October 3, 2023

Whose America is This?

Pulitzer-winning journalists discuss their book and the rise and fall of America’s middle class.
By Clark Miller | Jan. 11, 2020

Has America become more concerned with Wall Street than Main Street? Journalists (and married couple) Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn tackle the question in their forthcoming book, “Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope.” 

Shortly after their book is released on Jan. 14, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writing team will make their way to Traverse City’s City Opera House on Friday, Jan. 31, to kick off the winter/spring season of the 2020 National Writers Series. The writers will take the stage at 7pm to discuss their work and the economic state our nation is in.

Kristof and WuDunn argue that the GI Bill and other social “escalators” helped bring many Americans into the middle class. But around 1970, priorities shifted. That’s when labor unions came under attack, leaving clear the path for capitalists to invest more in machinery than in workers.

That trend, the authors say, has been especially tough on unskilled workers. Kristof and WuDunn point out that if the federal minimum wage had kept pace with inflation over the past 50 years, the current rate would be $22 per hour; not $7.25. At the same time, insurance rates have skyrocketed, and, without the type of strong health safety net most other developed countries provide, many Americans find themselves one health crisis away from economic ruin.

The authors point out the irony that a vibrant middle class first took root in the U.S. but now there is “a brittleness to life for about 150 million Americans, with a constant risk that sickness, layoffs, or a car accident will cause everything to collapse.” They cite some chilling statistics:

·      Life expectancy continues to rise in most of the industrialized world, but in the U.S., it has dropped for three years in a row.

·      Suicide rates are at a 30-year high.

·      Opioids and other drugs now kill more Americans each month than guns or car crashes.

The question is, how can we turn this around? Kristof and WuDunn quote billionaire businessman Ray Dalio, who says the problem “is that capitalists typically don’t know how to divide the pie well, and socialists typically don’t know how to grow it well.” Even such economic “winners” as Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have publicly stated that the rich should pay more taxes.  At the other end of the policy spectrum is President Trump, who stated during a 2016 campaign debate by bragging that not paying income taxes makes him “smart.” A champion of deregulation, he said his money would otherwise be “squandered.”

To put a human face on the dilemma, the authors show how families in Kristof’s mostly working-class hometown of Yamhill, Oregon, and other hard-hit areas have fared. Just before the holidays, Northern Express briefly interviewed Kristof about “Tightrope” and give a sample of what readers — or attendees of his and WuDunn’s NWS event — can expect to learn more about.

Express: You call for a “grace of morality.” What does that mean?

Kristof: It means not pointing fingers when people get in trouble but instead extending a helping hand. For years, we’ve taken a harsh approach to those who fail economically. Too often, we’ve seen it as a moral failure. That has made it harder for people struggling to start to recover. And I think that’s a factually wrong approach.

Express: You describe our country as “divided.”

Kristof: On the right, there’s a deep hostility toward regulation, and a deep hostility toward various social support systems, for fear of building dependency. Intellectuals and elites did, to some extent, neglect working folks [in recent decades]. I think both parties helped Wall Street over Main Street.

Express: Could that explain why the polls got it so wrong in the last presidential race?

Kristof:  I think politicians and intellectuals and journalists tend to hang out too much with people like themselves. They stay in a bubble. I don’t think we were aware of how much distress and anger there was. And as a country, I think we’re still not completely aware of it. Problems like drug overdoses [and] high suicide rates seem kind of distant from the discussions we’re having. The purpose of our book is to face up to these challenges. The people we wrote about were struggling. They voted for Trump to rescue them. I think he spoke to them, reflected their anguish. Traditional politicians had ignored them. When you’re struggling, you can become vulnerable to a demagogue who comes along, especially someone who blames immigrants. FDR warned about that.

The Jan. 31 event starts at 7pm. Doors open at 6pm. For tickets, go to www.cityoperahouse.org; call (231) 941-8082, ext. 201, Monday–Friday; or visit the City Opera House box office at 106 E. Front St.


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