The Big Con: The True Story of How Washington Got Hoodwinked and Hijacked by CrackpotEconomics

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American politics has been hijacked. Over the past three decades, a fringe group of economic hucksters has corrupted and perverted our nation’s policies. With dark, engaging wit, Jonathan Chait reveals how these canny zealots first took over the Republican Party and then gamed the political system and the media so that once unthinkable policies—without a shred of academic, expert, or even popular support—now drive the political agenda, regardless of which party is in power.
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Overview

American politics has been hijacked. Over the past three decades, a fringe group of economic hucksters has corrupted and perverted our nation’s policies. With dark, engaging wit, Jonathan Chait reveals how these canny zealots first took over the Republican Party and then gamed the political system and the media so that once unthinkable policies—without a shred of academic, expert, or even popular support—now drive the political agenda, regardless of which party is in power.
Why have these ideas succeeded in Washington? How did a clique of extremists gain control of American economic policy and sell short the country’s future? And why do their outlandish ideas still determine policy despite repeated electoral setbacks? Chait tells the outrageous and eye-opening story, expertly explaining just how politics and economics work in Washington. Through vivid portraits of venal politicians and pseudo-economists, with wry analyses of their bogus theories, Chait gives us the tools to understand what’s really behind economic policy debates in Washington: a riveting drama of greed and deceit.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Chait is both very serious and seriously funny as he traces the rise of conservatism over the past thirty years."—Michael Kinsley

"Jonathan Chait has nailed a large and important story about . . . the bamboozling of America . . . he writes with a mordant wit."—Sean Wilentz

"Jonathan Chait has written a classic of political journalism . . . Prepare to be shocked."—Michael Lewis, author of Liar's Poker, Moneyball, and The Blindside

"Who says economic policy has to be dry? [Chait] brings a lively wit and a limpid style to the topic."—Ramesh Ponnuru, senior editor, National Review, and author of The Party of Death

"Agree or not with the author's liberal beliefs, consider this a stimulating analysis of how public policy is formulated today." Kirkus Reviews

"His analysis should appeal to anyone interested in politics" Publishers Weekly

"[If] you're only going to read one book [about what's wrong with the modern Republican Party], this is the one."—Kevin Drum, Washington Monthly

Roger Lowenstein
Any writer who accuses his adversaries of being paranoid extremist nuts (epithets like this appear frequently in the book) runs the risk of seeming like a paranoid extremist nut himself. But Chait sets out to disarm us on the first page. "I have this problem," he begins. "Whenever I try to explain what's happening in American politics…I wind up sounding a bit like an unhinged conspiracy theorist. But honestly, I'm not." And he isn't. Chait attacks the tax-cutters' agenda from a sensible middle ground—the terrain he laments has been largely lost in American politics and completely abandoned by the Republican Party. By middle ground, I don't mean that Chait simply splits the difference between, say, Newt Gingrich and Robert Rubin…Instead, what Chait does is to examine the tax cuts on their economic merits. The debate is not new, but Chait's tale is enlivened by his account of how the G.O.P. evolved from a party of strait-laced budget balancers to extremists who resemble old-time Marxists in their rigid adherence to doctrine.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

The author, a senior editor at the New Republic, is best known for declaring "I hate President George W. Bush" in 2003. This book traces the roots of his dislike back 30 years, when supply-side economics took over the Republican Party and made cutting taxes the GOP answer to all political and economic questions. "American politics has been hijacked by a tiny coterie of right-wing economic extremists," Chait declares, "some of them ideological zealots, others merely greedy, a few of them possibly insane." To which he adds, "the Republicans' success at defeating the democratic process explains why it has been able to enact its agenda despite a lack of popular support." The rhetoric is inflammatory, but the case is laid out with clarity. Chait claims that traditional Republicans, religious people and social, fiscal and foreign policy conservatives have been cheated as much as liberals, and that unparalleled corruption and ruthless cynicism in Washington and the timidity of nonpartisan media allow the minority to rule. His analysis should appeal to anyone interested in politics, though many may find the style too irritating to endure. (Sept. 12)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Kirkus Reviews
America has turned into a mean-spirited plutocracy, declares the New Republic's senior editor, and mendacious political hacks' universal panacea for the nation's considerable problems is always the same-cut taxes. In a generation, the conservative right has won its way, avers Chait, and to the victors, it seems, belong the spoils: The present political ideology is a conspiracy of self-perpetuating greed. The author demonstrates his thesis with apt, methodical and copious detail. Do not be misled by sporadic achievement on the left, he warns. There has been a seismic shift, a tectonic slide to the right that cannot be quickly reversed. Who has been stealing the government? Chait points to those whose know-nothing convictions yield to no expertise. They include the loony, laissez-faire-thee-well, Laffer Curve, trickle-down economists, but it's about more than crackpot economics. It's about the symbiosis of K Street and Capitol Hill, a merger of the lobbying industry with GOP politicians. It's about well-disciplined neocons and woefully disorganized liberals. It's about the collapse of independent media and the brainless partisan cult of personality. Even as the conservative party line may fluctuate, it always embraces personal attacks on the enemy. It's about Jack Abramoff and Grover Norquist, Ann Coulter and Karl Rove. And it's about egregious pork-barrel earmarks and no regard for the underclass or for the Earth itself. A political party, Chait shows, may enjoy a preponderance of public opinion on the issues and still lose elections. Forget bipartisanship: This is a conflict between red-state NRA gun fans and blue-state NPR listeners. This text is, of course, a jeremiad from the left, anact of active, aggressive partisanship. But it is also methodical and fact-based. Agree or not with the author's liberal beliefs, consider this a stimulating analysis of how public policy is formulated today.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780618685400
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 9/12/2007
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.25 (h) x 0.69 (d)

Meet the Author

Jonathan Chait is a senior editor at the New Republic and writes the magazine's signature TRB column. He is a contributing editor to the Los Angeles Times and has written for many publications including the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Atlantic, and the Wall Street Journal.

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Read an Excerpt

INTRODUCTION

I have this problem. Whenever I try to explain what’s happening in American politics—I mean, what’s really happening—I wind up sounding a bit like an unhinged conspiracy theorist. But honestly, I’m not. My politics are actually quite moderate. (Most real lefties, in fact, think I’m a Washington establishment sellout.) So please give let me a chance to explain myself when I tell you the following: American politics has been hijacked by a tiny coterie of right-wing economic extremists, some of them ideological zealots, others merely greedy, a few of them possibly insane. (Stay with me.) The scope of their triumph is breathtaking. Over the course of the last three decades, they have moved from the right-wing fringe to the commanding heights of the national agenda. Notions that would have been laughed at a generation ago—that cutting taxes for the very rich is the best response to any and every economic circumstance, or that it is perfectly appropriate to turn the most rapacious and self-interested elements of the business lobby into essentially an arm of the federal government—are now so pervasive, they barely attract any notice.
The result has been a slow-motion disaster. Income inequality has approached levels normally associated with Third World oligarchies, not healthy Western democracies. The federal government has grown so encrusted with business lobbyists that it can no longer meet the great public challenges of our time. Not even many conservative voters or intellectuals find the result congenial. Government is no smaller—it is simply more debt-ridden and more beholden to wealthy elites.
And yet the right-wing ascendancy has continued inexorably despite continual public repudiation. The 2006 elections were only the latest electoral setback. The right has suffered deeper setbacks before, and all of them have proven temporary. In 1982, after the country had entered the deepest recession since the 1930s, Republicans were slaughtered in the midterm congressional races, losing twenty-seven seats in the House of Representatives. Ronald Reagan, whose election two years earlier had seemed to augur a new conservative era, trailed his likely 1984 Democratic challengers by double digits in the polls and seemed destined to be a lame duck. “What we are witnessing this January,” wrote the esteemed Washington Post reporter David Broder in the first month of 1983, “is not the midpoint in the Reagan presidency, but its phase-out. ‘Reaganism,’ it is becoming increasingly clear, was a one-year phenomenon.”1 We know what happened the next year.
And the conservative revolution has had its obituary written many times since. In 1986, Republicans lost the Senate, and shortly thereafter Reagan saw his approval ratings sink as he became embroiled in the Iran- Contra scandal. In 1992, Democrats won back the White House along with both chambers of Congress, and there was widespread talk of “a conservative crackup.” It happened again after the public turned on the Republicans following their 1995 government shutdown, and once more after the public rebelled against the Clinton impeachment. By the late 1990s, the Republican revolution had again been written off.
And yet the Republican right keeps coming back, and back, and back. Their fortunes rise and then dip, but each peak is higher than the last peak, and each dip is higher than the last dip. Consider the present situation. Things have gone about as badly as they could have in George W. Bush’s second term. A Republican administration started and lost a major war in Iraq; presided over an economy that has failed to deliver higher wages for most Americans; contributed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to the near- wipeout of a major American city; launched a failed assault on Social Security, the most popular social program in the history of the United States; and saw its members suffer an almost unprecedented string of sexual and financial scandals. Still, Democrats find themselves holding only the slimmest of majorities in the House and Senate. Even if they hold their majorities in Congress and win the White House in 2008, the structural forces in Washington will make it nearly impossible to roll back any significant chunks of the Bush tax cuts, let alone take on crises like global warming or the forty-five million Americans lacking health insurance.
Global warming, come to think of it, may offer the best metaphor for understanding the conservative ascent. If you look at the temperature of the earth from month to month, it bounces up and down as seasons change and heat spells or cold snaps come and go. If you look at it over the course of many years, however, it is clear that it is moving inexoraably in one direction. The arrival of winter does not mean the end of global warming. To confuse the short term blips with the long-ttttterm trend is to mistake the weather for the climate. The 2006 elections are one of those blips, a pause in the right’s three-decade ascent.
Permanent partisan majorities are not possible in American politics. Power changes hands regularly. Sometimes the other party’s president will preside over an economic boom or win a war. Sometimes yours will preside over a recession or sleep with an intern. Short-term fluctuations, often driven by events beyond the control of the party in power, are inevitable. So the way to win is not to win every election but to control the terms of the debate. The conservative movement’s signal triumph is to have done just this, reshaping what is possible in American politics over the long term. This is not, therefore, a book about the political weather. It is a book about the political climate.

Most people under forty fail to grasp how different American politics looked three decades ago. For me, there is no better evidence of the rightward lurch than recalling that my father used to be a Republican. A liberal Republican, to be sure, but a Republican. By the time I was old enough to understand anything about politics, he had long since abandoned the GOP, and at first his former affiliation puzzled me. In the political world in which I came of age—Ronald Reagan left the White House during my junior year of high school—it seemed inconceivable that someone like my dad, who today resides well within the center of the Democratic Party, could identify in any way with the Republicans.
But, of course, as someone my age could not have guessed, the parties of a generation ago bore only a faint resemblance to their modern versions. After World War II, the Republicans accepted the new role of government in American life ushered in by Franklin Roosevelt. The decades after the war saw a great American consensus. Democrats were a bit looser with the purse strings, Republicans a bit tighter, but their general vision of the country was the same. This vision was expressed by the Republican president Dwight Eisenhower just before his inauguration when he declared, “There is, in our affairs at home, a middle way between untrammeled freedom of the individual and the demands for the welfare of the whole nation. This way must avoid government by bureaucracy as carefully as it avoids neglect of the helpless.” This credo was the credo of the Republican Party my dad could identify with. He looked up to GOP moderates like Nelson Rockefeller and William Milliken, the long-time governor of our home state of Michigan—men born to privilege who used their power for the benefit of all, not just their own class.
Eisenhower left the top tax rate at a staggering 91 percent, and he repeatedly preached the virtues of budget balance. (When a colleague complained about this confiscatory rate, his treasury secretary, a wealthy former steel executive, replied acidly, “I pay 91 percent, and yet I don’t complain and you do all the time.”2 His line reflects a sense of social obligation totally alien to today’s GOP.) This tradition of moderate Republicanism remained strong well into the 1970s. A Republican president, Gerald Ford, actually vetoed tax cuts proposed by Democrats as fiscally irresponsible.
There were, of course, Republicans of a more conservative bent in those days as well, but conservatism meant something altogether different from what it does today. Indeed, the whole face of American politics has changed. Opposition to deficits, which once made up the right wing of the partisan debate, is now closer to the left wing. (“I hope you’re all aware we’re all Eisenhower Republicans,” Bill Clinton once noted wryly in a Cabinet meeting. “We stand for lower deficits and free trade and the bond market.”) Today’s rightwing position—upper-bracket tax cuts wherever and whenever possible—was off the right edge of the political spectrum three decades ago.
The ground has shifted very far under our feet, and its manifestations are everywhere. In 1979, the highest-earning one-tenth of 1 percent of all taxpayers—the richest of the rich—took home only 3 percent of the national income. Today they take home 10 percent. And over that same span, their average tax rate has dropped from 32 to 23 percent. The minimum wage has lost nearly half its purchasing power. The health care plan proposed by Richard Nixon in 1974, if introduced in Congress today, would be considered radically liberal and probably could not gain the support of any but a handful of the most left-wing Democrats.
American politics has been transformed, yet in this change lies the deeper mystery. The public has not clamored for it. While it is true that, starting around the late 1960s, polls showed a growing backlash against the welfare state, that backlash petered out during the 1980s and actually began to reverse itself a few years later. Which is to say, the public has actually grown less receptive to conservatism in general, let alone the particular upper- class variety practiced by today’s GOP.
How do I know this? Here’s one example. The National Election Survey has been asking voters for many years whether they would prefer a larger government with more services or a smaller government with fewer services. In 1982, the first year of the poll, 32 percent favored smaller government, and 24 percent preferred larger government (with the remainder right in the middle or expressing no opinion). By 2004, it had completely flipped, with 43 percent preferring bigger government and just 20 percent wanting a smaller one. Other polls have showed that the public has turned away from its antigovernment mood of the 1970s and favored a more active government and more progressive taxes. The public has been moving steadily left for twenty years, while Washington has lurched rapidly in the opposite direction.
This isn’t supposed to happen. Abraham Lincoln once said, “Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail. Without it, nothing can succeed.” This is the core of the American civic religion. But over the last thirty years, something has happened that strikes at that core. The underpinnings of American democracy have slowly frayed, and in the place of the great moderate consensus that once prevailed we have seen the rise of an American plutocracy.

One popular explanation for the triumph of right-wing economics, familiar to readers of Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas?, is that cultural issues have obscured pocketbook ones. Conservatives have tricked the masses into voting on the basis of social issues, thus ignoring their economic self-interest. It is certainly true that tens of millions of potential Democratic voters support the Republican Party on the basis of its opposition to abortion, gays, and the like. But the phenomenon of conservative elites using culture and patriotism to win support from the masses is an old one. Left-wing populism of the kind that Frank and others favor may have failed to take root because of working-class social conservatism.This does not, however, explain a slightly different question: how and why the economic right has gained so much strength over the last three decades. After all, by nearly any measure, the American public has grown more socially liberal over this span. Since 1977, the proportion of Americans believing gays should be allowed to teach in elementary school has doubled, from 27 to 54 percent. Those favoring gay adoption has risen from 14 to 49 percent.3 Since 1976, the proportion of Americans who believe women deserve an equal role in business and political life has nearly doubled, from 30 to 57 percent. The proportion who believe that a woman’s place is in the home has collapsed from 10 to 2 percent.4 If the public is not moving right on economics, and if it is not even moving right on social issues, then we cannot explain the rise of right-wing economics by looking at the voters. We can only understand it by examining Washington.

This book has two parts. The first half explains how the Republican Party my father admired, the party of social and fiscal responsibility, was transformed into the party of class warfare. It is an astonishing tale, and it begins in the mid-1970s with the rise of a sect of pseudo-economists known as the supply- siders. This small cult of fanatical tax-cutters managed, despite having been proven decisively wrong time after time, to get an iron grip on the ideological machinery of the conservative movement. The supply-siders were not maverick conservative economists, as you might assume; they were amateurs and cranks, convinced that their outsider status enabled them to reach conclusions that had escaped the scrutiny of professional economists. The most prominent among them spent their lives advocating a number of patently ludicrous ideas. (One supply-side guru compared Slobodan Milosevic to Abraham Lincoln. Another said that American upper-class women “are averse to science and technology and baffled by it.”) While their other preposterous ideas went nowhere, the equally preposterous notion of supply-side economics took the political system by storm. Why? Because it attracted a powerful constituency: the rich.
An almost theological opposition to taxation quickly took hold within the GOP, opening up the opportunity for business lobbyists to hijack the party’s agenda. And so they did, as described in chapter 2. Far from being ideological fanatics, these were the most coolly calculating men. Their distinguishing quality was cynicism. Some of them were flamboyant crooks, like the gangster wannabe Jack Abramoff. But most were crooks of a more respectable variety—the kind with seven-figure salaries and offices at prestigious law firms. All of them understood that the destruction of the old Republican ethos of restraint opened up the public coffers to them, and they have availed themselves and their clients of a massive looting of the Treasury.
Their takeover of the Republican Party took years to complete. The supply-siders and the business lobbyists had two internal obstacles to overcome before they could take full control: the Republican rank-and-file voting base, and the old Republican Washington establishment, both of which still clung to the old ethos of fiscal responsibility and public- mindedness. To deal with them there arose a new breed of ideological enforcer—propagandists, party organizers, lobbyists, or often (as in the case of prototypes like Grover Norquist and Ralph Reed) all of these things at once. They drove out the old party establishment and created a new party line that fused in a seamless web supply-side ideology with their own financial interests.
There is something distinctly cultlike about their thinking. Their canon is presumptively infallible, and any apparent failure must instead be seen as an impetus to recommit themselves to doctrinal purity. Last spring, in an example typical of this thinking, the Wall Street Journal columnist Kimberly Strassel diagnosed the Republican Party’s ailments thusly: “The base is in the dumps, disenchanted with a party that has lost sight of its economic moorings.” The solution? Tax cuts, and lots of them. Strassel ran through how all the leading Republican presidential candidates had pledged their fealty to the governing supply-side faith. Each of them promised to make permanent all of Bush’s tax cuts, but of course this was a given. The competition was between which candidate would promise even deeper cuts in upper-bracket rates.
As a diagnosis of what ails the Republicans today, this was, of course, insane. Bush signed a major tax cut each of the first six years of his presidency. Whatever the GOP’s political liabilities may be, an insufficient commitment to tax-cutting is obviously not among them. To propose that the road to victory lies in recommitting the party to even more upper-bracket tax cuts requires a detachment from reality that would have been the envy of the Manson gang. But this is the sort of thinking that now predominates in conservative and Republican circles, and the obeisance of all the leading GOP presidential hopefuls shows just how deeply it has sunk in.
For such a tiny claque to have conquered a major political party is remarkable in itself, but it is astounding that the extremism of their agenda did not doom the new GOP at the ballot box. Somehow it didn’t, and the second half of the book explains why.
In a nutshell, the answer is that the culture of Washington failed. By “culture,” of course, I don’t mean the Washington Opera or the appalling dearth of good delis inside the Beltway. What I mean is that American politics is governed not only by a series of formal rules but also by a web of mores and beliefs held in place by a permanent establishment. During the bygone era of the great moderate consensus, this culture did a good job of ensuring that parties in power did not veer too far from the common good. The press corps trod a careful middle path between Republicans and Democrats, lending equal credence to each side’s claims. The Washington elites made sure their leaders were men of sound character. They relied on each branch of government to limit overreach by the others, and they assumed a middle ground between the two parties would reflect a sensible consensus.
All these cultural norms made sense when the Republican Party was run by pragmatists driven by a strong sense of the public good. But they no longer apply because the plutocracy has perverted the ground on which those norms depend. It has made journalistic even-handedness into dishonesty’s handmaiden. It has taken control of the way Americans see the personal character of their leaders and used that distorted lens to hide the unpopularity of the plutocratic agenda. It has abused the power of whatever branches of government it has controlled, and it has stymied any measures of accountability. And ultimately the cherished notions of moderation and bipartisanship have become tools of radicalism.
As I said at the outset, this is not a radical book. It is a book about the disappearance of the center and the triumph of the extreme. And it is not a conspiratorial book. Everything I describe here happened out in the open, in plain view. But it happened so slowly and with enough obscurantist jargon that it escaped the notice of nearly everyone. This is the story of how it happened.

Copyright © 2007 by Jonathan Chait. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii Introduction 1

Part I: The Transformation of the Republican Party 1. Charlatans and Cranks 13 2. The Sum of All Lobbies 45 3. Driving Out the Heretics 80 4. The Necessity of Deceit 115

Part II: The Corruption of American Politics 5. Media: The Dog That Didn’t Watch 139 6. How Washington Imagines Character 159 7. The Abuse of Power 189 8. The Mainstreaming of Radicalism 219

Conclusion: Plutocracy in America 262 Notes 267 Index 284

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 14, 2008

    Beatifully written study of minority rule in the USA

    In this brilliantly-written book, Jonathan Chait, senior editor at the New Republic, shows simply and lucidly how a tightly knit group of politically and economically motivated men have taken over the US state. Right-wing economic extremists and business lobbyists now control the terms of the debate and determine the political climate. He shows how this tiny coterie has turned the Republican Party into a machine for protecting and expanding the wealth of the very rich. It has been a coup on behalf of the plutocracy, resulting in a massive looting of the Treasury, huge corporate subsidies, vastly increased inequality and growing poverty. Since the 1970s, the top 0.1% of Americans has tripled its share of the national income the top 0.01% has quadrupled its share of national income to 3%. The chosen policy is single and simple ¿ cut taxes on the rich. This is supposed to increase incentives, making the economy grow. Tax cuts supposedly increase tax revenues - less is more, greed is good. How differently we run things here in Britain! The policy does not reflect what most Americans want. They want a more active government, providing more services, taxing the rich more through a more progressive tax system. The government does not even reflect what most Republican Party members or voters want, but only what its funders want. Because the government does not reflect public opinion, it has to lie about its policies. The media, owned by the very rich, fail to analyse or challenge these policies. Instead, they focus on the presumed strengths or weaknesses of politicians¿ characters. To pursue its unpopular economic agenda, the American government has had to break down the American political system, corrupt American politics and defeat democracy. The separation of powers is no more, and there is no rule of law.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 6, 2008

    A reviewer

    Every journalist and journalism student in this country needs to read Chapter 5, 'Media: The Dog That Didn't Watch.' Jonathan Chait saves his harshest indictment for the Washington press corps, whose 'almost total lack of expertise ... renders them largely unable to sort fact from fiction.' (At least the lobbyists, think-tankers, and other assorted wing nuts were doing their jobs.) The failure of USA Today and the Wall Street Journal, the two largest newspapers in the United States, to acknowledge this important book, let alone investigate its findings, further exemplifies their owners' selling out of the American public.

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