Book Review: Losing our Way, an Intimate Portrait of a Troubled America

This book is painful to read, but if you read no other book this year, this is the one you should read. Hebert delves into the deterioration of American society from a prosperous society with a huge middle class, a sound infrastructure, and an educated populace, to its present state where the a much reduced middle class is struggling to hold on, an impoverished lower class is ever increasing, the infrastructure is falling apart, and the education system is failing at all levels.
Hebert has interviewed a number of individuals and their stories highlight some of the consequences of our nation’s failure to meet the needs of its people. There is Mercedes Gordon, who was driving across the I-35W Bridge in Minnesota when it collapsed, her Honda Escort tumbling into the Mississippi River below. She survived but with a broken back, mangled legs and other long term damage. Thirteen people were killed and nearly 150 injured. This is not an isolated incident. Nearly a quarter of our nation’s bridges are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. The I-35W Bridge was in desperate need of maintenance and repair and the work was delayed time and again. Many bridges in this country have reached the end of their functional life span, or were never designed to meet the needs of traffic in the 21st century. The nation’s bridges are only the tip of an iceberg when it comes to the failure to maintain this country’s infrastructure-roads, dykes, water mains, sewer systems, just about everything is in dire need of maintenance and repair.
Then there is Dan Berschinski, a platoon leader stationed in Afghanistan. He was injured by an i.e.d. and lost both legs. He also suffered a broken arm, a broken jaw and a broken pelvis. In previous wars he would have died, but modern technology preserved his life. Hebert describes in detail his long and slow recovery, his determination to walk again on prosthetic legs despite the opinions of his doctors that he never would. Before his service Berschinski ran marathons. Berschinski is also the tip of an iceberg. The human and financial costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are staggering. The i.e.d.s were much more powerful than anything the military had seen in previous wars and injuries were devastating. “Whatever the multiple, the cost of treating, rehabilitating, and otherwise caring for double amputees was tremendous. For triple and quadruple amputees the lifetime costs were astronomical.”
Hebert also delves into the sorry state of education in America. There is a vast gap between the educational achievement of whites and that of minorities. The solution proposed and implemented by both the Bush and the Obama administrations involve rigorous testing, dismissing teachers whose students don’t test up to par, and closing schools where students don’t improve reading and writing skills substantially. These measures have proven counterproductive, often resulting in lower performance and certainly lower morale among pressured and overstressed teachers and students. Teaching to the test, which considerably narrows education, has become the norm. Hebert points out that it is the conditions under which poor and minority children live that most affect their receptivity toward education-poverty, homelessness, family strife and hunger are not conducive to education. If you want to close the performance gap between middle class and poor children, you have to deal with these problems first.
The thing that ties all of these issues together is the profound failure of our society to meet the needs of our people. Beginning some forty years ago the predominant attitude of government came to be summarized by the “trickle-down theory.” This notion assumed that if you gave unlimited freedom and resources to the wealthy and cut their taxes, the economy would thrive and benefits would trickle down to all levels of society. Taxes were repeatedly cut for the wealthy. The marginal tax rate under Eisenhower was 90%, It fell to 36% under the W. Bush administration, and only recently came up to 39%. Huge subsidies and bailouts have been handed by the U.S. government to corporations and banks, and a number of huge corporations take advantage of over-seas tax shelters to pay no income tax at all. The top 1% have amassed unprecedented quantities of wealth while most American families have actually gotten poorer.
Two devastating and staggeringly expensive wars started by the W. Bush administration and continued on into the Obama administration. These wars caused nothing but harm to the counties of Iraq and Afghanistan, and to the American soldiers participating in them. Vice President Chaney and his Halliburton cronies amassed billions of dollars as a result of them. The government went deep into deficit which gave the Republicans their rational for preventing any substantial assistance to people impacted by the deep recession of 2008 which was caused by irresponsible lending-something made possible by abolishing government oversight of the banks and real estate markets.
How can these trends be reversed? Hebert says that voting is not enough and advocates peaceful protest by Americans-he cites the Woolworth lunch counter sit-ins of 1960 as an example-it started ta movement that resulted in the civil right act of 1964.
To this observer, the solution to our nation’s woes in not rocket science. We need to restore much of the taxes to the wealthy, bring the rate up to 50% and use the money to repair the infrastructure. This would create millions of well-paying jobs and the resultant boost to the economy would lift all ships. We need to provide jobs to anyone who wants one, and educational opportunities to all who can benefit from them. A middle class or lower class youth who completes college these days often comes out of it with a staggering burden of debt. This needs to be changed. It does not benefit our society to make higher education so expensive that it becomes nearly unattainable. Finally, we need to refrain from costly and futile wars.

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