"Why Americans Should Give Socialism a Try" is the headline above a column by Washington Post opinion writer Elizabeth Bruenig.
"It's time to give socialism a try," she writes. "I don't think business-as-usual but better is enough to fix what's broken here. I think the problem lies at the root of the thing, with capitalism itself."
She goes on:
both Sullivan's and Mounk's complaints — that Americans appear to be isolated, viciously competitive, suspicious of one another and spiritually shallow; and that we are anxiously looking for some kind of attachment to something real and profound in an age of decreasing trust and regard — seem to be emblematic of capitalism, which encourages and requires fierce individualism, self-interested disregard for the other, and resentment of arrangements into which one deposits more than he or she withdraws. (As a business-savvy friend once remarked: Nobody gets rich off of bilateral transactions where everybody knows what they're doing.)
And sums up: "I would support a kind of socialism that would be democratic and aimed primarily at decommodifying labor, reducing the vast inequality brought about by capitalism, and breaking capital's stranglehold over politics and culture."
The article doesn't appear to be a parody — the writer, on the contrary, seems completely serious. Nevertheless I found it somewhat comical on a variety of levels.
First, usually capitalism comes under attack in bad economic times, such as the depths of a financial crisis. Bruenig, on the other hand, is criticizing capitalism at a moment when that economic system has blessed us with 4 percent unemployment, low inflation, and a long bull market for stocks.
Second, Bruenig is a columnist of the Washington Post, which is owned by Jeff Bezos. Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon, has gotten so rich under capitalism that he now has the luxury of paying employees to attack the system that allowed him to prosper. If Bruenig wanted to quit and work for some socialist-owned newspaper, she'd probably be less well compensated.
Third, Bruenig's unnamed "business-savvy friend" is totally wrong when he or she claimed "nobody gets rich off bilateral transactions where everybody knows what they're doing." Think of the Paterakis family of Maryland. As the Baltimore Sun describes it, "John Paterakis, whose father started the bakery in a rowhouse with business partner Harry Tsakalos in 1943, grew it into a massive operation with about $800 million in annual revenue and 2,500 employees at 12 locations, including about 1,000 people in the Baltimore area. It produces hundreds of varieties of bread and is the largest supplier of hamburger buns for McDonald's." Or as the Northeast Food website puts it: "Northeast Foods has been a key supplier to the McDonald's fast food chain since 1965. NEF has grown right along with McDonald's and is now the largest supplier of buns in the United States...In the early 1960's John Paterakis and Ray Kroc shook hands. This simple act between two business visionaries was the catalyst behind creating Northeast Foods, a state-of-the-art bakery division specializing in baking and serving multi-chain casual dining operations." The bilateral transaction between Kroc and Paterakis was one in which they both got rich. Nor is that exceptional. Think of the deal between basketball star Michael Jordan, his agent David Falk, and Nike. All three of them got rich.
Bruenig, a 2013 graduate of Brandeis, is too young personally to remember the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics that gave socialism a bad name. She has a lot of company in that department, among them a lot of the voters who almost made avowed socialist Bernie Sanders the Democratic presidential nominee in 2016. So her view isn't necessarily merely a fringe phenomenon.
This particular Bruenig column doesn't get into it, but elsewhere she's written about how Catholic religion has influenced her views of economics: "Property entered the equation with sin."
Update: A few other points related to this came to me as the day wore on.
• Whenever you think capitalism is out of the woods from the threat of socialism, the story turns out to be not yet over. Some people thought the defeat of the Soviet Union was the end of this story. Others though it was the 2010, in which Republicans took over the House of Representatives in a Tea Party backlash against ObamaCare and the bailouts/takeovers of Wall Street and GM. Others thought it was the election of President Trump and a Republican Congress in 2016 after a strong showing by socialist Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries. But at every moment when you might think it's time to move on from FutureOfCapitalism or at least change the name, it turns out that capitalism is under attack and needs defending.
• Some of Bruenig's complaints about capitalism aren't really complaints about capitalism. Capitalism is an economic system. Complaining about it for not being an all-inclusive moral system sort of misses the point. That's what philosophy and religion are for.
• The idea that people get rich in capitalism by duping less informed people also misses the point. A lot of capitalism's greatest fortunes are generated not by ripping people off but by creating real value for customers. To use Bruenig's own formulation, as a business-savvy friend once remarked, capitalism is not all casino operators and silicone breast implant manufacturers. Whether it is Bill Gates and the personal computer, Warren Buffett and Geico auto insurance, Walmart with everyday low prices, Henry Ford with the Model T, Jeff Bezos and the world's largest online bookstore with customer reviews and free fast delivery, or Ray Kroc and McDonald's with clean bathrooms, drive-through lanes, and inexpensive, consistently good-tasting french fries, the Vanguard guys in money management, the most successful people in capitalism tend to respect their customers rather than ripping them off. That's not to say that people don't sometimes cheat or behave badly. But people cheat in socialism, too. Capitalism can't guarantee integrity. Again, that's what philosophy and religion, and laws, are for. But the long-term incentives within capitalism reward integrity and innovation and thrift and industry in a way that socialism does not.
(Image source: David Shankbone/Wikimedia Commons)