In their bestselling book, America: What Went Wrong, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists Donald L. Bartlett and James B. Steele compared the nation’s financial woes to a brutal, professional hockey game—sans regulations or referees.
That, in essence, is what is happening to the American economy. Someone changed the rules. And there is no referee. Which means there is no one looking after the interest of the middle class.
They are the forgotten Americans.
Bartlett and Steele’s book, a New York Times bestseller, was published in 1992. At that time, few mainstream journalists were warning us of the economic threat posed by Wall Street excesses that led overseas manufacturing to offset domestic job losses. Political leaders, meanwhile, were exulting in the promising productivity gains from shutting down jobs in American’s manufacturing core and replacing employees with lower-cost, unprotected workers in offshore sweatshops.
Two decades later, Bartlett and Steele are back with a new book. Unfortunately for the forgotten Americans, the story hasn’t changed. In fact, it’s gotten worse. Bartlett and Steele’s The Betrayal of the American Dream paints a dismal portrait of greed at the tiny top of the nation’s economic ladder that starves the larger bottom. I excerpt, at length, this opening passage because it neatly sums up their revised thesis:
The Betrayal of the American Dream is the story of how a small number of people in power have deliberately put in place policies that have enriched themselves while cutting the ground out from underneath America’s greatest asset—its middle class.
Their actions, going back more than three decades, have relegated untold numbers of American men and women to the economic scrap heap—to lives of reduced earnings, chronic job insecurity, and a retirement with fewer and fewer benefits. Millions have lost their jobs. Others have lost their homes. Nearly all face an uncertain future. Astonishingly, this has been carried out in what is considered the world’s greatest democracy, where the will of the people is supposed to prevail. It no longer does.
America is now ruled by the few—the wealthy and the powerful who have become this country’s ruling class.
The really disturbing thing is that too few Americans in positions to do so have acted responsibly to change things. Nor have voters demanded that they do so. Of course, ignorance isn’t an excuse because it’s not like we didn’t notice what was going on around us.
“Caught between the lawmakers in Washington and the dealmakers on Wall Street have been millions of American workers forced to move from jobs that once paid $15 an hour into jobs that now pay $7,” Bartlett and Steele wrote in 1992. “If, that is, they aren’t already the victims of mass layoffs, production halts, shuttered factories and owners who enrich themselves by doing that damage and then walking away.”
Well before Bartlett and Steele wrote that passage in America: What Went Wrong, Michael Douglas was channeling the archetypical robber baron Gordon Gekko (was there ever a better movie-villain name, one that implies a lip-licking lizard), braying that “greed, for lack of a better word, is good” in the 1987 hit movie “Wall Street.” There’s no truer indication that the general public recognized—if not understood—the surrounding social reality than the embracing acknowledgement of it in a mainstream movie.
So by the time Bartlett and Steele documented What Went Wrong for the Philadelphia Inquirer and later published it as a book, it was old news to the millions of distressed, middle-class Americans. What’s more, the original book, similar to this updated version, offered a prescription for what could have—no, should have—been done.
Bartlett and Steele wrote in their earlier book that for most of the nation’s history, Congress and the White House responded to economic calamity—until the 1980s and 1990s. “Today,” they wrote two decades ago, “the two branches of government are in a legislative gridlock. Even worse, many in Washington insist there are no problems that require comprehensive legislative remedies. They say that a comparatively minor recession will pass and that all will be well. It is a timeless economic viewpoint.”
It proved to be wrongheaded in 1992, and it’s just as wrong 20 years later, as we’re suffering from the collapse of U.S. jobs and with them the nation’s middle class.
But hope springs eternal. My colleague David Madland, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, proposes 35 policies that, if implemented, could turn around our sagging economy and strengthen the struggling middle class.
In his recent report, Madland notes that the prescriptive policies “are the kind of bold, aggressive action that Americans have been waiting for … such as lower college education costs, workplace standards that match the needs of 21st-century dual-income families, the creation of more well-paying middle-class jobs, and reliable and sustainable retirement income security.”
Prudence demands immediate action to change the plight of American’s forgotten middle class. It’s not too late, and we know what to do. All that truly remains is the will, courage, and leadership to make it happen.
Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.