Paul Pierson speaks at the event
Let’s be honest about the way America works, Berkeley Political Scientist Paul Pierson told to a full house in Oakland last week for a lecture organized by the Haas Institute. “It’s not a nation of rugged individualists. All of us get to where we’re going with help from others.”

Pierson offered the story of one of this country’s most successful businessmen—Andy Grove, who went on to become the CEO of Intel. Grove, who was born in Hungary but arrived in the United States as a refugee from the Holocaust, was able to attend CUNY for free and later UC Berkeley as well for almost no cost, thanks to support from the US government and its citizens.

Sure he was brilliant, Pierson said, but “he never forgot he had not just prospered on own brilliance, but because he had been part of a society that had created opportunities.”

So began Pierson’s lecture “American Amnesia: How the War on Government Led Us to Forget What Made America Prosper,” the second event as part of the Institute’s Thinking Ahead lecture series, which will continue through the rest of 2016.

It’s tough to defend government in this climate, Pierson acknowledged early in his speech.

“It’s tough to defend it from the Right, and tough from Progressives who have reasons to feel bad about government today.”

But the case is “knockdown clear,” Pierson said. A strong political authority is necessary for any progressive and prosperous society.

The UC Berkeley professor of Political Science offered a number of charts to demonstrate his point. Government, for example, was critical in reducing air pollution and significantly increasing life expectancy in the United States. In Weirton, an industrial town in West Virginia, the Clean Air Act added more than five years to the city’s life expectancy.

Markets are a good thing, Pierson said, but we need a balance. “We need a mixed economy,” he said, describing his own political views as “Democratic Socialist.” “Markets by themselves are not going to do a lot of things. They’re not going to educate kids, provide research and development, provide vaccines, and stop people from putting sewage into your drinking water.”

One of Pierson’s most damning pieces of evidence was a graph showing real income over the course of the last hundred centuries. Contrary to popular thought, income did not truly take off until well after industrialization and centuries of capitalism, which Pierson said, was because “we started to get the balance right, not because we turned things over to the Capitalists.”

It was the same story with life expectancy, he added. At the beginning of the 20th century, 30 percent of children in Manhattan died before their 10th birthday. The city was already industrialized, but didn’t have a public health system, and kids were drinking tainted water without health care.

“We needed breakthroughs in science, needed public health,” Pierson said. “We needed government.”

However, after making incredible strides in life expectancy, the US has gone from being in the middle of the pack among rich nations to way at the bottom. The country stopped moving forward, Pierson said, while other countries continued to make investments in their public health systems. In doing so, the US is “cheating citizens of years of quality of life, because it’s forgotten the kinds of things that make for a prosperous society.”

Over the last 30 years, political support for government has been slipping away, Pierson concluded, and so has broad prosperity.

“Building and sustaining effectiveness requires broad and organized political coalitions,” he said.

Pierson concluded his lecture with a comment on rhetoric.

Republicans have become very successful at saying, “Government is taking from us,” he said, while Liberals will say, “I’m okay with redistributions, taking to give to others.” Both ideas are wrong, Pierson said. It’s not that that public institutions are taking from one to give to another—it’s about making the whole society prosperous.

“We need to have highly educated population for prosperity,” he added.

Haas Institute Director john powell took a few minutes to talk about racial anxiety and how it is used to discredit and repurpose government.

Historically, when government sought to increase the inclusion of groups other than whites and men, the public space became tainted, he said. “Public became bad, private became good.”

But unlike many progressives who claim the opposite, the solution is to fix government, not walk away from it, powell said. “It’s not about defending government as it is, but understanding that we can’t have a fair and inclusive society without a robust role of government.”

Earlier in the evening, Jessica Bartholow, Policy Advocate at the Western Center on Law and Poverty, introduced Pierson as well as the topic of the night. She spoke movingly about how government had made it possible for her to leave poverty and achieve both education and long-term success.

“I was able to exit poverty because of government,” she said, offering a long list of government programs that made it possible for her to eat, attend college, and get a graduate degree.

Bartholow said she likely would have dropped out of high school had she not had access to a government-sponsored meal program or achieved success in college had she not participated in another program that provided students with three meals every day, a benefit that she called “revolutionary.”

“None of us are healthy when we live in a community where people are going hungry or don’t have a place to sleep,” Bartholow said. “We need to think of a paradigm shift and create together the government and economy and country that all of us need.” 

View photos from the event.