FDL Book Salon Welcomes Hedrick Smith, Who Stole The American Dream?
There are books about Washington and books about business. Rarely do these worlds collide so dramatically than in Hedrick Smith’s Who Stole The American Dream. He explores pivotal decisions and their relative impacts in these two seemingly disparate worlds with keen insight and analysis. The relationships and connections he traces can be described as a “mash-up” of some of his best reporting. Longtime fans will remember his classic bestseller The Power Game, a book still featured on college syllabi years later, for its revealing examination of how Washington plays behind the scenes. Then came Rethinking America, focusing on America at the crossroads of globalization.
In recent years Hedrick has applied his reportorial skills to demystifying the economy, from Wall Street to Main Street. As part of his producer team for PBS, I traveled with him on this journey. Along the way we met American icons in the fields of finance and business, as well as workers who built their worlds. When boardroom decisions left small town employees stunned and jobless and Wall Street apparently flush with cash, Rick took to the spreadsheets. Amidst the annual reports and analysts opinions, Rick literally unraveled the so-called success story. He began asking tough questions about the dismantling of corporate America and the price paid for stellar stock growth. The tale of two worlds was emerging.
Fast forward a few years. Hedrick, fresh from a string of important PBS projects on Enron, Wal-Mart, and the mortgage crisis, mentioned he was eager to return to writing. He wanted to write about what happened to the American Dream – the promise of an affordable home, an assured standard of living for the middle class, and the expectation of a comfortable retirement after decades of hard work.
His notion seemed almost charmingly old-fashioned at first, not unlike the tableau he recounts in the book from McMinnville, Tennessee during a traditional Fourth of July celebration. As the parade passed by this factory town’s Norman Rockwell-like Main Street bearing patriotic bunting and the Stars and Stripes, victims of “Chainsaw Al Dunlap,” were left jobless and hopeless in his wake as he sent their Sunbeam hair clipper assembly line to Mexico.
It was when the Occupy movement began to take on momentum in 2011, first in New York City and then in Washington, DC, when Hedrick’s larger vision became clear. As angry citizens organized in encampments just miles from our homes, as well as around the world, the extent of the damage to the middle class grew increasingly evident.
It was against this dramatic backdrop that his book emerged from the ashes of American expectations. And having read Who Stole The American Dream, I now better understand the vitriolic response to the increasing concentration of wealth he documents so well. From his description of U.S. tax law as “the most political law in the world” to the seismic shift in executive compensation, he lays out how the gap between ordinary Americans and the ultra wealthy grew through the past few decades, even before taking an additional hit from the Great Recession. [cont’d.]