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Moyers: Rampant Capitalism Has Created a Social Disaster -- How Do We Right the Ship?

The public rescued the One Percenters after the financial crisis and now their wealth is skyrocketing once again. But what about the rest of us?

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BILL MOYERS: The invisible hand.

RICHARD WOLFF: Yeah.

BILL MOYERS: The market.

RICHARD WOLFF: All of that. So for me, I began to realize, "Okay, I'm an economist. I'm in that one. But I want to understand how the real economy works." And then I discovered that I needed to reeducate myself. I had to go learn things that I was never assigned to read.

BILL MOYERS: After Harvard? After Stanford? And after Yale?

RICHARD WOLFF: It actually happened while I was there. I was already, there were a few people--

BILL MOYERS: --as heretics.

RICHARD WOLFF: Yes, they do.

BILL MOYERS: A few.

RICHARD WOLFF: You know, but you know, capitalism-- I like to say to people, capitalism, like all systems, when it comes into being, is born a few hundred years ago in Europe and spreads around the world, like other systems before it. It has always produced those who admire and celebrate it and those who are critical of it.

I used to say to my students, "If you want to understand the family who lives down the street, suppose there's mama, papa, two children. And one of the children thinks it's the greatest family there ever was, and the other one is quite critical. If you want to understand the family, do you choose only one child to interview, or do you think it might be wise to interview both of them?"

For me, I began to interview the critics of capitalism, because I thought, "Let's see what they have to say." And that for me opened an immense door of critical insights that I found invaluable. And I've never forgiven my teachers for not having exposed me to that.

BILL MOYERS: But so few have done that. As you know, as you've written, as you have said, we've not had much of a debate in this country for, I don't know, since the Great Depression over the nature of the system, the endemic crisis of capitalism that is built into the system. We have simply not had that kind of debate. Why do you think that is?

RICHARD WOLFF: Well, I think we have had it from time to time. We have had some of the greatest economists in the tradition, for example, Thorstein Veblen, at the beginning of the 20th century, a great American economist, very critical of the system. Someone who taught me, Paul Sweezy, another Harvard graduate. These are people who have been around and at various times in our history, the beginning of the 20th century, during the 1930’s, again in the 1960’s, there was intense debate.

There has been that kind of thing in our history. I mean, we as Americans, after all, we take a certain pride, which I think is justified, we criticize our school system. We just spent two years criticizing our health delivery system in this country. We criticize our energy system, our transportation system.

And we want to believe, and I think it's true, that to criticize this system, to have an honest debate, exposes flaws, makes it possible to repair or improve them, and then our society benefits. But then how do you explain, and that's your question, that we don't do that for our economic system?

For 50 years, when capitalism is raised, you have two allowable responses: celebration, cheerleading. Okay, that's very nice. But that means you have freed that system from all criticism, from all real debate. It can indulge its worst tendencies without fear of exposure and attack. Because when you begin to criticize capitalism, you're either told that you're ignorant and don't understand things, or with more dark implications, you're somehow disloyal. You're somehow a person who doesn't like America or something.