By Stan Paul
When bestselling, Pulitzer Prize winning, former New York Times reporter Hedrick Smith started to write his latest bestseller, his working title was “Dream at Risk.” But, as he wrote the story he realized that the so-called “American Dream,” had actually been stolen. More specifically, “Who Stole the American Dream?” became the final title of the 2012 publication.
Smith — whose 50-plus year career as a reporter began even before his coverage of stories on Martin Luther King, Jr. and civil rights, which took him through the cold war, Viet Nam and Nixon, Gorbachev’s USSR, Wall Street and Wal-Mart and for most of the way, the “power game” in Washington, D.C. — spoke May 8 at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. His talk, sponsored by the School’s Center for Civil Society, while focusing on the ever-widening gap between the rich, the middle class and the poor, also gave some insights on how the American people might regain some of the relative affluence of the post-World War II decades.
The question of “how we got here” from a nation enjoying decades of post-war prosperity and wealth sharing between corporate/industrial America and its workers (and retired workers) was what Smith said intrigued him when he started writing his book in 2009. “These things hadn’t just happened because of the financial crisis,” said Smith, adding that the problems we face now, such as “a political system in permanent gridlock,” predate the start of the crisis in 2007 and 2008.
Smith said that what we are witnessing today may be explained in one of the major turning points in the nation’s political history, the publication of the “Powell Memorandum,” in 1971. Smith explains in his book that the Powell memo was a “business manifesto, a call to arms to Corporate America,” that triggered a “seismic shift of power that set in motion a fault line in our history.” Smith writes that the memo “ignited a long period of sweeping transformations both in Washington’s policies and in the mind-set and practices of American business leaders – transformations that reversed the politics and policies of the postwar era and the ‘virtuous circle’ philosophy that had created the broad prosperity of America’s middle class.”
Even while America experiences a recovery of sorts from the recent recessionary period, Smith said that “recovery itself is not going to cure the inequality in income,” between the 1 percent and 99 percent. And, says Smith, the cure is not likely to come from Washington. One of his observations during his long career, which has included producing numerous PBS Frontline specials from terrorism to the environment, has been that the middle class is not exercising its power as it did from the 1940s to the 1970s.
The cure, writes Smith, requires a new mind set and a “Domestic Marshall Plan” to “reverse the political and economic tides of the past three decades to make our country strong and whole again.” In short, Smith writes that because consumer demand drives the U.S. economy, the “virtuous circle” of growth needs to get working again.
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