Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer--and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class

Jacob S. Hacker

Book cover

The content and message of this book are worth reading and understanding: the sharp increases in economic inequality over the past several decades in the U.S. are driven in large part by political decisions, not simply by globalization and/or technological change; furthermore, this is not merely the doing of Republicans, but has been propagated by Democratic politicians as well. So far so good, although I already basically believed this before reading the book.

I was somewhat disappointed in the approach of the book, however. (This is episode 4,329 of me being disappointed in a popular consumption book for not being an academic book.) I presume that, since Hacker and Pierson are successful academics, the content here is a distillation of a large amount of academic research by the authors and others. However, the text certainly doesn’t highlight specific academic work, and in general (I don’t have the book in front of me) doesn’t even provide references for the interested reader. The majority of the text consists of an extended narrative description of political developments from about 1970-2010. This is interesting enough material, but it didn’t feel like a particularly original take. (Perhaps it was more so at the time of writing?)

I also felt that the authors gave way too cursory a treatment of the alternative explanations of globalization pressures and skill-biased technological change. They basically mention them and then provide fairly glib dismissals. As I mentioned above, I do think the authors have it right, but it didn’t strike me as a fair hearing. The old adage says that you should describe your opponent’s arguments with sufficient clarity that he or she would approve of the exposition, and H&P fall far short of that bar here. I would very much have preferred that much of the narrative history material be replaced by a detailed review of the strongest evidence for the alternative hypotheses and for the author’s hypothesis, and a defense of the latter in that context. Probably that means I should just be looking for the authors’ academic papers.

My Goodreads rating: 3 stars