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A Better Tomorrow

William Greider's The Soul of Capitalism

With forty years of journalism and five best-sellers on the American economy and politics under his belt, William Greider is oddly optimistic.

In his new book The Soul of Capitalism, Greider, for years Rolling Stone's main political reporter, declares that diverse, grass-roots efforts in far-flung corners of America are opening doors to a new, moral economy. He doesn't avoid detailing the decay of American society, but his focus on pragmatic alternatives turns what could have been a doom-and-gloom rant into a hopeful glimpse at pragmatic, progressive business practices taking form in the back rooms of mainstream political, business and civic centers.

Greider opens with a paradox. Average Americans live longer, eat more (if not better), and own more luxurious gadgets than ever before. Yet Americans work longer hours, have less personal time and lack a sense of self-fulfillment. Even Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan found that levels of individual anxiety and insecurity rose with the indicators of a growing economy. Greider says this paradox exists because American capitalism has no soul.

He defines soul as a sum of intangible social values and moral obligations felt by the populace. These unwritten commitments to family, friends, neighbors, and the whole of society "are the source of happiness that is more central to our lives than material accumulation." American capitalism -- which according to Greider organizes the terms of our lives more than politics or religion today -- does not take these commitments of soul into account. If post-industrial capitalism wants to survive, it must be reinvented.

He has a blueprint for reinvention, but he first reminds us of the dire state of our current democratic-capitalist framework and how the lack of democratic governance in capitalism feeds our cynicism and resignation.

In corporate workplaces, citizens are expected to obey authoritarian orders, stay out of important decisions, deal with erratic whims of distant stockholders, and then somehow transform into enthusiastic voters after they clock out. Greider also shows how the concentration of wealth and control in relatively few hands further disenfranchises the majority of American voters. On Wall Street, fewer than one million people manage money and make decisions based on a narrow profit-driven agenda that ignores the degradation of ecosystems and communities. Three companies own two thirds of cable television channels, feeding ad-driven content that exploits our insecurities to whet our material appetites. Federal government, a monopoly of two parties without genuine democratic competition, doesn't bother to heed voices on the fringes.

It's a well-known and well-worn critique. Fortunately Greider takes care to juxtapose each complaint with an existing alternative. As both a pragmatist and a populist, Greider realizes greed can't be eliminated and businessmen are not paid to solve social problems. Instead, he wants people to roll up their sleeves and experiment with new ideas in their local communities that are smaller and easier to change.

The Soul of Capitalism is most engaging when relating examples of varied grass-roots efforts that prove a new, moral economy -- at least in microeconomic settings -- is not a utopian vision. Investors such as Toronto- and New York-based Innovest recognize that "good guys" in business avoid costly litigation by doing things right and think ahead for a sustainable future. At Herman Miller, an office furniture maker based in Zeeland, Mich. (most famous for the "Aeron" chair), all 7,500 employees own shares and constantly strive to reduce the ecological impact of their production. Some academics and community organizations, such as San Francisco-based Redefining Progress, calculate economic growth that takes into account "collateral damage," such as crime, poverty and depletion of natural resources.

What's most important to Greider is convincing skeptics that social responsibility and profitability are not mutually exclusive. His book takes one of the great cliches of American capitalism -- the power of positive thinking -- and reinvents it as a progressive mantra. Once an alternative becomes a reality, he tells us, apathetic voters and doomsayer corporations can't say it's impossible.

He also steals a page from more conservative capitalist thought when he admits that social responsibility can't be imposed. Like George Bush's "Thousand Points of Light" and other Republican-libertarian bootstrap philosophies, Greider's "capitalism with soul" requires a personal commitment beyond equal financial incentives or moral leadership. While at first blush a new, moral economy may sound like a stalking horse for over-regulation or even a soft Socialism, Greider keeps the distinction clear.

He doesn't advocate elimination of private property. He believes that corporations are the most effective way to organize business activity. In fact, he argues that a move to a moral economy must start with corporations. For example, the financial regulatory system must encourage more long-term planning and responsibility by making it harder for people to dump stock. Government subsidies of polluters and of companies that pay poverty wages, which stick the taxpayers with environmental clean-up costs and create a workforce dependent upon food stamps and other public monies for survival, must end. To fight the pollution and landfill problems of ever cheaper, more disposable products, manufacturers should be responsible for reclaiming their products at the end of their lives.

In plain English, a new, moral economy means a mature society that plans ahead. Believe it or not, Greider tells us, certain signs of this maturity are detectable through the haze of war, environmental degradation and political apathy. Seventy percent of Americans say they support the environmental movement. Socially responsible investing reached $2 trillion in 2001, up from $40 billion in 1984. Greider points out that the coming market shift is already happening on the grass-roots level, but, in the end, even with his staunch populism and disdain for traditional power centers, he admits that a successful shift requires support from Washington for pioneering efforts. Greider reports glimpses of forward-thinking in both Republican and Democratic backrooms. And he envisions unlikely coalitions of "humanist-populist-capitalists": progressive politicians, poor people, failing farmers, investment bankers. We can only hope that Greider's optimism is more than wishful thinking.

The Soul of Capitalism: Opening Paths to a Moral Economy
by William Greider
Simon & Schuster; ISBN: 0684862190
Hardcover, 366 pages (September 2003)

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