George M Tabor
Published: March 04, 2009 in Knowledge@Wharton
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the American economy was in crisis after years of stagflation. Mortgage rates were 17%, business loans carried 20% interest rates and productivity had collapsed. On April 21, 1980, Time magazine ran a cover story that asked the question: "Is Capitalism Working?" Today, the crisis that the American economic system faces is greater than that during the darkest days of stagflation. In this opinion piece, George M. Taber, former business editor of Time magazine and author of the 1980 cover story, asks and answers the same question -- 29 years later.
The April 21, 1980, cover of Time magazine carried the stark headline: "Is Capitalism Working?" The American economy was in crisis after years of stagflation. The story recounted the ills: Mortgage rates were 17%, business loans carried 20% interest rates and productivity had collapsed. The article quoted Robert Lekachman, a left-leaning City University of New York economist, as saying, "The central economic fact of our day is the declining vitality and élan of capitalism and capitalists." On the opposite side of the political spectrum, Chrysler Chairman Lee Iacocca was quoted as saying, "Free enterprise has gone to hell."
I wrote that cover article, which set out the troubles facing capitalism in a crisis that shook the American economy to its roots. The 12-page story, twice the size of a normal cover piece at the time, outlined the history of capitalism and the case for it and against it. There was no doubt about my conclusion, and I still agree with the story's final sentence: "For all its obvious blemishes and needed reforms, capitalism alone holds out the most creative and dynamic force that any civilization has ever discovered: the power of the free, ambitious individual."
Today, the attacks on the American economic system are even greater than in the darkest days of stagflation, and even fewer people are now willing to stand up in defense of the economic philosophy that has its roots in Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, published in 1776.