Robert Reich has never shied away from big ambitions. The title of The Work of Nations deliberately alluded to Adam Smith; Reich clearly hoped that readers would see his work not simply as a useful guide but as a foundational text. Saving Capitalismis, if anything, even more ambitious despite its compact length. Reich attempts to cast his new discussion of inequality as a fundamental rethinking of market economics. He is not, he insists, calling for policies that will limit and soften the functioning of markets; rather, he says that the very definition of free markets is a political decision, and that we could run things very differently. “Government doesn’t ‘intrude’ on the ‘free market.’ It creates the market.”
To be honest, I have mixed feelings about this sales pitch. In some ways it seems to concede too much, accepting the orthodoxy that free markets are good even while calling for major changes in policy. And I also worry that the attempt to squeeze everything into a grand intellectual scheme may distract from the prosaic but important policy actions that Reich (and I) support.
Whatever one thinks of the packaging, however, Reich makes a very good case that widening inequality largely reflects political decisions that could have gone in very different directions. The rise in market power reflects a turn away from antitrust laws that looks less and less justified by outcomes, and in some cases the rise in market power is the result of the raw exercise of political clout to prevent policies that would limit monopolies—for example, the sustained and successful campaign to prevent public provision of Internet access.
Similarly, when we look at the extraordinary incomes accruing to a few people in the financial sector, we need to realize that there are real questions about whether those incomes are “earned.” As Reich argues, there’s good reason to believe that high profits at some financial firms largely reflect insider trading that we’ve made a political decision not to regulate effectively. And we also need to realize that the growth of finance reflected political decisions that deregulated banking and failed to regulate newer financial activities.
Meanwhile, forms of market power that benefit large numbers of workers as opposed to small numbers of plutocrats have declined, again thanks in large part to political decisions. We tend to think of the drastic decline in unions as an inevitable consequence of technological change and globalization, but one need look no further than Canada to see that this isn’t true. Once upon a time, around a third of workers in both the US and Canada were union members; today, US unionization is down to 11 percent, while it’s still 27 percent north of the border. The difference was politics: US policy turned hostile toward unions in the 1980s, while Canadian policy didn’t follow suit. And the decline in unions seems to have major impacts beyond the direct effect on members’ wages: researchers at the International Monetary Fund have found a close association between falling unionization and a rising share of income going to the top one percent, suggesting that a strong union movement helps limit the forces causing high concentration of income at the top.6
Following his schema, Reich argues that unions aren’t so much a source of market power as an example of “countervailing power” (a term he borrows from John Kenneth Galbraith) that limits the depredations of monopolists and others. If unions are not subject to restrictions, they may do so by collective bargaining not only for wages but for working conditions. In any case, the causes and consequences of union decline, like the causes and consequences of rising monopoly power, are a very good illustration of the role of politics in increasing inequality.
But why has politics gone in this direction? Like a number of other commentators, Reich argues that there’s a feedback loop between political and market power. Rising wealth at the top buys growing political influence, via campaign contributions, lobbying, and the rewards of the revolving door. Political influence in turn is used to rewrite the rules of the game—antitrust laws, deregulation, changes in contract law, union-busting—in a way that reinforces income concentration. The result is a sort of spiral, a vicious circle of oligarchy. That, Reich suggests, is the story of America over the past generation. And I’m afraid that he’s right. So what can turn it around?