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Wealth and Democracy: How Great Fortunes and Government Created America's Aristocracy 1st Edition

143 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0767905336
ISBN-10: 0767905334
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Editorial Reviews Review

Most American conservatives take it as an article of faith that the less governmental involvement in affairs of the market and pocketbook the better. The rich do not, whatever they might say--for much of their wealth comes from the "power and preferment of government." So writes Kevin Phillips, the accomplished historian and one-time Washington insider, in this extraordinary survey of plutocracy, excess, and reform. "Laissez-faire is a pretense," he argues; as the wealth of the rich has grown, so has its control over government, making politics a hostage of money. Examining cycles of economic growth and decline from the founding days of the republic to the recent collapse of technology stocks, Phillips dispels notions of trickle-down wealth creation, pricks holes in speculative bubbles, and decries the ever-increasing "financialization" of the economy--all of which, he argues, have served to reduce the well-being of ordinary Americans and government alike. Highly readable for all its charts and graphs, Phillips's book offers a refreshing--and, of course, controversial--blend of economic history and social criticism. His conclusions won't please all readers, but just about everyone who comes to his pages will feel hackles rising. --Gregory McNamee

From Publishers Weekly

The influence of money on government is now, more then ever, a hot political issue. With a grand historical sweep that covers more than three centuries, Phillips's astute analysis of the effects of wealth and capital upon democracy is both eye-opening and disturbing. While his main thrust is an examination of "the increasing reliance of the American economy on finance," Phillips weaves a far wider, nuanced tapestry. Carefully building his arguments with telling detail (the growth of investment capitalism in Elizabethan England was essentially the result of privateering and piracy) and statistical evidence, he charts a long, exceptionally complicated history of interplay between governance and the accumulation of wealth. Explicating late-20th-century U.S. capitalism, for instance, by drawing comparisons to the technological advances and ensuing changes in commerce in the Renaissance, he also discusses how 18th-century Spanish colonialism is relevant to how "lending power began to erode... broad prosperity" in 1960s and '70s America. Finding detailed correspondences between the giddy greediness of America's Gilded Age (complete with a surprising quote from Walt Whitman "my theory includes riches and the getting of riches") and the "great technology mania and bubble of the 1990s," Phillips (The Cousins' War, etc.), noted NPR political analyst, notes that "the imbalance of wealth and democracy in the United States is unsustainable," as it was in highly nationalistic mid-18th-century Holland and late-19th-century Britain both of which underwent major social and political upheaval from the middle and underclasses. Lucidly written, scrupulously argued and culturally wide-ranging, this is an important and deeply original analysis of U.S. history and economics.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 474 pages
  • Publisher: Broadway Books; 1 edition (May 14, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0767905334
  • ISBN-13: 978-0767905336
  • Product Dimensions: 9.5 x 6.6 x 1.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (143 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #883,364 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

428 of 448 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on August 23, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Not much that I can add that other reviewers haven't already stated.The fact is that most of the wealth in America is controlled by only 2% of the population and the rest of us are dancing to it.It's time for Americans to get mad and do something about it. This book is a real eye opener.
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342 of 359 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on June 7, 2003
Format: Paperback
1 star reviewers, at least do Mr. Phllips the dignity of reading the book before you bash it. Keep in mind that Phillips is a republican and as an American, has the virtue of freedom of speech. Read the book and then come back and state your "opinions."Or----are your minds so frozen that you cannot accept any other viewpoints than whay you percieve to be true?Read it first!
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117 of 120 people found the following review helpful By randy yale on March 29, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Have we seen the apex of American economic hegemony? Kevin Phillips makes a compelling case that as we enter the 21st Century the United States mirrors many of the historical aspects of previous economic powers in decline. And what is most startling, Phillips provides quotes and historical vignettes showing that the citizens of those powers pilloried anyone who critized the increasing wealth inequality that precedes the downfall of those nations (not unlike the unsubstantiated negative reviews on this page).
The thesis of "Wealth and Democracy" is that wealth inequality is bad for democracy, and viewed historically has always presaged the decline of previous world powers: Hapsburg Spain, the 17th and 18th century Dutch, 19th century Britian. Of course, our current leaders and their supporters make strong arguments that our political and economic systems are superior and therefore less likely to experience detumescence. The author warns that this argument is not unique. "Cocksure Americans were hardly the first to think themsleves immune from prior history."
In "Wealth and Democracy," Phillips takes us through that history and examines the paralells to the modern American dependence on financial institutions and the ways in which money limits access to all three branches of government. It is both enlightening and disheartening. The author says the U.S. can now be called a plutocracy. "The United States remain[s] what comparisons ha[ve] clearly shown: the most polarized and inequality-ridden of the major Western nations."
In fact, what is most troublesome about the myriad statistics in this book is our comparison to other economically advanced nations.
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56 of 57 people found the following review helpful By Kathy E. Gill on February 21, 2003
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Like another recent reader from Seattle, I've just started the book ... I picked it up because the author was featured in Sunday's Seattle Times op-ed section. [I may change the star rating after completion]

As some others have said, much of it is dry reading. There are extensive charts, facts and data. I am annoyed that there are citations (notes) at the end of the book -- with numbers for each -- but the cite does not appear in the text [like this].

This is "economics" in that Phillips examines Money and Wealth. This is not "economics" in the sense of collegiate econ101 (I have a master's degree in economics).

As someone who once-upon-a-time worshiped Ayn Rand and the "free-market" ... I have evolved to become a skeptic. I no longer believe that the philosophical prerequisites for "free market" economics exist (if they ever did - and if you don't know what I'm referencing and think you believe in "the free-market" I suggest you do some reading).

The book suggests that wealth breeds both more wealth and _political access_ ... and that technological innovations (munitions, railroads, autos, aerospace, mass production, pharmaecuticals, computers/internet, etc) are aided and abbetted by the hand of government ... and, while they _may_ serve to create new wealth, it seems that more often "wealth" becomes entrenched wealth.

If the following data don't cause you consternation -- then save your pocketbook (and aspirin!) and forgo this book:

-- begin dry facts --
1870: top 1% of Americans own/control ~20% of the country wealth
1912: top 1% of Americans own/control 56.
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234 of 255 people found the following review helpful By Royce E. Buehler on May 21, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Liberals hoping to find in this book a rousing trumpet call to tear down the bastions of entrenched privilege will be disappointed. There is more sober description on offer here than prescription. Conservatives remembering Kevin Phillip's prescient 1969 advice ("The Emerging Republican Majority") on how the GOP could dominate the rest of the century will be even more disappointed; Phillips sees the time as ripe for a progressive realignment that will bring nothing but pain to the Lott/Armey axis.
The book recounts, at two different scales, the history of wealth and the elites to which it has accumulated. The shorter scale is that of American political cycles, with revolving eras of conservative wealth concentration and progressive wealth distribution. The longer scale concerns the cycle of rise and fall of the four great economic empires of modern history: Spain in the 17th century, Holland in the 18th, Britain in the 19th, and the U.S. in the 20th. He returns to each series of cycles repeatedly, with an emphasis on different aspects of the cycles: the roles of technology, of wars, of speculative bubbles, of fashions in legislation and ideology. The repetition occasionally threatens tedium, but fresh details rise up to relieve it. Along the way, he provides a feast of specifics and statistics, in easily accessible charts which the reader will find useful whether or not he agrees with Phillips' conclusions.
The message he gleans from the shorter scale is a familiar one, if something of a minority report in the current era. Money flows. In hard times, it trickles; in boom times, it roars in cataracts. At no time, as he richly documents, has its motion ever been determined primarily by "market forces." It has always been pumped from pocket to pocket by the grace of government.
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