Almost a decade has passed since the financial crisis, yet economic debate remains trapped by stale assumptions that led to the calamity. The consequences of this intellectual failure could not be higher. As Hillary Clinton observed of the Democratic Party in a strikingly honest interview with the New Yorker a few weeks before the election: “We have been fighting out elections in general on a lot of noneconomic issues over the past thirty years . . . but we haven’t had a coherent, compelling economic case.” Liberals still don’t have one—and, despite posturing to the contrary, neither do conservatives. The diverse essays assembled here point the way to new ground. They analyze capitalism’s past, present, and future—from slavery to the transformations wrought by globalization—and present novel ideas for reform.
James Galbraith examines why Trump is unlikely to fulfill his promises to grow the economy and create jobs. He argues that there are physical, environmental, technological, and institutional obstacles to achieving growth by simply spending more money on infrastructure. He makes the case for a vast expansion of the nonprofit and public sector to support a job guarantee program, providing decent pay for jobs in healthcare, the environment, education, and culture sectors.
Mariana Mazzucato and Michael Jacobs inventory the scale of the 2008 economic crisis and document the tepid economic recovery that has followed. They call for a rethinking of economic policy, stressing the public nature of wealth creation. The role of the state is not simply to regulate private economic activity but rather to play a leading role in investment, innovation, and social care.
Alyssa Battistoni surveys the global debate on universal basic income (UBI). In a clarifying essay she recognizes the liberating potential of UBI, while remaining critical of those who see it as a replacement for the values of the welfare state. For Battistoni, any version of a basic income that would be palatable to Charles Murray is one not worth having.
Daniel Luban and Michael Ralph each examine aspects of capitalism’s history whose reverberations are still felt today. Luban reviews the life and contemporary relevance of Karl Polanyi, whose critique of market society continues to inspire new generations of readers. Ralph uncovers the sordid history of how many corporations benefit (through corporate-owned life insurance) from the deaths of their workers. That practice has roots in the nineteenth century, when mine owners in the booming coal industry took out life insurance policies on their workers—many of whom were also enslaved.
J.W. Mason offers a socialist perspective on globalization and explores how to reconcile conflicting values of internationalism, advancing workers’ interests, and political control of the economy. While not giving up on an egalitarian global agenda, he argues that the struggle to preserve social democracy occurs at the national level.
Much like capitalism, the essays in this section cover a diverse array of subjects, but they share a common theme. They deepen our understanding of the forces shaping our economic system and contribute to the ongoing search for alternatives—a search that, after being dismissed for decades as naive and utopian, is now more urgent than ever.
Mark Levinson is the chief economist at the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and co–book review editor at Dissent.
Timothy Shenk is a Carnegie Fellow at the New America foundation and co–book review editor at Dissent. He is the author of Maurice Dobb: Political Economist (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).