Mr. (Hedrick) Smith goes to Scarsdale to talk the American Dream

Hedrick Smith, a Pulitzer and Peabody award-winning former reporter and editor for The New York Times and PBS’ “Frontline,” gave us all something to think about after a talk and good dinner hosted by the Scarsdale Forum.

To a rapt audience at the Scarsdale Women’s Club, Smith discussed the real and profound changes that have taken place in America since 1970. He presented a compelling account of how, over the past four decades, the American Dream has been dismantled to the point where we have become two Americas.

“Even as their stock portfolios swell and their values soar, many wealthy Americans are troubled by the growing divide between the rich and the poor,” he says.

Smith contends “Schisms in the soul of society keep us from solving any major issue,” whether it is climate change, inferior education, failing infrastructure or the national debt. “It’s not just deferred maintenance,” Smith says. Our government has given no indication that it can handle these problems effectively. Therefore, he says, “We the people must deal with structural problems we have built into our system.”

Smith’s prime-time analytical specials for PBS have won several awards for examining systemic problems in modern America and offering insightful, prescriptive solutions. In his provocative latest book, “Who Stole the American Dream?”, Smith reveals how pivotal laws and policies were altered while the public wasn’t looking, how Congress often ignores public opinion, why moderate politicians get shoved to the sidelines and how Wall Street often wins politically by employing more than 1,400 former government officials as lobbyists.

By relating the personal stories of a wide range of Americans high and low, including big and small businessmen and entrepreneurs, Smith compares conditions with those in the 1960s and ’70s, putting a human face on how middle-class America and the American Dream have been undermined.

Today, the minimum wage is 33 percent below the 1968 level, after being adjusted for inflation. Wages are not keeping up with the cost of living. Then, the idea of stakeholder capitalism and shared wealth pressed Washington to do the right thing.

“Our politics became more effective and our economy more inclusive,” Smith says. “But two things changed, ideas and power. The CEO’s sole mission today is to deliver maximum return to shareholders — that’s it.”

Smith’s challenging book is filled with the penetrating insights, discoveries and empathy of a master journalist. But the unique thing about Smith is that he doesn’t just tell us what has gone wrong, he offers fresh and workable ideas for restoring America’s great promise and reclaiming the American Dream.

Getting help for homeowners and jobs for the roughly 17 million unemployed and underemployed Americans will require changing the political dynamics in Washington. He believes that the reflexive instinct of most Americans is to ask for a new Lincoln to pull the nation together again and restore a national sense of purpose. But great as he was, Smith believes Lincoln could not have done it without armies of volunteers.

“We are at a defining moment for America,” Smith holds. “We cannot allow the slow, poisonous polarization and disintegration of our great democracy to continue. We must get together and take actions to rejuvenate our nation and to restore fairness and hope to our way of life. We see the challenge. It is now time. We the people must take action.”

Smith says a chief problem is that 85 to 90 percent of Congressional districts are political monopolies, designed so that the incumbent party, and usually the incumbent person, will stay in the government.

“It is disenfranchising in most states closed to half the voters. If your district is gerrymandered, the election doesn’t matter — your vote doesn’t count.”

Politicians aren’t interested in change, because the system is working for them. What can we do? “We must become organized people, confronting organized money and gerrymandering.”

While Smith laments, “We’ve lost the belief that we can have a better country. We’ve become fearful, disconnected, cynical,” he nonetheless asserts, “We need a new generation of agitators in America to protest intelligently on matters that are important to our society. We need to get active. We need to get engaged. We need to get going.”

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