Last week we saw the passing of Lester Thurow, a prominent MIT economist and dean, who called attention in the 1990s to the growing inequality in wealth and income that is now the new normal. Jared Bernstein, a senior fellow at the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, states that Thurow
“was one of the first important economists to suggest that too much inequality is bad for society. And he was writing this just as the inequality trend that is so historically high right now was taking off.”
To be sure, Thurow was no leftist: He unfortunately believed in the late 1990s mantra that the tech industry would solve the problems of inequality inherent in capitalism.
Nevertheless, my attachment to aspects of Thurow’s work developed in the late 1990s/early 2000s when I was working on my book Transforming the Multicultural Education of Teachers (2002). In the chapter “Globalization and Multicultural Education,” I grappled with how to portray the nefarious effects of a narrative that constructed public school children as “human capital” necessary to meet global economic expectations. Thurow stood out as an economist from a prominent university who questioned the logic of the so-called global economy for reducing inequality.
I pointed out how K-12 students were simply being economically objectified and then turned to Thurow. His basic questioning was not the accepted feel-good narrative at the end of the 20th century – which I used to explain that the students-as-human-capital model was not intended to increase economic equality:
“Economist Lester Thurow (1999) wonders, ‘How does one put together a democracy based on the concept of equality while running an economy with ever-increasing degrees of economic inequality?’ Thurow’s question highlights that a model of students as human capital is not intended to produce an equitable society.”
Nevertheless, Thurow did believe that more investment in public education was needed to make the U.S. economically competitive.
It would take the international Occupy Movement of 2011-2012 to shout out a point that Thurow was trying to draw attention to as a public intellectual: Growing inequality is here with benefits flowing to the 1% at the expense of the 99%. Thurow, however, believed that capitalism itself was capable of reform whereas the Occupy Movement understood that the capitalism itself was bankrupt for most of the planet’s population.
The ignoring of the Sanders campaign by mainstream media is symptomatic of an aversion to anything but making the wealthy wealthier. Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting observed, for example, how the Washington Post on March 6-7 ran an astounding 16 negative articles on Sanders!
The U.S. has a long history of suppressing activists on the Left who question and challenge the supposed benefits of capitalism when so few share in the profits generated – and Bernie Sanders is now facing those same forces for having dared to make socialism a respectable alternative to the survival-of-the-wealthiest model of capitalism. Although Thurow may have been uneasy with some of the proposals by Sanders, Sanders would likely agree with Thurow’s statement on capitalism and democracy:
“To put it in its starkest form, capitalism is perfectly compatible with slavery. Democracy is not."