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American Amnesia

Posted on Jul 22, 2016

By Allen Barra

Simon & Schuster

To see long excerpts from “American Amnesia” at Google Books, click here.

“American Amnesia: How the War on Government Led Us to Forget What Made American Prosper”
A book by Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson

If you’re looking for answers to our country’s most baffling political problems (Why do the poorest states, which receive the most money from the federal government, still hate the Feds? How can so much wealth go to the top 1 percent without a massive uprising from the majority of Americans? Why is the U.S. paralyzed in combating global warming?), then grab a copy of “American Amnesia” and get a copy for a friend. Hurry—do it before amnesia on these and other pressing issues becomes even more acute.

In “American Amnesia,” Jacob S. Hacker, a professor of political science at Yale, and Paul Pierson, a professor of political science at Berkeley, have called a halt to the political and economic insanity that has been creeping up on us for the last three or four decades. No, that’s not quite right. What they’ve done is identify the forms of insanity that have taken root in the wake of our collective amnesia. There has been an erasing of the heritage of mixed economies that gave us such flourishing working and middle classes.

By mixed economies, Hacker and Pierson mean government working with business. We’ve had it in one form or another since the beginning of the United States of America. James Madison, often cited by conservatives as an enemy of government, asked rhetorically in the Federalist Papers, “What is the meaning of government? An institution to make people do their duty. A government leaving it to a man to do his duty, or not, as he pleases, would be a new species of government, or rather, not government at all.”

Government working with business is, the authors write, “the forgotten roots of our prosperity. … We have to dig deeply into the debris left behind by nearly a half century of ideological warfare to unearth the economic model. That … made us the richest nation the world has ever seen.”

Besides Madison, Hacker and Pierson find many allies in traditionally conservative bastions such as Adam Smith. As Smith clearly recognized, “the intermingling of markets and politics is inevitable: a private sector completely free of government influence is just as mythical (and undesirable) as a government completely free of private-sector influence.” Smith’s message was never that “government should get out of the way.” He was enthusiastic about government regulation “so long as it wasn’t simply a ruse to advantage one set of commercial interests over another.” [Authors’ emphasis.]

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In a too-little cited passage from “The Wealth of Nations,” Smith wrote, “Regulation … in favor of the workman, is always just and equitable.” Every tax “is to the person who pays it a badge, not of slavery but of liberty.”

Misunderstood, misinterpreted theories from Smith and our founding fathers—Jefferson, the authors point out, never said “Government governs best which governs least”—have been used by the right wing to wage a war on federal authority while trying to change our perceptions of the past. In the late 19th century, far from wanting to eliminate the power of the federal government, “All the robber barons depended on government and their manipulation of it.” Railroad financiers Collis Huntington and Leland Stanford managed to see “higher purpose” in the bribery of politicians: “If you have to pay money to have the right things done [said Huntington] it is just and fair to do it.”

The South may lead the nation in detesting Washington, but “During and after the New Deal, the federal government invested massively and disproportionately in developing the South. There was rural electrification and highway building; new social programs with benefits that were scaled inversely to personal income; public health, worker safety and environmental efforts that had their greatest positive effects in the least developed regions.” Today, Mississippians (to pick just one state in the Deep South) get $2.34 in benefits back from the government for every dollar they paid in federal taxes. Where, one wonders, would Mississippi and the rest of the South be if the government really cut back on spending for them?

In a parallel example from our time, Steve Jobs “was well known for his disdain for government’s ineptness,” yet “he could never have created his pioneering products or made billions without the enormous reservoir of public investment and publicly trained talent that nurtured the innovation hub of Silicon Valley.”

The right has also made ceaseless war on unions, which “did more than any other organized force in American politics to address the concerns of less affluent citizens.”

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