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September 30, 2002

Book Review

By Gregory Bresiger

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  • Book Review

Wealth and Democracy A Political History of the American Rich

by Kevin Phillips

(Broadway Books, New York, 2002) $29.95. 472 pages

Reviewed by Gregory Bresiger

Boy, the general public doesn't think much of traders! Or of brokers, or of

the thousands of financial professionals and other well-heeled individuals across this nation whose compensation is much better than the average American. At least that's what the author of this book would have the reader believe.

The average American, we're told by the overwrought author of this angry tome, is overworked, overleveraged and looking to elect the next FDR or some demagogue ready to make war on the rich.

This disgust with the successful is at the heart of a political movement that is typified in this book, which is the work of a Republican populist Kevin Phillips. Phillips wants the government to start cutting down the rich.

Strand of Populism

So why read this book? If members of the securities industry aren't aware of this strand of populism that is becoming more powerful, then they risk being steam rolled by the next Huey Long ("Every man a king") socialist who wants to save us from the rich.

Some of these angry people may even be among your customers. Rich professionals and their industry - in these highly-politicized times - should understand the intellectual case for why they are not devils incarnate; for why they create jobs and for why many of the rich came from families that were anything but rich. But today's affluent professionals are coming up against many facile intellectuals and journalists like the author of this book.

Phillips, in several bestsellers in the 1990s such as "Arrogant Capital" and "The Politics of the Rich and Poor," has been describing the same American economy for decades. To read this book is to think the average American is living in a giant Bolivia; in which only the super rich own or have any property of consequence. I can hardly recognize this nation.

The author's depiction of our economy and society is strange. It is a country in which the rich get richer and the middle class work overtime and run up countless debts. But Phillips - who has evolved into a Social Democrat whether he recognizes it or not - has been propounding his same "Oh, woe is us" theory for decades.

Phillips' heroes, or at least those he constantly quotes, are those who battle "inequality." They are mostly pols who sell populism, democratic socialism and are the friends of big government. One example is former New York governor Mario Cuomo. Phillips admires him and others because their social and economic policies are designed to knock the rich down a peg or two and presumably help the rest of us. The only problem I see with Mario's reign in the Empire State is that it hurt the rest of us. Cuomo left New York State with an egregious bond rating and with so many middle-class New Yorkers planning retirement in less taxing climes.