Cooking Your Food Without Burning the House Down, or Why Capitalism Is Like Fire

I think it’s clear to everyone that capitalism in the United States has gotten pretty out of control lately. Inequality is at or approaching Gilded Age levels. Job security no longer exists for most people. The middle class is vanishing, even though no one will admit it, most especially those who’ve slipped a rung or two on the economic ladder. Yet by the numbers the economy’s doing pretty well, and mostly recovered from the shock of the housing bubble popping. Which is true, if you’re a too-big-to-fail corporation or a member of the one percent.

For the rest of us, not so much.

It doesn’t have to be this way, and once upon a time not that long ago, it wasn’t. Say what you will about the three decades spanning the mid-forties to the mid-seventies; economically speaking it was kind of a Golden Age. Thanks to the safeguards put in place after the Great Depression (and some frankly redistributive top tax brackets), there were decades of consistent economic growth, the fruits of which were more widely shared than at any time or place in history. If you’re not old enough to remember, ask your parents or grandparents what it was like back in the day, when you could get a good-paying job right out of high school that could buy a house and support a family and came with lifetime security and a pension and a raise every year.

So, how did we get from there to where we are now? More importantly, how do we get to a better place, economically speaking, one where the incredible prosperity that capitalism can produce is more widely and fairly distributed? Because let’s face it, no other way of organizing economic activity human beings have ever tried has come even close to producing the plenty that properly regulated capitalism can.

There are lots of answers to the questions I’ve just posed, things to do with tax law and the regulation of banks and financial institutions. But the first thing, to my mind, is to reframe the way we think about capitalism. Thanks to a combination of the Cold War and the tenets of market fundamentalism and trickle-down economics, contemporary discussions of capitalism, at least in the United States, tend to be pretty reductive: you’re either fer it or agin’ it, with nary a shade of nuance in between. The success of this either-or narrative is a big reason we are where we’re at.

So how shall we reframe our thinking about capitalism? The most useful answer I’ve been able to come up with to that question is this: Continue reading “Cooking Your Food Without Burning the House Down, or Why Capitalism Is Like Fire”