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Sunday 21 September 2014

Business: Apt name for book that may put you to sleep

Hedrick SmithCraig Seligman

Published 25/10/2012 | 05:00

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Who Stole the American Dream?

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HEDRICK Smith is a dogged assembler of data. Practically every page of his 'Who Stole the American Dream?' crawls with numbers, statistics and percentages.

Like this: "The top 0.1pc -- about 315,000 people out of 315 million Americans -- garner roughly half of all capital gains in the US." And this: "CEO pay . . . rocketed from 40 times the pay of an average company worker in 1980 to nearly 400 times by 2000."

This and similar material, which deserves to be thundered by an Old Testament prophet, is cushioned in a drone fit for an agricultural report.

Smith was a celebrated reporter for ' The New York Times'. His lack of a discernible style probably results from many decades of suppressing his own voice in the interest of reporting objectively.

His 400-plus pages of drab, personality-free prose on all the ways the rich have been sticking it to the middle class since the late 1970s read like a 'Times' investigative report from hell. You can admire the book's usefulness and still get indigestion reading it.

And it's padded. It begins with 40 pages of throat-clearing that describe the golden era before it all went sour.

Three culminating chapters on Congressional gridlock, the rise of the far right and lunatic defence spending are old news that could have been covered in several paragraphs.

More seriously damning: although Smith is concerned that the wealth gap is damaging American society, his blandness suggests a dearth of real anger that, in turn, hints at an insufficiency of analysis.

He's informative on the disaster that 401(k) plans have turned out to be for middle-income earners, on how corporations have used bankruptcy law to decimate worker pension plans while rewarding executives, and on how an increasingly rightward-leaning Congress has made these injustices possible.

Smith thinks American voters have been fooled; I refuse to believe they're that dumb. I'm convinced they were voting their values -- and nowhere does Smith offer a critique of a consumerist society that has spiralled out of control.

Is the CEO with a yacht, a private jet and a mansion different in kind from the salaried worker whose day isn't complete without a new kitchen appliance from Amazon?

All that credit card debt didn't mount up because people were buying socks for their children. As Smith observes, with atypical asperity: "We Americans have done it to ourselves."

Yet his closing 10-point programme for getting America out of the hole it dug doesn't seem to have come from the same keyboard that's just spent 40-plus pages delineating the reasons Congress has ground to a standstill.

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