Robert J. Miller: Taking the Greed Out of Capitalism

Greed may be good for Gordon Gekko, but it is not an Indian value. So, for Robert J. Miller, the dilemma becomes how to extract and leverage the strengths of capitalism without selling our souls.

Miller, a citizen of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe, is perhaps best known as Professor at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University, where he also serves as the Faculty Director for the Rosette LLP American Indian Economic Development Program. He is concurrently a member of the Navajo Nation Council of Economic Advisors, the Interim Chief Justice for the Pascua Yaqui Tribe Court of Appeals, as well as a Justice for the Grand Ronde Tribe Court of Appeals and Northwest Inter-Tribal Court System.

Miller’s curriculum vitae is as deep as it is wide, too, starting unabashedly with his 19 years working for his father’s used car business through clerkships at the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Oregon and the U.S. Court of Appeals Ninth Circuit. This launched him into a three-year stint at Stoel Rives Boley Jones and Grey followed by five years at Hobbs, Straus, Dean and Walker, then into academia in 1999, first at Lewis and Clark Law School where he taught concurrently at Portland State University Institute for Tribal Government and Tribal Leaders Forum, finally landing at Arizona State University in 2013.

That makes him one busy man—but not too busy for an interview with Native Business Magazine on his 2012 book Reservation “Capitalism”:  Economic Development in Indian Country (Reservation Capitalism), and his recently published article, “Sovereign Resilience:  Reviving Private Sector Economic Institutions in Indian Country,” (“Sovereign Resilience”).

Miller describes his thesis in both as, essentially, what he has been advocating for years: that Indians need to find their way home economically by returning to their economic cultural roots to dig their way out of the endemic poverty they are entrenched across Indian Country.

“Waiting for the federal government…has not been a successful strategy for the past 200 years and is not going to change in the future….” he states in Reservation Capitalism.

And “[The] transfer of wealth and other events….” haven’t helped either. Add reservation unemployment rates of 50 percent, the lack of basic infrastructure and services, and “leakage” – the failure of dollars earned on the reservation to circulate on the reservation given the above – and you have a recipe for “disaster for community building and preserving a nation and culture,” according to Miller.

Miller contrasts this extreme poverty with his argument that, “Natives lived for thousands of years and were fairly wealthy.” He posits that they lived a short economic year, preserved surpluses, and lived winters out at home doing crafts, all of which point to the management of excess, or capital. “So, if we revive old practices, where does that take us?” he wonders out loud.

What’s the remedy?

“Self-sufficiency is self-determination,” Miller argues. “We need diversification to be more recession proof. We need to develop human capital. We need everything to capture money and leverage the multiplier effect. But we’re on a learning curve. We’ve lived a welfare mentality for a hundred years relying on the United States and that’s a joke. They took our lands and resources, so we need to develop alternatives and keep them in Indian Country.”

But how do we accomplish this? “It is long overdue for Indian peoples and governments to revive their traditional institutions that promoted and protected private economic activities, and to look to their historical roots and traditions of individual Indian and Indian family economic development efforts. This endeavor will not be easy because Indian country is proceeding from such a low economic baseline and such dire poverty and deficits,” Miller states in “Sovereign Resilience.”

Miller asserts that the solution lies primarily in tribes reviving private entrepreneurship because, historically, we were entrepreneurs before we were stripped of our land and resources. For him, this is some kind of capitalism, although not pure capitalism, with tribal government involved, largely to institutionalize policy and practice.  What type and how much tribal government involvement would be left up to each tribe.

But Miller is realistic, conceding that only a few tribes actually possess the capacity to pull this off.

“Creating private sector economies on reservations will take the intelligent and coordinated efforts of tribal governments, Indian individuals, reservation communities, the United States, and non-profit organizations. Indian nations and Indians will have to revive their private business skills, their legal regimes to promote and protect private economic activities, and their historic support for reservation based entrepreneurs and businesses,” Miller concludes.

But, in accordance with Indian culture and tradition, possessing wealth is not the ultimate objective of Indian capitalism. “When you got a lot, you had to give it away…like putting it in the bank, an investment scheme of sorts.”

Miller’s notion is that this would be not only to drive tribal capitalization of tribal entrepreneurial efforts but to fund the common good, which doesn’t sound much like capitalism. His rationale?

“There can be no higher goal than to improve the living conditions on reservations and to help ensure the future livability of reservations as Indian homelands and the continued existence of Indian nations and people.”

We are a long way from there yet, and Miller’s writing raises more questions than gives answers. Nevertheless, both his book and article provide a solid platform for discussing whether economic cultural revival in the form of entrepreneurship might be good medicine for Indian Country.