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More Equal Than Others by Godfrey Hodgson
How the rich stole the dream
Friday 11 June 2004
This book is "an attempt to understand what has happened in the United States over the last quarter of the 20th century". It is a most successful attempt: the most thoughtful, thorough and sorrowful book imaginable on what has happened in these years. Godfrey Hodgson has been in the US as a British journalist for most of his career. He loves the older America and knows its history. He quotes Jefferson in 1812 - "And so we have gone on, and so we will go on, puzzled and prospering beyond example in the history of man" - but gives us cause to dread those who are not puzzled.
He paints a clear picture of the triumphalism of recent years. Yes, a lot to be triumphant about: technological innovation or, even when imported, rapid implementation, and unprecedented national wealth. But within that wealth, the gap increased not just between rich and poor - in the Clinton period (despite the rhetoric) as much as in that of Bush senior - but also between the middle classes and the millionaires. From 1981 to 1993, the median US wage-earner's income fell by 5 per cent in real terms. The income of the top 5 per cent of taxpayers rose by 30 per cent. Clinton only slightly slowed the increasing disparity.
Myths abound. Has not the old ideal of the America of the common man been replaced by the reality of a share-holding capitalist democracy, Reagan-Thatcherism? Not so, or rather, that's almost exactly a half-truth: 48.2 per cent of Americans own stocks, but only 36.3 per cent own stock worth more than $5,000, even including pension schemes. In 1999, "average wages were actually 10 per cent lower than in 1973", and if the median family income was a princely $285 a year higher, that was only because more family members were working, and working longer hours.
Hodgson sees the whole period as a reaction to the days of Kennedy and Johnson's "Great Society". Now capitalism and democracy are synonymous to too many. Memories of the New Deal were once strong both in the Democratic Party and the public mind. Of course, the New Deal was there to save capitalism, from itself; but Hodgson shows in grim detail the gerrymandering of the tax system to benefit the rich and the dramatic bonfire of the controls needed to make free markets tolerable.
The older American beliefs may still have enough power, depending on election results, to turn the US back from what he sees as something very like the oppressive European class system of the 1920s. "This country", he quotes Theodore Roosevelt in a previous era of capitalist triumphalism, "will not be a permanently good place for any of us to live in unless we make it a reasonably good place for us all to live in."
It is a long time since Tocqueville could say in the 1830s that "nothing struck me more forcibly than the general equality of condition among people". But Hodgson remembers from his long years in the US, as I do from a decade earlier, that this leavening myth was still current among both the plain people and the well-educated. He is both philosophically sceptical and statis- tically damning about the reality of "equality of opportunity". And he shrewdly ob- serves that one big restraint on liberal rhetoric aimed at the disadvantaged majority of Americans is the need to raise huge campaign funds.
Hodgson's sombre and profound book relates all this to the old unstable American oscillations of "final interventions" in the unwanted outside world, followed by isolationism. Our leaders should read More Equal Than Others if they still need convincing of the dangers of tying ourselves closely to the volatility of American politics, rather than to the long-term needs of our European economy, heritage and future.
Sir Bernard Crick's political essays, 'Crossing Borders', are published by Continuum
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