Who Stole the American Dream? A Q&A with Hedrick Smith

09/13/2012; Tula Connell


Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Hedrick Smith joined us here today to discuss his new book, Who Stole the American Dream? Can We Get It Back? at an event sponsored by the AFL-CIO and the Economic Policy Institute (EPI).

In Who Stole the American Dream? Smith deploys his formidable investigative skills to trace how we got to a point where U.S. economic policy overwhelmingly favors the rich—and looks at whether it’s possible to undo the damage done to our working and middle class. Smith, known for his investigative journalism, is author of the national bestseller, The Power Game: How Washington Works. In 1971, as chief diplomatic correspondent for the New York Times, he was a member of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team that produced the Pentagon Papers series. We asked Smith a few questions about what he found in researching his new book.

Question: Many pundits and analysts recently have been noting the decline of the American dream. Most focus on the economic shifts caused by federal policy decisions, such as the role of corporations in pushing for tax law changes that benefit Big Business at the expense of working people. What sets your analysis apart?

Smith: There’s no question that the power shift in Washington, starting in the late 1970s that made corporate America the dominant influence with Congress, brought changes in the tax system and rolled back regulations to the advantage of corporate America, Wall Street and capital investors. What needs to be added, as I do, is that the middle class has been severely hurt by the change in the business ethos from a vision of stakeholder capitalism in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s that saw it as the duty of CEOs to balance the interests of investors, workers, management and local communities to the New Economy ethos of “wedge economics” of the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, which cut many average Americans out of their fair share of America’s growth and prosperity. Under “wedge economics,” corporate profits continued to rise along with the productivity of the American workforce, but average wages and salaries remained stagnant. Productivity rose roughly 80 percent from 1973 to 2011, but the hourly wages of the typical worker rose only 4 percent and, even adding in benefits, the increase was only 10 percent. What my analysis does is to focus on the shifting in business thinking and strategies as well as on the power shift in Washington and its policy impact.

Q.: You argue that unlike the 1960s and 1970s, Americans today feel politically powerless. What the reasons for this shift? How does the Occupy Wall Street movement fit into this analysis?

Smith: We had strong, powerful citizens’ movements in the 1960s and 1970s with real impact on policymakers in Washington—the civil rights movement, environmental movement, women’s movement, labor movement, consumer movement and the peace movement. But after the mid-1970s, those movements lost momentum. In part, some of those movements ran out of steam because they had been so successful in pushing Washington to adopt civil rights laws, environmental laws and consumer protection laws and to end the Vietnam War. But they also lost power and influence because business interests became so well organized and special interest lobbyists became so dominant in Washington that ordinary Americans lost faith in their ability to have a voice with policymakers. The Occupy movement was an attempt to reverse this trend and give voice to ordinary people. It succeeded in changing the national dialogue so that today, when people talk about the 1% and the 99%, everyone understands that this refers to the unfair and dangerous hyper-concentration of wealth and power in America today. But unlike those earlier movements, Occupy did not have a short list of clearly defined goals that could attract wider support and have an impact on Congress and the White House.

Q.:  What will it take to politically mobilize working- and middle-class Americans?

Smith:  It will take an effective organized people power, a broad-based movement built on a change in the public’s mindset—a sense that the current lopsided split in the nation’s economic gains is unfair to most Americans and that this is no longer tolerable. Plus, a willingness of ordinary people to literally put themselves on the line, to go out and protest in marches and sit-ins and talkathons in the same way that the civil rights, environmental and anti-war protests of the 1960s and 1970s brought people together to act for the common good. It will take organized people to offset the dominant power of organized money.

Rosie Ruiz Republicans

Rosie Ruiz Republicans

Published: September 2, 2012 637 Comments

Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times

Remember Rosie Ruiz? In 1980 she was the first woman to cross the finish line at the Boston Marathon — except it turned out that she hadn’t actually run most of the race, that she sneaked onto the course around a mile from the end. Ever since, she has symbolized a particular kind of fraud, in which people claim credit for achieving things they have not, in fact, achieved.

 And these days Paul Ryan is the Rosie Ruiz of American politics.

This would have been an apt comparison even before the curious story of Mr. Ryan’s own marathon came to light. Still, that’s quite a story, so let’s talk about it first.

It started when Hugh Hewitt, a right-wing talk-radio host, interviewed Mr. Ryan. In that interview, the vice-presidential candidate boasted about his fitness, declaring that he had once run a marathon in less than three hours.

This claim piqued the interest of Runner’s World magazine, which noted that marathon times are recorded — and that it was unable to find any evidence of Mr. Ryan’s accomplishment. It eventually transpired that Mr. Ryan had indeed once run a marathon, but that his time was actually more than four hours. Continue reading “Rosie Ruiz Republicans”

Labor Day message credits union belt-tightening for putting city’s construction industry back on track

Labor Day message credits union belt-tightening for putting city’s construction industry back on track  

Be Our Guest Richard Roberts, of Steamfitters Local 638, says cooperation jumpstarted building projects, kept union members employed

By Richard Roberts / NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
Published: Monday, August 27, 2012, 4:00 AM
Updated: Monday, August 27, 2012, 4:00 AM

Steamfitters official Richard Roberts says collaboration between union and management has resulted in benefits for both.

Steamfitters official Richard Roberts says collaboration between union and management has resulted in benefits for both.

For many working Americans, Labor Day is viewed as an opportunity to visit family and have a day at the beach. But what many don’t realize is that the first Monday in September wasn‘t always a vacation day.

The labor movement has fought for more than a century to ensure that workers have safe working conditions, holidays, sick days and family healthcare protections when needed. The 40-hour work week that most American workers take for granted is the result of years of sacrifice by industrialized workers who came before us.

Now, in 2012, the labor movement is faced with new challenges, especially in light of the lingering economic slowdown. Many argue that the need for unions is past and its workforce costs our economy too much to maintain. I couldn‘t disagree more. Continue reading “Labor Day message credits union belt-tightening for putting city’s construction industry back on track”