In a classic essay published exactly twenty years ago, Francis Fukuyama wrote that the triumph of the West was evident in the total exhaustion of viable systemic alternatives to Western liberalism. The end of the 20th century witnessed not just the conclusion of the Cold War, but indeed “the end of history”, a phrase Fukuyama intended to signify not the long-predicted convergence between capitalism and socialism, but rather “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”1
Over the past twenty years, a rather large number of observers have misunderstood, often to the point of bowdlerization, what Fukuyama said. Some did understand but disagreed. Now, however, the size and nature of the current economic crisis is causing some who have both understood and agreed to wonder whether the “end of history” has been replaced by “the end of growth”, the return of Malthus, or some other such phrase whose real meaning is plain: the replacement of liberalism’s inevitable universalization with its more likely decline or even demise.
Is such dramatic speculation warranted? Are we really in a systemic crisis, one in which an old order of political economy has been shown to be both unsustainable and immoral—to be, indeed, fundamentally misaligned with 21st-century realities? Many see evidence that a dangerous imbalance in the relationship between business and government grew gradually over the past thirty years. They insist, as a consequence, that government must take a much more assertive role in ensuring that public good is not sacrificed to private greed.2 If our leaders assume, as James Galbraith recently stated, that “we are going to have to reorganize and restructure many things, including the financial system, which has been poisoned by the abuses and negligence of the past few years”, then we are in for major structural change—for better or worse.
What if this diagnosis du jour is wrong? What if, as some believe, the crisis, both in the United States and worldwide, is really the consequence of a half dozen or so contingent decisions that, had they been made differently, would have validated the basic system we had—before the bailouts and before the “stimulus”?3 What if, despite the lurid display of corporate malfeasance we have witnessed over the past year, the only thing we have to fear about liberalism is the fear itself that something is deeply the matter with it?
Before we get locked into a bipartisan “recrimination bubble” as we debate this central question, it is worth considering, calmly and carefully, an even more fundamental issue: What exactly are we asking of our institutions? In particular, how did we come to care about economic growth in the first place, and why do we almost universally now lament its absence? It turns out that the real question we need to ask before all the others is not, “At what level does our political economy require change to ensure economic growth?” or “Has growth come to an end?” but “What is the end of growth? What is its purpose?”The Way We Were
To answer these questions on our way forward, we first have to take a step back. The reason is that the Wall Street versus Main Street blame game that has dominated public discussion of the crisis derives its premises, regrettably, not from the exigencies and opportunities of the 21st century, but from the conflicts and contradictions of the 20th.
Consider first and foremost the idea that, in market economies, both government and organized labor must be strong in order to balance the power of large corporations. In the current political and economic context, this idea seems as sensible as wool in the winter. But where did we get the notion that we need such “countervailing” power—the market equivalent of the balance of powers so essential to our democracy? It’s neither in the Constitution nor the writings of the Founding Fathers. Rather, it can be traced directly to one of the most eminent economists of the last century, John Kenneth Galbraith.
Galbraith began his 1950s-era analysis by observing that contemporary economic life is dominated not by many small firms battling one another to serve consumers in highly competitive market environments, but by large corporations that can dictate the terms of their engagement with both buyers and suppliers. The dominance of large corporations in the economy, Galbraith conjectured, would inevitably induce a response from workers and consumers that tempered their influence. “Power on one side of the market creates both the need for, and the prospect of reward to, the exercise of countervailing power”, Galbraith wrote. “This means that, as a common rule, we can rely on countervailing power to appear as a curb to economic power.”4 Government, in turn, must necessarily be counted on to balance interests in markets and to moderate the adverse impacts of business cycles.
To be sure, Galbraith viewed with historically inspired skepticism the efforts within modern economies to undertake large-scale planning, to control wages and prices, or to nationalize industry. He recognized—even in 1952—that top-down coordination of the U.S. economy was an administrative impossibility. As a consequence, the scope of government action that Galbraith envisioned would leave to private-sector actors most of the decision-making on how to allocate resources. Yet he was also unequivocal in his view that government had to be constantly vigilant and at times engage actively in the economy if the capitalist system was to continue its stable functioning.
The balance of economic power among big business, labor and government—what some have termed the “Iron Triangle”—seemed to reflect in economic life the system of checks and balances that has defined the American political system, so many observers came to assume that there was something inherent and immutable about this arrangement. There wasn’t. A decisive shortcoming of Galbraith’s analysis is that he saw, in a transient form of economic organization linked to the technological and organizational realities of the mid-20th century, the endpoint of the nation’s development. American capitalism is nothing if not dynamic, and global capitalism is anything but uniform, but Galbraith’s framework is fundamentally static and monochromatic. It is hard, for instance, to imagine writing a book today on American capitalism that contains, as Galbraith’s does, only two uses of the word “entrepreneur.” While Galbraith alludes to the important role of technology and innovation in economic life, he avers that both emanate from large corporations and thus only serve to reinforce the economic status quo. Galbraith’s framework admits change only in the form of “booms” and “busts” that punctuate an otherwise steady growth in economic activity, measurable in the aggregate with the then-recently developed tools of national income accounting.
While Galbraith’s filter on reality has endured, the Iron Triangle whose features he described so eloquently has all but collapsed. As long ago as the mid-1970s it had started to buckle. International competition, rising inflation, a lack of innovation and falling productivity all undermined the profitability of the dominant corporations that, in Galbraith’s framework, constituted the “original economic power” out of which countervailing power developed. In 1981, Ronald Reagan tore away the political strut of the Iron Triangle, the one that held activist government accountable for managing the whole arrangement, by vowing to scale back government’s role in the economy. Reagan’s view was simple: Cut taxes, reduce regulation and wring inflation out of the system in order to restore economic liberty at home, and then America would have the ultimate leverage to win the battle against tyranny abroad.
Of course, the Reagan revolution did not in fact signal the end of “big government.” Quite to the contrary, the share of federal spending was higher in 1983 than it had been in any other year since World War II. Unprecedented budget deficits resulted from a “don’t tax, but spend anyway” fiscal philosophy that carried over to a subsequent Republican administration. But Reagan-era deregulatory initiatives did have a salutary effect on American economic life—just as Margaret Thatcher’s highly contested policies set the stage for an economic resurgence in Great Britain. In the financial industry, as in many others, deregulation combined with the first phases of the information revolution to drive a surge of innovation in business models. Corporate raiders sought out underperforming companies and threatened to liquidate their assets, compelling a new discipline in American corporate life. An era of growth on Wall Street created vibrant markets for the initial public offerings of new companies, providing strong incentives in the 1990s to private investors and corporate venture funds to direct billions into start-up firms, thus driving the development of an array of new technologies. Reagan-era deregulation did not create all this dynamism, of course, but it didn’t hurt, either.
The further development of the American economy continued to undermine the assumptions on which the Iron Triangle was based. By the time the tech bubble burst in the late 1990s, large corporations did not provide the dynamism for American capitalism, government no longer played the same “countervailing role” it had played two decades earlier, and the power of American labor unions had declined thanks to the cumulative impact of liberal international trade and changes to the nature of employment brought about by information technology.
The last stand of the Iron Triangle, such as it is, can be glimpsed as a political farce. As everyone by now understands, the current crisis has not only eliminated or humbled financial services giants like Lehman Brothers, AIG and Citibank; it has also exposed the frailty of many other giant enterprises, not least the Big Three U.S. automakers, perhaps the most resonant symbols of 1950s-era American economic prowess. In a Galbrathian last hurrah of epic proportions, auto industry executives flew, then drove, and were nearly compelled to walk from Detroit to Washington to plead their case for government support to avert Chapter 11. At their side was organized labor, whose “countervailing power”, as Galbraith so astutely noted, turned out to depend as much now as it did sixty years ago on the “original power” of large corporations.
The respective titans of the American financial and auto industries found their way to Capitol Hill, hats in hand, by taking very different paths. Whereas the financial industry fell victim to unmoderated risk-taking and organizational irresponsibility, the auto industry has suffered from unrepentant risk-aversion and organizational inertia. Yet despite these stark differences, their linked fates illustrate the same fundamental story: the demise of the Iron Triangle.
Galbraith’s observations regarding the dominance of large corporations were surprising in the early 1950s, when they were true; today, many take them for granted even though they are no longer true. In the highly networked, distributed economy of the 21st century, Galbraith’s central premise has been overtaken by events. While some corporations may be large, they are no longer so economically dominant that they can dictate terms of engagement to either buyers or suppliers—a state of affairs made obvious by the fact that government’s greatest challenge at the moment is not restraining the biggest firms but keeping them afloat. The rapid pace of technological and organizational innovation, combined with the globally distributed nature of production, has placed every company at risk from competitive entry at home or abroad. Today, the wages paid to American workers are determined not by cigar-chomping oligopolists meeting in New York or Detroit boardrooms, but by labor markets that extend globally from Adelaide to Zurich. (Executive compensation is regrettably another story—one in which market accountability arguably plays a supporting role.)
In such a world, there is every reason for the vestiges of large corporate dominance to join forces with the vestiges of traditional organized labor to preserve the remnants of a social contract rendered obsolete by the inexorable forward movement of history. The futility and moral dubiousness of the desire to restore a world where well-paid workers in the United States produced goods for relatively impoverished foreigners has little do with whether the 1950s was, on balance, better or worse than today. The issue is simply that 2009 is not 1959. The way forward is not the way backward.
Of course, this means that pure Reagan-era self-regulation is no more of an answer to the policy challenges American capitalism faces today than is a re-institution of the Iron Triangle. The interdependence among economic actors in the 21st century—whether through supply chains, financial instruments or environmental impacts—is far greater today than it was even in 1980, much less when Galbraith wrote in 1952. The impact of private actions, in particular, extends well beyond the boundaries of private “self-regulation.” As we have seen so clearly in recent months, the pursuit of private returns can create public vulnerabilities. With only a few exceptions, even the largest and most assiduous industry associations have neither the scope nor the capability to regulate their members’ actions effectively. The debacle on Wall Street is just one example of what is, in fact, a broader, mostly unrecognized phenomenon.5“The Reach of Our Prosperity”
The essence of American capitalism today is not a static Iron Triangle that balances the interests of large corporations and organized labor with the active intervention of government, and it hasn’t been for quite a while. Nor, however, is it a rowdy free-for-all in which the interests of the many are readily protected by the acquisitive appetites of the few. Rather, American capitalism, as a Weberian ideal type, is a dynamic process by which opportunities create wealth, which is in turn invested to create further opportunities. It follows that the success of American capitalism—and the standard by which we judge it—must turn not on its transient ability to generate macroeconomic growth, but on its sustained ability to generate microeconomic opportunity. As President Obama stated with equal measures of eloquence and insight in his Inaugural Address: “The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our gross domestic product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on our ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart—not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.” These words have a post-partisan power with the potential to reconcile and supersede the linked legacies of FDR and Reagan, of Galbraith and Greenspan.
Growth is not an end in itself, and it is not a synonym for prosperity. The beginning, and the end, of growth is nothing other than opportunity. A generation’s worth of professional economic work on the determinants of growth, dominated by the obsessions of macroeconomics, has put the cart before the horse, focusing on the factors that result in growth rather than on the dynamics of the societies within which growth occurs. As a consequence, our political leaders and policymakers alike have systematically neglected the vital role of entrepreneurship in American capitalism.6
We don’t have a good excuse for our neglect of entrepreneurship. As the great Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter described more than a century ago, entrepreneurs are vital to economic development not because they take risks (as we have seen recently in financial markets, risk-taking does not necessarily correlate with the creation of social value), but rather because they create “new combinations” of economic activity. Successful entrepreneurs are, by definition, builders of institutions.7 These institutions may take the form of new companies, but more broadly they take the form of new approaches to creating social value.
While entrepreneurs create new institutions, they also challenge old ones. In many instances, technology provides entrepreneurs with the wedge they need to displace powerful incumbents. In the hands of entrepreneurs, technology is an inherently disruptive force that serves to redistribute economic power. Yet—and this is the key so clearly understood by Schumpeter but ignored by Galbraith—precisely because entrepreneurs perform the vital function of displacing the status quo and challenging existing institutions, they are likely to be weakly represented in the political process. For proof of this proposition one need only look at the recent debates over the composition and extent of the economic stimulus package. That entrepreneurship led directly to the vast majority of net new jobs created over the past twenty years in the United States is easily verified.8 But how much of the legislative discussion surrounding the 2009 stimulus package focused on the need for policies to catalyze entrepreneurial activity? Virtually none.
To be sure, one major objective of the stimulus package as proposed was supporting the base of science and technology required to renew future growth. It’s a laudable goal, and the associated proposed programs are largely worthwhile. But why was no explicit attention paid to the role of entrepreneurs in our economic recovery itself? Why no fund to match “angel” investments in start-ups to induce early-stage venture capital, as several observers suggested?9 Because entrepreneurs do not hire lobbyists and fawn over high-priced, well-connected political consultants like standard corporate interests do.Foundations of Social Development
While a greater appreciation for entrepreneurship is a necessary condition for American political leaders to engage positively in the shift from 1950s industrial capitalism to the entrepreneurial society of the 21st century, an entrepreneurial culture is itself not sufficient as a basis for economic prosperity and social progress in the long run. Another widely underestimated element is critical to American capitalist development, today as in the past: institutionalized philanthropy.
Capitalist growth excels because it creates wealth. The majority of wealth generates economic opportunity through investments that seek the maximum private return. Yet without philanthropy, entrepreneur-fueled growth in a capitalist economy can lead to a dead end. Why?
Both theory and historical experience indicate that while markets may be efficient, they are not necessarily equitable. Opportunities draw out entrepreneurial effort, which concentrates wealth, and which in turn may act in its own service to perpetuate inequality. Only through giving—in particular, through the organized large-scale action of philanthropic foundations—is the imbalance inherent in capitalist growth corrected to create a self-sustaining process of wealth creation, social innovation and opportunity. When wealth is reconstituted through giving to create new opportunities, a virtuous cycle ensues: Opportunity creates entrepreneurship; entrepreneurship creates wealth; and wealth, in turn, creates opportunity.10 This is the inner dynamic of American capitalism and the source of its prosperity.
The share of wealth that is given with the aim of generating maximum social return (defined at the discretion of the giver) thus is invaluable to social development in capitalist economies. In the United States, all manner of public goods whose creation would have been either economically unrewarding or politically infeasible have been made possible through private giving. Consider, for example, what this country would be like without the National Gallery of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Boston Symphony Orchestra; without the American Red Cross, the Council on Foreign Relations or the Brookings Institution; without the Rockefeller, Bill & Melinda Gates and Ford Foundations; without any faith-based organizations; without Harvard, Yale, Carnegie-Mellon or any other private university.
What has differentiated American capitalism thus far is its potential—not always realized, but always present—to generate not only growth, but development in the broadest sense. After all, we know that throughout history corrupt and repressive societies have achieved rapid economic growth without institutional and societal development. The former Soviet Union is a notable example. Emboldened by the impressive increase in economic output the USSR achieved after World War II, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev famously and succinctly proclaimed to an assembly of Western Ambassadors gathered at the Polish Embassy in Moscow in 1956, “We will bury you.” He was mistaken precisely because Soviet economic growth did not translate into true development. Institutions that could extend the reach of prosperity never developed because economic life was so tightly controlled by the planning structures dedicated to achieving economic growth. Growth itself ultimately stopped because development never got started.
When philanthropic giving is absent, development is slow, even when a few have great wealth. Today, in places that occasionally boast rapid rates of growth, like Indonesia and Russia, institutionalized giving (other than to organized religion) is almost unknown. Nowhere are oligarchs or kleptocrats noted for their beneficence. By contrast, in America the tradition of noblesse oblige runs very deep. From colonial days onward, philanthropy has been one of the major aspects of and keys to American social and cultural development. By the first half of the 19th century, the luxury of doing good was almost the only extravagance in which the American rich could indulge with good conscience. Andrew Carnegie exemplified the Calvinist ideal, putting philanthropy at the heart of his “gospel of wealth” in which millionaires were adjured not to bequeath vast fortunes to heirs or make benevolent grants by will, but to administer their wealth in the form of a public trust during their lifetimes. From that time forward, private foundations—endowed in perpetuity, immune from the distraction of ongoing fundraising that plagues nonprofits and traditional charities—have played a particularly important role in the United States. In this sense, according to Solomon Fabricant, philanthropy is a necessary condition of social existence, and the extent to which it is developed influences the productivity of the economy.11
Implicitly or explicitly, then, American foundations exist not simply to address the needs of citizens, but more fundamentally to address the weaknesses or failures of government in a system in which constitutional doctrine limits the power of the state. As has not been the case in Continental Europe, for example, the very idea of a minimalist government implied that collective action had to be the work of private institutions, an arrangement that led to a strong tradition of church-based charitable giving and, ultimately, to the emergence of the modern foundation. The original civic engagement observed by Alexis de Tocqueville was truly the precursor to the magnanimity of Warren Buffet.The Next America
Whatever lines pundits may like to draw from the present back to the 1930s, from the standpoint of the human experience, there is absolutely no comparison between the country that lay beyond the portico of FDR’s White House and the country into which Barack Obama sends his YouTube videos today. Without question, even in relative terms the magnitude of the Great Depression far exceeds anything experienced to date or, we dare to venture, anything that lies ahead. But what is certainly true is that the extent of societal advancement experienced over the past seventy years is so great that it has transformed America from what we would today refer to as an underdeveloped country into the most prosperous nation in human history.
The triumph of the Western idea—the “end of history” proclaimed by Fukuyama—has not, in fact, been called into question by the global financial crisis. Nor are future developments likely to reverse the judgment in favor of liberalism. Yet the institutional architecture of liberalism remains a work in progress. Continued institutional innovations will be required to ensure that democratic societies with market-based economies are as resilient in the future as they are prosperous.
For its part, this nation has little hope of realizing the potential of such institutional innovations until its leaders become as aware as its citizens are of the futility of trying to solve today’s problems with yesterday’s tools, all the while mistaking means for ends. Economic growth, or its absence, is merely an indicator on the dashboard of our ongoing national journey. The engine that propels American capitalism forward is entrepreneurship; the fuel is opportunity; the work of foundations recycles the energy of society, making progress and widespread prosperity sustainable. Yet, just as a Tesla Roadster is no Model-T, 21st-century entrepreneurship derives from a formula far more complex than the “1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration” once cited by Thomas Edison. Far-sighted government policies are an essential element within this formula. Political leadership must do more than celebrate the “risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things” who create opportunity and extend the reach of prosperity. It must act in partnership with private foundations to ensure the existence of an environment conducive to their efforts.
Unfortunately, political action to support entrepreneurship is stymied by a political system still living in the past. On the one side is a party committed to economic liberty, a party which has an historic affinity to entrepreneurs, but which today is analytically handicapped by its 19th-century interpretation of the nature of markets and market failure. On the other side is a party committed to economic rights, a party which has an historical appreciation for the benefits that can derive from enlightened government action, but which today is functionally handicapped by its 20th-century (Galbraithian) interpretation of American capitalism. The result is a debate in which both parties are well intentioned and both are programmatically wrong. This has produced a depressing stalemate in which neither side of the aisle produces the policy initiatives required for a renewal of sustainable prosperity.
Take the Republicans. Faced with a crisis of mammoth proportions, congressional Republicans closed ranks to reject a proposed economic stimulus package on the grounds that the bill contained, in the words of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, “unnecessary spending that doesn’t create jobs now.” This was a principled stand minus one critical element: principle. The travesty of “don’t-tax-but-spend-anyway” Republicans trying, once again, to portray themselves as advocates of fiscal discipline was actually exceeded in this case by the absurdity of their objecting to the composition of the largest economic stimulus program in history on the grounds that the money would not be spent quickly enough. At a time when we need thoughtful assessments attuned to the longer term, here were the Republicans complaining that policy was not short-term enough! Unable to make a credible case for either total inaction in the face of crisis or yet another round of broad-based tax cuts, congressional Republicans were effectively reduced to playing the role of arch Keynesians.
For Democrats, the core challenge is not absence of principle but rather obsolescence of purpose. For at least three generations the Democratic Party has been, or at least has presented itself as, the party of countervailing power. Notwithstanding attempts at a course-change undertaken first by Bill Clinton and now by Barack Obama, the identity of the Democratic Party is still deeply tied to the tensions and triumphs that for decades characterized politics within the Iron Triangle: Big labor exists in opposition to large corporations, and government must be vigilant if it is to protect citizens and workers from abuses perpetrated by powerful private actors. In fact, big business and big labor are functional allies, and government isn’t protecting us from either one; rather, it is under pressure to prop both up without a justifiable economic rationale. This Democratic vision is to today’s reality what an AT&T rotary dial phone is to Gmail.
No wonder, then, that neither political party has produced an agenda to match the exigencies of the moment. It’s actually worse than that. Republicans now regularly label valuable support to technology entrepreneurs as “corporate welfare.” Democrats shied away from proposals to induce employment by reducing the employer’s share of the payroll tax. From both sides of the aisle recently came praise (explicit and implicit) for vaguely specified “shovel-ready” projects that seem to be promoted on the principle that the best way to get out of a hole is to dig faster—that is, to fix old stuff rather than build anew.
On the positive side of the ledger, President Obama has been right to emphasize that America’s singular imperative today is to undertake a long-overdue transformation of the nation’s energy, health care and education systems, whose stasis for the past quarter century is a bipartisan source of shame. He has been right to feature the accelerated deployment of “smart-grid” technologies as the centerpiece of proposals for infrastructure renewal and otherwise to demonstrate a clear commitment to addressing the challenge of climate change; to emphasize the potential of “social entrepreneurship” to bring volunteerism and service into the 21st century; to draw attention to the potential of Web 2.0 technologies, which will create productive connections among people and “crowdsource” solutions to challenging societal problems; and to acknowledge the profound links among individuals and economies around the world. What remains for the new Administration, however, is the hard part: the project of connecting the dots that link these and other disparate insights a coherent plan focused on creating not jobs but opportunities at home and abroad.
Future growth, like past growth, will come from unrealized opportunities for increased productivity. Today, such opportunities are at least as great in poor regions of the world as they are in rich regions. As a consequence, whatever happens in this country in the near-term, over the coming five decades the reach of prosperity will continue to extend to more people across the globe than ever before. Indeed, the financial crisis that precipitated the current recession is best understood as a side-effect of a decades-long trend of increasing prosperity on a global scale; this trend will not easily be stalled.12
The capabilities to accelerate this largely beneficial process of global economic transformation and to mitigate its potential risks are arguably nowhere more in evidence than in the United States. The underlying irony of our era is thus that the next America? will derive its strength from exactly the same global trends that have led to the undoing of the last. Accordingly, the fundamental choice of the moment goes well beyond debates over more or less stimulus, or more or less regulation. It is whether to be on the trailing edge of the arc of history or the leading edge. It is, in short, whether to make growth an end for America, or a new beginning.