Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Nicholas Carnes's "White-Collar Government"

Nicholas Carnes is assistant professor of public policy in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University. He has worked as a cashier, bus boy, dishwasher, receptionist, and construction worker.

Carnes applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, White-Collar Government: The Hidden Role of Class in Economic Policy Making, and reported the following:
Millionaires make up less than 3 percent of the country but constitute majorities of all three branches of the federal government. In contrast, people in working-class jobs account for more than half of the workforce, but less than 2 percent Congress comes from the working class.

White-Collar Government shines a spotlight on this startling economic gulf between ordinary Americans and the people who represent them in the halls of power. It’s the first book to show the true toll that government by the rich takes on our country.

Page 99 [inset left, click to enlarge] falls in Chapter 4. Chapters 2 and 3 show how the privileged politicians who dominate our governing institutions vote for more pro-business policies and pay less attention to problems like unemployment and poverty. In Chapter 4, I ask what makes them so different—and find that many affluent politicians (like affluent Americans) personally want the government to play a smaller role in economic affairs.

Page 99 actually summarizes this point, which is one of the book’s main arguments: “lawmakers sometimes base their choices on their own views, and those views are sometimes shaped by the kinds of jobs they had before they held office.”

But page 99 doesn’t mention some of the other important points the book makes. It doesn’t describe the staggering consequences that these differences ultimately have for economic policy (see Chapter 5). And it doesn’t mention the exciting possibilities for reform—it doesn’t discuss the promising new programs that are helping middle- and working-class Americans take back our political institutions (see Chapter 6).

Yet page 99 captures one important aspect of the book. Like page 99, White-Collar Government starts with statistics. Not in the literal sense, the way page 99 does (“. . . The third statistical model summarized in figure 4.4 controlled for . . .”). In general, the book keeps the statistical jargon to a minimum—it actually opens with a story about a house painter who ran for the House of Representatives. But the book isn’t just built on stories and anecdotes. White-Collar Government is political science, not political punditry. At every turn, the book is grounded in rigorous analyses of the best available data on the class backgrounds of politicians.

White-Collar Government makes some serious claims about the effects of government by the rich, but they aren’t just stories and anecdotes. They’re widespread and all-too-real threats to our most cherished political ideals.
Learn more about White-Collar Government at the University of Chicago Press website, and follow Nick Carnes on Twitter.

--Marshal Zeringue