Saving the middle class has become a battle cry in the 2012 presidential campaign — and it’s no wonder. According to a recent Pew Research Center study, the percentage of Americans considered middle class has dwindled to 51 percent from 61 percent in 1971. But the Pew report does not explain the political and economic forces behind this decline. That’s a task Hedrick Smith sets for himself in his new book, “Who Stole the American Dream?”
Long before most reporters and social scientists took note, Smith had established himself as television journalism’s foremost expert on the forces eroding the ranks of the middle class. In a series of penetrating “Frontline” documentaries over more than a decade, he chronicled the rise of a new buccaneer brand of global capitalism that relentlessly undermined the middle-class dream of “a steady job with decent pay and health benefits, rising living standards, a home of your own, secure retirement, and the hope that your children would enjoy a better future.” Now in a sober, self-described reporter’s book, Smith deepens his analysis using the latest data.
The American dream’s demise, Smith says, began with a corporate rebellion against President Richard Nixon’s aggressive business regulations. That blowback ended a long postwar era of shared prosperity and power based on relatively stable relationships between business, government and labor. Alarmed corporate chiefs raised an army of lobbyists who helped pave the way for new federal legislation and regulations that benefited American businesses operating in an increasingly globalized marketplace. Corporate domination of U.S. politics, Smith writes, set off an era of economic dislocation and political polarization.
In Smith’s telling, America’s corporate plutocracy has largely abandoned even the pretense of stewardship, loyalty or patriotism. It has imported cheap foreign workers to replace millions of Americans in an increasingly wide range of occupations: from agricultural and construction labor to high-tech and banking professionals. Corporate chieftains also moved offshore many of the nation’s once-unionized, blue-collar jobs and low-level white-collar jobs, such as working in call centers. (Smith cites Thomas Jefferson’s prescient warning: “Merchants have no country.”)
Smith views 1978 as a pivotal year. First, Congress revised bankruptcy laws to allow troubled corporations to restructure rapidly by abrogating union contracts and other employee agreements. Second, lawmakers enacted a little-noticed tax-code provision designed to let workers supplement existing pension plans with individual retirement accounts. Corporations unexpectedly seized upon the new plans as an excuse to eliminate expensive, professionally administered, lifetime pensions. The result: Employees’ share of retirement costs went from 11 percent in the 1950s to 51 percent by the mid-2000s; insufficient or badly managed retirement investing by individual workers has given rise to predictions that perhaps half of aging boomers may end their lives in poverty. (Employers also took a parallel path in health insurance, shifting costs to employees via higher premiums and deductions.)
Finally, a 1978 Supreme Court decision permitted banks to offer high-interest, low minimum-payment credit cards, even to Americans with bad credit histories — sowing the seeds for a massive credit card debt bubble. That process, followed two decades later by a residential real estate boom and bust, eventually bankrupted millions of middle-class Americans.
“Who Stole the American Dream?” provides a grim panorama of the real-world consequences of these power shifts: concentration of financial assets and higher incomes in fewer hands; race-to-the-bottom wage and sales dynamics (epitomized by the rise of Wal-Mart) that pit American producers against Asian sweatshop factories and result in massive sales of imported, cheap merchandise that, in turn, eviscerates small, local retailers; efforts by America’s highly admired high-tech moguls (from Steve Jobs to Bill Gates) to transfer overseas much of our knowledge-based economy;the evolution of a Washington-Wall Street “symbiosis” that dominates White House and congressional policymaking and thrives on political gridlock.
Smith’s saga of economic and political polarization is so downbeat and devastating that there seems little hope for his modest blueprint for change: a 10-step “Domestic Marshall Plan” based on new public-private commitments to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure, foster high-tech growth and a manufacturing renaissance, enact a reformed tax code favoring domestic job creation, etc. Smith also pines for new, transcendent leadership and a progressive populism that valuesjobs and fairness and stands up to the “influence of money in elections and on legislative policy-making.”
Smith’s book is rambling, a bit disorganized and crowded with an almost overwhelming number of topics. Yet he overlooks two fundamental sociological trends that will complicate any rebuilding of America’s middle class.
First, among non-college-educated Americans, the linchpin of stable middle-class life — long-term marriage — is foundering in a rising tide of never-married moms, divorce, cohabitation, childless individuals and couples, and serial partnerships. Second, an electorate that is disproportionately white, older, relatively wealthy, better-educated and anxious wants full funding of Medicare, Social Security and pensions; but this group resists additional spending or taxes for schools, roads and other infrastructure improvements that would benefit a general population that is younger, more immigrant and multi-ethnic, poorer, less educated, and economically vulnerable.
Smith emphasizes a crucial point: Corporate domination of U.S. politics has produced far greater class polarization than in Europe or Japan. Politics and policy making matter. But Americans historically have been more willing than Europeans to tolerate high inequality levels if accompanied by strong economic growth and a healthy middle class. Whether the Great Recession and the low-growth recovery have fundamentally altered this outlook will be registered in the upcoming election.
WHO STOLE THE AMERICAN DREAM?
By Hedrick Smith
Random House. 557 pp. $30