The Making of America’s Fury
By Evan Osnos
THE RAGING 2020S
Companies, Countries, People — and the Fight for Our Future
By Alec Ross
The title of Evan Osnos’s fine book, “Wildland,” is also its guiding metaphor. Wildland is land so desiccated that a spark can turn it into an uncontrollable wildfire. Even if the danger is known, a spark will eventually come, and then the conflagration. The climax of the book is the chapter “The Raging Fire,” about the Capitol riot on Jan. 6. But if not for Donald Trump, there would have been a different fire. The wildland is primed for destruction; our democracy is sclerotic and corrupt; gun ownership is at an all-time high; our communities are being degraded; our once functional capitalism that brought good lives for hundreds of millions has been deformed into a system that serves the few, often at the expense of the rest. Osnos, a staff writer for The New Yorker, never predicts widespread violence, but he often harks back to the eve of the Civil War.
Osnos compellingly describes life in three places that represent the pre-spark wildland: Greenwich, Conn., where he grew up; Clarksburg, W.Va., where he had his first job as a journalist on a local paper and for which, both city and paper, he retains great affection; and Chicago, where his grandfather was robbed at gunpoint and left for dead — an example of the violence that Osnos sees as pervasive and growing in America.
We follow Greenwich’s transition from the Greenwich of Prescott and George H. W. Bush to one that largely favors Trump. As the wealthy become less willing to pay their taxes, they retreat into ever larger mansions behind ever higher walls. Their inhabitants have got rich (according to them) by coming up with useful new ideas, often through persistence after multiple failures, or by operating hedge or private equity funds that make capitalism work better. But these funds owe much to politically protected tax treatments that convert ordinary income into more lightly taxed capital gains. Working better often means asset-stripping or persuading increasingly business-friendly courts to strip out liabilities like previously promised worker benefits.
In Clarksburg, we meet some of the victims, longtime employees who lose their health coverage and pensions. Poverty and diminishing opportunity in West Virginia also make it prime recruiting country for our all-volunteer military, and we meet badly damaged veterans. Recruitment from such communities enhances Washington’s ability to wage war and to keep America safe, including the speculators in Greenwich and the politicians in the nation’s capital, who are also kept safe from having their sons and daughters serve in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Perhaps local legislators should do better than Congress. Not so in West Virginia, where the legislature is allied with industry, and does little to protect its citizens, even when Freedom Industries, co-founded by a former cocaine dealer and tax evader, spills toxic chemicals into the Charleston water supply.
In Chicago, Osnos shows us the continuing struggle of African American children to get an education, and to avoid a largely hostile police force in an underfunded city. Many of them have never seen the lake, nor Michigan Avenue and its “magnificent mile.” What would either mean to them? Such exclusion from the best that the country has to offer is a running theme and, as Osnos notes, many of the Capitol rioters were visiting D.C. for the first time.
Some will find Osnos’s picture too dark, too one-sided. American capitalism still permits many to flourish, and it supplies us with an immense range of goods and services. Yet it is true that Washington is largely hobbled by the needs of campaign finance and the clamor of lobbyists. And as corporations and the rich avoid taxes, and as health care devours one in every five dollars without delivering good health, federal and local governments are increasingly struggling to fund the police, teachers, roads and public health. For those without a four-year college degree, life is getting worse; their lives have become more painful and, since 2010, their life spans have shortened, even before the Covid pandemic. It is also true that our country has been polarized and paralyzed before, most recently in the 1960s, and we have not descended into another civil war.
In “The Raging 2020s,” Alec Ross similarly argues that our social contract is broken, that the roles of business, labor, government and foreign countries need to be rethought, and he supplies several of his favorite templates. Osnos’s view is from the ground, Ross’s view, that of the policy wonk, is from above, not the view of the people nor even the politicians. The best chapter (by far) is an immensely (and unusually) readable account of how tax havens and the competition between countries have allowed multinational companies, especially the big tech companies, to avoid paying taxes in any of the many jurisdictions in which they operate.
We learn how the “Double Irish with a Dutch sandwich” technique shifted most of Google’s global earnings to Bermuda, and how Apple’s tax maneuvering increased Ireland’s G.D.P. by 26 percent in one year, though not the incomes of the Irish people. Reading this chapter is like watching a master jewel thief at work, except that this is not the movies, where the transfer is often from rich to poor. Quite the opposite. Tax havens, while lauded by libertarians, strangle governments and their ability to provide for their citizens — which is why libertarians like them. As Ross argues, governments could stop much of this if they wanted, but if Ireland believes it can attract tech and pharma companies with low corporate taxes, it is not easy for others to stop it, even if they were willing. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen is making progress on the issue, which is a priority for the Biden administration, as is strengthening the I.R.S.’s ability to collect money due under existing laws, a measure strongly opposed by the well-funded political enablers of the rich.
Being on the board of a venture capital firm, Ross repeatedly tells us how busy he is — the introduction takes us through the start of a typical exhausting day — and we hear of him leading missions to Syria and to West Africa, together with trips to the World Economic Forum gathering in Davos, Switzerland. He thanks the “20-something-year-old researchers who worked for me in the writing of this book,” but perhaps as a result, much of the analysis has an innocence that while sometimes charming, is more often incoherent or infuriating. He wants to kill off shareholder capitalism and loathes stock buybacks, because “a buyback is as productive to society as a bonfire of bank notes” and “the money just disappears,” without noting that buybacks enable corporate executives to engorge their personal fortunes at will, another route to widening inequality. I’m all for banning buybacks — or taxing them — but exactly how this will fight climate change, or reduce the need for safety nets, is never clarified.
On Ross’s ideas for finding a new social contract, some will no doubt agree with his recommendation that when “we come to the fork in the road that countries around the world are facing” we should follow the sign to Denmark. But he surely owes us some explanation of what policies might bring that about, what sort of practical coalitions might support them and just how to stop the plundering of the dispossessed that Osnos eloquently describes.