The Colgate Scene
September 2002

Reviews
Wealth & Democracy cover
Wealth & Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich
Kevin Phillips '61
Broadway Books (2002)

Kevin Phillips '61 clearly is a thoughtful man eager to ponder the big political and philosophical questions of our time.

And with Wealth & Democracy he sets out to examine one of the most important and troublesome issues: namely, is there an optimal balancing point between people getting rich and citizens being treated fairly in a society where each vote is supposed to be equal? The question alone is so important to so many people that it has propelled Phillips' book onto the bestseller lists.

Phillips has long been a force in national Republican thinking and he is troubled by the trends in politics, particularly the ease with which the monied interests have continually enriched themselves by harnessing the force of government.

He wants to build his case on mounds of historical data which purport to illuminate the parallels he sees between the United States and the decline of previously dominant nations and their economies. The lesson he presumably seeks to teach is that if too many people are paid too little, or more important, if too few people rake in far too much cash, there should be hell to pay in politics. The electorate should be radicalized. He rightly bemoans the suffocation of real politics by the flood of money.

Consider this passage: "As the twenty-first century gets underway, the imbalance of wealth and democracy is unsustainable, at least by traditional yardsticks. Market theology and unelected leadership have been displacing politics and elections. Either democracy must be renewed, with politics brought back to life, or wealth is likely to cement a new and less democratic regime -- plutocracy by some other name."

Unfortunately, the above passage comes on page 422, the last page of the afterword. A pity the book did not open with these assertions and go from there. I had great hopes from the introduction's wrap-up, "it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the Republican economic policies and biases of the 1990s and 2000s are a narrow-gauge betrayal of the legacy of the two greatest Republican presidents, Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt."

Then, the cop-out by Phillips, "But that is a debate I will leave to the elections." It is the debate that should have engaged him throughout the book and that he could have addressed with his intimate knowledge of politics.

Instead of getting to the point, Phillips gums up his argument. He posits that there is a natural rise, decline and fall cycle in politics, economics and society. It may be true, but it is also true that the rich always have more access to government -- and more of a stake in government -- than most of the rest of us. But Phillips does not tell us how it all works for the wealthy. He assumes we know -- and we do not.

He falls short again with globalization. He correctly raises global-ization as a compelling and contemporary issue that is being used as camouflage for all sorts of political outrages. But he does not offer any real-life examples of corporations at work to help us picture what he is aiming toward.

In short, Phillips left his "A" game in the library. He displays that he has read encyclopedically on the subject of economic history during the last three centuries. But he would have been better served by devoting more energy to his writing and by concentrating more on analyzing history based on what he knows firsthand.

Allan Dodds Frank '69 is a senior correspondent for CNN who specializes in financial investigations. Frank is the 2002 winner of the Gerald Loeb Award for the best financial reporting on television in 2001, for a series of reports on terrorist financing.


Allan Dodds Frank '69 is a senior correspondent for CNN who specializes in financial investigations. Frank is the 2002 winner of the Gerald Loeb Award for the best financial reporting on television in 2001, for a series of reports on terrorist financing.
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