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Judas of the GOP lashes out at corporate greed
Reviewed by Theodore Roszak
Sunday, June 2, 2002
Wealth and Democracy
A Political History of the American Rich
By Kevin Phillips
BROADWAY; 472 PAGES; $29.95
It's unlikely Kevin Phillips will be lunching at the White House anytime soon. Once Richard Nixon's chief campaign adviser and author of the cheerleading "The Emerging Republican Majority," he has now produced a run of books (among them, "Boiling Point" and "The Politics of Rich and Poor") castigating "the forces of avarice" that have captured the Republican Party.
In "Wealth and Democracy" he shows no sign of relenting. Rather, he adopts a more strident tone and extends his indictment to include the runaway "financialization" of American business, meaning the sleazy manipulation that turned the dot-com boom into a bust. Worse than a maverick, Phillips has become the Judas of the GOP.
Not that he has gone over to the enemy. When it comes to chastising the sins of "the money power," he finds plenty of blame to go around. Remember Bill Clinton's quip in the 1992 elections? "The rich got the gold mine and the middle class got the shaft"? Phillips endorses that as a neat summary of the last decade, but sees only a difference of degree between the major parties when it comes to toadying up to big business by way of corporate bailouts, rescues, welfare demolition, deregulation and the globalization of investment. Even so, he aims his heaviest artillery at the right-wing ideologues and "market Darwinists" who have ushered the last three GOP presidents into office.
The only Republican president besides Lincoln who earns his praise is trust- busting Teddy Roosevelt.
Far from signing on with the liberals, Phillips has pitched his camp deep in progressive-populist territory. Incensed by "two decades of glorifying markets, consumption and self-interest," he is ready to entertain reforms every bit as sweeping as those advocated by Ralph Nader, among them soak-the- rich taxation, sharing the wealth through increased entitlements, a federal takeover of corporate charters and economic nationalism to save jobs and raise wages. His views are based on a number of historical parallels, including the ruthless Dutch and British plutocracies of an earlier period. But more cogently, he compares the United States today with two previous Republican eras: the Gilded Age of the robber barons and the Harding-to-Hoover Roaring Twenties -- sordid times when raw corporate power ruled the land and "get-rich- quick" was the reigning social ethic.
In Phillips' eyes, those periods of "market idolatry" pale in comparison to the way wealth has concentrated since the Reagan presidency. Here's one eye- opening example. If you're lucky enough to make $100,000 a year, you place in the most prosperous one-fifth of U.S. households. Not bad, you may think. But in 1999, 90 percent of all the wealth gained by that upper fifth went to the top 1 percent, which means there's as much of a dollar distance between you and the nation's ultra-rich above you as between you and the struggling poverty-line families down below.
"As the new millennium unfolded," Phillips observes, "the United States, long shed of its revolutionary outlook, . . . had become home to greater economic inequality than any other Western nation." In our day, CEOs who bankrupted their companies, cheated their stockholders and burned their employees make 400 times more than production workers. And since money talks, income disparity of that magnitude easily translates into power.
As aggravating as Phillips finds this "morphing of politics into a marketplace," he is more concerned that the corporate elite makes most of its money off finance, tax avoidance and shifty speculation, adding little to the true wealth of the nation. "Market theology and unelected leadership," he concludes, "have been displacing politics and elections. Either democracy must be renewed, with politics brought back to life, or wealth is likely to cement a new and less democratic regime -- plutocracy by some other name."
The "free" market, as he makes clear, has never been free of the services and favors the rich can afford to buy from government. The very status of corporations is a political artifact guarded by laws and courts. Trading in the tax-funded government debt has been one of the shortest roads to riches. Even shorter has been owning influence in the state house, the Congress, the courts, the Fed and the White House.
As Phillips observes, the hottest investment in the land is legislation. Money spent buying political candidates can yield returns (by way of tax breaks, contracts, corporate welfare, friendly regulatory decisions) of up to 100,000 percent. In the current year alone, lobbyists have bought steel and soft-wood tariffs and the fattest farm subsidies on record. Conservatives quibble about Phillips' statistics, but his analysis of our deepening "democratic deficit" is hard to fault. Unfettered self-interest makes a mockery of markets. In "Wealth and Democracy," Phillips may be raking the same pile of muck over again, but his message bears as much repetition as any Pepsi commercial: Mr. and Mrs. America, you're getting screwed.
I came away from this fine and principled book enraged and instructed but with a sense of abiding despair. There's not much here about lying, cheating and stealing in high places that hasn't been front-page news. Greed parades itself brazenly across the media. So how do the rich get away with it? How does a president succeed in engineering a crippling tax cut for his pals and come right back with an encore? Why wasn't the Enron-Anderson scandal sufficient to bring down the whole corroded corporate structure?
True, we've had dissenting political movements: Ross Perot, Nader. But a century ago when Teddy Roosevelt lambasted "malefactors of great wealth," he spoke for massed ranks of furious Populists and crusading Progressives. Roosevelt feared that revolution was at hand. Who would fear that today when even on PBS "Antiques Roadshow" and Suze Orman crowd "Frontline" exposes out of prime time? Why do so many acquiesce in their own indignity? Maybe it's something in the water.
-- Cherri (email@example.com), June 03, 2002
I've always liked Kevin Phillips.
-- Peter Errington (firstname.lastname@example.org), June 03, 2002.
Kevin Phillips, there's a name from the past. Everyone has a hustle. Phillips' is the "apostate-Republican" hustle. I wonder how much income he makes at this hustle?
Cynicism cuts many ways, doncha know.
-- (email@example.com), June 03, 2002.