Wealth and Democracy
In a country where it's more important to get out to buy a bigger SUV than it is to get out to vote, it may not be surprising that wealth rules in the land of democracy. People participate even less in politics today than they did in the 1950s, principally because most of us exile ourselves to inward-looking suburban islands and gated communities, too dispersed from each other and the problems of (what's left of) our communities -- which we learn about only through the distorted "if it bleeds it leads" local TV news. (I digressed on the decline of community that accompanied the rise of suburbia in my review of Suburban Nation.)
The tilting of the US economy from production to finance as a source of wealth will spell the end of our economic dominance -- just as it spelled the end of the Spanish (1530-1588), Dutch (1600-1702), and British (1815-1914) economic dominance. We're already the world's largest debtor nation. We've had a good run from 1945 to the tech bubble bust in 2001. What happens when our creditors call in their loans?
My particular favorites in Wealth and Democracy are Chapter 4, from which I drew for the symptoms of decline, and Part III, about how "American wealth nourished itself on government influence and power -- and vice versa." In the four chapters comprising Part II, Phillips explains that corporate socialism has been popular since, oh, 1787. That's when the first Constitutional Convention went on record encouraging industry and "mechanics," promoting fisheries, forges, factories and new technologies. Why do you think patent protection was written into the Constitution?
Eli Whitney was one of the first federal contractors. Samuel Colt profited out of gunmaking during the Civil War. And industry still has their hands out for those fat government contracts. That's how the major fortunes were made in this country. War is always good for business, and for war profiteers, dating back to the Revolution and the Civil War, but continuing through WW I and WW II, on through Korea and Vietnam (technically, the last two were "police actions"). Hey, maybe it's not too late for me to invest in the US-Iraq War?
Government subsidy of pharmaceutical research (from penicillin in WW II to 2/3 of all government biomed spending by 1965, with nothing for the public in return), telecommunications ($90 billion spectrum giveaways, with nothing for the public in return), and the development of the Internet (a Defense Department project) are only the most recent fortune-builders... for the private sector. And that doesn't even count the state and local governments subsidizing public works through private contractors -- especially stadiums for millionaires, like the ones in my hometown of Baltimore.
If there is a cautionary tale in Wealth and Democracy, it is that a U.S. government "concerned with protecting wealth may do so at the expense of democratic procedures and may try to blame terrorism rather than flawed policy for hard times." As we enter the second dip of a W-dip recession, Wealth and Democracy sounds like a book for our time.
Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich by Kevin Phillips, 2002. 474pp, index, bibliography, notes. New York: Broadway Books (Random House). ISBN 0-7679-0533-4
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Ronald Bruce Meyer is a freelance writer.