Bob Herbert's new book Losing Our Way: An Intimate Portrait of a Troubled America is one of the most important, most compelling books that I have read in many years. For those of us who have felt that something has gone seriously wrong in our country, Herbert connects the dots. He provides a carefully documented, well-written account of what went wrong and why. As he pulls together a sweeping narrative, he weaves it through the personal accounts of individuals whose stories are emblematic and heartbreaking.
Herbert reminds us of a time when America's policymakers had great visions for the future and acted to make them real, whether it was the building of the Erie Canal or the transcontinental rail system, Franklin D. Roosevelt's TVA, or Dwight D. Eisenhower's national highway system. He reminds us that the American dream was to create a nation where there were good jobs for those who wanted to work, where there was increasing equality, and a growing middle class.
What we have today is a nation dominated by plutocrats and corporations, which are allowed by the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United decision to dump unlimited amounts of money into elections and to write legislation that favors plutocrats and corporations; what we have is historic levels of wealth inequality and income inequality, where corporations outsource good jobs and many people are slipping from the middle class into minimum wage jobs or even poverty. Herbert explains that our failure to invest in rebuilding the nation's infrastructure has left us with crumbling bridges, tunnels, water mains, sewers, and gas lines, which are dangerous and sometimes fatal to citizens who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, as bridges collapse, levees fall, and gas lines explode.
He goes into detail about the corporate assault on public education, fueled by the plutocrats' desire to turn education into a free market. He points out that the plutocrats' favorite reform -- charter schools -- enroll a tiny percentage of students and have on average an unimpressive record. Their relentless attacks on the teaching profession will damage that profession for many years into the future. Herbert spent time in Pittsburgh, meeting the activists and parent leaders there. He saw at ground-level the harm inflicted by massive cuts in the state budget and the determination of parents to fight back. He describes the emptiness of the reformers' boast that they can close the achievement gap by privatization and by union-busting. Having talked to teachers, parents, and principals, he knows the harm that poverty inflicts on children, the pain caused by living without adequate food, shelter, and medical care.
Herbert writes movingly about the endless wars in the Middle East of the past decade. Did the policymakers know what they were doing when they launched the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Did they have a strategy for victory? No, they did not. They launched wars with a goal (victory) but not a plan. He quotes Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who assured the American public that our invasion of Iraq would not last longer than five months. Herbert writes about a remote sector in Afghanistan called "the valley of death," where American troops struggled to establish a base. It was portrayed in an award-winning documentary called Restrepo. Many young Americans died there, but no one could explain why our troops were sent there; eventually, the disaster ended, and we abandoned that forlorn valley. Herbert cites economists who calculate that the wars of the past decade will cost trillions of dollars, as well as thousands of American lives and hundreds of thousands of lives of people in the countries we went to "save." There is no end in sight. Does anyone still believe that Iraq or Afghanistan are on their way to become stable democracies or even a country that will no longer harbor terrorists?
Herbert pulls all these events and issues into a coherent whole. We have lost our way. Our elected officials dream no big dreams. They have little or no concept of major public works programs to rebuild our nation's infrastructure, which would put millions of people to work and invigorate our economy. They willingly waste blood and treasure on wars in distant lands, yet they cannot bring themselves to invest in our nation and create jobs by rebuilding the vital roads, tunnels, bridges, sewers, and other public assets that are now in disrepair, rusting, crumbling, threatening lives. We have money aplenty for war, but no money to put people to work fixing our infrastructure. Plutocrats buy politicians to protect their fortunes and reduce their taxes. Corporations buy politicians who will deregulate their activities and cut their taxes. The stock market rewards corporations that cut their payroll, firing experienced employees who had served those corporations loyally for decades. Men like Jack Welch of GE and "Chainsaw Al" Dunlap became famous as business leaders who coolly and heartlessly fired tens of thousands of workers to increase shareholder value in their corporations.
"How did things go so wrong? How is it that so many millions were finding it so difficult to get ahead, to emerge from the terrible, demoralizing rut of joblessness and underemployment? In a country as rich as the United States, why were so many being left behind?
"The biggest factor by far was the toxic alliance forged by government and America's megacorporations and giant banks. That alliance of elites, fueled by endless greed and a near-pathological quest for power, reshaped the rules and regulations of the economy and the society at large to heavily favor the interest of those who were already well-to-do. In the process they trampled the best interests of ordinary Americans."
Herbert's book comes alive through his account of the experiences of two individuals: one, a woman in Minnesota who was driving across a bridge that spanned the Mississippi River when it collapsed in 2007; the other, a young man who was grievously wounded in Afghanistan and struggled to regain the ability to walk. In these and many other accounts of individuals and families, Herbert uses his superb journalistic skills to bring major issues to life. Along with the data and the documentation to make his arguments, Herbert vividly portrays what matters most: the human impact of political decisions.
If you read only one book this year, make it Bob Herbert's Losing Our Way. It will change you. It will make you want to get involved, take action, make a difference. As he says at the end of the book, it doesn't have to be this way. Changing it depends on us.
Diane Ravitch is a historian of American education.