Opinion Columns & Blogs

Llewellyn King: The American dream is under threat

There is such a chorus from the punditocracy declaring the American dream dead that one is scared to lay one’s head down at night.

A quick Google search reveals that there are at least a dozen books declaring the end to what is the American ethos, a dream in which everyone could graduate to the middle class with a lifetime of dignified employment with a pension, and good educations for their children.

Like all declines, there are many threads to the change that is wracking the country. Some of them:

•  There has been a dislocation between the growth in productivity and the growth in wages. Hedrick Smith points this out in his excellent and detailed book, “The American Dream and Who Stole It.”

•  The years of great national prosperity lasted from the end of World War II until it began to erode savagely toward the end of the past century. Smith dates the rot all the way back to the Carter administration, but most of us were not aware of it until much later.

•  If the workers are not sharing in the growth in productivity, we have severely reversed upward social mobility and the enduring belief of an immigrant people that their children would have a better life.

The failure of institutions to mobilize against what was patently happening is extraordinary and, in its way, peculiarly American. Our sense of exceptionalism leads us to avoid collective action.

Unionism, which has always been a force for incorporating productivity gains into wage packets, has been muted and itself has failed to grasp what is happening. While the world was changing, the unions were lost in old labor-management struggles of an irrelevant past. Those in management learned they no longer had to sit and take it: They could move to union-free locations like the South, and ultimately Asia.

Collectively, we have watched our own decline in silence. The monied class learned how to buy Congress and turn the watchdog into the enabler of the looter. A powerful new breed of lobbyist – often men and women who had served either in Congress or as congressional aides – threw themselves into the business of making sure that the money people (the corporations and super-rich individuals) got whatever the wanted: subsidies, light regulation, tax breaks and exemptions and, finally, light taxes.

As running for office – never easy in the House with its two-year election cycle – became more expensive, elected officials became more vulnerable to campaign contributions.

Now it is a giant system of bribery in which neither the bribers nor the bribed feel shame. There are willing buyers and sellers of the U.S. government as farmers buy and sell cattle. This trading money for favors is well-documented in Mark Leibovich’s book “This Town.”

Everyone who works on Capitol Hill and its lobbies knows what is going on. Money is changing hands for influence, and legislation is being passed favoring big business and big money. You can buy permission to pollute, buy a change in securities laws and buy favorable tax treatment. And you can secure the minimum wage at below-poverty levels.

It used to be, as one long-term lobbyist explained to me, that if you wanted favors on Capitol Hill you had to assemble a large and transparent coalition of people who would benefit from the change in law that your client wanted. You had to get many interests on board and persuade some newspaper commentators of your high purpose. Now, this veteran said, you just do it with money – in the dark, he might have added.

The Chinese did not send an armada of junks to take our jobs; we exported them for short-term gain. We embraced the myth that cheaper goods were better for our people. They are – if we have money to pay for them.

The middle class, to use the vernacular of the moment, has been thrown under the bus.

The tea party, briefly the hope for middle-class salvation, drank from the horn of myths spread by the monied class. Now, in their folly, the tea partiers are supporting a destructive shutdown of the government, which will further damage the middle class.

Of course it is not just venality that has brought us to our dreamless state: Rapid technological change and the decline in the need for whole classes of work present a serious challenge. But who is taking up the challenge? Not Congress, whose members are mostly millionaires; not the tea party; not the unions.

Would you like a double espresso before bed?