Americans have traditionally been the most enthusiastic champions of capitalism.  Yet a recent American public opinion survey found that just 50 per cent of people had a positive opinion of capitalism while 40 per cent did not.  The disillusionment was particularly marked among young people 18-29, African Americans and Hispanics, those with incomes under $30,000 and self-described Democrats.

Three elections in a row in the U.S. have been bloodbaths by recent standards for incumbents, with the left side doing well in 2006 and 2008 and the right winning comprehensively in 2010.  With the rise of the Tea Party on the right, and the Occupy movement on the left, this suggests far more is up for grabs than usual in this election year.

So how justified is disillusionment with market capitalism?  This depends on the answer to two critical questions. Do today’s problems inhere in today’s form of market capitalism or are they subject to more direct solution? Are there imaginable better alternatives?

The spread of stagnation and abnormal unemployment from Japan to the rest of the industrialized world does raise doubts about capitalism’s efficacy as a promoter of employment and rising living standards for a broad middle class.  This problem is genuine. Few would confidently bet that the U.S. or Europe will see a return to full employment as previously defined within the next 5 years. The economies of both are likely to be constrained by demand for a long time.

But does this reflect an inherent flaw in capitalism or, as Keynes suggested, a “magneto” problem (like the failure of a car alternator) that can be addressed with proper fiscal and monetary policies, and which will not benefit from large scale structural measures? I believe the evidence overwhelmingly supports the latter. Efforts to reform capitalism are more likely to divert from the steps needed to promote demand than to contribute to putting people back to work. I suspect that if and when macroeconomic policies are appropriately adjusted, much of the contemporary concern will fade away.