By Hector Tobar Los Angeles Times
You may be old enough to remember the era in the United States lamented for its passing by authors Donald L. Bartlett and James B. Steele on nearly every page of their new book, “The Betrayal of the American Dream.”
In that bygone America, you could buy bell-bottom pants, a color television or a pair of high-platform shoes and very likely find a label on those products saying “Made in the U.S.A.” American companies made big profits, but they invested in the local communities where their products were made. The rich paid their fair share in taxes.
Bartlett and Steele pinpoint the moment when this America began to disappear as 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 started migrating to Mexico, and then to China. Not long afterward, all sorts of other tasks once performed by the guy next door — including your friendly customer service representative — were performed elsewhere, such as Bangalore, India, and Taipei, Taiwan.
Since then, three decades of laissez-faire business strategies and government policies have undercut the American middle class and the underpinnings of American democracy. At least, that’s the central argument of “The Betrayal of the American Dream,” a book that’s essential reading for those trying to make sense of our country’s current malaise.
Since the 1980s, a host of politicos, both 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 argue, is the American “ruling class.” Among other things, the economic elite have quietly, methodically and ruthlessly restructured the tax code on behalf of the wealthiest Americans, the authors say. Tax cuts on unearned income and carried interest allow the richest of the rich 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 observe. With the American middle class under assault, the United States now is increasingly divided between rich and poor. In “The Betrayal of the American Dream,” the U.S. ruling class is portrayed as eating the American middle class for lunch and giving the leftovers to the impoverished, incipient middle classes in China and India.
Consider, for example, the authors’ descriptions of the Rubbermaid and Vise-Grip plants in Wooster, Ohio, and De Witt, Neb., respectively. Those companies were good corporate citizens. But the ethos that led them to invest in local community development and support arts programs up to the 1970s seems almost quaint in an age when the cutthroat logic of the hedge-fund manager dominates corporate decision-making.
Despite still being profitable in the United States, both DeWitt and Rubbermaid shipped most of their jobs abroad. The Chinese replacements for the De Witt workers live in conditions that, as the authors describe them, were familiar to American workers in the 19th century. They work 12-hour days, live in vast dormitories and endure bosses who berate and harangue them.
Pushed to the limit, a group of workers for a Microsoft subcontractor in China engages in a kind of protest unheard of in the U.S.: They climb to the roof of their factory and threaten to commit mass suicide. No U.S. employer could get away with pushing a company’s entire workforce to the brink of suicide.
Yet Bartlett and Steele see the American worker as a largely passive figure, manipulated by lobbyists and right-wing think tanks. A few workers rail at the base greed of their bosses, but most can’t see, as the authors argue, the big picture of cold, corporate calculus that’s cost many of them their livelihoods.
The policies Bartlett and Steele decry are backed by a large number of American voters, including many working people. “The Betrayal of the American Dream” doesn’t attempt to explain why this is so. But they remind us, “We can have concentrated wealth in the hands of a few or we can have democracy,” as the late Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis is quoted as saying. “But we cannot have both.”
It’s an argument that has yet to take hold of the American imagination.
By Hector Tobar Los Angeles Times