“Evil Geniuses – The Unmaking of America – A Recent History”

Kurt Andersen’s 2020 book is about “political economy.” He argues that ours went from being basically fair to unfair, the turning point around 1980. Achieved by his title’s “evil geniuses,” the rich and corporations working with right-wing political forces.

I previously reviewed Andersen’s excellent 2017 book, Fantasyland,* chronicling America’s descent out of reality-based epistemology. His new book is a polemic, history with attitude. For most of the time in question, I was politically on the side he castigates. Yet I actually agree with much in this book — today’s “conservatism” having betrayed the principles I’d embraced. However, I think Andersen’s argument goes way overboard. And the book is maddeningly tendentious and bloated. I got tired of shameless brazen repetition of words like “shameless brazen greed.”

Andersen’s tale really starts in the 1960s, with the counterculture abhorred and producing a backlash, which right-wing politicians and ideologues, in cahoots with business interests and the rich, exploited to get their hands on levers of power, which they utilized to pick apart the old New Deal political economy. The details of the culture clash have metamorphosed over time, but the basic story continues — if it’s not anti-war hippie drugheads demonized, it’s welfare moochers, or sexual deviants, or non-whites, or immigrants, and so on.

The “evil geniuses” pursued their agenda in three key ways: gutting labor union power; reducing regulation; and cutting taxes on corporations and the wealthiest. Andersen sees this as wrecking our past social contract with a rising tide lifting all boats — now most boats are stuck in the mud while the yachts of the rich speed ahead. Inequality widens. Andersen thinks we’ve actually turned the clock back, beyond the New Deal, to the “Gilded Age” of “robber barons.”

A key villain of his is economist Milton Friedman, who posited that a corporation’s sole obligation is to seek profits for its shareholder owners, which Anderson says green-lighted that “shameless brazen greed.” I understand Friedman to have been arguing that society is actually best served when businesses stick to their knitting, producing what people want to buy, while leaving other concerns more properly to the political sphere.

More generally I’m dubious of Andersen’s notion that there were villains and villainies behind everything that happened. Some of it, yes, but far from all. It’s an ancient human proclivity to see all phenomena as caused by conscious agents — that’s how we got cosmologies populated by gods. Yet much of the time, it’s instead that “stuff happens,” for reasons other than intentional calculated action. For example, a big part of Andersen’s story concerns globalization and the “hollowing out” of America’s industrial job picture. As if his “evil geniuses” contrived that just to enrich themselves. Instead it happened inexorably due to fundamental tectonic economic and geopolitical forces, as well as technological developments.

Which Andersen worries will continue gathering force, with AI and robots eliminating more and more jobs for humans. That actually makes us collectively richer. Our key challenge, as Keynes foresaw back in 1930, is how to enable the mass of people to enjoy the fruits of that wealth. And for all Andersen’s lamentations, the fact is — as he acknowledges, sort of — we haven’t done badly on that score. While the rich have gotten a lot richer, the poor have not gotten poorer (globally they’ve advanced tremendously). And if the middle class has been shrinking, it’s a case of more people rising into the ranks of the reasonably affluent than falling into penury.

I was reminded of Thomas Frank’s 2004 book, What’s the Matter With Kansas — which I read while on a cruise filled with very average Americans — and reviewed critically in 2010.** Frank was suffering from the frustration of liberals baffled by what they saw as so many people voting against their economic interests (that is, for Republicans). I saw it as people understandably voting their values rather than their mercenary interests. (Ironically, it’s Democrats who decry “money being everything.”)

But then the “values” actually represented by the GOP went haywire. Andersen’s book details much polling data suggesting that when it comes to specific questions, both the values and economic concerns of strong U.S. voting majorities now align more with Democrats. We saw this vividly when 60% voted this year to safeguard abortion rights — in Kansas, of all places.

Yet Kansans also keep voting for Republican politicians who oppose abortion rights and a lot of other things those voters actually favor. Why? The ensorcelment Republicans managed to put across in past decades, with cultural tribalism and demonizing Democrats, is still working. So those voters have their heads up their behinds.

Andersen professes some hope those heads can be extricated. Well, it wouldn’t do to have a completely dark book. Whereas he thinks Democrats have played patsy to his “evil geniuses,” he does consider it possible they’ll get their act together to capitalize on all the ways Republicans are actually screwing most voters and what those voters truly want. Especially as older ones die off.

This assumes evil genius Republicans don’t succeed in their effort to overthrow democracy.

* https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2019/07/03/fantasyland-how-america-went-haywire/

** https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2010/08/19/what’s-the-matter-with-kansas/

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One Response to ““Evil Geniuses – The Unmaking of America – A Recent History””

  1. Axel Kornfuehrer Says:

    You comment that Kurt Anderson speaks of turning the clock back to the “Gilded Age” and “robber barons”. That is exactly how Trump, in his speech to Congress near the end of February 2017, defined his goal. He said that America was great at its 100th anniversary, 1876, the beginning of the “Gilded Age”, and he wants America to be back to that stage at its 250th anniversary in 2026,

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