Evil Geniuses- The Unmaking of America?
Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America
Kurt Andersen 2020
Most people agree that something profound happened to American politics and its economy during the past fifty years. After the Greatest Generation survived the Depression, won World War II, and built a behemoth economy and government to boot, something big changed right around 1970. Tax rates started dropping, wage increases started slowing, the social safety net started fraying, and the rich started getting much, much richer.
The events that shaped where we are today are the focus of Evil Geniuses, a new book by Kurt Andersen, and the tale he tells is a long, detailed and depressing one. According to Andersen, many of the changes that we've seen were put in place by a small group of rich CEO's, right wing politicians, and political think tanks that figured out how to game the system and make Americans happy to follow along. The "Evil Geniuses" include the usual names many have heard of - Joseph Coors, Ronald Reagan, Robert Bork, Lewis Powell, Milton Friedman, Arthur Laffer, the Koch brothers, Roger Ailes, and many more. These ideologues were able to transform an American economy that was robust and dominated by the middle class into one of the most unequal and dysfunctional economic systems in history.
How did this all happen? It's hard to believe that just a few well placed people turned an entire nation against itself, if only because the rich and the ideological have always been with us. Something profound happened to America both during the 60's and 70's that signals an inflection point, and the question now is what caused it, and when and how will things start swinging back? Or will they ever swing back?
Kurt Andersen is an author and former founder and editor for Spy Magazine, and has also written for the New Yorker and New York magazine. His previous book, Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire, came out around the time of Donald Trump's election, and goes into a much bigger picture of American history over 500 years.
Evil Geniuses follows a number of transitions that were a part of the transformational plan that eventually came together:
- Wall Street was transformed from a sleepy giant of stock trading into a center of massive financialization, dominating the economy and glamorized under the "greed is good" banner.
- Labor unions were shrunk from 25% of workers to just 6% today. With that a "Great Uncoupling" of wages began as real incomes stagnated while productivity increased. The workforce of the 50's and 60's offered stable employment and rising salaries, while today's workplace is dominated by monopolistic companies that can set the rules and salaries to maximize profits. The rise of outsourcing and artificial intelligence that threatens many jobs will only add to this lack of opportunities for the bottom 90%.
- Getting the judges on their sides was a big part of the Evil Genius plan. Supreme court and federal judges from the Federalist Society have been integral to increasing corporate power and stymieing antitrust laws and safety regulations.
- State funding of higher education has dropped by over 50% and the cost of a college degree has skyrocketed, leading to an epidemic of student loan debt and a lack of access to better paying jobs for much of the nation.
- And of course income tax rates have plummeted since 1970 for both the wealthy and corporations. While the promised extra growth has never materialized after the tax cuts, the federal deficit has risen to insane levels.
Even though the White House has changed parties multiple times in the past 50 years, the few Democrats who've been elected have gotten little done to slow the patterns of the Evil Genius plan. Part of that is because congress and the Supreme Court are mostly rigged to prevent serious laws from being passed, and part of that is the insane amounts of campaign money that comes from rich donors who benefit from the plan.
Andersen also points a finger at what he calls the Great Stagnation- a lack of social change during this period. Popular culture has changed at the edges and in its delivery mechanisms, but there has been precious little change in music, fashion, television, and movies during this period. If anything, much of the period can be categorized as a huge dive into nostalgia. Americans, who were internationally respected for their innovation and originality, dove back into the pool of their past starting with Archie Bunker and "All in the Family," which led the way for five decades of rehashing of old ideas.
How the Great Stagnation falls into the economic transformation of the past fifty years is not explained in this book, and I doubt that the Evil Geniuses had the capacity to move entertainment tastes in the same way they manipulated voters and politicians. Perhaps it was all a part of one big retrenchment after a period of significant upheaval (the 1960's), and we just haven't come out of it yet.
This book is relentless and depressing, at least if you're not a part of the top 10% who've benefitted from the transition of the past fifty years. But it does have a semi-hopeful ending. Andersen believe that 2020 and the Covid epidemic mark another inflection point, and thinks that society may be turning against the Evil Geniuses and their plan. After hearing for fifty years about how bad government is, and how individual freedoms will liberate us all, people seem to be waking up to the need for collective action when it comes to public health, climate change, and economic opportunity. This change doesn't seem too apparent just yet, but the desperation of today's Republicans in denying reality may be closely tied to them seeing their paradigm collapsing.
Andersen says that these changing attitudes about government, plus the inevitable demographic changes that will make whites a minority by 2040 foretell a serious inflection point coming soon. Where polls showed back in the 90's that Americans thought the government did too much by a 2 to 1 margin, the script has now flipped, with 58% disagreeing with that statement to only 38% supporting it.
The book doesn't delve into the topic of race, which the right has exploited for generations to get what it wanted, and I wish it had. Race relations have transformed somewhat for the better during the past fifty years, though the progress has slowed significantly. The Civil Rights era of the Sixties was a big impetus for the conservative backlash of the Seventies, and the Black Lives Matter movement today is still being to scare white people. But the massive scale of protests in 2020 after George Floyd's murder from people of all races make me wonder if something big is about to happen on race.
As someone who has lived through the entire period covered by this book, I can't find much to disagree with here. I've seen the changes and enjoyed the nostalgia, and don't feel too great about where we are today. The presidency of Donald Trump was the nadir of American politics, and we can hopefully learn from it and start growing again. I enjoyed this book for the most part, even though the title, "Evil Geniuses" is a bit extreme. Ronald Reagan and his ilk were not evil, they just had a direction that they wanted to go, and America gladly followed along. (Why- I still can't quite figure out). The impact of these huge structural changes will haunt future generations, but hopefully they will learn from these mistakes just like the reformers of the early 20th century did in creating an even better nation that has something for everybody.