By Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele
PublicAffairs: New York
Before beginning Donald Barlett and James Steele's The Betrayal of the American Dream, put away any implements with which you might be tempted to harm yourself. This is grim, grim stuff. Some of the grimmest stuff possible: an unvarnished picture of the place of middle- and working-class people in our economy, with a glimpse of the political and economic forces putting the squeeze on that place.
Much of the material in the book will be familiar if you follow progressive media—if you're a regular reader of Daily Kos or Paul Krugman or a watcher of Chris Hayes or any number of others—but having so much of that information compiled in one relentless, compulsively readable volume is ... a lot. Imagine reading a year's worth of class war-themed blog posts or magazine articles or newspaper columns—the big-picture ones filled with numbers and facts and the history of tax and regulatory policy, mostly, seeded with a few affecting individual stories bringing home how brutally the numbers and facts and policies hit actual people. Only whereas you get a break between the short pieces, time to catch your breath and decide when to go back for more, The Betrayal of the American Dream just keeps gathering steam.
Really, there's nothing for the book to do but keep gathering steam, though, since while the problems come through loud and clear, the solutions are not nearly as well developed. That's a common problem for a book like this, and with good reason: if it was obvious how to fix things, we'd probably be making more progress toward doing so. But The Betrayal of the American Dream suffers from the lack of solutions more than most, because it actively undermines the hope that solutions are possible. Barlett and Steele are correct to emphasize the degree to which the rich and powerful (corporations and people) operate by a different set of rules than the rest of us, writing, for instance, that:
Because they conduct business around the world and move money in and out of tax havens and other countries to secure the lowest possible rate, many [U.S. multinational corporations] stash their cash offshore rather than bring it home, where they would be obliged to pay taxes on it.It's important to be clear that the existence of two sets of rules is part of the problem. And it's important to be clear, as Barlett and Steele are, that Republicans are not the only problem, that Democratic politicians are complicit in many of the policies that perpetuate and solidify this system. (Even if at times it feels a bit unfair that they emphasize the participation of Democrats while taking for granted that Republicans are acting to the detriment of the working and middle classes.) But the grim tone, the lack of proposed solutions, the lack of any indication that there are forces fighting the expansion of this system, make you feel as hopeless as you feel angry after reading it. The Betrayal of the American Dream would benefit from providing even a little more perspective on ways to fight, on people and movements that are fighting, on leverage points. The final chapter offers some policy ideas, but it would be helpful to hear more about those throughout.
They will bring it back only if Washington will agree to a tax holiday. [...] If you want to understand the differences between you and the ruling class, try that ploy with the IRS someday. Just tell them if they don't lower your tax rate you are going to move your money to another country.
Nonetheless, the book is packed with important information and examples of the damage wrought by policies that allow companies to, for instance, avoid taxes, profit from sending jobs overseas, and strip workers of their pensions. And it does the important work of making clear just how badly the deck is stacked against the 99 percent. In the final analysis, if you're the sort of person who responds to an overwhelming dose of that knowledge by becoming too depressed to fight, avoid The Betrayal of the American Dream. But if getting mad primes you to fight, by all means, read this.