Fighting over the Scraps

The Age of Austerity
How Scarcity Will Remake American Politics
Thomas Byrne Edsall
Doubleday, $24.95, 272 pp.

The main theme of this book is easily stated: a healthy democracy requires abundance and steady growth, while scarcity, whether natural or the man-made byproduct of muddled policy, can pull a democratic polity into the slough of despond. For a long time following World War II, America basked in the politics of abundance; a widely shared prosperity helped lubricate our multiracial, multi-ethnic, class-stratified republic, reducing democratic frictions and exerting a calming effect on social relations. But that extended moment of bliss passed some time ago, in case anyone needs reminding. And if we are not already in that slough of national despond, Thomas Edsall believes, we are clearly headed there.

In the slough there be dragons and misery to spare. During prolonged hard times, people begin to doubt fundamentals and fear the worst. Might arrangements backed by the full faith and credit of the government of the United States, once thought to be sacred bonds, turn out to be no more trustworthy than the pension and health-care promises made to so many employees of once-great American corporations now busy trying to dump the “legacy costs” of yesterday’s contracts? Could the same thing happen with our national social contract?

The answer, The Age of Austerity is at pains to make clear, is yes. The vision of social attenuation and intractable political conflict that...

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About the Author

Michael J. Lacey is co-editor of The Crisis of Authority in Catholic Modernity (Oxford University Press).