Fortune Telling

The Limits of American Capitalism

by Robert L. Heilbroner
Harper & Row, 150 pp., $4.95

Robert Heilbroner has a well-deserved reputation for being the most readable economist writing. This might be interpreted as rather faint praise in view of the character of most writing in the field, but I would be prepared to go even further and nominate Heilbroner for the position of most readable writer on any serious technical subject, if such a position existed. The present short volume does nothing to destroy this reputation. The style is limpid, the ideas flow easily and one receives a strong impression at the end that something substantial has been said. The only slightly gnawing hesitation one feels is that after the first reading one is not quite sure what has been said and it is almost necessary to go back and read the book again. The very limpidity of style may almost hide the fact that Heilbroner is struggling, not always successfully, with very difficult and important problems.

The subject of the book is nothing less than the interpretation of history and the question of what stable dynamic patterns can be perceived in it, especially as applied to American society now and with a view to the next few decades. The book consists essentially of two rather separate essays, the first of which looks at American capitalism, if that is the right name for it, as it exists today, and where it has been tending and the second asks what is likely to happen to it in the next generation or so. The first essay argues that American capitalism has achieved a certain stability in the sense that the structure of society is not undergoing any rapid changes, and that the society itself is successful enough so that it has virtually no serious internal challenges, and that even the external challenges are either apocalyptic or unreal. It is a society dominated by large corporations, yet there are no signs that they are going to take over the whole economy. The proportion of the gross national product indeed produced by them is either stable or slowly shrinking, as the fields in which they are mainly found—manufacturing, communication, and utilities—shrink in relation to the tertiary and service industries, which are not so well adapted to large scale organization. What is good for General Motors may or may not be good for the country, but at the moment, at any rate, it doesn’t look as if General Motors is going to take over the country. There may be only eleven other countries with a gross national product larger than the total sales of General Motors (this cheerful fact I dug out myself and Mr. Heilbroner is not to be blamed for it), but even General Motors produced only 2 1/2 per cent of the US gross national product.

THE MOOD of the second essay is surprisingly different from that of the first. The first suggests stability and indeed almost complacency, whereas the second drags up a fearsome dialectic out of the intellectual undergrowth and brandishes it over the…

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