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Pulitzer Prize winner Hedrick Smith’s new book is an extraordinary achievement, an eye-opening account of how, over the past four decades, the American Dream has been dismantled and we became two Americas.
In his best-selling The Russians, Smith took millions of readers inside the Soviet Union. In The Power Game, he took us inside Washington’s corridors of power. Now Smith takes us across America to show how seismic changes, sparked by a sequence of landmark political and economic decisions, have transformed America. As only a veteran reporter can, Smith fits the puzzle together, starting with Lewis Powell’s provocative memo that triggered a political rebellion that dramatically altered the landscape of power from then until today.
This is a book full of surprises and revelations - the accidental beginnings of the 401(k) plan, with disastrous economic consequences for many; the major policy changes that began under Jimmy Carter; how the New Economy disrupted America’s engine of shared prosperity, the "virtuous circle" of growth, and how America lost the title of "Land of Opportunity". Smith documents the transfer of $6 trillion in middle-class wealth from homeowners to banks even before the housing boom went bust, and how the U.S. policy tilt favoring the rich is stunting America’s economic growth.
This book is essential reading for all of us who want to understand America today, or why average Americans are struggling to keep afloat. Smith reveals how pivotal laws and policies were altered while the public wasn’t looking, how Congress often ignores public opinion, why moderate politicians got shoved to the sidelines, and how Wall Street often wins politically by hiring over 1,400 former government officials as lobbyists.
I have been looking for this book for a long time. I have read many books looking for the answer to how we got here (in this economical mess) and why are we stuck. Each book seemed only to deal with a small part of the problem. Hedrick Smith puts the puzzle together for us. He explains the legislation, motivation behind it, and the players responsible for it. He deals with each sector of the economy, because there is no one culprit. He debunks many of the "sound bite" reasons given by our politicians for our lack of progress out of the woods.
Read it before you step into the voter booth!
5 of 5 people found this review helpful
"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.
1 of 1 people found this review helpful
If you could sum up Who Stole the American Dream? in three words, what would they be?
I am an Economics gluton (ingesting at least 3 books weekly) and this book ranks among the best that I have heard in years. The author manages to explain the cataclysmic shifts taking place in the US concisely yet thoroughly.
What did you like best about this story?
Hmmm.... though the book was painful and difficult to listen to, I know that everything the author describes is accurate, relevant and frightening. He once again inspired me to become an tireless activist and relentless watchdog over the politicians in Washington DC and the evil greedy thieves on Wall Street.
What does Rob Shapiro bring to the story that you wouldn’t experience if you just read the book?
I have a learning disability which makes it difficult for me to retain what I read. However, I have an audiographic memory and can easily synthesize and comprehend information auditorily.
Was this a book you wanted to listen to all in one sitting?
There is no way any human could tolerate listening to the honest, direct and overwhelming information this author shares. I would break it up into manageable chunks so that you can ingest the information conveyed.
1 of 1 people found this review helpful
Hedrick Smith is to a vital growing middle class what Michael Pollan is to healthy sustainable food. It is first a long form journalistic study of what happened to the middle class and the dream of a stable, improving, and optimistic life in America.
He begins in the early 1970s, and chronicles the key events and characters who broke the virtuous cycle started by Henry Ford, who invested in good wages for workers so there would be demand for products. Being honest, one can't chronicle the pillaging of the middle class without becoming an advocate for legislation and action, and Smith does just that.
His discourse is high on principle, and low on ideology; he offers practical, logical, and do-able solutions that should be advocated by anyone who wishes to maintain a stable large middle class, and avoid the extreme concentration of wealth that we are seeing.
- you can have extreme concentration of wealth or you can have a democracy, not both.
1 of 1 people found this review helpful
I had to take breaks to recover from time to time, but the author gives any unbiased, accurate, and insightful history lesson.
Anyone who wants to understand why the rich are so much richer while the rest of us struggle needs to read this book. Hedrick Smith lays it all out very clearly. Until the American people demand change, corporations and bankers will own more and more. We live in not a trickle up economy, but one that gushes money to the rich.
I absolutely loved this book. It made me realize how ignorant I am about the system that we are part of. This book should be mandatory in every school but of course this is the stuff that gets hidden from us. I want to thank Mr. Smith for enlightening me and start being a contributor to make changes on my part. I recommend this book to anyone that cares about their own future. If people remain ignorant they are simply going to keep paying the price of ignorance. It's sad to me that I posted this book on Facebook and I got little feedback on it. On the other hand, when I post a dumb video the feedback is out of this world. It almost seems that people do not want to face reality. If it is not fun or funny they don't want to know about it. I hope people start taking responsibility of their own lives by educating themselves. Good luck!
Excellent analysis, research and explication of how and why "The American Dream" has been eradicated. But, I almost quit listening in first half hour due to author's decision to narrate first 40 minutes. Quite self-indulgent! Once the professional narrator took over I could concentrate on substance of book instead of wondering if I should quit. Very insightful book.
For the average progressive looking for a clear pathway for climbing out of the current economic and social dilemma's, Smith's book is an excellent start. His description of how corporate America has taken over the political process since 1971 provides examples for how to undo this problem. Best, his provides several examples of how we need to change our tax codes to provide sustainable support for those at risk. In particular, the tactics I intend to support are means testing for social benefits and eliminating the cap on payroll taxes that go towards social security, Futhermore, he reminds me how much I want the Democratic party to actively engage in the value of progressive actions at the level of house races. It is time to recapture the South as a bastion of progressive actions (as they were from 1920 to 1970). Let's recreate the Great Compression of the 50's and 60's!
What did you like best about this story?
Many of us know pieces of the story of the restructuring of the American economy over the past several decades, as well as various sordid details of the recent financial crisis. Hedrick Smith, in this well-researched and clearly narrated book, puts what for most of us are pieces of the puzzle together in such a way that we see clearly the underlying pattern. And seeing it in its full extent is indeed dramatic. Seeing such a pattern is a critical step in beginning the long, arduous, but necessary process of reversing the trends that have drained the wealth of the American middle class. <br/><br/>I think this may be the most important book I have read in years, and recommend it without reservation.