Book Review: Confronting Capitalism (2015)


confronting capitalism

by Alan F. Zundel

“Confronting Capitalism: Real Solutions for a Troubled Economic System” is a decent primer on contemporary problems which stem from our economic system—which is to say, most of them. The book also canvasses a lot of policy ideas to address these problems, but in neither case does it dig very deeply.

The author, Philip Kotler, was trained as an economist under both Milton Friedman and Paul Samuelson, well-known representatives of conservative and liberal positions respectively. Kotler himself falls on the liberal end of the spectrum in his acceptance of the idea that the government should enact policies to address economic problems.

What Kotler does not do is engage the proposition that perhaps capitalism itself is the problem, or at least that something in the fundamental principles of our capitalist system ought to be changed. Essentially he says capitalism is the best of all possible economic worlds, if only we could fix its many and extremely serious shortcomings.

So what are those shortcomings? He lists fourteen of them.

1. Persistent poverty, on both national and global scales.
2. Growing inequality of income and, especially, wealth.
3. The lack of a living wage for billions of workers.
4. The disappearance of jobs due to automation.
5. Businesses shifting the social costs of their activities onto the rest of us.
6. The degradation of the natural environment.
7. Persistent economic cycles (booms and busts) and instability.
8. Emphasis on self-interest at the expense of the community.
9. Unsustainable consumer debt and an increasingly finance-driven economy.
10. Control of government by business interests and the rich.
11. Short-run profits favored over long-term investment.
12. The need to regulate product quality and safety, advertising and anticompetitive behaviors.
13. Focus on continual economic growth in a world of limited resources.
14. Focus on economic growth rather than human well-being and happiness.

Whew! I got tired just typing all those out!

Of course there are other serious social problems that are not listed here, but those have little to do with economics. For example, racial and ethnic discrimination have nothing to do with poverty and economic inequality, and constant war in the Middle East has little to do with access to key economic resources.

Anyway, Kotler pulls together a lot of information from a variety of sources to describe the “shortcomings” of capitalism but does not add anything new to what any politically attentive person would already know. He does write clear and simple sentences and keeps his chapters short, which is why I say it makes a nice primer for someone who is new to the political problems of our time, for example a young person just getting drawn into Bernie Sanders’ campaign.

His survey of policy “solutions” is similarly cursory. Again someone just getting their feet wet in our political debates may find a lot to think about, but others will not find much that is new here. A guaranteed national income. Get the private section to address poverty. Close tax loopholes. Raise the minimum wage. Job-training. Invest in infrastructure. Socially conscious businesses. Regulate the financial sector. Limit campaign contributions. Progressive taxation. Institute a Gross National Happiness Index.

Essentially the long-standing liberal/progressive agenda, but sprinkled with a few more recent ideas here and there. He does give footnotes and references in case a reader were to want more in-depth understanding of any of this.

What Kotler does not do is what his title promises: he neither “confronts” capitalism nor does he provide “real solutions.” There is no analysis of why capitalist economic systems have these shortcomings nor are there ideas for altering the fundamentals of the system. How many people believe the liberal/progressive agenda provides real solutions, as opposed to providing some buffering around the edges?

In the aftermath of the crash of 2008 and the almost total meltdown of the global economy, not to mention the growing obviousness of climate change, this is pretty weak tea.

So where would one look to seriously confront capitalism? First, I would dissent from his simplistic definition of capitalism as resting on the concepts of private property, contracts, and the rule of law. I would start with something more specific, such as:

1. Not just private property, but a belief in the absolute right of property owners over every other moral claim.
2. The organization of work around the rights of property owners.
3. The corruption of law to serve the interests of the largest property owners.

Capitalism is not just a social system, it is a system organized upon and buttressed with a moral and political philosophy or ideology. It is on that level that it needs to be confronted, and only then can real solutions be envisioned—if there are any.

I do not necessary believe such a challenge leads to socialism, at least as that ambiguous word is commonly understood, although it is obviously the same challenge that socialists have long thrown down to the defenders of capitalism.

But it is the challenge that needs to be addressed.

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