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Cowie says U.S. ‘great exception’ period not reproducible

Barry McNamara
MONMOUTH, Ill. – To illustrate the challenges created by economic inequality in the United States, this year’s Midwest Matters speaker at Monmouth College showed a slide that framed the issue in stark terms.

The slide, titled “Health and Social Problems Are Worse in More Unequal Countries,” rated 20 economically developed countries based on 10 health and social problems along with income inequality. Japan and four Scandinavian nations rated the best on the scale. At the opposite end of the graph was the United States.

“You can see that the United States is a total outlier,” Jefferson Cowie told an audience Feb. 21 in the Pattee Auditorium. “We have extreme inequality and extreme (health and social) problems. We need to do something about that, I would say.”

In his talk, “Rethinking Golden Age Thinking: A Political History of Economic Equality in the United States,” Cowie said there was a time when the United States would not have been an outlier on that slide. That was the period from the mid-1930s to the mid-1970s, which Cowie explores in his critically acclaimed 2016 book, The Great Exception: The New Deal and Limits of American Politics.

“The one time we did it, it was an exception. It’s hard to recreate,” said Cowie, who is the James G. Stahlman Chair in History at Vanderbilt University.

Cowie noted that much current political and policy debate focuses on recapturing the success of the years that included the New Deal, World War II and the post-war boom. But he said rather than looking back, policy makers might instead press ahead for a different solution.

“The New Deal and the Golden Age (the years following the war until the 1973-75 recession) are problematic metaphors,” said Cowie, who noted economic equity peaked in 1972. “They’re not reproducible in the terms we had at the time.”

Six challenges

Cowie cited six issues – state, race, immigration, individualism, culture wars, and class and labor – that make it problematic to return to the prosperity of the 1930s-70s.

He said that during “the great exception,” the state was active on behalf of working people, and unions experienced their own golden years. During the periods before and after that period, however, “the state aligns with capital over and over and over again.”

Cowie showed that immigration was a similar outlier. It was essentially closed off from 1924-65 in the United States. The interim was what has been called a period of “monolithic whiteness.”

“We were not fighting over immigration rights (during ‘the great exception’),” said Cowie. “By and large, the people who were here during that time were already here. What are we fighting over today? Immigration rights.”

The deep divide

Cowie also pointed to the deep political divide that exists today. He used another graph to show that party polarization reached a high point during the Gilded Age in the late 19th century, then tilted toward consensus during the Depression and World War II. Today, polarization is literally off the chart.

“The person who came up with the graph set perfect polarization at 1.0,” said Cowie. “He’s now changed it to 1.1, so we’ve exceeded perfection.”

While Cowie can argue why the 1930s-70s are not a template for today’s policy makers, he said he has been unable to make an argument for how to solve economic and social inequality in the United States.

He said there is a strong “sense of hopelessness ... juxtaposed to being very exciting economic times for others. It’s very dichotomous. ... This is not the product of one president or one party – it’s been a 30- to 40-year process that has delivered us to this situation.”

At the conclusion of his talk, Cowie referenced a quotation that indicated just how difficult the economic balancing act might be. It is attributed to Louis Brandeis, who served on the U.S. Supreme Court a century ago: “We must make our choice. We may have democracy or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.”