The Common Good
June 2005

Common Wealth

by Bob Hulteen | June 2005

Too many media outlets have decided that the political divide in America pits the red against the blue.

Too many media outlets have decided that the political divide in America pits the red against the blue. In true Final Four fashion, one wins and the other loses. Such coverage allows a narrow victory to become a mandate, a close vote to grow into significant political capital.

In reality many debates in the political system are instead about a balancing of values. Security is pitted against liberty, opportunity against equality. These values are not inherently bad or good. And for most of us, the differences in outcomes of our programmatic solutions to social problems have more to do with how we weigh competing ideals than whether one is red or blue.

Political economist Gar Alperovitz, in his America Beyond Capitalism: Reclaiming Our Wealth, Our Liberty, and Our Democracy, challenges us to keep our sights on the highest virtues, while truly re-evaluating whether our current means will get to the hoped-for end. Raising questions for both redistributive-oriented liberals and market-reliant conservatives, Alperovitz encourages us to experiment with new policy options that will more deeply embody the values of equality, liberty, and democracy.

Alperovitz is not satisfied merely debunking the weakest arguments of other serious economists, be they left or right. He chooses instead to take on the central points of writers, even those with whom he disagrees. Often he makes a more compelling case than the original author. In Socratic style he mines the best of each perspective for the gold nugget of truth.

ALTHOUGH A SCHOLARLY work, America Beyond Capitalism is an accessible read. Alperovitz breaks down high concepts into interesting and manageable chunks for the nonprofessional social scientist. Clearly he lives in a real world where real people have real problems and real lives. He "gets" the relationship between poverty and diminished citizenship engagement when he writes, "active citizen participation in local community efforts is all but impossible if the economic rug is regularly pulled out from under them." From there he cites numerous studies from a variety of perspectives documenting that the quickest path to political disengagement is economic disengagement.

What is the cause of this disengagement? America’s version of corporate capitalism is unsustainable in any economic system, argues Alperovitz. The scale of these corporations, and the inevitable power that accompanies their size, threatens democratic life. While that is not a new realization, Alperovitz looks outside the traditional fixes.

The classic 20th-century strategies for making corporations more accountable centered on antitrust efforts and on various forms of public regulation. Such strategies do not attempt to move beyond the corporation as an institution; they essentially hope to use publicly backed efforts to constrain its activities. Although the Enron, WorldCom, and other scandals forced its hand in certain areas, President Bush’s administration has been particularly aggressive in undermining traditional regulatory strategies.

Alperovitz no longer believes that equality will be achieved by solutions such as progressive taxation of income. Not convinced that a redistributive revolution is imminent, or that it would manage its success well if it were, he believes that "serious after-the-fact redistributive measures are no longer viable," so "something more fundamental is needed." But what is his solution?

Alperovitz makes strong arguments, using the thinking of both liberal and conservative economists, for worker-owned companies and Individual Development Accounts (IDAs). Workers, he argues, have a closer view of the inefficiencies within the workplace and so are best suited to create policies to offset these inefficiencies and thereby increase profit margins.

IDAs would give low-income people the same opportunity to benefit from the ownership of capital that middle- and upper-income individuals have with home-ownership mortgage-interest deductions and pre-tax contributions to retirement accounts. Instead of welfare programs that address poor people’s limitations, IDAs take an assets approach; each individual has a nest egg of a sort. These individuals then become stakeholders in the system, in contrast to the common public perception of them as leeches on a system that otherwise works just fine.

While I do believe this focus on wealth (as opposed to income) is a first step toward finding a solution, I am troubled by how many times the word "individual" appears in the previous paragraph. Common stake in the future is more important than individual stake. Creating a situation where the poor become even more competitive individually with each other will not deepen connections to the broader society. I fear it may in fact lead to greater alienation for the vulnerable and greater disconnection from the masses for the excessively rich.

But in this difference of opinion is the great value of the book. Alperovitz wants to be pushed. He is not afraid of having his ideas critiqued. He is on a long journey to build a more just, equitable, free, and democratic society. Participation is a key. He wants us all to wrestle with him, so he makes his arguments accessible enough to enter the fray. Alperovitz’s style is consistent with his substance.

So join him. Take the challenge. Read the book. Write him your response. Let’s get this dialogue going. The stakes are too high to assume a return to the New Deal or to quietly allow the dismantling of the common good by the "opportunity society."

Bob Hulteen is interim director of organizing for Interfaith Worker Justice in Chicago and director of the Twin Cities Religion and Labor Network in Minneapolis.

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