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25 of 50 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars doom and gloom, January 22, 2012
This review is from: The Age of Austerity: How Scarcity Will Remake American Politics (Hardcover)
Thomas Edsall has made a career out of giving democrats the wrong answers about why the progressive movement that came out of the new deal collapsed. His answer is invaraibly that the world is a zero-sum game (its impossible for everyone to gain). That white people (especially the middle class) are holding wealth that they do not deserve. And that they vote republican as part of a racist conspiracy to hold on to wealth that should be redistributed.

Of course, his atitudes do illustrate what blew up the progressive movement in an ironic way. A progressive movement is successful because everyone is involved and everyone benefits. Social Security and Medicare survive because its a win for everyone. But when a progressive movement turns into a race-based fight for "spoils", it can only inevitably collapse. And that is where things have been since the 1970s.

Edsall and his ilk are disinterested in solving the problem. They think that demographics will solve it for them. But what they never understand is that as long as they build political colaitions based on tribes fighting a zero-sum game, their coliaitions will always splinter when they reach a certain size.

And so in this book, we get the zero-sum game redux. Resources are scarce. We cannot help everyone. Therefore the art of modern politics is delivering to one group by taking from another. And inevitabilty we come around to the conclusion that the last remaining successful progressive programs (social security and medicare) need to be gutted in order to give the "have nots" what they somehow deserve.

The politics of "scarcity" have dragged down the democratic party for many decades. When you offer people a vision of a progressively worse life with a lower standard of living, when you tell everyone that its impossible to improve the lot of everyone in the country, when you tell them that their future is down to fighting like dogs for whatever they can get for their own, you don't tend to inspire them and they don't tend to support you.

The idea of scarcity and life as a zero-sum-game appeals most to the rich (democrats and republicans). And ultimately, Edsall's message in the book is not for the poor or the working class of color. Its for rich democrats who see their role, brought them by birth, to redistribute the scarce resources appropriately. Who but they would have the skills, the education and the breeding to take on such a task.

Edsall's idea of "scarcity" is based on a quite frankly republican notion that taxes should go no higher than they are. He also often in the book claims that political decisions made to cut particular programs are based on allocation of scarce resources rather than political decisions. But any discussion about scarce resources requires a hard look at two multi-trillion dollar wars the US fought in the past decade. Where was the scarcity then? Where was the scarcity when year after year the tax cuts were rolled out (including BOTH the bush cuts and Obama's payroll tax cuts)?

Why is it that when republicans want something, they get it. While when democrats want something, there is suddenly talk of "scarce resources"? Edsall has no answers. He has no answers because he is part of the problem:

- His politics are about *dividing* people, about *blaming* people and about taking from one set of people to improve the lot of another set of people. This has been killing the democratic party since 1968. Openly appealing to racial demographics as the future of the democratic party has always been stupid. To see where those policies lead, look no further than many states in the south where the republicans hold all the power.

- The politics of scarcity don't work. You can't inspire people with negativism. Shades of Jimmy Carter's "Malaise" speech or Walter Mondale making raising taxes the centerpiece of his campaign.

- To have a progressive movement, you have to have real people involved in politics. The democratic party today at all levels is dominated by rich snobs. The party can't craft an agenda that appeals to a mass auidence because its leaders shop at different stores, live in different neighborhoods, eat different food and live lives today almost divorced from any contact with the middle or working class.

The author is a very influential person. You would think that after decades of failure that he would move toward new ideas. But he never does.
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Showing 1-4 of 4 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jan 27, 2012 7:23:19 AM PST
as200 says:
It is true that economy does not have to be a zero-sum. But whether it is a zero, plus or minus depends on some factors. When we look at thousands years of human history we conclude, that most of the time it indeed was around-zero-sum economy. Narrow class of have-all rulers and masses of have-nothing peasants. If you look in Charles Murray's book you will se that basically only about between 12-th century and now situation was different. In a whole human history only last several centuries were different. Question now is: are we continuing progress of christian civilisation, or are we approaching the decline ? I hear voices on both sides. And to me pessimists are more convincing, having more rational arguments against optimists beliving that if something goes up it must continue forever. We have to remember, that only wide middle class is capable of progress. With autonomus individual equipt with inambigues goals. And that narrow class of rich is never capable of any progress. In what directon we aim ?

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 27, 2012 2:50:13 PM PST
Mark bennett says:
The economy may or may not be a zero sum game. But political programs and political decisions don't necessarly have to be. Successful and lasting social programs involve everyone getting a benefit. Maybe not the same benefit, but still a tangible benefit. Programs that transfer tend not to last politicaly.

You raise good points about the reality (or illusion) of "progress" and its limited scope in history. But the other problem we have is one of success. The original problems we set out to solve have been addressed (at least in the US). Nobody starves anymore and certain basic minimums are assured. But the question remaining from 1968 is still with us. Where do we go from here?

We claim to have an underclass that cannot be employed. And yet we have a flood of people coming into the country typically with less access to resources than the existing domestic underclass who are filling and filling jobs. The narrative of the America being the land of opportunity for non-white immigrants and the narrative of America as a racist state that keeps its non-white population in poverty contradict each other.

I dont see Christian Civilization in decline. I see it more as stagnating or ceasing to progress. Or maybe that it doesn't know now to progress any further. The liberal arts have reached an intellectual dead end. The idea of turning science into a false god that can remake all aspects of our intellectual life has also run its course. In the 1960s, we were supposed to be at the dawn of a new age where statistics and the social sciences could fix everything. We also created the false expectation that there was no problem that could be solved if we decided to do it.

The problem I see is that the intellectual base we start from these days is itself very rotten. The radical movements of the left and right born in the 1960s dominate the conversation. And the academics who should be providing new ideas have marginalized themselves from society and made themselves almost irrelivant.

But seeing problems is no help and I don't have many answers.

"We have to remember, that only wide middle class is capable of progress. With autonomus individual equipt with inambigues goals. And that narrow class of rich is never capable of any progress. In what directon we aim ?"

Very well said.

We must somehow favor the people who aspire to a better life within the middle class without favoring the rich. One of the problems for the past century that has frustrated progressive politics is a tendency to punish and drive away the most ambitious and productive members of the middle class. And in their frustration they turn to those who seem to share their interests. I dont see how its possible to have a progressive movement that its alienated from the middle class. The idea of a democratic party of the very rich leading the very poor will always to me seemed doomed to failure.

Posted on Jan 28, 2012 9:10:14 AM PST
Last edited by the author on Jan 28, 2012 9:25:22 AM PST
Ron Stillman says:
Mark said: "One of the problems for the past century that has frustrated progressive politics is a tendency to punish and drive away the most ambitious and productive members of the middle class. And in their frustration they turn to those who seem to share their interests. I dont see how its possible to have a progressive movement that its alienated from the middle class. The idea of a democratic party of the very rich leading the very poor will always to me seemed doomed to failure."

As a productive member of the middle class that changed from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party in the last century, I see it the other way around. So, I would change the word progressive to conservative which makes more sense to me. The idea of a Republican Party leading the middle class and the poor will, most likely, be doomed to failure. And, by the way, the Progressive movement has not collapsed.

Posted on Apr 20, 2012 1:46:37 AM PDT
L. Rogers says:
Your critique of Edsall is accurate up to a point. However, your failure to consider that the problems that he (and you) address cannot be resolved within the confines of the capitalist economy. None of the so-called "progressive" commentators and writers (or, at least those I have read and heard) have considered this possibility despite the mounting evidence lending support to such a conclusion.

Edsall and his ilk are nothing more than hacks trying to put a pretty face on a moribund system. They prattle unceasingly about the symptoms of the process of putrefaction, the incessant wars, the corruption, the gross inequalities in wealth and the quality of life, the pilfering of the public lands, goods, and treasure (privatization), the pandering to the meanest and most crude prejudices of an increasingly insecure and frightened american public, etc. But, as to causes of these maladies, the best they can produce are arguments grounded to the right in some social darwinist variant and to the left some flavoring anarcho-syndicalism (the 'zero-sum game").

We are at the point where the need for frank and honest discussion of our problems is literally a matter of life and death.

You do an excellent job of exposing the utter bankruptcy of the "underclass" idea.
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