me just as concerned. Socialism might in theory mean power to the people, but in practice it seems has too often meant power to the politically elites in government. At the same time, unearned benefits paid to the poor too often risk creating people who expect a free ride, who do not feel they owe anything to anybody, that they don’t have any obligation to pay anything back. This isn’t good for the economy, it isn’t fair to the taxpayer, and above all it is an unfulfilling, even destructive, way to live. Because we all need to be needed. We all need to make a contribution to the community.
What Then Must We Do? offers a fascinating series of analyses and suggestions, which over the next few weeks I hope to summarize. I’m not trying to convince anybody. It’s my way of clarifying what I think myself. It’s a kind of thinking out loud, which often provides me with the same return that preparing a class lecture used to do.