Decade of Decision: The Crisis of the American System By Michael Harrington Simon and Schuster, $11.95
MICHAEL HARRINGTON doesn't buy the New Pessimism of the seventies. He doesn't believe the credo of the inevitability of poverty or inequality. Harrington's attitude is either naive or refreshing, depending on your political bent. Reading his book, however, is sort of like plunging into ice-cold water on a hot, lazy day--an initial shock, recoil, and then invigoration. For Harrington offers a seductive programme, a rejection of the seventies' acquiescence to in-justice. He tries to persuade us to hope again.
Decade of Decision provides a careful, extraordinarily detailed analysis of the structural flaws that fracture America's "corporate collectivism." Armed with interminable statistics--which make reading the book heavy going--Harrington argues that America's economic and spiritual malaise stems from a misguided adherence to corporate priorities. Harrington devotes most of the book to defining these corporate goals and explaining how pursuit of them has damned not only the poor, but the majority of Americans as well.
Harrington avoids sensationalistic corporate conspiracy theories; his argument is far more subtle. Corporations, with the endorsement of conservative and liberal theorists alike, don't deliberately gang up on the poor--they don't have to. In fact, they ignore the poor, forgetting that the policies they advocate--the policies the government enacts--end up despoiling the underprivileged by increasing concentration of wealth, preventing full employment and decreasing social and economic mobility. The goals of corporate America, Harrington argues, undermine the American ideal they claim to uphold. Harrington understands that most Americans, even those hurt by corporate strategies (such as attacking inflation with high unemployment), subscribe to a national credo of individual opportunity and economic mobility. These national ideals can't be realized when all the opportunities belong to Exxon. Harrington's closely argued book debunks these myths and proposes programs to make his version of the American dream--democratized ownership and widely diffused wealth and political power--come true.
In his discussion of the structural problems facing the United States today--stagflation, unemployment, economic inequity, urban decay, and poverty--Harrington argues that the dominance of "corporate collectivism" has consistently subsumed human needs to business profit. American policymakers have manipulated statistics to support corporate needs, to underestimate the gravity of inequality in America and to undercut leftist solutions to American problems. Workers' wages and government spending for social programs became the scapegoat, Harrington asserts, although the real engine of inflation is corporate insistence on an untenable profit margin. By exaggerating capital shortage and attributing declining productivity to laziness and taxes instead of internal business fluctuations, business lobbies have secured tax cuts over the past decade that have penalized the middle class and the poor. Corporations attend to the rotting beams by repairing the strong ones.
Conservative economists and scholars, for example, have systematically underestimated the maldistribution of wealth and income in the United States. Money is highly concentrated--less than half of one per cent of Americans own more assets than do four-fifths of everyone else--but few people acknowledge it. By overestimating the value of social security and welfare benefits and disregarding hidden assets of wealthy Americans, conservative economists have narrowed income and wealth stratification statistics. After all the carping about the "welfare state," less than half of the nation's poor are supported solely be welfare funds. These misperceptions have pitted working class Americans against the poor by reducing support for social programs.
More insidiously, the statistics-juggling and the dominance of business ideology have convinced many Americans of the bankruptcy of programs undertaken in the '60s to lessen economic and political injustice in America. The result is a narrowing of political alternatives for Americans. If the economic and political issues are defined for the American people in such a way as to discredit reform, then Americans will not address economic and political injustices.
Harrington concludes with a call for sweeping reforms in the American system--proposals he argues are politically realistic. Democratizing investments and allowing the American worker a share of investment decisions and corporate ownership would effectively combat destructive corporate power. Progressive taxation that does not discriminate against the poor and middle classes, coupled with stiff inheritance taxes, would help to equalize the maldistribution of wealth and income in the U.S. Finally, Harrington offers a controversial solution to the nation's economic ills: a commitment to full employment, which would at the same time combat inflation and more effectively distribute wealth.
Although Harrington backs up his proposals with massive statistics and dense arguments, he doesn't explain how to marshal political support for his programs. Harrington admits that most Americans reject radical political reform; rather than decrying vast wealth, Americans still believe in Horatio Alger and want yachts for their children. Harrington demonstrates how many Americans are misinformed about the extent of economic inequality in the U.S. and the hopes for bettering it. He assumes that setting the record straight will convince Americans of the need for radical reform, creating a new coaliton of the lower middle class, the working class and the liberal or radical affluent. Although these groups may indeed share common interests, the course of American history so far makes Harrington seem a Quixote.
Harrington's analysis contains an important and troubling paradox. He consistently argues that America's problems are structural, but he rejects as politically impossible radical structural changes such as a complete overthrow of capitalism. He doesn't explain how he can accomplish the reforms he proposes--direct challenges to capitalist assumptions--without changing the capitalist system. As the example of the Allende government in Chile indicates, democratically-elected socialist governments may have to combat a lack of business confidence or outright business sabotage. As head of the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC), Harrington is committed to peaceful change and socialist reform: he should spell out how to get there.
Despite these flaws, Decade of Decision offers Americans of the '80s a compelling new vision. Harrington's greatest contribution to future policy debates--his fundamental humanism--is, ironically, sometimes buried under his droning statistics. He cares about the people who suffer for the sake of economic efficiency or profit margins. Harrington argues that we cannot ignore the human costs of our economic and political decisions. He offers an alternative to the counsels of despair or indifference.