Starting around 1980, American society began to undergo a series of deep shifts. Deregulation, weakened antitrust enforcement, and technological changes led to increasing concentration of industry and finance. Money began to play a larger and more corrupting role in politics. America fell behind other nations in education, in infrastructure, and in the performance of many of its major industries. Inequality increased. As a result of these and other changes, America was turning into a rigged game—a society that denies opportunity to those who are not born into wealthy families, one that resembles a third-world dictatorship more than an advanced democracy.
The “Occupy Wall Street” protests that began in New York in September 2011, and then rapidly spread around America and the world, were initially somewhat unclear in their goals. But the protesters were deeply right about one thing: over the last thirty years, the United States has been taken over by an amoral financial oligarchy, and the American dream of opportunity, education, and upward mobility is now largely confined to the top few percent of the population. Federal policy is increasingly dictated by the wealthy, by the financial sector, and by powerful (though sometimes badly mismanaged) industries such as telecommunications, health care, automobiles, and energy. These policies are implemented and praised by these groups’ willing servants, namely the increasingly bought-and-paid-for leadership of America’s political parties, academia, and lobbying industry.
If allowed to continue, this process will turn the United States into a declining, unfair society with an impoverished, angry, uneducated population under the control of a small, ultrawealthy elite. Such a society would be not only immoral but also eventually unstable, dangerously ripe for religious and political extremism.
Thus far, both political parties have been remarkably clever and effective in concealing this new reality. In fact, the two parties have formed an innovative kind of cartel—an arrangement I have termed America’s political duopoly, which I analyze in detail below. Both par- ties lie about the fact that they have each sold out to the financial sec- tor and the wealthy. So far both have largely gotten away with the lie, helped in part by the enormous amount of money now spent on deceptive, manipulative political advertising. But that can’t last indefinitely; Americans are getting angry, and even when they’re misguided or poorly informed, people have a deep, visceral sense that they’re being screwed. Both the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street movements are early, small symptoms of this.
So I’m not going to spend much time describing ways to regulate naked credit default swaps, improve accounting standards for off- balance-sheet entities, implement the Volcker rule, increase core capital, or measure bank leverage. Those are important things to do, but they are tactical questions, and relatively easy to manage if you have a healthy political system, economy, academic environment, and regulatory structure. The real challenge is figuring out how the United States can regain control of its future from its new oligarchy and re- store its position as a prosperous, fair, well-educated nation. For if we don’t, the current pattern of great concentration of wealth and power will worsen, and we may face the steady immiseration of most of the American population.
Before getting into the substance of these issues, I should perhaps make one comment about where I’m coming from. I’m not against business, or profits, or becoming wealthy. I have no problem with people becoming billionaires—if they got there by winning a fair race, if their accomplishments merit it, if they pay their fair share of taxes, and if they don’t corrupt their society. The people who founded Intel became very rich—and that’s great. They got PhDs in physics. They worked very hard. They treated their employees fairly. And they gave us a thousand times more than they took. Within a decade of its being founded, Intel invented microprocessors and the three most important forms of semiconductor memory. One of Intel’s founders—Robert Noyce, whom I once had the honor to meet—personally coinvented the integrated circuit. I have no problem at all with the fact that Bob Noyce, Gordon Moore, and Andy Grove made a lot of money. Same for Larry Ellison at Oracle, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak of Apple, the founders of Google, eBay, Craigslist, Amazon, and Genentech, and, for that matter, Warren Buffett.
But that’s not how most of the people mentioned in this book be- came wealthy. Most of them became wealthy by being well connected and crooked. And they are creating a society in which they can commit hugely damaging economic crimes with impunity, and in which only children of the wealthy have the opportunity to become successful.
That’s what I have a problem with. And I think most people agree with me.