[This review was published in the Spring 2007 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 111-117.]

  

Book Review 

 

War on the Middle Class

Lou Dobbs

Viking, 2006 

 

            The author is the anchor and managing editor of the CNN television network’s social-commentary program “Lou Dobbs Tonight.”  In that capacity, he has carved out for himself a role as an intelligent, calm, but at the same time articulate and provocative, champion of the American middle class with respect to a number of critical issues.  By critiquing a wide range of problem areas, War on the Middle Class broadens the more purely economic discussion contained in his earlier book Exporting America: Why Corporate Greed is Shipping American Jobs Overseas.

            The mainstream of American society—historically the essence of American life—has long consisted of a broad middle class.  As the book’s title declares, Dobbs sees an on-going war against this mainstream.  He quotes Warren Buffett (who “is not only one of the richest men in the world, [but] also one of the smartest”) as agreeing that “This is class warfare.”  Although there is much more to Dobbs’ discussion, we get an immediate insight into his thesis from the following passage: “Ours is becoming increasingly a divided society—a society of haves and have-nots, educated and uneducated, rich and poor.  The rich have gotten richer while working people have gotten poorer.  We must also recognize that our public education system is failing, that there are far fewer well-paying jobs for our workers, that the middle class is hardly represented in government, and that our community and national values are increasingly challenged by corporatism, consumerism, and ethnocentric multiculturalism.”

            For most of the past two centuries, intense social criticism has been voiced in the United States by the Left.  The criticism has been a message of alienation.  Dobbs differs in the fact that, although he sees a corruption of virtually every facet of contemporary American life, he does not speak from alienation, but from a deep sense of attachment to the main society, which he fervently wants to see preserved.  He explains that he has been “a liberal Republican” who is at one and the same time both “a strong believer in free enterprise” and someone who rejects “unfettered capitalism.”

            A considerable virtue that he brings to his commentary is that he is in no sense a political or ideological partisan.  The corruption that he sees is found, he says, in both political parties, in the national media, in the current presidential administration, in Congress and government in general, in big business, and even in the scientific community.  His, then, is an ecumenical complaint.  In effect, there are “abuses,” just as Ralph Waldo Emerson observed many years ago, “in which all connive.”  Nevertheless, even though he sees that the decadence is widespread, he pinpoints an especially salient part of America’s current plight: “It is the members of this business elite, this new upper class, that pose the greatest danger to our American way of life.” 

            It is worth noting that when Dobbs speaks of a “war” against the middle class, he is including the effects of gross indifference as well as those of outright hostility.  He writes of “elites who are hostile—or at best indifferent—to the interests of working men and women of the middle class and their families.”  Those familiar with the legal concept of “gross negligence,” also spoken of as “willful and wanton disregard,” know that it involves “doing something highly dangerous to others while possessing a state of mind of not caring about the potential harm.”  An example would be firing a rifle into a park without sighting in on anyone, but at the same time knowing that people picnic there.  Dobbs traces innumerable policies that demonstrate either hostility toward, or an active unconcern for, the well-being of the average American. 

            There are so many facets to this, as Dobbs sees it, that we can only grasp the whole by considering the cumulative effect of his many points:

            1.  His book Exporting America dealt with the de-industrialization of the United States, with its outsourcing and offshoring of jobs and capital, and Dobbs doesn’t neglect that issue here.  He speaks of what he characterizes as the “so-called free trade” ideology, noting that the various trade agreements the United States enters into are heavily weighted toward opening the door to outsourcing and offshoring while ignoring the need for a balance of trade and for taking into account the vast difference in living standards (and hence costs of labor) between Americans and the peoples of the Third World.  It is this ideology, to which he sees the George W. Bush administration as committed “at any cost,”  that “has damaged, perhaps irreversibly, our manufacturing base.”  There is now a trade deficit of $1 trillion a year, and the United States has run trade deficits for thirty years.  The United States, he tells us, is no longer the leader in most industries—not even in technology, which is supposedly America’s trump card.  “American industry cannot compete against the cheapest manufacturing environments in the world.”  Why?  Because “…the average manufacturing wage in China is $0.57 per hour, while the average in America is $16.68.”  At the same time, many countries impose little by way of health, safety, environmental or employee-benefit requirements on firms doing business there, again putting American producers at a systemic competitive disadvantage.

            In this environment of global capital and labor flows, there is an on-going polarization of income and wealth.  Dobbs points out that in the United States during the past thirty years wages have risen only 9 percent while productivity has increased by 80 percent.  As a result, the rich have become richer, while “the working poor barely survive.”  “The top 1 percent of our population earns, on average, more than $1 million per year,” while the bottom 20 percent earn “just over $10,000 a  year.”  “Over the last twenty-five years, the median family income has risen by 18 percent while the income of the top 1 percent has gone up by 200 percent.”  Between 1980 and 2005, the average CEO’s [chief executive officer’s] compensation “went from being 42 times that of the average blue-collar worker’s pay” to a ratio of 431 to 1, with much of that increase coming since 1990.

            Dobbs doesn’t accept the free-marketeers’ explanation that executive salaries simply reflect the supply-and-demand for managerial talent, and that the executives must be “worth it.”  Instead, he sees a buddy system of mutual accommodation: “The ‘market’ in this case is made up of the CEOs themselves, the boards they nominate, and the executive search and compensation firms that recruit them and negotiate their pay packages… Many corporate boards are comprised of close associates of the CEO.  There are plenty of incestuous board relationships where executives have business ties with one another, or sit on one another’s boards….”   The compensation is unimaginably high even in the face of manifest executive failure: “You see the executives of Northwest Airlines increase their compensation by $2.5 million,” Dobbs tells us, “while the financially beleaguered airline attempts to slash the pay of its pilots, flight attendants, mechanics, and baggage handlers.”  Kmart provides Dobbs another example: “When Kmart announced its bankruptcy filing in 2002, it laid off twenty-two thousand workers without giving any severance pay.  At the same time, CEO Chuck Conaway—the man in charge when the company went belly up—got a $9.5 million severance package.”

            This astronomical compensation takes place at the same time corporate America suffers from a debilitating lassitude.  Dobbs cites the automobile industry: “Ironically, foreign car makers have built more new plants in the United States, and hired more American workers, than General Motors and Ford combined.”  Why have the giants of American automobile-making slipped behind?  “GM and Ford have fallen behind because of terrible design, a lack of innovation, their refusal to go to the highest-quality production methods and techniques, and their refusal to embrace, across their entire product lines, the same quality assurance demanded by the leaders of the Japanese car companies.”

            2.  Those who have watched Dobbs’ television commentary know that he is one of the principal voices opposing the flood of illegal immigration into the United States.  He favors legal immigration, and in fact supports more of it, but he sees great harm from massive illegal entry.  It is no small phenomenon: he observes that “each year an estimated twenty thousand illegal aliens cross our border from Canada.  Each year as many as three million illegal aliens cross our border with Mexico.”  The result is that “the estimates range from eleven million all the way up to twenty million” who “now live in this country.”  He sees the flood as potentially endless, since there are more than five billion people living in poverty in the world.  A major reason for the influx, and the condonation of it by powerful forces in the United States, is that “it’s what big business wants.”  “These employers don’t face a labor shortage—they want the cheapest labor possible” (in effect, a domestic stand-in for outsourcing and offshoring).  A striking fact is that “at least half of all farmworkers in Florida are illegal aliens.”  There is, he says, a massive underground economy using illegal immigrants.

            How does this relate to the war Dobbs sees as being conducted against the average American?  In part, by its effect on wages paid to American workers: “A National Academy of Sciences study found that more than 40 percent of the wage losses of low-skilled workers was due to competition from immigrant workers.  Other research from the early 1990s found that more than seven hundred thousand low-skill U.S. workers were jobless because of illegal immigration.”

            3.  Dobbs continues, describing a bleak picture involving many areas of American life.

            Not least, of course, is what he sees as the “disastrous” conduct of the war in Iraq, both because of Bush administration policies and Congress’s “failure to provide oversight and leadership.”

            Public education, he believes, has been the “bedrock of what has been the American Dream.”  But even though the cost of education “has outpaced every other economic benchmark,” the money isn’t going into the classroom, but to the bureaucracy.  There is high turnover among teachers, who are poorly paid.  Math teachers aren’t adequately prepared in their subjects, and this interacts with the high unemployment existing among American computer and electrical engineers, with the two factors together causing fewer American students to have both the skills and the incentives to go into those high-tech fields.  (The high level of joblessness in technical fields is due, Dobbs says, to the outsourcing of such work to other countries where the work is done more cheaply.)

            This crisis in education reflects not just the schools, but occurs in the context of general social decadence.  “Most local school districts must contend with community apathy, teachers’ union intransigence, a sizable number of poorly trained and educated teachers, administrative incompetence, and too many parents who neither discipline nor nurture their children….” 

            It would seem that the incompetence at all levels demonstrated in the aftermath of the hurricane Katrina (an incompetence that reminds us of the Third World) is by no means limited to that episode—and thus is something that tells us much about the state of American society.  “Our highways, bridges, and dams are literally crumbling.”  And this isn’t because money is lacking: “Congress passed the massive Transportation Act of 2005, which any reasonable person would have expected to deal with our critical infrastructure needs.”  What actually happened, he says, is that $25 billion of the money has gone to “funding 6,371 pet projects” in a giant pork-barrel spending spree.  

            The venality spreads across many areas, each of which Dobbs discusses: There is a crisis in health care, as “health care costs skyrocket.”  Forty-six million people in the United States don’t have health insurance, and employers are increasingly dropping coverage on those who do.  In the meantime, trial lawyers reap immense fees, and profits increase for the pharmaceutical companies, HMOs and insurers.  Each of these groups has a powerful lobby pressing its interests in the Congress and government.

            4.  What is perhaps most striking about Dobbs’ analysis is his emphasis on the corruption of America’s democratic process, a corruption that serves the purposes of almost everyone except the average American, to whom literally no one is responsive.  Dobbs describes at length the extent to which lobbying pervades the Congress and executive branch, funding paid trips for Congressmen and officials, paying lucrative speaking fees, and providing a “revolving door” between public employment and the high remunerations of lobbying.  It is to special interests, not to the public, that all this is responsive.  This makes the electoral process a sham.  “I can’t take seriously anyone,” Dobbs says, “who takes either the Republican Party or Democratic Party seriously—in part because neither party takes you and me seriously; in part, because both are bought and paid for by corporate America and special interests.  And neither party gives a damn about the middle class.”  Even the periodic political campaigns, where politicians ostensibly “go to the people,” are a charade.  Sound bites and carefully selected “wedge issues” substitute for thoughtful discussion, so that “there is rarely a national debate on great issues.”  One would hope that the national media would offset this, consistently with the ideal of a “free press,” but Dobbs says that, instead, “the media now serves all too frequently as an unobstructed conduit of the agenda of the country’s elites into the lives of the American middle class.”  Journalism has become lazy, “relying on political pronouncements, press releases, and self-serving research…,” as well as reporting opposing opinions without doing independent research of its own.  (Dobbs calls this “he says, she says” journalism.)  And, in addition, over all of Americans’ discourse stands the incubus of “political correctness,” backed by academia, the media and the professional-business elite, commanding the use of certain language and imposing taboos that black out entire areas of concern.

            Dobbs raises much that deserves serious attention.  It could be shrugged off if his were the voice of a John Brown or a Savonarola—and if it weren’t confirmed by manifest experience.  Dobbs’ is one of many books seeking to rally the American people to overcome, as he says, their “national ennui,” their “passive acceptance of the status quo.”  Not having abandoned hope, he concludes the book with a chapter entitled “Taking Back America” in which he lists a number of reforms that he believes could make a difference.  Among them are “complete public financing of all elections” and “complete coverage for those who suffer a catastrophic illness.”  Since there seems to be some disquiet abroad in the land, as evidenced by the most recent election, it may be that the public is beginning to stir.  If so, Dobbs will be one of the more important spokesmen for an awakening middle class.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                         Dwight D. Murphey