Moral Capitalism


Moral Capitalism

Congressman Kennedy lays out his economic vision at the Harvard Law School



Last Monday, Congressman Joe Kennedy III (D-MA), who graduated with a law degree from Harvard Law School in 2009 and now represents Massachusetts’ Fourth District, which stretches from Newton and Brookline south to Attleboro and Fall River, spoke on his vision of a “moral capitalism” to a packed audience at the John T. Dunlop forum held in Wasserstein Hall. The John T. Dunlop forum is run by the Harvard Law School Labor and Worklife Program, which aims to foster research, problem solving, and discussion regarding the relationship between work and society. The 500+ tickets available for the event were sold out, and it was moved to Wasserstein from a smaller venue to accommodate the demand for seats.

Kennedy began by acknowledging the context of the government shutdown crisis, and highlighted the shutdown, as caused by “an administration that sees the livelihood of ordinary Americans as a bargaining chip they are willing to trade away,” as an example of the broader issues that his “moral capitalism” seeks to remedy. He expressed sadness over many examples of government workers and their families who suffered without paychecks due to the shutdown.

He placed this recent event in the larger context of the history of capitalism for the last 40 years, which he sees as a story of increasing shareholder profits at the expense of regular workers’ quality of life. This is not a new tack for Congressman Kennedy, who shared this story in his remarks to the New England Council on November 26th, 2018, where he acknowledged that a profound shift in American capitalism occurred in the 60s and 70s, when “technology and global competition changed the game for American corporations, and they lurched towards self-preservation – cutting costs, wages, benefits and jobs… and the United States government made a choice. One that we have doubled down on 1000 ways, 1000 times over the past 50 years. We loosened the terms of our social contract. We allowed – and often embraced – policy changes that freed the private sector from their responsibilities to the people and society that had helped them succeed… Through deliberate choice and conscious action, we recalibrated the American economy — away from workers, families and communities, and toward capital, profit, and shareholders.”

Moral capitalism is based on reversing this shift by refocusing economic activity towards the improvement of human lives and ensuring that nobody is left behind along the way. According to Congressman Kennedy, a moral capitalism would be “judged not just by how much it produces, but how widely it shares; how good it does for how many; how well it takes care of us. All of us.” In his indictment of “our broken economy,” he highlighted the intersectional nature of its impact on those being squeezed out by the system: “We live in a country that has made it difficult to be middle class, excruciating to be poor, and downright impossible to be ‘poor and’ — poor and black, poor and female, poor and gay, poor and sick. We do not stand a chance until we come together to neutralize the weapon on which [the Trump administration] most depends: an economy that keeps most Americans hanging on by the skin of their teeth,” he said. He made it clear that redirecting our economy in a more humane direction, with the dual aims of helping those who are now struggling while also providing for a more stable future in the face of the impending upheavals predicted from automation and climate change, is an unavoidable priority for the public and for policymakers if America is to thrive in the coming decades. “That is our work; that is our challenge; that is what we must do.”

Kennedy’s moral capitalism necessarily involves tax reform, demanding “significantly more from those on top.” But he also emphasized that taxation would not be enough; he called for Congress to “finally flex its muscles and actively disincentivize a ‘shareholder-first’ mentality.” Kennedy embraced many progressive policy proposals such as paid family leave, child care subsidies, and a higher minimum wage. He also expressed a desire to empower workers— for example, by protecting them from being bullied with noncompete clauses. Furthermore, he echoed past progressive voices like Theodore Roosevelt, as well as present ones like his friend and colleague Elizabeth Warren, by calling for stronger antitrust laws to curtail corporate power. He argued for an end to the notion that government regulation must be at odds with economic growth; instead, he insisted that smart regulation was necessary for a functioning capitalist economy, and that strong regulation would foster growth if done right. Pointing to governmental action on climate change as a potential proving ground for this fusion between economic and moral interests, he applauded the “Green New Deal” announced by Senator Ed Markey and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. An audience member questioned whether or not these ideas were “socialist,” to which Kennedy responded that “I believe our capitalist system has pulled more people out of poverty around the world than any system in humankind. But from the 1980s on, that has come at the expense of the American middle class.” While he described himself as a capitalist, he resisted such a binary view of possible economic structures. He recognized that the increasingly socialist tilt of the younger generations speaks to the real feelings, needs, and struggles of middle-class, working-class, and poor Americans who are experiencing economic insecurity under the existing system.

Many of his proposals are already popular in his liberal home state of Massachusetts, but Kennedy hopes to help instigate federal action on these issues. Clearly, Congressman Kennedy cares deeply about the economic and moral future of the country, and we should expect legislative action on some of his proposals in the coming years. Furthermore, it would not be surprising if some principles of “moral capitalism” appear in the rhetoric of several Democratic presidential candidates in the lead-up to the 2020 election.


Aidan Fitzsimons ( interned for Congressman Kennedy’s local Newton office in 2018, and did his best not to allow his bias impact his reporting.