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).