Marketing expert Philip Kotler turns gaze to capitalism's flaws

Philip Kotler is known to generations of students as one of the authors of textbook 'Marketing Management'

Critics of capitalism are not in short supply. Most are well-intentioned, but many are badly informed and make their arguments so poorly that capitalism can ignore them.

But when the critic is Philip Kotler, capitalism needs to sit up and take notice.

Kotler, a professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, is best known to generations of students as one of the authors of "Marketing Management," the textbook that has educated managers and leaders around the world about marketing over several editions.

Less well known is that Kotler trained as a classical economist. His tutors included Milton Friedman and Paul Samuelson, and he knows the strengths and weaknesses of modern economic theory as well as anyone alive.

"Confronting Capitalism: Real Solutions for a Troubled Economic System" is Kotler's critique of the capitalist system along with suggestions for reforms. Published by Amacom, it is both a philosophical book and a pragmatic one, making logical arguments on a case-by-case basis.

"I'm not looking for an alternative to capitalism," he says. "I accept that capitalism may be a poor way to run an economy, except for all the other forms that have been tried and failed."

The problems with capitalism, Kotler says, are complex and interconnected.

There is a mild rebuke to economist Thomas Piketty, who focuses primarily on inequality. This is important, but only one of many issues that need attention. Kotler is also gently critical of legislators and policymakers — and by implication, economists — who offer single-fix solutions. Most cause more problems than they solve.

But there must be a starting point, and Kotler identifies it as the problem of low wages and poverty; here he agrees strongly with Piketty.

Kotler takes issue with the morality of low wages, but he also makes a practical point: Low wages are bad for the economy. "Capitalism depends on consumers having enough money to buy the goods and services that the capitalist machine produces," he says.

When companies pay low wages, they in effect take money out of the system. This leads to a damping down of demand, overproduction, declining investment and low rates of economic growth, which in turn lead to rising unemployment.

Kotler does not advocate strong state intervention, although he would like to see a fairer tax system and an end to offshore tax havens.

It is up to the capitalists, he says, to reform themselves. They need to realize that self-interest is at stake here. Reducing inequality, eliminating poverty and making consumer goods freely available to people who can afford to pay for them is, in his view, what the capitalist system is all about anyway.

The endgame for any capitalistic society should be "a broad level of happiness and well-being in its citizens." Happy, prosperous people spend money, and when they spend money, the capitalists prosper too.

Kotler is not advocating anything radical. He is merely saying: Stop, look at who you are and what your business is for. If you believe that it is a machine for making you rich, you are going down the wrong road. If you believe your purpose is to make the world a better place, then do so, and wealth will come to you.

Witzel is a frequent contributor to the Financial Times of London, in which this review first appeared.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times