January 03, 2003

Wealth and democracy, Kevin Phillips

Several related books, I thought, that mostly coalesce into one rising argument. One is a lists-and-anecdotes history of who the richest people in the United States have been since the Revolution and where their money came from. (In approximate order of waves of wealth: privateering, military procurement, railroads, oil, manufacturing, finance, tech.) Another is a discussion of the politics around this: being on the right or wrong side of a war can make or lose a fortune, obviously, but you can also make a fortune by having the connections to reap most of a government giveaway: letters of marque, land grants, monetary policy, military procurement. Every so often there's a wave of political objection, e.g. the Populists and Progressives.

The last book is a comparison of the economic histories of the Spanish, Dutch, British & US empires, arguing that the last two were already doomed in the period of their greatest wealth. In both cases their economies had mostly converted to pure finance, hollowing out the industry and common weal within the nation and leaving it vulnerable to shock. Phillips certainly implies that the US is already in that stage. He has some lovely contemporaneous quotes identifying the beginnings of each nation's rise, e.g. from Charles Wilson's Holland and Britain

the Dutch technician was to the 17th century what the Scottish engineer was to the 19th century...to be found wherever profitable occupation offered and...wherever government or private enterprise was in need of technical or managerial skill.
American engineers were that after WWI; right now I'd say India has the baton, or China.

The main argument of the book is an indictment of current US politics for having been captured by the small interest group of people who have enormous amounts of money. The history, US and elsewhere, shows how such capture has played out before; his analysis of the last 20 years of US fiscal politics suggests that it's playing us now. So wrote clew in History.

And thus wrote others:

(moved to entry on Farnsworth)


yclept: at October 16, 2003 09:53 AM
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