It has happened gradually but America has become a "winner-take-all society." That's a central point made by Paul Pierson, the co-author of the widely discussed Winner-Take-All Politics.
Pierson was in town last week to speak at Town Hall Seattle. At my invitation, he spent 90 minutes over lunch with a small group of journalists and religious and civic leaders at the Crosscut offices.
I, for one, was surprised — pleasantly — by how passionate this political scientist proved to be about his topic and concern that the United States has changed in fundamental ways that do not bode well for our future. Over the last 30 years we have changed from a nation of broadly, if unevenly, shared wealth into what he calls a “winner-take-all society.”
"Broadland," as he described what had been a land of widespread economy opportunity in the post-World War II era, has given way to Richistan. “The very top rung of the economic ladder has just shot away from everyone else.”
“The U.S. has moved,” said Pierson, “from the company of nations that might be termed ‘affluent democracies,’ like Canada, Germany, and Japan, to a nation that increasingly resembles those countries that are really oligarchies, like Russia, Mexico, and Brazil — countries where there is vast chasm between the very rich and everyone else.”
Pierson, while passionate about the dangers of this shift, one that he believes jeopardizes the middle class with its crucial role of anchoring democracy, also offered careful analysis of public policy shifts that began in the Carter years and have continued through the recent extension of the Bush-era tax cuts.
Among the interesting and provocative comments from the Oregon-born, 40-something professor now at the University of California-Berkeley:
“The Bush tax cuts were very much like a sub-prime mortgage. That is, they were front-loaded to make them look attractive. They were sold as benefiting ordinary people. But the real beneficiaries were the wealthiest one percent of Americans.
“The conventional wisdom is that the growing income inequality is simply the unfortunate side effect of globalization and technological change. There’s a sliver of truth in that argument, but the difference-maker has been huge changes in public policy that have allowed the very wealthy to see their tax burden decrease,” to the point that, in one famous example, billionaire Warren Buffett pays less in taxes than his secretary. The game is rigged.
Not only that, “but we’ve been told, and seem to believe, that the very wealthy are some kind of select aristocracy of talent who are the ‘job creators’ for our society, and we had better let them have what they want, or it will be bad for the rest of us.” Both the rich and the rest of us have apparently bought this neo-feudal mythology.
Pierson noted how “outraged CEO’s and Wall Street have been at even the very mild criticism from President Barack Obama. They really seem to believe that they are some special class of people who deserve special treatment.” Pierson noted how much more aggressive was FDR’s criticism of the same crowd. Roosevelt’s attitude toward Wall Street and rapacious bankers was pretty much ‘bring it on,’ for which he found wide popular support. Today, policiticans and people alike seem to kowtow to the wealthy.
Have people today become more conservative? Not according to Pierson. “It’s not that we have become more conservative, but that we have become more cynical. We don’t believe much difference can be made. We don’t believe that government can really do anything positive or well.”
But these changes, the remaking of America as an oligarchy, is not because of some force of nature or hidden movement of the market or of globalism. “It is the result of public policy, of extremely powerful business lobbies and interests who are no longer checked by significant countervailing institutions.”
Chief among the institutions that once exercised some countervailing power, which they have now lost, were unions. But labor unions are not alone. Civic-minded churches as well as other forms of civil society that once were strong no longer have the clout they did. Moreover, such bodies no longer have much participation from social elites. As a consequence, a certain ethic of responsibility — a restraining force — has eroded among the wealthy and powerful.
Pierson noted that “progressive” churches talk a great deal, rightly so, about the needs of the poor. “But they would do well to take more seriously the issues of the middle class, and the policies that address the needs of the middle class.” For example, the current Republican proposals for “Medicare reform” isn’t really reform. “They will really eliminate Medicare, with the result that for many of the elderly there would be no health care at all.”
The big picture, argued Pierson, is that since the 1970s we have increasingly been in the thrall of an ideology of unchecked individualism, the belief that who we are is “only individuals, everyone on their own, and you get what you deserve.” This has become so dominant in our culture that other traditions, “the idea that we’re in this together and of social solidarity, which are also part of America, have largely been forgotten,” or perhaps honored more with platitudes than policy.
Is there any reason for hope? “Yes. Since this has been brought about by public policy changes, it can be altered in the same way.” But for that to happen more people will have to focus not just on the every-four-years “politics of electoral spectacle,” but on what happens between elections, what Pierson terms “the politics of organized combat."
In his view, "Elections are important, but the real difference is made in the policy trenches.”