There’s no containing the appetite for the abnormal. Ukraine just became the latest country to turn on its establishment in electing comedian Volodymyr Zelensky to the presidency. The vote was a flat-out rejection of a billionaire incumbent who served up run-of-the-till oligarchic capitalism.
In the United States, passions for the paranormal, even given the efforts of Donald Trump, are far from running their course. In these times much is precarious, even capitalism as we know it. Momentum builds for some kind of new way; for a rejection – bye, bye Miss American Pie – of old assumptions.
At the Harvard Business School, one of the most popular courses is called Reimagining Capitalism. Only a couple of dozen students were enrolled when it started a few years back. Now there are about 300.
One of the more popular books of the past year is Winners Take All, a beatdown of the billionaire class and of monopoly capitalism by Anand Giridharadas. Just a handful of companies – five tech behemoths – he argues, control the United States. The business elite used to be heroes in this country. Titans such as Lee Iacocca, Jack Welch. Now, as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg would attest, they’re targets of wrath.
On the weekend The Washington Post ran a major spread titled, “The end of capitalism as we know it?” The New York Times chimed in with a piece from renowned economist Joseph Stiglitz called “Progressive capitalism is not an oxymoron.” It trashed the long-time laissez-faire approach of conservatives as being a major cause of the United States having the highest level of inequality among advanced countries.
In today’s America, just 16,000 families account for US$6-trillion in assets. That is equal to the total wealth of two-thirds of all U.S. families. While so many go wanting, thousands have so much wealth they couldn’t spend it all if they lived to be 800. It’s irrational, and one of the many reasons rethinking capitalism is overdue.
Among Democratic Party aspirants for president, Senator Elizabeth Warren is trying to stake out the most radical ground. She’s proposed a deep new wealth tax and something called the Accountable Capitalism Act, which is designed to reverse the damaging deregulation binges of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. On Monday she announced a staggering US$1.25-trillion plan that would erase most student loan debt and eliminate tuition for public colleges. Her wealth tax would allegedly pay for it.
While maintaining he is still a capitalist, Texan Beto O’Rourke says the U.S. system has gone awry. It’s an “unfair, unjust and racist capitalist economy.” In an impressive performance at a CNN Town Hall on Monday, Pete Buttigieg, who, at 37, is vying to be the youngest president ever, said, “we are at a tectonic moment ... The system has to be changed profoundly.” But his policy proposals are vague compared with others.
And of course there’s Bernie Sanders. To waves of skepticism, he put forward his radical anti-Wall Street agenda years ago. The years since have proved he was onto something.
If capitalism is to be overhauled in the United States, he and Ms. Warren are the great hopes. Individually, neither might be able to win the nomination. But if they worked as a team, one could get the other over the finish line.
In Democratic primaries, delegates are awarded by proportional vote, not a winner-take-all formula. It means Mr. Sanders, who has a well-oiled, heavily bankrolled national campaign operation, is very likely to have a great slew of delegates and be a major force in the outcome. He noted this week how he and Ms. Warren are so close on so many issues. He’s looking down the line. She has a strong organization herself. Though unlikely to overtake him, she could have enough delegates to be the kingmaker, putting Mr. Sanders over the top at what many predict – given the many contestants and the voting formula – will be a brokered convention.
While the Democrats bemoan the economic plight of the land, Mr. Trump triumphantly points to continued good growth and near record-low unemployment numbers. They can work to his advantage. But Mr. Trump and his Republicans are vulnerable on the inequality issue. Their tax cut was a giveaway to the wealthy and to Corporate America. They are the party of the haves. They, more than the Democrats, are the reason why capitalism needs to be reinvented.
A Sanders-Warren combination might show them how.