Books for Our Times: Losing Our Way, by Bob Herbert

05/28/2015 12:33 pm ET | Updated May 28, 2016

Fifth in an ongoing series, Books for Our Times.

Losing Our Way is a book that will resonate with many thoughtful Americans who feel, like the author, that America has lost her way in this last half-century. That would be most Americans, actually: Two-thirds of the American public tell pollsters they feel the country is on "the wrong track."

With this book, Bob Herbert, a former New York Times opinion columnist and now a senior fellow at Demos, a public policy think tank, seeks to answer the question put directly to him by a World War II veteran: "What happened to us?" He begins by looking back to a more hopeful and vibrant time in America---the author's growing-up years in the 1950s and early '60s in Montclair, New Jersey---then moves forward, tracing our falling-off in chapters devoted to key macro measures: our crumbling infrastructure, unnecessary wars, failing schools, vanishing jobs, and the "ruinous" disparity of income and wealth.

In particular Herbert focuses on the years since the financial crash of 2008, when "for much of the population, the very notion of economic security evaporated":

"Spirits sank along with bank balances. The Great Recession and its dismal aftermath showed unmistakably that a great change had come over the country. The years that had been unkind to the middle class were positively brutal to the working class and the poor. The United States was no longer a place of widely shared prosperity and limitless optimism. It was a country that had lost its way."

Keeping it human, and avoiding a dry recitation of data, Herbert tells his tale through the stories of ordinary Americans personally bearing the brunt of those falling measures. Thus his subtitle, An Intimate Portrait of a Troubled America.

The first chapter, for example, one of several on our crumbling infrastructure, opens with a figure literally falling through the air: a woman, Mercedes Gorden, trapped in her car as it fell 80 feet into the river when the Interstate 35 bridge in Minneapolis collapsed during drive-home rush hour, in 2007---and who survived, enduring many surgeries and emotional battles, supported by a fiancé who stood by her throughout.

Likewise, Herbert traces our recent wars, too many and not necessary, in the story of Dan Berschinski, who lost both legs while leading his unit in Afghanistan and who undergoes a grueling rehabilitation, finally to stand and walk on his own two new legs. Our failing education system is traced through both a remarkable principal in an elementary school in a tough neighborhood in Pittsburgh, who doles out more love than many of her charges get in their fractured homes, and two other women in Pennsylvania who organize a successful protest to the draconian $1 billion in cuts to education ordered by the new Tea Party-backed governor, bent on slashing government spending on public services.

To illustrate the vanishing jobs market, Herbert cites multiple individuals---for example, representing the middle class, an out-of-work architect who can't find work in a collapsed housing market; a former marketing executive who tearfully says, "I'm an embarrassment to my family"; another former middle-management executive forced to sell his blood. Representing the next generation are the newly-minted college graduates who can't find work in their major, live at home, and put off marriage and forming a family. Like Herbert, the architect recalls his youth in post-World War II America when the country seemed a secure, stable place.

Laced through these portraits are an abundance of facts. In the chapters on infrastructure, we learn that 600,000 bridges in the U.S. have been designated "structurally deficient"; that "fracture critical" means a system without fail-safe mechanisms; that President Dwight Eisenhower's grand project of building the interstate highway system made us a modern economy. Throughout the book Herbert cites the findings of hundreds of studies, but wisely leaves their details to a 25-page section of end notes, the better to make his people-centered points, here about infrastructure:

"Study after study has shown that rebuilding the infrastructure is the quickest way to put large numbers of people to work and that the return for each dollar invested in infrastructure renewal is significantly greater than all other investments in the nation's economy. With the nation's physical plant in such sad shape at a time when millions of Americans are in dire need of full-time work, it's criminal to neglect this biggest of all bangs for the national buck."

He extols previous Presidents who, even in hard times, tended to America's physical structure: Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War built the transcontinental railroad, Franklin Roosevelt during the Great Depression established the Tennessee Valley Authority and built bridges, roads, schools, hospitals, housing. "Of course we spent money," said FDR, "it went to put needy men and women without jobs to work." The author faults the Obama administration for the "willful refusal to acknowledge the screaming need for a massive, long-term rebuild America campaign."

As to the vanishing jobs market, Herbert cites "the sorrowful truth....that the era of limitless job growth that built the American middle class was gone." A sorrowful statistic: In the five years since the Great Recession's onset, "more than half of the American workforce endured the loss of a job, a cut in pay, or an involuntary reduction to part-time employment." And the stress is killing: As an expert testified to Congress, "The lower people's income....the earlier they die and the sicker they live." Damningly, Herbert notes, "while the jobs crisis was the single most critical issue facing the country, there was no concerted effort on the part of the government to deal with it in any sustained way."

"Welcome to the new world of employment in America, where job insecurity is the norm, wages are depressed, benefits are few, and anyone can be thrown onto the jobless rolls at any moment and stay there for months or years at a time. The most terrible of all of America's wounds is its chronic, insidious unemployment. It's a wound that is vast, deep, festering, and tragically resistant to healing. And it's changing the very character of the nation."

As for our endless wars, Herbert cites President George W. Bush for waging war on the cheap, by breaking with a tradition extending from Madison through Reagan to call for national sacrifice, raise taxes in wartime, provide properly for the wounded. He cites the public's indifference to these wars, fought by the few: "That what makes it so easy to go to war again and again and again." He excoriates the prevailing view "that the only way to make American power credible was to use it." He has one word for our self-destructive wars since Vietnam: "Madness." Recurring to double amputee Dan Berschinski, "It bothered me that there seemed to be no collective sense that it was insane to allow the maiming of men like Dan."

What comes through in all these portraits, taken from various angles, is---to use a term neither Herbert nor his subjects use---the suffering of the middle and working classes, "existential" stress borne for the most part stoically. Some might call these people victims, but the author doesn't. As I read on, I kept thinking of Samuel Beckett's character in Waiting for Godot who says, "I can't go on. I will go on."

Which is why the reader grows all the angrier, as Herbert does, when he dispenses with the documentary tone he uses in most of the book to let fly at the fact that all this vast damage was unnecessary, that "the devastating wounds that have caused Americans such pain were self-inflicted." He does not let the public, the people where his heart clearly lies, off the hook:

"...[A]s a society we....behaved irresponsibly, self-destructively, for decades. We lost sight of the effort and sacrifice required to build and maintain a great nation. We refused to fend off the destructive excess of free-market zealots and casino capitalists. Greed was not only tolerated but encouraged, and that led to catastrophic imbalances in wealth, income, and political power. Over time the great American ideals of fairness and justice for all, and the great American values of thrift and civic engagement, began to lose their hold on us. We embraced shopping."

He goes on: "We fought wars that should never have been fought. We allowed giant banks and predatory corporations to plunder the nation's wealth and resources without regard for the damage done to the economy, the environment, or the people."

For this plunder of the nation, Herbert reserves his most forceful fire for "the powerful moneyed interests---the 'malefactors of great wealth,' as Teddy Roosevelt so memorably called them---who have been the ones most responsible for driving the nation into such a wretched state of affairs." He describes a "toxic alliance" of government, mega-corporations, and giant banks, an alliance "fueled by limitless greed and a near-pathological quest for power," that "reshaped the rules and regulations" to heavily favor the interests of those who were already well-to-do. "In the process they trampled the best interests of ordinary Americans."

"Job creation was never a priority of the nation's corporate, banking, and political elite. They argued, with nonstop vehemence, that everyone would benefit from industrial and financial deregulation, from the erosion of safety net support and the weakening of labor unions, from unchecked globalization and the wholesale replacement of live workers by machines, and from the rampant privatization of services originally designed to meet public needs. It was a philosophy that allowed the fortunate few to amass greater riches than anyone on the planet had ever previously dreamed of."

Elsewhere, the author goes on:

"America was trapped in a Catch-22...: There was no way for the middle class to prosper (or even survive) in the absence of well-paying jobs. But a high-tech, globalized economy shaped according to the dictates of shortsighted, profit-obsessed Wall Street financiers and corporate CEOs would never create enough good jobs for the middle class to retrieve its past glory. Corporate profits rebounded to record levels after the Great Recession in large part because of the savings that management realized by savaging payrolls. The very idea of paying a decent and secure wage for ordinary workers had become anathema in the business world."

Lambasting further the heartlessness of today's capitalists, Herbert cites "the unconscionable mistreatment of workers by corporate executives," whose salaries are now on average three hundred times more than their workers' salaries, with many pulling down millions more.

The subsequent impoverishment of American workers accounts, Herbert asserts, for failing education performance: Poor students, given their resources and stress levels, generally do poorly academically. And in a chapter titled "Cashing in on Schools," the author goes after the "profiteers"---those in the "corporate stampede to cash in on the public education system"---who seek to privatize a historic and core public institution, with charter schools, dubious online programs, and various "reforms" enriching their investors, not the students. "Backtracking on education," he says, "is the societal equivalent of mainlining heroin."

So: Having lost our way, how do we find it again? "The United States," says Herbert in his epilogue, "needs to be reimagined," away from "the unabashedly selfish, terminally competitive, winner-take-all philosophy that has steered U.S. policy for most of the past forty years" and into a "monumental ditch."

Fittingly, in a book long on the personal and short on policy, Herbert looks not to Washington but to direct action from Main Street---for a mass movement to come into being, demanding a return to the American ideals of fairness and opportunity. Why direct action? Because the changes required to set the country on a more equitable direction

"will never be initiated by the banking and corporate elite or the politicians in their thrall. The uncomfortable and mostly unspoken reality of power politics in the United States is that the interests of the very wealthy and those of the middle class and the poor are not the same."

A demoralized public might feel Herbert's proposal of a mass movement is a cop-out, that it is up to our political leaders to right the train. But he urges us on:

"The odds against a new citizens' movement emerging and ultimately changing America's cultural and economic landscape are no more unrealistic than the original odds against the civil rights movement or the women's movement or the labor movement of old. None of those movements were taken seriously in the beginning. And yet they endured and ultimately prevailed. If our nation is to be changed for the better, ordinary citizens will have to intervene aggressively in their own fate. The tremendous power in the hands of the moneyed interests will not be relinquished voluntarily."

I hope Main Street will read Losing Our Way, because, while it churns repetitively in parts, this one's for and about you. (The book is now out in paperback.) I hope it will inspire the conscientious citizens, the life blood of any polity but exhausted by all the calamities described in the book, to find the juice to mount the next great citizens' movement, to get this great nation back on track. And I hope the myriad Presidential candidates, Republican and Democrat alike, now declaring for 2016 and assiduously lining up their big-money donors, will study this book and reconnect to the humanity on exhibit there.

Bob Herbert, reporter and humanist, has rendered us all a signal public service.

For a C-span interview with Bob Herbert, see here. For other reviews of "Losing Our Way," see here, here, and here. For my review essay on a book with similar themes and approach, George Packer's "The Unwinding," see here.

Carla Seaquist's new book, "Can America Save Itself from Decline?: Politics, Culture, Morality," is due out soon. Her earlier book of commentary is titled "Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character." Also a playwright, she published "Two Plays of Life and Death," which includes "Who Cares?: The Washington-Sarajevo Talks" and "Kate and Kafka," and is at work on a play titled "Prodigal."