Winner Take All Politics

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I’ve been meaning all week to write something up about Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson’s Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer–and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class but I’ve had difficulty knowing what to say. It’s received a level of praise from people I respect like Kevin Drum, Bob Kuttner, James Fallows, and E.J. Dionne that strikes me as wildly overstated but it’s also not by any means a bad book or something worthy of a “takedown.” But even though I think it’s not as great as its biggest fans say, it is recommended to those interested in the debate over U.S. economic policy and especially to anyone who hasn’t already read Krugman’s The Conscience of a Liberal or Larry Bartels’ excellent Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age.

Either way, it’s a great review of the state-of-the-art thinking on the scope of the inequality explosion and I think it correctly frames this as a non-inevitable consequence of policy decisions where “don’t do anything” counts as a policy decision.

But I think the book has a crucial flaw. The implicit argument of the book is that stagnating middle class wages are in some sense causally linked to skyrocketing high-end inequality. But in order to demonstrate the political origins of skyrocketing high-end inequality, they rely on international comparative data which shows it hasn’t really happened in non-Anglophone countries. But when discussing wage stagnation in the United States, they fail to attend to the fact that this has happened outside the Anglosphere. This suggests the conclusion that these are, in fact, separate phenomena. On the one hand, across the developed world there was a slowdown in growth and wages. On the other hand, there was an explosion in the earnings of finance types in the more deregulated Anglophone countries. This means that if there’s a policy problem to which super-inequality is tightly linked it’s probably the problem of macroeconomic stability—financial crises and panics—rather than the problem of middle-class wage stagnation.

Last, Hacker & Pierson diagnose the political problem as in part driven by a waning level of interest among leftwingers in income inequality as the central political problem. I am, in that case, part of the problem. In broad terms, I’m more much more worried about the interrelated issues of peace, trade, migration, climate change, third world economic development, and the international spread of liberalism than about the problems Hacker & Pierson are writing about.

Or to look at it in historical terms, I think if you looked at the United States in 1970 and said “raising the relative social status of women and the range of opportunities available to them is a higher priority than increasing the quantity of consumer goods available to the typical middle class family” I don’t think that would be an erroneous judgment. And guess what? Since 1970 the range of opportunities available to women, and their social status relative to men, has gone way up. Between feminism in the developed world over the past 40 years, the enormous economic progress in the developing world over the past 30 years, and the massive reduction in the risk of global nuclear annihilation I have a difficult time with the idea of recent history as a big political sob story. That’s not to say this isn’t a good book, or that these aren’t interesting and important issues, but I think progressives should resist the idea that the rise of postmaterial politics is a right-wing triumph rather than a correct response to changing conditions.