The Betrayal of the American Dream

'The Betrayal of the American Dream' by authors Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele. (PublicAffairs / August 2, 2012)

The Betrayal of the American Dream

Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele
PublicAffairs: 320 pp., $26.99

You may be old enough to remember the United States whose passing Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele lament on nearly every page of their new book, "The Betrayal of the American Dream."

In that other, older America, you could buy bell-bottom pants, a color television set or a pair of high-platform shoes, and there was a good chance you'd find attached a label that said "Made in the U.S.A."

U.S. companies made big profits — but invested in the local communities where their products were made. The rich paid their fair share in taxes without complaint.

Barlett and Steele can pinpoint the moment this America began to disappear: June 1979. More people were employed at U.S. factory jobs at that time than during any month before or since. At about the same time, the share that the wealthiest Americans paid in taxes began to fall sharply.

Book review: An Aug. 5 review of the book "The Betrayal of the American Dream" misspelled the last name of co-author Donald L. Barlett as Bartlett.

American factory jobs soon began to flee south to Mexico, and then overseas to China, followed by all sorts of other tasks once performed by the guy next door — including your friendly customer service representative, who these days might answer your queries from Bangalore.

Since then, three decades of laissez-faire business strategies and government policies have undercut the American middle class and the underpinnings of American democracy. That's the central argument of "The Betrayal of the American Dream," a book that's essential reading to anyone trying to make sense of our country's current malaise.

Since the 1980s, a host of politicos, 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, Barlett and Steele say, is the American "ruling class." The plutocrats win just about every political fight we read about in "The Betrayal of the American Dream." Among other things, the economic elite has quietly, methodically and ruthlessly restructured the tax code on behalf of the wealthiest Americans, they say.

Beginning in the 1980s, "Congress converted the tax code into a boutique bank offering all sorts of products tailored" to the very rich. Tax cuts on unearned income and carried interest allow the richest of the rich — including Mitt Romney, the authors point out — 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," Barlett and Steele write.

With the American middle class under assault, we are a country increasingly divided between rich and poor. In "The Betrayal of the American Dream," the U.S. ruling class is eating the American middle class for lunch and giving the leftovers to the impoverished, incipient middle class of China and India.

Consider, for example, the authors' descriptions of the fate 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 arts programs up to the 1970s seems almost quaint in a modern age where the cutthroat logic of the hedge-fund manager dominates corporate decision-making.

Despite still being profitable in the U.S., both DeWitt and Rubbermaid shipped most of their jobs abroad.

The Chinese replacements for the DeWitt workers live in conditions, as the authors describe them, that were familiar to American workers — in the 19th century. They work 12-hour days, live in vast dormitories and endure bosses who feel free to berate and harangue them.