2019
Photography by John Zich

Exploring the Intersections of Business and the Human

Groundbreaking thinkers William Howell and Raghuram G. Rajan talk democracy, capitalism, populism, and the common ground between spheres of knowledge.

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“The virtue of populist movements is they raise the question: ‘Why is opportunity crowded out for us? Why aren’t we getting a step on the ladder of progress?’” Sitting on a dais with UChicago professor William Howell and New York Times columnist Bret Stephens, AB ’95, longtime Booth finance professor Raghuram G. Rajan was speaking in front of a sold-out crowd at Gleacher Center in downtown Chicago. “They ask, I think, the right questions. I think they force us to reconsider the system. That, to my mind, is the benefit of the movement.”

Asking the right questions is precisely why, in early April, Rajan, Howell, and Stephens convened at Gleacher for a conversation titled “Democracy, Populism, and Capitalism: Are They Compatible?” The event kicked off a new discussion series sponsored by Booth and the university’s Stevanovich Institute on the Formation of Knowledge. With their new series, titled “A Meeting of the Minds: Business and the Human,” they hope to bring the economics and humanities spheres together in conversation, to explore how the commonalities and differences between the two give us a richer understanding of the real, human problems facing the world.

In the inaugural event, Rajan and Howell brought their disciplines together to discuss populism with moderator Bret Stephens, Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and opinion columnist for the New York Times. Howell, the Sydney Stein Professor in American Politics at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy, is the author of Relic: How Our Constitution Undermines Effective Government—and Why We Need a More Powerful Presidency (2016). Rajan, the Katherine Dusak Miller Distinguished Service Professor of Finance at Booth, recently published The Third Pillar: How Markets and the State Leave the Community Behind (2019), a radical rethinking of why capitalist democracies have been so successful in the past and why the consensus behind them is breaking down today.

One key focus of the discussion was the global resurgence of populism and its causes, solutions, and intersections. Rajan attributed populism to some degree to the inequality in economic opportunity. As technology develops and more opportunities open up, many people are barred from accessing them, he argued. “That’s where the anger comes from. They don’t have an ability to walk up to the ladder of opportunity,” said Rajan. The key is to address that gap, he said. “The question countries have to figure out is: How do we get these people out of where they are? How do we give them a better future? That’s plain economics.”

For Howell, the rise of populism is driven largely by political failure. “It comes from the challenges, contemporary with modernity, that governments are ill-equipped to grapple with,” he argued. Society is faced with enormous population movements, automation, rising inequality between the rich and the poor, and other such issues. “Governments have struggled to attend to those needs,” he said. “That leads to the harmed groups feeling that the government has left them behind.”

In the postevent Q&A, a question from the audience urged the two speakers to muse on where they might find common ground. “I think you’re primarily concerned about rejuvenating and rehabilitating local political institutions,” said Howell, looking toward Rajan. “I’m concerned about the capacity of our federal government to respond to national and international problems.” While the two have eyes in different places, Howell said, “I think where we come together is a recognition for the need for deep institutional reform.” 

Rajan agreed. He acknowledged that the state could be remade to work better, in order to preserve a liberal democratic society. “How do we make it work again?” he asked. “That’s really a challenge.” 

It’s a challenge that benefits from bringing together diverse perspectives in search of a richer grasp of the economic human being, the ultimate goal of the Stevanovich Institute’s A Meeting of the Minds series. Howell and Rajan’s work may focus on different spheres, but, as Howell noted, “they don’t have to be at odds with one another.”

The next A Meeting of the Minds discussion will take place on October 15. It will feature Ayelet Fishbach, the Jeffrey Breakenridge Keller Professor of Behavioral Science and Marketing at Chicago Booth, and Agnes Callard, associate professor in philosophy at the University of Chicago. The conversation will be moderated by New York Times columnist and best-selling author, David Brooks, AB ’83.

—By Leah Rachel von Essen
May 7, 2019