What if Capitalism Isn't the Problem?

with Julie Nelson
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Guest Introduction.

My guest today is Julie Nelson: economist, and zen teacher. She co-edited a book in 1993 that became known to many as an early manifesto for feminist economics, and has spent her career questioning assumptions - of both the human mind and the discipline of economics.

She is an economics professor (emeritus) at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, a senior research fellow at the Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts, and a senior assistant teacher at the Greater Boston Zen Center. She is author of the book Economics for Humans, co-editor of Beyond Economic Man: Feminist Theory and Economics, and a number of others.

A polarizing question lingers as the theme for our conversation: what if capitalism isn’t the problem? Julie suggests that many of the ills - greed, environmental degradation, extreme inequality - so many on the left are quick to blame capitalism for have little to do with capitalism. Rather, she targets ‘economism’ - a particular set of economic theories and assumptions, plus a layer of incentives we’ve built atop them. Neither updating our theories to better match reality, nor redesigning the incentive structures that underlie economic outcomes require an exit from capitalism.

Viewing capitalism as a rigid and dogmatic system that inherently produces certain outcomes, Julie suggests, are “short-cuts to thinking” that keep us from seeing the agency we already have to change the system.

A few other topics we explore:

  • Imaginative rationality.
  • The ‘emptiness’, or ‘no-nature’ of markets.
  • Are consciousness and materialism compatible?
  • Can waged work be intrinsically motivated?
  • How can we change our capitalist system from with?


Time map.

0:40 ~ How do Julie’s zen practice and economics research relate to one another?

8:30 ~ What is “imaginative rationality”, and what role can it play in economic thought?

13:20 ~ The mistake that is made by both free-market fundamentalists and eco-socialists: markets do not have fixed, inherent outcomes. They are responsive and adaptive to their social, political, and legal contexts.

21 ~ Example of “profit maximizing firms”. Corporate greed is not necessarily capitalism’s fault, but a particular system of incentives and corporate governance laws that we’re created within our form of capitalism.

26 ~ Does consciousness lack any ‘inherent nature’ in the same way that markets do? Is consciousness ‘unconditional’, or is it fundamentally expressed and shaped through and by the conditions of our lives?

28:50 ~ “Our brains did not develop to help us think logically about things, our brains developed to help us survive.”

36:30 ~ Does it make sense to think of progress as a gradual decreasing of the amount of time citizens are impelled by necessity to sell and exchange on labor markets in order to access the resources they need to survive? Should we return to the forgotten American dream of the late 19th century, where economic progress would deliver more leisure time for all?

39:20- ~ Julie makes a case for waged work. She wisely rejects my binary that if we work for wages, we’re extrinsically motivated, and only if we are free from wages can we tap into intrinsic motivation.

43:10 ~ How do we raise wages for socially valuable work, where we want high quality care, that is drastically underpaid, like early childhood education?

49:30 ~ Adapting Erik Olin Wright’s theory of change - “taming and eroding” capitalism - what are the leverage points inside our current capitalist system that we can focus on to drive change from within?

57:30 ~ The ‘mushroom man’ theory of human nature at the heart of outdated economic models.

Links from the conversation.
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