Jacob Hacker: for 35 years of Progressive Renewal

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Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with David Bromwich (32 min, 15 meg)

Jacob Hacker, Yale’s bright light on American politics and co-author of Winner-Take-All Politics, is giving us a baseline on the election-year landscape:

1. The American dream has lost a 35-year ground war to corporate capitalism. The very rich have pulled decisively away from the rest of us. (The top one-percent has swallowed 50 percent of the income growth since 2000.) The general economy is in the dumps, “running on fumes.” Anger and alienation rule our politics.

2. It may take — if we’re lucky — a 35-year organizing battle to re-legislate an inclusive prosperity, meaning the postwar “social democracy” that the late Tony Judt saw slipping away, or what David Bromwich calls the “New Deal settlement” between capital and humanity.

3. The hope out of our history is something like the 35-year Progressive Era from the 1890s to the 1930s, between the two Presidents Roosevelt. Farmers, feminists, unions and muckrakers built an astonishingly broad backfire against the inequality and corruption of our first Gilded Age and remade the country. But 2012 doesn’t feel like an auspicious moment for the big fight that is coming: “We have very little in the way of an organized movement around these issues; and the language of reform is impoverished.”

The fact that we’ve massively slashed taxes on the richest in a period when there’s been weak economic growth and weak job growth and the median has seen its income stagnate, is as much of a refutation of the trickle-down theory as you could wish for; but nonetheless many Republicans are going to double down on the theory. I think that suggests there’s a big fight coming; there’s no grand bargain lurking here…

On one side you have the proponents of letting Wall Street do whatever it wants, and of cutting taxes on the wealthy at a time when we have record inequality, certainly since 1929. On one side you have that clear, articulated argument that the market knows best; that you have to help the risk-takers or the job-creators — it’s a mantra that’s been repeated for 20 years, and bought into by a lot of people on both sides of the spectrum.

What’s on the other side? Much of it is still pretty inchoate. A lot of the talk is about fairness. I do think, as Dan Ariely’s work suggests, there are some pretty basic notions of fairness that are completely at odds with our current economic realities. The much more basic argument — the one that Acemoglu and Robinson’s work points to — is the idea that our economic and social health depend in the long term on having inclusive institutions that allow all people to share in the promise of America. That is basically an economic argument in the end — that economic success depends on political inclusion. And our politics has become massively exclusionary.

What we’re finding the more we scrape beneath the surface is that the United States has really lost its way economically. We’ve seen growth but much of that growth has gone to a very narrow slice of Americans… We’ve seen growing technological sophistication in our economy and in health care, but we’ve also seen Americans grow increasingly insecure, less likely to have insurance, bearing more of the cost on their own. We’ve seen life expectancy increase, though less here than in many other rich countries. But we don’t have a retirement security system that works to insure that people have a basic protection against poverty or hardship in old age.

We have essentially been running on the fumes of many of the investments we made in the postwar years through the 1970s, and we’re not just beginning to realize how far behind we are. And that’s unfortunately a difficult message to put out there, but it’s true.

I like it about Jacob Hacker that he talks both money and power, making the vital who-gets-what connections across academic disciplines of economics and politics. He sounds like a liberal Democrat, but he fights a lot of the standard lines. Our distress, he’s saying, has little to do with globalization or the digital transformation; it has everything to do with a concerted business strategy (triggered by Lewis Powell’s memo to the U. S. Chamber of Commerce in 1971) to mobilize its political influence “aggressively and with determination… over an indefinite period of years.” The first returns on that effort — cutting capital-gains taxes and cutting down organized labor — showed up in Jimmy Carter’s term, not Ronald Reagan’s. It was Bill Clinton’s presidency — between the two Bushes — that deregulated banking and hooked Democrats on a shameless Wall Street money addiction. Professor Hacker is perhaps too polite in observing that President Obama is now “cross-pressured” on issues of financial reform and tax justice, meaning that in a testing time for the country, organized money owns one and a half of our two parties. This is a man to help us decode the presidential campaign.

  • Patricia Bee

    (Another) excellent program for those of us of a particular political bent. I have a bad habit of listening to the podcasts as I retire for the night and am often guilty of
    falling asleep as you remind listeners to let you know their feelings on the program, but today I was wide awake and am responding to the call.

    Was particularly pleased with “Jamie” Galbraith who I enjoyed listening to when I made a point of listening to Ian Master’s “Backgroud Briefing.” Mr. Lydon’s programs are far superior in my view because he has a better sense of how to lead and when to get out of the way of what the interviewee has to say. I hope he is not intending to retire anytime soon!

    I am a “redditor” (http://www.reddit.com/ — don’t be put off by the front page—there are many subreddits whose subscribers will appreciate the podcast) and shall endeavor to give you a bit of publicity there, tho’ I see by your iTunes reviews that you seem to have quite a following without my help.

  • http://www.facebook.com/david.manson.58 David Manson

    Its important to note as you do, Patricia, the similarity between Reddit on a merely good day and the open source mentality that Chris has so effectively married to politics and literature. At its best, Reddit is capable of truly unprecedented and shared feats of insight, kindness, and understanding. It’s hard to imagine an individual to interview who could represent this in a ROS interview. Maybe it’s enough to encourage thinking people to engage in the online community…?

  • Potter

    Hello and thank you (also) to Mary McGrath!!

    The history lesson is helpful. I stopped looking looking back further when I came to Reagan, not Carter. Carter seemed hapless, ineffectual but harmless, his heart in the right place. So this analysis is new for me. Further back though, Nixon marked the beginning, in my mind, of extreme partisanship, the kind that puts the well-being of the nation second to advancing one’s party. But this all is living memory, not the history of political historians.

    It confounds me now that the party of business elites and money interests (the 1%), by tradition, has somehow gotten those on board whose best interests they do not represent. How do they get the broad support behind them.. the tea party people?

    Our country has been hijacked by powerful money addiction which has robbed ( or is robbing) us of our social democracy. (Also see Jill Lepore’s article on the Supreme Court in a recent New Yorker Magazine issue).

    Regarding Hacker’s point that Democrats have moved a little to the left while Republicans have moved much further to the right, I can’t take that in easily because my perceptions are that Democrats have responded more by moving towards the center more than to the left (i.e. Clinton). In other words the whole country has moved more to the right leaving progressives, social democrats, feeling that they need a movement of 30 years (as per Hacker) to rectify this imbalance.

    I am not afraid (since I have nothing to lose) of saying that one side is correct and one side is wrong in this political war. A more temperate response would be that the pendulum now MUST swing the other way. I am willing to recognize that too far to the left would be as bad as too far to the right, (which may be why I am liberal). But we need to worry right now about the threat of losing our social democracy altogether, all that which we have achieved so far. Inclusiveness. Liberty and justice for all. And to that end I do think that it makes a difference whether Obama gets re-elected or we have Romney. I agree with Hacker that we cannot look to one person, one President, as a savior and we probably do need a 30 year movement. But a leader can do much to help that happen or prevent us from backsliding. Even Obama, he who hates a battle. He starts now to show us with this decision not to go after the children of illegal immigrants. That’s our Amber. Yes he can.

  • chris

    Thank you, Potter — ever the clarion voice of imagination, memory, humanity. So glad you mentioned the nonpareil Amber. I spoke to her today, just checking on her “papers,” as she calls those elusive INS documents. It turns out she’s just over the 30-year age limit for President Obama’s “children’s” amnesty and citizenship. But she’s well and sounding encouraged by the presidential intervention and by the trend of things. She is thrilled to hear that her faithful radio friends have her very much in mind — that we’re ready to rally for her.

    • Potter

      Yes Chris- Amber is forever the poster child ( though no longer a child) for me on this issue no small thanks to you and your interest in bringing her story to us. One story.

      What I don’t understand, and worry about now is that these illegals will come forward, making themselves known, and then with another administration (those after immigrants as criminals) they will be vulnerable– more vulnerable. I remember how Amber had to ( and maybe still has to) hide herself.

  • Eric

    This was a generalized discussion and Hacker was never seriously challenged. Is there a member of congress against “roads and bridges”?

    The greatest attack on the middle class has been soaring prices, due primarily to the weak dollar over the 2000s. High gas prices have soaked more money away from our standard of living than anything else.

    As far as I can see, the Democratic response has been to blame speculators and then disappear, while the progressive movement would like us to stop driving and stop moving around, so they are happy about high gas prices.

    • Thomas

      Well, the issue isn’t that gas prices are particularly high in the grand scheme of things. They are just higher than we are used to paying historically. I’m not sure that gas prices per se are the source of soaring prices. Rather, it’s fear of high gas prices that drives prices up. And then they’ll drop a bit and everyone will forget gas prices until they go up again. But it’s interesting to consider how price-conscious we are of gas with the prices plastered on giant billboards and adjusted daily as compared to, say, health care.

  • nother

    When GW’s used the logic that – they do the jobs that American’s don’t want to do – I was most disgusted by the free pass he got from progressives – he was actually commended for at least attempting to tackle the issue when in reality he was propagating and reinforcing a corrosive notion of the “other.” Yet more than disgust I found myself fascinated by his brutal honesty. It was as if he was saying – let’s all be real straight here for just a moment, if you’all wanna keep this living standard, you damn well know it’s gotta be on the backs of others. GW’s argument was a metaphor for the rationalization of all exploitation (such as King Leopold’s) and our collective affirmative head-nod was/is an all-mighty testament to self-delusion in the name of self-interest.

    “We cannot continue the idea that human nature when left to itself, when freed from external arbitrary restrictions, will tend to the production of democratic institutions that work successfully… We have to see that democracy means the belief that humanistic culture should prevail; we should be frank and open in our recognition that the proposition is a moral one, like any idea that concerns what should be.” – John Dewey

  • nother

    Oh yea, and as the economy worsens and I see my fellow Americans doing those jobs “they don’t want to do,” I feel just a little bit of guilty pleasure deep down.