American Amnesia: Business, Government, and the Forgotten Roots of Our Prosperity

Jacob S. Hacker

Book cover

It’s been a while since I finished this book so I myself am suffering a little “amnesia” about its contents! It’s a good book, though. I read it on the recommendation of Elise, who read the authors’ earlier book “Winner-Take-All Politics” as part of her studies, and after watching their interview on Bill Moyers. The basic thesis is that the “mixed economy,” meaning an economy that combines free enterprise with fairly strong government regulation and investment, was an important innovation of the twentieth century and was a significant driver of midcentury prosperity. But the titular amnesia refers to the forgetting of this fact in modern political discourse, where regulation and government investment are not looked upon favorably, while we continue to enjoy the fruits of past investments. The authors discuss changes over the last few decades in both the Republican party and in business lobbying interests that have driven this change in tone.

The book is relevant in the era of Bernie Sanders, although unsurprisingly its academic authors deliver the message a bit more drily. The most valuable takeaway I got from it was references to two interesting academic papers: Gilens and Page on policy preferences of economic elites vs. average citizens, and Page, Bartels and Seawright on policy preferences of the very wealthy. Both of these papers strongly support Sanders’ efforts to reduce the role of money in politics, and clarify that the issue is not as overt as some would have us believe–e.g. HRC’s protestations that she has never changed a policy position in exchange for a donation, or those pointing to the fact that all of Jeb’s superPAC money couldn’t buy him the nomination. It’s more an issue of the overall coziness of politicians with the wealthy and their lobbyists, and the acceptance of the fact that politicians will spend over half their time fundraising–it leads to an alignment of world-views that even someone of strong character would have difficulty resisting. I wish Sanders had found a way to express this perspective, but I know it is difficult to fit into a soundbite for a debate or interview.

My Goodreads rating: 3 stars