Can American Capitalism Survive? by Steven Pearlstein

I know. I know. How could a book published this year focused on the current state of the US be any good? How could it be anything but pretension or, worse, the meticulously organized confusion of shell-shocked adults wondering how they could have been so very wrong? Skepticism would be warranted. Perhaps it is a testament to my optimism (which, I admit, often seems indefinitely AWOL) that I have skimmed so many such books’ jackets, but it was all worth it because it led me, eventually, to this book: Can American Capitalism Survive? by Steven Pearlstein.

Can American Capitalism Survive? is no personal diary. It is not a harried attempt to piece together comprehension of a world gone mad. It is also not click-bait-y as its title seems to intimate. Can American Capitalism Survive? is a thorough, rigorous analysis of the evolution of America’s economy over the past several decades leading up to, and illuminating, the country we see and inhabit today. Pearlstein’s skill and experience as a business and economics reporter inform the book’s masterfully written and organized prose. He draws on philosophy, economics, history, social science, and political science to support his analysis and back his conclusions as he explores the dynamics and decisions that led us to our current economy and the ideas, solutions, and rhetoric that complicate and intensify our relationship to it. In a true mark of his skill as a writer, he makes a nuanced topic accessible and comprehensible to his reader.

Furthermore, Pearlstein is no self-appreciating intellectual nor an ideologue. He is a capitalist, sure, but his objective, stated in the book’s introduction, is not to absolutely and unyieldingly convert opinions but to provoke thought, to engage readers “to think about American capitalism in a new way…to consider it from a different angle.” Pearlstein wants us to read the book and, instead of just reacting or absorbing as we are wont to do these days, to contemplate the ideas he presents and hold them up against the lives we live and see if we can’t find some new understanding and maybe even a better way forward.

In a time when diluting ideas and opinions into short character strings and photo captions is the normal form of communication, when “discussion” and “firing an angry text off” or “posting a passive-aggressive to outright-aggressive meme” are all in essence seen as the same thing, this book’s objective may seem lofty. To be fair, some of you may still be disinclined to read it, skeptical that, like so much of our discourse, it will be more of an individual preaching to his particular crowd. Let me put that concern to rest.

As somebody who thinks that we as a country have a lot of growing to do, this book challenged me in ways I had not expected. First, and perhaps most obviously, this book challenged me intellectually because I do not have a background in economics. Pearlstein does not in any way dumb down the economic ideas central to his analysis of our capitalist society. Instead, he has the skill to illuminate dynamics like the intentionally confusing practices of Wall Street financiers and nuanced public repercussions. Pearlstein incorporates data and plots, statistical tools and even some light jargon into his work without losing the thread of the narrative or marring its clarity. In doing so, he challenges the reader to pay attention and think, which is crucial. Our economy and how it influences our lives and decisions and its own future relies on us understanding these complex ideas, (ideas, incidentally, that couldn’t really be summed up in a Tweet or a caption).

Secondly, this book challenged me to re-consider my understanding and my relationship to the economy. Can American Capitalism Survive? looks at capitalism today as it relates to where we grow up, what education we receive, what economic backgrounds we come from, our ideas on fairness and morality, and our assumptions about what we deserve from each other and our economy. All of this relates to each of us as individuals and as a community, and I found myself pausing frequently to consider the words I had just read.

Most surprisingly, this book made me re-examine desire for wealth and success and my relationship to the concept of greed. Theoretically, it may be easy to say that we want what’s best for the most people, but what does that really mean? What does that really involve? And when it comes to personal decisions, what do we really want and value?

I went into this book thinking I would learn something about how we arrived at the current economic state, one where large corporations are easily seen as bad and politicians really don’t seem all that trustworthy. I came out with a much broader understanding of the recent arc of American economics and with a greater comprehension of the relationship between an individual, a community, and the economy. Part of acquiring that involved the self-reflection and thought this book stimulated.

I know it is easy to recommend (and to dismiss recommendations) for anything these days because everyone has an opinion and is touting it. However, I sincerely, 1000%, pretty-please-with-a-cherry-on-top-follow-this recommend you read this book. It will widen your perspective, and you will learn a lot. Most of us to some degree know that the economy has been central to creating our present state of frustration and polarization. This book provides a framework for each of us to start thinking about, understanding, and eventually tackling this situation.

Also, it’s just a good, fun, engaging read. The man knows how to write (but then, he did win a Pulitzer).


coffee & recycled air

The air here smells like coffee and ventilation units. It’s beginning to sink into me, stain my skin and my neurons with familiarity. I think of the school days that seemed so infinite then, so distant now and sip my tea behind a window pane, watch the world wake up without me: the sun and the sky and the wind and the water. No one ever tells you what it’s going to be like to grow up, not really. They just hand you a pack of pretty lies but lies nevertheless. I turn them over in my head as I watch the clouds, frozen high in the sky so bright. Perhaps they’re filthy lies after all…

| 27.9.2018 |

meanwhile, the earth burns

I spent this past week in a blur of trying to put myself together. These things happen sometimes. The heartbeats we ignore just trying to catch our breaths. I watched the sunsets from my car driving home every evening, wondering if the years would disappear as quickly as the days. I spent the nights alternately searching for something lost or something not needed, staring into my own eyes in photos from the near-past and drowning in the glow of other lives. These photos we take with increasing frequency, thousands of them, desperate, as if we can hold down the moment with pixels, preserve it, freeze time, as if we have tomorrow…We never have tomorrow…

The maple tree on the street outside is curling at the fingertips. People I don’t know yearn for an imagined autumn, the one in photos, all warm hues and desaturated skies. Cute girls in cozy sweaters. The grocery store aisles gorge themselves on a fever-pitch obsession. These fantasies created in intoxicating images, now desperate dreams, as if through sheer will-power, the process can be reversed so that we may convert unreality into reality…

Meanwhile, the Earth burns.

late response

How do you do it? you asked, like I had any idea,
because I didn’t, not really. It was just a thing my brain did.
Because you were right, absolutely. The moment you start wondering
if it’s good enough, if it’s clever enough,
is the moment you start losing the soul that drove it all.

labor day

Hot like death rowing hard with life. Sprawled in the car, I can’t get cool, sweating like it’s mid-July. It’s September. We wade through the throngs in the grocery stores, celebrating the workers by making them work. It’s madness, like the heat has infiltrated all of our brains. We wander the aisles lost and determined. I get distracted by a batch of pretentious candles, inhaling an autumn that’s refusing to come.

Maybe the world as we know it won’t ever come back. I pretend the bustle around me can’t see me or feel me. Maybe the air will never cool, and the leaves will turn in vain; the apples trees will bear no fruit; the maple trees will wither. Maybe the wolves will move up north, and the pine cones won’t ever see another snow. The hot, sticky summers amidst the palm trees haunt me. I fear the rhythms of my life have dissipated, never to return, sucked down a wormhole like water down a drain. I open another candle and clutch at an aroma. What if the wind never changes, never grows wilder and colder and faster? What if the nights don’t turn to magic, and the afternoons to yearning melodies of mortality? What if my years stall forever here in a world that’s grown hateful and bitter and unkind?

Maybe then happiness, pure, full, true happiness, won’t ever come back.

| 3.9.2018 |

old August

The quaking aspens nodding in the wind remind me of home. Old home, the place where I eroded for the first time. Beneath the window glass, my mind wanders, a creature in captivity daydreaming. I can almost smell the change of seasons ruffling the sylvan crowns. The air is bright, the wind playful. Giants race puffy cloud chariots across an azure sky. If I could only join them, ride the gusts and the breeze, I’d be content to have spent another day, another set of precious heartbeats.

I let it linger because I know these breaths are wasted on filtered air. I let it linger because I know that out there it’s too hot for late August, too summer, but from where I sit, I can pretend. I can live in my mind in a past and a world where the Earth has not slid into its decline, where the seasons and the rhythms and the way air and sun and sky feel are still what they used to be.

| 30.8.2018 |

RBG | the movie you need to see ASAP

RBG is a documentary about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the icon, the human. And it is everything we need right now; it does what stories at their best do. It affected: emotionally, intellectually, and in some other, more subtle, more human way. If you haven’t seen this movie yet, you need to go see it.

I laughed. I cried. I applauded. I felt such pride and inspiration. As a girl who was raised on the belief that I can do absolutely anything with my life but who has struggled so much with the emotional toll of pursuing a field still so close-minded at times about women, this movie was an absolute inspiration, a reminder that we can. A reminder that all of us, regardless of gender, can be…the best of humanity. The best. That we can strive for our dreams. That our ideals, our towering hopes need not be lost even in these trying times. I am sitting in my car as I type this, just after watching this movie, and I still feel the urge to cry: in joy, in wonder, in an overwhelming sense of emotional resonance and inspiration. The sheer conviction that things can and do improve but only if we require them to do so. Only if we give our best to the world no matter how trying it can be. I hope this movie inspires people to step up and be the best they can be, to resist the pull of an era that tells us all quietly to give up and give in. Be lawyers. Be engineers and scientists. Be artists and writers. Be business-people. Be the best you you can be. It’s worth it.

I could not have planned a more perfect, more fitting way to celebrate this fourth of July.


The wind in my hair…

The ocean looked so much better up close, tangible and vital, pulsing and lapping and crashing and dipping below my feet. Now unfathomable and a blue so dark it was almost black. Now reflective, prismatic, silver breaking and mending among diamonds of wavering navy. I hadn’t felt this happy in a while. Scrambling and awkward amongst the pitching and sandpapery roughness. An unsteadiness steadying my mind. It was a rush in my bones nobody could take from me.

Who could know from the outside which of us lives for moments spent teetering on edges?

The slaps of cold sprays reminded me of a book I’d read: “It’s a tango, don’t you find? Sometimes dramatic, sometimes quiet, but always with a few good hard slaps thrown in.1

1The Perfume Collector by Kathleen Tessaro

loneliness | 8 PM & the fog

Arms draped… in the fading light. The gray hits the back of the kitchen walls and
slides down dully. Here… and then there again… waking up from a too-long
slumber of the mind.

The ocean does not end, nor does the sky begin. Somehow, the street lights still crisp on the water dance out. Seagulls smudge into the clouds.

Loneliness stifling my heart. The yellow incandescence bleeds. Heartbeat out of sync and haunted.

The road is invisible in the darkness and the fog, but we still ride it.