Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Reich has essay questioning the concept "democratic capitalism"



In the months after 9/11, conservative columnists constantly repeated mantra-like criticisms of radical Islam-ist countries as not having tried "democratic capitalism." Before, in this column, in noting the success of youthful prodigies from around the world, I noted that the one thing they had in common was relative freedom, a market economy, and democratic governments, whatever the ideological details of local politics on some areas like health care.

Now, Foreign Policy, in Oct. 2007, has, on p 38, a probing essay by Dr. Robert F. Reich, former (and in his own way flamboyant) Secretary of Labor for the Clinton Administration. It is "How Capitalism Is Killing Democracy." The subtitle is "Free markets were supposed to lead to free societies. Instead, today's supercharged global economy is eroding the power of the people in democracies around the globe. Welcome to a world where the bottom line trumps the common good and government takes a back seat to big business." To him, the neo-conservative phrase, "democratic capitalism", however uplifting overseas, is a bit of an oxymoron (make like "gay 'marriage'", if you follow the conservative The Washington Times 's practice of putting the second word in quotes).

The tone of the essay certainly reminds me of Mother Jones or of The Nation. He echoes the tone of David Callahan's 2004 book "The Cheating Culture" in his critique of extreme capitalism, on a global scale. He seems at odds with Alan Greenspan ("The Age of Turbulence") in maintaining that some sense of the greater good needs to underly public behavior and policy.

He is critical of placing to much confidence on corporate generosity (although a bit more from well organized companies like Wal-Mart can certainly help people rebuild from Katrina and the wild fires --instead the LDS Church seems to lead the pack in organized help). Companies have a fiduciary responsibility to maximize investors' bottom lines. Generosity comes from individuals. But people need to think further ahead, and realize their consumer interests (like the cheapest possible electronics or clothes) may not be in the best interest of world peace and long term economic stability, let alone moral fairness. He thinks people should give a little, almost in Biblical charity, and protect their neighbors. No real argument. But absolute selfishness is not a virtue.

He is especially critical of corporate lobbying and corporate welfare, and the tendency of corporations to manipulate public speech. Both conservatives and liberals weigh in on pork barrel a lot. Because of the Internet, speech has become much more individualized, which means lone individuals can make a real difference in the outcome of subtle social and political debates. But even that raises new ethical questions about conflict of interest, and corporate America has tended to view personal Internet use more as a tool for social networking (which they want to exploit) and for publication of ideas.

I didn't see this article online, but it's worth picking up at the newsstand or in the library in hard copy. Sometimes we still need the world of print.

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