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Spring Books

City on a hill became a shopping mall


By Donald L. Barlett and
James B. Steele
Andrews and McMeel, 241 pages, $9.95


This book presents part three of the journalists' investigative reporting on the U.S. economy. Its importance lies not in any new information but in its popular and readable style. Featuring stories of real people, real companies and real events, America: Who Stole the Dream? reads like a script for a Friday night horror show, something to follow the "Nightly Business Report."

Cast as the Bad Guys are the usual suspects: government and big business. Basically, by continuing to encourage long-entrenched patterns of trade, tax and immigration policies, government keeps the pathways politically clear for business to pursue its central economic goals: cut costs and expand market share.

In case after case, U.S. businesses "outsource" production to offshore facilities, all under the justification of "staying competitive in the global market." Government cooperates by establishing lenient trade policies and/or giant-sized loopholes. Thus, Barlett and Steele narrate how, over the past 30 years, all kinds of production -- from flowers to footwear, autos to apparel, drugs to tool and die -- has moved outside our borders.

In the end, the economics are not hard to grasp: U.S. florists can't continue to pay $10 an hour when growers in Colombia will produce roses for $1. Intellectual work has become just as fungible. This became painfully clear to one woman when her $50,000 professional indexing job was transferred to India, where the work demands only $6,000.

Job-shifting works in the other direction too. If you can't relocate your business, bring the cheap labor in. Migrant farm workers have a long history in our economic landscape. But now we find a similar pattern in other, more mainstream -- and higher-paying -- fields, such as pharmaceuticals and engineering.

I fault the book for at least two critical omissions. First, I came across no mention of the ignoble history of U.S. military involvement, particularly in impoverished countries, to the end of maintaining a political status quo economically advantageous to multinationals. This should be included in any discussion of government actions that have contributed to the growing maldistribution of wealth and the disintegration of the middle class.

Second, when it comes to assessing who's to blame, the authors focus too narrowly on the "people in Washington," the "highest paid CEOs" and their multinational corporations and on foreign governments and their Washington lobbyists. No doubt their case is strong and clear and, on the face of it, highly convincing. But they fail to point out our own complicity.

When I go shopping, do I look for sales? Do I "outsource" my purchases to volume discount houses or to name brands who stay competitive precisely by going offshore to find the cheapest production labor available? Do I pay attention to my investments? Would I switch, given a reasonable prospect of higher returns? Given the system, I'd be a fool not to.

There's a Catch-22 in all this. Somehow, it seems to me, we must face the dilemma that our long-standing, well-cultivated, even cherished obsession with consuming is itself partly to blame for the disappearing American dream.

This book offers a solid opportunity to realize the connection between the "good buys" we demand as consumers and the "goodbyes" we fear as employees. It might also be a good time to say goodbye to all of our sentimental, romanticized notions of the American Dream for which we seem to feel so much nostalgia and -- God help us -- defensiveness.

Andrew Apathy is an editor with Sheed & Ward.

National Catholic Reporter, February 7, 1997