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Losing Our Way: An Intimate Portrait of a…
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Losing Our Way: An Intimate Portrait of a Troubled America

by Bob Herbert

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Very depressing, fact-filled volume by a veteran reporter about how the U.S. lost its way. Altho the culprits are the usual (increased concentration of wealth, failure to
replace infrastructure, anemic job growth and for poor wages, endless poorly planned & unnecessary wars, Herbert uses individual examples to highlight the results -- and what's necessary to move forward.

I am, admittedly, a liberal progressive who's long urged a government push to repair infrastructure which would revitalize the economy and produce good jobs. I've also been s proponent of reinstating the draft so that the public would care about these needless military disasters. But Herbert adds support with details such as only .5 percent of the population now serves in the military and a lengthy chronicle of the infrastructure disasters that are just the tip of the iceberg.

This is well-written and persuasive -- but, again, I'm obviously part of the target audience. ( )
  abycats | May 11, 2018 |
I loved Herbert's moral clarity. I love that he quit his NYT columnist gig in 2011 to research and to write this book. I love that he uses words like "lousy." I love the way he reminds his readers that investing in infrastructure--whether it be highways and bridges and clean water delivery systems, or public education--is just that, and investment, and not an expense. I love the way Herbert reminds us that in a democracy we have a good deal of power, collectively, to change things...that we get the government and the policies we deserve. A grand wake up call. ( )
1 vote poingu | Jan 29, 2015 |
Back to basics for a strong America

Losing Our Way: An Intimate Portrait of a Troubled America by Bob Herbert (Doubleday, $27.95)

The title of retired New York Times columnist Bob Herbert’s new book, Losing Our Way: An Intimate Portrait of a Troubled America, comes from his final piece, published more than three years ago, in which he lamented that the country had become the sort of place where young people could not reasonably expect to attain their parents’ standard of living.

Post-retirement—as a Demos fellow—Herbert took a road trip across the United States, engaging with “the 99%” in every state. That on-the-ground experience has led him to write this call for a renewal of our national commitment to infrastructure and education and to bring an end to both massive income inequality and perpetual war.

These are all things we know need doing; the value here is in the stories Herbert tells of the people he met, and in his own excellent writing style.

Reviewed on Lit/Rant: www.litrant.tumblr.com ( )
1 vote KelMunger | Dec 17, 2014 |
I started this book eagerly and tore through the first half. Herbert paints a powerful picture of various ways in which America has gotten off course, and he makes his account very readable by including the stories of individuals to support each chapter. So we don’t just hear about how infrastructure is crumbling and needs a huge injection of cash to get up to an acceptable standard, we also hear about the personal experience of a woman who survived the collapse of the I-35 bridge in Minneapolis. This makes for a very compelling narrative.

Everything was going well until just over halfway. I really enjoyed Herbert’s first chapter on education, where he vividly describes the devastation wrought by draconian budget cuts. So it came as a surprise to me when he started the following chapter with the claim that American education is actually perfectly fine. Test results showing that American students lag behind others have nothing to do with the quality American public education, he says, but are instead just a result of the fact that America has more poor students than other countries. Poor students tend to do poorly in school too. It follows that there’s no point in trying to improve the quality of education; we have to address poverty first.

I understand why he’s saying this. He’s basically repeating the position of Diane Ravitch, an education advocate who deeply opposes the current focus on charter schools and standardized testing. I’m actually very sympathetic to this position, at least in part: I do think that excessive high-stakes testing is destructive and results in teaching to the test without actually improving learning outcomes, and I do think that charter school policies, which somehow allow charter schools to get rid of disadvantaged students so that their overall scores look higher, are extremely problematic. I believe that reducing poverty is important too. But I have no idea how this critique of certain aspects of educational reform leads to the conclusion that there’s no room for improving education at all, so we shouldn’t even try. Surely Herbert’s previous chapter, about the problems with funding cuts, implies that education would be improved by restoring funding, for one thing. This seemed to be a case where Herbert’s position was established beforehand, and he was just going to stick to it, without actually providing careful argumentation to support his case.

The situation got even worse in a later chapter, when he turned to a critique of online schooling. I’m sure most people would agree that online schooling isn’t an ideal learning environment for most children, since there’s a lot of value in face-to-face interaction, even beyond the educational. But I thought Herbert’s arguments against it were terrible: he cites test scores showing that students don’t do as well at online schools, and then mentions the defense given by an executive of one of these online schools: the students who choose online schooling are generally not the best and brightest; they tend to be lagging behind even before they start, etc. In other words, it’s an issue of adverse selection bias.

Somehow, Herbert misses the fact that this is the exact same argument that he himself gave in support of American public schools: he said that poor test results don’t reflect on the quality of teaching, but are just the result of a comparatively disadvantaged student body. When the argument supports his position (American schools are okay), then it’s valid; when the argument supports another position (online schools are okay), then it’s invalid. This is extremely shoddy reasoning. Herbert doesn’t even bother to refute the argument made by the proponent of online schools, instead trying to attack his credibility by pointing out that he earns $5 million per year as the CEO of this online schooling company. (This is another theme running through his book: successful money-makers are generally bad. Again, I agree that the distribution of wealth needs to be drastically reformed, but I don’t think highlighting the wealth of an individual serves as a refutation of that person’s ideas.)

The strange thing is that I tend to fall on the same side as Herbert on most issues. I’d like to see a more equal society, with more spending on infrastructure and less on war; I’d like to see students receiving a good public education, in an atmosphere free from antagonism and high-stakes testing, rather than studying at for-profit online schools. But I’d also like to read a book with solid argumentation, not one that relies on the assumption of a sympathetic reader.

This is a book about black and white, right and wrong. There’s no room for nuance in Herbert’s bleak portrait of America in decline. This is all well and good, up to a point. You can easily find yourself reading along in agreement, nodding at Herbert’s arguments and lamenting with him the decline of the nation. But it only takes one area of disagreement to start questioning the whole edifice. In my case, it was his blithe argument that America’s schools are just fine, and the only way to improve their results is to pull more students out of poverty.

I’m sorry, but I’ve been the smart kid in a public education system that caters to the lowest common denominator. I’ve graduated high school with an A+ average and found that I wasn’t prepared for my university math classes, where the top students had attended private schools or came from other countries. I fully believe in fighting poverty, but poverty isn’t the only problem with the American education system. Real-life issues just aren’t that simple. There isn’t one “solution” that will fix American education once and for all, and by promoting that perspective (“my way or the highway”), Herbert is just adding to the toxic atmosphere surrounding educational reform. I’d much rather see support for multiple evidence-based improvements.

After reading this book, I still believe that money should be spent on infrastructure rather than war, that cuts to education funding are bad and out-of-control corporate lobbying is worse. Basically, this book has reinforced the ideas that I had going in. It did also make me much more aware about issues involving the military, like the use of more powerful explosives that result in multiple amputations and astronomically higher costs for veteran health care. But for the most part, this isn’t a book that you read to be informed or challenged. It’s a book that you read to reaffirm your existing perspective, and it does that pretty well, up to a point.

But even if you do agree with everything that Herbert says, you may occasionally find that you need to put the book down just because it’s so bleak. I could only spend so much time reading about how horrible everything is before I needed to take a break. I was particularly struck by the contrast to Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s recent book A Path Appears, which I also read recently and which takes a very optimistic evidence-based approach to making a difference in the world. Herbert does end on a note that’s not quite despair, though I wouldn’t really call it optimism: he says that if citizens as a whole decide that the status quo is unacceptable, then change can eventually come about, as it did with emancipation, the suffrage movement, and civil rights. But the details of how to get there aren’t quite clear. Unlike Kristof and WuDunn’s encouraging presentation of multiple paths to a better world, Herbert’s book lives up to its title in conveying a sense of an America that’s hopelessly lost. ( )
2 vote _Zoe_ | Nov 10, 2014 |
HistorIf you are already depressed about the state of the United States, this book ain't gonna cheer you up. And if you have your head in the sand or just don't know about some of these things, this book will open your eyes in ways you may not want to know.

Despite that, this is a very good book, and should be read for anyone who wants to know more about where we stand.

Don't think anyone is going to get off easy; there is plenty of blame to go around. Corporations are at fault. Government is at fault, and not just one party. And we are at fault.

Of those three, I think the author gave the easiest ride to individuals, to those people who bought things they couldn't afford and had no savings when things went south.

If someone has been out of a job for two years, has a undriveable car and no air conditioning, and already has four kids, is it really wise to have a fifth child? People have to take some responsibility for their own lives, too.

Our failing infrastructure, our war quagmire, the sad state of our education system, are all covered. The loss of power of the middle class and the power of wealth and corporations in running the country is exposed.

Turning things around is not going to be easy but is also not impossible.

All of this is written in a fast moving style, so it is a fascinating book to read. There are lots of notes and documentation – the author isn't puling this stuff out of his hat.

Despite the depressing subject, this is well worth reading. 4.5 out of 5 stars.

I was given an advance copy of this book for review.y, United States, war ( )
1 vote TooBusyReading | Oct 16, 2014 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 038552823X, Hardcover)

From longtime New York Times columnist Bob Herbert comes a wrenching portrayal of ordinary Americans struggling for survival in a nation that has lost its way

In his eighteen years as an opinion columnist for The New York Times, Herbert championed the working poor and the middle class. After filing his last column in 2011, he set off on a journey across the country to report on Americans who were being left behind in an economy that has never fully recovered from the Great Recession. The portraits of those he encountered fuel his new book, Losing Our Way. Herbert’s combination of heartrending reporting and keen political analysis is the purest expression since the Occupy movement of the plight of the 99 percent.
     The individuals and families who are paying the price of America’s bad choices in recent decades form the book’s emotional center: an exhausted high school student in Brooklyn who works the overnight shift in a factory at minimum wage to help pay her family’s rent; a twenty-four-year-old soldier from Peachtree City, Georgia, who loses both legs in a misguided, mismanaged, seemingly endless war; a young woman, only recently engaged, who suffers devastating injuries in a tragic bridge collapse in Minneapolis; and a group of parents in Pittsburgh who courageously fight back against the politicians who decimated funding for their children’s schools.
     Herbert reminds us of a time in America when unemployment was low, wages and profits were high, and the nation’s wealth, by current standards, was distributed much more equitably. Today, the gap between the wealthy and everyone else has widened dramatically, the nation’s physical plant is crumbling, and the inability to find decent work is a plague on a generation. Herbert traces where we went wrong and spotlights the drastic and dangerous shift of political power from ordinary Americans to the corporate and financial elite. Hope for America, he argues, lies in a concerted push to redress that political imbalance. Searing and unforgettable, Losing Our Way ultimately inspires with its faith in ordinary citizens to take back their true political power and reclaim the American dream.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:22:50 -0400)

"In a searing indictment of America's decline, former New York Times columnist Bob Herbert profiles struggling Americans--casualties of decades of government policies that have produced underemployment, inequality, and pointless wars--and offers a ringing call to arms to restore justice and the American dream. The United States needs to be reimagined. Once described by Lincoln as the last best hope on earth, the country seemed on the verge of fulfilling its immense promise in the mid 1960s and early 1970s: unemployment was low, wages and profits were high, and the nation's wealth--by today's standards--was distributed in a remarkably equitable fashion. America was a society confident that it could bring a middle-class standard of living (at the very least) and the full rights of citizenship to virtually everyone. This sense of possibility has evaporated. In this book longtime New York Times columnist Bob Herbert combines devastating stories of suffering Americans with keen political analysis to show where decades of corporate greed, political apathy, and short-term thinking have led: America's infrastructure is crumbling, our schools fail our children, unnecessary wars maim our young men, and underemployment plagues a generation. He traces how the United States went wrong, exposing the slow, dangerous shift of political influence from the working population in the 1960s to the corporate and financial elite today, who act largely in their own self-interest. But the situation isn't entirely hopeless. Herbert argues that by tapping the creative ideas of people across the country who are implementing solutions at the local level, the middle class can reassert its power, put the economy back on track, and usher in a new progressive era"-- "The United States needs to be reimagined. Once described by Lincoln as the last best hope on earth, the country seemed on the verge of fulfilling its immense promise in the mid 1960s and early 1970s: unemployment was low, wages and profits were high, and the nation's wealth--by today's standards--was distributed in a remarkably equitable fashion. America was a society confident that it could bring a middle-class standard of living (at the very least) and the full rights of citizenship to virtually everyone. This sense of possibility has evaporated. In this book longtime New York Times columnist Bob Herbert combines devastating stories of suffering Americans with keen political analysis to show where decades of corporate greed, political apathy, and short-term thinking have led: America's infrastructure is crumbling, our schools fail our children, unnecessary wars maim our young men, and underemployment plagues a generation. He traces how the United States went wrong, exposing the slow, dangerous shift of political influence from the working population in the 1960s to the corporate and financial elite today, who act largely in their own self-interest. But the situation isn't entirely hopeless. Herbert argues that by tapping the creative ideas of people across the country who are implementing solutions at the local level, the middle class can reassert its power, put the economy back on track, and usher in a new progressive era"--… (more)

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