Over the decade and a half that he was a Washington-based correspondent for Rolling Stone, William Greider faced the task of explaining the inner workings of the Federal Reserve Board to readers who were more interested in Prince and Nirvana. Still, the 67-year-old journalist says he relished the challenge of winning over “an audience that not only didn’t know much about politics, but ostensibly didn’t care very much, either.”
These days, Greider doesn’t face that problem: The D.C. resident, who left Rolling Stone in 1999 and previously worked as an editor and reporter for the Washington Post, now files stories on national politics and policy to The Nation. He also recently published The Soul of Capitalism: Opening Paths to a Moral Economy, a 384-page work of economic theory that offers an alternate vision of capitalism—one in which Americans take a fuller stake in their economy. Some of Greider’s subjects run employee-owned companies. Some manage public-employee pension plans that throw their weight around on Wall Street. Others lead consumer boycotts against environmentally questionable products. “Thanks in part to the dynamic nature of capitalism,” Greider says, “I see interesting change bubbling up all over the place.”
Unlike many left-leaning critics of the American economy, Greider doesn’t advocate replacing capitalism. Rather, he suggests reforming it—not by top-down actions of the federal government, as has been customary since at least the ’30s, but by the efforts of individuals and companies that are willing to experiment with new business approaches. He took that tack, he says, “because it’s not very productive to reargue all the old ideological arguments. This book is much more about how we can reformulate American capitalism to make it more responsive to what the society and its people need.”
One of the experiments Greider wrote about unexpectedly brought him back to an old source of his. In the early ’80s, David Stockman, then director of President Reagan’s Office of Management and Budget, told Greider the no-holds-barred story of how Reaganomics was put into action—and expressed his reservations about how it might not be working. Stockman’s frank words, written up by Greider in the Atlantic Monthly, got him dismissed from the cabinet.
While working on his book, Greider discovered that Stockman had himself become an exponent of capitalist reform. After spending the remainder of the ’80s and much of the ’90s on Wall Street organizing corporate takeovers, Stockman realized that the constant reshuffling caused by mergers, acquisitions, and layoffs left too many companies distanced from their most important asset: their workers, whose experience and institutional memory were vital to the firms’ future success. So in 1999, Stockman established Heartland Industrial Partners, a $1.4 billion consulting venture that made a point of working out corporate takeovers in concert with companies’ employees. In The Soul of Capitalism, Greider cites the company as a key example of how nontraditional businesses can still make money.
“It’s not a moral question with him,” Greider says of Stockman. “But if you’re in the process of revitalizing a corporation, it’s nuts to do it in opposition to the employees. These people have a lot of knowledge, and they will have a positive impact on whether the new system will work.”
That’s an approach Greider relates to—both as an economist and as a leftist.“I’ve always been part of the ‘system,’” he says. “I’ve always worked for profit-making enterprises, and if you write books for a living, you begin to understand capitalism in a fairly primitive way. When the business guys talk about the risks and rewards of capitalism, I’m able to say, ‘I understand that.’” —Louis Jacobson