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The Case for Big Government (The Public Square)

by Jeff Madrick

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412470,085 (1.83)None
Political conservatives have long believed that the best government is a small government. But if this were true, noted economist Jeff Madrick argues, the nation would not be experiencing stagnant wages, rising health care costs, increasing unemployment, and concentrations of wealth for a narrow elite. In this perceptive and eye-opening book, Madrick proves that an engaged government--a big government of high taxes and wise regulations--is necessary for the social and economic answers that Americans desperately need in changing times. He shows that the big governments of past eras fostered greatness and prosperity, while weak, laissez-faire governments marked periods of corruption and exploitation. The Case for Big Government considers whether the government can adjust its current policies and set the country right. Madrick explains why politics and economics should go hand in hand; why America benefits when the government actively nourishes economic growth; and why America must reject free market orthodoxy and adopt ambitious government-centered programs. He looks critically at today's politicians--at Republicans seeking to revive nineteenth-century principles, and at Democrats who are abandoning the pioneering efforts of the Great Society. Madrick paints a devastating portrait of the nation's declining social opportunities and how the economy has failed its workers. He looks critically at today's politicians and demonstrates that the government must correct itself to address these serious issues. A practical call to arms, The Case for Big Government asks for innovation, experimentation, and a willingness to fail. The book sets aside ideology and proposes bold steps to ensure the nation's vitality.… (more)

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Within the first ten pages of The Case for Big Government, Jeff Madrick’s argument is mortally wounded by a single sentence: “If government is managed poorly, it can have damaging effects.” Every word that follows is based on the premise that a large government can efficiently and effectively manage a large economy when there is scant evidence (at least in the United States) that this is possible. Madrick goes to great lengths to point out the successes of government interventions into economies both domestic and foreign but fails to connect those past successes to his projected future.

Madrick displays a great deal of cognitive dissonance throughout the book. Early on, he explains America’s high GDP per capita as a function of the fact that more Americans work than in most other countries. This, he argues, is due to the lower wages offered to low-skilled workers by American firms. Essentially, he is giving tacit agreement to the common conservative argument that high minimum wages increase unemployment. Yet one of his solutions, given at the end of the book, is to establish a “serious”—one assumes he means “high”—minimum wage. But surely this would result in fewer jobs and higher unemployment. Madrick does not say how this would be beneficial to the American economy. He also suggests that the federal government should pay half of all qualifying college students’ tuition without addressing the inevitable cost increases that introducing $30 to $35 billion (his numbers) into the higher education market would cause.

Madrick’s work also suffers because of his intense focus on manufacturing. Any time he writes about wages and productivity (especially in comparison to other countries) he only focuses on the manufacturing sector, despite the fact that the United States has largely ceased being a manufacturing economy and has transitioned largely into a service economy. Madrick laments the loss of a time when low-skilled, low-educated workers could earn a middle-class income through manufacturing. The problem with this bygone era, which Madrick admits, is that manufacturing was never capable of providing a middle-class lifestyle for workers except through “much political turmoil, lost personal independence, and the active participation of government.” With the decreasing importance of the manufacturing sector, that government intervention is gone and low-skilled, low-educated workers are no longer able to live a middle-class lifestyle. What Madrick does not address is why the government should take money from the skilled, educated workers of the middle and upper classes and use it to prop up people whose skills and education were never capable of providing that lifestyle without government interference.

Ultimately, Madrick makes a few decent arguments, but even they are dwarfed by the fact that he cannot sidestep the elephant in the room; that elephant being the public’s trust in the federal government. The government long ago proved that it is more interested in using its power to enrich certain individuals rather than the country as a whole. Handing them even more power to determine who wins or loses in our economy is simply a bad idea. ( )
  tjwilliams | Dec 7, 2010 |
Jeff Madrick sets out in this book to make -- you guessed it -- the case for big government. Madrick seems to have an acute sense of where Americans as a nation are headed, and the changes we need to make socially and culturally to set ourselves up for future success. One of his most intriguing discussions concerns the shift from luxury to necessity of technological devices such as phones, medicine, and even cars. He never quite seems to arrive at the point of really making a case for big government, though. While he makes some very interesting observations, he does a poor job explaining them, and his convoluted writing makes it difficult to get at the underlying socioeconomic issues he's evaluating. Ultimately, he never fully constructs the connection between social reform and requisite government involvement.

On the whole, his perspective seems just as myopic as those he's railing against. For example, he uses as evidence for his case the declining average and median wage of males with a college degree over the past three decades. But he fails to address the perceived value of a college education as rates of degree-holders have risen from 14 to 40% in that same time. His charts offer interesting comparisons, but they don't seem to consider the whole picture. John Allen Paulos, author of Innumeracy, would have an absolute field day with Madrick's statistics, inventive as they are.

His Agenda, laid out in Part III, is both sweeping and amazingly simplified. To read this agenda, one might almost suspect these social reforms to be practicable. In fact, why not give them a try? Of course, there's no evident discussion of prioritization -- we can't do everything all at once, so where to we start? How do we move from theory to implementation? At the end of the day, this book is just another example of political hogwash: the ideas are great, but they're thoroughly impractical without some distinct plan of action.

Madrick raises some interesting points, and the book overall offers an interesting historical perspective. But the inefficacy of his Agenda, coupled with his questionable statistics, really weakens this book overall.
  Eneles | Nov 7, 2009 |
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Political conservatives have long believed that the best government is a small government. But if this were true, noted economist Jeff Madrick argues, the nation would not be experiencing stagnant wages, rising health care costs, increasing unemployment, and concentrations of wealth for a narrow elite. In this perceptive and eye-opening book, Madrick proves that an engaged government--a big government of high taxes and wise regulations--is necessary for the social and economic answers that Americans desperately need in changing times. He shows that the big governments of past eras fostered greatness and prosperity, while weak, laissez-faire governments marked periods of corruption and exploitation. The Case for Big Government considers whether the government can adjust its current policies and set the country right. Madrick explains why politics and economics should go hand in hand; why America benefits when the government actively nourishes economic growth; and why America must reject free market orthodoxy and adopt ambitious government-centered programs. He looks critically at today's politicians--at Republicans seeking to revive nineteenth-century principles, and at Democrats who are abandoning the pioneering efforts of the Great Society. Madrick paints a devastating portrait of the nation's declining social opportunities and how the economy has failed its workers. He looks critically at today's politicians and demonstrates that the government must correct itself to address these serious issues. A practical call to arms, The Case for Big Government asks for innovation, experimentation, and a willingness to fail. The book sets aside ideology and proposes bold steps to ensure the nation's vitality.

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