Bill Moyers sits down with author and professor Benjamin Barber to discuss how he believes capitalism threatens American democracy.
BILL MOYERS: Welcome to The Journal.
On this weekend before Christmas, I'm struck by a paradox. The news is not so joyous. Housing prices and home sales down…more foreclosures predicted…oil near $100 a barrel…the dollar's sinking food prices rising recession looming and yet, on television, and just about everywhere we look, people squeezed to the breaking point are constantly being told to buy buy buy.
AD: Why not let your kids decide?
BILL MOYERS: And if necessary, to go into hock to do it.
AD: Its easy! Even if you've been turned down before, you could be driving.
BILL MOYERS: Commercials even go out of their way to make adults into children and children into consumers.
AD: Make sure you get the right highlighter.
BILL MOYERS: There is some resistance to this constant commercializing. Watching early morning cartoons with my grandchildren the other day, I discovered Word Girl, the PBS series of a fifth grade superhero fighting evil with her amazing vocabulary.
WORDGIRL: Listen for the words vague and specific.
BILL MOYERS: In this episode, the villain, Mr. Big, has flooded the market with a brand new product called 'the thing' which everyone has to have.
WORDGIRL EXCERPT: "THE THING" can do all sorts of stuff! Get one today at a low, low price.
BILL MOYERS: What is it? No one knows or seems to care but as commercials for the thing hit the airwaves, citizens everywhere are seduced into believing they can't live without it, so they descend in droves to buy as many as they can get. Enter: Word Girl!
WORDGIRL EXCERPT: WordGirl: Everyone stop, you're being tricked! The Thing doesn't do anything!
PERSON 1: Yes it does! It does so much stuff!
PERSON 2: The commercial says I needed one for my boat!
WORDGIRL: You don't have a boat!
PERSON 2: Hon, we need a boat for our THING!
WORDGIRL: You don't need a THING!
PERSON 2: But the commercial says!
BILL MOYERS: Watching all this, it seemed a good time to put in a call to Benjamin Barber. Like WordGirl, he's standing athwart history and shouting stop.
You may remember Benjamin Barber from his international best seller, Jihad Versus Mcworld. Among other things, he's a renowned political theorist and a distinguished senior fellow at Demos — a public policy think tank here in New York City.
His latest book is Consumed, about how the global economy produces too many goods we don't need, too few of those we do need, and, to keep the racket going, targets children as consumers in a market where shopping is a twenty-four hour business. Capitalism, he says, "seems quite literally to be consuming itself, leaving democracy in peril and the fate of citizens uncertain." Benjamin Barber answered my call - and he's with me now.
Welcome to the Journal.
BENJAMIN BARBER: Thank you, Bill. Great to be with you again.
BILL MOYERS: Here we are, at the height of the holiday season. The malls and the shops are packed. Stuff is flying off the shelves. And like Grinch or Scrooge you stand up and say, "Capitalism's in trouble." Why?
BENJAMIN BARBER: Because things are flying off the shelves that we don't want or need or even understand what they are, but we go on buying them. Because capitalism needs us to buy things way beyond the scope of our needs and wants to stay in business, Bill. That's the bottom line. Capitalism is no longer manufacturing goods to meet real needs and human wants. It's manufacturing needs to sell us all the goods it's got to produce.
BILL MOYERS: But on the Friday after Thanksgiving, you know, go to the mall. Black Friday, the mall in Burlington, Vermont, where I happened to be, was just packed with people. I mean, they're not in there buying nothing. You're saying that they don't need that stuff?
BENJAMIN BARBER: Sure don't. And they don't need to shop at 4:00 AM. I mean, I've been looking for signs saying, "Please open the stores at 4:00 AM so I can go shopping at 4:00 AM." I don't see any. I mean, that's the stores' ideas. That's the marketers' ideas. That's the idea to create this hysteria about purchasing. About buying and selling. That makes Americans feel that if they're not in the store at 4:00 AM or 2:00 AM, and some of them open at midnight Thursday. And now a whole bunch were open on Thanksgiving.
BILL MOYERS: But, Ben, nobody is forcing them to do that. People are out there looking for bargains. You like a good bargain don't you?
BENJAMIN BARBER: I love a good bargain when it's for something I need and something I want. But here's the thing--here's the thing. We live in a world where there are real needs and real wants. And there's no reason why capitalism shouldn't be addressing those real needs and those real wants.
BILL MOYERS: Well, give me an example.
BENJAMIN BARBER: Give you a fine example. Here in the United States, we do -- the Cola companies, which couldn't sell enough Cola, figure out, why sell Cola when we can sell water from the tap that people can get for free, but we'll sell it in bottles from the tap. Twenty billion a year. Twenty billion dollars a year in bottled water.
BILL MOYERS: Right. Right. In bottled water.
BENJAMIN BARBER: In the third world there are literally billions without potable, without drinkable, without clean water. Now why shouldn't capitalism figure out how to clean the water out there and get people something they need and make a buck off it, because that's what capitalism does. It makes a profit off taking some chances and meeting real human needs. Instead of convincing Americans and Europeans that they shouldn't drink pure clean tap water but instead pay two bucks a bottle for it.
BILL MOYERS: Those people out there don't have the money to buy it. So that-- why would a company go into a place where people don't have money and try to sell them something?
BENJAMIN BARBER: In capitalism you don't expect a profit right away. You make an investment. You create jobs. You create products, you create productivity. That's the way it works. That's the way we created, in the west, our prosperity. But we don't have the patience any longer to do it in the third world. We don't want to bring them into the marketplace. We'd rather exploit a finished marketplace. But you're right, here's the paradox, those with the dough don't have any needs. Those with the needs don't have any dough. And so--
BILL MOYERS: Right.
BENJAMIN BARBER: --capitalism has to decide how to treat it. And their decision has been to go for the deed — to go for the dough, regardless of the needs. I was called on Black Friday by a lot of radio and TV stations.
BILL MOYERS: Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving.
BENJAMIN BARBER: "Tell us what's going on? What's wrong with American consumers?" Which is kind of what you and I have been talking about. But the trouble is we're looking the wrong way. It's not what's wrong with American consumers, it's what's wrong with American capitalism, American advertisers, American marketers? We're not asking for it. It's what I call push capitalism. It's supply side. They've got to sell all this stuff, and they have to figure out how to get us to want it. So they take adults and they infantilize them. They dumb them down. They get us to want things. And then they start targeting children. Because it's not enough just to sell to the adults. You've got to sell to that wonderful demographic, first it's 12 to 18 year olds. Then it's the 'tweens. The 10- to the 12 year olds. But then it's the toddlers.
BILL MOYERS: You used a word that went right past me. Infantilize? What do you mean?
BENJAMIN BARBER: What I mean is that grownups, part of being grown up is getting a hold of yourself and saying, "I don't need this. I've got to be a gatekeeper for my kid. I want to live in a pluralistic world where, yes, I shop, but I also pray and play and do art and make love and make artwork and do lots of different things. And shopping's one part of that." As an adult, we know that. But if you live in a capitalist society that needs to sell us all the time, they've got to turn that prudent, thoughtful adult back into a child who says, "Gimme, gimme, gimme. I want, I want, I want." Just like the kid in the candy store. And is grasping and reaching.
BILL MOYERS: But isn't all of this part of what keeps the hamster running? I mean, it --
BENJAMIN BARBER: It is. But part of the problem here is that the capitalist companies have figured out that the best way to do their job is to privatize profit, but socialize risk. That is to say --
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean?
BENJAMIN BARBER: -- ask the taxpayer to pay for it --
BILL MOYERS: Yes.
BENJAMIN BARBER: -- when things go down. The banks now that have just screwed up so big, not one of those banks is going to go under because they'll be bailed out by the feds. 'Cause the feds, the federal government will say we can't afford this gigantic multibillion dollar bank to go under. Happened with Chrysler 20, 30 years ago.
BILL MOYERS: Got to keep the wheel going.
BENJAMIN BARBER: And, therefore, it's impossible to fail if you're a business. You never get punished. Now the whole point of profit is to reward risk. But what we've done today is socialize risk. You and I, and all of your listeners out there, pay when companies like sub-prime market mortgage companies and the banks go bad. We pay for it. They don't.
BILL MOYERS: I heard a commercial from a big bank -- a multi-national bank, I won't mention the name here, but it was actually saying, and this is fairly close to the verbatim that I heard. It said, "Okay, we're coming into the season where you want a lot of things, and you don't have any money. What do you do? You call us. Whatever you want, we'll make it happen." And what is that?
BENJAMIN BARBER: Yeah. And this is after the crisis. This is not before. This is after.
BILL MOYERS: Yeah, no, no, this is -- this was a few days ago.
BENJAMIN BARBER: This is now.
BILL MOYERS: So what's at stake?
BENJAMIN BARBER: Well, here's the --
BILL MOYERS: You know, you're -- you write so much about democracy. What's at stake for democracy?
BENJAMIN BARBER: Well, there are two things at stake here. First of all, capitalism itself is at stake. Because capitalism cannot stay indefinitely in business trying to manufacture needs for people in the middle class and the developed world who have most of what they need. It has to figure out how to address the real needs of people.
And it's not just in the third world. We have real needs here for alternative energy. And I would want to reward corporations that invest in alternative energy. Not just bio fuels and so on, but also that look at geothermals, that look at wind, that look at tidal. Tidal is an amazing new field where you use the tides and the motions of the tides. It's expensive, difficult right now. But that's what you get the profits for, by investing in that.
So there are lots of things we can do. Coastlines around this country with global warming are rising. We know hurricane damage. Housing that can withstand water. Big thing. You could make a lot of money figuring out how to build inexpensive housing that withstands hurricanes, withstands flooding. Very few people are doing it. That's the way capitalism ought to be working.
So number one then capitalism itself is in trouble. But, second of all, capitalism has put democracy in trouble. Because capitalism has tried to persuade us that being a private consumer is enough. That a citizen is nothing more than a consumer. That voting means spending your dollars spreading around your private prejudices, your private preferences. Not reaching public judgments. Not finding common ground. Not making decisions about the social consequences of private judgments, but just making the private judgments. And letting it fall where it will.
BILL MOYERS: There was something else that I wonder about. You know, I was in Vermont. In this little town I was reminded, it has a town square, there's a police station. There's a fire station. There's a city hall. There's a school just a block off the town square. There are the shops along the way. It reminded me of Marshall, Texas, where I grew up. Something's happened with these shopping malls. You no longer have a sense of the participation of everybody in anything except shopping.
BENJAMIN BARBER: Any one of those towns is an exemplar of the variety and diversity of American life. Now compare that town to a mall. You walk through the mall, nothing there but shops. You could walk for miles and think that the whole world is constituted by retail shopping and nothing else. You go to the mall, there's nothing else there.
BILL MOYERS: But there are jobs there. People are working there. And people say, "This, you know, Barber, Moyers, get with it, this is the 21st century not the first half the 20th century." I mean the world has changed.
BENJAMIN BARBER: Yeah, but there's jobs in the drugs industry. There's jobs in the penitentiaries. You know, you could say, "Gee, the prison expansions are good. More jobs for guards." I mean, sure, anything provides jobs. The question is at what price? Where do we want the jobs to be? Do we want our jobs to be in education? Do we want our jobs to be in the arts? Do we want our jobs to be in general services? Do we want our jobs to be in health? Or do we want our jobs to be in selling gadgets, selling unnecessary food that makes half the country obese? I think it's 55 percent. Where do we want the jobs? And, again, that's a social decision. The market puts the jobs wherever the marketers push them to. What we need to do, as citizens, is say, "Where do we want the jobs to be? What kinds of jobs do we want our young people to have?
BILL MOYERS: So you're saying that there's a role for intervention?
BENJAMIN BARBER: Shh, say that very quietly.
BILL MOYERS: Wherever he is, Milton Friedman is whirling.
BENJAMIN BARBER: Yeah. Well, wherever Milton Friedman is, right now, he's at the soul of the Republican and the Democratic party. And the reality is, here, there is a powerful role for, I'm not gonna say our government, for democratic institutions. For citizens. For participatory institutions. They include our government. They include our townships. They include our PTAs. They include our NGOs and our philanthropies. There's a whole civil society which is a whole lot more than just the government. Where we act not as private consumers, or selfish individuals, but we act as neighbors. We act as citizens. We act as friends to establish the social character of the world we live in. And we keep doing it wrong.
You know, everyone loves Wal-Mart as a consumer. So do I. Lots of goods, cheap prices. But it has social consequences that, as a consumers, we don't think about. We know it means low wages, it means low wages without pensions. It means wage earners who don't have proper healthcare. But, worse than that, it means the destruction of mom and pop stores. The destruction of retail. The destruction of those very little shops you were talking about that are at the heart of America's villages and towns.
BILL MOYERS: But that is the creative destruction isn't it. That's at the heart of capitalism.
BENJAMIN BARBER: But, you know what? Democracy has a simple rule. The social conscience. The citizen trumps the consumer. We, Milton Friedman, with his help, we've inverted that. Now the consumer trumps the citizen. And we're getting a society that manifests the trumping by the consumer of civics. Which means a selfish privatized and, ultimately, corrupt society. And one no one wants their own children to grow up in.
BILL MOYERS: Here's a question. Maybe it comes from your book. When politics permeates everything we call it totalitarianism. When religion permeates everything we call it theocracy.
BENJAMIN BARBER: Right.
BILL MOYERS: But when commerce pervades everything, we call it liberty.
BENJAMIN BARBER: Well, that is the central paradox of our times. And, as Americans, I would think we understand that, above all, democracy means pluralism. If everything's religion, we rightly distrust it. If everything's politics, even in good politics, we rightly distrust it. But when everything's marketing, and everything's retail, and everything's shopping, we somehow think that enhances our freedom. Well, it doesn't. It has the same corrupting effect on the fundamental diversity and variety that are our lives that make us human, that make us happy. And, in that sense, focusing on shopping and the fulfillment of private consumer desires actually undermines our happiness.
BILL MOYERS: Help me understand that. Because so many people will say choice is joy.
BENJAMIN BARBER: And they are right. But the question is what kind of choice? You go to LA today, you can rent or buy 200 different kinds of automobile. And then, in those automobiles, you can sit, no matter which one you're in, for five hours not moving on the freeway system there. The one choice you don't have is genuine, efficient, cheap, accessible, public transportation. There's nothing as a consumer you can do to get it. Because the choice for public --
BILL MOYERS: Yeah.
BENJAMIN BARBER: -- transportation is a social choice. A civic choice.
BILL MOYERS: I can't go out and buy a subway --
BENJAMIN BARBER: Exactly. You can't do that. And no choice that's available to you allows you to do that. So many of our choices today are trivial. We feel that we're expanding and enhancing our choice, but the big choices, a green environment, a safe city for our kids, good education, simply, are not available through private consumer choices. That's the problem with vouchers for schools. You know, we think that with vouchers we can all find a good school. But if education itself is going under, and is not supported as a social good, no amount of private choices is going to give any of our kids in public or private schools appropriate education.
BILL MOYERS: I read the other day that, for the first time, we are spending more than we are saving. We have become a true significant debtor nation. What does that mean in the long run?
BENJAMIN BARBER: Well, it means a couple of things. And it is, by the way, a devastating economic fact. And here the economists will agree with me, a political scientist and a political theorist, it's no good for a country to do that. As country that stops saving becomes a debtor nation in every way. That's why we're in hock to China and the others who own dollars. That's why the dollar has collapsed abroad.
But it also means that we are no longer in a position to create the forms of industry, capitalism and social consciousness that comes from saving. Saving is how we invest in the future. Saving means that we're putting money aside, deferring our own gratification, to create a future that our children can be part of. When we spend it all on ourselves now, and then more than we have, we put ourselves, and, more importantly, we put the future itself in hock. We're really selling our kids and grandkids when we do that.
BILL MOYERS: You know, we're at the mercy then, aren't we, of China and Dubai? I mean, just as we're sitting here talking, I have resonating in my head the report on the radio the other morning, that Citi Corp is receiving a $7 1/2 billion infusion from Abu Dhabi. What's going on?
BENJAMIN BARBER: People -- that have to go into their ancient history memories, banks, to remember, that just a couple years ago Dubai ports, you know, was the biggest -- "We can't let Dubai ports take over our ports in the United States. We have our sovereignty," and so on. And people screamed and, you know -- uproar about it. And Dubai ports was eliminated from the mix. But, meanwhile, Dubai is buying the United States wholesale, along with China and other countries. We make a fuss about our sovereignty and politics, and we have debates. But we sell our sovereignty down the river by becoming a debtor nation. Becoming a nation which, in effect, lives beyond its means. Has to borrow from abroad. Has to sell its dollars cheap abroad in order to go on being a debtor nation. Go on being a consumer nation. These, again, are social and public consequences of private choice which we just don't-- when you and I go to the mall on Black Friday we just think, man, there's a bargain.
BILL MOYERS: But that's globalization, isn't it?
BENJAMIN BARBER: We do all that — it is globalization, but we're on the wrong end of the globalization.
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean?
BENJAMIN BARBER: China, that owns our dollars, is on the right end of globalization.
BILL MOYERS: Right. Right.
BENJAMIN BARBER: The US is selling itself, China's buying. China is buying into the global market. America is selling itself out in that global market. So you're right, you've got to deal with an interdependent world. You've got to deal with globalization. But the way we're doing it, selfishly, using only a consumer mentality, is to assure that America's on the losing end.
BILL MOYERS: But paradoxically, you know, money is washing through the world. Lots of big winners right now. Who's losing in all of this?
BENJAMIN BARBER: Well, not only are there billions, literally billions, you know, people in the developing world in Africa, in southern Asia, in Latin America, who continue to be, not just losers, but losers bigger than before. Because the gap in rich and poor is growing not declining. Up until about 1970, from World War II --
BILL MOYERS: Right.
BENJAMIN BARBER: -- to the 70s, it diminished. Starting in the 70s it plateaued out. And now it's been increasing and increasing. That's true of both north, south. And it's true even within the United States.
And, of course, the point about the losers is they are invisible. There's that great book called The Invisible Man back in the days when to be black was to be invisible. Now it's the invisible poverty of the world. And the great majority of the world's people live in poverty. They have real needs and wants. Capitalism won't address them, 'cause it doesn't figure it can make enough profit off addressing them. And so, instead, it addresses all these faux needs — that inequality of course, is the deep driver behind global instability, global war, and even global terrorism. I don't mean, by that, that terrorists are poor. I mean to say --
BILL MOYERS: Right.
BENJAMIN BARBER: I mean to say the instability, the weak state systems, the economic poverty that disables societies, create a climate within which terrorism and fundamentalism can grow. So we are ignoring an inequality that is going to come and haunt us. In fact, we are living, today, in a new world of walls. You know, what we think is that every time you see some inequality, build a wall. Gated community here in the US. A wall between us and Mexico. A wall between Israel and the Palestinians.
Isn't it ironic, Bill, that, what is it? Seventeen years after the fall of the wall which was the emblem of totalitarianism in Berlin, and between east and west in Europe, we have now turned to the wall as our primary defense against even seeing the inequalities, let alone in dealing with the inequalities that our capitalism is creating.
BILL MOYERS: But don't leave us down in the dumps. How do we encourage capitalism to do what it does best, which is to meet real human needs?
BENJAMIN BARBER: Well, let me see, I think there's three things we can do. First of all we, as consumers, have to be tougher. We are the gatekeepers for our kids and our families. We have to be tougher. I mean, I ask anyone out there who needs to go out at 2:00 AM to go shopping? For God sakes, wait 'til Monday afternoon. Second thing is capitalism has to begin to earn the profits to which it has a right, when it takes real risks. And there are companies doing that.
I'll give you a couple of hopeful examples. There's a company in Denmark that's gotten very rich very fast making something called the Life Straw. It's a thing about this long. And in it are about nine filters that filter out all the contaminants and germs that you find in third world cesspool water. If you buy one of these for a couple bucks that's all it takes, a woman in the third world and her family can drink through that straw, and it doesn't matter what water they have available. It cleanses that water. A little firm in Denmark that makes that life straw is making out like a capitalist bandit we'd say. But properly so. They're being rewarded for taking a risk.
Inventing something that is needed. Folks working in alternative energy, some of them are going to make real money. And that's a good thing. That's what they ought to be doing. So capitalism has to start. And there are many cases of where --
BILL MOYERS: Creative capitalism and tough consumers. Third?
BENJAMIN BARBER: And, number three, we've got to retrieve our citizenship. We can't buy the line that government is our enemy and the market is our friend. We used to say government can do everything, the market can do nothing. That was a mistake. But now we seem to say the market can do everything and government can do nothing. Government is us. Government is our institutions. Government is how we make social and public choices working together. We've got to retrieve our citizenship.
BILL MOYERS: The book is Consumed. My subtitle is staying in bed or coping with cognitive dissonance. Benjamin Barber, thanks for being with me.
BENJAMIN BARBER: Thanks so much Bill.