What do businesses want? Conversely, what do we want from businesses?
Businesses want a neutral, sensibly regulated playing field that encourages entrepreneurship, growth, innovation and creative change. Disruptive technologies may threaten stagnant legacy companies, but that’s OK. The great Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter identified such “creative destruction” as the basic engine of capitalism, the inherent force of an economic system that continues to transform our world.
We may lose ailing retail dinosaurs like K-Mart and Sears, but that’s OK. Walmart, Amazon and Home Depot drove them out of business by providing better service and lower prices. Uber singlehandedly destroyed government-protected taxicab monopolies while Facebook, eBay, PayPal, Apple and Microsoft created entire new industries. Absent dynamic capitalism, none of these companies would exist. Bill Gates would have followed in his father’s footsteps to become a Seattle attorney, Jeff Bezos would still be a New York banker, Peter Thiel would be a securities lawyer at Sullivan & Cromwell and Mark Zuckerberg would be teaching at Harvard and writing sophisticated code for gamers on weekends.
Given capitalism’s extraordinary success, why has it become so unpopular? John Hickenlooper, a capitalist whose business smarts made him a successful Denver mayor and Colorado governor, initially shied away from admitting to the sin of capitalism when he launched his campaign for the presidency. He’s stuck in the polls at 1 percent, despite (or because of!) his sparkling resumé. The leading candidates for the Democratic nomination (Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg) have no significant business experience.
To many on both sides of the political spectrum, the ills of American capitalism outweigh its benefits. We yearn for affordable health care, abundant jobs, evenly distributed national prosperity, poverty-free retirement and safe, tranquil communities in a secure nation. We want free enterprise, but not the hollowing out of the industrial Midwest and the impotence of government and business to make things better. We are descended from immigrants, but we worry about the chaos, disorder and cultural impacts of immigration.
Our fears are replicated in other advanced economies, where economic and cultural nationalists want to close borders and de-globalize.
Does this mean we’re on the verge of a new era of disruption, when the wings of multinational businesses are clipped and local enterprises benefit from closed and protected markets?
Sounds great in theory. Who wouldn’t like to see the return of American manufacturing in every sector? And wouldn’t it be great to see Amazon supplanted by thousands of independent bookstores, each one a small, tax-paying business? In case you missed it, Amazon made $10 billion last year, paid no federal income tax and even got a refund.
Optimistic Dems tend to dismiss Donald Trump’s election as a black swan moment, a four-year national flirtation with a crazy guy who will be kicked to the curb in 2020. But Trump and his lefty counterpart Bernie Sanders may be our Typhoid Marys, infecting America with economic nationalism and strange, incomplete ideas.
As an aging friend told me the other day, “I’m not the man I used to be.” The United States once prided itself on being fearless and open, ready to learn and eager to teach. Are we still?
I wonder. Politically, I’m a registered Republican who often votes for Dems. I won’t vote for Trump, but what if the Dems nominate Sanders or another messianic anti-capitalist? That would suggest a future governed by crackpots, charlatans and senseless ideologues. Crony capitalism would continue to flourish, as a different favored minority of businesses would benefit from tariffs, tax exemptions and federal subsidies.
Traditional American capitalism works, despite its faults. If capitalism were a car, it’d be a 1976 Cadillac convertible — fast, reliable, fun and ready for the open road. There’s room in the big Caddy for every traditional American leader — so climb in, George, Bill, George W., John McCain, Barack and Mitt.
And what ride would be appropriate for Don and Bernie?
I can’t imagine that President Trump has actually driven himself anywhere in the last several decades, so let’s put him in his favorite vehicle: a golf cart. For his fellow geezer Bernie, it has to be the favorite ride of the coastal elite — a Tesla Model 3.
For myself, I yearn for different candidates — maybe Hick or Joe Biden running against Susan Collins or John Kasich, all driving red, white or blue Ford F-150s…
A guaranteed return to normalcy.