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Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich Paperback – April 8, 2003
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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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Phillips does not provide a solution but tries to analyses trends through historical developments of wealth and income distribution in the United States in more than 200 years. The main theses in the book are simple to summarize.
1) The wealth distribution has been highly concentrated and that concentration has increased over time. Living standards have remarkably improved for all classes but inequality has increased substantially. In the last 30 years families' living standards have recorded a setback partially concealed by the fact that more time is spent at work, while in the rest of the world less time is spent at work with improved social services (public schools, vacation time, health plans, pension benefits and so on).
2) The historical wealthiest families had accumulated the first riches through slavery, privateer, piracy, and government procurements during wars thanks to the right connections. The heritage of that past bears its influences still today.
3) Contrary to the common rhetoric, upward social and economic mobility was and is more limited than you might think, according to Phillips' book. You have two extremes in how the wealth is distributed. On one extreme, a society whose wealth is equally distributed, but were incentives to work more are curtailed leaving a smaller cake to share for all. On the other extreme, a society where all wealth is concentrated in one family, in which even aristocrats would complain. Phillips shows data that the latter case is dangerously close to reality.
4) Democracy and wealth are so intertwined that "one dollar one vote" is a better description than "one head one vote". Therefore the top 1% of the wealthiest families (or the top 10%) tend to use their money to keep things as they are, or improve their privileged position. Investing in legislation through lobbyists makes a better rate of return than any other investment.
Phillips provides a great deal of information, but that is not well organized, and often repetitive, leaving the reader with a sense of confusion. First, because the myth of the self-made man or the hope of upward mobility is put in question and it is less common than usually thought, generating a sort of "cognitive dissonance" in the reader (some would call it provocative or eye-opening). Secondly, the author does not provide any solution or policy prescription (of course, for those who think that there is something wrong to fix). It certainly is food for thought, but still raw that the reader should cook it by herself.
Taken for granted the above warnings, it is a recommended book for those who want a first exposure to the hot subject of wealth and democracy, now and then.
You will see in stark detail why the rich hate taxes and wages that are too high! They are really cra**y citizens and hate giving up ANYTHING!
That being said are we in store for another "Gilded Age" or a very hard landing? Either way if you punch a clock for a living you are in a world of hurt!
This is a really good book. Plow through it's statistical style and get a real insight into American culture. Get a copy while you still can. This is the story of Human Nature and GREED writ large.
This is why I have stopped voting. On the plus side there is nothing preventing YOU from doing something that makes you rich except figuring out what you'll do and getting government to help you!
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 56.4% of the country wealth
1971: top 1% of Americans own/control 25% of the country's wealth
1976: top 1% of Americans own/control <20% of the country wealth
1999: top 1% -- to classify, you'd have > $3 million in assets/wealth
2001: top 1% of Americans own/control 47% of the country wealth
[they own/control more wealth than the bottom 95% combined]
Business Week's annual review of executive compensation, America's 365 largest companies:
--1980, the disparity between the highest-paid workers and their employees was 42 to one.
-- Today, the ratio exceeds 500 to one ('today' being 2001, I believe, from Gates et al, below)
Inflation-adjusted median household net worth fell from $54,600 in 1989 to $49,900 in 1997. [Haven't seen recent data, but with the stock market crash, I'm guessing it hasn't recovered.]
Less than 1% of the population finances more than 80% of all federal elections.
-- end dry facts --
If the data do cause you consternation, consider adding Phillips book as well as this one by Bill Gate's father to your bookshelf:
Wealth and our Commonwealth: Why America Should Tax Accumulated Fortunes
"Today the levels of inequality in the United States are at their highest point since the 1920s. This is an unusually imprudent time to abolish one of the few taxes that has slowed this buildup of wealth in the hands of a few."
[edited to correct spelling]