The Forces That Are Killing the American Dream

Nicholas Lemann’s “Transaction Man” is intended as a sequel to Whyte’s book. It is a story about a battle of ideas between the people who built postwar American culture and their critics, like Whyte. “Who won this contest of visions — the side that valued a structured, organization-based society or the side that saw it as profoundly unhealthy?” Lemann asks. “The anti-Organization Man view won, without question.” He continues: “Its victory was so thorough, and so consequential, that today the representative figure of our age is an almost completely opposite character, whom we can call Transaction Man. Transaction Man (who may be a woman, of course) often works in a job that is literally transactional, in such fields as trading financial instruments, private equity, venture capital and hedge funds.” Organization Man aspired to join a large corporation and become a pillar of his community. Transaction Man or Woman aspires to be a disrupter and global citizen.

Lemann, a New Yorker staff writer and former dean of the Columbia Journalism School, has a skill for making grand stories about American life feel human. He did it in two earlier books, “The Promised Land,” his 1991 account of the great black migration, and “The Big Test,” about the SAT and meritocracy, which was published in 1999. Anyone who read those books when they appeared would have been better prepared for some of the political and cultural debates that followed. I suspect the same will be true of “Transaction Man,” given the present focus on economic inequality and corporate America’s role in creating it.

Lemann tells his story through a handful of characters, including an adviser to Franklin D. Roosevelt, a University of Chicago economist, the top executives of Morgan Stanley and a General Motors car dealer on the South Side of Chicago. The first, chronologically, is the Roosevelt adviser, Adolf Berle, an intellectual architect of the Organization Man economy. Berle recognized that American corporations were becoming gigantic, and he believed the only force that could constrain them — and harness their power for the good — was the federal government. As a Columbia University professor, he argued that the government should not break up companies (as some liberals, notably Louis Brandeis, favored) and certainly should not take them over (as the Bolsheviks were doing in Moscow). Instead, Washington should take a distinctly American approach, regulating companies to ensure they were acting in citizens’ interest. After being invited to dinner in Albany with then-Governor Roosevelt during his 1932 campaign, Berle helped design the New Deal.

The post-New Deal prosperity helped create thousands of thriving communities, like Chicago Lawn, a neighborhood on the city’s South Side not far from Park Forest. Chicago Lawn, as Lemann writes, was “cut in on the deal.” Large employers, the Catholic Church, the Chicago Democratic machine and the federal government all contributed to building a middle class. The archetypal business was a General Motors dealership, in which the owner knew the neighborhood, sold cars, arranged loans and, with assistance from a special G.M. program, received help in handing down the business to the next generation. It was like a different kind of legacy admissions.

Of course, not far from Chicago Lawn were African-American neighborhoods that were decidedly not cut in on the deal. This exclusion was the great shame of the Organization Man decades. It played a role in unraveling the system, as liberals turned their focus away from the questions about corporate power that had occupied Berle and focused, understandably, on fairness.


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