EJ Dionne on What American Capitalism Means

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

E.J. Dionne, Washington Post columnist, senior fellow at the Brookings Institute and professor at Georgetown University, talks partisan politics, the conversation over Bain Capital, and his new book, Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent.  

EVENT: E.J. Dionne will discuss the book at the Players Club (16 Gramercy Park South) on Thursday, May 24 at 7 p.m.


E.J. Dionne

Comments [39]


He did.

It's a shame you're incapable of reading.

May. 23 2012 09:18 PM

Aaron from Manhattan~


Could you please have a conversation with our idiot friend, Mr. CheezleWhiz???

May. 23 2012 09:14 PM
anna from new york

What are you babbling? Another soup? I usually see Americans offering historical soups, such as: "Napoleon was an Indian commissar who lived in the 12th century Brazil and taught Protestant nuns how make Beard Papa's."

May. 23 2012 04:42 PM
amalgam from NYC by day, NJ by night

@ Jeff -

My point is - and I can follow quite well - that your so-called government "defined tasks" and "defined procedures" forced upon "workers" are demonstrably not in existence and is overstated. Markets have and still remain the primary way that people interact one to another in the good ol' USA. That is why I have asked for specifics to be enumerated with regards to how the government has "restricted" your and others lives. Your leap from some government involvement to USSR-style command-and-control production-consumption is something of a straw man argument.

To wit; that the government is not doing this "job."

It is, as Dionne says, that current conservative/libertarian notions of government involvement of any kind and one that is a-historical and NOT part of how America has been established. Rather capitalism has and always will be one in a continuum and not an either-or capitalist/socialist construct. (Read some Polanyi and not just Hayek.)

May. 23 2012 04:31 PM
Ariane from Westchester, NY

It seems to me that there is a dialectic between two points of view on human nature. Tea Party members assume the individual has an impeccable spirit, fully willing to give to others and sacrifice for the good of all. They want to have complete freedom in the marketplace, with the assertion that the private sector will happily fund social programs and help maintain equal opportunity. Then there's the Communist perspective that asserts that human beings have a deeply questionable nature and must be "controlled" and "parented" by more "evolved" leaders in order to make the best choices for all.

Neither is wrong, and neither is true. They exist in a flux; and just as we legislate motive in other kinds of crime (he intended to hurt; he plotted to kill; he killed accidentally in a fit of rage; he killed accidentally with no intent to do so, etc.) why wouldn't we legislate intent in the financial marketplace--and look at the products and behavior of financiers in the same way as we look at all other human behavior?

The founding fathers understood that we had a nature that could go both ways, and an opportunity to create a society that aspired to the best in our natures. It must be governed by checks and balances, & acknowledge that we can be frail, short-sighted and greedy. And it must also support our efforts to work on behalf of everyone and the long term, especially since it means sacrificing certain things on a personal, short-term level.

I think there is a small percentage of people in the Tea Party and like-minded groups who are truly sincere. They want complete control of how they make their money and what they do with it--AND they absolutely follow through on helping to uplift society as a whole, regardless of race, creed, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc.

But the vast majority use the ideology as an excuse to indulge their lower natures,reap profits at the expense of others and the environment, and fulfill childish, unconscious fantasies of cheating death, decay and old age.

I find most of the Tea Party leaders to be in this camp; they espouse a point of view that allows them to continue to misbehave without ramification or repercussion. Their ideology is a convenience;they would happily swap it if it meant they could hang on to their power, lifestyles and everything else that makes them feel "safe" and perhaps even "chosen."

This country was founded on the idealistic principle that we can do better than to give in to the fears that make us cling to particular points of view (as in the religious intolerance that caused our forefathers to emigrate here)--better than to live only for ourselves and "our own";instead we can devote ourselves to society as a whole, to tolerance, and to a dynamic peace for all individuals based on equal access and opportunity. For this reason, I support "enlightened capitalism," socialist democracy and a constant reexamining of our policies to make sure they continue to align contextually to our principles.

May. 23 2012 02:52 PM

To answer Brian, those advocating for a Nanny state cannot claim to represent freedom.

May. 23 2012 12:00 PM
Aaron from Manhattan

As a Canadian who has lived in the US for the last 13 of my 48 years, I wish Americans would get more upset about the incompetence of their governments to deliver services for the taxes the pay.

For context, I have been an upper middle income earner in both countries. Living in the NYC area, my fully loaded taxes are about the same here as what I paid in Toronto. My federal and state taxes are lower than what I paid in there but this has been offset by US specific expenses such as health insurance premiums, higher municipal taxes, road tolls and other user fees.

And this is what grates me to no end. In Canada, I paid high taxes but I could see what I got for my money. I got affordable post secondary education at a high quality, globally recognized institution, I got good public schools for my kids regardless of the town or county I lived in, I got high quality affordable health care in modern facilities for my elderly parents and their multiple chronic conditions, I got good roads, I lived in urban centers with a fraction of the crime rate of a similar US city.

So it is disturbing to live in the US where my take home pay is about the same as in Canada but the same government services are either unavailable or offered at a much lower quality.

For the life of me, I can't figure out where all the money is going. The US spends about 4.5% of GDP on military compared to 1.5% in Canada. I am very thankful for the commitment made by Americans to the cause of world security. But I don't believe this differential isn't enough to explain the difference in service per dollar of taxes.

Other big differences that stand out include government structure - a lot of folks recognize there are too many levels of government in the US with much inefficient and duplicated delivery of services across entities like townships, cities, counties and so on. And the cost of maintaining the prison system in the US must be huge per capita relative to Canada and other western countries, too.

A reader would be justified to ask why I am here. Well, I am living in the US to pursue a specialized career opportunity. I also experience a lot of greatness in the US and I want to see it prosper as a beacon of freedom and opportunity. In the meantime, I try to contribute by volunteering my spare time and resources in grass roots economic development and empowerment in low income communities.

May. 23 2012 11:51 AM
Sheldon from Brooklyn

Jeff - You are shifting around the goal posts. I don't believe the guest or anyone here are/were advocating for Govt "monopolies."

Based on your previous posts, you seemed to be questioning the validity of government itself - a dangerous thing.

As for your point on healthcare - our current system is disaster. Crony capitalism has stifled any innovation as costs skyrocket and healthcare, oops - insurance companies make record profits.

I've read Smith, I've read Ricardo. I believe in markets and I love govt as much I like getting my teeth cleaned. However, I do understand both have a role to play in a civilized country.

May. 23 2012 11:44 AM
Jeff Park Slope

Amalgam: government is set up so that workers have defined tasks and follow defined procedures. This is necessary because there is no market and some sort of rules need to be provided. I don't have time to elaborate and you may not be able to follow this. Corporations tend not to have these restrictions - although larger, older ones tend to have more, startups have fewer. Private companies or individuals look for "opportunities" to increase their profit. This is not government's job and with some exceptions it doesn't do it. Look at the products produced in the USSR. From the buildings to automobile's shabby and not very useful. Contrast that with the iPhone. We have phone wars and the products improve and the choice is huge.

Sheldon: I oppose Crony Capitalism - completely. But it is not worse than government. Under the AT&T monopoly no innovation for years and years. Monopoly ended and call-waiting and other features appeared and ultimately cell phones. Adam Smith pointed out that a govt monopoly is much worse than a private monopoly because if the private monopoly is not protected by the govt, innovators will end it by producing better and cheaper products. Govt monopolies continue to grow. Govt run health care will not innovate, it will stagnate and we will all be worse off. Govt monopolies cannot be challenged, they endure. More govt power = more crony capitalism (until it ends in socialism) because politicians give our money to get theirs. Read Adam Smith. Corporate execs love to have govt protect them and aid them and make competition harder for their competitors.

May. 23 2012 11:02 AM
Ed from northern new jersey

The problem with the ads that the Obama team are running against Romney is he was not at Bain Capitol when those companies closed. Romney was running the Salt Lake City Olympics. The Obama campaign in 2008 had no problem accepting money from an officer of Bain Capitol, but now demonizes that company with the ads. Obama also has no problem coming to New York repeatedly to raise money from Wall Street contributors or hiring former Wall Street executives for his administration. Obama's actions are inconsistent with his message.

May. 23 2012 10:58 AM


But if the red states are anti-socialist aren’t they hypocritical for taking the federal aid?

May. 23 2012 10:58 AM
John from Manhattan

It's ironic that we are talking about the topic of government v individual responsibilities during the pledge period.

I am from Australia where our public radio is government-funded (from tax revenue). Australians, likethe citizens of the majority of democratic nations, generally support the idea of paying taxes and getting services like public radio in return.

The WNYC discourse during pledge week(s) is all about individual giving, about how private contributions are better than government funding, about begging individuals to contribute charity so there can be a social good. I would argue that such messages are a significant contributor to the distrust government, anti-tax sentiment in the US.

The US has lost the balance, and unfortunately aggressive fundraising by nonprofit organizations only reinforces the message that private initiative is always better than collective solutions.

May. 23 2012 10:56 AM
Jessie Henshaw from way uptown

E.J. falls into the perennial trap, not realizing that "history" is largely the list of amazing things that happened when people were planning something else...

When are we going to stat asking what will upset our expectations, and try to see what's coming. E.J.'s model, like so many others, depends on steadily multiplying our use of the earth, as was done in history. Is that likely to to be upset by anything?

May. 23 2012 10:55 AM
anna from new york

I've just discovered that I am not the only Social-Democrat in this country.
E.J., let's form a two-person club.
Good program, Brian.

May. 23 2012 10:54 AM
fuva from Harlemworld

(james from nyc -- ok, i get it now...)

May. 23 2012 10:52 AM
amalgam from NYC by day, NJ by night

@ Jeff -

So please enumerate the the list of coercive activities, rather than voluntary associations, that the U.S. govt. has yoked upon you.

What has been taken from you - like taxes which have always been "taken" and remains in the constitutional purview of the U.S. government - that is "illegal" or immoral? Considering that the U.S. has some of the lowest tax rates in the past 50 years, I'd like to have some concrete examples.

May. 23 2012 10:51 AM
james from nyc

your guest has some nerve.

he thinks that some poor bum should have the same vote as a rich and powerful all knowing corporate executive or a majority stock holder?

Does he actually think that everyone should have access to health care?

I bet this man thinks old people should get some sort of pay check when they are old and can't work any more..

Now, Dick Army started the Tea Party with corporate funds and all of one or two thousand pure Americans attracted to support the political needs of Dick's corporate doners.
I bet this man is not one of those pure Americans.

May. 23 2012 10:49 AM
fuva from Harlemworld

Conservatives use the word "freedom" for simplistic acontextual propaganda, to indoctrinate and obfuscate. Perhaps Democrats are less shameless.

May. 23 2012 10:49 AM
Amy from Manhattan

There's an old saying that your freedom to swing your fist ends at your neighbor's nose. But too many people take that only in the literal sense & don't recognize the other kinds of harm that no one should have the freedom to cause, like polluting the air we all breathe or the economic harm big business can cause to workers, consumers, & smaller businesses.

May. 23 2012 10:48 AM
RJ from prospect hts

Seems to me there isn't *one* Tea Party "movement" but several--those who somewhat joined together in rage against Bush corporate bailout and the "movement" oligarchs who took over much of it as turf roots organizations to push an aristocratic agenda. Those enraged initially have had nowhere to go and many have retreated to the 50% who don't vote.

May. 23 2012 10:47 AM
John A.

For me the inflection point was when a stranger went from saying "excuse me" on some inconvenience to "sorry". The first seemed to say a more giving type of person, the second the take first, apologize later type. This change seemed to happen about 25y ago.

May. 23 2012 10:46 AM
Larry from Brooklyn

Freedom in health care? It drives me crazy when conservatives say healthcare freedom is being taken away. I have a plan (luckily!) offered through my employer. There is no choice other than to not take the plan. I have to see the doctors they say I have to see and that's it. My doctor of 20 years leaves the plan and now I have to "choose" another. Is that the choice I will be losing? Fine with me.

May. 23 2012 10:46 AM
Jeff Park Slope

Community must be voluntary, else it is not community, it is coercion. Would you want conservatives to force you to attend gun classes and go to church? The US functions effectively with voluntary associations. Liberal policies reduce the ability of these to function freely - regulate them, restrict them. In some European states, at least one, I think Sweden, but I'm not sure, voluntary charity is outlawed. If I'm wrong about this, please correct me.

Why is it considered greed for people to want to keep what they work to earn - for themselves, their families and their descendants - but not considered greed for people to want what does not belong to them? We typically teach children not to take what does not belong to them. So now it is OK for grownups to do what we have always taught children was inappropriate? Why should I be able to vote to take away earnings from someone else just because I think that they have too much?

May. 23 2012 10:44 AM
Sheldon from Brooklyn

Jeff - you make some excellent points but crony capitalism is ten times worse. For every Helium reserve "zombie" kept alive by "government bureaucrats", there are 10 others: oil and agro subsidies - the combustible engine, all kept alive by politicians for their well off, money connected corporate cronies.

Also, your thesis on government comes off as a bit naive. I suggest that you travel more or live in a third world country for a year.

May. 23 2012 10:43 AM
amalgam from NYC by day, NJ by night

@ Jeff -

I completely disagree with your analysis: So where is the lack of innovation and lack of freedom/liberty/choices, as illustrate by your comment and that of the last caller?

May. 23 2012 10:43 AM
ellen from nyc

What about "no taxation without representation?" That slogan should motivate the tea party but doesn't. The middle and working classes are hardly represented by our elected lawmakers due to big money in our politics. Each congress person is looking out for himself and whoever subsidizes his campaign the most. Democracy is undermined, as we see the wealth gap grow wider as a result.

May. 23 2012 10:40 AM
mejimenez from manhattan

While individualism has been an American theme since the beginning of the Republic, the radical individualism we have seen in the past 40 years is just a propaganda smoke screen designed to hide how the 1%/creditors/rentiers have been rigging the game, including the government, to capture an ever increasing portion of the wealth created by the whole society.

May. 23 2012 10:37 AM

This guy wrote a book?

May. 23 2012 10:34 AM

@hjs11211 -

I would'nt call it 'require', I would call it 'gaming the system'. My smart-a** answer is that most of the Red states are represented by Republicans and they need to get some goodie for their state or they won't go along with legislation--regardless of the statutes other merits - If you want their vote, they have to get something for it.

Secondarily, the infrastructure in the Red states is usually underfunded by their local and state authorities, so Red States need the Fed dough to keep from falling apart. This is a correlation, not a universal.

And a more considered answer...In a country with Progressive rates, taxes are a form of income distribution. Therefore, it's only natural for taxes to flow from those with means to those without them. I guess Red States being net tax gainers means that Red States are more broke.

May. 23 2012 10:29 AM
Trine Stiansen

I reacted strongly to Romneys dismissal of the european welfare states
as in "sosialism does not work - look at Europe" -
Yesterday I read in a Norwegian newspaper about the American Style
Predator capitalism which I think describes Venture Capitalism gone amok

May. 23 2012 10:28 AM

At last!! E. J. Dionne has rooted down to the source of our current economic distress. OF COURSE, it's about the fundamental understanding of what we mean by capitalism. We have a flawed dialogue that focuses on scapegoats, on winners and losers, and all the other shallow-thinking that accompanies political and economic dialogue. I wish E. J. Dionne every success as he launches his book. I'm ordering the book today.

May. 23 2012 10:28 AM
Jeff Park Slope

He just described the maritime health program incorrectly. It was not a government health program (based on my understanding). It did regulate the maritime industry though. The balance of government vs. private has clearly shifted - and it has shifted away from private. This leads inevitably to loss of freedom and loss of wealth since the private sector creates wealth. The government sector consumes wealth. Innovation increases wealth and innovation requires motivation which means that reward may follow work in new areas. This entails risk and possible failure. Government creates stagnation. Once created, programs and bureaus live on indefinitely because their purpose becomes to keep people employed. We have not eliminated the US helium reserve yet and it was created when helium was used for military dirigibles. Capitalism thrives on creative destruction. We need to accept that businesses will be lost. Landline employment has been decreasing and there are very few buggy whip manufacturers still operating. If buggy whip manufacturing was a govt run operation, we would still have full employment in that area. Socialism does not work, it cannot work. People cannot be changed to become communitarian. That type of thinking (at the extreme) produces Cultural Revolutions and what we have now to some extent - reeducation for people that commit some types of crimes or say some things.

May. 23 2012 10:28 AM
amalgam from NYC by day, NJ by night

Interesting; Dionne is calling for a nuanced balance between BOTH ideals of individualism and communitarianism (because both are EQUALLY and inextricably American as apple pie).

I wonder how many Americans can hold and accept more than one set of conflicting viewpoints at the same time, let alone live it?

May. 23 2012 10:24 AM
Amy from Manhattan

Ever notice how the same people who say gov't. should be run like a business keep comparing gov't. budgets to a family's budget, not a business budget? A business would take steps to increase its revenue, exactly what the right wing has refuses to consider.

May. 23 2012 10:19 AM

The divide? The divide is the greedy worried about getting ripped of by the lazy, and the lazy worried about getting ripped off by the greedy. Republicans vs. Democrats in a self-centered world.

May. 23 2012 10:19 AM

the SEC turned a blind eye to Bernie Madoff for 10 years....the illusion of gvt regulations is not what we need. People need to do their own due dilligence. As someone who worked in a Dot Com we ALL worked at companies that fired half the staff (2 times sometimes in the same company). AT the time that's what was done to save the company. Government can not create jobs. Capitalism is risk, the gvt pretending they will be there to save you ruins it.

May. 23 2012 10:15 AM

Why do red states require more federal aid than the blue states (which pay a greater share of federal taxes)

May. 23 2012 10:13 AM

Martin, that's what you call a Strawman. But thanks anyway.

May. 23 2012 10:10 AM
Martin Chuzzlewit from Manhattan

Please ask what tenuous role personal freedom still carries with Dionne.
I love how EJ and the Left invent disparaging concepts like "hyper-individualism" when individual liberty becomes an inconvenient obstacle to their long term objectives. They need to corrupt the reputation of previously acceptable, even noble, ideas to make their contradictions sound reasonable and their communalism via government more benign.
("Hyper-individualism" is sort of like coining the term "white Hispanic" to delegitimize when necessary, LOL.)

With all due respect, many "liberal" people, even here, would object to this reasoning if they actually thought about its implications.

May. 23 2012 07:40 AM

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