Meet Barbara Joy Whitehouse, known as Joy, whose life story seems to constitute a catalogue of misfortune.
The widow of a long-haul truck driver killed in a highway accident, she is a cancer survivor whose lung disease keeps her attached part-time to an oxygen tank. At 69, she resides in a mobile home near Salt Lake City and subsists on a modest Social Security payment and the cash she earns by recycling aluminum.
Whitehouse’s situation has been rendered particularly dire by the loss of the death benefits promised by her husband’s company. After four years of payments, the company went bankrupt and that obligation was erased, leaving Whitehouse penurious but still upbeat. “You put your pride in your pocket, and you learn to help yourself,” she says.
It is telling that Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele, the ace investigative team that has won two Pulitzer Prizes and two National Magazine Awards, dedicate their latest book, The Betrayal of the American Dream, to Whitehouse’s memory. The dedication reveals the emotional heart of their enterprise: Not merely number-crunching chroniclers of middle-class decline, they are invested in the fate of the people who exemplify it.
Barlett and Steele’s preeminent talent is their knack for combining the micro and the macro. They look systemically at issues and policies, from the US tax code to healthcare. The questions they ask are both pragmatic (Does the system work?) and ideological (Who is benefiting, and at whose expense?). Their conclusions are buttressed by details gleaned from public records. But they also use the paper trail to track down the system’s apparent victims, people like Joy—the laid-off, the discarded, the pensionless, and the uninsured.
Now contributing editors at Vanity Fair, the two men have collaborated for an astonishing four decades, initially at The Philadelphia Inquirer (1971-1997) and then at Time magazine (1997-2006). Their stories have examined the growing economic divide between the rich and everyone else in America—Barlett and Steele were talking about “the top 1 percenters” well before Occupy Wall Street. This divide, they argue, is the product of government policies that favor big business and the wealthy. They write as crestfallen progressives, with faith in the power of the federal government to promote economic justice and dismay at how far short it has fallen of that goal.
The Betrayal of the American Dream, their eighth book, won’t seem revelatory to anyone who has been following the team’s reporting, reading Paul Krugman and David Cay Johnston, or watching MSNBC. The idea of an imperiled middle class—for some reason, hardly anyone talks about the poor anymore—has become commonplace in our political discourse. Here, Barlett and Steele lay out the factors responsible for middle-class decline—in effect, updating their iconic 1992 work, America: What Went Wrong? The new book is a useful addition to the debate, even if it doesn’t diagram convincingly just how to make things go right or how to truly reform a political system dependent on big money and susceptible to corporate lobbying.
America: What Went Wrong? expanded on an ambitious series that Barlett and Steele wrote for the Inquirer (where I was once their colleague). That series was, in turn, a follow-up to a riveting, Pulitzer-winning series on the Tax Reform Act of 1986, which showed how the revised tax code, sold as a move toward greater fairness, disproportionately benefited specific corporations and individuals. (Barlett and Steele have been mucking about in the thickets of the US tax system a very long time. They won their first Pulitzer, in 1975, for an examination of unequal enforcement by the Internal Revenue Service, and have since written two books on taxes.)
Though it also draws on stories of displaced middle-class workers, America: What Went Wrong? is dense with facts and figures. (Betrayal is a more accessible, less data-driven read.) But America does a masterful job of explaining how “the government rule book” of the 1980s promoted trade imbalances and hastened the destruction of American manufacturing; deprived workers of secure, well-paid jobs; helped dismantle the private pension system; and shifted the federal tax burden away from the wealthy by lowering both marginal rates and capital gains taxes. The book is a wide-ranging, painstakingly documented indictment—not just of business practices, but also of our democratically elected government. “Congress,” the authors write without equivocation, “has stood for the rich.”
Barlett and Steele make much of two relatively arcane features of the US tax code: the ability of businesses to reduce taxes by carrying net operating losses forward for several years, and by deducting interest payments on loans. They demonstrate how these tax breaks helped propel the merger-and-acquisition boom of the 1980s, and how the assumption of massive debt led to the contraction, and often destruction, of otherwise healthy companies.