The scene was exactly the same for both events—the former bank lobby that is the first floor of the downtown Kansas City Public Library at 10th and Baltimore.
Somewhere between eight hundred and a thousand people were crowded into its space. The attendees were overwhelmingly of late middle age or older. The concentration of grey ponytails, sandals, and back-packs reached danger levels.
The first of the two appearances (August 18, 2012) was by KC native James Steele, who was discussing his new book “The Betrayal of The American Dream.” The second (March 12, 2013) was by Hedrick Smith, who was discussing his new book, “Who Stole The American Dream?”
Both authors have distinguished journalistic backgrounds (Steele with the Philadelphia Inquirer, Smith with the New York Times, with the latter entitled to the ultimate form of journalistic street cred., i.e. recipient of a Pulitzer Prize for his book “The Russians,” dating from his days as a foreign correspondent.).
As if the similarity of titles was not confusing enough, both speakers said exactly the same thing, making many of the same arguments. Things get even more confusing when you consider other titles listed on Amazon currently, all with the same theme:
The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future—by Joseph Stiglitz
Plutocrats: The Rise of The New Global-Super Rich and The Fall of Everyone Else—by Chrystia Freeland
The Party is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted—by Mike Lofgren
Citizens Disunited-Passive Investors, Drone CEO’s, and the Corporate Capture of the American Dream—by Robert A G Monks
Beyond Outrage: What has Gone Wrong with Our Economy and How to Fix It—by Robert Reich.
How Washington Made The Rich-Richer-and Turned Its Back on The Middle Class,by Jacob Hacker
It suddenly dawned on me after I attended these events that screeds on income inequality have become what vampires were to the 90’s and zombies were to the first decade of the millennium: a way to scare and titillate the ignorant and credulous. Like horror fans, repetitiveness is a good thing to this audience—they want to hear variations of the same story over and over again.
Not only did Steele and Smith draw the same audience by delivering the same message, but they received identical puff pieces in the KC Star from political commissar Steve Kraske. (See 8/18/12 column “American Dream Is Now Fast Asleep” and 3/18/13 column “Concentration of Wealth Is Too Profound to Ignore”).
The kind of sophistry put forth by these two latter day Lincoln Steffens is familiar. More and more wealth is being concentrated at the top of the economic scale and the middle class is getting screwed. It is all the fault of the business and financial elite, who have rigged the political system to their advantage. The resulting disparity in wealth is not only unfair but represents a profound threat to our democracy. The obvious (and only) solution is draconian tax hikes and massive increases in social spending. (We need a “Domestic Marshall Plan!” In the 70’s he would have said “A Marshall Plan for The Cities,” which shows Smith has grown as a person.) Corporations need to return to the era of granting generous benefits to workers, like the GM/UAW contracts from the 50’s and 60’s. (One wonders if either author has been to Detroit recently.)
As far as I can tell, all these authors, but particularly Steele and Smith, have not only identical solutions but identical scape-goats to blame for the situation. Charles and David Koch are to blame, as is the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. Hedrick Smith goes the other Jeremiahs one better, i.e. he reaches back forty plus years and finds the evil genius behind this dark conspiracy. It is a secretive but powerful organization whose tentacles reach into every corner of American life, whose ways are so fiendishly clever that it has remained undiscovered until courageously uncovered by journalist/patriot Smith. I’m referring of course, to the Chamber of Commerce.
I’m not kidding! Smith held the audience spellbound as he described how future Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell wrote a memo in 1971 urging the US Chamber of Commerce to become proactive to protect its interests in the face of activism by liberal groups like consumer advocates, organized labor, and environmentalists. Apparently there is something inherently sinister about businesses lobbying against burdensome regulation and taxation.
Another striking similarity between these authors is their point-blank refusal to admit the disparity between rich and poor is growing world-wide and may be the result of forces that are not just confined to the United States. Both Steele and Smith insist that technology and globalization are not factors driving these trends.
“If technological change and globalization were the primary causes of America’s problems today, then we would see the same yawning inequalities and middle class losses in the other advanced countries. But we don’t.” — “Who Stole The American Dream?”
As I wrote this, it was announced that average unemployment in the Euro-Zone rose to 12%, hitting 27% in Spain and Greece. Another source disclosed that home prices in Ireland had declined 80% and that every bank in the country had failed. It’s easier to blame everything on your domestic political opponents than to think seriously about the more intractable causes of the worldwide recession.
Nor did either speaker ever explain how someone who founds a very successful business (Cerner, Garmin) and creates wealth necessarily does so at the expense of the middle class. All Smith would say was that “when so much wealth was concentrated in so few hands, it has to come at someone else’s expense.”
Both Smith and Steele resorted to demagogic calls for “forcing our trading partners to let in our goods” (Senator Smoot, call your office!) In a particularly nasty bit of xenophobia, Smith said 1-HB Visas (for foreigners with particular technical skills) should be abolished. (“An Indian Has your Job!”) Let’s keep those Indian soft-ware designers out of Silicon Valley! How are they helping our economy?
Probably the most disappointing aspect of the occasions was that when I raised the foregoing points during the question and answer period, I was shouted down and threatened by the rest of the audience. (One wag suggested that the quickest way to deal with people like me was to “bring back the guillotine,” to which Smith laughingly assented. Check the audio at KClibrary.com to confirm that this was said and that I was prevented from asking any follow up questions, so great was the clamor from the crowd.) Smith and Steele brushed aside my questions. Who can blame them when playing on people’s fears and resentment pays so well? In closing, I should note that I was amused that Smith wrote a similar book to his current one twenty-five years ago, called “The Power Game.” Steele wrote a book in 1992 called “America: What Went Wrong.” And he came out with “America:Who Stole The Dream” in 1996. I hadn’t realized that it was possible to plagiarize your own work, but these gentlemen are ahead of the curve in a number of ways.
That is not to say these books don’t deal with serious questions. It just means they do so in profoundly unserious ways that are ugly and intellectually dishonest. I’m just sorry they found such a receptive audience for their poisonous message here in Kansas City.