The publication of yet another left of centre book asking “What has gone wrong with American capitalism and what should be done to fix it?” may provoke a sigh or a yawn. However, in the case of The Wolf at the Door such a reaction would be misplaced. It is a constructive and engaging book that has things to say that are worth considering.
Its starting point is that there is a serious economic and consequent social problem in the USA that is giving rise to dangerous populism both of the right (Donald Trump) and of the left (Bernie Sanders). Those on the right of American politics are denying that there is a problem whilst those on the left are focusing on the wrong issue: taking their cue from Thomas Piketty, they focus on inequality and, in particular, the wealth of the top one per cent. This, Graetz and Shapiro suggest, is a serious mistake since “Obsessing about the very top is a distraction from the more pressing problems of economic stagnation and insecurity among increasing numbers of the middle class as well as the poor” (page 28). They acknowledge that “fighting insecurity might involve attending to some aspects of the growth of inequality” but insist that “the primary focus must be on mitigating the sources of economic insecurity” (page 7). They are surely right about this and their book thus gets off on a sound footing.
The authors aim to identify the various elements of economic insecurity and come up with a feasible agenda for addressing these. This result in a basket of proposals: a substantial expansion of the US Earned Income Tax Credit system (which provides a refundable tax credit for low to moderate income workers); the merger of the US Trade Adjustment Assistance and Unemployment Insurance programmes into one national programme (which the authors call “Universal Adjustment Assistance); major investment in infrastructure; the progressive expansion of Medicare starting by extending it to the youngest working age people, such that, over a generation, it becomes available to all; and the establishment of a system of universally available “pre-K” child care for young children under the age of five.
The authors recognise that many on the left will regard their proposed programme as unambitious, but they defend it on the basis that it addresses the right issue (i.e. economic insecurity) and is politically, economically and socially feasible. They are realists and pragmatists: they recognise that many on the left wish to return to what is seen as the utopia of the decades following the Second World War but, in the context of comments about the steel industry, warn that “this nostalgic yearning ignores the realities of lower-cost production abroad and of the technological transformations that now enable steel to be produced with a fraction of the workers once required” (page 18); they bluntly assert that the “unavoidable fact is that the good old days of well-paying, long-lasting employment are behind us, and they are not coming back” (page 115); they recognise that US politics is dysfunctional but seek to identify ways of achieving their goals despite this, in particular, by identifying “six features of successful distributive politics” (page 35) including building coalitions and pragmatically pursuing proximate goals; and on this basis they dismiss many policies favoured by the left both in the US and elsewhere including the establishment of universal basis income and a dramatic increase in the minimum wage.
This pragmatism results in a commendable absence of ideological shibboleths and the recognition of fundamental economic realities. Graetz and Shapiro are prepared to contemplate privatisation, they strongly favour free trade and they recognise the essential role of business both in the creation of prosperity and in the building of the coalitions that they recognise are essential for the implementation of their reform programme. They also refuse to take positions on a number of economic issues that divide left from right including the impact of statutory minimum wages and, perhaps most significantly, whether or not Piketty’s analysis and predictions are right. They dismiss Piketty’s suggestions of a global wealth tax and a trans-national European assembly with taxing and re-distributive powers as “so utterly deaf to anything that is feasible politically that it is hard to take them seriously” (page 261).
The book is wholly focused on the USA and non-Americans may fear that it will not be of interest to them. However, it is addressing issues that exist in many developed nations and, whilst much of the detail is likely to be relevant only to the USA, the analysis of the problems, the core elements of the proposals for solving them and the authors’ reflections on what is necessary to effect change should be of wide applicability. Furthermore, the insight that the book provides into the Byzantine complexities of the US legislative and governmental processes is of considerable interest in itself.
Of course, the biggest question to which the book gives rise is whether its proposals would work. Would they have the dramatic net positive effect that the authors’ hope for, even in the longer term? Unfortunately, this is open to serious doubt.
Graetz and Shapiro draw their inspiration from Roosevelt’s New Deal, which they mention on numerous occasions and which they credit with significant achievements. However, whilst unquestionably, there was much to applaud in the New Deal, it is far from clear that it dealt with economic insecurity. As Graetz and Shapiro admit, US unemployment remained above 20 per cent. through the 1930s and it was the Second World War that paradoxically transformed the US economy.
Some of the proposals are also vulnerable to other, more specific, criticism. In particular the authors never adequately deal with the economic issues associated with the subsidisation of wages that has been recognised ever since the Speenhamland magistrates tried this in late eighteenth century Britain. More fundamentally, they do not address issues associated with the control of mushrooming costs that have bedevilled social security systems around the world.
Leaving aside the economics, there must also be doubt over the US political feasibility of some of the proposals. In some cases, the authors give good reasons for believing that the coalitions necessary to secure the enactment of appropriate legislation could be assembled (e.g. in relation to the expansion of earned income tax credits). In other cases, however, they do not. Indeed, in relation to their proposed establishment of Universal Adjustment Assistance, they admit that “there is no obvious coalition to step in to the breach” (page 168) and their emphasis on infrastructure investment is somewhat undermined by their frank recognition that the apparent support for investment from across the US political spectrum has not prevented the visible decay of US infrastructure over a long period of time.
Those on the right of the political spectrum will also wonder how the proposals are to be paid for. Graetz and Shapiro are not classic “tax and spend” liberals. Indeed, they fear that left-wing populism could lead to “pressure for tax regimes that hamper competitiveness” (page 273). Furthermore, they acknowledge that the level of US government debt is already unsustainable yet raising income tax is politically impossible, having been rejected by both major parties in the US, and they dismiss wealth taxes as a solution on the basis that experience in other countries shows that their promise has been “oversold” (page 246). Hence they fall back on a basket of proposals that they suggest would, collectively, raise the necessary funds. Of these, the most dramatic would be the introduction of value added tax in the USA. Less dramatic proposals include the introduction of a gifts tax and the elimination of tax breaks for specific industries (although they do not generally favour raising business taxes.
British readers will probably recognise echoes of Tony Blair’s approach to taxation in these proposals. Indeed, the whole of Graetz and Shapiro’s programme has overtones of New Labour (which, it will be remembered, drew inspiration from the centre-left in the USA). This should give pause for thought. Some may argue that the rejection of New Labour by both the left and the right following the Global Financial Crisis resulted in us being unable to evaluate the long-term impact of Blairite policies. However, it is clearly arguable that those policies only worked because the economy was expanding at the time and they ultimately failed to address the underlying issues that Graetz and Shapiro identify and also stored up both economic and political problems for the future.
There are thus many challenges that can fairly be addressed to Graetz and Shapiro. However, this does not diminish the importance of what they have written. The Wolf at the Door represents a challenge to those on the left to reconsider priorities and to focus on policies that are both capable of implementation and will make a real difference to people’s lives. It is also a challenge to those on the right to recognise the reality of economic insecurity and, if Graetz and Shapiro’s proposals are considered unacceptable, to come up with an alternative. Whatever one’s political starting point, The Wolf at the Door is worth reading.
“The Wolf at the Door” by Michael J. Graetz and Ian Shapiro was published in 2020 by Harvard University Press (ISBN 9780674980884). 285pp including glossary.
Richard’s experience includes his time as Secretary at the UK Takeover Panel and a secondment to Linklaters’ Hong Kong office. He also served as Global Head of Client Sectors, responsible for Linklaters’ industry sector groups, and was a member of the Global Executive Committee.