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.
The Betrayal of the American Dream covers a panoply of ills, many reprised from America: What Went Wrong?: mounting student debt, tax inequities (from “carried interest” to the stashing of wealth overseas), disappearing private pension plans, and the chaos unleashed by deregulation of transportation and banks. Barlett and Steele write that “the foreclosure crisis was in part a result of runaway greed by an out-of-control, unregulated industry,” a common enough view. But they fail to apportion any responsibility to careless home-buyers who signed contracts providing for adjustable-rate mortgages without reading or understanding them. Or, for that matter, to the power of the American Dream itself, which so exalts home ownership.
In their final chapter, Barlett and Steele offer what they describe as “the bare minimum of steps…to restore the vibrancy of middle America.” They want, first of all, higher taxation of the rich, and point out that “tax simplification” has little to do with simplifying the rate structure. “The tax code is complex,” they write, “but not because of the rates.” Amen to that.
But their solution is too simple: for individuals, a single-page tax form listing all income and allowing for no deductions, credits, or exemptions. That means the loss of charitable deductions (a big hit for the nonprofit sector); the housing-mortgage deduction (tough on those who counted on it when opting to buy rather than rent); and the deduction for retirement savings (another blow to those who have already lost pensions). It’s unclear whether Barlett and Steele really intend for businesses to lose deductions for supplies, equipment, and other essentials.
When it comes to trade, they want tougher enforcement of existing laws, plus, if necessary, tariffs on imports. They support government investment in infrastructure, better job-retraining programs, and the prosecution of white-collar criminals who contributed to the financial and housing meltdowns.
“For all this to change, the people will have to prevail,” Barlett and Steele write. “Middle-class Americans, still the largest group of voters, must put their own economic survival above partisan loyalties.” But campaigns are still expensive, politicians will be hard-put to ignore lobbyists, and democracy is at best a crude cudgel. Given the ease with which Americans have been hoodwinked before, it is a stretch to imagine that Barlett and Steele’s populist miracle will transpire anytime soon.