Yet it is not only the elite who are to blame. Large swaths of the electorate, enraptured by the ideology of success, often vote against their own economic interests, or fail to vote at all. (Warren Buffett may vote against his interests, too, but he is outnumbered by middle-class voters who support tax breaks they’re not getting. Not to mention Tea Party members who love their Medicare and Social Security, but think that health-insurance subsidies for the merely middle-aged and financially needy constitute “socialism.”) The authors know this, but they resist indicting the ignorance and political apathy of the people they are trying to rescue.
Nor do they note that President Obama’s rhetoric has ricocheted between what the Republicans call “class warfare” and a misleading inclusiveness. Witness his repeated conflation of the middle class with individuals earning up to $200,000 and households earning up to $250,000—a definition that makes sense only in a few high-priced urban enclaves, excludes just the top 2-to-3 percent of taxpayers, and shifts the debate rightward.
While Barlett and Steele don’t make this precise point, they do correct the record. Using the median household income of $50,599 as a guide, they define as “the heart of the middle class” those reporting “overall incomes” of $35,000 to $85,000 on their 2009 tax returns. That represents 34 million individuals or families, or 30 percent of returns. About 58 million returns report even lower earnings. (It’s not clear whether Barlett and Steele are using gross income, adjusted gross income, or net taxable income.) That leaves 20 percent of returns as upper-middle class, affluent, or rich, they say, and they suggest that an extended middle class could include incomes up to $115,000.
And for the middle class, the news, even apart from the Great Recession, is not good. The current emphasis on deficit reduction means that “the ruling class is becoming agitated over the spending on working people,” Barlett and Steele write. Rather than raise the top marginal rate on earned income (as high as 94 percent in the 1940s, and now 35 percent), some in Congress are talking about slashing Medicare, Social Security, and food stamps—a further assault on people like Joy Whitehouse.
Barlett and Steele spend much of Betrayal lamenting globalization, which now affects both white-collar and blue-collar workers. They realize the trend can’t be halted entirely, and that products made in low-wage foreign factories save US consumers money. But they would prefer that government cushion the impact on American workers.
Free trade, as supported by Washington, has been a disaster, they write, leaving “employees and small industries at the mercy of unscrupulous sweatshop operators abroad and opportunistic multinational corporations at home.” They hark back longingly to a lost Golden Age of paternalistic employers who embraced their employees and communities and guaranteed lifetime jobs. (One might argue that their portrait of this era is too rosy, reflecting neither discrimination against women and minorities nor the conflicts that often led to unionization.)
They cite the longtime symbiosis between DeWitt, NE, and a family-owned business that manufactured an innovative tool known as the Vise-Grip. When, after several ownership changes, control of the company passed in 2002 to the multinational Newell Corporation, pay cuts followed. In 2008, the plant was closed and production shifted to what turned out to be a massively inefficient plant in China. Meanwhile, DeWitt workers retired early, accepted lesser jobs, or endured long commutes to work. America: What Went Wrong? readers will remember Newell as the villainous outfit that shut down the Anchor Hocking glass plant in Clarksburg, WV, with similarly grievous results.
Even high-tech jobs have come under assault, Barlett and Steele remind us. The now-familiar case of Apple (which the team covered in 2011 for the Investigative Newspaper Workshop) is Exhibit A, with thousands of jobs moving from successful US plants to factories in China with “slave-like working conditions.” And there are other, even more tragic tales—like the story of Kevin Flanagan, a 41-year-old computer programmer for Bank of America. Flanagan was ordered to train his replacement, a programmer from India, or lose his severance package. Afterward, he shot himself in the head.