An Interview with Richard Parker, Founder of Mother Jones Magazine

by Matt B. on November 25, 2010

Richard Parker founded Mother Jones magazine.  He is a lecturer on public policy at Harvard Kennedy School and a Senior Fellow at the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.

You founded the magazine Mother Jones in 1976. In your view, how receptive was America to progressive thinking at that time?  How receptive is the country now?

You know, Richard Nixon had left the White House in shame two years earlier, and the president was Gerald Ford, the only man never elected to the presidency. The country was divided, exhausted, and confused, not sure where it was going, but there was a large body of people—millions of people—who considered themselves progressive. Many of them had worked in the antiwar or civil rights or environmental or feminist movements, and were still determined to change America. We launched the magazine and within a year and a half, we had a quarter-million paid circulation. So I think that is some evidence that you could have a politically progressive voice, find an audience, and be heard.

We focused a lot of our early work on investigative reporting. We broke then-famous stories on the Ford Pinto, whose gas tank exploded when the car was rear-ended in an accident. We also broke the Dalkon Shield story – an IUD that was leading to toxic death. All of those stories were extremely well received, and not just among progressives. There was still a sense that large corporations needed to be watched, not applauded, because their interest or their behavior could deviate from the interest of the larger number of Americans.

But today, I mean, we have lived through what – from a Keynesian economic perspective, which is mine – was a counter-revolution. I was trained by the men who were of or trained by the first Keynesian generation; in some cases, they had even been graduate students under Keynes himself or close to Keynes. They passed on a confidence in government’s ability and also in the ability of intellectuals to puzzle through complex issues of the market and government, of equality, of competitiveness, of the role of United States in the economic and political development of the world.

Those views weren’t anti-market but certainly anti-market worship of the kind that we’ve had so often in the last 30 years.  Many of us were skeptical of “the market,” didn’t think that “the market” was, in fact, the determining feature of modern economics, but rather the corporation. Markets had existed for thousands of years. The corporation was the new phenomenon on the scene. Large corporations, especially, exercised extraordinary power in society, so the corporation seemed to be the [right focus] for research.

The other thing today is that we’ve moved [into] a period of rapidly worsening income inequality. In the 1970s, when we launched Mother Jones, inequality was at a post-World War II low; now, we have achieved the dubious distinction of inequality that we haven’t seen since before the Great Crash. That issue of economic inequality and with it the interwoven issues of class, race, gender, I think, are all of extraordinary importance to your generation and the generations coming after you, because I think [a] minority of Americans believe that this kind of heightened inequality is the “natural” outcome of the “competitive market.”

When I look at polling data about Americans’ attitudes, like everyone else, I see people’s distrust of government, but the distrust of large corporations is even higher. Yet, the subjects of so much of what the talking classes worry about are the abuses of government – and rarely if ever the abuses of corporations.

Now in the last two years, there has been a great explosion of angry denunciation and debate about the invidious role of financial corporations and financial markets.  Yet the government’s response has been tepid. Obama’s legislation on financial market reform – to someone like me raised by Depression-era parents – looks like awfully thin gruel. It has done so far very little to cut off the exiguous dangers revealed by the meltdown of 2008-2009. Many of us fear a meltdown will happen again with the same short notice and with the same devastating effect, because we haven’t really gone back in and regulated those financial corporations in ways that balance public and private good.

It sounds like you think the country is receptive to a message about the perniciousness of income inequality, and that over the last couple of years, there’s been this rising suspicion about corporations.  Given those two factors, why don’t we see more of a populist movement around these issues – perhaps led by the Democratic Party, perhaps challenging the Democratic Party to reclaim its traditional banner.

Is the myth of the market standing in the way?  That as mad as folks may be about income inequality and the wage stagnation they’ve seen for 30 or 40 years, the myth of the market has sunk so deep into our national consciousness that we’re no longer able to imagine a world in which government is capable of taking meaningful action to address these problems?

I guess I’d say something different, which is that the educated in America 50 years ago were divided between the business and the professional classes. The professional class then maintained the same posture that it had since the mid-19th century, which was a deep skepticism about the business class in general, and in particular, the large corporate business class. Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin Roosevelt were all emblematic of that view – and were not working class laborers – and all were educated at elite universities, such as this one. Yet, all took, as a seminal duty, their obligation to the idea of democracy that cared about the inequality of wealth and income, sought to diminish it, and sought power for the public sector that countervailed the power of corporations, and created an environment in which all classes benefited.

I think what’s happened in the last 30 years is that the professional class has, in some sense, surrendered that independent identity. The humanities grow smaller in terms of enrollment…offset by the rise of economics [and] business degrees. This emphasis on higher education as a form of trade school preparation for lucrative business careers has worked its way into the marrow of the university and, I think, sapped its self-confidence that it represents a point of view different from the belief that finally “the market” should decide critical questions of distribution and equity.

It’s interesting though that at some level, some of the rhetoric that you hear from the right still seems to invoke some of that—

Well, that’s the libertarian tradition. There’s also a religious right tradition that has some of it, but it hasn’t been prominent for 60 years, and certainly wasn’t part of Falwell’s and Robertson’s Christian Right.

Well, I think what I had in mind was – take the argument now about whether to extend the Bush tax cuts.  What you hear from people like Eric Cantor is that we need to extend tax cuts even to people making over $250,000 because that will fuel small business growth. It seems like—

It’s perversely Keynesian.

Well, as I hear that—

Keynesianism stood on its head, one might say.

It’s this “bait and switch,” this rhetorical subterfuge that suggests that rich people equals small business people.

The vast majority, the VAST majority of small business owners do not take home $250,000 or more.

That he is able to get away with that kind of blatant intellectual bad faith strikes me as evidence that all you need to do in order to be a plausible national political figure is just nod in the direction of the general welfare. You don’t actually have to demonstrate much concern for it at all. Given the scene you sketched from 30-40 years ago, 50 years perhaps, it seems unlikely that this kind of rhetorical move would have been as successful at that time.  Is that right?

It would have been successful in those days among the upper reaches of the Republican Party. It would not have had much appeal to the working class, or even the southern wing, of the Democratic Party. But so much has happened to the Democratic Party and its constituencies in the last 40 years, and I think that’s a big part of the story.

Say a word or two about that, if you would.  I think, especially for students here who identify themselves as left of center, the reemergence of progressivism – particularly as it sometimes finds itself in tension with the Democratic Party – has been a little hard to process. When you started Mother Jones, what was the relationship between Democratic Party thought and progressive thought, and what’s the relationship now?

You have to remember that I was born a year after Franklin Roosevelt died, and for my first political campaign—I was 13 years old—I worked in the Kennedy-Johnson offices in my little town, folding envelopes and passing out brochures after school. None of us thought in that early 60s period that we lived in an America that was overwhelmingly progressive. We did however think there were issues of decency and fairness that also happened to be progressive – racial equality for example – but we never saw them as ideological, but rather as completely “mainstream” by contributing to the greater welfare and the greater common good.

Yet, of course, there was a struggle that went on there: out of the 60s came the growth of the Civil Rights Movement, opposition to the Vietnam War, black and Chicano power, feminism, environmentalism.  What we didn’t see then was that the 60s also marked the beginnings of the de-industrialization of America.

The 1960s severed the connection between the Democratic Party and the white South. After the Civil War, the South wore its Democratic Party affiliation as a badge of honor, not least because Abraham Lincoln had been a Republican.

In the Great Depression, Roosevelt had cleverly welded together that white Democratic South with the northern ethnic, urban, working class – two groups that had very little in common but had discovered on their own that they would go underrepresented in the White House unless they joined in coalition. It was Roosevelt who was brilliant enough to bring that coalition together.

You have to remember that from the end of the Civil War up to Roosevelt, there had been only two Democratic presidents—Grover Cleveland and Woodrow Wilson. But it had also been a complex era because progressivism grew within the Republican Party as much as within the Democratic Party. Teddy Roosevelt was Republican before he broke in 1912 to lead the Progressive Party, after all.

That tradition of an informed, intelligent, moderate Republicanism tied to an ideal of America that was generally Progressive – in a capital-p sense – without being left-wing, was still very large even in the 1960s. All of my grandparents were Republicans—Midwest or East Coast Republicans—who thought of Eisenhower as a model, who thought of Wendell Willkie as a model, who thought of Teddy Roosevelt as a model of what Republicans were supposed to be about.

Roosevelt had, in those famous words, become a “traitor to his class” because he’d created a party of the “outsiders” that in coalition in the 1930s numbered enough to bring him to the White House for an unprecedented four terms.

[From] the 1960s forward, though, the abandonment by the South of the Democratic Party and vice versa meant that Democrats had to go looking elsewhere to find a national majority to put it into the White House. It still had ways to control Congress, but to form a national coalition that would beat the tough Electoral College test of presidential elections, it had to go about doing something else.

But where? The Civil Rights Movement was driving the White South out of the Democratic Party. The counter-culture and rebellious anti-war ideas of my generation were driving the ethnic working class out of the Democratic Party in the North.

The idea of “flower power” governance as the future of America was appalling to them. Free love was appalling to them. Marijuana was appalling to them. You can understand—I understood even at that time—why that was so. Their anger meant that a number of key industrial states—New York, New Jersey, Michigan, Ohio, Illinois—saw a vast defection of those voters from the Democratic Party, as they voted overwhelmingly for Nixon in ’68 and ’72.

I’d like to return to your earlier comments about what the university has become.  You suggested that over the past several decades, the university has ceased to see itself as quite as distinct a piece of the American landscape as it once did – that now, broadly speaking, it sees its role as preparing graduates for participation in a certain type of market structure.

To be white-collar managers, to be specific.

Let’s talk about the Kennedy School in particular. Do you think the Kennedy School maintains a perspective other than one that’s just about preparing graduates for white-collar managerial roles?

You know, this is a hard one to answer. I’ve been here for 17 years, not for 30 years. What I can say is that what I understand of the origins of the Kennedy School was that it rested heavily on admiration for what Halberstam had derisively called “the best and the brightest.” To many here, for example, Robert McNamara was not seen as a war criminal but as a supremely brilliant technician, who had served his presidents as well as he possibly could.

A lot of the interest of the economists here early on was in extending the kind of microeconomic rationality underpinned by a concept of market efficiency to government wherever possible. It has always been my impression that students’ immersion in the API 101-102 ethos of markets really is a powerful distinguishing feature of this school.

In your view, does the school have enough critical distance from the dominant logic of the market, both in terms of preparing students to change the world in truly positive ways and in terms of enabling students to think about the issues they’ll face in a truly critical way?

This has become a big question for many students and some on the faculty over the years. It’s been one that I think the administration here has tried to wrestle with to some degree through curricular reform. If you look at the standard model of the public sector bureaucrat or manager that’s taught here by and large, it isn’t one that would keenly represent the power or interests of the less powerful, an issue which I think is of importance, particularly to young people. We don’t have a program that trains for union management, for example. We don’t have a program that trains people to lead the kinds of NGOs that would specifically challenge power, whether on the environment or racism or other things. That doesn’t mean that the school doesn’t think they’re important, but we signal to our students how important by what we teach and what we don’t teach.

I’ve heard quite a number of students and graduates say that they think the school prepares managers as if they were neutral beings in neutral, objective roles, when in fact they’re a class very much not neutral within a society like ours, where power is asymmetrically distributed.

So, as a consequence, we have a kind of odd bi-polarity here in which, on the one hand, our economists are largely focused on demonstrating the paramount efficiency of markets, whether in the environment or trade or job allocation and the like.  Now they do it often with a critical eye—I mean, we’re not Bob Jones University, we’re not Pepperdine, we’re not the University of Chicago, by any means—but the ethos of the school on issues of economics I would describe as “technocratic” in a broad sense, without many dissenters representing competing points of view.

That I find unfortunate, though not uniquely an HKS problem. I think that public policy schools and universities in general have been doing too little to cultivate originality and dissent at the margins that would actually help reinvigorate the center. I think that universities, and the Kennedy School, too often have not been very aggressive in pushing  interdisciplinary work, which is another source of vigor.

The other pole of the school right now is leadership studies, which I fear sometimes has become the new mantra for what we once thought of as government or governance studies. In my day, one struggled pretty hard to develop theories of governance, structures of government, the history of government failure, and how to go about reframing or restructuring government’s behavior in terms other than promoting efficiency.

Leadership was simply assumed in that world. Leaders arose because times demanded them, not because young people had gone to the Kennedy School to get two semesters of “leadership training” in order to create the moment in which their great abilities of leadership could be revealed.

I must say that I’m still skeptical about leadership studies and leadership training, because I think the school has not been terribly good at cultivating the different forms of leadership needed in the world of today. It doesn’t teach union leadership. It doesn’t teach religious NGO leadership. It doesn’t teach leadership of parties or partisan institutions. Rather, it tries to find some way in which you’d learn a sort of antiseptic, transferrable model of leadership that mostly just replicates the old model of general management training that the business school across the river was once famous for.

You know, after you trained at the Harvard Business School as a manager, you could be a leader in a chemical plant, an auto plant, a plastics plant, a bank, a finance operation, a motion picture studio, because the idea of business managerialism was intrinsic in the idea of the manager, not the situation which the manager found himself (and it was in those days ‘himself,’ I would add).  I think there’s some of that here, too, in the way we’re tackling leadership. But again, I’m perfectly willing to be corrected by my colleagues.

I don’t have much experience with that part of the school offerings, but I would say, for example, that Marshall Ganz’ class on organizing seems pretty transferable across a whole host of realms that probably aren’t addressed as heavily by other elements of the curriculum—union leadership or whatever else.

I worry about what it means to empower students to feel as if they’ve been prepared for leadership, while not also empowering them with the critical distance from structures of power that would enable them to imagine alternative possibilities for leadership.

I guess maybe a better way to say it is this.  It seems to me that, given the proximity we have to power, the preparation students get here more readily prepares them to be change makers within government structures than to be towering moral leaders like Martin Luther King – leaders capable of bringing about more fundamental transformations.

Look, I don’t think you can teach someone to be a Martin Luther King, but I do think you can teach the values and visions that inspired King.

You know, I’ve always treasured a line of President Kennedy’s that I never hear quoted – or discussed or debated, though I wish it were.

Speaking at Amherst in 1962, he said, “The men who create power make an indispensible contribution to the Nation’s greatness, but the men who question power make a contribution just as indispensible – for they determine whether we use power or power uses us.”

Look, I don’t think that what the school is doing is wrong. I don’t think that what the school is doing is dishonest. I don’t that what the school is doing is a failure, but I do think of it as too narrow and not imaginative enough in thinking about, again, the corporation rather than markets as the distinctive feature of our modern world. And with the rise of finance capital’s power over industrial capital, I see the need for a global governance system, created through institutions or standards or treaties or alliances that would countervail the power corporations are acquiring as they are being integrated globally.  Corporations are extending their reach across borders, and we need strong democratic governance to balance that power.

We’ve seen a lot in the last two decades of the capacity of multinational corporations to play off states in ways that disadvantage all the states and advantage the corporation. We have at present a terrible inability to track the movement of money across borders, and we have no system for examining the intricacy and potential dangers of internal corporate transfer pricing, at the very least.

At the moment, we’re still living in a world of financial models that assume that the less regulated is the better growth engine. I think that is a highly contestable claim.

It also seems to represent an ever purer distillation of free market fundamentalism – that that fundamentalism is creeping into ever smaller niches of our economic thinking and pushing out subtlety wherever it goes.

You know, to me, it’s fascinating to watch the rehabilitation of Keynesianism in the last six years, without an understanding of the varieties of Keynesianism that exist in the world and without recognizing that the Keynesianism of domestic market stimulation is not the same thing as the Keynes of the IMF and the Bretton Woods agreement, which sought to balance corporate and state power across borders, which represent different problems.

And, to date, what’s not yet come to the fore is an updated Keynesianism that is far more subtle about the integration of national economies. Traditional mechanisms like Keynesian stimulus spending may, in fact, have such a high leakage rate that when the United States government creates a $700 billion stimulus package to encourage consumer spending, it immediately passes through Walmart straight to China and serves as a stimulus for the Chinese economy more than it serves as a stimulus for the American economy.

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