A headline in the Economist shouted recently that “socialism is storming back.” Certainly, with the wealth gap, declining social mobility, and climate change, it’s easy to see why some are losing faith in a capitalist society.
But should the debate really be about capitalism vs. socialism — or is it a question of too much of a good thing that needs rebalancing? After all, we once couldn’t get enough of the cars, antibiotics, and entertainment technology that capitalism produced in abundance. Today, that very abundance threatens to overwhelm us.
In this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, journalist and Fast Company founder Bill Taylor talks to Jeff Schechtman about the language of our current political debate, and why rebuilding the public square is so essential to the survival of capitalism.
Taylor talks about the commodification of just about everything these days, arguing that we have “drifted from a “market economy” to a “market society.” The resulting lack of a common civic life, he says, works against the common good.
Schechtman and Taylor examine why it’s so essential for business, and leaders in the “commanding heights” of the economy, to take heed before the social, political, and economic consequences become dire.
Rather than getting caught up in the polarized debate of the moment, this is a conversation that looks at the things we can actually do to make a change for the better.
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|Jeff Schechtman:||Thanks for joining us on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I’m Jeff Schechtman.|
|Given the coarseness of our culture today, it’s sometimes easy to forget that words matter, that how we define an issue or a problem almost always dictates the terms of debate. Perhaps in no area of our public life is this more critical than in the debate about the state of our economy. Each day we hear and read that more young people are disillusioned with capitalism, that acceptance of socialism is on the rise, that the wealth gap, declining social mobility, and climate change are eroding faith in a capitalist society.|
|Certainly, we can have too much of a good thing. Antibiotics changed the world; now they’re overprescribed. Cars freed us from the horse and buggy and the mess and pollution of manure on the streets, but have we reached peak cars? Our smartphones are a wonder, but have we taken it too far where it has impacted our ability just to communicate with each other?|
|Perhaps it’s the same with capitalism. It has transformed the world in ways that our ancestors might see as magical, and yet we may have taken it too far as market forces have come to define every aspect of life. So maybe the debate is not socialism versus capitalism, but how to rein in the ways in which the language and market forces of capitalism have overtaken everything from the lines at Disneyland to the carpool lanes on your daily commute.|
|My guest, journalist and Fast Company founder Bill Taylor, has recently taken a look at this re-imagined way of thinking, and it was the subject of a recent article that he did for Barron’s. And it is my pleasure to welcome Bill Taylor to Radio WhoWhatWhy. Bill, thanks so much for joining us.|
|Bill Taylor:||Oh, my great pleasure to be with you, Jeff.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||One of the things that [you] did obviously start out with is this change, this sea change that we see taking place with respect to suddenly people looking at socialism versus capitalism in a whole new way, particularly with respect to young people. Talk a little about that first.|
|Bill Taylor:||Well, it does seem to be a cultural phenomenon right now, and in some sense I don’t mind it. I think we can all benefit from thinking more deeply about the nature of our economic system, looking for ways… and I’ve been trying to do this for 25 years since we founded Fast Company, looking for ways to have an economy that is productive and creative and prosperous and yet also having a society where everybody feels like they’ve got a voice and they’re getting a fair share of the economic value they’re helping to create.|
|My great worry is on both the left and the right, just throwing around more labels, and particularly socialism really doesn’t advance that debate very much. On the right, it’s pretty easy to understand. It’s just kind of the newest version of ultra-liberal or something like that. Anytime there’s a suggestion to raise a marginal tax rate or extend healthcare to more people, increasingly it’s easy to denounce that as socialism. And that’s just name calling and not all that helpful.|
|But it’s sort of something similar on the left in the sense that today, after all we’ve been through in the 170 years since The Communist Manifesto, social … It’s just a word. It’s just a bumper sticker. It’s just a label. I mean, I’m really searching to understand when young people say they’ve got a more supportive view of socialism than they do of capitalism, what they really mean, particularly since the language of socialism, if you go through American history … I mean, yeah, we had Eugene Debs, and he got a few million votes for president, and we had Norman Thomas, and he was a great peacemaker, and now we’ve got Bernie Sanders, and I’m happy to pay respect to all those figures, but there is no American tradition of socialism –
as we think about it practiced in Europe – in the United States. In fact, there’s a … Any kind of a history major in college reads a very famous essay written back in 1906 by a sociologist called “Why is There no Socialism in the United States?” And he did a very good analysis in 1906, all of which applies today.
|And so part of me thinks we need different, better, more authentic, more richer language as we get at this question of, why do things seem so askew right now? If in some sense all the numbers on the economy look good, unemployment is low, the wages for the lowest on the ladder are beginning to rise a little bit, the stock market is up, why do so many of us feel so dissatisfied for where we are as a country and as a people? And I just don’t feel like the socialism label advances that at all.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Part of what seems to be happening is it’s reflective of extremes in so many other areas, particularly our political dialogue in society, in that we can’t just take a look at capitalism and the fact that it may need rebalancing and readjusting without going to the extreme of the other side.|
|Bill Taylor:||I agree and to me, therefore, the more productive language … And as you say, I’m a writer and I’m an editor. I started Fast Company, so I actually … and the way you kicked off the segment talking about “words matter,” I actually do believe that. I feel like the labels we use, the distinctions we make, the categories we apply to try to understand the world really do matter.|
|And for me at least, language that makes more sense and language that gets at this notion of extremes that you’re talking about was language coined a few years ago by a Harvard philosophy professor named Michael Sandel, where he said it’s one thing to have a market economy. And it is in the American vernacular fundamentally that we want private companies doing creative things and introducing new products, and that’s all fabulous.|
|It’s one thing to have a market economy; it’s quite another thing to be a market society where so much of life that was meant to be reserved as a civic space, elections and democracy, for example, for being now wildly awash in dark money and massive political contributions. Or even some of the most basic parts of just living in and working and being together, the idea that something as trivial, I grant you, but sort of symbolic as number of cities and states taking their carpool lanes, where the idea was, well, we’ve got these public highways, everybody’s driving on them. We know it’s important for people to carpool. It’s better for the environment. It reduces traffic. So we’ll have a special lane for those folks. However, now, if you’re willing to pay pretty high daily fees, you as an individual driver can use that carpool lane as well. So suddenly this notion of a public space, the highways, where policy is driven by public good, reducing congestion, and reducing pollution is now put up to the highest bidder.|
|I feel like what gives a lot of people, especially young people, these misgivings, there’s a sense that we are in a culture and in a society where now everything is for sale. The logic of profit and loss, those who … The golden rule is now those who have the gold rule that has just seeped its way into so much of our life, that’s just corroded any sense of shared fate, common space, civic engagement. And that’s what really has got me worried. And I think why that language of “let’s have a market economy, but let’s not become a market society” is kind of helpful.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||You gave us an example, two things that I think are worth noting. One is that it’s even filtered down to jails and prisons, but also in something like sports where skyboxes have sort of taken over really what’s driving attendance at some events.|
|Bill Taylor:||And again, Sandel has a great … for a philosopher, he’s very solicitous with a turn of the phrase and he calls it “the skybox suffocation of everyday life.” And when I read that, I said, “My goodness, that really does” … He’s really hit on something there where … Each one of these kind of on its own may make logical, kind of rational sense with the highways and the … Cities are strapped for money, and so if we can get a little bit more money out of the highways, does it … But when you add it all together, you begin to create this sense and, to be honest, kind of create this reality where there is a small percentage of society that is, in every aspect of life, a life of comfort, air-conditioned splendor, looking down upon the rest of us as we engage in the daily struggles and the headaches and difficulties of just getting things done in a world where the public space seems to be less and less.|
|And so okay, fine, you have skyboxes at a football stadium. But when you start having, to use the metaphor, skyboxes in a jail, that’s kind of ridiculous. And so Sandel talks about any number of cities and municipalities where you can go in if … Not for murderers. But if you’re in jail for various non-violent offenses, for 80 or 100 dollars a night you can get a better jail cell away from the noise and the clatter and so on. And I just, I mean, at some point it gets to the point of absurdity, and I fear that both with some of these individual ideas and certainly adding them all up together, we’ve reached that point. And again, it just feels corrosive to a sense of public spirit and shared fate.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||How much of this grows out of this sense of privatization that really grew like Topsy in the ’80s as a result of a corresponding hatred of government that so many people had?|
|Bill Taylor:||I think that’s a big part of it. And I’ve always found it difficult to say we love our country, and we love our fellow citizens, but we hate our government. I never quite understood how those two impulses fit together. And I think what also happened is growing out of the financial crisis of 10 years ago where everybody saw basically … I’m not sure we were intending it. It was just the way it worked out. We had the kind of privatization of profit and the socialization of risk.|
|So when things were going great, a fairly small number or small percentage of folks at the top benefited tremendously. When things then turned south, a huge percentage of us were responsible for both bailing out the system and, in some sense, bailing out these individuals as well. I think, sadly, the impact of that as well has been to kind of have a lot of folks questioning whether or not we really are all in this together kind of deal.|
|And so now that we bounced back from all that, you see on the one hand all of these elements of society where what just feel like public goods are suddenly being put up to the highest bidder, and those who can pay have a much easier time of it at the airport or on the highways or in the jails or wherever, and the rest of us feel like, gee, we’re kind of left holding the bag.|
|And so that makes people, and again, I think especially young people, willing to consider the language of socialism in the ways they weren’t before. And again, I have no problem. I mean, I think every young person, part of the deal with being young is you get to wrestle with alternatives to the status quo. And so my worry is the language really doesn’t add up to a hill of beans in terms of the real experiences of the history of the United States.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Part of what’s happened is with this commodification of everything, as we’re talking about, it becomes, as Arthur Miller put it in Death of a Salesman, we know the price of everything and the value of nothing.|
|Bill Taylor:||Exactly, exactly. And I feel that culturally over the decades we have come to devalue much of the sense of the public sphere, the notion that there are certain parts of life for which the logic of the market, as effective as it may be in giving us iPhones or helping us with internet search or giving us cars with a lot more features for less money, simply doesn’t apply.|
|One of my other kind of favorite, sort of older economists is a guy named Arthur Okun, this kind of legendary professor at Yale. And he wrote the classic book called Equality and Efficiency. And what he talks about is the sustainable society and the sustainable economy always strives for balance. You give the market its place, but you also have to keep the market in its place. And I fear that we’ve just stopped keeping the market in its place in so many parts of our lives.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||And I guess part of the problem today is, and there were really few and far between when one looks for historical examples, of how to put that proverbial genie back in the bottle, how to turn things back to an appreciation of the public square.|
|Bill Taylor:||Yeah. That is so true. I wish I had an answer for you on how to do that. I think your point about really the last 40 years or so, so much of the political dialogue has been a polemic against quote-unquote “big government” and “regulation”. I don’t mean to pick one side of that debate or not, but that has been the public discourse for so long that I think it behooves those of us who would hope to help our fellow citizens recognize what we’re unwittingly creating here and try to help people get a better sense of why we all seem to be so dissatisfied and maybe a little angry and creating a greater sense of excitement about belief in satisfaction with this idea that there can be many important elements of our lives together where we can create a set of values, a set of commitments, a set of shared exp… We’re just, we’re all having the same experience that is actually worth something and worth striving to rebuild.|
|But I do think you’re right. Partly, it’s about policies, but I think it’s just as much about renewing a sense of a common … It’s kind of renewing the sense of “E pluribus unum” as opposed to “fast pass members this way.” I think that’s, unfortunately, much of where we have drifted in the last 10 or 20 years.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||And I suppose it does have to be societal and attitudinal because, otherwise, those that have gained advantage in this system are loath to want to give up that advantage. People that gain something don’t usually want to give it back.|
|Bill Taylor:||Oh, 1000% I would agree with that. And you’re right. I mean, part of this … I think we’re asking for two things. For the vast majority of folks, I think this in particular can be the work and promise of young folks who now seem to be enthralled with the language of socialism, although I don’t know that many people think about that a bit more deeply than “I just don’t like what’s going on right now.” But renewing a spirit of shared enterprise and common experience that goes beyond … In a weird way, some of that spirit flourishes in the digital and virtual domains, yet not where we actually rub shoulders with real-life human beings.|
|But the flip side is it does require, I think, a sense of restraint on the part of folks who are lucky enough to be at the top of the economic pie or economic pyramid that we really haven’t shown very much thus far. I mean, to me, one of the great little aphorisms of life is, “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.” And I feel like those of us who are the most fortunate in society, and I guess I would consider myself among those, really have lost that kind of internal compass or internal regulator saying, “Just because I can buy my way out of a long line at the airport or buy my way into a faster line on the highway, it’s just not the right way for society to operate.”|
|I think that sense of restraint and moderation of our impulses and our desire to make our lives as easy as possible has kind of drifted away from the most powerful people in the society and in the economy. And so I think recapturing on the one hand some sense of restraint among the fortunate, and then on the other hand conjuring up more excitement about the capacity for all of us to do things together, and maybe over a period of time we begin to put that genie back in the bottle somehow.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||And I suppose one of the other mitigating forces or that may drive people to think about what you’re talking about, is the consequences of not doing that. That if in fact the attacks on capitalism continue the way they’re going, not to suggest that revolution is around the corner, but the other side of that is that the pendulum could continue to swing too far in the other direction, and that will cause a price that’s even worse than thinking about the common good.|
|Bill Taylor:||Well, that’s a great insight, and I think the thing that triggered me to write the piece for Barron’s was seeing the cover story in The Economist, which is not a place I expected to see it, sort of trumpeting the rise of socialism. To be honest, with more than a hint of admiration, meaning even the editors of The Economist, who are a very conservative lot, see that there’s something amiss with the current logic of capitalism. But then as just you say, I kind of have a sense of trepidation that if things go the way they’re going in terms of the cultural discourse and dialogue, who knows what’s going to happen?|
|I think one always hopes for some sense of enlightened self-interest on the part of the leadership of the business community and the commanding heights of the economy, if you will. And again, this sense of restraint and sort of more internal regulation and rediscovering the moral compass. But I feel like it really … I mean, I wrote the piece targeted at the business leaders and the business community trying to make the case that there really is something to these grievances, there’s something big and important here. I don’t think the language of socialism is the right language for it, but we all better figure out better, smarter, more nimble, more authentic ways to think about it, talk about it, categorize it, and then ultimately fix it, or we’re all going to be in trouble down the road.|
|And I have to say, I mean, this may be wishful thinking on my part, but for the last 25 years since we started Fast Company, the premise of the magazine and the premise of all my thinking and writing has been that whether it’s in terms of how you organize and run a company, whether it’s in terms of how you think about your community and your city, or whether, writ large, how you think about a society, there should not be quite as stark a tug-of-war between productivity and equality, between creativity and shared prosperity, between generating lots of wealth and allowing lots more people than we do now to participate in the benefits of that wealth. That there is a more human, more progressive, more values-driven way to create a productive and exciting and prosperous society.|
|And I think we’re getting pretty close to the point where everybody’s got to kind of look in the mirror and say, “Okay, we got to decide if we can just continue on the way we are, or is this kind of silly debate about socialism really an indicator of a much bigger, richer, and really very powerful conversation we have to have?”|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Bill Taylor, his article in Barron’s is “Forget Socialism Versus Capitalism, Here’s the Real Debate We Should Be Having.” Bill, I thank you so much for spending time with us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy.|
|Bill Taylor:||Thank you so much. Loads of fun.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Thank you. And thank you for listening and for joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to WhoWhatWhy.org/donate.|