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Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich

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Overview

For more than thirty years, Kevin Phillips' insight into American politics and economics has helped to make history as well as record it. His bestselling books, including The Emerging Republican Majority (1969) and The Politics of Rich and Poor (1990), have influenced presidential campaigns and changed the way America sees itself. Widely acknowledging Phillips as one of the nation's most perceptive thinkers, reviewers have called him a latter-day Nostradamus and our "modern Thomas Paine." Now, in the first major book of its kind since the 1930s, he turns his attention to the United States' history of great wealth and power, a sweeping cavalcade from the American Revolution to what he calls "the Second Gilded Age" at the turn of the twenty-first century.

The Second Gilded Age has been staggering enough in its concentration of wealth to dwarf the original Gilded Age a hundred years earlier. However, the tech crash and then the horrible events of September 11, 2001, pointed out that great riches are as vulnerable as they have ever been. In Wealth and Democracy, Kevin Phillips charts the ongoing American saga of great wealth–how it has been accumulated, its shifting sources, and its ups and downs over more than two centuries. He explores how the rich and politically powerful have frequently worked together to create or perpetuate privilege, often at the expense of the national interest and usually at the expense of the middle and lower classes.

With intriguing chapters on history and bold analysis of present-day America, Phillips illuminates the dangerous politics that go with excessive concentration of wealth. Profiling wealthy Americans–from Astor to Carnegie and Rockefeller to contemporary wealth holders–Phillips provides fascinating details about the peculiarly American ways of becoming and staying a multimillionaire. He exposes the subtle corruption spawned by a money culture and financial power, evident in economic philosophy, tax favoritism, and selective bailouts in the name of free enterprise, economic stimulus, and national security.

Finally, Wealth and Democracy turns to the history of Britain and other leading world economic powers to examine the symptoms that signaled their declines–speculative finance, mounting international debt, record wealth, income polarization, and disgruntled politics–signs that we recognize in America at the start of the twenty-first century. In a time of national crisis, Phillips worries that the growing parallels suggest the tide may already be turning for us all.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Kevin Phillips, an original, maverick thinker, breaks new ground in American economic history and politics. Both erudite and accessible, Wealth and Democracy shows how big money has affected our political system. Phillips argues that the unholy alliance between wealth and government has undermined the democratic process.
Publishers Weekly
The influence of money on government is now, more then ever, a hot political issue. With a grand historical sweep that covers more than three centuries, Phillips's astute analysis of the effects of wealth and capital upon democracy is both eye-opening and disturbing. While his main thrust is an examination of "the increasing reliance of the American economy on finance," Phillips weaves a far wider, nuanced tapestry. Carefully building his arguments with telling detail (the growth of investment capitalism in Elizabethan England was essentially the result of privateering and piracy) and statistical evidence, he charts a long, exceptionally complicated history of interplay between governance and the accumulation of wealth. Explicating late-20th-century U.S. capitalism, for instance, by drawing comparisons to the technological advances and ensuing changes in commerce in the Renaissance, he also discusses how 18th-century Spanish colonialism is relevant to how "lending power began to erode... broad prosperity" in 1960s and '70s America. Finding detailed correspondences between the giddy greediness of America's Gilded Age (complete with a surprising quote from Walt Whitman "my theory includes riches and the getting of riches") and the "great technology mania and bubble of the 1990s," Phillips (The Cousins' War, etc.), noted NPR political analyst, notes that "the imbalance of wealth and democracy in the United States is unsustainable," as it was in highly nationalistic mid-18th-century Holland and late-19th-century Britain both of which underwent major social and political upheaval from the middle and underclasses. Lucidly written, scrupulously argued and culturally wide-ranging, this is an important and deeply original analysis of U.S. history and economics. (May 14) Forecast: Filled with tables and graphs and a rather dense text, this may be more talked-about than read, but talked-about it will be by commentators and pundits. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Foreign Affairs
In the early years of the United States, Thomas Jefferson fought bitterly with Alexander Hamilton over the structure of the U.S. financial system. Jefferson feared that without proper checks and balances, an aristocratic financial class would wield a disproportionate amount of influence in government and thus erode popular democracy. In this cogent and thought-provoking book, Phillips argues that Jefferson's fear has come true. By meticulously tracing the phases of wealth concentration and the politics of the affluent from John Jacob Astor to Bill Gates, he shows that the United States is in the grip of a plutocracy controlled by Wall Street and big business. For the past two centuries, the rich have profited at the expense of the lower and middle classes through dubious government practices such as bank bailouts and suspect tax and tariff policy. Phillips uses his deep understanding of American and international financial history to show how strongly politics is intertwined with the complex cycle of boom and bust. His analysis, however, glosses over one important era: the post-World War II economic resurgence of the American middle class. Nevertheless, Wealth and Democracy is one of the most definitive sources on the relationship between money and power in America.
Library Journal
Phillips's central aim is to condemn the current intertwining of wealth and politics, outlining their historical affinity while warning that today's unprecedented concentration of wealth imperils U.S. democracy. He richly details the broad scope of wealth and the wealthy in U.S. history, employing his sardonic wit to record the excesses of his subjects. Phillips deepens his argument with frequent parallels to the rise and fall of Spain, Holland, and Britain nations that preceded the United States in global hegemony and were each brought down by a confluence of disparity in wealth, ostentatious display of luxury, and domination of manufactures by finance, a pattern he sees repeating itself in this country. Though forceful and passionate, Phillips's argument is weakened by its sprawling scope and frequent repetition. Moreover, he has made many of these points in earlier books, such as The Politics of Rich and Poor. Still, this is a big book from a major political observer and is hence a necessary purchase. Robert F. Nardini, Chichester, NH Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Soundview Executive Book Summaries
Kevin Phillips, a respected author, commentator and historian, has detailed the history of great wealth and power in the United States, from the American Revolution to the turn of the 21st century. While charting the ongoing saga of great wealth, he describes how it has been accumulated, its sources, and its highs and lows over more than 200 years. Phillips also explores how the rich and politically powerful have worked together to create privilege, and how these privileges are often at the expense of the national interest. Copyright (c) 2002 Soundview Executive Book Summaries
Kirkus Reviews
"Laissez-faire is a pretense," writes post-conservative pundit Phillips (The Cousins' Wars, 1999, etc.). "Government power and preferment have been used by the rich, not shunned." In other words, in this country, the rich not only get richer, they also get more privileged. As a polity, Americans tend to indulge the affluent, imagining that somehow their wealth will trickle down to the less fortunate. The reality is, notes Phillips, "painful disparities-working to the detriment of ordinary people who rarely understand what is happening or why-have been the historical rule, and not the unfortunate exception." American politicians traditionally have been more than indulgent, allowing the rich to accrue all sorts of political favors, evade taxes and duties, and live at a far remove from the rest of society: witness recent giveaways in the current administration's tax reforms. Politicians and commoners alike have been deluded by a false sense of participation in the system and the false promise of a level playing field, but the fact that 48 percent of Americans held some stock in the year 2000 speaks less, Phillips argues, than the fact that 90 percent of the earnings growth in the last two decades has gone into the pockets of the top 1 percent of our society. His sense of moral outrage over this fundamentally undemocratic gulf, a potential seedbed for true class warfare, is well placed and effective, though it may surprise readers who remember him as a conservative advisor to the Nixon administration. Even more valuable, however, is Phillips's careful analysis of the political boom-and-bust cycles in American history whereby Republican administrations help send aloft speculative bubbles thatupon bursting, as all bubbles must, prompt spurts of progressive reform that curb-if only briefly-the power and public appetites of the wealthy. Sturdy economic history with a heavy dash of social criticism-and, as many conservative critics have said before of Phillips, excellent ammunition for liberals.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780767905343
  • Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 4/8/2003
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 496
  • Sales rank: 673,364
  • Product dimensions: 6.12 (w) x 9.25 (h) x 1.04 (d)

Meet the Author

Kevin Phillips
KEVIN PHILLIPS has been a political and economic commentator for more than three decades. He is currently a regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times and National Public Radio, and also writes for Harper’s Magazine and Time. The author of nine other books, most recently The Cousins’ Wars, he lives in Litchfield, Connecticut.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE

THE EIGHTEENTH AND NINETEENTH CENTURIES: FROM PRIVATEERSMEN TO ROBBER BARONS

The people who own the country ought to govern it.
--John Jay, first chief justice of the United States, 1787

Many of our rich men have not been content with equal protection and equal benefits, but have besought us to make them richer by act of Congress. --Andrew Jackson, veto of Second Bank charter extension, 1832

Corruption dominates the ballot-box, the Legislatures, the Congress and touches even the ermine of the bench. The fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few, unprecedented in the history of mankind; and the possessors of these, in turn, despise the Republic and endanger liberty. --National platform of the Populist Party, 1892

The debate over the compatibility of wealth and democracy is as old as the republic. From the start, concern that the egalitarian-seeming United States of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries might develop wealth concentrations to match Europe's was a worry for many but also the guarded hope of an important few.

Alexander Hamilton, who favored both a financial class and an aristocracy, would have cherished the possibility of such an elite. John Adams, who thought aristocracies inevitable, would not have been surprised. Thomas Jefferson brooded that such a danger could flow all too easily from urban growth, finance, and commerce. Richard Price, the British reformer friendly to the American Revolution, warned the new nation against foreign banks and finance; and Alexis de Tocqueville, in 1837, hedged his praise for democracy in America with concern that the new industrial elite, "one of the harshest that ever existed," would bring about the "permanent inequality of conditions and aristocracy."

By the beginning of the twenty-first century, when the first clocks along the international date line struck midnight, the United States had met, at least broadly, the hopes of Hamilton and the fears of Jefferson and de Tocqueville. The transformation was hardly linear, given the interruptions of the populist and progressive eras and the New Deal. By 2000, however, the United States was not only the world's wealthiest nation and leading economic power, but also the Western industrial nation with the greatest percentage of the world's rich and the greatest gap between rich and poor.

To make this transformation from agrarian republic to financial aristocracy fully come alive--to fill in its enormous achievement, recurrent corruption, amazing technological innovation, and political pretense--the best course is to begin in the Massachusetts seaports of Adams and John Hancock, the Virginia plantations of Jefferson and George Washington, and the Manhattan financial district of Hamilton, taking nineteenth-century turnpikes and canals to the railroads, stock exchanges, Civil War battlefields, and William Jennings Bryan's angry farm belt and moving on to Hollywood, the World War II defense industries, and Silicon Valley, and always keeping an eye on two principal centers of influence, Washington and Wall Street. By the end of the period covered by this first chapter, from the 1770s to 1900, wealth had enjoyed a glorious century and a quarter. The largest fortune in the United States had grown from an ambiguous $1 million to somewhere in the $300 to $400 million range.

Democracy, in her allegorical garb, was by then wandering around Washington more than a little woebegone, muttering about "the shame of the Senate," watching a U.S. Supreme Court unabashedly hold for railroads in fifteen of sixteen cases, condemning New York City tenements that matched the worst of East End London, and glooming about the lost world of Jefferson, Jackson, and Lincoln.

The unusual political freedom in the U.S., to be sure, was part of what made wealth more openly controversial than it was in Europe. Suspicion of aristocracy, officialdom, and inherited riches was a legacy of the Revolution. Like the earlier citizenry of the Greek and Roman republics, Americans could and did take issue with the abuses of the rich and powerful. Voters could even expect, in some matters, to bring the upper classes to heel. That was part of what republicanism was all about.

Other facets of democracy, however, made wealth in the early United States less controversial. Those from poor backgrounds had a chance, sometimes a better one, to share, as along Cornelius Vanderbilt's scrappy, cutthroat New York waterfront or in John Jacob Astor's rough-and-tumble frontier fur business. Self-made men were the best-known standard-bearers of wealth. A humble immigrant could become the richest man in America, because two did--French-born Stephen Girard, who came to Philadelphia as a merchant ship officer, and Astor, son of a poor German butcher.

The egalitarian-minded working classes of New York and Philadelphia, as we will see, quickly rallied against the Federalist merchants and financiers of the 1790s, with their predilection for British manners and contempt for the common man. Neither of these self-made businessmen had such vulnerabilities: Girard, besides being a supporter of the antiaristocratic French Revolution, was ugly; Astor was uncouth, with relatively little social pretense. Most of the Frenchman's clerks dressed better than he did, and Astor and his son handled and "beat" their own furs well into their second decade of business. Neither put on aristocratic airs or offended republican sensibilities.

In such hands, riches symbolized the New World's promise, not some vague prospect of oppression. In contrast to stratified Europe, the more fluid society in America offered a double opportunity: both to make money and to criticize its abuse by the rich, pointing out how excess wealth and stratification undercut the democracy that had nurtured them.

How this duality evolved during the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries provides an essential backdrop to the circumstances of the twenty-first. And our saga can begin, fittingly, amid the distrust and suspicion rife in Philadelphia during the famous July of 1776, mere blocks from the very birth chambers of the new nation, where hot and tired delegates were just putting the finishing touches on the Declaration of Independence.

Many of the declaration's signers were representatives of America's richest families--a Massachusetts Hancock, a New York Livingston, a Carroll of Maryland, a Lee of Virginia, and a South Carolina Rutledge. Theirs was a revolutionary document with respect to Britain, but not in matters domestic. King George III might be charged with repeated injuries, usurpations, and tyrannies and with sending a swarm of officers to harass Americans and "eat out their substance," but not even Jefferson thought to condemn him for setting the rich above the poor. Hierarchy was a fact of life in the eighteenth-century American colonies.

And so only a few hundred yards from Carpenters' Hall, where the declaration's signers met, disgruntled artisans, storekeepers, and militiamen could be found plotting their own cause in small, sparsely furnished homes and unfashionable taverns like the Four Alls on Sixth Street or the Wilkes and Liberty on Arch Street. Pennsylvania's July 8 selection of delegates to its state constitutional convention was just days away, and they aimed to be in control.

Only supporters of independence were allowed to vote, Tories being barred, and with prewar property requirements also set aside, radicals dominated. Part of what goaded those who were about to give Pennsylvania a state constitution was the increasing concentration of Philadelphia wealth and power among a small capital city elite. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, middling artisans claimed 17 percent of Philadelphia's recorded wealth. By 1720 this had dropped to 12 percent and in the decade before the Revolution to just 5 percent. During the same period the assets of the most prosperous 4 percent of Philadelphians jumped from 25 percent of the citywide total to 56 percent, luxury proclaiming itself in everything from new mansions and expensive carriages to glittering dinner parties.

The radical architects of the new state constitution took indirect aim at these disparities by expanding the franchise, limiting the terms of state legislators, and opening sessions to the public. They even specified that final passage of bills should be delayed until their contents could be published in the state's newspapers and debated by the general public. But in the Declaration of Rights attached to the Constitution, they were more direct, declaring that government existed for the "Common Benefit, Protection and Security of the People, Nation or Community, and not for the particular Emolument or advantage of any Single man, family or Set of Men, who are only part of that community." This was bold talk for the eighteenth century, and many delegates had supported an even stronger Sixteenth Article, narrowly rejected, which stated that "an Enormous Proportion of Property vested in a few Individuals is dangerous to the Rights, and Destructive of the Common Happiness of Mankind; and therefore, every free State hath a right by its Laws to discourage the Possession of Such Property."

These complaints had an element of prophecy. Similar resentments have burst forth at frequent intervals in U.S. history. And if grumbles about economic unfairness are not quite as American as the Fourth of July, one may suggest that they are as American as the eighth of July, the day Pennsylvania activists chose their radical constitutionmakers. We will see these angers in clash after clash, sometimes as a bold banner, sometimes as a subtext of unrelieved frustration.

It would be a mistake, though, to imply that such confrontations were a staple of prerevolutionary America. They were not. The British North American colonies, outside New England, being ethnically and religiously mixed, had more of these kinds of disagreements. What scholars now call class tensions might throb in New York's feudal landed estates along the Hudson, Philadelphia's artisan precincts, or in the North Carolina backcountry, where an insurgency against the corrupt impositions of the royal governor and the tidewater gentry was bloodily crushed in 1771 at the Battle of the Alamance. But for the most part, once the Revolution broke out, economic disagreements were generally subordinated to the larger struggle against Britain. Patriots agreed on an external target: far-off imperial wealth and power.

Within the empire of 1775-76, the center of hauteur and wealth was in England itself, among the royal family and the landed aristocracy, with an addendum among planters from the rich sugar islands of the West Indies. King George III, sighting a particularly ornate coach one day, exclaimed, "Sugar, sugar. Eh! All that sugar." There were also some "nabobs" enriched by India, like Robert Clive, who had made away with half of the coin and jewels of greater Bengal. The hundred or so great landowners of England predominated, although their estates, being entailed to pass automatically to one heir, were never really measured. Estimates from rent rolls suggest that the lands of the richest, the dukes of Bedford and Sutherland, the earl of Derby, and the Grosvenors (soon-to-be dukes of Westminster) could have been worth as much as 5 million poundseach. The half-dozen largest nonlanded British fortunes, by contrast, were in the 600,000 to 1 million pound range, which by the late 1780s would be some three to five million new American dollars.

Nothing in the thirteen colonies came close, so the American sense of injury and outsidership was economic as well as political. Commerce and industry in North America--even the availability of currency--were all crimped by various acts of Parliament. Had a British journal ventured a list of the twenty-five richest men in the empire in 1775, the American mainland probably could not have claimed any, except possibly the Penns because of their huge Pennsylvania landholdings. Few in London would have thought to check.

George Washington, one of the richest Americans, was no more than a wealthy squire in British terms. His large house at Mount Vernon paled alongside the new showplaces of the British rich like Holkham Hall, Syon House, and Strawberry Hill. The great English estates would have been worth thirty to forty times as much as Mount Vernon. Before the Revolution, the earl of Shelburne, a major landholder in England and Ireland, had spent ninety-seven thousand pounds simply to buy a Gloucestershire borough with three parliamentary seats he could hand out to supporters. Washington's entire net worth at the time may not have matched Shelburne's single outlay. Samuel Powel III, thought to be the richest man in Philadelphia, North America's largest city, lived in a Georgian town house on South Third Street, elegant locally, that would have gone unremarked in London. Chart 1.1 shows the relative per capita incomes in England circa 1774 versus those of the American southern, middle, and northeastern colonies as well as the slow growth of wealth in the future United States.

The southern colonies were the richest in North America because of slaves. Britain, however, was much richer than the thirteen colonies on a per capita basis because of its landed gentry and upper classes. The richest thousand Britons probably had eight or ten times the landed and personal wealth of the richest thousand in the thirteen colonies. On one hand, this concentration at the top made the median Briton less well off than the median American. On the other, the huge gap between the American merchant class and gentry and the British elite helped explain how the prerevolutionary resentments of the Chesapeake tobacco planters against Britain resembled the later agrarian populist outrage at eastern capital and commerce. The architects of the new United States--Washington, Jefferson, all of them--were middle-class bourgeoisie or minor gentry on the larger playing field of the empire, and passed their angry mind-set into the Revolutionary legacy.

The newly independent United States of 1783 may not even have had a single millionaire in dollar terms. Elias Hasket Derby of Salem, Massachusetts, flush at war's end from the sale of British vessels and cargoes captured by his privateers, is generally counted the first, although Philadelphia had several (and perhaps better) claimants. Derby himself may not have reached the million-dollar mark until 1786, when his converted privateer Grand Turk returned heavy with tea, porcelain, and cassia (Chinese cinnamon) from the first journey by a New England ship to Canton. Possibly he did not reach a million dollars until the 1790s, when the Napoleonic Wars opened up so many trading opportunities for neutral American shipping.

In the United States as in Europe, wartime spoils were still among the great ladders to fortune. Few in Britain or America would have found it surprising, as the fighting of 1775 turned into a full-fledged revolution, that the war more than anything else would reshape the new nation's wealth.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Sort by: Showing all of 10 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 2, 2002

    This book will open your eyes with the unbiased truth.

    I had no trouble staying awake with this book because it is written in a style very easy for the common man to understand. The charts and graphs make it even easier to grasp the concepts presented throughout. Rather than being repetitious, I appreciated the way the author often referred back to things already mentioned, in order to broaden the understanding of them and make it all easier to remember. The book shows the underlying reasons for stock market failures, depressions, and the ups and downs of the standard of living without any bias. The facts speak for themselves and if anyone finds that offensive, they should blame history, not the author. The truth is hard to swallow but that's what is in this book - the truth about how the wealthy thrive at the expense of the masses by making a mockery of what this country was founded on.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 15, 2002

    A necessary perspective

    This book is not an easy read. Detailed, filled with graphs and charts, and frequent references to previous and future chapters. This book also sites many previous works, it is a tome that requires serious application to get through. Nonetheless it is an important read in that it refutes much of today's common political and economic dogma and gives a very sharp historical context one should not ignore. He quite nicely totally refutes the whole trickle down theory and seemingly wants to lead us down a socialist path, he also makes the case that we may be beyond our zenith of world influence. He regards deification of finanacial wizardry while our manufacturing base shrinks, along with the concentration of wealth and corpratization of politics as clear signals that we are in decline. While all this may in fact be true, he doesn't really offer to much in the way of solutions, but only states what happened in previous ages, and societies. I was disappointed in that. All in all a good read, and one that our leaders should take seriously and our citizenry in this time of jingoistic fervor should be aware of.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 9, 2009

    only problem for me I neededmy Funk & wagnor as much as my highlighter

    great read so ntelligent of a a;uthor

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 21, 2004

    Tedious but rewarding

    As the title suggest the reading was a little tedious. The first few chapters I found exceptionally dry. Once the Author laid the foundation and conveyed his basic philosophy the book picked up pace. I spent some time spot checking figures and sources of this book and did not find a single factual error. I also found some of the source material to be quite good reading. All in all, the book was good. I did feel that he could have spent more time and effort on courses of action. I felt a little cheated that Phillips spent so much time detailing the shortcomings and not enough time pointing towards solutions.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 10, 2003

    A great book of telling insight into the political economy.

    Mr. Phillips details the history of the rich in America and examines how they repeatedly use the US Goverment for their attainment. Moreover, democracy is not to be confused with the capitalist market. This book should be a good read for anyone who thinks the rich getting richer and leaving ordinary Americans behind is more than just inherent competitive advantage.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 6, 2002

    Kevin Phillips makes money on YOUR failures!

    Kevin Phillips writes a book on YOUR failures in the stock market and then blames Republican's for your bad investments. Shame on you! You want to make money... put it in a bank, instead of trying to get rich in the market and then crying when the stability of the market falls short on giving you the money you claim you deserve for investing! P..A..LEASE!!! The United States of America owes you NOTHING but what the constitution promised us... why do you think that we need a government to care for us?? Do you really think you are too stupid to support and care for yourselves? Phillips's book is full frequent repetition and sour grapes!

    0 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 11, 2002

    good points, bad writing

    while the book itself makes a good arguement about weath and power in the US, I had trouble staying awake while dealing with the frequent repetition and dull writing style.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 30, 2002

    It ain't Rainwater

    Wealth and Democracy is a must read. Totally refutes the GOP's 'Trickle Down Theory' and should be a wake up call to the sleeping majority. Clearly demonstrates that Americans in the bottom 80% income class are over worked and underpaid. The Middle and Lower income groups have taken a bath over the last twenty years and it ain't rainwater they've been swimming in.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 28, 2010

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    Posted October 26, 2008

    No text was provided for this review.

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