How to Put Humpty Together Again

Revitalizing America: Politics for Prosperity

by Ronald E. Müller
Simon & Schuster, 352 pp., $13.95

The American Future: New Visions Beyond Old Frontiers

by Tom Hayden
South End Press, 325 pp., $6.00 (paper)

As the performance of American business has progressively deteriorated since the mid-Seventies, the political fortunes of the left have also steadily declined. One explanation for this paradox has been the unwillingness of many liberal and radical critics of business to acknowledge the seriousness of the difficulties confronting the economy. Much time has been spent on a search for scapegoats to blame for the increasing scarcity of goods and services. If only—so the argument runs—the power of multinational corporations, the oil companies, conglomerates, agribusiness, the medical-industrial complex, the military-industrial complex, etc., could somehow be made accountable to the public, the nightmare of inflation and chronic unemployment would come to an end.

This view, along with many other familiar liberal solutions for the erosion of America’s once dominant position in the world economy—e.g., restricting plant closings, reimposing price controls on domestic oil and natural gas—sounds less and less convincing. But the tone of the intellectual debate has recently begun to shift. With the recent publication of such books as Lester Thurow’s The Zero Sum Society, Richard Barnet’s The Lean Years, and Paul Blumberg’s Inequality in an Age of Decline, some of the more influential liberal and radical writers have begun to recognize that the postwar decades of abundance have ended. No matter what controls we place on American corporations, they may fail to sustain the levels of private and public consumption to which we have become accustomed.

This recognition, however, can lead to two very different conclusions. The first holds that restoring the productiveness of the economy should be the main concern of liberals, since only if the system produces more will the US be able to afford the public amenities and social welfare that should be available in a decent society. It follows that what is wrong with supply-side economics is not its goal of encouraging growth, but rather the means it proposes to do so. The question for liberals is whether they can suggest ways of stimulating investment that will be both more equitable and more effective than the one offered by conservatives. As his title indicates, this is the position of Ronald Müller in Revitalizing America: Politics for Prosperity.

A quite different strategy, offered by Tom Hayden in The American Future, is to question not only the possibility, but also the desirability, of continuing to increase the nation’s output of goods and services. Instead of mindlessly seeking to restore the prosperity of the 1950s and 1960s, Hayden argues, we should regard the decline of America’s economy as an opportunity to conceive a new vision of a good society. If the American public were no longer mesmerized by the prospect of ever increasing wealth, other values, such as equality, economic democracy, community, and a healthy physical environment would finally become the principal concerns of American politics.

In the current atmosphere, the reforms proposed by these books seem unlikely to be adopted or even debated seriously. But they are important …

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Letters

The New American Dream August 13, 1981