Friday, December 13, 2013
Hedrick Smith's "Who Stole the American Dream?" explains "Inequality for All"
Author: Hedrick Smith
Title: “Who Stole the American Dream?”
Publication: 2012, Random House Trade, ISBN 978-0-8129-8205-3, 6 Parts, 22 Chapters, 580 pages, paper.
The title of this book reminds me of the little short story “Who Stole the Mona Lisa?” that I wrote in ninth grade English class. The author (“The Russians”) takes the view that middle class America has been snatched or robbed, and that it was all too simple for the rich to do.
The shift in policies toward big business accelerated in the late 1970s, under a Democratic president, Jimmy Carter. This all happened after the oil shocks and then Watergate – but on some economic issues Nixon had turned out to be a “liberal”. Remember the wage and price controls?
Smith’s theory is rather like that of Robert Reich in his film “Inequality for All” (Movies, June 24, 2013). The “Virtuous Circle” broke down as “extreme capitalism” set in, with its excessive focus on short-term profits for stakeholders, distorting the markets. This all help set up 2008.
I remember the mood of the late 1980s, as hostile takeover artists swept down on stable companies, and employees saw the good old days as numbered. The business games had a moral rationalization. If only individual people took on more personal responsibility, they would be OK.
We see how that all played out, with the weakening of pensions (partly because of longer life spans) and the switch to “employee responsibility” with 401(k) plans. Manufacturing and even some systems and customer support jobs got offshored, and people took to hucksterism. But salesmanship started to fail, too, as people wanted to be left alone and not be inundated with solicitations. The Internet made it easier for you to “do it yourself”, right?
One could take a libertarian spin on all this, and say the most capable people did well in this globalized environment. Indeed, some did. But the divide between the rich and the poor grew, to the point that it god personal. Indeed, as some left wing observers like Noam Chomsky have said, violent street crime (or even computer crime) has become a kind of class warfare, and it could become impossible to contain. The causes for terrorism can be personal as well as global and religious.
So, social conservatism, harking back to the “Moral Majority” of the 1980s, can put on its own spin. If people have to contain their psyche, sexuality and emotional life within the confines of marriage and family, there is a leveling effect that makes economic inequality for tolerable. Perhaps there’s something to this. Moreover, it isn’t the responsibility of government to provide for the poor, it’s up to the caring of individuals, moving out from the family structure. That’s the conservative rationalization.
The last chapter calls for “armies of volunteers” to execute social activism (maybe the Occupy movements) as well as caregiving and charity. Indeed, his prescription reminds me of libertarian writer Charles Murray’s concern for loss of social capital in his book “Coming Apart” (March 14, 2012). I’m not a joiner. I don’t like to be recruited for other people’s agendas. Is that part of the problem?
I bought the book on display at Kammerbooks in Washington DC.