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The Age of Austerity: How Scarcity Will Remake American Politics [Hardcover]

Thomas Byrne Edsall
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Book Description

Jan. 10 2012
One of our most prescient political observers provides a sobering account of how pitched battles over scarce resources will increasingly define American politics in the coming years—and how we might avoid, or at least mitigate, the damage from these ideological and economic battles.
 
In a matter of just three years, a bitter struggle over limited resources has enveloped political discourse at every level in the United States. Fights between haves and have-nots over health care, unemployment benefits, funding for mortgage write-downs, economic stimulus legislation—and, at the local level, over cuts in police protection, garbage collection, and in the number of teachers—have dominated the debate. Elected officials are being forced to make zero-sum choices—or worse, choices with no winners.
    
Resource competition between Democrats and Republicans has left each side determined to protect what it has at the expense of the other. The major issues of the next few years—long-term deficit reduction; entitlement reform, notably of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid; major cuts in defense spending; and difficulty in financing a continuation of American international involvement—suggest that your-gain-is-my-loss politics will inevitably intensify.

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Praise for The Age of Austerity:


"[T]his book makes for timely reading
, given the acrimonious partisanship that has animated the 2012 campaign.... [Edsall uses] his chops as a political reporter (he spent 25 years covering politics for The Washington Post and is currently writing an online column on the 2012 election for The New York Times) to put these developments in historical perspective and to assess how they might affect this year’s elections."Michiko Kakutani, New York Times


"The economic collapse that began in 2008 and its aftermath…has mired us in what Thomas Edsall rightly calls “the age of austerity.’’ What this means, the former Washington Post reporter argues in his eye-opening and hugely important account, is a transformation of US politics into “a dog-eat-dog political competition over diminishing resources.’’ Edsall’s point is powerfully argued…. [H]is book is essential…reading for anyone seeking to understand our broken politics."Chuck Leddy, Boston Globe


"The Age of Austerity is an impressive synthesis of reporting and political science. Eschewing the kind of personality-driven trivia that constitutes so much campaign reporting, Edsall digs deep into the underlying social, economic, and even psychological drivers of America's increasingly polarized political coalitions."Matthew Yglesias, Slate


"[A] serious work…that repay[s] close attention….. Edsall’s book really comes alive…when it turns to the political effects of austerity. He believes that US politics will increasingly be characterised by a struggle for resources…. [S]ober and precise."—Gideon Rachman, Financial Times


"Provide[s] much-needed information and analysis.... Like other overleveraged nations, the US may well be facing Thomas Edsall's 'age of austerity'."—Andrew Hacker, New York Review of Books


"In this erudite primer on the conditions that have brought us to this moment of economic crisis, journalist and Columbia University professor Edsall argues that the U.S. faces a future of diminished resources, and, as a result of partisan intractability, the possibility that we won't overcome current challenges to long-term prosperity.... Providing ample sociological and economic evidence via descriptive graphs and in-depth analysis, Edsall...illuminates hard but necessary truths."—Publishers Weekly


 "I strongly recommend that every sensible, intelligent voter read this book before the fall elections."—Ed Fisher, Morning Sun


Advance Praise for The Age of Austerity:


“Thomas Edsall has written some of the most important and lasting political books of the last 25 years. Here, he deftly places the debates and controversies of the current moment in a broader historical and policy context. And he explains clearly why our economic woes have political causes—a fact that most people don't quite believe, but one that urgently needs to be understood.”
Michael Tomasky, political columnist for Newsweek and the Daily Beast


“Tom Edsall is a tough realist with a large conscience and a brilliant mind. That's why he's one of the country’s most important political writers: he faces difficult truths that others try to avoid and discerns important trends before they become trendy—and before most people even notice them. He's done that again with The Age of Austerity, exactly the right book asking the right questions for our moment.”
E. J. Dionne, Jr., author of Why Americans Hate Politics
 
 
“As economists handicap the odds of a new recession and speculate about a lost decade for the U.S. economy, Tom Edsall offers a troubling vision of American political and social conflict in circumstances of low growth and intense polarization.  To avoid what he dubs a “brutish future,” our divided leaders will have to come together around a plan for renewed growth that is bound to offend the core constituencies of both political parties.  If Edsall is right, the outlook for such an agreement is dim at best, and the alternative is the decline of the United States.”
William Galston, Senior Fellow at The Brookings Institution and former policy advisor to President Clinton


The Age of Scarcity greatly clarifies the current frightening crisis in our politics. Thomas Edsall, one of our major political commentators, sees Republicans and Democrats as competing coalitions of haves and have-nots, locked in brutal battles over the fundamentals of modern American government at a time of severe economic duress.  The stakes for America's future are economic and moral as well as political, and they are as large as they have been since the Great Depression. Edsall's analysis—at once calm and insistent, upsetting and enlightening—is a singularly valuable account of these ugly times.”
Sean Wilentz, Sidney and Ruth Lapidus Professor of the American Revolutionary Era at Princeton University, author of The Rise of American Democracy and The Age of Reagan
 

About the Author

Thomas Edsall is an American journalist and academic, best known for his 25 years covering politics for the Washington Post.  He holds the Joseph Pulitzer II and Edith Pulitzer Moore Professorship in Public Affairs Journalism at Columbia University, and writes an online 2012 election column for the New York Times. In addition, he is a correspondent for The New Republic, and the author of Chain Reaction, a Pulitzer Prize finalist (1992), The New Politics of Equality (1984), and Building Red America (2006), among other works.  Edsall is also the winner of the Carey McWilliams Award of the American Political Science Association.  Mr. Edsall lives in New York and Washington, D.C. with his wife, Mary.


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2.0 out of 5 stars dreary list of dismal facts Nov. 11 2012
By ogilive
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Edsall has a reputation for being at the forefront of scholarly discussion of pertinent social issues, but this book is just a list of unfortunate facts, with little analysis or insight; half the time the facts just seem to be thrown in randomly. Reading this book, you might think that 2012 is worse than 1932. If you don't already know these facts, you probably haven't heard of Edsall and wouldn't seek out such information, and if you do, this book makes for dull and even misleading reading. For example, Edsall includes the fact of the rating agency's S&P downgrade of US debt from AAA to AA+, but ignores the context. American ratings agencies have little credibility after rating toxic subprime mortgages as AAA, and after Japan's debt was downgraded a decade ago -- obviously for political reasons -- there were no consequences for Japan, only the ratings agencies. Japan was able to continue to borrow funds at a nominal (near zero) rate of interest, but the credibility of the agencies clearly took a hit. Much of the information in Edsall's book is similarly misleading ... and dreary.
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Amazon.com: 3.4 out of 5 stars  17 reviews
80 of 107 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The 2012 Yearbook of Democratic Party Brainwaves Jan. 10 2012
By Alan F. Sewell - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
If anything is clear at this time it is that the American people have been shell-shocked by the Great Recession. Among all other aspects of life we are confused about which political party to trust with the financial future of our country.

In 2008 we elected a Democrat President who followed through on his campaign promise to expand the government's role in providing healthcare. The very instant his agenda was enacted into law we voted the Democrats out of Congress, replacing them with "Tea Party" Republicans who vowed to reverse the Democrat agenda by repealing healthcare reform, lowering taxes, and reducing the reach of government! So now we have a government of two warring factions, anchored to diametrically opposing ideologies, without any sort of middle ground to build a compromise around.

Of course it's not entirely fair to blame the gridlock on our elected officials when "we the people" who elected them are so fickle in switching back and forth between diametrically opposing ideologies. Our representatives are certain to have a difficult time trying to figure out how to represent an electorate that can't make up its mind as to how it wants to be represented! This book is an attempt by political columnist Thomas Edsall to explain why the electorate is so confused and to try to guess which way it might lean when the 2012 votes are counted.

Let me say up front that if you're a Conservative / Republican the book will annoy you. Edsall tries to be fair-minded in analyzing our viewpoints; however, he does come across as a Democrat who subconsciously stereotypes Republicans as being somewhere in between Ebenezer Scrooge and Simon Legree. The author annoyed me by characterizing Republicans as a "White Party" that presumably hates minorities and wants to deport all the Hispanics back to where they came from. The question comes to mind, "Why is it that New Mexico and Puerto Rico, the two most Hispanic political entities in the Union, have just elected REPUBLICAN governors?" *

In fact most of the book can be fairly characterized as Democrat Talking Points. Many issues, from the Iraq War to income inequality, are discussed from the perspective you'd expect from a Democrat campaign manual. Even so, it never hurts Conservatives and Republicans to give these points careful consideration, because those on our side don't always own a monopoly on truth either.

On the other hand if you're a Democrat who's interested in politics I am sure you'll love the book because it is literally the 2012 Yearbook of Democratic Party brainwaves.

The central focus is what is going to happen next November. Will the electorate lean more to the Democrats as we did in 2006 and 2008 or lurch sharply to the right as we did in 2010? This election is very difficult to forecast because the author rightly points out that the voters in each demographic segment are not responding the way they are "supposed" to. For example, voters over the age of 60, who would appear to have the most to lose if Social Security and Medicare are curtailed, are among the most enthusiastic Tea Party supporters. I think that is because people in this age group reached political maturity during the Reagan years and are firmly committed to Conservative principles.

I also know many moderate Democrats who are "supposed" to vote for Obama, and who did vote for him in 2008, but now say there's no way they'd vote for him in 2012. Some think he was too conventional and did not give them the "change" they expected. Others think he's a radical socialist. On the other hand, there are people like me, a middle-aged Republican-leaning White guy, who respect Obama because of the job he's done of governing competently and responsibly during a very difficult time. With all this unpredictability the election of 2012 is definitely up for grabs.

The most interesting aspect of this book is that it reminds me almost word-for-word of the types of political books that were written in 1968. Here's how Edsall describes the current election:

====================================
Republican leaders see the window closing on the opportunity to dismantle the liberal state. The prospect looms that the GOP will be forced to accommodate changing demographics as proponents of big government gain traction and as an ever-growing cohort of Americans becomes dependent on social welfare initiatives. These stresses create an incentive within the conservative movement to pull hard right and to pursue increasingly high-risk strategies. The 2012 election is positioned to be the most ideologically consequential contest since 1932, setting the stage for a new complex of differences and tensions--no longer confined to this continent. As rising expectations meet diminishing resources on a global scale, political conflict resolution mechanisms with which we are familiar are likely to be swept away.
=====================================

If you changed the words "The 2012 election" to read "the 1968 election" you'd have the same situation. Voters then as now were in an uproar and had trouble deciding who to vote for. They liked the expansion of Social Welfare that the Democrats had created, but disliked having to pay for it with rising taxes in a difficult economy. Young people were restless for change but angry that it didn't come fast enough. In the background was the divisive Vietnam War and a faltering economy. There was constant tension with the Soviet Union and China. There were riots in the streets and on college campuses. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were murdered. Society seemed to be coming apart at the seams. People were asking, "When is the revolution coming?" More than a few thought that the USA was on the short path to a Communist or Fascist dictatorship.

And yet a funny thing happened in spite of all that turmoil. Our democracy gave most of the people most of what they wanted. Republicans, Democrats, Liberals, and Conservatives could all claim victories of sorts in the election that year and those that followed. The government remained divided between the parties, but it did settle down to business. The Republican Party did not disappear as the Democrats so confidently predicted, but neither did the Republicans succeed in dismantling the Democrats' Welfare State. They did trim it back a little and rationalize it, but its substance remains. Over time the economic forces of labor and capital, and of supply and demand, were restored to balance and the economy began growing again. The country and the world moved forward.

This time around we also face problems that seem insurmountable. How are we ever going to pay for escalating Social Security, Medicare, and public employee pension fund commitments at a time when a slow economy is diminishing tax revenues? How are we going to obtain any degree of compromise between those tax-cutting Republicans and those tax-and-spend Democrats? It will be a painfully brutal process, but I suspect the country will settle down and get back to business as we did after 1968. I'm hoping that, like 1968, things will turn out to be a bit brighter than Edsall fears.

If you're a Democrat buy this book and enjoy it. Save it as a reference and see how many of the author's predictions are fulfilled in 2012. If you're a Republican you may enjoy it as a keyhole into what the other side is thinking. If you're an Independent you may enjoy reading it and having a good laugh at the stubborn dogma of both parties!

=====================================================================================================================

* The question comes to mind, "Why is it that New Mexico and Puerto Rico, the two most Hispanic political entities in the Union, have just elected REPUBLICAN governors?"

Here is where I think Edsall is missing a most important point. Being married into a Hispanic family I know dozens of recent Latino immigrants from all walks of life --- everybody from manual laborers to engineers and millionaire entrepreneurs. My sense is that the majority of Hispanics aspire to the American success story. Once they get their first rung up on the ladder of success they identify with Republicans as the party that self-sufficient successful people vote for. I also know upwardly mobile African-Americans who see it that way.

Democrats emphasize social equality and opportunity for upward mobility for everyone, especially for the poor, the minorities, and the recent immigrants. Republicans need to respect Democrats for emphasizing opportunity for the groups that need it the most. On the other hand, Democrats need to understand that once people achieve success, they are more likely to vote Republican because the Republican Party talks a universal language of success that transcends race. The Republicans are not the party of White Racists trying to keep the lid on people of color as Edsall and other Democrats believe. That's why the Republican Party isn't likely to disappear under a wave of minority and immigrant demographics.

Republicans need to understand that they have friends in the Hispanic and African American communities and to become active in letting these people know what the party stands for. Democrats need to get beyond their talking points that seem to appeal ONLY to the poor and minorities, such as emphasizing poverty and lingering discrimination, to the exclusion of the positives such as the opportunity for all people to succeed.

If both parties will recognize that their common agenda is to maximize the opportunity for all Americans to achieve success, then perhaps they will find common ground to compromise on.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars strong on political snapshot, weaker on the economic causes Oct. 30 2012
By Robert J. Crawford - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
With the current economic crisis, the polarization of American politics seems to have reached a nadar: the political process is stalled at an impasse, perhaps a dead end. Even our political institutions, unable to facilitate compromise and negotiation, may be breaking down. Whoever wins the 2012 presidential election, we are told, we face the same, if not worse, polarization. In this fascinating and useful book, Edsall attempts to explain why we find ourselves in this situation, what its implications are, and what we might reasonably expect.

His ideas are simple and straightforward: when we prosper, we think of others and are willing to help them; when we aren't, we don't. This explains, he argues, the direction that each party is taking. In one of the best sections of the book, Edsall looks at the "psychology" behind each of these ideological preferences. Democrats represent empathy as well as community-based solutions that involve the sharing of resources; they see society and the economy as having the ability to take many possible forms, the shape of which politicians control; they are open to new ideas and optimistic. In contrast, Republicans see individual responsibility as the key not only to prosperity, but to the moral development of individuals and hence, society; they put their faith in the "free market" as the most efficient arbiter of economic activity, viewing government actions as destructive interference; they tend to be closed to new ideas and deeply pessimistic.

The heyday of liberal politics, in this view, coincided with the post-war boom years, up until the early 1970s, when productivity was rising and everyone benefitted. Politics was a positive-sum game. Once this golden age was over, the political process of dividing up resources became a zero-sum game: what one person got, another lost. This signalled the time of conservative ascendancy, which has lasted to the present day.

In policy terms, this translated into a fight to gain resources for the natural constituencies of each party. The GOP fought to channel resources to the haves, i.e. the white middle and upper classes. This came at the direct expense of core democratic constituencies: people of color, the disadvantaged, unionized workers, and the educated liberal elites, who believed in a more egalitarian vision for society. Moreover, the political rhetoric of the GOP - to get ahead by keeping the fruits of one's labor - appealed to many in the lower strata of society, ending the New Deal coalition by pealing off many working whites: they preferred lower taxes to government programs to benefit others. To express this in political campaigns, the GOP attempts to split independent voters with attacks on racial preferences, immigrant rights, and the needy, all of whom are portrayed as moochers, i.e. the 47% that Romney referred to in the infamous tape. Indeed, given the frame of the 2012 electoral debate - how to control spending and balance the budget - the conservatives have essentially won.

In my opinion, there is a great deal of truth to this line of reasoning. Edsall articulates it very well and backs it up with a huge amount of polling data. So far, so good, but this is nothing new.

Unfortunately, the book comes up short on the economics behind all of this, on the deeper causes and what to do about them. He does cover some structural problems, such as the strain that retiring babyboomers will place on social security and medicare. But there is much more that Edsall barely mentions.

First, the end of productivity rises in 1973 came at the moment that oil prices went up. Without cheap energy, other factors in the industrial economy came to the fore, in particular the cost of labor, sending manufacturing jobs overseas. Second, with the level of prosperity we reached - virtually everyone had cars, TV, and soon, a personal computer - there were no longer basic engines to drive economic growth via demand. In my opinion, the hunger for unfulfilled consumer desires explains the dynamism we are seeing in many developing economies, especially in Asia. Third, to maintain the appearance of growth and increasing wealth, the western economies turned to financial leveraging, i.e. extending credit by allowing banks to lend more with looser financial capital rules. This led to asset inflation as well as enabled the elites to indulge in speculative games in zero-sum betting schemes that tax payers wound up paying for after the 2008 meltdown. Taken together, this means that a slow-growing West may fall behind as other, younger capitalist economies catch up. What should we do about all this? That question is way beyond the scope of the book.

Furthermore, while Edsall strives to strike a non-partisan tone, it is clear that he is a liberal and would prefer Obama, though he never states this outright. This will anger many conservatives who read this.

In spite of its holes, I would recommend this book. It is relevant beyond the current election cycle and is very strong on the political dynamics we are witnessing. But you will to look elsewhere if you are seeking answers to the deeper questions, in my opinion.
13 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Important and Timely Book Jan. 31 2012
By Larayne A. Holcomb - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Just finished The Age of Austerity and found it to be a cogent and lucid examination of the current state of dysfunctional American politics. Edsall presents a persuasive argument on behalf of the impetus toward conservatism resulting from economic austerity. The author's analysis of the Tea Party phenomenon and the distinction its members often make between middle class govenment benefits and poorer citizens entitlement benefits seemed spot on to this reader. Also, Edsall makes the critical observation, backed with substantial data, demonstrating the centrality of race to the ideological battles of our time.
I would highly recommend this book to anyone seeking a greater understanding of the current political situation in the United States
3.0 out of 5 stars Ideologue March 29 2014
By Sandra Rennie - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
The author has an ideological position well to the left of center and has a tendency to select his data and facts to fit his predetermined position. The topic is an important one and I wanted to learn more from an expert but don't feel I can uncritically trust his writing.
3.0 out of 5 stars The Age of Austerity Feb. 3 2013
By Kate - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition
Very excellent informative look at our collective responses to this latest recession. It seems that we as a population are more reactionary than banks, allowing fear to drive our economic, political and moral decisions: much against our future self interest.
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