Adrian Wooldridge is the political editor of The Economist and writer of the magazine’s “Bagehot” column, which focuses on British life and politics. He’s also the author or co-author of 10 books, including 2018’s Capitalism in America: A History, a collaboration with former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan.
Wooldridge recently spoke about the book at “How Has America Survived Two Centuries of Capitalism?,” a Zócalo/KCRW “Critical Thinking with Warren Olney” event at the National Center for the Preservation of Democracy in Little Tokyo in downtown Los Angeles. Before getting started, he joined Zócalo in the green room and opined on capitalists, chocolate, and morning baths.
You’ve lived in a number of U.S. cities, including Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. If you could have lived in any American place, at any point in history, where would that have been and why?
New York in the 1950s. It was a beautiful city; it was clean and orderly. Now everything is focused on money. I think there was a time in the '50s when you could be a writer or an intellectual and have a good life in Manhattan. Now you have to ruin your life, be an investment banker, and work 15-hour days.
Do you call yourself a capitalist?
No. Philosophically, I think capitalism is a very compelling thing—it’s tough-minded. But I don’t call myself a capitalist; I don’t hang out with rich people. And I’m not that interested in money.
How much is too much to pay for a good cup of coffee?
If I had a really good book, and some time to kill, and I was in New York City, I would pay $5 for a cup of coffee. It’s an obscene thing to do, and I would feel guilty about it.
When you last presented at a Zócalo event, you had recently given up chocolate. Did you stick with that?
Oh, that’s all gone. I’m back on chocolate. That didn’t last.
Are you working on any big life changes this time around?
I’ve given up smoking and drinking. I think that’ll do for my life.
What crazy question should we ask you next time you’re here for an event?
How I would sort out Brexit. It’s completely impossible.
What’s the strangest job you ever had?
I was a fellow at All Souls College [at Oxford University]. There were no students, only fellows, and a lot of the fellows were quite odd. Derek Parfit, the philosopher, was preoccupied with questions of personal identity. He talked only about these issues. Or about Wagner. He listened to Wagner five hours a day, at very high volume. That’s all he did. That was a strange job, being with those people.
You’ve just collaborated on a history of American capitalism with Alan Greenspan. It was reported years ago that he did a lot of his best work when he was soaking in the bathtub. Tell us: Is this really true?
He didn’t mention the bathtub. He did say that he did his best work early in the morning. So, he may have come in after being in the tub. He always came in fizzing with ideas.
I find the bathtub relaxing, but I don’t know if it’s the best way to start the day. A shower is the best way to start the day.