Person

Robert Kuttner

Robert Kuttner, an American journalist, writer, and economist (link) by University of Scranton, Weinberg Memorial Library is licensed CC BY 2.0 (link)
Born:

1943

Occupation:

Left-progressive journalist and author

Robert Kuttner is a left-of-center journalist and academic who is the co-founder and co-editor of the American Prospect, a political magazine. He also co-founded the Economic Policy Institute, a think tank funded by unions and the organized labor movement, and teaches at Brandeis University. Kuttner has long been a critic of “neoliberalism” within the Democratic Party and a proponent of returning to the party’s New Deal roots.

Background

Kuttner was born in New York City and received a bachelor’s degree from Oberlin College. He also attended the University of California, Berkeley and the London School of Economics. 1

In his 2022 book Going Big: FDR’s Legacy, Biden’s New Deal, and the Struggle to Save Democracy, Kuttner recounted the origins of his political philosophy, calling himself “a child of the New Deal.” Kuttner stated that his parents “bought their first home with a government-insured mortgage. When my father was stricken with cancer, the VA paid for excellent medical care. After he died, my mother was able to keep our house thanks to my dad’s veteran’s benefits and her widow’s pension from Social Security.” Kuttner wrote that his generation “grew up thinking of the system wrought by the Roosevelt revolution as normal. … But this seemingly permanent social contract was exceptional. … Above all, it was fragile, built on circumstances and luck as much as enduring structural change.” 2

Kuttner’s first job was working as a researcher for left-wing journalist I.F. Stone. Kuttner later worked as an editor at Pacifica Radio, as general manager of WBAI-FM in New York, as Washington editor for the Village Voice, as economics editor at The New Republic, and was a member of the national staff at the Washington Post. Between 1984 and 2005 he was one of five columnists for the “Economic Viewpoint” section of BusinessWeek, and he also worked as a columnist for the Boston Globe in the 1980s and 1990s. 3

Kuttner currently holds the Meyer and Ida Kirstein Chair at Brandeis University as a professor of social policy. He has also taught at Boston University, University of Oregon, University of Massachusetts Boston, and Harvard’s Institute of Politics. He has also been a John F. Kennedy Fellow at Harvard University, a Woodrow Wilson Fellow at the University of California Berkeley, a Guggenheim Fellow, a Wayne Morse Fellow, a German Marshall Fund Fellow, and a Radcliffe Public Policy Fellow. 4  

Economic Views

Kuttner has long been a critic of free-market capitalism and what he calls “financial speculation,” or complex, debt-financed financial instruments that undergird much of modern investment banking. Kuttner argues that financial speculation has exposed normal Americans to crippling financial insecurity. In The Squandering of America: How the Failure of Our Politics Undermines Our Prosperity, Kuttner wrote that “The potential of our economy to underwrite a society of broad prosperity is being sacrificed to financial speculation.” Noting the increase in federal budget deficits and decreases in real median incomes for working class Americans, Kuttner wrote that “The winnings are going to a narrow elite, jeopardizing not only our broad prosperity but our solvency. … Our trade imbalances and financial debt to the rest of the world have grown from a modest concern to levels that could produce a crash.” 5

Kuttner has written that “The secure middle class of the postwar era was built by activist government. It was government that sponsored social insurance, devised regulations to keep Wall Street from crashing the economy, provided educational opportunities to the nonrich and facilitated collective bargaining.” 6

Kuttner has decried the gradual shifting of social welfare responsibilities from government and large institutions to individuals over the past 40 years. “A generation ago, stable corporations generally assured their employees reliable careers, decent pensions, adequate health coverage. Government provided social insurance against job loss and poverty in old age. Government also offered the sons and daughters of the working and middle class affordable higher educations through public universities and other forms of college aid. Government subsidized starter homes.” Now, Kuttner noted, “more risks have been shifted to individuals” and “the young are more likely to go without.” 7

Kuttner is also an advocate for labor unions and for strengthening the role of organized labor in the American economy. He has asserted that a strong labor movement was “an anchor of [the New Deal] social compact” and foundational to the “model of broad prosperity.” Kuttner claims that “It is hard to imagine restoring that prosperity without a stronger union movement.” 8 He has especially criticized “the corporate and Wall Street Democrats who have dominated the presidential wing of the party since Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton” who “actively loathe unions.” 9

In 1984, Kuttner was among the co-founders of the Economic Policy Institute, an organized labor-funded think tank that advocates for increased protections for labor organizers, increases in the minimum wage, and forced unionization. He continues to sit on EPI’s board of directors as of 2022. 10

Criticism of Neoliberalism

Kuttner has been a prominent critic of “neoliberalism,” as embodied by Democrats such as President Bill Clinton who rejected the New Deal policies of FDR and sought to craft a “Third Way” between laissez-faire capitalism and FDR-style central economic planning. Kuttner identifies the beginning of neoliberalism with President Jimmy Carter, who deregulated airlines and interstate trucking, increased interest rates to stifle inflation, and did not advance forced unionism. In Kuttner’s telling, neoliberalism led directly to financial deregulation under President Clinton that set the stage for crippling recessions in 2000 and 2008. Kuttner criticizes recent Democratic presidencies as “one fatal neoliberal Democratic president after another squandering the Roosevelt legacy and the Roosevelt formula.” 11

In 2008, Kuttner published Obama’s Challenge: American’s Economic Crisis and the Power of a Transformative Presidency, in which he called on the incoming president to seize the mantle of FDR and described Barack Obama as “the first chief executive since Lyndon Johnson with the potential to be a transformative progressive president.” 12 He later criticized Obama’s focus on deficit reduction after the Great Recession of 2008, a choice he called “just fatal to the Democratic Party whose core ideology is that affirmative government can help working people.” 13

American Prospect

Following the defeat of then-Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis (D) by then-Vice President George H.W. Bush in the 1988 presidential election, Kuttner, Princeton professor Paul Starr, and Robert Reich, later Secretary of Labor under Bill Clinton, founded the American Prospect, a left-of-center political magazine. 14

In August 2017, Kuttner received an unexpected phone call from Steve Bannon, former head of Breitbart News and an advisor to then-President Donald Trump, and published an account of their conversation in American Prospect. Bannon stated that United States need to “maniacally focused” on “the economic war with China. … [W]e’re five years away, I think, ten years at the most, of hitting an inflection point from which we’ll never be able to recover.” Bannon also dismissed far-right nationalism as “a fringe element” and “a collection of clowns,” and added that so long as Democrats focused on racial identity politics, “I got ’em. I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.” 15 The interview was widely cited as the proximate cause of Bannon’s dismissal from the Trump White House staff days later. 16

References

  1.  “Robert Kuttner.” Brandeis University. Accessed Dec. 3, 2022. https://www.brandeis.edu/facultyguide/person.html?emplid=d4a6871a955a802a663c18341f543bd0e3d19438
  2. “How The Democrats Forgot the New Deal and Paved the Way for Trumpism.” Deconstructed. July 1, 2022. Accessed Dec. 3, 2022. https://theintercept.com/2022/07/01/deconstructed-fdr-biden-new-deal-robert-kuttner/
  3. “Bio.” RobertKuttner.com. Accessed Dec. 3, 2022. https://robertkuttner.com/bio/
  4. “Robert Kuttner.” Brandeis University. Accessed Dec. 3, 2022. https://www.brandeis.edu/facultyguide/person.html?emplid=d4a6871a955a802a663c18341f543bd0e3d19438
  5. Harry Hurt. “A Grim Diagnosis for the U.S., and a Prescription.” New York Times. Dec. 16, 2007. Accessed December 3, 2022. https://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/16/business/16shelf.html
  6. Robert Kuttner. “Union-bashing brings backlash.” Politico. April 2, 2011. Accessed Dec. 3, 2022. https://www.politico.com/story/2011/04/union-bashing-brings-backlash-052323
  7. Robert Kuttner. “Except: Obama’s Challenge.” NPR. Nov. 6, 2008. Accessed Dec. 3, 2022. https://www.npr.org/2008/11/06/96694999/obamas-challenge-a-transformative-opportunity
  8. Robert Kuttner. “Union-bashing brings backlash.” Politico. April 2, 2011. Accessed Dec. 3, 2022. https://www.politico.com/story/2011/04/union-bashing-brings-backlash-052323
  9. Diane Ravitch. “Robert Kuttner on the Role of Democrats in Gutting Unions.” DianeRavitch.net. May 10, 2019. Accessed Dec. 3, 2022. https://dianeravitch.net/2019/05/10/robert-kuttner-on-the-role-of-democrats-in-gutting-unions/
  10. “Board of Directors.” Economic Policy Institute. Accessed Dec. 3, 2022. http://www.epi.org/about/board/
  11. “How The Democrats Forgot the New Deal and Paved the Way for Trumpism.” Deconstructed. July 1, 2022. Accessed Dec. 3, 2022. https://theintercept.com/2022/07/01/deconstructed-fdr-biden-new-deal-robert-kuttner/
  12. Robert Kuttner. “Except: Obama’s Challenge.” NPR. Nov. 6, 2008. Accessed Dec. 3, 2022. https://www.npr.org/2008/11/06/96694999/obamas-challenge-a-transformative-opportunity
  13. “How The Democrats Forgot the New Deal and Paved the Way for Trumpism.” Deconstructed. July 1, 2022. Accessed Dec. 3, 2022. https://theintercept.com/2022/07/01/deconstructed-fdr-biden-new-deal-robert-kuttner/
  14. Paul Starr and Robert Kuttner. “Little Magazine, Big Ideas: The American Prospect at 25.” The American Prospect. May 12, 2015. Accessed Dec. 3, 2022. https://prospect.org/archive/15th-anniversary/little-magazine-big-ideas/
  15. Robert Kuttner. “Steve Bannon, Unrepentant.” The American Prospect. Aug. 16, 2017. Accessed Dec. 3, 2022. https://prospect.org/power/steve-bannon-unrepentant/
  16. Peter Stevenson. “Kuttner says he was ‘stunned’ as Bannon went ‘on and on’ in frank interview.” Washington Post. Aug. 17, 2021. Accessed Dec. 3, 2022. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2017/08/17/robert-kuttner-says-he-stunned-as-bannon-went-on-and-on-in-frank-interview/
  See an error? Let us know!