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Book Review: Screwed: The Undeclared War on the Middle Class by Thom Hartmann

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Message Lynne Glasner
If you are familiar with Thom Hartmann's daily Air America radio program, the perspective and clarity of his latest book, Screwed: The Undeclared War Against the Middle Class (and What We Can Do About It) won't take you by surprise. That's not to say that there's nothing new in it; Hartmann offers his perspectives here in a readable format using the same debating skill he demonstrates in his radio show when hosting conservative guests.

Hartmann doesn't use the book as a debate forum. He simply lays out cogent arguments that support his progressive view and refutes conservative premises in the process. Not that his views are extreme or radical, though they may seem that way in comparison to the Bush Republicans. Hartmann represents what the "progressive" label is supposed to convey these days, though there was a time when these views were considered rather moderate - even middle-of-the-road Democratic - which demonstrates how far we've been blown off course.

Hartmann frames his thesis with solid and reasoned discourse that dissembles voodoo economic concepts, exposing their false premises and empty promises. He deftly handles the economic and political-philosophical issues that underlie his premise, and his arguments are hard to refute not only because they are logical and fair-minded but also because they are supported by facts, which Hartmann provides.

As the title suggests, Hartmann's position is that the middle class has been screwed by the very government it trusted. To be sure, there have been abuses by politicos of all stripes and he doesn't spare those who have betrayed the middle class values that are the foundation of our democracy, regardless of party affiliation. But, Hartmann warns us, we are now at a dangerous crossroads: the US has entered a new gilded age, not entirely dissimilar to the age of the Carnegies and Rockefellers at the turn of the last century. It took several decades, a Depression, and a leader with the stature and respect of FDR to set us on the right path again. If we don't take back the democracy that is being lost in the 21st century gilded age, we stand to lose the solid middle class that is the glue for keeping democracy in tact and healthy.

Perhaps because Hartmann is not an economist by trade, he is able to clarify often abstract and complex issues. He cuts through the gobbledygook of statistics and theory and offers an everyman's explanation of what has happened in the last twenty-five years; it is both lucid and provocative. Hartmann explains the relationship of the middle class to democracy. Although this could be a complex subject, Hartmann is able to simplify it enough to make it accessible without patronizing or glossing over the issues and facts. That in itself is quite a feat.

Hartmann connects the erosion of the middle class with the government policies implemented by those who label themselves conservative. Call them conservatives or neo-cons, Hartmann aptly labels them cons because they have succeeded in conning the public. Their policies are a hoax that has been imposed upon a hapless and tired middle class who are just treading water and losing the battle. Hoodwinked by the mislabeled policies, many in the middle class are bewildered by their circumstances but haven't been able to connect the dots between the economic problems they experience and the misnomers that pass as public policy theoretically in the interest of the public good. Reading Screwed could fix that.

Hartmann takes apart the economic myths surrounding the laissez faire doctrine commonly used by the cons to defend policies destructive to the middle class and to democracy itself. He reminds us that conservatives traditionally wanted to 'conserve' our public values and protect our freedoms. But today's cons run counter to those principles. As Hartmann points out, our values and our freedoms have been pulled out from under us while the cons have rigged the system, enriching themselves and their friends at the expense of the middle class. As the elite gain more power, they continue to enact policies detrimental to the health of the middle class, eroding democracy in the process.

Like others who have begun to take note of how the meaning of "conservative" has shifted in the last two decades, Hartmann shows us how those who traditionally called themselves conservatives not only believed in democracy, but also believed that a thriving middle class is essential to its operation. In Hartmann's telling analysis, the con game that is being perpetuated by the neo-cons and their mouthpiece Bush Jr. is nothing less than an all-out assault on the middle class: "Without democracy there can be no middle class; and without a middle class, democracy will wither and die" [p. 16]. According to Hartmann, the battle and polarization of political will today is nothing short of democracy vs. plutocracy or corporatocracy.

Comparing businesses to kingdoms, Hartmann shows us how government policies in the decades from Reagan to the present have eroded the middle class. In spite of the rhetoric to the contrary, in spite of the refutation of the laughable Lafer curve, trickle-down economics was never really totally ousted as a political force. The cons effectively sold it as a solid economic truth even after it was proved to be false. While Hartmann cogently dispels the voodoo theory, exposing it for what it is, the question of its staying power in the current climate is one that Hartmann asks us to consider. He contends that if we don't take action to take back the democratic principles on which this country was founded, we shouldn't be surprised when we find ourselves living in a totalitarian state.

The traditional conservative pitch longed for the good 'ole days when mothers stayed home with the kids and dad brought home the bread. While this "Leave It to Beaver" idyllic American image may leave much to be desired, Hartmann reminds us that we are no longer living in an economy in which that typical family can survive no less thrive. Yet that image is what fueled the American dream: our children would be better off than we were; we might not be wealthy, but we could pay the basic bills and have a good life; health care was covered by low-cost insurance, in most cases paid for by our employer; social security stood to ensure that we could live out our lives in dignity, rather than in poverty. These were the basic precepts upon which the post-Depression middle-class America was built.

Hartmann describes how that economic picture held strong for decades, from the FDR era until President Reagan. Reagan came in with his Mr. Nice Guy image and picked apart the foundations of the middle class: unions were busted; the tax base was eroded; spending went through the roof, raising the deficit to historic highs; safety-net programs were wiped off the board, leaving bread lines that hadn't been seen since the Depression.

While Reagan and his folksy style appealed to the middle class, Reagan relied on Greenspan and conservatives whose main interest was in conserving wealth, not conserving a thriving middle class, to back and implement economic policies that began a downward spiral for those in the middle. Reagan's naïve approach to economics made sense if you didn't really understand vying economic theories and have a working knowledge of the foundations of government. While the average American doesn't sit around thinking about Thomas Hobbes vs. Thomas Jefferson, Reagan's style and the simple message he communicated was all that was needed to garner support: taxes were too high and we had to defeat communism at all costs. The plan turned classical economics on its head in order to satisfy both objectives. To outspend the Soviets and simultaneously cut taxes a new sales pitch was needed. In the trickle down theory, the money saved in taxes by the wealthy would be spent in the broad economy and would seep down into the melting pot of the middle class. The theory said this action would raise all boats. But the truth was that the middle class started sinking and is still treading water.

The Reagan Revolution created the biggest government debt in world history (yes, not just in our own short history but include in that the history of other countries as well), only to be surpassed two decades later by Bush Jr. who, acting as the CEO he claimed to be, hired many of the players (discredited or not) from the former Reagan administration, bringing them into his inner circle.

The real trickle down goes like this: companies look to cut prices so they can better compete and do so by cutting wages here and transferring production overseas; US workers earn less money and are forced to shop at the discount stores rather than the middle road retailers (e.g. Macy's); more mid-range stores go out of business because there's not enough money to buy their goods; the large discounter box stores thrive and cut wages further to make their profits higher and increase the value of their stock; the middle class can no longer afford to live on the wages being offered and must work two or more jobs to make ends meet.

Hartmann makes a strong case and backs up his claims with evidence from primary sources as well as news accounts and quotes. His clear descriptions of the programs created in the '30s under Roosevelt and dismantled in the '80s under Reagan and again in the last six years under Bush Jr. are stark reminders of who has been in charge and what the consequences are.

Hartmann explains the danger of continuing in this direction: lose the middle class, lose the underpinnings of democracy. The republic may not go down because of mishandling of foreign policy (though that variable can't be entirely separated), but because the erosion of a strong middle class robs democracy of the voting bloc and powers that keep a government functioning for the common good of the people. And, as Hartmann reminds us, the purpose of a democratic government is to "promote the common good." This means protecting the most vulnerable members of society and putting the people's interests ahead of the elite few. When we hand power over to an elite group, we lose the distribution of wealth along with the power to retrieve it. Hartmann's cautions are ominous: we must take back the country and put it back on track. The founding fathers did not intend that the country be run by an elite group of secretive men who enrich themselves and their friends.

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Lynne Glasner is a freelance writer/editor based in New York City. She has edited numerous books, fiction and nonfiction, many on political subjects. Her essays have appeared in Commondreams,, and Huffington Post as well as OpEd (more...)
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