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In Supercapitalism, Robert Reich argues that there's a growing conflict between democracy and capitalism. As citizens, we have ideals, but as consumers, we have needs. We abhor child labor, for instance, but we want a cheap pair of jeans. And we might be dismayed over Main Street's demise, but we still look for bargains at Wal-Mart.
Reich says that those two impulses have not always been at war. Between 1945 and 1975 — a period he calls the "Not Quite Golden Age" — the imperatives of business, government and labor were more or less in balance with one another. (The "not quite" refers to the fact that women and minorities were still lagging behind.)
But in the 1970s, according to Reich's analysis, advancements in technology and a growing, dynamic economy set the stage for corporate competition to enter politics. Today, companies battle it out with other companies, fighting for laws and regulations that favor them and disadvantage their competitors. Such pressures make it more difficult for citizens to have a meaningful say in public policy.
But, Reich adds, "If we think that we can just treat companies as moral beings and yell at them ... for not being more socially responsible ... we are diverting our attention from the hard work of democracy — of making laws and rules that reflect our real values."
Reich says he had a hunch about the "inverse relationship" between democracy and capitalism when he served in the U.S. trade representative's office during the Carter administration. But it took him a while to see the problem "in the round."
In the meantime, he served as labor secretary during the Clinton administration's first term. Locked in the Cabinet, his 1998 recollection of the Clinton years, and The Future of Success, his 2002 examination of work life in America, were both best-sellers.
This discussion of Supercapitalism took place in September 2007 at the Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C.