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Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson
Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer—and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2011

Simon & Schuster
USA Trade Hardback, First Edition
ISBN 978-1-416-58869-6
Publication Date: 09-14-2010
372 pages, $27
Date Reviewed: 01-22-2011

Index:  Non-Fiction

What compels us to read — and why? Story is the key. Nowhere is that more obvious than in non-fiction, because, so often the writers are caught up in facts that seem compelling in and of themselves. But it does not take long for even the most compelling facts to dry up. Put those facts in the context of a story, and you have a reading experience that is gripping to the mind and the heart.

The problem then is finding the story behind the facts, and that's not easy. But there is always a story to be found. Paul Pierson and Jacob Hacker went out and found some extremely startling facts. But more importantly, they found the story behind the facts, and their book, 'Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer—and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class' turns out to be a page turning mystery. It's the crime of the century.

When I started 'Winner-Take-All Politics,' I actually thought I would read one chapter of the non-fiction, then pick a novel and read a chapter. But 'Winner-Take-All Politics' proved to be far too involving to permit such a strategy. I literally could not put the book down. Pierson and Hacker offer a contrarian view of the last thirty years of economic history in the United States, and present their work as a mystery. The crime is of almost unimaginable proportions; how did the top 1% of America's wealthy siphon off so much money from the middle and lower-classes in what is purportedly a democracy?

Hacker and Pierson have more than a little fun with their mystery format. They identify the "usual suspects," such as SBTC (Skill-Based Technological Change), but demonstrate that these are not the culprits. Each excuse for this transfer of wealth is brought up and each is given a bye. When they look at the alibis usually given to politics, they ruthlessly dissect each with an impressive array of facts and perceptions that step outside of our blinkered 24-hour news cycle.

At the center of their book is the idea — obvious, once they state it — that the American economy is subject to and controlled by largely political forces. The so-called "free market" they contend, is instead propped by a framework of taxes and regulations that favor the wealthy. And by wealthy, they're not talking about hundred-thousand-aires, or even just millionaires. The kind of wealth they're talking about is so extreme, that much of what they discuss affects not the top 1%, but the top 1/10th of 1%. The money in America is not simply flowing upward, it's on an express elevator into the stratosphere.

This is the result of what the authors call a 30-year war, fought often by simply making sure that no changes are made to codes and regulations made thirty years ago. This is the process the authors call "drift." The effect of drift is that we have a country where billionaire hedge-fund managers pay a lower tax rate than those who clean their floors. Combined with active de-regulation, where the repeal of Glass-Steagal is the tip of the iceberg, and driven by a well-funded organizational effort funded by the businesses and wealthy families who benefit the most, "trickle-up" clearly seems to fall short as a description of what has happened. The wealth of America has been redistributed upward with a fire hose.

As the authors bring the story into the present, they offer their insight into the politics and economics of the first two years of the presidency of Barack Obama. Here we see all the players that they have taken through the past thirty years, some up (the Republican Party organizations, the filibuster, the Chamber of Commerce) and some down (the Democratic Party itself, regulatory legislation, unions), as they duke it out for what the authors call the "Battle Royale." Here, in spite of the serious downward spiral for the middle class, they do find some grains of hope. The problems however remain enormous.

What makes 'Winner-Take-All Politics' such a compelling read is the quality of prose and the structure of the author's arguments. They manage to make complex concepts seem simple, by virtue of excellent metaphors and similes. The mystery plot device drives an actual narrative; this is not simply a collection of facts and arguments. They story they tell is big, but made comprehensible with charts and figures that make the complexity of what has unfurled much easier to understand.

'Winner-Take-All Politics' may or may not convince those who are disinclined to see the new luxury gap as a sign of ill that change is required. Even so, the clever narrative structure and clearly delineated arguments make it easy and entertaining to read. Pierson and Hacker are not economists, but political scientists. Their area of interest and expertise enables them to offer an effective contrarian view of generally received history. Given that the book is framed as a mystery, it is to a degree a secret history that peels back camouflage that has masqueraded where the money has gone and why. As our world teeters, as our jobs are threatened while our work hours grow longer, Paul Pierson and Jacob Hacker offer readers a means to draw back the curtain. We may have reached the bottom of the barrel. 'Winner-Take-All Politics' allows us to upend the barrel and look underneath, to bring light to the festering nest of parasites that have fattened themselves at the expense of the American middle class.

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