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.
This book tells how this has happened, who engineered the policies that are crippling the middle class, what the consequences will be if we fail to reverse course, and what must be done to restore the promise of the American dream.
We have been reporting and writing about middle-class America for many years. In our 1992 book America: What Went Wrong? we told the stories of people who were victims of an epidemic of corporate takeovers and buyouts in the 1980s. We warned that by squeezing the middle class, the nation was heading toward a two-class society dramatically imbalanced in favor of the wealthy. At the time, the plight of middle-class Americans victimized by corporate excess was dismissed by economists as nothing more than the result of a dynamic market economy in which some people lose jobs while others move into new jobs — "creative destruction," it was called. Soon, they said, the economy would create new opportunities and new jobs. We said, Don't believe it. What happened to the middle class in the 1980s and early 1990s wasn't just a blip, but part of a disturbing pattern: a shift by Washington away from policies that had built the American middle class and enabled successive generations to do better than their parents, in favor of policies that catered to Wall Street, corporate chieftains, and America's wealthiest citizens. We wrote:
Popular wisdom has it that the worst has passed, that it was all an aberration called the 1980s. Popular wisdom is wrong. The declining fortunes of the middle class that began with the restructuring craze will continue through this decade and beyond.
Because of statements like that, we were accused of being alarmists. But in fact we grossly underestimated how much more difficult life would become for most Americans. The workers we wrote about in the 1990s were pioneers of a sort never before seen in the United States. Unlike middle-class Americans for more than three generations before them, for whom life progressively got better, they were heading down the economic ladder. They were the first substantial wave of what will be tens of millions of casualties — most likely well over 100 million — as Wall Street and the moneyed interests proceed unchecked to dismantle the structure that has sustained America's middle class, all with the assistance and blessing of Congress. The country that once offered so much to its people — like the GI Bill, which put millions of Americans through college — has begun to eat its own.
Barring wholesale changes in public policy, the coming years will be grim for millions of American men and women. To be sure, there will be ups and downs in the economy, enabling the mainstream news media and cable television to proclaim from time to time that all is well, just as they did in the early 1990s. But the dismal fact is that for tens of millions of middle-class Americans, as well as for the working poor who hope to achieve that status, the American dream is over. As for the mantra heard ever since the 1950s — that children can expect to enjoy a better life than their parents — only the delusional believe it today.
This is a sea change in American life without modern parallel. Where once we were told, over and over, that anyone could move up the economic ladder, now that movement is, with some exceptions, down. If existing policies remain in place, all that will be left will be the upper end of what once was a thriving, broad-based middle class. Everyone else will be toiling on a treadmill. "Retirement" will join "pension" as an archaic term in the dictionary. And if those who write the economic rules continue to have their way, those terms will be joined by some others too. Having dismantled the economic support network that underpinned the world's largest middle class, the members of the ruling class have set their sights on another goal that, if achieved, would put the middle class in an even deeper hole: they are promoting "austerity" in government budgets and policies — cuts in programs such as Social Security and Medicare — for everyone but themselves.
Only once before in American history, the nineteenth-century era of the robber barons, has the financial aristocracy so dominated policy and finance. Only once before has there been such an astonishing concentration of wealth and power in an American oligarchy. This time it will be much harder to pull the country back from the brink.
What is happening to America's middle class is not inevitable. It's the direct result of government policy, and it can be changed by government action. Look no further than at what the governments of our trading partners do to protect their people and advance the interests of their country. We could do the same.
But the United States has taken a totally different route.
"Running the country like a business means everyone is expendable," says Christine Wright-Isak, a former advertising executive who teaches marketing at Florida Gulf Coast University. "Is that the kind of country we want?"
In the forty years that we have been researching and writing about issues that affect all of us, we have never been so concerned for the future of our country. The forces that are dismantling the American middle class are relentless.
America must stop sacrificing its greatest asset. Because, without a middle class, there isn't really an America.
Excerpted from The Betrayal of the American Dream by Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele. Copyright 2012 by Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele. Excerpted by permission of PublicAffairs.