Book Review: American Mojo: Lost and Found (2015)

 

american mojo

by Alan F. Zundel

Why is the U.S. middle class in economic decline and what can be done about it? These questions are given the attention they demand by Peter D. Kiernan in “American Mojo: Lost and Found,” but unfortunately the book is frustratingly incoherent.

Kiernan writes in an engaging, reportorial style and amasses lots of pertinent information from a multiplicity of sources. But I had the sense that he got lost in this sea of information and failed to find a compass to guide him through it. I did learn a few things, but came away without feeling any more illuminated on the problem than I had been before.

Part I, comprised of the first eight chapters, retells yet again the oft-told story of the rise of the U.S. middle class in the two decades following World War II and its decline from the 1970s into the present. In essence, the middle class rose because the U.S. was in a favorable economic position vis-à-vis other countries and declined as other countries became serious competitors.

That seems to be his central theme, or at least he says so in his introduction. But he also says the middle class rose due to “government interventions,” “a harmonic convergence of world events,” “a nationwide unity of vision,” “the driving force of its ambition and aspiration,” and “hard work.” Certainly there were multiple causes, but how are we to sort out the more important of these from the less important? (Or the outright spurious—“a nationwide unity of vision”?)

Chapter One illustrates Kiernan’s lack of coherence. It relates the 1975 terrorist attack, led by the infamous “Carlos the Jackal,” on delegates of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) meeting in Vienna. It’s a fascinating story, but the connection to the rise or decline of the American middle class is opaque. Kiernan’s connecting link seems to be that the U.S. imported a lot of oil, and the 1973 OPEC oil embargo is wrongly regarded as the principal cause of the U.S. middle class’ decline. Okay, so why start with Carlos’ attack on OPEC? I don’t get it.

This see-sawing between relevant and irrelevant information continues throughout the book. Chapter Two is about the stimulus of government spending during and just after WWII and the spread of mass-produced suburban housing, then Chapter Three turns to racial discrimination in housing. Both are interesting history, but the latter is a digression.

Part I also has a chapter on Martin Luther King, a chapter on the youth movement, a chapter on Nixon’s abandonment of the gold standard and OPEC’s oil embargo, a chapter on Goldwater conservatives, and a chapter on Paul Volcker as the head of the Federal Reserve. Reading about all this was as confusing as living through it.

Okay, so on to Part II. The causes of the rise and decline of the middle class are no clearer, but let’s hear about some solutions.

Things come to a screeching halt in the next chapter:

“The answer for rebalancing opportunity and wealth disparity is firmly in the hands of the better off. We need a one percent solution—actually a dozen or more of them. What falls to this chapter and to all of us is the task of persuading the rich that they have more to lose than anyone else if the rest of us decide to squeeze harder.”

This is the second book I’ve read lately that says the answer to economic inequality is to get the uber-wealthy to do something about it. Now, why haven’t we tried that before?

Kiernan goes on to advise the top 1%, “try to give 10 percent” of your earnings “to help the less fortunate.” Also, keep track of how your charities are doing and serve on their boards. And get your friends to chip in. Do I even have to comment on this idea?

I will anyway. How do all the previous chapters on history have anything at all to do with this?

He goes on in the remaining chapters about the wonderful deeds of some charities; the importance of education; the conditions of blacks, Latinos, and working mothers; the problem of underemployment; globalization and a host of other topics. Multi-colored beads for a necklace with no chain to hold them together.

Near the end of the book he does make some other proposals, each of them briefly described, and most having to do with capturing markets in developing nations. Kiernan laments that other nations—China, India, Indonesia, Brazil, and others up-comers—have plans to build their middle class, while we drift along without focus.

Yes, Mr. Kiernan, getting focus would be a good place to start.

 

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