Article — From the November 2008 issue
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Can Capitalism survive? No. I do not think it can.
—Joseph Schumpeter, 1942
The problem is not how to save capitalism but how to save the unique and successful mixed economy built in the United States over the eighty-five years since the New Deal. Our system is not capitalism. Our economy has a large public sector, which at its best was competently concerned with research, defense, financial stability, environmental safety, social security, and large measures of education, health care, and housing. Today, after thirty years of attack on government, all these functions are damaged and in peril.
The rot comes from predators posing as conservatives and mouthing the rhetoric of “free markets.” They are not actually interested in free markets. Their goal is to use the government to build monopolies, to control resources, to block regulation, to crush unions, to divert as much as possible from taxpayers into private pockets. They have a reckless attitude toward war-making and they put the financial system in peril by failing to enforce standards of ethics and transparency. As a result, they imperil the country’s credit in the world. True conservatives recognize this, which is why they defected from Bush and McCain long ago.
Our postwar system was built on technological leadership, financial stability, and collective security. The world gave us credit and used our currency. Why? Because we gave it back the public goods of peace and economic progress. We were the bulwark during the Cold War. Our system wasn’t imperial: we spoke instead of community, of freedom, of common purposes and common values, and the world took us seriously because we had paid our dues.
The next successful system should be built on that model—that is, on the basis of regulated finance, collective security, and, above all, a national purpose. Since energy and climate change will dominate the global agenda for the next generation and perhaps even the following, dealing with these issues must become our generation’s purpose too. Although America is the world’s great energy wastrel, among developed countries we are the best positioned to change, to reduce our own fossil-fuel use and help the world do likewise. We have the science, the technology, the engineering, and the educational capacity to take the lead.
What we do not have is the capacity to figure out, in advance, a coherent national strategy toward this goal, and for using our government to advance that strategy. We have no capacity to plan, and that is what we need now.
“Planning” has been a dirty word in American politics for decades. For the hard-line right, planning destroyed freedom: it was the “road to serfdom.” Anti-planners also thought it a failure; for them the collapse of the U.S.S.R. was due to “central planning.” But without public planning, who is in charge? Lobbyists who represent the private planning of the great corporations. The public interest ceases to exist, and the public sector becomes nothing more than a trough at which private interests come to feed.
What the government needs most today is to regain an independent capacity to think. The government needs a way to imagine the future that is not dominated by lobbies or even by Congress so long as Congress is dominated by lobbies. Planning is a process: thinking, coordination, action. What is the long-term national interest? What specific targets must be met? What is the best way to do it, and who plays what role?
For instance, carbon prices and cap-and-trade systems will help to deal with the climate crisis, but they cannot do the whole job. Markets do not design new systems—new patterns of transport and housing, new technologies for electric power, for vehicles, for heating and cooling. To design a system, to put the pieces together, to identify the most promising lines of attack and take steps to achieve them: that is the planner’s role.
Imagine a Federal Department of Energy and Climate with real independence. It could make an honest evaluation of ethanol. It could review the prospects and assess the dangers of next-generation nuclear power. It could make a judgment on carbon capture. It could consider all the serious conservation proposals, such as Joe Kennedy’s program to retrofit housing in the snow belt. It could fund new research centers in the major universities, so that in a decade the country will have trained the experts we will need to implement the plans we make.
Planning is not coercive, but it should be privileged. Once Congress approves a plan, budgeting and appropriation rules should favor public capital spending that implements the plan. For instance, such investments would not be subject to “pay-go” restrictions; as long-term improvements, they properly should be funded by issuing long-term debt. The planning process would thus parallel the budget process, superseding it in the areas of infrastructure, technology, and environmental management that would be the main arenas for the plan. Dealing with the energy and climate crises will require direct public action and the cooperation of the private sector, which will be achieved in part by regulation and standards. Clearly, the challenge is daunting. But it’s not hopeless. If the country gets it right, all of us can have work for a generation, a better living standard afterward, and leave the planet more or less intact. And in addition, we stand a chance, otherwise improbable, of persuading the rest of the world to keep our line of credit open.