The future of capitalism
is very much in discussion these days. Economic meltdown will do that, especially a meltdown that comes not all that long after the dot com bubble, the 9-11 collapse and Enron-like corporate thefts. I'm hearing the D word--Depression--occasionally these days, usually reporting a trend or action not seen since the Great Depression rather than predicting or declaring a current one. Still, watching a quarter or more of your saving disappear in a week does little for one's confidence.
So people are right to wonder about capitalism's promise and future. Americans are not likely to every give up on capitalism, a system that has created great industry, opportunity and wealth (I'll leave the discussion of the crimes (*)
behind that wealth for another time) but Americans will question anything that doesn't work. Sometimes we are pretty obtuse about recognizing that something is not working (the Cuban embargo, Iraq, etc) but when the costs come directly out of our pocketbooks with little prospect for change, we will move quickly.
The Great Depression in America was the failure of hidebound 19th century economics and the Herbert Hoover's persistent refusal to do anything to restore confidence. Americans are having none of that this time. The problem is that no one is very sure what to do and most Americans have little confidence in public institutions or national leaders. And the whole affair is complicated by the fact that the capitalist economy is transnational and vulnerable in many directions.
Current events are pushing America and the world farther away from pure (aka, rampant) capitalism. Franklin Roosevelt made the first move when he saved capitalism in the last century
by guaranteeing its credit in exchange for modest (if spotty) regulation. The capitalists took the credit but never fully accepted the regulation. They pushed back from the beginning. Their greatest success came in 1999 with the repeal of the Glass-Steagal Act
, the 1933 legislation that separated commercial and investment banking. And in less than ten years their success has laid waste to the America's economy.
Under these circumstances, but for his race, I would predict Barack Obama as a slam dunk to beat John McCain. Even with the race factor, Obama stands a very good chance simply because restoring confidence in national institutions, public and private, requires vision and commitment. I don't think John McCain has either. Maybe in 2000 (although the media darling of that year seemed so at odds with the safe, plodding politician I had known for the previous 18 years in Arizona). Certainly no more. These days McCain's vision largely to redeem an entitlement (it's my turn, dammit), preserve something for the Republican party (his legacy will be Sarah Palin) and reinforce military-industrial hegemony in economic and foreign policy. Whatever soul John McCain ever had has long ago been sold.
Obama is wholly untested and offers little prospect for fundamental economic reform but he is the only choice if America is to have effective leadership in the coming years. I wonder about the ability of any single individual to effect real change in a media-driven soundbite society. History is no guarantee but I find some little hope for the future by remembering that in 1932 Franklin Roosevelt was not much older than Obama is now and offered little in the way of real solutions for the problems of that era
yet provided dynamic leadership and creativity in the following years. Obama would do well to emulate FDR.
American capitalism could use the lift.
(*) Start with any honest history of US government policies and actions toward indigenous peoples on this continent.