Monday, September 25, 2017



By Rick Wartzman

PublicAffairs, $30, 418 pages

Few things are more changeable than the past: Each new generation of revisionist historians and social activists reinterprets — and, sometimes, shamelessly distorts — it. The result is an ever-changing mythology and, in the case of the United States, a constantly morphing “American Dream” subjected to endless re-analysis.

In “The End of Loyalty” Rick Wartzman, a distinguished business journalist-turned think tanker, writes an informed, smoothly narrated account of 70 years in the economic life of Uncle Sam, from the post-World War II boom years through post-industrial and global mutations, and the lingering effects of the Great Recession. The story as he tells it is thoughtful reportage at its best. Like most penetrating reporting, however, it leaves the reader with more questions than answers, more problems than solutions.

At the heart of the dilemma is the golden myth that formed around the postwar boom and the generations of increasingly shared affluence that followed. This was the belief that America was headed on an ever-upward trend line of jobs, security and guaranteed benefits, and that each new generation was automatically entitled to a better life than the one that came before it, with no special effort on its own part. “You’ve never had it so good and it will keep on getting better forever” was the implicit assumption behind the blind optimism that twisted the American Dream into an open-ended Ponzi scheme.

Although the term “irrational exuberance” would not be coined by economist Alan Greenspan until much later, it may have reached its apotheosis in a symbolic moment vividly described by Mr. Wartzman:

“When the 50 millionth car ever made by General Motors came off the assembly line in Flint, Michigan, it was the ideal object to capture the sparkle of America: the 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air Sport Coupe had been swabbed with a golden glint paint, and more than 600 of its parts and accessories had been dipped in a bath of gold cyanide. The interior fabric had been woven together with gold metallic thread, and the seats were upholstered in gold vinyl. ‘People have money, they have confidence, and they are in a buying mood,’ said Harlow Curtice, GM’s president.”

Actually, even as Mr. Curtice gloated over the imagined fat years to come, the world had started catching up with America. Japan and Europe — with considerable help from us — had dug themselves out of the ruins of World War II and were coming back as major industrial competitors, soon to be followed by the Asian Tigers. A generation after that golden Chevy moment, Flint. Mich., was well on its way to becoming one big slum, and the U.S. auto industry — and the steel industry and much other heavy manufacturing — were well into the cycle of downsizing and outsourcing we continue to experience today.

Lifetime job security, lavish early pensions and generous health benefits that postwar union laborers quickly took for granted would become increasingly unsustainable. The big question, only partially answered by Mr. Wartzman, is why? The answers are many and complex, and don’t necessarily add up to a solution.

At the end of World War II and for decades afterward, America’s public school systems turned out millions of literate, numerate and often job-ready young people with useful vocational training. Higher education was comparatively affordable and many ambitious, disciplined young people who couldn’t afford four straight years of full-time college were prepared to defer the instant gratification of the easy-credit consumer age to work their way through night school.

Far fewer kids were being born out of wedlock, and most of them benefited from a stable, two-parent upbringing. Meanwhile, the much-maligned baby boomers in their millions were expanding the working, taxpaying population in numbers sufficient to cover the drastic difference between the relatively small amount retirees had paid into Social Security and private pension funds and the much larger amounts they would be drawing out after retirement with greatly extended life expectancy. “Comprehensive” health benefits were manageable because most of the costly, life-extending drugs, treatments and technologies we take for granted today didn’t even exist. And in pre-Great Society America, the work ethic didn’t have to compete with the welfare ethic.

There’s plenty of blame to go around. And perhaps the biggest casualty of all is the one Mr. Wartzman concludes his book with: loss of “the underlying belief that the system can be made to work for the good of all.”

• Aram Bakshian Jr., an aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, writes widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.

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