January 18, 2012

Moyers with Hacker and Pierson

Jacob Hacker & Paul Pierson on Winner Take All Politics from BillMoyers.com on Vimeo.

Hacker and Pierson argue in Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer - And Turned Its Back on the Middle Class (2010) that the widening gap of inequality in the US, (the rich are getting fabulously richer while the rest of Americans are basically holding steady or worse,” p.20) has not primarily been due to changes in technology, education, and economics, or what is casually referred to as globalization, but changes in the American political realm. Not only are the growing rates of inequality in the US evidently foreign to other advanced countries which are also indebted to the globalized economy, say Hacker and Pierson, these inequalities are the product of a sustained assault on the American middle-class by business organizations and industry lobbies on myriad labor groups, social programs, and economic and progressive tax policies. The sustained hyperconcentration of wealth found in the US these days has been made possible by the coordinated efforts and planning of trickle-up economics dating back to the 1970s. And, alas,they remind us, the evidence is overwhelming that upward social mobility has not increased at the same time that inequality has skyrocketed,” (pp. 28-29) and actually lag behind rates of mobility now found in Canada, Germany, Australia, France, Finland, Spain, Norway, and Sweden.  

The important point made by Hacker and Pierson is that politics is not a trivial sideshow for cable tv but the battlefront where class warfare gets conducted by other means. Thus what their book attempts to do is repoliticize economic realities.  
Governments do redistribute what people earn.. But government policies also shape what people earn in the first place, as well as many other fundamental economic decisions that consumers, businesses, and workers make. Practically every aspect of labor and financial markets is shaped by government policy...Even the word 'redistribution' is symptomatic of the pervasive distortions in contemporary discussion. It suggests the refashioning of a natural order by meddling politicians, a departure from market rewards. But the treatment of the market as some pre-political state of nature is a fiction. Politicians are there at the creation, shaping that 'natural' order and what the market rewards. Beginning in the 1970s, they helped shape it so more and more of the rewards would go to the top.” (pp.55-56)

So not only did powerful business and employer lobbies work together to achieve shared goals. They did so by generating mass political campaigns, and spreading large sums of cash throughout both political parties. When the cost of political advertising began to skyrocket in the 1970s the increasing hunger for cash gave the political parties good reason to listen to those with deep pockets. The newly mobilized business groups understood that Democrats and Republicans could play distinct but complementary roles” (p.121). Business PACS could provide mixed donations to both parties - and even hedge their bets by spending on candidates competing in the same race. Eventually, both parties earned their business cred. They ostensibly embraced free markets as well as the cutting of social welfare programs. National economic policies became the consequence of a new kind of politics. And in the long run, those organizations that had once provided leverage to workers and middle-class Americans simply lost their clout.    

Hacker and Pierson close by affirming their hope in politics nonetheless. Though the battle may last decades, they suggest, the American political system can perhaps be made responsive once again to sustained democratic engagement and the hopes of the American middle-class. Yet given the neoliberal globalization of markets which Hacker and Pierson reference, I wonder whether the political realm they appeal to still has the autonomy to actually become once again the arena of political change. Let's remember its not just the organized infrastructure of labor unions and lobbies as well as the Democratic party that have been compromised perhaps beyond repair. The American political infrastructure itself has undergone deep structural changes. And, perhaps most significantly, so has the political culture of the American public. Thus, are political and economic reforms still possible within the US given these historical conditions and the global regimes they are embedded within? And if reforms are possible, can Americans reasonably hope they will result from what Hacker and Pierson call, "the quiet heroism of sustained renewal" of traditional political forms, i.e., electoral politics and democratic organization? Should we refer back to the successes of the New Deal, and to Walter Lippmann's advice that democracy lift itself up by its own bootstraps, given the realities of the contemporary age? More broadly, I continue to wonder whether Americans are in the midst of a new political founding? Perhaps entering into a new age of techno-feudalism?