America is becoming more like the illiberal pseudo-democracies and kleptocracies.

Can American Democracy Survive Against Rising Political Corruption and Privatization?


In 1932, on the eve of FDR’s presidency, Benito Mussolini proclaimed, “The liberal state is destined to perish.” He added, all too accurately, “All the political experiments of our day are anti-liberal.”

The democracies were doomed, Il Duce declared, because they could not solve crucial problems. Unlike the dictatorships, which were willing to forcefully use a strong state, the democracies could not fix their broken economies. Parliamentary systems were hamstrung politically. The democracies were also war-weary, conflict-averse, and ill-prepared to fight. The fascists, unlike the democracies, had solved the problem of who was part of the community.

Mussolini’s ally, Adolf Hitler, was further contemptuous of “mongrelization” in American democracy. Who was an American? How did immigrants fit in? What about Negroes? The fascist states, by contrast, rallied their citizens to a common vision and a common purpose. Hitler was quite confident that he knew who was a German and who was not. To prove it, he fashioned the Nuremberg laws; he annexed German-speaking regions of his neighbors. As Hitler infamously put it, Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Fuehrer.

Though he was a buffoonish dictator, Il Duce was not such a bad political scientist. In the 1930s, a lot of liberal democrats wondered the same thing, and for the same reasons. As Ira Katznelson wrote in Fear Itself: “Such beliefs and opinions were not limited to dictators and dictatorships. As Roosevelt prepared to speak [in his first inaugural], skepticism was prevalent about whether representative parliamentary democracies could cope within their liberal constitutional bounds with capitalism’s utter collapse, the manifest military ambitions by the dictatorships, or international politics characterized by ultranationalist territorial demands. Hesitation, alarm, and democratic exhaustion were widespread.”

The democracies did survive, of course, and they flourished. The New Deal got us halfway out of the Great Depression, and the war buildup did the rest. Fascism was defeated, militarily and ideologically. The collapse of Soviet communism took another half-century. Thanks to the wisdom of containment, Stalinism fell of its own weight, as both an economic and political failure.

Not only did the democracies endure—by the 1980s, America had broadened the inclusiveness of its polity. Europe had embarked on a bold experiment toward continental democracy. In the final days of communism, there was triumphalism in the West. Francis Fukuyama even proclaimed, incautiously, in his 1989 essay, “The End of History?” that all societies were necessarily gravitating toward capitalism and democracy, two ideals that were supposedly linked.


Today, it is Mussolini’s words that resonate. Once again, the democracies are having grave difficulty pulling their economies out of a prolonged economic slump. Once again, they are suffering from parliamentary deadlock and loss of faith in democratic institutions. The American version reflects a radically obstructionist Republican Party taking advantage of constitutional provisions that Madison (and Obama) imagined as promoting compromise; instead, the result is deadlock. The European variant is enfeebled by the multiple veto points of a flawed European Union unable to pursue anything but crippling austerity. Once again, several anti-liberal alternatives are on the march. “All the political experiments of our day are anti-liberal.”

Take a tour of the horizon. Mussolini would not be surprised. The fastest-growing economy, China’s, is nothing if not anti-liberal, and getting steadily more adroit at suppressing liberal aspirations. The Beijing regime, which has learned the virtues of patience since Tiananmen, waited out the Hong Kong protests and efficiently shut them down. The Hong Kong elections of 2017 will be limited to candidates approved by the communist regime on the mainland. Capitalism was supposed to bring with it democracy and rule of law. But the Chinese have been superbly effective at combining dynamic state-led capitalism with one-party rule.

What unites regimes as dissimilar as Iran, Turkey, Hungary, Egypt, Venezuela, and Russia is that they combine some of the outward forms of democracy with illiberal rule. The press is not truly free, but is mostly a tool of the government. Editors and journalists are in personal danger of disappearing. There are elections, but  the opposition somehow doesn’t get to come to power. Minority religion and ethnic groups are repressed, sometimes subtly, sometimes brutally. Dissidents, even if they break no laws, risk life and limb. The regimes in these nations have varying degrees of corruption between the state and economic oligarchs, which helps keep both in power. In Hungary, a member of the E.U., which is a union of liberal democracies, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has expressly invoked the ideal of an illiberal state. In Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has dramatically increased enrollments in state-supported religious schools and automatically assigned some children to them, against the wishes of their secular parents.

Turkey is a stalwart member of NATO. Elsewhere in the Middle East, our closest allies don’t even go through the motions of democracy; they are proud monarchies. Israel, our most intimate friend in the region, is becoming less of a democracy almost daily. Israelis are seriously debating whether to formally sacrifice elements of democracy for Jewish identity. And this tally doesn’t even include the flagrant tyrannies such as the insurgency that calls itself the Islamic State, or ISIL. All the political experiments of our day are anti-liberal.

Ironically, some liberals are pinning great hopes on recent stirrings in a venerable institution of hierarchy, autocracy, secrecy, and privilege that has been the antithesis of liberal for nearly two millennia—the Catholic Church, now under a reformist pope. One has to wish Francis well and hope that his new openness extends to the entire institution, but these reforms are fragile. It has been a few centuries since the Church murdered its rivals, but in my lifetime the Church was very cozy with fascists.

One of the great inventions of liberal democracy was the concept of a loyal opposition. You could oppose the government without being considered treasonous. A leader, conversely, could be tossed out of office by the electorate without fearing imprisonment or execution by successors. In much of the world, this ideal now seems almost quaint, and certainly imprudent. A corrupt or dictatorial regime has much to fear from displacement, including jail and even death at the hands of an opposition in power.

There are a few bright spots. Some of Africa has managed to have roughly free and fair elections. South Africa’s young democracy is fragile, but seems to be holding. Some of the Pacific Rim is moving in the direction of genuine democracy. Many former Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe are functioning democracies, even liberal ones. And democratic aspiration is far from dead, as events in Ukraine show. Latin America has more democratically elected governments than it has had in a generation, but it also has several nominal democracies that are illiberal, or prone to coups, or simply corrupt. Mexico, our close NAFTA partner, epitomizes illiberal democracy.


But it is the democratic heartland, Europe and North America, that presents the most cause for dismay. Rather than the United States serving as a beacon to inspire repressed peoples seeking true liberal democracy, America is becoming more like the illiberal pseudo-democracies and kleptocracies. A dispassionate review of what is occurring in our own country has to include deliberate suppression of the right to vote; ever more cynical manipulation of voting districts in the nation that invented gerrymandering; the deepening displacement of citizenship with money and rise of plutocracy; the corruption of the regulatory process; a steep decline in public confidence in government and in democracy itself; and a concomitant doubt that democratic participation is worth the trouble. In my piece in this issue’s special report, I address some of these questions in the context of markets versus government, but the challenge goes much deeper.

Obstruction feeds public cynicism about government. Though the mischief and refusal to compromise are mostly one-sided—it is hard to recall a Democratic president more genuinely eager to accommodate the opposition than Barack Obama—the resulting deadlock erodes confidence in democracy and government in general. Why can’t these people just get along and work for the common good? Democrats, as the party that believes in government, take the blame more than Republicans. Government’s failure to address festering, complex problems feeds the dynamic.

This is all the more alarming because the challenges ahead will require strong government and above all legitimate government. At best, global climate change and sea level rise will require public coordination and some personal dislocation. Transition to a sustainable economy demands far more intensive public measures, as well as public trust in the hope that changes in old habits of carbon energy use need not result in reduced living standards. The risk of epidemics such as Ebola will require more effective government to coordinate responses that the private sector can’t manage. The popular frustration with flat or declining earnings for all but the top demands more government intervention. Weak government can’t accomplish any of this. Mussolini’s taunt burns: The liberal democracies are incapable of solving national problems.

A generation ago, political scientists coined a useful phrase—strong democracy. The Prospect published some pieces making this case, by authors like Benjamin Barber. Others, such as Jane Mansbridge and James Fishkin, writing in the same spirit, called for more participatory democracy. The common theme was that democracy needed to be re-energized, with more citizen involvement, more direct deliberation. What has happened is the reverse. The combination of economic stresses, the allure of other entertainments, the rise of the Internet as a venue for more social interchange but less civic renewal, has left democracy weaker when it needs to be stronger.

The other contention of the fascists—that the democracies had trouble with the vexing questions of community and membership—was never more of a challenge. In Europe, the poisonous mix of high unemployment, anxiety about terrorism, and influx of refugees and immigrants is feeding a vicious nationalist backlash and nurturing the far right. At home, the failure to normalize the status of an estimated 12 million immigrants lacking proper documents deprives large numbers of residents of normal rights and stokes nativism. Assaults on voting rights even for citizens, coupled with physical assaults by police, make African Americans less than full members of the democracy, despite the civil rights revolution of half a century ago.

Mussolini’s other taunt was that the liberal democracies were too divided and war-weary to fight. When Hitler remilitarized the Rhineland in March 1936, in defiance of the Treaty of Versailles, the democracies did nothing. They dithered right up until Germany’s invasion of Poland in September 1939. As late as 1940, Roosevelt was more eager to keep America out of another European war than to help the British make a stand against the Nazis.

The military challenge today is more complex. America in this century has vacillated between grandiosity and timidity. It fought the wrong war in Iraq, and then may have pulled out prematurely. The administration has been weak and divided in its policies toward Syria and ISIL. To some extent this is understandable; these are hydra-headed threats, with no easy solutions. If President Obama is ambivalent, the public is even more so. Yet the greatest military threats to American democracy are not the risks of invasion or terrorist assault, but what we are doing to ourselves. The Obama administration, like that of George W. Bush, has been all too willing to subordinate liberty to security, secrecy, and autocracy, even in cases where these objectives are not in direct contention.

The risk is not that American democracy will abruptly “perish,” but that it will be slowly denuded of its vital content. If we are to reverse the appeal of anti-liberal society globally, we have to repair our democracy at home. The challenge is multifaceted, and will take time. It should be the great project of the next president and the ongoing work of the citizenry.

Robert Kuttner is the former co-editor of the American Prospect and a senior fellow at Demos. His latest book is “Obama’s Challenge: America’s Economic Crisis and the Power of a Transformative Presidency.”


Federal Reserve Says Your Wages are Too High


The New American Way: Work Harder for Less Pay


The Federal Reserve has declared that the reason for ongoing economic weakness is because wages have not fallen enough. Wages have been stagnant for four decades while productivity has soared, but nonetheless orthodox economists believe the collapse of 2008 has been a missed opportunity.

A paper prepared by two senior researchers with the San Francisco branch of the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank attempts to explain the lack of wage growth experienced as unemployment has fallen over the past couple of years this way:

“One explanation for this pattern is the hesitancy of employers to reduce wages and the reluctance of workers to accept wage cuts, even during recessions, a behavior known as downward nominal wage rigidity.”

The two Federal Reserve researchers, Mary Daly and Bart Hobijn, based their argument on the standard ideology of orthodox economists, writing:

“Downward rigidities prevent businesses from reducing wages as much as they would like following a negative shock to the economy. This keeps wages from falling, but it also further reduces the demand for workers, contributing to the rise in unemployment. Accordingly, the higher wages come with more unemployment than would occur if wages were flexible and could be fully reduced.”

The “problem” of wages stubbornly refusing to drop as much as corporate executives and financiers would like is referred to as the “sticky wages” problem in orthodox economics. Simply put, this “problem” is one that orthodox economists, themselves not necessarily subject to the market forces they wish to impose on others, have long struggled to “solve.” You perhaps will not be surprised to hear that “government” is the problem. Consider this remarkable passage published on the web site of the Mises Institute, an advocate of the Austrian school of economics:

“Much of the alleged ‘stickiness’ of wages is due to government policies. … [T]he trouble stems from workers not being willing to take pay cuts. When the demand from employers drops, at the old wage rate there is now surplus labor — a.k.a. unemployment. Only when market wages drop to a lower level, so that demand once again matches supply, will equilibrium be restored in the labor market.”

Collapsing wages in the Great Depression didn’t help

According to this author, Robert P. Murphy, an “associated scholar” of the Mises Institute, failing to drive down wages is such a big mistake that it caused the Great Depression. He writes:

“After the 1929 crash, Herbert Hoover gathered the nation’s leading businessmen for a conference in Washington and urged them to allow profits and dividends to take the hit, but to spare workers’ paychecks. Rather than cut wages, businesses were supposed to implement spread-the-work schemes where workers would cut back their hours. The rationale for Hoover’s high-wage policy was that the worker supposedly needed to be paid ‘enough to buy back the product.’ … The idea was that wage cuts would just cause workers to cut their spending, which would in turn lead to another round of wage cuts in a vicious downward spiral.”

Herbert Hoover was not vicious enough! Although it was Hoover’s Treasury secretary, Andrew Mellon, who advocated the government “liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate farmers, liquidate real estate” so as to “purge the rottenness out of the system,” and not Hoover himself, the president did take hard-line right-wing positions. Michael Parenti, in discussing Hoover in his book History as Mystery, wrote:

“Like so many conservatives then and now, Hoover preached the virtues of self-reliance, opposed the taxation of overseas corporate earnings, sought to reduce income taxes for the highest brackets, and was against a veterans’ bonus and aid to drought sufferers. He repeatedly warned that public assistance programs were the beginning of ‘state socialism.’ Toward business, however, he suffered from no such ‘inflexibility’ and could spend generously. He supported multimillion-dollar federal subsidies to shipping interests and agribusiness, and his Reconstruction Finance Corporation doled out about $2 billion to banks and corporations.” [page 261]

Hoover’s concern for working people was demonstrated when his troops fired on veterans demanding payments owed to them and burned their camps. His laissez-faire policies led to manufacturing wages falling 34 percent and unemployment rising to about 25 percent by 1933. That collapse in wages did not bring better times; only the massive government spending to wage World War II put an end to the Depression. Such wage declines, in the real world, actually make the economy worse, argues Keynesian economist Paul Krugman:

“[Y]ou could argue that a sufficiently large fall in wages could restore full employment now — but it would have to be a very large wage decline, and the positive effects would kick in only after deflation had first driven just about every debtor in the economy into bankruptcy.”

How many formulae can be written on the head of a pin?

Although orthodox economics is often nothing more than ideology in the service of capitalist elites, its practitioners like to believe themselves scientific because they base their theories on mathematical models. Unfortunately, these formulae are divorced from the real, physical world; the economy and the human behavior that animates it are not reducible to mathematics.

Robert Kuttner, a heterodox economist, explored these shortcomings in an article originally published in Atlantic Monthly. He wrote:

“The [prevailing] method of practicing economic science creates a professional ethic of studied myopia. Apprentice economists are relieved of the need to learn much about the complexities of human motivation, the messy universe of economic institutions, or the real dynamics of technological change. Those who have real empirical curiosity and insight about the workings of banks, corporations, production technologies, trade unions, economic history or individual behavior are dismissed as casual empiricists, literary historians or sociologists, and marginalized within the profession. In their place departments are graduating a generation of idiots savants, brilliant at esoteric mathematics yet innocent of  actual economic life.”

That was written in 1985; little if anything has changed since and arguably has gotten worse. Professor Kuttner points out that the very fact of persistent unemployment contradicts the basic theses of orthodox neoclassical economics. If the belief that markets automatically reach equilibrium were true, then wages would automatically fall until everybody had a job. Rather than acknowledge the real world, orthodox economists simply declare involuntary unemployment an “illusion,” or claim “government interference” with the market is the culprit. “Business cycles were around long before trade unions or big-spending governments were,” Professor Kuttner noted.

Wages are not as flexible as orthodox ideology suggests because within an enterprise preference is ordinarily given to existing workers to fill job openings, thereby buffering wages from external market forces, writes another heterodox economist, Herbert Gintis. In an essay originally appearing in Review of Radical Political Economics, he wrote:

“In particular, there is a tendency for the number of individuals qualified for a position to exceed the number of jobs available, in which case seniority and other administrative rules are used to determine promotion. Hardly do workers compete for the job by bidding down its wage.”

In almost all cases, employees do not even know what wages their co-workers are earning. This top-down secrecy facilitates the disparity in wages, whereby, for example, women earn less than men. If everybody earned what they were worth, there would no such wage disparity. The very fact of disparities between the genders or among races and ethnicities demonstrates the ideological basis of orthodox economics, which assumes that employees who do the work of production are in their jobs due to personal choice and wages are based only on individual achievement independent of race, gender and other differences.

You produce more but don’t earn more

Back in the real world, wages have significantly lagged productivity for four decades; thus, wages, examined against this benchmark, have significantly declined for those four decades. A study by the Economic Policy Institute, written by heterodox economist Elise Gould, reports:

“Between 1979 and 2013, productivity [in the U.S.] grew 64.9 percent, while hourly compensation of production and nonsupervisory workers, who comprise over 80 percent of the private-sector workforce, grew just 8.0 percent. Productivity thus grew eight times faster than typical worker compensation.” [page 4]

Middle-class U.S. households earn $18,000 less than they would had wages kept pace with productivity, Dr. Gould calculates. Nor is that unique to the U.S.: Wages in Canada, Europe and Japan have also fallen well short of productivity gains. Canadian workers, for example, are paid at least $15,000 per year less than they would be had their wages kept pace.

To circle back to the San Francisco Federal Reserve paper that began this discussion, the authors claim that wage stagnation will persist until markets “return to normal.” They assert:

“[T]he accumulated stockpile of pent-up wage cuts remains and must be worked off to put the labor market back in balance. In response, businesses hold back wage increases and wait for inflation and productivity growth to bring wages closer to their desired level.”

But as we can plainly see, and as those of us living in the real world experience, wages cuts have been the norm for a long time. The caveat at the end of the paper that it does not necessarily reflect the views of the Fed board of governors should be noted, but the paper was issued as part of a regular series by the San Francisco Fed and the authors are senior members of it, so it is not likely to be at variance with opinions there. It certainly does reflect orthodox economic ideology. Similarly, the argument by the Austrian School’s Mises Institute, stripped of its academic-sounding veneer, is a call to eliminate the minimum wage.

Stagnation, declining wages and the ability of capitalists to shift production around the globe in a search for the lowest wages and lowest safety standards — completely ignored in the orthodox hunt for economic scapegoats — are the norm. Our need to sell our labor, the resulting reduction of human beings’ labor power to a commodity, and the endless competitive pressures on capitalists to boost profits underlie the present economic difficulties.

Collective bargaining through unions and the needs of capitalists to retain their employees can be brakes against the race to the bottom — what the orthodox economists at the Fed and elsewhere are arguing is that these remaining brakes be removed and wages driven down to starvation levels. That is what global capitalism has to offer.

Pete Dolack writes the Systemic Disorder blog. He has been an activist with several groups.