New Part Three - July 24:
James Fallows
Kevin Phillips

Part Two - July 12:
James Fallows
Kevin Phillips

Part One - July 3:
James Fallows
Kevin Phillips



Kevin Phillips is a contributing columnist to the Los Angeles Times and a regular contributor to National Public Radio. Phillips was the chief political analyst for the 1968 Republican presidential campaign, and in 1969 published his landmark book The Emerging Republican Majority. His bestseller The Politics of Rich and Poor was described as a "founding document" of the 1992 presidential election.

James Fallows is The Atlantic's national correspondent and the author of Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy (1996) and of Free Flight: From Airline Hell to a New Age of Travel. To learn about his new book and look through an archive of his recent articles, visit jamesfallows.com.



Atlantic Unbound | July 12, 2002
 
fallows@large | Dialogues with James Fallows
 
.....
 
From: James Fallows
To: Kevin Phillips
Subject: The silent crash - Part Two

Greetings, Kevin:

As I type this dispatch, the opening session of the WorldCom hearing is droning on in the background on C-Span. It adds a certain up-to-the-minute counterpoint to the largely historical analysis in your book. (It also demonstrates how thoroughly congressmen have learned the value of the rare, headline-making televised hearing. Thirty years ago during the Watergate era, fifteen years ago with Oliver North, four years ago with impeachment, and now with the corporate-accounting scandals, the hearings represent the rare chance for ordinary House members to get their faces, names, and words before a national TV audience. Thus the first hour of air time today is used for repetitive, outraged speechlets by the several dozen committee members, while the WorldCom execs sit there like unhappy props. But not as unhappy as they're likely to be when they start taking the Fifth.)

Now, on to Wealth and Democracy. I won't try to sum up for readers all the arguments and evidence you present. In fact, the most important fact to convey about the book may be how ambitious it is. Most discussion about it in the press has concerned your findings on the new inequalities of American wealth. You do have startling data on that subject, which we'll get back to in a minute. But contemporary inequality is only one of the half-dozen major themes in the book. You also spend a lot of time, and provide a lot of charts and tables, on:
As a set-up to some questions, let me pull out a few quotes and observations from the book. Also, I'm sure you'll feel free to correct anything you think I've misunderstood about the main themes you cover.

One question involves the school of thought I was calling "declinist" early on. A dozen-plus years ago, when I was living in and reporting from East Asia, the contrasts between the Asian and Western "models of capitalism" seemed particularly sharp. Especially in manufacturing, companies based in Japan and Korea, with offshoots in China and Southeast Asia, had made tremendous gains relative to American-based firms.

Within half a dozen years, the situation seemed to have turned around completely. In part this was because the American economy corrected many of the most egregious problems that "declinists" were talking about. (The budget deficit became a surplus; America's trade strategy became more aggressive, especially in high-tech products; American automakers went through their quality revolution. Even the savings rate started to budge upward.) And it was also because the Japanese proved amazingly resistant to changing the rigid parts of their system. (It had always punished consumers and the financial system in order to subsidize its manufacturers. This was great for "catchup" but proved too rigid and non-entrepreneurial to keep up during the go-go tech race of the 1990s. Plus lots of other rigidities that one "reformer" after another could not correct.) But there were complications in the picture too—for instance, in most manufacturing segments, Asian-based manufacturers continued to gain world market share through their decade of "failure" in the 1990s. So the American "triumph" may have been less sweeping than most people thought.

But now you are back with a book whose tone recalls some of the "declinists." You say, early on:
This book also profiles the United States as a leading world power at or past its zenith, and does so against the warning backdrop and decline-symptoms of its three predecessors—Britain, Holland, and Hapsburg Spain.
It is hard to think of words more out of sync with the tone of the American press and political rhetoric of the last decade. Can you elaborate on the point, please? At a time when America enjoys a near-monopoly on military power, when the tech industry is American, and when the main objection of foreigners seems to involve the excesses of our might, in what way should we think about "decline-symptoms"? And how, exactly, would you see this concern entering politics?

Now a question about income inequality. The most startling chart in your book may be the one on the "giantizing" of American personal fortunes. In 1790, when the chart begins, the median household income in America was $250—and the richest person in America, Elias Derby, had assets of $1 million, or 4000 times more than the median. By the time of the Civil War, the median income had doubled to $500, and the richest person, Cornelius Vanderbilt, had $40 million—an 80,000-to-1 ratio. With allowances for the shakiness of statistics from that era, we can see the direction of the change. By the 1960s, the richest American, J. Paul Getty, was worth $1 billion, or 138,000 times more than the $7,200 median. In 1992, Sam Walton, with $8 billion, was worth 185,000 times more than the $43,200 median. And at the peak of the tech boom, in 1999, Bill Gates's $85 billion fortune was 1,416,000 times as great as the $60,000 median family income.

Gates is worth only about half that much these days. Still, by historic American standards the difference is astonishing. Let me ask you to expand on your first-round answer about the political, social, and economic consequences of this kind of income distribution. Why, in your view, does it matter? What does history suggest about the next stage of our politics? Will the Democrats use these numbers to run against Bush's tax cut or his attempt to eliminate the "death tax"? Do you expect that the current wave of corporate scandals will lead to discussion of the inequalities you document?

A final question, also about politics. Our two Presidents Roosevelt belonged to different political parties, but both were seen by their aristocratic peers as "traitors to their class." You stress in your book that this kind of treason is an important political constant: "Serious U.S. arousal against abuses of wealth and power has always transcended class lines ... and many of the notable triumphs have been led by persons with sophisticated and affluent backgrounds." So if you extend that logic now, who is our next aristocratic reformer, the counterpart to trust-busting Teddy Roosevelt? John Kerry, whose middle name is Forbes and whose wife is Teresa Heinz? Steve Forbes himself? Or... George Walker Bush?

Over to you, and thanks for this provocative book.

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