COMMENTARY

The crisis of neoliberalism: America arrives at one of history’s great crossroads

Neoliberal economics have failed, and everyone knows it. But are the Democrats strong enough to seize the moment?

By Thom Hartmann
Published August 15, 2021 12:00PM (EDT)
Ronald Reagan and Joe Biden (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Ronald Reagan and Joe Biden (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

The Democratic Party is having an internal battle over the "small" and "large" infrastructure bills, but what's really at stake is the future of neoliberalism within the party. The smaller "bipartisan" bill represents the neoliberal worldview, including public-private partnerships and huge subsidies to for-profit companies, whereas the larger "reconciliation" Democratic Party-only bill hearkens back to the FDR/LBJ classic progressive way of doing things. 

Milton Friedman began selling neoliberalism to America in the 1950s, and we fully bought into it in the 1980s. Most Americans had no idea, really, what this new political/economic ideology meant; they just knew it involved free trade, economic austerity, tax cuts, deregulation and privatization. 

The free trade part, we were told, would bring about the end of great-power wars because countries that were economically interdependent wouldn't dare ruin their own economies by going to war with a significant trading partner.  

The "McDonald's Theory" hatched by Thomas Friedman was argued on TV and in the newspapers: No two nations that had McDonald's fast food restaurants, we were told (falsely), had ever gone to war with each other. 

Free trade was also going to eliminate poverty in the world by giving every country an "even playing field" to compete for manufacturing jobs.  

High-wage countries like the U.S. and the U.K. would have to stop protecting their laborers with unions, whose wage and benefit demands were merely "drags on the economy" and prevented the "magic of markets" from working. 

Low-wage countries would pick up much of that work, but over time their people would rise into the middle class too, and everything would even out.  

And indeed, trillions of dollars of wealth were sucked out of the American working class as union membership plunged from around a third of workers to about 6% in the private marketplace today, all while China saw the fastest and strongest rise of a middle class in the history of the world. There are now more middle-class Chinese than the entire population of the U.S., as the American middle class sank below half our population for the first time since the postwar era got seriously underway. 


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Austerity was supposed to end ghettoes, crime and poverty in America by withdrawing the supports "lazy" people used to get by without having to work.  

In the neoliberal story, Black people weren't isolated in their neighborhoods by redlining and racist designs for highways, power plants and other polluting industries; they lived in "public housing" on "welfare" and made more and more money, the neoliberal story went, as they had more and more babies out of wedlock. 

Reagan told the story of the "strapping young buck" in line at the supermarket upsetting all the hard-working white people when he whipped out his food stamps to pay for his steak and beer; it was the male complement to Reagan's Black "welfare queen" myth. Cut off his food stamps, the logic went, and he'll be forced to look for gainful employment…even if there were no jobs within miles and white employers wouldn't then hire Black people.  

The occasional Black rags-to-riches stories, like Herman Cain or Ben Carson, were celebrated and held up as examples of how neoliberal austerity policies would "transform the 'hood" and bring about both racial and economic integration nationwide. Meanwhile, harsh prison sentences, mandatory minimums and three-strikes laws would end the scourge of "super-predators" on our streets. 

And neoliberalism's tax cuts for the morbidly rich would incentivize them to start new businesses and "create jobs." Everybody would win!

Deregulation, we were told, would enable all this "free market magic" to happen quickly, because businesses were more nimble and knew better what they needed to do to make their products than did "government bureaucrats." 

Even regulations that most people agreed with, like pollution controls, were unnecessary, the neoliberalism advocates told us, because businesses that polluted would be "shamed in the marketplace." 

If they refused to clean things up and their pollution was harming people, we were told, they'd be "held accountable in the courts" by the families of the people they'd damaged or killed. 

Deregulation would also end economic depressions, because no banker or stockbroker in his right mind would take such big chances that a misstep could wipe out large sectors of the nation's economy. 

Republican Sen. Phil Gramm made this very point on the floor of the Senate in 1999 when selling the end of the 1933 Glass-Steagall law that prevented checkbook banks from using their depositors' money to gamble in the stock, bond and real estate markets.  

Everybody applauded and banksters started gambling and became billionaires. And, of course, it led us straight to the Bush Crash of 2008 when the entire system seized up and you and I bailed out Wall Street with trillions of dollars, hundreds of billions of which the banksters simply pocketed.

Privatization was a subset of deregulation, moving control over essential services like water, power and schools out of the public and governmental arena and into the hands of the rich and their allies. Privatization was supposed to make water cleaner, electricity cheaper and schools better. 

Tragically, as Americans are now realizing as we wake up from our neoliberal dream, all were lies. 

Flint, Michigan, was a disastrous water privatization scheme pushed by the Republican administration of that state that has destroyed the lives of thousands of now-brain-damaged children. 

California and Texas suffer from regular blackouts while the stockholders and executives of their power companies stash billions in their money bins. 

Public schools around the country have been kneecapped as their resources are reallocated to corporate, for-profit charter schools.

Reagan installs neoliberalism

From the 1930s to 1981, a period of time spanning more than two full generations, the American political and economic system was run under a "well-regulated capitalism" system conceived by economist John Maynard Keynes and put into place in 1933 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.  

A top income tax bracket of 91% that kicked in at around $3 million a year in today's money guaranteed that nobody became obscenely rich, while strong protections for workers and their right to unionize ensured that a good chunk of corporate profits went to the workers who created that revenue.  

Antitrust laws were so vigorously enforced that in the 1962 case of Brown Shoe Co. v. United States, the Supreme Court blocked the merger of Brown and GR Kinney, two shoe manufacturers, because the combination of the two would have captured about 5 percent of the U.S. shoe market. (For comparison, Nike today has 18 percent of the U.S. shoe market.)

Throughout that period America became steadily safer and cleaner as worker protections became law (and got their own agency with OSHA), pollution and dangerous products were regulated (and the EPA was created), and government stepped in proactively to reforest America (with the Civilian Conservation Corps) and provide American families with low-cost clean electricity (the Hoover and Bonneville Dams and the Tennessee Valley Authority, among others). 

But starting in a big way in the 1950s, a number of front men for big money industries and dynastic fortunes stepped forward to argue that all this regulation and taxation was not a benefit or economic stabilizer but instead a certain road to economic doom and social perdition.  

Milton Friedman argued (in his book "Capitalism and Freedom") that high wages, taxes and regulation were stifling the economy in a way that would surely lead to hyperinflation and ruin, predicting a disaster far worse even than the Black Tuesday stock market crash and ensuing Republican Great Depression that Herbert Hoover kicked off in 1929.  

Russell Kirk argued (in "The Conservative Mind") that if the American working class became sufficiently wealthy then minorities would rise up, wives would want to have careers and young people would become libertines, flouting the rules of society.

The result, Kirk predicted in 1951, would be a civil rights movement that could overthrow white control of America, a women's movement that would sweep away socially-stabilizing patriarchy and a student movement that defied authority, law and the draft, all leading to social chaos and our inability to fight wars.

Inflation gives neoliberals the lever they needed

Inflation had always been the thing that Friedman and his acolytes most loudly warned against, but when it came to America its cause wasn't what Friedman had predicted.  

In 1973 several Arab states went to war with Israel and the U.S. openly took Israel's side in the conflict. Enraged, the oil-rich states — led by Saudi Arabia — cut off the supply of oil to America in what is now known as the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973-1974. 

There are two main ways inflation happens: A country debases its currency (as happened in Germany in the 1920s and Zimbabwe in this century) or a commodity that's at the core of an economy becomes scarce. (In the case of Zimbabwe it was both: Food became scarce at the same time the government went on a money-printing binge.)

The U.S. has never had a serious problem with debasing our currency (although that's what Friedman was hysterically warning against), but everything in our economy — from manufactured goods to travel to food production and distribution — runs on oil. 

The oil shock so shook our economy that Richard Nixon, no fan of government intervention in markets, resorted to wage and price controls while people formed mile-long lines to get gas on the odd- or even-days they could do so, based on the last digit of their license plate.  

The result of that oil shortage was a subsequent shortage of pretty much everything else, and when things are scarce their prices get bid up. Inflation hit 12% in 1974 and stayed high while oil slowly worked its way back through the economy, until 1981 when it dropped down to a "mere" 8.9%

Friedman, Reagan and the wealthy funders of the Republican Party saw this inflation, which was devastating the Jerry Ford and Jimmy Carter one-term presidencies, as a political gift. To a man, they insisted it was caused by FDR's and LBJ's "welfare state" policies and the "big spending" associated with them, even though that was a complete lie.

Reagan was sworn into office just as inflation was beginning to abate (it dropped to 3.8% in 1982) and he told America that we needed to embrace an entirely new economic theory if we were to avoid another era of 15% mortgage rates and wage-eroding price increases. 

America, shaken by that decade of seemingly intractable inflation, bought his sales pitch and Reaganomics — aka neoliberalism — became the operational economic and political system of America in 1981. Everything from trickle-down to busting unions to "ending welfare as we know it" and "tough on crime" policing fell under this single rubric. 

Democrats buy into neoliberalism

As the oil shock wore off and the American economy entered a period of strong rebound in 1982, it seemed that Reaganomics/neoliberalism was working.  

Expanding on the idea, Reagan and George Bush the Elder negotiated what Bush called a "New World Order" of "free trade." While people would still be constrained by national borders, there would no longer be borders or barriers for the flow of money and corporate goods.

They rolled out the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) which later birthed the World Trade Organization (WTO) and negotiated the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that was later signed by Bill Clinton.  

Clinton had become a believer, in part because it was good politics; Reaganomics was getting credit for the end of the oil-shock-caused inflation and subsequent hard times and was popular. 

Reagan's destruction of American unions had also dried up the Democratic Party's main revenue source, so by 1992 jumping into bed with giant corporations and the super-rich had become a political survival strategy for Democrats.  

Embracing multinational corporations that wanted to move their expensive-labor manufacturing facilities overseas meant overflowing campaign coffers for the newly-neoliberal Democratic Party and Clinton's political arm, the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC). 

It was time, Clinton told us, to consign the policies of Roosevelt and Keynes to the dustbin of history. There was a "New Democrat" Party (there's still a "New Democrat Caucus" in Congress for neoliberal hangers-on) and a new, young, vigorous president was taking the reins of government. 

It worked for a while. But by the early 2000s Americans were starting to see through the entire neoliberal façade, as more than 50,000 factories had moved from the U.S. to Mexico, China and other developing countries while wages in the U.S. had collapsed. The middle class was going backward, or staying flat at best, and discontent roiled the country.  

After a brief feel-good period of punitive war after 9/11, Americans were again ready to shake things up; they did so in an historic move by electing our country's first Black president, Barack Obama. 

While Obama, like Clinton, had campaigned on themes that made it seem he was rejecting neoliberalism, in fact he was as deeply in its camp as were Reagan, Bush, Clinton and Bush.

By the time of his presidency neoliberalism was simply conventional wisdom in political circles, having been adopted in the U.K. in 1978 by Margaret Thatcher and in large part adopted by much of the rest of Europe in the 1990s and early 2000s. Onward to Davos to party with the neoliberal billionaires! 

But still, as noble and soaring as Obama's rhetoric was, and as good and decent a man as he was (in contrast to the war criminal and torturer Bush, the horny Clinton or the evil Nixon), neoliberalism still wasn't working for anybody except America's biggest corporations and richest individuals. And American workers knew it. 

Enter Donald Trump, the political equivalent of the Little Boy Who Said the Emperor Has No Clothes. Trump attacked the neoliberal policies of both parties, although never directly using the word.  

Free trade, he said, had been a disaster for American workers. And voters knew he was right.

Rich people were gaming the tax system — he knew that, he told us, because he did it, too — and he was going to put an end to that.  Americans wanted tax fairness, and when Trump said his rich friends "will hate me" because he was going to raise their taxes so much, voters believed him.

Austerity had not only not ended crime but was driving working-class people into the poorhouse. Nobody, Trump proclaimed, would be a better friend to Social Security, Medicare, housing supports and other entitlement programs that supported the poor and middle class alike than him.

Most of his solutions were lies, of course, but the American people wanted to believe that this reality TV star and billionaire was just the savior America needed.  

To top it off, Trump spoke what many white people considered "politically incorrect truths" about race and immigration.  "They" were stealing your job and threatening to rape your wives and daughters, Trump told white Americans, and he was just the guy tough enough to deal with "them." 

Outside of tearing a few thousand brown-skinned children away from their parents and symbolic tariffs on Chinese products that backfired badly, Trump couldn't pull any of it off. He was as much a follower of neoliberal ideology as any American president since Reagan, his rhetoric aside.  

So Americans, still wanting to get rid of neoliberalism, decided to try the Democrats again in 2020, giving that party control of the House, Senate and White House. Joe Biden, a canny politician sensing the mood of the country, openly denounced many of the tenets of neoliberalism and, in the first six months of his presidency, accomplished Keynesian stimulus programs that would have left Clinton, Bush or Obama in shock. 

Now the Democrats and the Biden administration face a choice.  

Do they finish the job and end neoliberalism altogether, bringing our manufacturing back home, rebuilding the power of organized labor and raising taxes and regulations?  Or do they declare "mission accomplished" and revert back to neoliberal policies?  

Turning back neoliberalism would be an accomplishment for the ages, something impossible even five years ago.  

Bringing American manufacturing back home, raising top income tax rates to the above-50% level that stabilizes the explosion of great wealth, and building a 21st-century social safety net with free college and Medicare for All would guarantee that the Democratic Party — as it did from the 1930s to 1980 — would control most of the U.S. government for generations. 

It would also strengthen democracy itself in America, leading us towards the multiracial, multiethnic all-in society promised in our founding documents but not yet fully realized.

However, there are powerful forces arrayed in defense of neoliberalism, including the Supreme Court, massive transnational corporations and an activist billionaire class the court empowered with rulings like Citizens United.  

If the neoliberals win and Biden and the Democrats back down, it's unlikely America will simply slide back into a "friendly neoliberalism" like we had before the Trump presidency.  

Instead, we will almost certainly follow the path that Russia and Hungary have trod, embracing Friedman's economic policies and the authoritarian strongman politics of oligarchy necessary to enforce them. It will be the end of the largest and most noble parts of the American experiment.

America has arrived at one of history's great crossroads. 


Thom Hartmann

Thom Hartmann is a talk-show host and the author of "The Hidden History of the Supreme Court and the Betrayal of America" and more than 25 other books in print. He is a writing fellow at the Independent Media Institute.

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