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On the sterility of the "Was Bill Clinton teh suxx0r?" debate

James Kwak (hat tip, CMike at the great Avedon's, who I cannot hat tip because JS-Kit, in its massive suckitude, does not permit links to individual comments) reviews Winner-Take-All Politics,* by that Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson. Our current predicament started in the 1970s -- a generation ago:

[T]he Nixon presidency saw the high-water market of the regulatory state; the demise of traditional liberalism occurred during the Carter administration, despite Democratic control of Washington, when highly organized business interests were able to torpedo the Democratic agenda and begin the era of cutting taxes for the rich that apparently has not yet ended today.

Why then? Not, as popular commentary would have it, because public opinion shifted. Hacker and Pierson cite studies showing that public opinion on issues such as inequality has not shifted over the past thirty years; most people still think society is too unequal and that taxes should be used to reduce inequality. What has shifted is that Congressmen are now much more receptive to the opinions of the rich, and there is actually a negative correlation between their positions and the preferences of their poor constituents (p. 111). Citing Martin Gilens, they write, “When well-off people strongly supported a policy change, it had almost three times the chance of becoming law as when they strongly opposed it. When median-income people strongly supported a policy change, it had hardly any greater chance of becoming law than when they strongly opposed it” (p. 112). In other words, it isn’t public opinion, or the median voter, that matters; it’s what the rich want.

That would be called "oligarchy," in polite company, as Simon Johnson points out. In company that is not so polite, we might use the word "kleptocracy."

That shift occurred in the 1970s because businesses and the super-rich began a process of political organization in the early 1970s that enabled them to pool their wealth and contacts to achieve dominant political influence (described in Chapter 5). To take one of the many statistics they provide, the number of companies with registered lobbyists in Washington grew from 175 in 1971 to nearly 2,500 in 1982 (p. 118). Money pouring into lobbying firms, political campaigns, and ideological think tanks created the organizational muscle that gave the Republicans a formidable institutional advantage by the 1980s. The Democrats have only reduced that advantage in the past two decades by becoming more like Republicans–more business-friendly, more anti-tax, and more dependent on money from the super-rich. And that dependency has severely limited both their ability and their desire to fight back on behalf of the middle class (let alone the poor), which has few defenders in Washington.

At a high level, the lesson of Winner-Take-All Politics is similar to that of 13 Bankers: when looking at economic phenomena, be they the financial crisis or the vast increase in inequality of the past thirty years, it’s politics that matters, not just abstract economic forces.

Exactly. I don't want to say that the role of Bill Clinton isn't part of the picture, or is a mere detail, but it's only part. It's important to get the history right, because we don't have the funding to maintain the structure of bullshit and lies, unlike the legacy parties, but the Clinton administration is only one part of the history and only one part of the politics. This becomes especially clear now that we see the oligarchy, which owns Versailles and both legacy parties, in all its naked, greed-head, drooling, blood-dripping "I've got mine, and yours too, so Fuck you Jack" splendor.

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CMike's picture
Submitted by CMike on

I'm pretty sure you've been busted for this before.

(Somebody posted the Hacker, Pierson bar graph about congressional responsiveness to the classes on their blog last week. I thought it was at Corrente but I couldn't find it. Anyway, Kwak passes along some of the back story for that graphic.)

Submitted by lambert on

Apparently, I file words sonically, and a friend of mine named Kwok is right next to Kwak, and so comes to mind first...

Oh, and I did a cursory Google search on Hacker, Pierson and couldn't find the chart. It sounds interesting, though...

Fredster's picture
Submitted by Fredster on

Congressmen are now much more receptive to the money of the rich, and there is actually a negative correlation between their positions and the preferences of their poor constituents

gqmartinez's picture
Submitted by gqmartinez on

Congressfolk and Senators are constantly around the political class elites--hell, no "normal" person can afford a $30,000 a head event (or a $500 one for that matter). Its not hard to see how the concerns of the lower classes aren't even considered if there is this little bubble of wealthy people constantly comingling at the exclusion of everyone else.

I'm an advocate of campaign finance reform not necessarily because of quid pro quo concerns, but because it opens access and allows elected officials to spend more time with the folks who elected them.