I READ ROGER L. MARTIN’S new book, When More Is Not Better, at the same desk where I’ve been job hunting since May. His central thesis — that we must understand the economy as a system of organic components that don’t responds to coldblooded demands for efficiency — prepared me for a humane approach to the difficulties of our time. But this naturalistic imagery turned out to be a device for repackaging a stale story about the decline of American capitalism and our responsibility to revive it.
The conceptual depth is, for the most part, shallow enough for a popular audience to grasp, but the prose negates this accomplishment. It reads like a stiff textbook with higher aspirations. Martin had the potential to make a strong argument and create a fresh approach to neoclassical economic theory that diverges from the mechanistic tradition of figures like Wassily Leontief, who won the Nobel Prize in 1973 and taught at Harvard, where four of his doctoral students would go on to win the Nobel Prize.
The quest for efficiency has been a silver chalice for American business since the dawn of the scientific management gurus of the 1910s. But at what point does this quest become comical and inept? Examples abound. The first half of the book, titled “Problem,” includes a chapter about measurement devices such as questionnaires that try to measure customer loyalty. Martin writes, “[T]wo out of the last three times I bought a new car, the salesperson in question informed me that I would be receiving a survey from his company and that I should make sure to give him […] a ‘ten on all the questions.’” The tool used to measure success transforms into a surrogate for success.
One might expect the book to dwell on the folly of these stringent efficiency models. It is worth investigating why a car salesman would feel pressured to impose discomfort on Martin for the sake of a high questionnaire score even though he already sold a car. But Martin is more preoccupied with the damage these actions inflict on the economic system rather than the damage inflicted on humans living within the system.
I found myself drawing contrasts with the works of Robert B. Reich. In books like Saving Capitalism, Reich contemplates the meaning and purpose we derive from work, the burden of unfulfilling work or inadequate compensation on our self-worth, and the toll these personal quandaries exact on the broader economic system. His analysis goes deeper than a balance sheet. Martin withholds this element of empathy. Or, rather, he directs it toward the economy as an abstraction.
The second half of the book, “Solutions,” offers no redemption from the arid view of the market as a faceless beast that exists only to be fed. What is Martin’s proposal for discouraging the surrogation of proxies? Use more proxies. A broader variety of measurement tools may indeed produce a more accurate model of economic activity. But this analytical impulse reveals a weak commitment to the book’s central argument against an obsession with efficiency. Even while arguing for a laxer approach to waste reduction, Martin falls prey to the analytical entanglements of his field. He proclaims that “slack is not the enemy” but advocates for optimal levels of slack in order to boost long-term efficiency.
Martin’s proposals, as a whole, are timid and unimaginative. One of his most substantial proposals is to simply raise the top marginal tax rate. I voice no objections, but I take issue with this point’s incomplete rationale. A more progressive tax structure, Martin argues, would curb wealth concentration, which is desirable because a society with high levels of wealth inequality can be charted in a form known as the Pareto distribution, the major villain of this story because it inhibits total economic growth. Astronomical wealth inequality is not inherently objectionable but must be avoided in order to ensure that the current system doesn’t collapse. Martin does not suggest what might be done with an increase in tax revenue. There is no morality or hope here, only a beast to be fed.
The pandemic has made it clear that healthy societies need active social safety nets. Millions of people are getting fired from their jobs, evicted from their homes, and exposed to a deadly virus that could lead to unaffordable medical bills, yet the federal government fails to provide basic relief. Meanwhile, the country’s billionaires have seen a surge in wealth. And the dreaded Pareto distribution grows steeper. This book was written before most people were aware of the danger posed by the coronavirus, but these trends have been happening for a long time. The crisis has merely exacerbated a preexisting societal condition, and any analysis such as this that failed to recognize the value of social spending is woefully incomplete.
There is a deep concern at the heart of this book for the fate of democratic capitalism. Capitalism will only continue to enjoy democratic support if a majority of people feel they are benefiting from the system, which may no longer be the case. “[D]uring the first two hundred years of the country’s existence,” Martin writes,
[i]ncomes for all families moved remarkably steadily [higher] […] producing the largest economy in the world with by far the highest standard of living of any consequentially sized country. While not perfectly bell-shaped, the family-income distribution consistently looked reasonably normal throughout the period.
It’s hard to forgive the glaring omission of slavery’s role in these economic outcomes, but Martin’s worry appears legitimate. If too few people are benefiting from democratic capitalism, what’s stopping them from demanding an alternative? This book doesn’t bother with any alternative except a panicked question of how we might go about restoring faith in capitalism. Perhaps a more apt question would be, why does anyone have any faith left? Martin’s framework is unequipped to deal with such inquiries, which is a byproduct of the lack of concern in the economic discipline of the profound meaning — or “cash value” — that humans get out of life. That’s an enormous criticism to level at a book such as this, but Martin himself makes it a valid one by framing his own book as a plea for a more natural approach to economics.
Reading When More Is Not Better, I was left feeling hollow by its unfulfilled promise. There are hints within that the author recognizes the spiritual importance of meaningful work in a person’s life, such as when he describes his encounters with cheerful employees of Joe’s Stone Crab, a seafood restaurant that ranks as the top-grossing independent restaurant in the United States despite yearly seasonal closures. Martin tells us the emotional story of an employee who worked his way up from dishwasher to maître d’ over the course of more than three decades. But these moments are sparse and short-lived. This tone-deaf book ultimately doesn’t break with its academic tradition enough to justify its premise. It doesn’t deserve to claim that the economy is like a living organism without centering its approach on the living organisms that compose the economy.
Even for those in agreement that capitalism can be saved with a little more of the cheerfulness witnessed at Joe’s Stone Crab, Martin’s warning might be too little too late. The democratic component of democratic capitalism is far more precious than its scene partner. And so I might agree with the tawdry final sentence of the book — “America’s next chapter could be the greatest in its history!” — while thoroughly rejecting his prescriptions and his aim.