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Rescuing the middle class

The Associated Press
Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 05:13 PM

"The Betrayal of the American Dream," Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele (Public Affairs)

Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele, the highly decorated investigative team, return in their eighth book to their core topic, U.S. economic policy. But "The Betrayal of the American Dream" is no rerun.

The pair, renowned for chillingly accurate, if uncomfortable, observations have meticulously sharpened their analysis. Now, four decades of mistaken tax and trade policy, declining public and private investment and a willing disregard of existing laws have crippled many American industries and sent thousands of U.S. jobs overseas without cause, they say. Given the power of their past groundbreaking work on health care, the economy and other political hot potatoes that shape how all Americans live, "Betrayal" merits a careful read from anyone concerned about the nation's economic future. It is almost haunting.

Barlett and Steele argue that Washington policymakers, Republican and Democratic alike, have collaborated with leaders on Wall Street to create an economy that caters only to the biggest multinational corporations and very wealthiest households, leaving most Americans and most U.S businesses to scrap for limited leftovers. Much of their information, including many of their most damning quotes and assessments, comes directly from government reports. In some cases, short-term gain sought by bankers and investors is the clearest problem. In others, simple shortsightedness is to blame. And in most, better-reasoned and fairer tax and trade policies and public investment would have prevented lots of pain, according to Barlett and Steele.

They dissect one industry after another with the precision and narrative flair that have won them many awards, including two Pulitzers. The most comprehensive example of how politicians and big business leaders have shaped recent decades is in the multibillion-dollar rebuilding of the Bay Bridge that connects San Francisco and Oakland, Calif. It was the largest U.S. public works project when it opened in 1936.

The story opens with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, praising workers casting steel for the bridge and thanking them on behalf of California. The only problem: the workers were in Shanghai. The authors convincingly show why buying most of the new bridge's components from China wasn't necessary — and ultimately saved California nothing, though it may have cost hundreds of Americans their jobs. It didn't even get the project done fast; the new span is slated to reopen in 2013, 24 years after the one it replaces was damaged in an earthquake. Readers will grasp exactly how poignant it is the next time a 60- or 65-year-old trainee — someone who worked a lifetime at a job that's gone overseas or been deemed obsolete — asks for patience as he or she tallies their groceries.

The writers conclude with a cogent plan for substantial, specific changes to rehabilitate the American dream and rescue the middle class.

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