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2011 Northern California Book Awards - General Nonfiction - Winner

NCBR review of Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer—And Turned Its Back on the Middle Class by Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson

Simon & Schuster

From 1979 until the eve of the Great Recession the wealthiest one percent of households received thirty-six percent of all gains in household income. Jacob S. Hacker from Yale and Paul Pierson from UC Berkeley, both political scientists, ask why the gains of economic growth started going mostly to the very wealthy. Winner-Take-All Politics explains in compelling prose why the U.S. is no longer among the group of affluent democracies in which the gains from growth are widely shared. We have become, they argue, a winner-take-all society that has moved a considerable distance toward resembling capitalist oligarchies like Russia and Mexico.

Hacker and Pierson carefully outline the changes in federal policy that caused this. Policies in place before 1980 to reduce inequality were overturned. Congress aided the very wealthy by cutting the capital gains tax, and it sharply raised the regressive payroll tax. More recent policies led to huge increases in executive pay.

But government also aided the rich by doing nothing. Labor law reforms to help unions maintain their reach were defeated when businesses organized. Minimum wage laws were not updated. Government failed to regulate huge new areas of financial speculation. How could this happen in a democracy? In one of the best parts of the book, the authors explain why the lobbying organizations built by wealth trump the opinions of the masses. Saying it so baldly, however, does not do justice to the intriguing story they tell in a book that reads like a whodunit. The final section explains how the two political parties have responded differently to the pull of the superrich, why on virtually every issue some Democrats become Republicans-for-a-day, why these few votes make all the difference, and why the suddenly prolific use of the filibuster helps the rich.

The book concludes with good news. Technological change and globalization were not as important to our current plight as the changes we made to our own political system, and these changes are within our political control—perhaps. Reformers must not only win elections, they must also create well-financed organizations dedicated to middle class democracy—organizations able to sustain pressure on legislators after elections. How the U.S. responds to its current maladies depends on how well we understand the source of our problems. And that is why this fascinating, well-written book is so important.

About the NCBR: NCBR/Northern California Book Reviewers, a volunteer group of book reviewers, book review editors, and others who read passionately and write about reading, have met regularly since 1981 to celebrate books by presenting annual book awards to northern California authors. See the 2011 NCBA page under PF Programs for the complete list of finalists and winners.


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