Saturday, December 1, 2012

Review: The Politics of Rich and Poor: Wealth and the American Electorate in the Reagan Aftermath, by Kevin Phillips

New York: Random House, 1990, pp. 262.

Kevin Phillips, like Andrew Bacevich and John Dean, is a conservative critic of the country's movement to the right in recent decades, a subject on which he has written throughout his career. In The Politics of Rich and Poor he looked at the '80s as they were coming to a close through the lens of the reading of American history he developed earlier in The Emerging Republican Majority (a book in which he predicted the country's present political alignment as an enduring fact, and certainly one case when a forecaster got things right by rather more than coincidence). The most important portion of this is his identification of a pattern of twenty-eight to thirty-six year cycles in American history. Each of these is dominated by a particular party and its politics, which holds the White House and sets the tone for national politics through most of the period: the era of Democratic-Republican era rule between 1800 and 1828, the 1828-1860 dominance of the Democrats, the 1860-1896 and 1896-1932 periods of Republican rule, the Democrats' dominance between 1932 and 1968, and the last Republican cycle which began in 1968 with the election of Richard Nixon.

Within the Republican cycles there is a pattern which starts with the party taking a populist stance, typically against inflation and big government (as after the Civil War and World War I). Over time this gives way to a runaway enthusiasm for laissez-faire policy, attended by a worship of business and wealth, with a substantial element of Social Darwinism in the mix. Characteristic of government policy are reductions in taxes (specifically, the more progressive taxes), the avoidance or weakening of regulation of big business, and tight money policies which result in deflation or disinflation. The results typically include substantial restructuring of the economy which sees business consolidate in a wave of mergers and the advent of new types of large organization (the great corporations and trusts of the Gilded Age, the mergers of the '20s), debt pile up, and speculation become wilder (with new financial instruments often playing a role). The rich get richer, but the poor get poorer as wealth is redistributed not only between classes, but also economic sectors (with old sectors suffering and agricultural and the extractive businesses in particular taking a hit as new industries take off), and with them, regions (urban areas doing better than rural ones, the coast better than the interior). The result is a political backlash which comes to a head when the speculation brings on a crisis, leading to an era of more egalitarian attitudes and policies, and some downward redistribution of wealth.

The post-1968 Republican cycle was very much in line with this pattern, with Richard Nixon elected after a populist campaign and pursuing moderate policies (such that many a liberal commentator considers him to have been to the left of recent Demcorats), and the Ronald Reagan administration marking the shift to the "heyday" politics of hyper-capitalism. The redesign of the tax system in the Reagan years shifted much of the burden from the rich to the less well-off, while spending on programs which principally benefit the poor was reduced. The rising government accumulation of debt at the time also redistributed wealth via taxpayer money to the holders of government securities (in general, the affluent), as did increased defense spending (which favored military contractors, and the "knowledge sector" workers disproportionately associated with them), and taxpayer-funded bailouts of the riskier forms of the speculation unleashed by deregulation. Deregulation also gave "paper entrepreneurs" a freer hand with mergers and acquisitions, weakened the position of workers, and permitted companies in sectors like communications and transport to reduce service to less profitable (mostly rural) regions. Additionally, the deflationary policies of the early '80s (shorter-lived) harmed homeowners and commodity producers while favoring the holders of financial assets (also benefiting from the high rates of interest at which the Federal government borrowed).

The predictable result was that, just as happened at the same point in earlier cycles, the rich were richer, the poor poorer, with the winners and losers much the same before. Agriculture and resource-extracting industries took a sharp blow while finance boomed. Major coastal cities enjoyed a measure of prosperity as the interior languished - and the more vulnerable everywhere did badly, particularly young people, women, minorities, and workers who had a high school education or less. Nonetheless, a significant difference was that where the earlier heydays of the Gilded Age and the '20s were periods of industrial expansion, the '80s saw deindustrialization as sectors like steel, automobiles and textiles decayed, and the U.S's slipping as an economic power (evidenced in increasing foreign debt, and the purchase of American assets by increasingly influential foreign investors, to which he devotes a chapter).1

All the same, Phillips took the '80s for the '20s, and supposed that the trend had hit its high-water mark, with the shift to a more egalitarian pattern soon to follow, hints of which he found in the slimness of George Bush I's victory over Michael Dukakis in 1988; Bush's rhetoric about a "kinder, gentler America," suggesting a redress of '80s excesses; the worries of even conservatives like George F. Will and Ben Stein over the damage that inequality and its ill effects were doing to the country's social fabric; the emergence of declinist sentiment over the U.S.'s standing in the world (epitomized by the anxieties surrounding Japanese competition); and what he thought was the decreasing ability of Republicans to invoke overseas Communism and the culture wars in support of their position as the Cold War came to an end, and public opinion shifted in favor of the kind of cultural liberalism that had seemed radical in the '60s (like pro-choice sentiment). Even the diminished interest in nighttime soap operas about wealthy families like Dallas and Dynasty seemed to point in such a direction.

Of course, nothing of the kind happened, the policies of the '80s continuing through the '90s and 2000s, with additional upper-class tax cuts, reductions in social spending, deregulation (or lax enforcement of such regulations as remained on the books), despite the familiar results: continued deindustrialization, financialization and worsening inequality.2 Even where culture was concerned, the waning of enthusiasm for business and wealth was short-lived, as demonstrated by the subsequent hero worship of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and less explicably, Donald Trump; the abundance of "reality" shows about how the other have lives; the revival of the nighttime soap; the popularity of Iron Man at the movies; the desperation of all and sundry to attach the label "entrepreneur" to themselves like some aristocratic title (however marginal their claim, and for that matter, however marginal entrepreneurship has become to economic life and the acquisition of wealth).

The difference between his expectations and the actuality through which we have been living points to the book's principal deficiency. While Phillips offers robust, lucid coverage of a significant part of its central issue, there are a great many key points which he acknowledges, but fails to give their proper due, like the full significance of the differences between the '80s and other Republican heydays. (The economic growth of the '80s was much more a matter of paper profits, and weaker, than in those earlier eras, for instance.) The result is that, even granting the validity of his theory of a cycle prevailing through American history for two centuries, the possibility that circumstances have disrupted that cycle is not even considered. Much as aspiring forecasters are warned against having overly linear expectations about what the future will bring, this certainly seems to have been one time when the projection of an existing trend considerably farther into the future was exactly what was called for.

1. Phillips was clear that this was a matter of the acceleration of American decline, rather than its cause, and also pointed to the U.S.'s heavy defense spending (especially in comparison with Japan) as another factor. American decline would become a major theme in Phillips writing, treated at length in such works as 2006's American Theocracy.
2. The Clinton administration certainly has to be seen in these terms, having given the country free trade in the form of NAFTA and GATT, welfare reform in the Personal Responsibility and Opportunity to Work Act (the name of which says much about the era's rhetoric), and deregulation in the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, the former allowing greater consolidation in media, the latter the same in finance, while deficit reduction took priority over other economic and social goals (like the unrealized health care reform plan). It is worth remembering, too, that the Clinton administration sidelined its liberal economic advisers (Robert Reich, Joseph Stiglitz) after the first term in favor of conservatives in the second, while returning Randian banker Alan Greenspan to the Federal Reserve board chairmanship, where he helped feed not just the stock market bubble by flooding the market with cheap money, but responded to its bursting by doing the same, with the real estate bubble of the 2000s the result.


Anonymous said...

Seems to me, that Phillips overstimatet the 80th/20th allegory and underestimated his own cycle-theory. If the republican cycle would still last till 2004, a radical break ala Hoover/Rossevelt was unrealistic at. this time. The whole time from 1990 till 2004 (with two terms of an democratic President, but an republican majority in congress) fits actually really good in such a cycle.


Nader said...

I agree. In fact, I'm planning to make exactly that point in a follow-up to the review I'm still polishing.
Thanks for writing again.

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