By Leslie Thatcher t r u t h o u t | Review 1/22/08

Dean Baker’s “The United States Since 1980,” published by Cambridge University Press, New York, 2007.

With “The World Since 1980,” Cambridge University Press has designed a “series… to examine politics, economics, and social change in important countries … over the last two and a half decades.” Dean Baker, a macroeconomist with a PhD in economics from the University of Michigan and co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC, has written the volume on the United States, a succinct 243 pages that read for me like a thriller, despite Baker’s spare prose and cool, almost forensic, voice and the fact I lived through the entire period as an adult. Actually, Baker’s clinically dispassionate tone and my own presumptive personal knowledge made reading “The United States Since 1980” all the more engrossing: There are many “Aha!” moments, as in “Aha! That was what was going behind the headlines.” “Aha! That was what I missed!” as Baker elucidates the reverberations and ramifications and trends set off by events and policies that may have seemed singular – one-off anomalies – at the time.

The book’s amply supported thesis is the United States took a sharp right turn in 1980, both from its own previous half century and, perhaps even more tellingly, from the economic, social and political norms of other developed countries. As Baker points out in the first chapter, by the end of the period, the United States was at odds with European and Asian allies in the developed world on Kyoto, on the International Criminal Court, and on other key matters. The United States’s increasing unilateralism in international affairs was paralleled by the progressive and deliberate dismantling of the “institutional supports that ensured most of the population a decent standard of living.”

And Baker makes clear it was not “The Market,” but government policy in trade, immigration, macroeconomic policy, labor-management rules, regulation of communications, and other industries that effectively weakened the earning power and the economic security of workers in the middle and the bottom ranks, with an unquestionable cumulative impact of massively redistributing income to the top, without any conclusive increase in economic efficiency.

Not only did the two Reagan and first Bush administrations promulgate these policies, but the Clinton administrations continued them to a large degree. Clinton’s “win” on NAFTA is one example; while Baker suggests we may have Monica Lewinsky to thank at least in part, if inadvertently, for Social Security escaping privatization. The book details how the Clinton administrations’ foreign policy push of the “Washington Consensus” was a continuation of Bush I’s policies of foisting US economic ideology on other countries, even when they were manifestly ineffective economically and disastrous politically. And by the end of the 1990s, poor countries were financing the United States as they have been ever since. Any progressive who imagines electing either of the current Democratic front-runners – both advised to a large extent by recycled Clinton administration figures – will alone provide a panacea for the United States’s current political, economic or social woes, should be required to read Baker’s chapters on the Clinton years.

Baker makes clear the right turn in US policy has come at profound cost to Americans’ common good. We work far longer hours, pay more for worse medical care, live shorter and more brutish (less educated, less leisurely, less informed, less equal, more polluting) lives than our European counterparts. That there are no easy solutions should come as no surprise: “The political system in the United States is largely structured so that it can be oblivious to the long-term costs of public policies. Those who try to raise such concerns are systematically excluded from public debate.”* He identifies the current political system’s essential failures in the domains of health care provision, the trade deficit, climate change policy, and provision of an international structure that will protect the US when it is no longer pre-eminent – an inevitability given economic power shifts, but one to which the US has been as blind as it has become to every kind of power but military power.

The clarity and concision of Baker’s exposition, his grasp, choice and synthesis of wide-ranging and apparently disparate phenomena, the calm power and cohesion of this alternative narrative, the utility and accessibility of the various tables he includes, the cogency and transparency of Baker’s analysis of events and policies makes “The United States Since 1980” essential reading for the informed citizen this election year.

*Dean Baker: “The United States Since 1980”; Cambridge University Press, New York, 2007, p. 237