At 72, William Greider is still an optimist. That’s no easy feat when you’ve spent half a century shedding light on the myths, obfuscations and structural fallacies of the U.S. political system.
Despite his cynicism-breeding “beat,” Greider, who is one of the most respected names in journalism, retains a youthful idealism about the potential of everyday Americans to reclaim their government and revamp their economy.
He’s been offering advice on that front for decades — currently, as national affairs correspondent for The Nation; formerly, he served in similar posts at the Washington Post, Rolling Stone and PBS’ “Frontline.”
The award-winning journalist is also a bestselling author: He’s penned numerous nonfiction works, including One World, Ready or Not, Secrets of the Temple and The Soul of Capitalism: Open Paths to a Moral Economy. His most recent book, Come Home, America: The Rise and Fall — and Redeeming Promise — of Our Country, includes, among other things, the subject of employee ownership. This week, for the second time in five years, Greider will give the keynote address at the Vermont Employee Ownership Conference in Burlington.
In a phone interview last week, Washington, D.C.-based Greider shared good news and bad in advance of his upcoming Vermont appearances. The bad: He forecasts tough times ahead as Americans struggle to get the economy back on track. The good: Greider believes that Vermont is leading the way on several important fronts, including its emphasis on local, sustainable and employee-owned enterprises.
“Vermont is kind of a living model of how small-R republican democracy is supposed to function,” Greider says. “It ain’t perfect, we know that, but it’s pretty good.”
SEVEN DAYS: You’ve written, “Everyone who works, whether in the front office or on the assembly line, deserves to ‘own their work.’”
WILLIAM GREIDER: And participate in the decisions. That doesn’t mean that there are no bosses or executives. It just makes so much common sense to have a structure of employment that, as a routine, includes everybody in some way or another. Obviously, you can’t all meet in the hall and take votes on management decisions. But, you can infuse that knowledge that everybody has of the firm. That’s partly about giving meaning to everyone’s work. It means they get respect, they get listened to, their knowledge of the firm will at least be included in the decision making.
SD: What does organized labor think of employee ownership?
WG: Organized labor is conflicted. A number of unions have done [employee] ownership, often when it’s the best way of saving the company from closing. Others are indifferent. It’s obvious that some labor leaders have traditionally been hostile to the idea, on the grounds that it dilutes their bargaining position. It certainly complicates their bargaining position because [they ask], “Are we the workers or are we the owners?” Well, both … One of my objectives is to get more and more of them understanding … that this is really a way for them to restore themselves rather than weaken themselves.
SD: Your new book is Come Home, America. Where, exactly, is America “coming home” from?
WG: It’s coming home from some dangerous solutions and comfortable myths and damaging adventures. I tell the story not as a critic so much as a sympathetic citizen who experienced the ups and downs in the course of my own life. It really starts with World War II, the victory in that war, and a long, triumphant era when the United States stood up, took responsibility as the one country that could lead the world in very progressive ways … Then, somewhere along the line, that morphed into this arrogant expectation that we’ve got to run things for everybody. That includes the military power that we use sometimes to enforce our will. All that is breaking up, for different reasons. I don’t regard that as tragic. I regard that as an opening, to become the country we really intended to become.
SD: Where does your optimism stem from?
WG: People often roll their eyes in disbelief, but it really comes from being a reporter for a long, long time and bouncing around this country and meeting people of all stations. Out of that I developed a real respect and confidence in their capacities. One of the great frustrations in American life … [is that people] have been, in a sense, pushed aside and confined in the big stuff. And they know that they don’t count much in politics.
SD: Many problems you routinely write about stem from corporate meddling in our political system. Can we fix the system without addressing money in politics?
WG: No, not at all … I’ve watched the government in Washington gradually corrupted over time by its relationship with corporations. That relationship actually started during the New Deal and had a very positive quality to it in the beginning, because it meant that not everybody, but a lot of the largest and most progressive firms … essentially made partnerships with the federal government, both about getting out of the Depression and also mobilizing for World War II … That starting point has morphed into something very ugly and corrupted … You cannot look at that system with clear eyes today without recognizing that it’s terribly off the rails.
SD: I assume this includes reforming the Federal Reserve?
WG: Absolutely! The Fed is part of the problem. The Fed was a specific cause — not the only one … It literally destabilized the economy. I was one of the cranks who was writing this some years ago, in the pages of The Nation and elsewhere. So, democratize the Fed and change its operating contours.
SD: What is it most people don’t understand about the Fed?
WG: The original objective was that the Fed would be a kind of balance wheel in the economy and keep things on an even keel between the opposing pressures of labor and capital. What it did in the last generation was tip that balance wildly in favor of capital and against labor and wage earners. I think it failed in its most basic obligation, and that, in turn, deranged the economy.
SD: Does it trouble you that many of the people who got us into this economic mess are the same ones Obama is counting on to get us out of it?
WG: It disappoints me greatly that Obama hasn’t seeded his government with much more variety. My wishful hope is that events will compel him to change that and, I hope, rather soon. I think that if he doesn’t change it, he will be essentially limiting the reach of his presidency, maybe worse. I am among those who believe that the way the financial bailout is proceeding is really designed to restore the old order that failed. I don’t need vengeance to satisfy me, but I do need a government that wants to create a new order, a new banking and financial system that operates in a very different way. He’s not doing that. He’s making a little reforms around the edges.
SD: The Democrats are within a hair’s breadth of a filibuster-proof congressional majority. Why aren’t we seeing more reform?
WG: The Democratic Party is now deeply conflicted and sorting it out and defining itself right now — in disappointing ways so far. A big chunk of the [Democrats in] the Senate see themselves not as reformers but as managers. They believe they can give a more sound management to government than Republicans will. But they’re not really into structural change or change that disturbs the power of really powerful interests … But, there is this other wing of the party that is ready to make big changes. So, that struggle is playing out and, thus far, the reformers aren’t winning. But the story’s not over yet.
SD: What role did the mainstream media play in the current economic crisis? Was it simple negligence?
WG: I think it was worse than that. You have to be careful that all generalizations are unfair to some really brilliant and tough-minded reporters, who were the noble exceptions. But the truth is, most of what I call the “prestige media” were deeply complicit in what went wrong, partly because they, almost universally, bought into the myths of globalization and conservative economics and, in some cases, led cheers for the deregulation and stripping away of prudential rules … Plus, reporters know that when you start questioning free trade and suggesting it’s not what it claims to be, that’s dangerous territory — for opinion leaders, too. Politicians will be disciplined if they take too strong of a position on it.
SD: What are you optimistic about?
WG: I have a confidence in people that … comes out of my experience as a reporter and what I know of the country. I’ve gone all over the country and seen some of the same elements in people believing that, say, the food system is now capital-intensive and a mess, and what we need is to get back to not just organic but local food production and self-sufficiency and all that good stuff. That’s all playing out in Vermont in ways that are quite visible. But there are pockets of that all over the country… There is this current in American life that is not just progressive but optimistic. You can’t do that stuff month after month, year after year, if you don’t have a really optimistic confidence in the future. Why bother?