Associate Professor of History and Director of the Robert L. Heilbroner Center for Capitalism Studies
80 Fifth Avenue
During my lifetime, American political culture has been distinguished by a pervasive belief that individual freedom is best guaranteed by freedom of the market. Since the Reagan Revolution, the collective solutions that once nurtured the American middle class – including labor unions along with government and corporate-sponsored social provisions – have come under fire for impeding the dynamic individualism of American capitalism. Government withdrew from the realm of social protection and provision. De-regulation and privatization and de-regulation reigned supreme in domestic economic policy. As a result, inequality increased while the economic well-being of American households was yoked ever more tightly to increasingly unregulated financial markets. Stock prices came to be perceived as a real-time referendum on both corporate and national economic performance.
The assumption that self-governing financial markets and expert financial actors distribute resources efficiently and allocate risk to those best able to bear it encouraged the free-wheeling securitization and regulatory laxity which torpedoed the economy in 2008. In the aftermath of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, even those that labored to reform the financial system continued to adhere to the axiom that financial markets and institutions constitute the bedrock of American capitalism.
Today, few ask why so much faith was placed in finance as the engine of economic growth and stability in the first place. Rabid reactions against all attempts to repair the frayed social safety net reveal the tenacity of anti-government, pro-business sentiment among the American public.
The “neo-liberal” political-economic beliefs of the last thirty-odd years stand in marked contrast with the great reform movements of American history, which sought to reign in rampaging capitalism. Further, they repudiate the political-economic regime of the post-World War II period, a modern liberalism grounded in mass purchasing power, the self-financing corporation, the welfare state, and Keynesian economic policy.
How can history help us account for this generation’s rather unique faith in laissez-faire? This is the question that motivates me most as a researcher and as a teacher.
PhD 2007, Yale University
20th century American history, financial and business history, political conservatism, consumer culture, women's and gender history
Senior Thesis Seminar