Review of “The New Populism” by Fred Harris

The New Republic, September 8, 1973

BOOKS BY POLITICIANS tend to be boring, staff-produced efforts designed to dis­play The Boss as a thoughtful public servant.  They stimulate the mind about as much as a tummyful of turned yogurt.  Former Senator Harris’ latest volume is, like others of the genre, a pastiche of personal anecdotes, old Senate speeches and recom­mendations for bold new policies.  But it is stimulating and far better than Alka Seltzer as a treatment for the liberal blahs.

Fred Harris

Fred Harris

What sets it apart is Harris’ unique angle of vision.  He is the only politician on the scene who 1) has remote presidential possibilities and 2) says publicly and indeed vo­ciferously that American capitalism is a shuck.

How the realities of capitalism in this country could remain shrouded for as long as they have is a mystery not readi­ly penetrated.  Free enterprise, says the folklore, is wonderful, but hardly any­one bothers to inform us that it doesn’t exist.  Nor is it frequently bruited about that under the system that does exist, the rich continue to get richer while the rest of us get screwed for their benefit.  It seems to be one of the job re­quirements for politicians that they help preserve these little secrets.

A few years ago, then-Senator Harris decided not to stick by the game plan (which is one reason he couldn’t raise money for his 1972 presidential bid).  Economic classes do exist in America, he began insisting.  Their boundaries are fairly rigid, and their root cause is not the slothfulness of the indigent but the power of the privileged.  Such being the case, Harris went on, the primary function of government should be to make the rich poorer so that the rest of us can get a larger slice of the pie we help produce.  The government should do this not through “liberal” programs that require enormous bu­reaucratic contortions to deliver mini­mal services to narrowly defined cate­gories of recipients (the “medically in­digent,” the ill-fed and the poorly housed), but through tax and antitrust policies that redistribute wealth in the form of cash, stock and lower prices.  All these ideas are further developed in The New Populism.

A virtue of the book is that Harris makes his arguments without slipping into dema­goguery on the one side or statistical tedium on the other.  His style is enlightening, wry and human.  He embellishes a discussion of the power of banks with a descrip­tion of the way his father — “a tough, inde­pendent, wiry, cowboy sort of person” —would instantly lose his swagger when he walked into the local bank.  “He took off his hat the minute he entered the door.  He waited his turn.  When he was called through the swing­ing doors of the waist-high oak bar, my father stood at the banker’s desk till he was asked to sit.”

Elsewhere Harris compares antitrust enforcement to his memories of Prohibition in Oklahoma.  “A sheriff every now and then would make a big show of raiding a selected bootlegger and publicly destroying his wares.  The papers would carry front-page pictures of the sheriff with ax in hand, standing over the broken bottles while whiskey ran in the gutters.  Then everyone would relax again.”  And he gleefully observes that those who most often hail the work ethic have jobs in clean, safe offices and make lots of money from property ownership.  “President Nixon himself, prais­ing the ennobling effect of work on those who perform it, once said that there’s as much dignity in emptying bedpans as there is in serving as President of the United States.  So far as is known, no emptier of bedpans has been heard to agree.”

Harris cites, of course, the inevitable hard-core statistics, such as the fact that “two percent of the people in America own 80 percent of all individually held corporate stock and 90 percent of all in­dividually held corporate bonds.”  It is these statistics that make the folklore of capitalism seem absurd.  “Since most U.S. economic growth is in corporate capital and internally generated, it is simply wrong to assume that if the eco­nomic pie gets larger, ‘everybody’ will be better off.  Instead, the maldis­tri­bu­tion of wealth and ownership will grow.”

It is also wrong to assume that workers will be happy with their lot.  Harris’ best pages deal with the “blue collar blues” that have lately become such a fashionable subject of concern.  Of course workers are discontented, Harris argues, when their jobs are mono­tonous, their working conditions peril­ous, and their wages one-fiftieth the earnings of their corporate bosses (not to mention their union leaders).  Harris would give workers more power in the workplace and spread ownership of corporate stock a la Louis Kelso.  He’d also end subsidies to the rich (well doc­umented by Sen­ator Proxmire’s Joint Economic Committee), introduce a neg­ative income tax, break up the auto, steel, oil, rubber and other “shared monopolies,” and either abolish the regulatory agencies or make them serve the public’s interest rather than the regu­lated industries’.

IN ALL, it’s a pretty good program that Harris pulls together under the banner of New Populism, yet I’m struck by a curious limitation.  For all his skill in dissecting myths and inequities, Harris concludes — or rather states as a premise — that the remedy for modern capital­ism’s ailments is…old-fashioned capi­talism.  The notion that private enter­prise in America could stay egalitarian and competitive was hope­less nostalgia by the 1890s and is sheer fantasy today, Ralph Nader and old-tie anti-trusters notwithstanding.  The Sherman Act has been on the books for nearly a century; similar laws date back to the early 1900s.  Despite these laws, enormous, mini­mally competitive corporations have flourished for the same reason bootleg­gers thrived during Prohibition: we like what they make, and nobody else is making it.

The logical conclusion would be: don’t blame the sheriff, blame the lack of alternate sources of gratification.  And the logical remedy would be: if General Motors won’t reduce prices or build a safe nonpolluting car, then let the government buy 51 per­cent of Chrys­ler and start setting auto policy itself.  That public competition is a viable response to private monopoly is an idea whose time came long ago in almost every country save the United States.  Its sole advocate of stature in these parts is John Kenneth Galbraith, who spoke of it at a Nader-sponsored conference in 1972.

Harris took Galbraith to task at the conference, as he does in The New Populism, on the grounds that bigness is generally bad wherever it is found, whether in private cor­por­ations or gov­ernment.  Few would disagree if the is­sue were merely the virtue of smallness versus bigness.  Alas, the problem must be looked at more pragmatically, and through the prism of history.  After three generations it should be clear that sheriffs can’t save smallness.  On the other hand, it may still be possible for public enterprise to save competition, and in the process do something about inflation.

It’s worth exploring, yet no one does so seriously.  The capitalist folklore lingers, even in the most un­likely places.