I've always been a firm believer in the concept of meritocracy; in a fair world, it is right and just that true merit, as embodied in hard work, intelligence intelligently applied, and excellence in execution, be rewarded.
The problem is, as Hayes so clearly points out, that the world is not fair. And in any civilization, even meritocracies deployed with the best of intentions wind up becoming oligarchies. Those who rise to the top eventually seek to protect their position, and generally will "pull up the ladder" behind them.
This, Hayes explains, is the root of America's current crisis. We are in an era when those who have supposedly "earned" their way into the upper echelons of our most sacred institutions are now so far removed from the rest of us, and so intent upon protecting their positions, that they are no longer capable of behaving ethically. Corruption runs rampant, and the majority of Americans now suffer a complete crisis of confidence in just about every one of these institutions.
I really struggle with this. I see Hayes' point; there is much truth to what he says. And yet.... As the daughter of a true Greatest Generation-er, I just cannot throw off my old-fashioned American idealism about fairness, hard work, and merit earning rewards. I can't reconcile myself to any artificial attempts at creating "equality of outcomes" rather than "equality of opportunity". But.... Hayes (and many other authors examining our current catastrophic state of affairs) illustrate that the very concept of "equality of opportunity" is very much in jeopardy in today's America. The game, as I think most of us in the middle class today are well aware, truly is rigged.
"Equality of opportunity" is an article of faith for me, a core belief. There should be no outright "gifts", but those who work hard, apply themselves, and make good use of the opportunities available to them should prosper. This is very much how things were in America between WWII and roughly 1980. But we now find ourselves in a time when gross abuses of power, coupled with destructive economic imbalances, truly call into question just how "equal" the opportunities are in America today.
As a political centrist, I find this beyond troubling. I see examples in today's middle and lower classes of individuals making poor life choices and suffering for them, but I also see individuals working hard, playing by all the rules, making sound life choices.... and still suffering. Likewise, in our elite classes, one can see individuals rightfully succeeding through their own hard work and merit, but one can also see people who are ignorant, lazy, unprincipled, and undeserving succeeding and enjoying outsized benefits way beyond their deserts.
How can any of this be institutionally balanced?
Given my own distrust of institutions (just as Hayes describes it!), I have little faith in any institution's ability to right the ship. But we are SO out of balance that I do believe something catastrophic will be needed to restore something approaching "normalcy" to our current economic and social state.
Those from the Right side of the political spectrum will undoubtedly despise Hayes' book. Those on the Left will praise it. Those of us in the middle will be sorely troubled by it--- I certainly am.
Aside from the content (and my own personal discomfort with its hard leftist bent), I found Hayes to be rather an annoying narrator. His delivery is cilpped and fast, and just a tad on the arrogant and self-satisfied side. It wasn't bad at first, but eventually came to grate on me. I frequently found myself rewinding passages in order to listen to them more carefully a second time, as he so often raced through some complex narratives.
Still, it's a worthy read or listen, if for nothing else than to make one think. It's no secret that America today is way out of whack on the equality scale and suffering some massive problems on the economic and social fronts. Hayes' particular analysis adds an interesting perspective to the debate on what ails us. Definitely troubling, but when grappling with complex issues, it is better to allow oneself to be troubled by difficult ideas than to remain comfortably unchallenged in one's beliefs.
"Who Stole the American Dream" filled me with a torrent of emotions. Outrage. Fear. Disgust. Despair. Anguish. Disbelief. Helplessness. And above all, pure, roiling, righteous anger.
Not that most of what Smith reports is so surprising; one has the feeling that one has "known" all of this all along. But Smith pulls together so many disparate pieces of the puzzle, coupled with so much indisputable factual evidence, and presents it so logically and forcefully, that I felt as though someone had suddenly turned the lights on in a room grown murky in the twilight.
Seeking insightful analysis of the current sad state of the American economy and the elements comprising the elusive "American Dream", I've found that most such books have a decidedly leftward tilt. As a staunch moderate, committed to seeing the rhyme and reason (as well as the lunacies) on both sides, I always carry a large lump of salt with me when embarking on a read (or listen) of any such tome.
While Smith clearly leans left, he doesn't do so radically. And certainly not enough, in my centrist opinion, to detract from the pure forcefulness of the facts he brings to bear. America in 2012 faces a perfect storm of factors that combine to threaten the existence of the middle class and the American Dream: Globalization, the technology revolution, and a combination of malfeasance, corruption, and incompetence in government, big business, and the financial sector that truly boggle the mind.
Smith deftly dissects the "hollowing out" of the middle class and the sheer avarice and ruthlessness of the new breed of capitalist that controls not only American business, but our government as well. He paints a clear picture of the stark differences between post-WWII America up to the 1970's, vs. the America that has evolved from the 1970's to today. Smith pinpoints the mid-1970s as the time when American business woke up to its ability to influence (read: buy) political power, thereby steering government in directions favorable to itself.
A reader from the right at this juncture would surely roll his eyes and cry, "Typical leftist scapegoating of big business." Well, perhaps. But it's hard to ignore the facts that Smith brings to bear to support his position. As Smith tells it (and as seems pretty hard to argue), there was a great deal more economic equality in the post-WWII years, government actually functioned well in an atmosphere of give-and-take and reasonable compromises, and average Americans felt that they could actually have an impact on government. Contrast that with today, and you can easily see that we've gone way off course.
I learned a tremendous amount from the book. Who knew that the Environmental Protection Agency and the Office of Consumer Affairs were established under Nixon's presidency?? But that was an era when Republicans and Democrats worked across the aisle, and politicians actually responded to public sentiment. I'm also grateful to Smith for helping me finally understand just why banks actually WANTED to give bad loans to people who obviously couldn't afford them (that never made any sort of sense to me, but thanks to Smith I finally get it). And heck, it's no wonder companies want to move to China when, in addition to cheap labor, they get free land and a complete absence of the environmental and labor regulations that are so troublesome here in the U.S. (where they make life actually worth living for the average working stiff).
Smith's analysis of the issues contributing to our current malaise is breathtaking in its scope and force. And downright sickening when it comes to the greed, corruption, and iron-fisted dominance of the power brokers with money and political influence. This new Gilded Age has left America so out of balance, it's hardly surprising that we now find ourselves teetering on the brink of the appropriately labelled "fiscal cliff".
All that being said, the centrist in me cries out for a bit of perspective from "the other side". While I find Smith's facts, figures, and arguments entirely reasonable and persuasive, that lump of salt rubs at me. Smith paints quite a picture; but are there pieces missing? What would the rebuttals from the Right be? I can readily imagine several:
- On the topic of the mortgage crisis: How much responsibility for the crisis lies with individuals who failed to exercise personal responsibility in taking on mortgages that they HAD to have known were beyond their means? Were they *forced* to take on those loans? Certainly the banks were irresponsible in actively pushing products they knew were thoroughly flawed, and failing to exercise any sort of caution in vetting the credentials of the borrowers. But how much responsibility lies with individual borrowers who failed to do their homework? And what about those who chose to treat their homes like piggy banks, taking out home equity loans in order to live beyond their true means?
- On the topic of pensions: Yes, in many cases pension funds were mishandled, as was the switch to 401(k) plans. But was it ever realistic to expect business to take on responsibility for supporting workers in retirement? Smith explains that initially, when pensions were first introduced, businesses liked the idea because it allowed them to defer payment of a portion of employees' salaries, directing it instead to the company pension fund. But when companies switched en masse to 401(k) plans, a large percentage of employees were overwhelmed by the responsibility of having to make investment choices on their own. The Left interprets this as business shirking its responsibility to employees; the right would argue that employees were free to make responsible choices to ensure a comfortable retirement, and this should never have been any employer's duty. I'd have liked to have seen Smith take on this argument proactively.
- Social issues: It's hard to fault Smith for failing to address this topic, but given his otherwise complete picture, it does seem to be a bit of a glaring hole. While the Left may deny its importance, the Right does have a point to make about changes in American social structure that have had a significant impact on the poverty rate and lack of mobility we see today. The soaring number of out-of-wedlock births is an enormous problem. Children born to single mothers are exponentially more likely to be poor and to suffer a host of other serious economic and social problems, including failure to finish school, likelihood of criminal behavior, and probability of ending up on welfare.
This significant underclass places an enormous burden on our economy, although I'm not at all sure how that burden compares with the other macro-factors that Smith addresses. That being said, it's an argument the Right would pose in the discussion of "Who Stole the American Dream?", so I feel it would have made the book a little more complete if Smith had at least addressed it.
Even with the imagined arguments I can hear coming from the Right, I honestly cannot see any of them doing much to seriously dent the larger vision of a monstrously bloated elite power structure strangling the life out of the American middle class. For all the small flaws one might be able to point out in Smith's position, the facts remain of serious abuses of power at the top that disenfranchise the majority of Americans.
I would ardently love to find a thoughtful analysis of the "American Dream" question that takes the middle ground and presents reasoned arguments from both ends of the political spectrum. I'm not sure any such book exists. But until one is written, I have found "Who Stole the American Dream" informative, thought-provoking... and sobering. It's possible to ignore its somewhat liberal bias and just take in the facts as an education.
I generally listen to audiobooks while running. Numerous times while out on the road or trail and listening to WSTAD, I found myself hollering expletives and harrumphing aloud in disbelief and disgust. This book will definitely stir you. Regardless of your political persuasion, there is much to be learned here. I highly recommend it.
Way back when The History Channel really *was* the HISTORY channel, they had absolutely wonderful programs about...well... history! These programs frequently featured esteemed historians speaking passionately about the topics that comprised their life's work. Many of them had fabulous, evocative voices. Some of the best are featured in this audio presentation.
David McCullough, Steven Ambrose, and James McPherson make this recording worthwhile, no question. I loved hearing their knowledge, perspective, and engagement with their subjects shine through. Listening to smart, lively scholars discuss historic events and people and shed light on how they made a difference and impacted where we are today--- this is great stuff!
While I found neither Gordon Wood nor Richard White anywhere near as engaging as their peers here, I still learned things from them. White somehow just seemed too dispassionate to me, I couldn't warm up to him. At first I thought perhaps it was because his historical niche (The American West) just wasn't that interesting to me, but then I realized that wasn't true. I've found it an interesting topic in other media. But White's discussion here somehow felt bloodless and detached. I couldn't wait for his segment to end!
Still, the recording is worthwhile for McCullough and Ambrose alone. The price is a bit steep for such a short piece, but real history buffs will really love this.
Anyone with even a passing interest in World War II will find this an absolutely gripping audiobook. It's so alive, so real, so vivid, the personal stories of so many participants in the epic of D-Day will grab hold of you and leave you exhilarated, terrified, breathless.
Having Ambrose narrate himself is a treat. The man's passion for his subject is utterly obvious and contributes mightily to the success of the audio version. I am aware of the controversy surrounding Ambrose in his later years (accusations of plagiarism), but whether or not the accusations are true, they cannot detract from his power as a presenter of history.
His voice is not as strong as I recall it from History Channel presentations a decade or so back, but it is just as passionate, forceful, and humorous. He brings the epic events of D-Day down to such a human level, and makes it all very REAL to those of us comfortably ensconced here in the 21st century.
I couldn't recommend this more highly.
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