Saving Capitalism, by Robert Reich (Random House of Canada, 279 pages, $34.95 hardcover).
Sam Walton’s six heirs enjoy as much wealth as the bottom 42 per cent of people in the United States. The founders and the 13 employees of WhatsApp shared $19 billion when Facebook bought their business last year. Many chief executive officers of corporations pocket hundreds of millions per year. Meanwhile incomes of average, hard-working North Americans have declined in inflation-adjusted dollars over the last 20 to 30 years. It’s not fair.
Reich details how and why this has happened. He says it’s not simply the greed of the richest and most powerful people, although that is a factor. It’s not corruption, although in some cases that, too, is a factor.
It is, he argues, because the system is rigged. The rich and powerful exert influence over the politicians, civil servants and judges who make, apply and interpret laws and regulations. They hire armies of lobbyists, lawyers and accountants to look after their interests.
As a result, we have patent that, in the case of some pharmaceuticals, last more than 90 years. The Americans have abolished inheritance taxes. Politicians have, with a wink and a nod to the rich and powerful, been persuaded to starve departments of money and people to enforce the laws they pass. The system is, Reich argues, rigged to be unfair to the average citizen.
He also says this cannot last. If it continues on its current path, the notorious “one per cent” at the top of the heap will control everything. Before then, he predicts the public will rebel and there will be radical reforms, just as there were to bring in anti-trust legislation, welfare programs and the right to form unions and collective bargaining.
But the reforms will not be simple nor easy to achieve. It’s not as easy as taxing the richest people to give to the poor. Nor is it enough to limit lobbying clout and election-campaign donations. Or to ban senior civil servants from currying favour among the rich and powerful so they can step out into high-paying jobs.
True, these are changes Reich recommends, but they are minor. He provides a long list of changes that will need to take place and he lays them out in the concluding chapters.
And even with all of that, he foresees new challenges emerging from technologies that will perform the work that currently employs millions of people. And so he recommends that everybody be provided with enough income to meet basic needs, enabling them to buy what’s produced and also to pursue satisfying careers doing what interests them.
As with all of Reich’s dozen books, the professor from the University of California at Berkeley is outspoken, radical and thought-provoking. And keenly interested in reforms that make American society fair for all.