The Case for Big Government

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Political conservatives have long believed that the best government is a small government. But if this were true, noted economist Jeff Madrick argues, the nation would not be experiencing stagnant wages, rising health care costs, increasing unemployment, and concentrations of wealth for a narrow elite. In this perceptive and eye-opening book, Madrick proves that an engaged government--a big government of high taxes and wise regulations--is necessary for the social and economic answers that Americans desperately need in changing times. He shows that the big governments of past eras fostered greatness and prosperity, while weak, laissez-faire governments marked periods of corruption and exploitation. The Case for Big Government considers whether the government can adjust its current policies and set the country right.

Madrick explains why politics and economics should go hand in hand; why America benefits when the government actively nourishes economic growth; and why America must reject free market orthodoxy and adopt ambitious government-centered programs. He looks critically at today's politicians--at Republicans seeking to revive nineteenth-century principles, and at Democrats who are abandoning the pioneering efforts of the Great Society. Madrick paints a devastating portrait of the nation's declining social opportunities and how the economy has failed its workers. He demonstrates that the government must correct itself to address these serious issues.

A practical call to arms, The Case for Big Government asks for innovation, experimentation, and a willingness to fail. The book sets aside ideology and proposes bold steps to ensure the nation's vitality.

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Editorial Reviews

The American Prospect
[Madrick's] book is a thoroughgoing defense of government's role in the economy, written with the broad perspective of an economic historian rather than a mere policy polemicist. Thus, a book that could have been a thudding discourse on the efficiency of the French medical system instead takes us on a bracing survey of government's role as a driver—not merely an enabler—of a growing, fair, economy.
— Ezra Klein
The Australian
Madrick leaves no room for doubt; government has often been and remains the answer. The Case for Big Government is a straightforward, historically based and engaging argument for the centrality of government as a real contributor to both prosperity and progress. His references are overwhelmingly American but the conclusions have resonance in most Western societies. . . . Demonstrating a commendable knowledge of the history of the American republic, he tests the myths of laissez-faire economic policy, which date from the election of Thomas Jefferson in 1800, and the influence of Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations, as reflected in the guiding 'invisible hand'. Madrick finds the myths to be just that, unfounded in fact.
— Stephen Loosley
New York Times Book Review
In this new economic, political, and ideological environment, The Case for Big Government shows how yesterday's contrarianism can become today's consensus. A leading economist, a former financial columnist for The Times and an adviser to Senator Edward Kennedy, Jeff Madrick makes the case that the nation faces social and economic challenges requiring higher taxes, increased public investment and more rigorous regulation of corporate conduct. Researched and well-written . . . fact-filled and well-reasoned.
— David Kusnet
The Case for Big Government comes at an auspicious time. With the global economy in crisis, experts of all stripes have supported government intervention. At the same time, Americans have elected Democrat Barak Obama, who has favored greater federal involvement, to lead the country. Author Jeff Madrick argues that government involvement in economic affairs is not only beneficial in times of crisis, but can also enhance long-term growth by giving incentives for industries and households to prosper.
— Pedro Nicolaci da Costa
Helpful to debaters, Madrick's work succinctly summarizes a perspective from the Left on America's economic problems.
— Gilbert Taylor
Austin American-Statesman
If Obama's election to the presidency seems to be the realization of part of King's dream, we still are left with the question of what, exactly, Obama is going to do. Jeff Madrick thinks he knows exactly what we should do, and has a three page, bulleted list of spending suggestions in the back of his slender new book. Madrick is one of a select group of liberal economist—Robert Reich, Robert Kuttner, Paul Krugman, and UT's James Galbraith are perhaps the most prominent members of this fraternity—who until recently formed the Greek chorus of opposition to our country's economic policy drift. . . . If the case for big government isn't closed, here, it is, at least, vigorously opened.
— Roger Gathman
It is both Jeff Madrick's fortune and misfortune to have The Case for Big Government published in this climate. Madrick has for many years been a voice crying in the wilderness. His essays in the The New York Review of Books in particular have been acerbic and astute critiques of the absurd and glaring inequalities of modern American laissez-faire capitalism. Some of the current spending plans, as well as the ideological shift in Washington away from the dogmatisms of the past, are a vindication of much of what he has been championing for years.
— Zachary Karabell
Economist Madrick has written a powerful case for the US government to play a stronger role in society. . . . Madrick is especially strong in critiquing economic studies that support the antigovernment case. . . . Crystal clear and easily accessible to undergraduate students, this work is exceedingly timely but will be useful even after the current economic crisis has passed.
— M. Perelman
The American Prospect
[Madrick's] book is a thoroughgoing defense of government's role in the economy, written with the broad perspective of an economic historian rather than a mere policy polemicist. Thus, a book that could have been a thudding discourse on the efficiency of the French medical system instead takes us on a bracing survey of government's role as a driver--not merely an enabler--of a growing, fair, economy.
— Ezra Klein
David Kusnet
Researched and written before last summer, this fact-filled and well-reasoned book reads like an artifact from a time capsule. Before the financial crisis, most policy makers and opinion leaders smugly assumed that the economy would remain on an even keel, so Madrick felt he had to make a vigorous argument that economic problems required government action. Now, his book seems almost too logical and levelheaded to attract a large audience in this time of anger and anxiety.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

Former New York Times economics columnist Madrick takes aim at what he perceives as a dominant American antigovernment ideology with this overly ambitious text. The author's decidedly left-of-center thesis rests on the argument that "active and sizable government" is "essential to growth and prosperity." To make his case, Madrick begins with a too brief history of the relationship between the American government and the economy, from Hamilton and Jefferson's attitude toward laissez-faire economics through Jacob Riis's famous documentation of urban squalor near the turn of the 20th century to the Great Society initiatives of the 1960s. The author details the country's economic problems since the 1970s, despite the relative prosperity of the 1990s. In elaborating these points, Madrick attacks both the right and the left, and he returns consistently to the persistent influence of Milton Friedman on the antigovernment bias in American politics. This well-researched but somewhat formless book concludes with an extensive progressive agenda for redressing the limited influence of American government, covering a wide range of issues, from same-sex marriage to universal pre-k education. (Nov.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691123318
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 10/6/2008
  • Series: Public Square Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 224
  • Product dimensions: 5.60 (w) x 8.60 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Jeff Madrick is a regular contributor to the "New York Review of Books" and a former economics columnist for the "New York Times". He is editor of "Challenge" magazine and senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and the New School's Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis.

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Table of Contents

PART I: Government and Change in America 1

The Danger of an Ideology

The Evidence


Narratives from the Right and Left

The Myth of Laissez- Faire

The Many Uses of Government in the 1800s

Government as an

Agent of Change in the 1900s

The Economic Benefits of Government

Resisting a Pragmatic Government

PART II: How Much We Have Changed 65

The History of Change

The New Challenge to the Standard of Living

The Broad Threat to the American Promise

It's Not Just Inequality

When Knowledge Also Changes

The Purpose of Government

Forsaking Pragmatism for Ideology

PART III: What to Do 125

Pessimism in America

The Failure of Conventional Wisdom

America Has the Money

An Agenda

Notes 177

Index 195

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