Consumer Guide: Laws and the People Who Make Them

This was supposed to be your Christmas present, but the holidays got away from me. Anyway, here it is: a new series to read and enjoy — and hopefully a practical one, at that! I am, admittedly, a book addict. What better use to put my addiction to than to review recently-read books for you! As an homage to my favorite music critic, I will title this series the “Consumer Guide” and will write one-paragraph reviews, concluding with a letter grade, ranging from A+ to F. A+ is reserved for the rare masterpiece, but most of the books should earn a B- or above, simply because I try not to buy bad books. — AWO

Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer — and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class (Jacob S. Hacker & Paul Pierson)

Hacker and Pierson interweave two under-recognized, world-altering trends of the past few decades: the concentration of most economic growth in the top 1% (and, among them, in the top 0.1%) of the population and the explosion of corporate lobbying. Anyone who is not intimately familiar with both of these stories should read this book. But the questions left unanswered are shocking. Why did these trends begin in the late 1970s? If we don’t know what triggered it, how can we reverse it? The authors are rather cavalier, waving their hands at stagflation and declining corporate profits — never bothering, by the way, to acknowledge all the Marxists who have been warning about declining profits for a century-plus. David M. Gordon, for one, would be perturbed to learn his work fell on deaf ears, as would non-Marxists like G. William Domhuff, Michael Mann, and their sociologist brethren, who have spent a lifetime trying to convince political scientists to pay attention to the balance and behavior of power — especially corporate power. Hacker’s ego is too big not to claim credit for originality. Sorry, Jacob. The Power Elite was published in 1956…which begs the question of whether the explosion of corporate lobbying was, in fact, an expansion of power and not simply a new manifestation of it. Thomas Ferguson, Gabriel Kolko, and their ilk make a strong argument that Big Business has always been the puppeteer behind the curtain. Hacker and Pierson give short shrift to history before the 1970s. If economic stagnation is the answer, why did these ultra-conservative policies not follow the Great Depression or the Panic of 1907 or the long depression of 1893? This book’s ultimate weakness is its inability to offer a theory of political paradigm change. It is, however, the best political explanation of America’s recent economic transformation since Robert Reich wrote Supercapitalism.  A

Lobbying and Policy Change: Who Wins, Who Loses, and Why (Frank R. Baumgartner, Jeffrey M. Berry, Marie Hojnacki, David C. Kimball, & Beth L. Leech)

This overload of political scientists followed 98 legislative policies for 4 years, interviewing the key players and measuring every possible factor: the number of lobbyists, the amount spent, the number of competing sides, etc. What should result is an exciting, behind-the-scenes view of Congress’s sausage-making factory. Instead, this is a dreadfully boring testament to the old adage of “too many cooks in the kitchen,” especially when those cooks are political scientists. Page after page of trivial details give the impression that the book was written by first-year grad students who didn’t know how to filter the important findings. But I selected this book for a reason: There is valuable information here, only the authors leave you the job of digging it out of their mountain of data. The only needle that reporters found in this haystack was the finding that the side with more financial resources only wins 53% of the time. Put this way, it sounds like corporate America gets next-to-nothing out of lobbying, since their odds are barely better than a coin toss. This kind of misconception is where the authors could’ve put those PhDs to good use. For instance, they could’ve shown how their evidence proves the theory put forward by Dan Clawson, Alan Neustadtl, and Mark Weller in Dollars and Votes. Or they could’ve distinguished between issues where multiple corporate elites are battling (which is what the 53% mostly refers to) versus instances when Big Business is actually facing off against the little man (where their data show a decisive advantage for Goliath). Or they could’ve explained what the heck Tables 10.1 and 10.2 mean…since the proper conclusion is that corporate America does, in fact, rule Washington. Unless you’re a political scientist looking for data, you’re better off waiting until my book is published to learn “who wins, who loses, and why.”  C+