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Review: Thom Hartmann's Rebooting the American Dream

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Thom Hartmann is famous as a liberal commentator on the radio, on TV, and in over a dozen books. But he has written here a book that is of far more than partisan value. Rebooting the American Dream: 11 Ways to Rebuild Our Country will please liberal readers, but it will also challenge them to revisit some of their own lazy beliefs. It will annoy conservatives, but the smarter ones will take notes and absorb some of his trans-partisan insights into their own politics.

Chapter 1, "Bring My Job Home!" squarely identifies the root of America's jobs problem in its trade problem. Unlike most commentators on the issue, who remain stuck in the "born yesterday" mentality of most contemporary economics, Hartmann understands that this problem cannot be understood without recourse to economic history. So he goes into considerable depth explaining the original Hamiltonian (after founding father Alexander Hamilton, principal economist among the founders) design of America's tradition of broadly-shared prosperity. Hartmann shows how nations like China are applying the same winning principles even today, and why we must return to them. If we don't, we'll get an inexorably shrinking middle class, a bloating plutocracy, and a polity poisoned by class division.

Chapter 2, "Roll Back the Reagan Tax Cuts," will annoy the living daylights out of conservatives. Hartmann's well-documented contention is that the Reagan tax cuts didn't really benefit anybody but the very rich, didn't stimulate the economy, and didn't even reduce the size of government in the end. (They thus failed by both liberal and conservative standards.) Back in the day of thieving Marxist goons like, say, President Eisenhower (that's sarcasm, people, lest I be bombarded), America had tax rates on the rich peaking at around 90 percent--and did very well economically, thank you very much. Even the rich were happy in those days. So why not go back, rather than gutting public services and piling up deficits?

Chapter 3, "Stop Them From Eating My Town," is about a number of issues. First is the visible decimation of America's once diverse and vibrant local retail landscape by national chains--a trend evaded only in a few special places like Vermont (and, I might add, my hometown of San Francisco). This raises, in turn, the underlying issue of the increasing oligopoly in many American industries, which is quite the opposite of the "free" markets that conservatives claim to believe in. Trustbuster (and Republican!) Teddy Roosevelt got this one right; the villains here are Ronald Reagan and every president since, who have let antitrust enforcement slide. Real competition is indispensible discipline for the excessive power of corporations.

Chapter 4, "An Informed and Educated Electorate," looks at the decay in the quality of the news media due to the abandonment of the FCC's old fairness doctrine and related provisions like the equal-time requirement for political candidates. As a result, our media have increasingly degenerated into self-referential ideological boutiques, with Fox News being the one most likely to annoy Hartmann's fans. What's wrong with just letting the marketplace make these decisions? The fact that information about public affairs is largely a public good, i.e. it doesn't benefit me very much if I'm better informed about public affairs, but it benefits all of us if all of us are better informed and thus more rational voters. Prior to 1980 or so, this was well understood by Republicans and Democrats alike.

Chapter 5, "Medicare 'Part E'--for Everybody," is Hartmann's suggestion of an easy way for America to take advantage of one of the biggest dirty secrets in all of economics: socialized medicine actually works. (Factoid: the Veterans Administration is its most efficient practitioner in the U.S.) The international data on this are fairly plain, but instead, in America we have a staged debate on whether the world is round or flat. So we go on spending twice as much per person on health care as other developed nations while enduring medical bankruptcies and health insecurity unknown elsewhere. Why can't workers have a raise? Because all the money available for one went to health insurance. If the private sector really is better, let it face the competition of a Medicare system that anyone can buy into at cost.

Chapter 6, "Make Members of Congress Wear NASCAR Patches," is, in a sense, about why all Hartmann's other ideas aren't likely to go anywhere any time soon. (Sorry, but that's the standard drawback of most good books full of good ideas.) Despite the pretence of genuine policy debate in this country, we often have in Congress a disingenuous auction, made possible by the fact that the U.S. stands virtually alone among developed nations in basically legalizing political bribery. We call it "lobbying" and congratulate ourselves that we, unlike, say, Indonesia, do not live under crony capitalism, but the hard data on corporate contributions say otherwise. Campaign finance reform thus underlies reform of every other issue.

Chapter 7, "Cool Our Fever," is about America's energy addiction. Hartmann supports a cap-and-trade system of carbon emissions taxes and subsidies for electric cars and energy research. He points to Germany and China as nations that either already have gotten, or are starting to get, serious about alternative energy. Interesting fact: they don't have huge domestic oil industries lobbying in the opposite direction.

Chapter 8, "They Will Steal It!" hits the nail on the head about the central flaw in the Clinton-Bush-(and now apparently)-Obama agenda to impose democracy on the rest of the world at the point of a gun. If American-style democracy is so good for all these people around the world, why don't they voluntarily figure this out themselves and go grab it? After all, we didn't have to bomb the world to get it to drink Coca-Cola or buy Apple computers. Sure, we've knocked over a few dictators, but foreign peoples have shown time and again they're quite capable of doing this for themselves. And the very act of our shoving democracy down people's throats tends to make them gag--frequently in favor of quite nasty alternatives that look good largely because they shake a fist at Dirty Yankee Imperialism."

Chapter 9, "Put Lou Dobbs Out to Pasture," is the chapter that will shock a lot of lazy-thinking liberals. Hartmann's point here is that immigrant rights, i.e. civil rights that should be non-negotiable for anybody in a civilized society, are an entirely different question from immigrant numbers, i.e. how many people we should let into the country each year. And the latter is mainly about one thing: cheap labor for big business. Think it's an accident that right-wing union busting presidents like Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush both pushed for amnesty for illegals so hard? (Reagan got his in 1986; Bush failed in 2007.) Humanely cutting off the flow of cheap labor, mainly by enforcing the laws against employing illegals, is, in fact, America's best shot for ending poverty. When these people go home, they'll have a shot at building up the economies of their own countries and prospering there.

Chapter 10, "Wal-Mart is Not a Person" goes right to the legal heart of the problem discussed in Chapter 6: the fact that American law curiously confers all the rights of actual people upon the legal constructs we call corporations. But if corporations are people, why should they enjoy limited liability, which people don't and which was a major purpose of inventing corporations in the first place? The key Supreme Court decision here is Santa Clara County vs. Southern Pacific of 1886; as a result of this philosophically ludicrous doctrine, courts have found it impermissible to restrain the "right" of corporations to spend as much as they please to manipulate our political process. Hartmann suggests a Constitutional amendment.

Chapter 11, "In the Shadow of the Dragon," is about one of the most interesting economic organizations in the entire world: the Mondragon cooperative in Spain. This worker-owned co-op (that's right, just like your local organic grocery) is a $24.4 billion dollar corporation that employs over 90,000 people in industries ranging from banking to the manufacture of home appliances. It is proof positive that we have choices other than the underperforming, crisis-racked, corrupting and plutocratic version of capitalism promoted as our only choice by the Wall Street Journal. Our best move may not be to imitate these people per se, but we need to wake up to the vast possibilities in economic organization open to us. Use your imagination, America.

Just so the reader can know I'm not in Mr. Hartmann's pay, I'll confess a few reservations about this book. He seems to endorse (I'm not sure) the so-called Gaia hypothesis about the world being a giant living organism--one of the most notorious pieces of feel-good pseudo-science in living memory (p. 131). He also wants a universal military draft, albeit one with a strong civilian-service option (p. 143). He casually tars all border-control Republicans as racist, when the actual evidence only convicts a few (p. 159).

But on the whole, this is an excellent book on substance, and nicely written to boot. Above all, it gives off that rare and somewhat old-fashioned aroma of genuine concern for the country's good, as opposed to the pie-in-the-face partisanship or ax-grinding agenda mongering most political books these days consist of. When I visit the local bookstore, I'm afraid to pick half of these books up; the reader should not be afraid to pick up this one.

Minor note: the 2011 edition of my own book Free Trade Doesn't Work is now available.