Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America: A Recent History (44 page)

BOOK: Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America: A Recent History
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The economic left, during its decades in the wilderness, produced its own new think tanks (such as the Economic Policy Institute in the 1980s and the American Antitrust Institute in the ’90s) and its celebrated promoters: Buckley equivalents (Thomas Frank, Naomi Klein) as well as the Friedmanesque popular economists Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman, with their Nobels in the 2000s. In the very same week at the beginning of 2011, the centrist Democratic Leadership Council disbanded and the Occupy Wall Street protest was announced. At that moment as well, the star economist Thomas Piketty, French rather than Austrian, was starting to focus people’s attention on the very rich—“transforming the economic discourse,” Krugman has said, especially after his remarkable 2014 bestseller
Capital in the Twenty-first Century.
In the 1970s the right coined (and still repeats endlessly) the genius term
unelected bureaucrats
to focus populist antigovernment blame. The economic left did something similar with
the 1 percent
unelected billionaires
) in the 2010s. In 2016 Bernie Sanders came close to winning the Democratic nomination, and in 2019 the CEOs of the Business Roundtable felt obliged to issue a new “Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation,” more or less disavowing their adoption of the Friedman Doctrine decades before. The force awakened. And now? Perhaps the pandemic and/or the resulting recession and/or the protests against racist policing will become triggering crises. We’ll see if someone eventually becomes the left’s Reagan in this historical rhyme scheme. It is a long game.

The Census Bureau predicts that 2045 is the year the U.S. non-Hispanic white population will dip below 50 percent and cease being the majority. If I’m still around, I look forward to attending the celebrations. However, in the most recent census, more than half of Americans who said they were Hispanic also said they were white—so if that remains the case at midcentury, the United States will in fact still be more than 60 percent white.

When he was a business journalist, my friend Strat Sherman came to know Grove and Welch quite well. He introduced them to each other in the mid-1990s moments before he conducted a joint interview at a
conference of CEOs. “They disliked each other at first sight,” he says. “Once our public conversation began, it became obvious that each regarded himself as the
leader of change.” They were “hissing like cats, asserting supremacy and putting each other down.”

I wrote this book to figure out how our economy and society got so messed up, why America took such a wrong turn around 1980, and why we Americans then found ourselves confused and frightened and feeling trapped, unable to move forward. We’ve reached a crossroads. It’s up to our politics and actual policy experts to determine exactly how (and if) we fix ourselves. But I have a few thoughts.

Can enough Americans be persuaded that large changes, in some cases scary changes, are necessary to restore a fairer balance of political and economic power? Will they understand that some kind of organized labor renaissance is one of the essential changes? Can people be convinced to trust the government to do much of what needs doing? Will Democrats stop cowering? Are universal basic incomes nuts or inevitable? And so on.

Here are six short chapters-within-a-chapter that could be useful, a few overriding thoughts and underlying principles concerning politics and policy as we try to get America back on track, headed toward a decent future.

Mistrust of the federal government is an effect of conservative politics as much as its cause.

During the 1960s and early ’70s, Americans en masse developed a bipartisan outbreak of mistrust of the government—Vietnam, Watergate, inflation, overreach by law enforcement and intelligence agencies, incompetence, left or right or countercultural, pick your reason. In 1964 more than three-quarters of Americans said they trusted the federal government most of the time. By the time Reagan was elected president sixteen years later, only one-quarter felt that trust.

“Our federal government is overgrown and overweight,” Reagan had said as a candidate, and then in his first moments as president he said that “government
the problem,” reinforcing a new conventional wisdom. From then on, his political side has made hating the federal government a prime directive.

However, that the government became overgrown and overweight is a myth, because it has simply grown along with the economy. During the three decades before Reagan was elected and in the four decades since, federal taxes and spending have been constant as percentages of GDP. A lot of politicians still call themselves small-government conservatives, but at this point that’s a purely ritual genuflection, because government hasn’t shrunk, and that’s lucky for them because it means they’ve not had to pay any political price.

Obviously, rising antigovernment sentiment from the late 1960s through the ’70s eased the way for the economic right’s main project—letting big business and the rich become much richer and much more powerful. But the neat gimmick has been that by stopping any possible grand and costly
federal projects and programs (successors to beloved Social Security, the GI Bill, interstate highways, the space program, Medicare), the evil geniuses since 1980 have also kept citizens skeptical that Washington can improve their lives because
what has it done for them lately?
Out of that vicious cycle came much of the enormous difference between Americans’ confidence in our national government and citizens of other developed counties’ confidence in theirs: according to a 2018 Gallup World poll, it’s 30 percent in the United States, near the bottom, and between 50 and 70 percent in Canada, the Nordics, Germany, and the Netherlands.

Our chronic, festering antigovernment feelings of the last four decades are like the unhappiness in a bad marriage—a marriage where divorce is impossible, yet one party to the marriage, in this case the Republicans, has become invested in
it unhappy. Fixing America requires reminding Americans how much they depend on government already and convincing them to give it a chance to return to its glory days, to prove it’s the
possible provider of solutions to some problems, especially the messed-up political economy and climate. Ask what you can do for your country, John Kennedy famously said at his inauguration, and these days the first thing to do for your country is ask and know and tell other people what your country can do for you and does already.

Back in the 1930s, before Social Security was enacted, and in the ’60s, before Medicare was enacted, conservatives called both proposals socialism. When we took our economic right turn in 1980, Americans had been getting Medicare for only fourteen years and collecting decent Social Security benefits for only twenty-five or so. But now those two socialist pillars of the American Way have been in place for most of a century, pleasing several generations of citizen recipients. The 88 percent of Americans who get running water and the 30 percent who get (mostly cheaper) electricity from publicly owned utilities do not, I’m pretty sure, begrudge those forms of socialism, either. Nor have many of the people and businesses receiving their shares of the trillions in financial assistance in 2020 complained about the socialist federal government handing out free stuff.

Every time people on the right say that centrists like Barack Obama are socialists, or that “our public education system is a socialist institution” (Milton Friedman, 1999), or that “the state university system is as close to a socialist program as we have” (a
National Review
conservative in 2018), it actually reduces the stigma of the word and helps redefine social democracy as familiar and desirable. We can argue whether and how some proposed big new social program is or isn’t affordable or wise, but the instantly demonizing power of calling it socialism is weaker than it has been in nearly all our lifetimes, especially among people who didn’t grow up when the two huge countries that called themselves socialist were dysfunctional nuclear-armed tyrannies.

Most people don’t realize, for instance, that for more than a half-century, the U.S. government and its funding have been the indispensable investor in new U.S. technology, essential to the development of everything from solar-energy technologies to Tesla, and from computer touch screens to most of the most innovative pharmaceuticals. Instead, as the economist and innovation specialist Mariana Mazzucato explains, “the dominant view, which originated in the backlash against government in the 1980s, fundamentally affects how our government sees itself: hesitant, cautious, careful not to overstep in case it should be accused of crowding out innovation, or accused of favoritism, ‘picking winners.’ ” Moreover, the government-funded private winners get almost all the public credit and the profits, while the government takes financial losses and gets the political blame for the inevitable losers—in other words, Mazzucato writes, “risks in the innovation economy are socialized, while the rewards are privatized.”

Americans seem to be coming back around to believing that they can and must use government to make America a better place to live. Since 1995, the
Wall Street Journal
/NBC News poll has repeatedly asked people whether they believed “government is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals” or, instead, that “government should do more to solve problems and help meet the needs of people.” The first time it asked this question, twenty-five years ago, people said, by 62 to 32 percent, that government was doing too much already. But when it asked the question in 2018, the numbers had flipped—58 percent now want the government to do more to help people, a larger majority than ever before in this poll, and only 38 percent want to leave the big-problem-solving to businesses and individuals. Among people under forty, two-thirds or more think we should, through government, be doing more to solve our big problems.

On economics, Americans have been leaning pretty left.

“America today is not a center-right country,” the Princeton sociologist Paul Starr wrote in 2018, but rather “a country with a center-right economic elite” that has dominated both political parties for a long time, “and a polarized electorate torn between parties on the far right and center left.” I think that’s correct. More specifically, I think the leftist UC Berkeley economist Emmanuel Saez was correct when he said in a 2016 lecture that “in America, people do not have a strong view against inequality per se, as long as inequality is
” meaning that “individual income and wealth reflect the value of what people produce or otherwise contribute to the economic system.” On that basic question of how much economic inequality Americans consider fair, people really are further to the left than either conventional wisdom or they themselves realize. In fact, most of them are socialists, by the standard Republican reckoning.

One of the many ways we know this is an ingenious and elaborate survey of a randomized sample of 5,522 Americans conducted by the Duke psychology professor Dan Ariely and the Harvard Business School professor Michael Norton—in 2005, before economic inequality became a prime national issue. For starters, they found that Americans were unaware of the extent of U.S. inequality. They asked the respondents, how much of our wealth is owned by the richest fifth? The average estimate was 59 percent; the correct answer then was 84 percent. (In a survey around the same time conducted by the University of Connecticut, the respondents’ median estimate of the income of a “CEO of a large national corporation” was $500,000, when in fact it was about $12 million.) Ariely and Norton then asked each member of their sample to create their own ideal distribution for the United States, to decide how much of the total wealth each fifth of the citizenry ought to own. On average, people gave a larger share to those in the bottom half and a smaller share to the top fifth than either actually has, and Republicans were nearly as egalitarian as Democrats. Then everybody was shown pie charts of the distributions of money in two hypothetical countries—which were actually the United States and Sweden—and were asked in which country they’d prefer to live. “In considering this question,” the veil-of-ignorance instruction stipulated, “imagine that if you joined this nation you would be randomly assigned to a place in the distribution, so you could end up anywhere in this distribution, from the very richest to the very poorest.” Unsurprisingly, 92 percent of Americans chose to become citizens of the unnamed Sweden.

More conventional surveys have studied Americans’ changing attitudes about the political economy over the years. Several ask, are poor people poor because they’re “not doing enough to help themselves” or because of “circumstances beyond their control”? In 1995, Americans by two to one said it was mostly poor people’s fault. In the early 2000s, two different polls found that respondents were almost split evenly, and in 2018, in a survey by the conservative American Enterprise Institute, a solid majority, 55 percent, said that “circumstances beyond their control cause people to be poor.” A 2018 Gallup poll asked people if “the fact that some people in the United States are rich and others are poor needs to be fixed or is acceptable,” and a similar solid majority, 57 percent, said we need to reduce inequality.

Polls in 2019 found that by huge margins, three to one, Americans want more government regulation of Wall Street banks and believe that corporations pay too little in taxes. And three different polls in 2019, by
The New York Times
asked people what they thought of proposals to impose a wealth tax on the extremely rich—a tax of 2 percent a year on all wealth between $50 million and $1 billion, 3 percent a year on everything over $1 billion. All three polls found that nearly two-thirds of Americans are in favor of such wealth taxes—including large majorities of

If more Americans were to learn of the large body of research showing that higher inequality in rich countries isn’t just unfair but actually slows down economic growth—by a fifth since the 1980s, according to a 2014 study by the OECD—the remarkably strong support for Robin Hoodism might get even stronger.

Resetting the balance of power in a big way in favor of the majority—citizens and employees versus big business and the rich—must be the overriding goal.

In a book about America on the social and political brink, a young journalist, not a leftist at all, frets about organized labor’s powerlessness. With unionized workers making up only “about one-tenth” of the workforce, he writes, “unionism has a gigantic problem. There seems to be no limit to the methods by which [labor] organization is thwarted. You think of the powerful organizations ready to combat every sign of unionism, of the congestion of immigrants in the labor market, of the hostility” of the media and conservative courts.

The odds seem to be overwhelming….They have not yet won a living wage, they have not yet won anything like security of employment…[or] the right to be consulted as to the conditions under which they work….Until labor is powerful enough to compel [respect], it cannot trust…the benevolence of its masters….I don’t pretend for one moment that labor unions are far-seeing, intelligent, or wise in their tactics…[but] their failure will be a tragedy.

That’s a quote from 1914,
Drift and Mastery: An Attempt to Diagnose the Current Unrest,
the first book by twenty-four-year-old Walter Lippmann, before he became the most celebrated political columnist of the twentieth century. And here we are again. The question is whether and how American workers and citizens can find ways to reorganize and regain power to negotiate and enforce a fairer social contract, like the one drafted and adopted during Lippmann’s lifetime.

The U.S. economy in which unions flourished and wielded real power is obviously different from today’s U.S. economy. But over the last few decades, as other rich countries have changed in the same ways—less manufacturing, more automation and international competition—they’ve maintained their massively and powerfully unionized labor forces. The withering of workers’ power in the United States since the 1970s was mainly the result of the right’s brilliant, relentless crusade to minimize and where possible eliminate it.

There are no silver bullets, and I have no detailed master plan, just two strong convictions: that without effective counterweights to the power of big business and the rich, the United States will continue morphing into a superautomated plutocracy, and that how people work and get paid needs to become a primary subject of our politics. As the 2018 manifesto of a new Washington think tank put it,

You don’t need a theory of the perfect shoe to feel where your shoe pinches, and you don’t need a theory of perfect justice to grasp the injustice of the boot on your neck. We can make real headway toward a better society by spotting and rectifying the most obvious and egregious injustices. We don’t need to know what awaits on the mountain’s summit as long as we can tell the difference between “down” and “up.”

Barely a sixth of the economy still consists of livings earned by manufacturing or mining or growing things, rather than by coding, selling, researching, managing, cleaning, designing, fixing, administering, driving, explaining, sorting, performing, caregiving (or writing). As that second category of workers grew from a minority to the overwhelming majority during the last half of the last century, relatively few of them remained or became successfully unionized—that was left mainly to employees of state and local government, hospitals, hotels, casinos, and show business. As workplaces became smaller and employees more dispersed—or transformed into pseudo-nonemployees, like at Uber and Lyft—the work of organizing workers got harder.

But along with the public’s reviving wish for big government to tackle big problems and projects, the organized labor tide may be turning as well. Answering Gallup’s regular binary question in 2019 about approval or disapproval of unions, people were pro-labor by two to one; only a decade ago, the split was about even. And to another annual question about levels of confidence in organized labor, the fraction of Americans with “a great deal” or “quite a lot” is higher today than it’s been in all but one year since the 1980s. Business and the right are still lobbying and campaigning hard state by state to pass right-to-work laws to make life harder for unions—West Virginia and Kentucky were the latest to enact them in 2016 and 2017. But then in 2018 in a Missouri referendum, voters by two to one overruled the Republican state legislature and governor to repeal the new right-to-work law there.

The basic case for unionization ought to be pretty compelling to people. Since the rise of labor unions seventy-five years ago and still today, organized workers are consistently paid one-quarter more than comparable nonunion workers, an average premium of $200 per week or more. Nearly all unionized workers in America get healthcare through their jobs. Among workers at private companies, two-thirds of unionized employees are still covered by old-fashioned pensions with fixed retirement payments, a benefit that only 13 percent of nonunion employees get.

Lately too, American workers have been feeling confident enough to go on strike as they haven’t for years. Nearly a half-million went out in both 2018 and 2019, more in each of those years than in the previous six combined, more than any time since 1986. The biggest 2019 strike shut down dozens of General Motors factories for weeks, costing the company $4 billion, and a separate simultaneous strike by workers at Mack Truck factories was their first since the 1980s.

And then there are journalists, who mostly abandoned their obsolete blue-collar colleagues and unionism itself back in the fat-and-happy day. I date Peak Media Smugness in this regard to the first Wednesday in May 2000.
New York
magazine and the briefly, astoundingly successful
Industry Standard,
a newsweekly covering the new digital industry, staged a fancy conference, the Media Summit, at the Museum of Modern Art in midtown Manhattan. The (first) Internet financial bubble had in just the previous few weeks begun to burst, although nobody knew that yet. Because I was part of the team about to launch the news site
I’d agreed to appear on a panel with the publisher of
New York Times
and the editor-in-chief of Time Inc. to discuss what the Internet portended for journalism.

As it turned out that day, however, the museum’s unionized workers were on strike and picketing; thus I decided not to attend. “Some of the best-known liberals in New York crossed picket lines at the Museum of Modern Art yesterday,” just “breezed past striking workers,” Murdoch’s
New York Post
was delighted to report. The summit cohost and panel moderator Michael Wolff, a writer for
New York
at the time, was pissed and explained my absence to the crowd mockingly: “While
Henry Louis Gates
was able to come” to the conference despite the picketing strikers, he said of the Harvard African American studies professor, “that great working man Kurt Andersen couldn’t bring himself to cross the picket line.”

I think such an episode would play out quite differently these days, fifty years after Irving Kristol announced with a smile that “unionism has become…a boring topic” in which “none of the younger reporters is interested” and a generation after digital technology enabled the creative destruction of newspapers and magazines. Digital-indigenous media have in the last few years unionized like crazy, including
BuzzFeed, Quartz, Guardian US, Vox, HuffPost, Slate, Salon,
The Intercept,
as well as Gimlet podcasts and Vice Media. In addition, for the first time in their histories, the
Los Angeles Times,
Chicago Tribune, The New Republic,
New York,
The New Yorker
are suddenly union shops. With only a few thousand workers in all, the economic impact is negligible. But the news media’s new generation deciding en masse to form and join unions, individual aspirations to become
notwithstanding, is a leading zeitgeist indicator and will surely have an outsize impact on coverage and public attitudes, as the media do.

In addition to the long slog of union organizing, there are other political means to empower workers. A minimum wage and overtime pay and standard forty-hour workweeks, for instance, all came into being by passing federal laws eighty years ago. Over the last five or six years, as a result of popular protest (“Fight for $15”) and lobbying, most states have increased their minimum wages, most have set them higher than federal law—several now reaching fifteen dollars an hour—and many cities have set legal minimums higher than their states require.
In 2018 that shift in public opinion, as well as employees murmuring about organizing a union, persuaded Amazon to adopt a fifteen-dollar-an-hour minimum for its hundreds of thousands of workers. It reminded me of Henry Ford, who in 1914 doubled his factory workers’ pay and got an avalanche of positive publicity—and who also, only after the New Deal gave unions more power two decades later, was finally forced to sign a contract with the autoworkers’ union.

BOOK: Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America: A Recent History
10.35Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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