"America: Who Stole the Dream?" was the provocative title of a
recent tenpart Philadelphia Inquirer series, published nationally in
KnightRidder newspapers, by PulitzerPrize winning journalists Donald
L. Barlett and James B. Steele. Their answer to the series' title
question: freemarket proponents and foreigners. But in their lengthy
series they didn't mention some important facts that critics have
since pointed out.
Free trade was one of Barlett and Steele's main villains. Instead
of creating jobs in export industries, low American tariffs have
"wiped out jobs and driven down wages." Barlett and Steele lamented
that in 1996, "the United States will record its 21st consecutive
merchandise trade deficit a record unmatched by any other developed
country." America's other big economic problem, according to Barlett
and Steele, is immigration to the U.S. "No other industrial country
has allowed in so many workers in so short a time, depressing wages
and living standards."
While these policies are good for big business in the short term,
the two reporters suggest that American workers may be on the verge
of starting a revolution. They quoted a Kansas factory worker as
saying: "Are we just going to keep lowering our standard of living?
When that happens, nobody is going to have money to put food on the
table. Then you are going to see a revolution, because people are
not going to be able to feed their families." A Pennsylvania factory
worker told the duo that "there's going to be bloodshed before we
get out of this." These workers, Barlett and Steele informed
readers, "reflect a largely silent but growing sentiment" in the
U.S. Profiles of people with such sentiments dominated the series.
The two reporters proposed restricting immigration and hiking
The reaction to the series was quick and severe. Economics
columnist Robert Samuelson called it "junk journalism" in a
September 18 Washington Post column. "What [the series] doesn't say
is that the trade balance and employment are hardly connected," he
wrote. Samuelson pointed out that the trade surpluses of Germany,
the Netherlands, and Sweden which Barlett and Steele envy haven't
kept those countries from having far higher unemployment rates than
the United States. According to Samuelson, Barlett and Steele
reported such matters "so select ively...that ordinary readers are
The reporters' selective use of anecdotes and statistics bothered
George Washington University's Steve Suranovic. In a September 25
letter to the Inquirer, Suranovic wrote that it is easy for
reporters "to choose individuals whose stories confirm their
conclusions." He argued that Barlett and Steele could have "found
workers with new jobs in export industries earning higherthanaverage
wages" and "profiled a couple of millionaires with middleclass
backgrounds who created export industries employing thousands of
workers. Bill Gates springs to mind."
The Cato Institute's Stuart Anderson argued that Barlett and
Steele misled readers about the economic effects of immigration. In
an October 14 Investor's Business Daily editorial, Anderson pointed
out that having more people in the U.S. does not lead to more
unemployment. The reason: "While immigrants do increase the supply
of labor, they also increase the demand for labor." His proof: As
immigration and trade deficits have increased over the past 20
years, and total employment has increased 59 percent, "the
unemployment rate has dropped from 7.7 percent to 5.2 percent."
According to Anderson, "Even the total number of unemployed people
in the country has dropped."
The views of Samuelson, Suranovic, and Anderson are held by
enough economists that they should be discussed in any major,
tenpart economic series that purports to be serious journalism.