The Residential Library

The sometimes demented, frequently irreverent, and occasionally stupid musings of Ron Hargrove

Socialist! Capitalist! Economic Systems as Weapons in a War of Words

The economist Joseph Stiglitz discusses Bernie Sanders, social policy and how we define ourselves — and one another.

By Andrew Ross Sorkin

Joseph Stiglitz settled into a booth at his favorite diner on the Upper West Side last week with a curious, almost satisfied smile on his face.

He won a Nobel Prize nearly two decades ago for identifying the inequities and imperfections in market economies and has spent a career warning of the perils of wealth concentration, railing against monopoly power and championing higher taxes.

At last, a lot of people seem to be listening.

“It’s been a long fight,” he said.

The cause has been taken up by the new stars of the left, like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and can trace much of its current momentum to the rumpled rabble-rousing of Senator Bernie Sanders. The policy points Mr. Stiglitz talks about — a higher minimum wage, a public option for health insurance and more — could just as easily come from the mouths of any of those seeking to unseat President Trump in 2020.

And yet they demonstrate how the words we choose to talk about our economic priorities are almost as important as the priorities themselves.

Last year, for the first time in a decade, a Gallup poll showed that Democrats had a more positive view of socialism than they did of capitalism. Those two words may play a pivotal role in our next election: Some Democrats have embraced the label of socialist, one long attacked by Republicans. And even some of those who have profited most from American-style free markets have worried about their sustainability, with the billionaire investor Ray Dalio going so far as to say that “capitalism is broken.”

Mr. Stiglitz, stabbing his fork into his salad, said he believed there had been a critical misunderstanding of the terms themselves — and the economic theories behind them — that had allowed for their weaponization.

“The meanings of the words have changed over time,” said Mr. Stiglitz, the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Bill Clinton and a former chief economist of the World Bank. And the words have become the subject of a branding battle crossing political and generational divides.

The professor in Mr. Stiglitz shared a history lesson that reached back to the early 20th century, about how socialism and communism became linked. And he made the case that Mr. Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, wasn’t actually a socialist — at least as the identity has long been defined.

Mr. Sanders’s agenda — which drew a fair share of cheers during a Fox News town-hall-style meeting this week — is not focused on “ownership of the means of production” or a statist system, Mr. Stiglitz said. “He’s really concerned about the social contract of health, education,” he added.

It is not surprising that Mr. Sanders’s supporters trend young, a group for which the word “socialism” holds no fears of conflict with the Soviets or baggage associated with the Berlin Wall.

“Some people are trying to attach more emotions to the historical legacy of socialism, which was never the same as communism, but in the United States those distinctions have gotten blurred,” Mr. Stiglitz said.

The attacks from the right have been anything but subtle. Just this month, Mr. Trump declared, “We’re going into the war with some socialists.” And Republicans have posited that Venezuela’s challenged economy is the inevitable result of any movement in the policy directions embraced by the left.

The word leaves a bad taste even in the mouths of many on the left, including Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, who lived through the height of the Cold War. “I do reject socialism as an economic system,” she said on “60 Minutes” last weekend. “If people have that view, that’s their view. That is not the view of the Democratic Party.”

(In Europe, Mr. Stiglitz said, similarly minded politicians might rightly be called social democrats. A simple switch in word order emphasizes the “social” instead of “socialist.”)

It all comes back to semantics, Mr. Stiglitz said. And perception was on his mind when titling his new book, “People, Power and Profits: Progressive Capitalism for an Age of Discontent,” which is to be published next week.

In it, he maps out a plan that he calls a “social contract” to improve jobs, health, education, housing and retirement. In fact, it wouldn’t be surprising if it turned into the economic platform for a presidential candidate.

Mr. Stiglitz proposes using a combination of market forces and government nudges — a higher minimum wage and an expanded earned-income tax credit, for example — to help the poorest among us. He also supports a “public option” to improve competition in the private sector in areas like health care and even retirement savings.

That’s not to say he views government as a panacea. For example, he wants to see the mortgage industry privatized. “In a private-sector economy, to have this huge piece of the economy that’s not run by the private sector is odd,” he said. Still, he also recommends a public option so that the government could support the mortgage market in certain cases.

Mr. Stiglitz said he had chosen “progressive capitalism” for his book’s title because he worried about triggering a visceral reaction to the word “socialism.”

“I’m trying to avoid some of the emotions that are still attached,” he said. “I try in my title to use progressive capitalism to try to say I believe in a market economy, but I also believe in government regulation.”

Even as popular figures on the left have embraced the label of socialist — Ms. Ocasio-Cortez is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America — others have sought, like Mr. Stiglitz, to underscore their capitalist views. Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., who formally announced his candidacy for president this week, calls himself a proponent of “democratic capitalism.”

If the evolving meaning of socialism strikes you as an inventive bit of rebranding, Mr. Stiglitz believes the conservative idea of American capitalism as an unfettered free-market system is itself a myth.

“There is no Darwinian capitalism,” he said. “Everybody would say you need some degree of regulation of banks. I mean, no one is talking about real laissez-faire banking.”

Even the word “capitalist” has evolved, Mr. Stiglitz said. It is only since the late 20th century and the rise of the economist Milton Friedman, he contends, that “capitalist” stopped being a dirty word. It was once used in what he called “a pejorative way.”

Capitalists were “people who were exploiting workers,” he said.

That is an opinion, of course. And it is a view that is not hard to come by in some circles now, either.

Language changes, and as convenient as it can be to use linguistic shorthand, it’s important to remember that beneath the words are ideas — the things we should be talking about.


%d bloggers like this: