1. Books

Review: Hedrick Smith's 'Who Stole the American Dream?'

Published Feb. 13, 2013

Hedrick Smith's latest book asks a question in its title: Who Stole the American Dream? The answer may well be "all of us."

While that may seem simplistic, it is indeed difficult after reading this book to assign blame for the state in which the U.S. middle class is languishing without wondering if at least some of what has happened might have been prevented had so many of us not been on cruise control during the past four decades.

Smith is a Pulitzer Prize-winning former reporter with the New York Times and Emmy award-winning producer and correspondent with PBS, including regular appearances on Washington Week in Review and The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. Here he offers an examination of the socioeconomic tsunami that was set in motion in 1978, laying out the narrative artfully in plain language, each chapter methodically building on the next. Smith's research is impeccable; an appendix chronologically recounts key events and turning points in U.S. history from 1948 to 2012, and nearly 100 pages of notes and citations support his arguments.

Smith's assertion is that the American dream has been dismantled over the course of the past 40 years — well before the housing boom and spectacular bust of the current decade — starting with critical policy changes that took place during former President Jimmy Carter's administration. Smith's contention throughout this precisely constructed work is that the erosion of the middle class and the vast gulf that exists between the haves and the have-nots in the United States has been effected by the stranglehold corporate interests have on political decisionmaking in Washington.

Who Stole the American Dream? opens with a prescient quote from Louis D. Brandeis, an advisor to President Woodrow Wilson: "We must make our choice. We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can't have both." The book is an education in recent U.S. history as well as a stunning rebuke of the "New Economy," which Smith says was created by a long legacy of destructive policies. He illustrates the impact of factors such as the offshoring of jobs and uneven trade with China on local economies by weaving in stories from America's heartland. We are taken to the closing days of the now-shuttered Rubbermaid plant in Wooster, Ohio, and witness the auctioning off of manufacturing equipment to buyers from China and other countries as heartbroken workers look on.

But Smith leaves us with his conviction that all is not lost. The final section of the book, "Reclaiming the Dream," outlines a 10-step strategy to implement what he calls a "Domestic Marshall Plan," one that would rely on both public and private investment to rebuild our fast-crumbling nationwide infrastructure, support innovation and growth, and revive the manufacturing capability of the United States.

The plan includes the need for a renewed social contract, buying American, reforming current tax codes and closing corporate tax loopholes. How realistic Smith's plan to mobilize the nation in a postwar-style rebuilding of the middle class remains to be seen, but his hopefulness that the indomitable American spirit can turn things around through grass roots efforts akin to the recent Arab Spring should make lobbyists and power brokers in Washington nervous, and that's not a bad thing.


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