Good Reads

The Crime of the Century

No two-bit burglars could have possibly pulled this enormous job off. Making America staggeringly unequal took the coordinated effort of an entire corporate elite.

A review of The Confiscation of American Prosperity: From Right-Wing Extremism and Economic Ideology to the Next Great Depression, Michael Perelman (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007). 239 pp.

By Sam Pizzigati

Economist Michael Perelman has written a whodunit about a heist, but not just any heist. His new book dissects the grandest bit of thievery in modern human history, the robbery that snatched away the economic security of the great American middle class and made America’s rich the richest rich the world has ever seen.

Perelman bookHow did all this happen? Perelman takes us back to the initial crime scene, the United States of the early 1970s, a society then completing a quarter-century of unparalleled prosperity. Most Americans had shared in those good times. Most expected them to continue.

But not everyone felt that way. Corporate America’s movers and shakers, back in the early ’70s, sensed a world spinning out of — their — control. They feared marketplace challenges from abroad. Western Europe and Japan had rebuilt their war-torn economies. They also feared challenges at home, from social activists and angry workers. Even consumers were organizing.

Corporate leaders, amid these challenges, panicked. They rejected the basic assumption behind America’s good times, that balance in economic life — and prosperity for all — requires an active role for trade unions and government regulators. Corporate leaders would instead link up with radical conservatives and help speed what Michael Perelman calls a “right-wing revolution.”

That revolution would rewrite the nation’s economic rules and leave in its wake a deeply and ferociously unequal United States.

Michael Perelman names names as he fills in the outline of this broad sweeping story with intriguing detail on who did what when. He introduces us, for instance, to Lewis Powell, the corporate lawyer — and future Supreme Court justice — whose 1971 memo for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce rallied the nation’s power-suits to rise up and “save” free enterprise.  

“Each time the United States has increased income inequality,” author Perelman reminds us along his story-telling way, “disaster has followed.”

And disaster, Perelman notes, will surely follow our contemporary right-wing revolution. Perelman explains why, patiently laying out how top-heavy distributions of wealth deflate broad-based consumer demand, pump up speculative asset bubbles, and invariably invite a “culture of corruption.”

Perelman ends his whodunit with a look at “the presumptive cops” on the beat, his fellow economists, the academics who could have and should have blown the whistle on the right-wing’s frontal assault on American prosperity. They did not. Michael Perelman has. More power to him.

Sam Pizzigati edits Too Much, the online weekly on excess and inequality published by the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Policy Studies.

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