Robert Kuttner

Robert Kuttner is co-founder and co-editor of The American Prospect, and professor at Brandeis University's Heller School. His latest book is Debtors' Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility. He writes columns for The Huffington Post, The Boston Globe and the New York Times international edition. 

Recent Articles

Lester Thurow, an Economist Ahead of His Time

Lester Thurow, one of the leading economists to challenge American inequality before that view became fashionable, died last week at 77. He spent most of his career at MIT, where he also served as dean of the Sloane School of Management between 1987 and 1993.

Born in Montana, he was a Rhodes Scholar, an avid mountain climber, and a full professor by age 30. And he was a genuinely nice person.

I got to know Les Thurow because we were part of a fairly small cohort of non-Marxian, left-of-center thinkers on economics.

Thurow joined Robert Reich, Ray Marshall, Jeff Faux, Barry Bluestone, and myself in 1986, to found the Economic Policy Institute.

We acted because virtually the entire mainstream economics profession had become something of a commercial for the proposition that markets are almost invariably efficient. Marxian economists, of course, had an entirely different view. But among non-Marxists, Thurow was perhaps the most eminent and well credentialed of those who challenged market verdicts as neither necessarily efficient nor just.

We founded EPI in part because there was a huge hole in the world of think tanks. Before EPI, there were outfits like the American Enterprise Institute on the right and the Brookings Institution in the center but no real left-liberal institution committed to high quality research.

Thinking about the years when Thurow was a well known public intellectual, one recalls what an uphill climb it was to get the American economics profession to take seriously the proposition that market outcomes could be wrong. Thurow lived long enough to see inequality become the leading economic issue.

He was criticized by many in the economics profession not only for his views, but for his insistence on writing clear prose that could be read by a broad audience. For this he was damned in some quarters as a mere popularizer.

His first major book, The Zero Sum Society, was written in 1980, a time when the economy was in big trouble from stagflation and the run-up of energy prices, and widening inequality first began to show up in the statistics. Thurow’s ingenious argument was that the economy was stuck because any reform that would make the economy as a whole better off would make some people worse off. Hence, the zero-sum conundrum.

And of course, the people who stood to lose were mainly the wealthy and the powerful. Thus was reform blocked.

The solution? More public sector intervention to override failed market outcomes—more reliance on democracy.

Thurow was writing at time when the conventional wisdom went in the opposite direction, but he stood his ground. Today, his views have a lot more company. His next book, Dangerous Currents: the State of Economics, published in 1983, was a careful critique of mainstream economic principles.

Thurow, like John Kenneth Galbraith or Albert Hirschman, was something of a loner in his profession. His method was historical and institutional, not rigorously quantitative. Though he had students, there was not really a Thurow “school” of economics.

Nonetheless, in the work of EPI and in the much broader legions of today’s economists who recognize the inefficiencies of markets, the role of political power, and the needless extremes of inequality, Thurow has plenty of company.

Sanders, Socialism, and the Shafted Generation

AP Photo/Young Kwak
AP Photo/Young Kwak A supporter of Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders holds a sign at a campaign rally in Spokane, Washington, Thursday, March 24, 2016. This article originally appeared at The Huffington Post . O nce again, Bernie Sanders has demonstrated, with a trifecta of big wins in Hawaii, Alaska, and Washington State, that he has broad and enthusiastic support, especially among the young. Equally astonishing is the large percentage of voters who say they are attracted rather than repelled by Sanders’s embrace of socialism. But if you’d bother to conduct your own focus group among Americans under 40, neither phenomenon should be surprising. Except for those graduating from elite universities, with either full scholarships or wealthy tuition-paying parents, this is the stunted generation—young adults venturing into a world of work, loaded with student debt, unable to find stable jobs or decent careers. This is also the post-Cold War generation, for whom...

A Tale of Two Conventions and One Electoral College

AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin
AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin Among the waving of campaign signs, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally Saturday, March 19, 2016, in Tucson, Arizona. This article originally appeared at The Huffington Post . T he Republican National Convention meets in Cleveland July 18 through 21. A week later, the Democrats gather in Philadelphia. Let’s look into the crystal ball and imagine the scenes. In Cleveland, it may be a coronation of Donald Trump, but more likely, the GOP elite, which is belatedly getting its act together, will cause Trump to fall short of a first ballot victory by a few votes. Then things will get truly ugly. Right now, Republicans have what game theorists call a collective action problem. If Cruz and Kasich could agree on a block-Trump alliance, each could ask his supporters to vote for whichever of the two is stronger in a given primary. Then, depending on who has more delegates, they could duke it out for the nomination in Cleveland,...

Election 2016: Nightmare or Daybreak?

Christina Horsten/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images
Christina Horsten/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images This article originally appeared at The Huffington Post . H ere is a scenario that should keep Democrats awake at night. Bernie Sanders keeps doing well in the big Northern and Midwestern states. On Tuesday, he wins Ohio, maybe Illinois and Missouri, which sets him up to be competitive in the big, late primaries, notably New York and California. Those wins may not be quite enough to deny Hillary Clinton the nomination, but the momentum is clearly with Sanders. The contest goes all the way to the convention. If Sanders is denied nomination, there will be a lot of deflated and disappointed Democrats. Clinton supporters may hope they will turn out in force in November, if only to stop Donald Trump. But there has to be more to it than that. A lot of the independents who went for Sanders could stay home, or even switch to Trump. Somehow, she needs to discover her inner progressive. Meanwhile, on the Republican side, the stakes this Tuesday...

Constitutional Crisis and Political Stalemate

AP Photo/Paul Sancya
AP Photo/Paul Sancya Republican presidential candidates Donald Trump and Senator Ted Cruz argue a point during a Republican presidential primary debate at Fox Theatre, Thursday, March 3, 2016, in Detroit. This article originally appeared at The Huffington Post . T he 2016 election year is shaping up to be America's most serious constitutional crisis since the Civil War—and the most important partisan realignment since 1932 or maybe since 1860. To appreciate what's at work, it's important to understand these two trends, and how they interact. The essence of the constitutional crisis is that one of our two parties, the Republicans, has stopped conceding the legitimacy of the Democrats. This has been building for decades, but it became critical under Obama. The Republican leadership, and most of the 2016 presidential field, basically don't concede that Obama is a legitimate President of the United States. You see this in charges of his alleged Muslim religion and foreign birth and his...

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