Thursday, December 3, 2009

Robert Reich's Supercapitalism

Robert Reich was Bill Clinton’s secretary of labor from 1993 until 1997, and teaches at the University of California at Berkeley. In his 2007 book, Supercapitalism, he outlines the history of the rise of global capitalism, to the detriment of democracy, local community, and the environment.

Reich tells of the “not quite golden age” of capitalism, in the years between World War II and Viet Nam. That was a time of paternalistic employers and “corporate statesmen” who considered all stakeholders, shareholders, employees, and communities in operating their companies. A hyper-competitive international capitalism -- “supercapitalism” -- has replaced capitalism’s “not quite golden” form. Consequently, human interests (and, after all, what is business for?) have suffered.

Reich doesn’t blame the usual villains, Ronald Reagan’s tax cuts and deregulation. Supercapitalism came out of Cold War technology, and developed-world citizens’ hunger for bargains and return on investment. Computers, global communication, and global transportation let manufacturing go where overhead was lowest. (Those shipping containers, that go from dock to ship to railroad car, and that you’re supposed to be able to convert to post-industrial hovels, were developed for sending ordnance to Viet Nam. Carriers, looking for return cargo, helped establish small Asian manufacturers, who began to compete with American industry. Ironic, huh?) Harried consumers, trying to make ends meet and save for retirement, demanded cheap consumer goods and growth in our stock portfolios. Business organized to influence government, partly to externalize costs to society, but mostly to protect themselves from competitors.

Consumers-1; Citizens-0.

Reich says that corporate executives responsibility is to satisfy consumers, making money for their investors. As long as they do this legally, they are doing what they are supposed to do. The answer lies in what’s legal. Government needs to regulate industry, rather than vilify its leaders. With the vast industry of lawyers, experts, and publicists arrayed by business to influence government, this is unlikely. Citizens need to demand campaign finance reform and reform of the lobbying industry.

My quibble with Supercapitalism is that it ignores the effects of both declining fuel reserves and climate change. This would probably have distracted from Reich’s argument, which was new to me, but I’d still be interested to hear how supercapitalism and resource crises will interfere with each other.

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