Richard Wolff was on Bill Moyers & Company this week and the discussion was about our economic system. And the discussion turned to the lack of criticism of capitalism in our country, Taming Capitalism Run Wild.
BILL MOYERS: But so few have done that. As you know, as you’ve written, as you have said, we’ve not had much of a debate in this country for, I don’t know, since the Great Depression over the nature of the system, the endemic crisis of capitalism that is built into the system. We have simply not had that kind of debate. Why do you think that is?
RICHARD WOLFF: Well, I think we have had it from time to time. We have had some of the greatest economists in the tradition, for example, Thorstein Veblen, at the beginning of the 20th century, a great American economist, very critical of the system. Someone who taught me, Paul Sweezy, another Harvard graduate. These are people who have been around and at various times in our history, the beginning of the 20th century, during the 1930’s, again in the 1960’s, there was intense debate.
There has been that kind of thing in our history. I mean, we as Americans, after all, we take a certain pride, which I think is justified, we criticize our school system. We just spent two years criticizing our health delivery system in this country. We criticize our energy system, our transportation system.
And we want to believe, and I think it’s true, that to criticize this system, to have an honest debate, exposes flaws, makes it possible to repair or improve them, and then our society benefits. But then how do you explain, and that’s your question, that we don’t do that for our economic system?
For 50 years, when capitalism is raised, you have two allowable responses: celebration, cheerleading. Okay, that’s very nice. But that means you have freed that system from all criticism, from all real debate. It can indulge its worst tendencies without fear of exposure and attack. Because when you begin to criticize capitalism, you’re either told that you’re ignorant and don’t understand things, or with more dark implications, you’re somehow disloyal. You’re somehow a person who doesn’t like America or something.
BILL MOYERS: That emerged, as you know, in the Cold War. That emerged when to criticize the American system was to play into the hands of the enemies of America, the Communists. And so it became disreputable and treasonous to do what you’re doing today.
RICHARD WOLFF: And for my colleagues, it became dangerous to your career. If you went in that direction, you would cut off your chances of getting a university position or being promoted and getting your works published in journals and books, the things that academics need to do for their jobs. So yes, it was shut down and shut off. And I think we’re living the results. You know, if I were–
BILL MOYERS: Of the silence? Of–
RICHARD WOLFF: Yes. Of the lack of debate. We’re living in an economic system that isn’t working. So I guess I’m a little bit like one of those folks in the 12-step programs. Before you can solve a problem, you have to admit you got one. And before we’re going to fix an economic system that’s working this way, and producing such tensions and inequalities and strains on our community, we have to face the real scope of the problem we have. And that’s with the system as a whole and at the very least, we have to open up a national debate about it. And at the most, I think we have to think long and hard about alternative systems that might work better for us.
BILL MOYERS: I was intrigued to hear you say elsewhere that this is not just about evil and greed. And yet you went on to say capitalists and the rich are determined not to bear the costs of the recent bailouts or the crisis itself. You even go so far as to suggest, as to question their patriotism, and that they may not have the country’s interest at heart. If that’s not greed, what is it?
RICHARD WOLFF: Oh, I think it isn’t greed. It’s– and let me explain why. Yes, I’m critical of corporations and the rich because they do call the shots in our society, and so that brings on them a certain amount of criticism, even though they don’t like it. So I will do that. But beyond that, let me absolve them in the following way. Bankers do what this system goads them to do.
If you talk to a banker, he or she will explain to you, “These are the things that will advance the interests of my bank. These are the problems I have to overcome. And that’s what I try to do.” And my understanding, and I’ve looked at this in great de– is that– that’s correct. They’re not telling a story. They’re doing. They’re following the rules. They do the things that advance their interests and they avoid the things that would damage their interests.
That’s what they’re hired to do as executives or as leaders of their institutions. And that’s what they do to the best of their ability. So for example, I’m not enthused about arresting these people or punishing them in this or that way. And the reason is simple, if we get, I won’t mention any names, but we get some banker and we haul him up in front of a court, and we find out he’s done some things that are not good.
And we substitute the next one. He gets arrested though, he gets fined, he gets removed. The next one is subject to the same rewards and punishments. The same inducements. The same conditions. If we don’t change the system, we’re not going to change the behavior of the people in it. So in a sense, I do absolve them even when they are greedy, because they’re doing what this system tells them to do. And if we don’t change the system, substituting a new crop will not solve our problem.
I recommend watching the whole thing. If your belief in the current system is solid then you shouldn’t have a problem. Hearing the other side shouldn’t scare anyone. There’s also some good history in the discussion. Until we have an honest discussion of what’s wrong with out economic system, we’re unlikely to fix our current economic problems.
More from Richard Wolff and Joe Stiglitz in the extended post.