By the time I came to this job, in 2003, I was having qualms about the free-market education I’d received — but not fast enough. It took me a while to see that the postindustrial capitalism machine — while innovative, dynamic and wonderful in many respects — had some fundamental flaws. The most educated Americans were amassing more and more wealth, dominating the best living areas, pouring advantages into their kids. A highly unequal caste system was forming. Bit by bit it dawned on me that the government would have to get much more active if every child was going to have an open field and a fair chance.
I started writing columns about inequality. I called around to my right-leaning economist friends and they sensed inequality was a problem, but few had done much work on the subject or done much thinking on how to address it.
I saw but didn’t see. By the time the financial crisis hit, the flaws in modern capitalism were blindingly obvious, but my mental frames still didn’t shift fast enough. Barack Obama was trying to figure out how to stimulate the economy and I still had that 1990s “the deficit is the problem” mind-set. I wrote a bunch of columns urging Obama to keep the stimulus reasonably small, columns that look wrong in hindsight. Deficits matter, but they were not the core challenge in 2009. I opposed Obama’s auto bailout on free-market grounds, and that was wrong, too.
Sometimes in life you should stick to your worldview and defend it against criticism. But sometimes the world is genuinely different than it was before. At those moments the crucial skills are the ones nobody teaches you: how to reorganize your mind, how to see with new eyes.
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