Monday, December 10, 2007

Booknote: Lou Dobbs's War on the Middle Class

Title: War on the Middle Class: How the Government, Big Business, and Special Interest Groups are Waging War on the American Dream and How to Fight Back.
Author: Lou Dobbs.
Publication Information: New York: Viking, 2006.
ISBN: 0670037923
Genre: Nonfiction
Subgenre: Economics, Politics, Current Affairs.

I have not made booknotes here recently because I have been keeping track of my reading in the Goodreads website. My profile is on the sidebar, and it links to the rest of my bookshelves. Feel free to take a look. Anyhow, when I started doing that, I decided I would still blog about a book if it it was one of those books I found myself talking to it or making small notes as I read. This one fit the bill, so here we are. This may get a bit lengthy. If you just want to know if I recommend it, the answer is yes. It does have a few things worth thinking about, even if I don't agree with everything Mr. Dobbs writes.

Let me start with a quote from the early pages, which I think sets the thesis of the book:

"Lobbyists for corporate America and special interest groups are the arms dealers in the war on the middle class" (37).

Previous chapters to the quote discuss the class warfare situation in the United States. This is on the basis of corporations more worried about greed and money than the concept of the common good. And while some have labeled Dobbs as a populist (and a few other choice terms I will leave out for the sake of civility), at times I can't help but wonder how low the U.S. has gone that they can't even make something as simple as a coffee mug or a pair of pants locally instead of shipping those and many other jobs overseas. And to make it worse, the government has helped those corporations do it. One has to wonder if instead of a democracy, we have more of an oligarchy or a plutocracy running the country. All one has to do is look at the current crop of presidential candidates: all wealthy and wed to special interests in one form or another. Nothing against wealth. If you work and make your money, that's great. It's when you run for office pretty much paid for by special interests and corporations while forgetting who you are really running for when there is a problem. It's not really democratic anymore since it is not representing the people.

"When it comes to issues of real importance to the middle class--education, public safety, the environment, infrastructure, economic security, and rising the standard of living--our politicians are for the most part deaf, dumb, and blind" (41).

These are issues that affect everyone, not just the middle class. But one has to agree that the record on these issues for Congress, especially in recent years, has been dismal. And then, there is what I would describe as a complete loss of empathy, compassion, and humanity. A manifestation of that is the infamous revision of the bankruptcy laws. It's not really a law to catch the deadbeats who declare bankruptcy in order not to pay their obligations. It was a gift to the credit card companies and the banks who care little for the ruined lives of those who really need to declare bankruptcy in order to satisfy their greed. Dobbs writes, "and as a recent Harvard University study showed, nearly 50 percent of bankruptcy filings in the United States are the result of illness and the enormous bills associated with it" (60). In other words, these are not deadbeats; these are honest, hardworking people who face a major medical catastrophe. These are people who need help and who deserve a break. Dobbs summarizes it then:

"So bankruptcies tend to be filed by hardworking people who have fallen on tough times. The new bill doesn't take that into account; it just makes sure that the interests of big companies who have well-placed and highly paid lobbyists are satisfied. In the process, the last safety net protecting the middle class from financial disaster has been yanked away" (60; emphasis mine).

Dobbs later observes about the recent occupants of the White House. He has this thought:

"How about somebody from a Midwestern state school who has actually worked for a living in his or her life; and whose intellect, character, and leadership would lift the nation with a clear vision of our future and a commitment to the common good and our national interest? Just a thought" (66).

It sounds great, Mr. Dobbs. But it ain't going to happen. For one, such a person would never be able to raise enough money for a serious campaign. He or she would have to run as an independent since neither national party would embrace such an individual, and we know that in this country nothing short of a miracle would get a qualified independent elected. However, in the end, even if such a person existed, had plenty of money to compete, and could mount a serious independent movement, that person would probably be a smart person who would know better than to run for office when the office is bought and paid for, so to speak. Nice idea. I would love to see it, but I know I won't. And on the off-chance the person did run, I lack faith in people. Sure, I'd vote for him or her, but most people in this country are probably too dumb to choose an alternative that would be good for them. And therein lies the fatal flaw. Sure, the government is corrupt as hell, but people keep electing that same set of corrupt politicians every time. Sure, the system is certainly rigged, but at one point I wish I could ask a lot of voters, "just what the fuck were you thinking? How hurt do you and your family have to be before you get a clie these people don't care about you and your needs?" In the end, there are no real leaders anymore; no one who is willing to nurture and care for the common good. In fact, this was also exactly what I was thinking when I read Foxes in the Henhouse (I reviewed it over on Goodreads). The authors of that book, in my humble opinion, fail to see this as well. Sure, in that case, the Democrats have pretty much taken their core voters for granted. However, they can only educate the electorate so much. After a while, people have to account for themselves for the government they elected. That's why my faith in people is lacking.

Now, in terms of the average worker, it is common knowledge that their wages have been stagnant or declining. Though the nation is, allegedly (ok, I am willing to grant that the numbers on Wall Street are very good), in a prosperous condition, it only applies to the corporations. Dobbs asks,

"But what about the employees who make it all possible? While the corporate profits increased in the last year, real wages have actually declined. While productivity is skyrocketing, the share of national income going to workers has fallen to the lowest level in forty years. At the same time, corporate America is cutting benefits and pensions. If this is Adam Smith's invisible hand at work, it's balled up in a fist and striking the solar plexus of the middle class. And outsourcing is playing a part in the decline of both pay and opportunity for American labor" (110).

If you ask me, Adam Smith's hand is balled up into a fist alright, but it's not striking the worker's solar plexus. Let's just say it's hitting a whole other body cavity and leave it at that. Because at the end of the day, this is extreme free trade without the sympathy (read the Adam Smith link, and that will make sense). Again, we see the absence of any sense of common good. No one is saying that corporation should not make their profits and build their wealth. But the least they can do, if for no other reason than common decency, is to compensate those who make their profits possible in a fair and dignified manner. Those workers helped build the wealth; the least that corporation can do is share it with the ones who made it possible, not screw them.

Moving along, the next passage struck me as, well, ridiculous:

"With border patrol uniforms made in Mexico, what other brilliant cost-saving scheme can we expect from the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection? Outsourcing of border patrol jobs?" (118-119).

The context is as follows: U.S. company VF Solutions, hired to make the uniforms, subcontracted the labor to Mexico. As for outsourcing the border patrol, hey, the Roman Empire did it in its provinces by employing native mercenaries in their armies. Yep, they basically recruited into the armies the same barbarians they were supposedly guarding against. And we know how the Roman Empire ended. I am just saying.

One of Dobbs' big issues is illegal immigration. For me, it is a bit of a Catch-22. I have mixed feelings because I feel we should treat those immigrants who do make it here humanely. However, I also feel that the employers who are basically exploiting them should be punished, and the punishment should be severe. When those employers say that no Americans are willing to pick tomatoes or clean hotel rooms, I say bullshit. You pay the wage the work is actually worth, and you will find plenty of Americans who would do it. Those employers simply prefer to cheat the law and hire illegal workers than pay for an honest day's work. I will just leave it there.

Dobbs also addresses education, which is a topic dear to me since I am an educator. He writes on the topic:

"Politicians are finding reasons not to put money into schools, not to pay teachers, and not to improve the education offered to every kid in every school. It's going to the bureaucracy, and it shows" (158).

This makes me think of a remark Jonathan Kozol made in one of his books I read a long time ago, wish I remembered which book now, about the hypocrisy of those who claim you can't fix education with more funding while sending their own children to expensive private schools. Who says you can't get better education by adding more money?

Overall, I found myself nodding at times. Arguing with the author at other times. So maybe for me that is good enough reason to recommend the book. Like many books written by journalists and pundits, it sort of has the style of the author. In other words, if you are familiar with Dobbs's program, that tone is found in the book as well. The book features appendices with the texts for the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. For some people, they may need to reread them again.

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