Three years ago, reporter and former New York Times columnist Bob Herbert took to the road and traveled across the United States to gather research for his new book, Losing Our Way. In it, Herbert tells the stories of the brave, hard-working men and women he met who have been battered by the economic downturn. He found an America in which jobs have disappeared, infrastructure is falling apart and the “virtuous cycle” of well-paid workers spending their wages to power the economy has been broken by greed and the gap between the very rich and everyone else.
He tells Bill: “[W]e’ve established a power structure in which the great corporations and the big banks have allied themselves with the national government and, in many cases, local government to pursue corporate interests and financial interests as opposed to those things that would be in the best interests of ordinary working people… Once you do that, you lose the dynamic that America is supposed to be. It’s supposed to be an egalitarian society, a society of rising standards of living, a society of a vast and thriving middle class. And we are getting farther and farther away from that ideal.”
As for solutions, Herbert says, “People need to start voting against the excessive power of the great moneyed interests. But more than that, we need a movement, a grass-roots movement that will fight for the interests of ordinary men and women…”
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Herbert is a senior distinguished fellow at the public policy and analysis think tank, Demos. He is also a board member of the Schumann Media Center, from which he is presently on leave working on a major documentary.
BILL MOYERS: Welcome. I’ll wager that in the first seven pages of this book, “Losing Our Way,” you will be hooked. And when you close the final chapter, you will have seen our country as you haven’t in a long time: intimately, through the eyes of a great reporter. His stories take us across America, from the Best Buy headquarters in Minnesota to ordinary homes in Allentown, Pennsylvania. You will meet Jessica Gallardo at her high school in Brooklyn, and Rico and Frankie Blancaflor of Montclair, New Jersey, survivors of Hurricane Sandy. You will never forget what happened in an orchard in Afghanistan to Lieutenant Dan Berschinski, and to Troy Orion Tom, the Navajo Indian from Shiprock, New Mexico. You’ll discover how corporate tough guys “Neutron Jack” Welch and “Chainsaw Al” Dunlap modeled the CEO of the future, blazing away during the high noon of capitalism at the middle class and working people. Here is how America lost its way.
But you’ll also see why the only practical response to what’s happened to us is for people to fight back. That may sound like a cliché, perhaps, but Bob Herbert has seen it happen before, and comes home from his journey believing it can happen again.
He was a columnist for “The New York Times” for 18 years, a champion of working people and the middle class like his hard-working parents in New Jersey. We’re good friends and kindred spirits, as well as colleagues at the Schumann Media Center, from which he is presently on leave working on a major documentary. Bob, good to see you again.
BOB HERBERT: Great to be here Bill. Thank you.
BILL MOYERS: What does the country look like out there? You encounter a lot of problems in the book, as you travel the country. But you also encounter a lot of people. Let’s start with some of those people. Tell me about Mercedes Gorden.
BOB HERBERT: This was a young woman, 32-year-old woman, delightful woman. And she was going across that I-35 bridge in Minneapolis, Minnesota that collapsed and crashed into the Mississippi River. This was back in August 2007.
And we tell Mercedes’ entire story in this book, from the moment that she left work and headed toward that bridge to this terrible accident, where she was horribly injured. And we chronicle her recovery. And we use that as a way of getting into the issue of our collapsing infrastructure in the United—
BILL MOYERS: That’s’ the first story, that’s how we open the book. You start with a wreck.
BOB HERBERT: Right, exactly right. And I think that this, you know, the collapse of this bridge— not only is it part of the story of our need to rebuild the physical plant of America. I think that it’s also a metaphor for what’s happened in America. We have not taken proper care of the infrastructure. It’s a sign that the center is not holding in the United States. So it’s one of the major themes in the book.
BILL MOYERS: You find a link between a collapsing infrastructure and a society coming apart.
BOB HERBERT: Exactly right. The major way we’ve lost our way, in my view, is that instead of being sort of this civically engaged democracy, which is what the United States is supposed to be, I think that we’ve established a power structure in which the great corporations and the big banks have allied themselves with the national government and, in many cases, local government as well, to pursue corporate interests and financial interests as opposed to those things that would be in the best interests of ordinary working people.
And once you do that, and we’ve watched it unfold over a long period of time— once you do that, you lose the dynamic that America is supposed to be. It’s supposed to be an egalitarian society, a society of rising standards of living, a society of a vast and thriving middle class. And we are getting farther and farther away from that ideal.
BILL MOYERS: So many of the people you write about are falling through— off the bridge and through the cracks, so to speak. I was impressed with this large man with the fringe of white hair, a mustache, and a delicate goatee. Tell us about Lamar Hayes.
BOB HERBERT: Lamar Hayes is a fellow that I met in a town called Woodstock, which is in the suburbs of Atlanta. And he was in the worst industry you could be in at the time of the recession. He was in the housing industry. He built houses for a living. He was a construction supervisor. So he lost his job. This is a fellow who was 52 years old at the time that I talked to him. And what happened was— the first thing that struck him was shock at having lost his job, having been fired. But he had not realized how much he loved his work. And he said that after he got the word from his employer, he just got into his pickup truck. And he was driving home. He had a long drive home. And he had to figure out how to tell his wife what had happened. And he said he had to pull over, and he just broke down and cried in the pickup truck. Because he had lost his job.
Even though he was distraught over losing his job, it did not occur to him at first that he wouldn’t be able to get another good job. You know, he had worked all of his life. This was a middle-aged man who had raised a family. He had two daughters still living at home.
But he couldn’t get a decent job. It was, as he put it, there were no jobs that paid anything. And so he ended up working as a greeter in Wal-Mart. And he had this quote that he told me. He looked at me with a strange expression on his face and he said, “God must really have a sense of humor, if he made me a greeter at Wal-Mart.”
BILL MOYERS: But you find a lot of people like him who are working harder and earning less, right?
BOB HERBERT: Exactly. You have— one of the things that has struck me, and not just in connection with the book, is the tough time that young people are having now getting a foothold on a decent standard of living in the United States. You know, I grew up in the early post-war decades, the ’50s and ’60s. And I think that was probably the greatest time of all to be growing up in America. I mean, jobs were so plentiful. College education was not expensive. Kids did not come out burdened with all this college debt and that sort of thing.
That’s changed. So when I talk to bright kids, college graduates in many cases, coming out of elite schools, and they just say, one, everybody has college debt. I mean, that— that’s their biggest expense when they come out of school. But the other thing is they’re having trouble. Even though they have a four-year degree, they’re having trouble finding gainful employment, finding jobs that, as Lamar Hayes would say, that pay anything.
And so they’re living either doubled up sometimes four and five kids to an apartment, or they’re going back home to stay with Mom and Dad. So they’re having trouble, you know, for those who want to get married or begin raising a family or make the first down payment on a home, they’re having trouble making these steps, which are part of the ladder to the good life in the United States.
BILL MOYERS: What’s the Catch-22 you say we’re trapped in?
BOB HERBERT: For better or worse, whatever anybody wants to think of it, we have a consumer capitalism in this country. So if you’re going to have a decent standard of living, you have to have a good job. Unless you’re very wealthy, you have to have a good job in this country. The way it works is that if Americans are working, they spend a lot of money, that powers the economy. That causes businesses to thrive. Businesses hire. You know, and you set in motion a virtuous cycle.
But what we’ve done as a result, is with this alliance of the banks and the big corporations and the government, they’re working against the interests of working people. They want to pay as little as possible to their employees. They don’t want to provide benefits. Job security has become a thing of the past, even for people with very good jobs. So what happens is you don’t have that virtuous cycle. You don’t have people with terrific jobs spending all kinds of money that powers the economy and creates more jobs. So that’s the Catch-22. If we don’t understand that you have to pay a decent wage to working Americans for the economy to work for everybody, then we’re going to lose in the long run. And that’s what’s been happening.
BILL MOYERS: You write about Apple, for example, as one of your examples. “Few companies have been as successful as Apple,” you write. “Lavishly compensated” executives, while most of the employees are members of the low-wage service economy, typically earning about $25,000 a year. Apple salespeople were dedicated,” you say, “many were college educated, and they made tons of money for their employer.”
BOB HERBERT: It’s incredible the amounts of money Apple makes. But they weren’t paying commissions to these workers. Many of these workers were true believers. They were young kids, bright kids. They loved Apple products. And they love the corporations. But they had trouble getting a foothold in their own lives, setting up a life for them or for their families, if they had a family.
If you look at the gap between what the top executives at a company like Apple make and then what they pay their line employees— it’s disgraceful. It just— it’s not the way things should be in the United States. If you put in a decent day’s work, then you should get a decent day’s pay. That should just be a given.
BILL MOYERS: I’m sure you have heard here in New York about the New Jersey woman, Maria Fernandes, who worked three jobs to make ends meet and died while napping in her car between shifts.
She was making $8.25 an hour and was struggling to get by. Yet when House Speaker John Boehner spoke at the conservative think tank, American Enterprise Institute, he talked about this idea that’s been born in the country that, “I really don’t have to work. I don’t really want to do this. I think I’d rather just sit around.”
And I thought of that speech when I read about Maria Fernandes. And I wondered, how can John Boehner or any politician, democrat or republican, be so far removed from the lived experience of people that you’ve met on your journey and people like Maria Fernandes?
BOB HERBERT: Boehner’s comments are so common among a certain segment of the society, this idea that people don’t want to work. I have been covering this employment issue for 20 years or more. And I will tell you, I have hardly ever seen anyone who doesn’t want to work. It’s just the opposite. People are desperate for jobs. And when folks who are looking for a job land a good job, I can’t tell you how excited they are. They’re pumped up. They have a party. They have a party at home. People want to get that next promotion.
And you know, you mentioned this woman in New Jersey who died under those tragic circumstances. That’s another indication of how we’re missing the point when we look at the employment picture. But she had three jobs. So those would be considered, like, three jobs that were created at some time or another. So that would be an indication of job growth, when in fact, the reality is that it’s an indication of how much trouble our Americans are in. I have met so many people who are working two and three jobs at a time. They have no time to themselves. They have no time to spend with their children or other members of their family, which is such a shame.
And then beyond that, even those folks who are working, their working conditions are often awful. So many of the jobs that are created are part-time jobs or otherwise contingent. But also, people don’t, in many cases, even know what their work schedule is going to be from week to week, you know? Because the bosses don’t tell you, well, you’re working Monday through Thursday this week at such and such an hour. They’ll say, well, we’ll let you know on Monday which couple of days you’re working. And Monday and Tuesday, we may need you to come in at 3:00 in the afternoon. But on Wednesday, you may have to come in at 9:00 in the morning. And that’s crazy. People should not be treated that way.
To me, if you can’t afford to pay your workers, it’s the same as if you can’t afford to pay your rent. It means you can’t afford to be in business. And if you’re making— if you’re paying your workers what the minimum wage is right now that means to me that either you can’t afford to pay your workers, or you’re just unwilling to pay your workers, what you should be paying them. We should have accepted, as a society, that the minimum wage is an insufficient wage.
BILL MOYERS: You spend a good bit of time with veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq. Tell me about Lieutenant Dan Berschinski.
BOB HERBERT: Dan Berschinski is one of the most inspirational figures that I’ve ever met. This was a 24-year-old guy graduate of West Point. Really smart kid. He graduates in 2009, I believe it was. In any event, he goes to Afghanistan. It’s his first combat tour. And he’s leading a platoon of young guys over there. And, you know, he stepped on one of those improvised explosive devices. And both of his legs were blown off, one way up by the hip.
He had what they call the hip disarticulation which meant that they thought that he would not even be able to walk with artificial limbs. So he came back. And I met him. I was introduced to him when he was down at Walter Reed when it was still in Washington in the early stages of his recovery. And he was adamant. He wanted to walk again with these artificial limbs. And the doctors were trying to prepare him and his family for the idea that he might be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. But he would have none of that.
And I watched his progress. And he eventually was able to walk. It took a couple of years. He went through such pain, such agony. But it was— he never complained. He never even seemed down when I spoke with him. It was incredible. And I tell his story, because I think that most Americans don’t understand the degree of suffering that individuals and their families are going through as a result of these wars that we just continue to fight wars without end, wars where, in many cases the majority of the population is not even paying attention to what’s going on. And so the toll in individual lives has been staggering. The suffering for the tens of thousands of men and women who have had grotesque injuries, sometimes losing two limbs, three limbs, sometimes four limbs, terrible burns, brain injuries, and that sort of thing, none of that gets a lot of coverage.
And then the staggering costs of these wars, which are borne by the taxpayers. I mean, one of the things that was insane was that, as we’re at war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Bush administration cut taxes. This has never been done in American history. The idea of cutting taxes while you’re going to war is just crazy. I mean, it’s madness.
BILL MOYERS: And then you go on to write about Sergeant Cory Remsburg, whom I also remember. Tell us his story.
BOB HERBERT: When President Obama was giving his State of the Union Address in 2014. And you know, they cite courageous people and honor their, you know, the television cameras focus on them. And this fellow, who had been an Army Ranger was in the spotlight that night. He got blown up by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan, terrible injuries, terrible brain injuries, blind in one eye. And you know, it’s just a tragic situation. So there was every reason to honor this fellow at the State of the Union. And he got a standing ovation, as he should have.
PRESIDENT OBAMA at The State of the Union: Cory is here tonight. And like the army he loves, like the America he serves, Sergeant first class Cory Remsburg never gives up and he does not quit.
BOB HERBERT: But the thing that struck me and which didn’t get a lot of attention at the time was that this fellow was gravely wounded in his tenth deployment to the war zone. He had been to Iraq and Afghanistan 10 times. And the reason that’s the case is because we don’t have enough people volunteering to fight these wars that we’re constantly engaged in. So the men and women who do volunteer, they just get sent into combat over and over and over. It’s like playing Russian roulette. Eventually, something terrible is going to happen.
If we’re going to fight wars. You can feel however you want about the wars. But if we’re going to fight wars, everybody should make a sacrifice in some sense. We should have a draft, so those who are of— who are fit and are of combat-ready age should be subject to actually being sent into the war zone. Everybody should be paying increased taxes to pay for these wars. And we should be making other sacrifices, as Americans did in World War II.
BILL MOYERS: Why don’t we?
BOB HERBERT: We don’t because nobody wants to pay additional taxes. And the politicians have found out that this is the way to get electoral votes. And the politicians are interested in getting elected, in amassing power, in raising funds for— to finance their campaigns, and whatever other benefits they get. They are interested in themselves, their lives, and the power they can accumulate. They are not interested, in most cases, in what’s best for the American people.
BILL MOYERS: So you come home having found or with the conviction that we just don’t want to seriously address these big challenges that you found in case by case, story by story, person by person, as you traveled the country.
BOB HERBERT: It seems to me that we don’t. It’s more the idea of out of sight, out of mind, which is why we don’t pay close attention to the men and women who are fighting our wars, which is why we don’t look closely at the implications of the continuing employment crisis, whatever those monthly jobless numbers tell us. And I think that we’re not going to begin to really get out of this, to get back on the right track until individual Americans start taking it upon themselves to pay closer attention and become more civically engaged.
BILL MOYERS: Some are, as you know. I mean, the People’s Climate March, the opposition to one grievance after another out there, has different people involved in different protests.
BOB HERBERT: I agree. That’s absolutely true. And there’s actually quite a few people who are engaged in one effort or another. But what we need is some leadership to emerge from these disparate groups that can pull some of that energy together in a force that demands the attention of the population at large.
And the examples that I give in the book are the early days of the labor movement, for example, when people weren’t paying much attention to these workers. They were lousy jobs. They weren’t making any money. But the big deal was they fought hard. And it was a sustained effort. And leadership emerged from those efforts that was powerful.
Same thing happened in the civil rights movement. The same thing happened in the women’s movement. So what I think is necessary is that we have a more focused, sustained effort to engage some of these great challenges facing the country. The leadership will emerge if you do get that kind focused effort. I think right now, even though there are a lot of people at work on a lot of serious problems, it’s too diverse, too diffused, too disparate.
BILL MOYERS: What would this broad movement focus on?
BOB HERBERT: I would think— I mean, there are any number of things it could focus on. But you know, my choice would be employment. Because that would begin to lift standards of living. And it is when standards of living are going up that the public at large feels that they can pay more attention to some of these other issues, rather than, you know, you spend, you know, almost all your time trying to get your bills paid or trying to find a job or whatever. America works when individual Americans are working. That is the— those are the best of times for America. And that, to me, is the essential issue.
BILL MOYERS: Every person who has been at this table would nod when they read in your report that, “The tremendous power in the hands of the moneyed interests will not be relinquished voluntarily.” What do we do about it?
BOB HERBERT: That is the case where you have to have ordinary Americans stand up and say, enough. And this is a case where voting is crucially important. And I argue in the book that voting is not enough. But it is crucially important. People need to start voting against the excessive power of the great moneyed interests in this society.
Those candidates who would fight back against that power, vote for those candidates. But more than that, I think that you need direct civic action. You know, we have the Occupy protests. But that was a protest that did not have a clear focus, did not make specific demands, did not have a strategy— a long-term strategy. We need a movement, a powerful grassroots movement, that will fight for the interests of ordinary men and women and for this new generation of Americans that’s coming along right now.
BILL MOYERS: The book is “Losing Our Way: An Intimate Portrait of a Troubled America,” by my friend, Bob Herbert. Thank you very much for being with us.
BOB HERBERT: Thanks so much, Bill. Appreciate it.
BILL MOYERS: At our website, BillMoyers.com, you can read an excerpt from Bob Herbert’s new book, “Losing Our Way.”
That’s all at BillMoyers.com. I’ll see you there and I’ll see you here next time.
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