Hedrick Smith is a dogged assembler of data. Practically every page of his “Who Stole the American Dream?” crawls with numbers, statistics and percentages like the following:
“The top 0.1 percent -- about 315,000 people out of 315 million Americans -- garner roughly half of all capital gains in the U.S.”
“CEO pay ... rocketed from 40 times the pay of an average company worker in 1980 to nearly 400 times by 2000.”
“The typical 401(k) nest egg of people in their 60s ... is $84,469,” yet “analysts project that most retired couples will spend $200,000 on [health-related] items only partially covered by Medicare.”
This and similar material, which deserves to be thundered by an Old Testament prophet, is cushioned in a drone fit for an agricultural report.
Smith was a celebrated reporter for the New York Times. His lack of a discernible style probably results from many decades of suppressing his own voice in the interest of reporting the news objectively.
The 400-plus pages of drab, personality-free prose he has assembled on all the ways the rich have been sticking it to the middle class since the late 1970s read like a Times investigative report from hell. You can admire the book’s usefulness and still get indigestion reading it.
Moreover, it’s padded. It begins with 40 pages of throat-clearing that describe the golden era before everything went sour.
(The only reason I can think of for Smith to bring up the 1963 March on Washington -- a “festival of democracy” that may have been “history in the making” but wasn’t really about the middle class -- is to let us to know he was there.)
Three culminating chapters on Congressional gridlock, the rise of the far right and lunatic defense spending are old news that could have been covered in several paragraphs.
More seriously damning: Although Smith is obviously concerned that the wealth gap is damaging American society, his blandness suggests a dearth of real anger that, in turn, hints at an insufficiency of analysis.
He’s informative on the disaster that 401(k) plans have turned out to be for middle-income earners, on the way corporations have used bankruptcy law to decimate worker pension plans while rewarding executives with millions and on how an increasingly rightward-leaning Congress has made these injustices possible.
But somebody put those legislators into office. Smith thinks American voters have been fooled; I refuse to believe they’re that dumb. I’m convinced they were voting their values - - and nowhere does Smith offer a critique of a consumerist society that has spiraled out of control.
Is the CEO with a yacht, a private jet and a 30,000-square-foot mansion different in kind from the salaried worker whose day isn’t complete without a new kitchen appliance from Amazon?
All that credit-card debt didn’t mount up just because people were buying socks for their children. As Smith observes, with atypical asperity: “We Americans have done it to ourselves.”
Yet his closing 10-point program for getting ourselves out of the hole we’ve dug doesn’t seem to have come from the same keyboard that’s just spent 40-plus pages delineating the reasons Congress has ground to a standstill.
For example: He advocates removing the cap on the payroll tax for incomes above $106,800 and either increasing Medicare premiums for the top 10 percent of earners or applying a means test for coverage.
He also proposes drawing down American troops in foreign lands -- a sensible idea, given that our defense spending is “roughly equal to the total of defense expenditures for all the other nations in the world.”
Maybe some of them could be ordered to hold Republican legislators hostage, since, unless something very surprising happens in November, that’s the only way his tax proposals have a prayer of being enacted into law.
“Who Stole the American Dream?” is published by Random House (557 pages, $30). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Craig Seligman is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)