Saturday, July 26, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

How Barlett and Steele got it so right with "Wrong"

How Barlett and Steele got it so right with "Wrong"

Read this. and tell me if you agree that it nails the political situation in America right at this moment:

Worried that you're falling behind, not living as well as you once did? Or expected to?

That you're going to have to work extra hours, or take a second job, just to stay even with your bills?

That the company you've worked for all these years may dump you for a younger person?

Or that the pension you've been promised may not be there when you retire?

Worried, if you're on the bottom rung of the economic ladder, that you'll never see a middle-class lifestyle?

Or, if you're a single parent or part of a young working family, that you'll never be able to save enough to buy a home?

That you're paying more than your fair share of taxes?

Worried that the people who represent you in Congress are taking care of themselves and their friends at your expense?

You're right.

Keep worrying.

Incredibly, those words about the American political condition were published TWENTY YEARS AGO by two remarkable journalists based right here in Philadelphia -- Don Barlett and Jim Steele, who were then the lead investigative reporters for the Inquirer. They are the opening words of an epic newspaper series that was called, quite simply and accurately, "America: What Went Wrong."

Years later, in writing my own book about the Ronald Reagan era of the 1980s called "Tear Down This Myth," I re-read major sections and cited "America: What Went Wrong" as proof that all the pathologies of his presidency -- the beginning of the Great Train Robbery of power and wealth in this nation by the rich from the working class -- were hiding in plain sight little more than two years after the Gipper left the3 Oval Office. Indeed, the sense that fairness and upward mobility were slipping away from America gave rise to a powerful reaction against a decade of Reagan and George H.W. Bush -- paving the way for Ross Perot and then Bill Clinton and necessitating a right-wing myth machine beginning in the late 1990s to restore Reagan's image.

But in its time, the reaction to Barlett and Steele and their remarkable achievement was decidedly mixed. A lot of middle-class folks "got it," and in fact "America: What Went Wrong" became a major best-seller when it was published in book form. But you'll be shocked, shocked, to learn that the establishment hated their series -- and especially the journalistic establishment that had showered Barlett and Steele with much love and two Pulitzer Prizes when their topics were much safer ones, dealing with unfairness in the tax code. "America: What Went Wrong" was so hard-hitting, and dealt with such fundamental issues, that terrified Big Beltway journalists and other defenders of the realm decided such a project could be only one thing....(gasp!) "biased."

After all, where was the "on the other hand"? You know, that part about what went right with America? Indeed, there was some clucking in the late 1990s when the American economy did boom for a few years -- aided mainly by a speculative bubble and by a couple of short-term positive developments, like balanced budgets in Washington. In the long term. we now know -- as Barlett and Steele themselves note -- that the only thing wrong with their 1991 series is that it may have underestimated the destruction of the American middle class that was then in its first throes.

Indeed, this is why Barlett and Steele are back (and back in the Inquirer, no less...kudos to them) with a year-long project revisiting the original topic -- now called "What Went Wrong: The Betrayal of the American Dream." If anything has changed over twenty years, it is that Barlett and Steele are even more bold in naming names about who is out there making things even worse today.

They write:

Like others in Congress and the media, Cantor, Bachmann, and Pawlenty insist that American businesses are paying too much in corporate income tax. They claim the onerous tax burden is killing jobs and forcing companies to move abroad. To reverse the nation's fortunes, they say, all Washington need do is slash the corporate tax rate, thereby reducing the amount of taxes these businesses are forced to pay. What's scary is a growing number of citizens believe them.

Scary, indeed. Part of the problem is that in 2011 we have a political noise machine that is even better than it was back in 1991 in drowning out truth-tellers like Barlett and Steele, who are known for their meticulous, data-driven -- a.k.a. "reality-based" -- reporting. Please don't make the mistake of ignoring their message this time.

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Will Bunch
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