By James Kwak
It isn’t often that I read two books in a row that both cite Alexis de Tocqueville, probably my favorite Social Studies 10 author (although he was far from my favorite at the time). In Third World America, Arianna Huffington cited Tocqueville’s observation that democracy should promote the interests of “the greatest possible number”; as I pointed out, this is clearly no longer true in America (if it ever was). In Winner-Take-All Politics,* Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson explain why.
In 13 Bankers, Simon and I argue that the key forces behind the transformation of the financial sector and the resulting financial crisis were political, not simply economic. To this argument, at least two good questions spring to mind: Why finance? And why then? Hacker and Pierson have good answers to both of these questions. Their answer to the latter question is better than (though not inconsistent with) the answer we gave in our book.
To the former question, their argument is simple: business interests in all sectors organized a takeover of political power that pushed organized labor and other groups protecting middle-class interests to the sidelines and made possible decades of policies that have enriched the super-rich at the expense of everyone else, including the merely affluent. Finance was simply the biggest and most profitable of these sectors–and, we would emphasize, the one best able to hold the government hostage in a financial and economic crisis.
The answer to the second question is a bit more involved but particularly important. Many people, including Simon and me, have observed that American politics and the American economy reached some kind of turning point around 1980, which conveniently marks the election of Ronald Reagan. (We also pointed to other factors such as the deregulation of stock brokerage commissions in 1975 and the high inflation of the 1970s.) Other analysts have put the turning point back in 1968, when Richard Nixon became President on the back of a wave of white, middle-class resentment against the 1960s. Hacker and Pierson, however, point the finger at the 1970s. As they describe in Chapter 4, the Nixon presidency saw the high-water market of the regulatory state; the demise of traditional liberalism occurred during the Carter administration, despite Democratic control of Washington, when highly organized business interests were able to torpedo the Democratic agenda and begin the era of cutting taxes for the rich that apparently has not yet ended today.
Why then? Not, as popular commentary would have it, because public opinion shifted. Hacker and Pierson cite studies showing that public opinion on issues such as inequality has not shifted over the past thirty years; most people still think society is too unequal and that taxes should be used to reduce inequality. What has shifted is that Congressmen are now much more receptive to the opinions of the rich, and there is actually a negative correlation between their positions and the preferences of their poor constituents (p. 111). Citing Martin Gilens, they write, “When well-off people strongly supported a policy change, it had almost three times the chance of becoming law as when they strongly opposed it. When median-income people strongly supported a policy change, it had hardly any greater chance of becoming law than when they strongly opposed it” (p. 112). In other words, it isn’t public opinion, or the median voter, that matters; it’s what the rich want.
That shift occurred in the 1970s because businesses and the super-rich began a process of political organization in the early 1970s that enabled them to pool their wealth and contacts to achieve dominant political influence (described in Chapter 5). To take one of the many statistics they provide, the number of companies with registered lobbyists in Washington grew from 175 in 1971 to nearly 2,500 in 1982 (p. 118). Money pouring into lobbying firms, political campaigns, and ideological think tanks created the organizational muscle that gave the Republicans a formidable institutional advantage by the 1980s. The Democrats have only reduced that advantage in the past two decades by becoming more like Republicans–more business-friendly, more anti-tax, and more dependent on money from the super-rich. And that dependency has severely limited both their ability and their desire to fight back on behalf of the middle class (let alone the poor), which has few defenders in Washington.
At a high level, the lesson of Winner-Take-All Politics is similar to that of 13 Bankers: when looking at economic phenomena, be they the financial crisis or the vast increase in inequality of the past thirty years, it’s politics that matters, not just abstract economic forces. One of the singular victories of the rich has been convincing the rest of us that their disproportionate success has been due to abstract economic forces beyond anyone’s control (technology, globalization, etc.), not old-fashioned power politics. Hopefully the financial crisis and the recession that has ended only on paper (if that) will provide the opportunity to teach people that there is no such thing as abstract economic forces; instead, there are different groups using the political system to fight for larger shares of society’s wealth. And one group has been winning for over thirty years.
* I got a free advance copy. The book goes on sale tomorrow.