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One of the delights of the Christmas holidays is a chance to catch up with the latest books.  And “Winner–Take-All Politics” by Jacob S Hacker and Paul Pierson is definitely one to consider if you are off for a post prandial wander round the bookstore.

The thrust of this book will not be a surprise to readers of this blog.  Hacker and Pierson tackle the shift of money, and by extension political power and influence from the middle classes and working man, to the elites of the super rich.  They suggest that American democracy has moved from a position of a broadly based and shared prosperity, to one of an inequality unmatched in the western world. 

They take a rather detective-story approach to find the guilty parties and attribute blame.   It’s a bold claim, and they have approached the task with a wealth of closely argued propositions backed with solid detail.  And yet, despite it having been written by professional analysts – Jacob Hacker is Resor Professor of Political Science at Yale and Paul Pierson is the John Gross Professor of Political Science at University of California Berkeley –  it avoids econo-speak and the dry-as-dust academic report. It is eminently readable.  Indeed, it is a must read.

Hacker and Pierson though only take the root of this problem back through George Bush and Clinton, to Reagan.  I feel this is too short a perspective.  We have seen in this blog that the roots of the oligarchic rise and control of the economic and political interests of the United States reach far further back than simply the gilded days of Ronnie.

In “United Fruit Company” we saw how the political elite back in the fifties were up to their sticky elbows in the economic takeover of entire countries; in “Directory of Oligarchs in the city of New York” we saw that the oligarchs in the 1940’s were stretched across the banks and arms industries as far back as the forties; and in “One Percent Own Half of All Shares” we saw this control undiminished.

With “The Lenin of Louisiana” we saw that Hughie Long, in the thirties, recognised that oligarchic control of the levers of the economy by elite families was against both the interest of the people and the country.  We saw too, how this insight cost Long his life.

Interestingly, others have come into the general argument recently.

In “The Great Divergence: Trying to understand income equality”  Timothy Noah takes the argument even further back.  Quoting a University of Wisconsin statistician called Willford I King who wrote “The Wealth and  Income of The People of the United States” as far back as 1915 where, for the first time, King showed that in America the richest 1 percent possessed 15 percent of the nation’s income.  He also shows that more modern recalculation only pushs that figure up to 18 percent.  These we may remember as the bad old days of the reign of such barons as Carnegie, the Vanderbilts and Rockefellers.

Today that figure is no longer 15 or 18 percent.  It has raised itself to 24 percent. Interestingly, Noah uses the many of the same source materials as Hacker and Pierson (eg. Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez).    True, the rise is not level.  It lowered at times, rose at others, but still, today, that the situation of inequality in “the land of the free”  and “the home of the brave” should stand at a more parlous state than in the days of the robber barons is truly astonishing.  As we can see here:-

Noah concludes that the America of Obama is today more unequal than Germany, France, or even the United Kingdom and – strangely in a Democrat administration – it features only on the periphery of political debate .

The book is a wake-up call, and for all I might disagree about  how recent a phenomenon it describes, I can only recommend that you should read it.

Copyright David Macadam 2010