“The Betrayal of the American Dream” by Donald L. Bartlett and James B. Steele, PublicAffairs, $26.99
You may be old enough to remember the United States whose passing Donald L. Bartlett and James B. Steele lament on nearly every page of their new book, “The Betrayal of the American Dream.”
In that other, older America, you could buy bell-bottom pants, a color television or a pair of high-platform shoes, and there was a good chance you’d find attached a label that said “Made in the U.S.A.”
U.S. companies made big profits, but invested in the local communities where their products were made. The rich paid their fair share in taxes without complaint.
Bartlett and Steele can pinpoint the moment this America began to disappear: June 1979. More people were employed at U.S. factory jobs at that time than during any month before or since. About the same time, the share that the wealthiest Americans paid in taxes began to fall sharply.
American factory jobs soon began to flee south to Mexico, and then overseas to China, followed by all sorts of other tasks once performed by the guy next door — including your friendly customer service representative, who these days might answer your queries from Bangalore.
Since then, three decades of laissez-faire business strategies and government policies have undercut the American middle class and the underpinnings of American democracy. That’s the central argument of “The Betrayal of the American Dream,” a book that’s essential reading to anyone trying to make sense of our country’s current malaise.
Since the 1980s, a host of politicos, Republican and Democrat, have sold their business-friendly reforms to the American people in the name of economic efficiency. Corporate America saves, and we all save! But the real winner, Bartlett and Steele say, is the American “ruling class.” The plutocrats win just about every political fight we read about in “The Betrayal of the American Dream.” Among other things, the economic elite has quietly, methodically and ruthlessly restructured the tax code on behalf of the wealthiest Americans, they say.
Beginning in the 1980s, “Congress converted the tax code into a boutique bank offering all sorts of products tailored” to the very rich. Tax cuts on unearned income and carried interest allow the richest of the rich — including Mitt Romney, the authors point out — to pay less income tax with each passing year.
“America’s founders, who were very well aware of how the aristocracy rigged the system to guarantee its own perpetuation, up to and including the king, would shudder,” Bartlett and Steele write.
With the American middle class under assault, we are a country increasingly divided between rich and poor. In “The Betrayal of the American Dream,” the U.S. ruling class is eating the American middle class for lunch and giving the leftovers to the impoverished, incipient middle class of China and India.
Consider, for example, the authors’ descriptions of the fate of the Rubbermaid and Vise-Grip plants in Wooster, Ohio, and DeWitt, Neb., respectively.
Those companies were good corporate citizens. But the ethos that led them to invest in local community development and arts programs up to the 1970s seems almost quaint in a modern age where the cutthroat logic of the hedge-fund manager dominates corporate decision-making.
Despite still being profitable in the United States, both the new owners of the DeWitt plant and Rubbermaid shipped most of their jobs abroad. The DeWitt plant closed its doors in October 2008, putting 330 people out of work.
The Chinese replacements for the DeWitt workers live in conditions, as the authors describe them, that were familiar to American workers — in the 19th century. They work 12-hour days, live in vast dormitories and endure bosses who feel free to berate and harangue them.
In another case, a group of workers for a Microsoft subcontractor in China engage in the kind of protest unheard of in the United States — they climb to the roof of their factory and threaten to commit mass suicide when pushed to the limit. No U.S. employer could get away with pushing a company’s entire workforce to the brink of suicide.
But the displaced American workers quoted in “The Betrayal of the American Dream” have no idea that it’s their pride and dignity that make them a burden to their U.S. employers. Instead, they accept their layoff notices with little protest. They look for other jobs. Many internalize their loss. “Maybe I wasn’t a good employee,” they say.
A few rail at the base greed of their bosses. But they can’t see — as the authors do — the whole big picture of cold, corporate calculus that’s cost them their livelihoods.
Only one worker in “The Betrayal of the American Dream” speaks of the possibility of a future day of reckoning.
“When we end up down the road and get where we’re headed — which is an elite class and a low class — is the low class going to tolerate that?,” asks Irene Odell, a laid-off information technology worker from Tampa. “Isn’t that what inspired the revolution?”
For Bartlett and Steele, the American worker is a largely passive figure, manipulated by lobbyists and right-wing think tanks.
And yet, the policies the authors decry in this book are backed by a large number of American voters, including many working people. “The Betrayal of the American Dream” doesn’t try to explain why this is so.
“We can have concentrated wealth in the hands of a few or we can have democracy,” the late Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis says at the end of “The Betrayal of the American Dream.” “But we cannot have both.”
It’s an argument that has yet to take hold of the American imagination.