2015 News

Renowned sociologist: U.S. version of capitalism is ‘needlessly mean’

Here’s the problem, and it’s not about information technologies, trade deals or the rise of China.

“The real problem is that there has always been more than one version of capitalism,” renowned author, commentator and sociologist Xavier (“Xav”) de Souza Briggs, said Thursday in his speech “Toward a Just and Inclusive America,” at Washington University in St. Louis.

Speaking to an audience that overflowed from Brown Lounge at the Brown School of Social Work, Briggs urged the reinvention of the United States’ version of capitalism.

“Why did we become an economy of IT billionaires and a thriving, high-skill ‘creative class’ on one side and millions of dead-end, bad jobs on the other?” asked Briggs, who is vice president of the Ford Foundation’s Economic Opportunity and Assets program.

He offered a string of answers and made a moral point with this one: “Because we allowed our version of capitalism to become needlessly mean.”

Briggs continued, “If we intend to call ourselves a nation of values, then let us commit to creating—I’m going to say inventing because it takes creative drive and invention—let us commit to inventing an inclusive capitalism for this generation, for now. With a healthy respect for the power of markets reconciled with our highest values—an insistence on human dignity and equal opportunity and fair reward.”

Briggs’ visit was a Center for Social Development 20th Anniversary event. The Ford Foundation has long supported work by the center to help define, measure and grow the field of asset building. Other sponsors of the event were the School of Law Access to Justice Speakers Series; the Assembly Series; the Law & Social Work Society; the Weidenbaum Center on the Economy, Government, and Public Policy; Brown School’s Policy Forum; and the Sociology Department.

Briggs leads the Ford Foundation’s work promoting economic fairness, advancing sustainable development, and building just and inclusive cities in the United States, Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Before he joined the foundation in 2014, Briggs was associate professor of sociology and urban planning and associate head of the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

He has led groundbreaking research in economic opportunity, democracy and governance, and in racial and ethnic diversity in cities and metropolitan regions. Briggs’ books include “The Geography of Opportunity” (Brookings, 2005) and “Democracy as Problem Solving: Civic Capacity in Communities across the Globe” (MIT Press, 2008), which examines efforts in the U.S. and other democracies—Brazil, India and South Africa—to lead change at the local level. His latest book, “Moving to Opportunity: The Story of an American Experiment to Fight Ghetto Poverty” (Oxford, 2010), won the best book of the year from the National Academy of Public Administration.

From January 2009 to August 2011, while on public service leave from the MIT faculty, Briggs served as associate director of the Office of Management and Budget in the White House.

Briggs holds an engineering degree from Stanford University, an MPA from Harvard and a Ph.D. in sociology and education from Columbia University.