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If there’s one emotion that drives my kind of populism, it’s a hatred of arbitrary and abusive

power. I spent my childhood summers at my grandmother’s home in Hungary, where a


communist government followed a fascist regime. My grandmother had been a respected and
proud schoolteacher until my mother fled to the West in the 1960s. In retaliation for her “bad
parenting,” the communist authorities stripped my grandmother of her beloved position, forcing
her against a wall and publicly humiliating her in front of her colleagues and pupils. The
government then imposed the ultimate punishment on her: she was banned from the teaching
profession for life, and reassigned as a guard to a dark corner of a local museum. Nonetheless,
she remained supportive of my mother’s choice to leave Hungary in search of opportunity.
Perhaps I get my deep-seated antipathy toward authoritarianism—or any kind of unfair or
arbitrary authority—from my very tough grandmother.

Most people absolutely loathe the unfair exercise of power, and the disturbing truth is that the
unfair exercise of power has become the hallmark of our elitist economy. You see it today in the
way that corporations behave: the way they treat their employees, their customers, and their
suppliers; and the way that our economic systems have become captured by the elite to entrench
their advantages and keep upstart challengers out, whether that’s new firms trying to crack open
a market or a working-class person trying to climb the ladder.

Fairness is one of the foundational principles of the populist economy. We do not have a fair
economy today: economic power is concentrated in too few hands, and when power is
concentrated it is nearly always abused. That has to change, and the fight to change it is at the
heart of Positive Populism.

American mythology places a great deal of emphasis on fairness and “equal protection under
law”—certainly compared to many other nations. This might explain why, unlike some other
cultures, for many years Americans trusted that whatever economic inequality exists is largely a
fair outcome, the result of everyone playing by the same rules, with those who put the effort in
getting their just rewards. In the past, American literature has celebrated the legions of poor
people living virtuous lives and eventually working their way into the middle class, often
rewarded with opportunities by the benevolent wealthy in their midst. Americans love success
stories and rugged individualism. Millionaires—and billionaires—who are seen as having made
it on their own are admired, and rightly so. What Americans don’t love are those who get ahead
by rigging the system, by circumventing the ground rules meant to guarantee basic fairness and
equality of opportunity. And there is far too much of that going on these days.

It’s not just offensive to people’s sensibilities. It is economically counterproductive, too. When
wealth is the result of political connections—such as when Russia and Mexico privatize state-
owned assets and sell them to insiders at rock-bottom prices—their nation’s economic growth
does suffer because that is unfair capitalism, or cronyism. Cronyism in America might not be as
blatant as it is elsewhere, but our country is just not as fair as it should be—and could be.

The key question is whether business operates in a way that commands popular support; in a way
that’s fair. For too long the debate around capitalism has been framed in a superficial way: are
you “pro-business,” in which case you’re expected to be in favor of cutting taxes and regulations
on the private sector and restricting the role and power of those who want to rein in the way
corporations operate, like labor unions or certain pressure groups. Or you are “anti-business,” in
which case your sympathies are more with the public sector and you want to raise corporate
taxes and control business behavior and decision making through government regulation.

This is such a dumb dichotomy. We should all be able to agree that business is a good thing,
because it literally generates all the wealth that pays for individual and collective progress—not
to mention generating the innovations that have transformed people’s lives for the better all over
the world: from medicines that cure disease to labor-saving devices that free people from
domestic drudgery.

Of course we should all be pro-business. When it comes to ensuring fair business, the real
question is whether we are pro-market or not. It’s market competition that provides one of the
strongest checks on unfair business practices. Competition is not a silver bullet—even in strongly
competitive markets, you can find unfairness that requires remedy. But we can surely state that
uncompetitive markets where dominant players or monopolies can behave as they please without
the threat of a competitor coming in to take their business away are the places where the worst
excesses of capitalism are allowed to persist. This important distinction—between being pro-
market and pro-business—is often lost, especially among conservatives and Republicans, many
of whom have ended up being complacent about the way capitalism works in practice in twenty-
first-century America.

The progressive left is actually more tuned in to the nature of the problem. Bernie Sanders is
absolutely correct when he talks about crony capitalism and a rigged system. But when this tips
into anticapitalist sentiment, we part company. Billions of people have escaped poverty and have
better lives because of the profits generated by capitalism. If businesses don’t make a profit, they
don’t attract investors, and everybody loses. Without capitalism, government could not provide
social safety nets, pensions, free educations, healthcare. If we undermine the climate for
business, we’ll have less innovation, fewer jobs, fewer goods and services, and less money to
help solve social problems. We need a practical, positive, constructive response to legitimate
critiques of the way capitalism has gone haywire.

The positive populist aims to turn the rage against the “rigged system,” which is entirely
justified, into reform, rather than punishment for “the rich.” Our focus should be the rules - and
the interpretation of those rules by the courts and the bureaucracy - that have allowed an
unacceptable concentration of power in our economy, with corporations getting bigger and
bigger and thereby being in a stronger and stronger position to stifle challengers and behave
abusively. This concentration of power has made it harder for upstarts with good ideas and
determination to enter new markets and challenge incumbents. It has allowed big business to get
away with increasingly unfair labor practices that crush the opportunities of working Americans.
And it has left industry after industry dominated by a handful of big players who act in ways that
hurt the public interest. All this must be swept away in the Populist Economy of the future.

The right kind of regulation for capitalism doesn’t necessarily mean more rules—it can also
mean fewer, better rules that regulate the structure of the market and not the behavior of
individual players within that market. Competition is what makes free markets fair. It’s the
concentration of power that enables our system to be rigged. If we attack that concentration of
power, we can readjust the playing field so it tilts instead towards working Americans—on taxes,
on regulations, on every aspect of our economy. We need to start by completely rethinking our
attitude to antitrust.

The argument of legal scholar Robert Bork has become accepted as axiomatic: concentrations of
economic power are perfectly fine as long as consumers are not harmed. If prices are low and
consumers are being well served then all is fine and dandy. Big is not bad: it’s efficient. This is
an extraordinarily narrow, shortsighted, and, frankly, grim view of the world. We are not just
consumers, we are citizens, too. We are employees. We are neighbors. We are humans, and
humans are not defined by “efficiency.”

We need to bring some order and predictability to antitrust, based on a positive populist bias
against the unfairness and social harm that comes from excessive market power, regardless of its
efficiency in delivering consumer welfare. The way to do that is to make the antitrust system
more like the tax system, with different treatment for different rates of market concentration. By
incorporating the most important public policy drivers for businesses, regulation and taxation, we
can create powerful incentives for greater competition and less concentration.

For example, we could set three bands: above 50 percent market share makes you a utility—
basically part of the public sector. You will face onerous and highly interventionist regulation on
every aspect of your business: maximum pay rates for senior executives, minimum pay rates for
employees, a maximum ratio for top to median pay, requirements on community investment, the
highest rate of corporate tax. Between 10 percent and 50 percent you are defined as a dominant
player—with many of the same kinds of requirements imposed on utilities but with a less
onerous regulatory burden and a lower rate of tax. Below 10 percent you are deemed to be
competitive: free of all regulation and with no corporate tax burden at all. Such a system would
create powerful incentives against monopolistic ambitions.

Of course, all the elements in such a framework could and would be contested: Why three
bands? Why at those levels? How do you define a market - Amazon would be in one category if
described as a “retailer,” another if seen as an “online retailer’ and another again if defined as a
“book retailer.” Fine—let’s argue about all that. But at least we will have a framework for the
argument, and at least it will be based on simple, comprehensible ideas: that we believe in
fairness, that fair capitalism is competitive capitalism, and that the days of turning a blind eye to
elitist power grabs are over.