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66 of 71 people found the following review helpful
In our society we generally acknowledge that the only way to gain strength and prestige is through working hard and enhancing one's innate abilities. Even though some may dispute this reality, the proof is in the peripherals as there is probably not a work place in the country lacking one of those mundane "Sharpen the Saw" posters.
That is why it was with considerable excitement that I opened Michael Barone's Hard America, Soft America: Competition Vs. Coddling and the Battle for the Nation's Future. The book was just over 160 pages long and proved nearly impossible to put down. In this extended essay, Barone pounces upon one of the most important questions of our day and his work overlaps public policy, politics, history, philosophy and education. In short, it is a text that just about everybody should be able to relate to if not appreciate.
The theme of Hard America, Soft America is that from the ages of 6 to 18 Americans grow up in a downy world that is largely devoid of competition and accountability, but from the ages of 18 to 30 the texture of their lives radically changes as it becomes rocky and subject to the laws of nature. One either produces or they are fired. It is this world, this cauldron of struggle, that forges the Americans who awe the world with a never-ending parade of inventions and discoveries.
Barone gives us a tour of our own history and concludes that much of our illustriousness was created by the rigid and unforgiving forces of Hard America. Men like John D. Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan may not have been able to release their inner child or give group hugs but they were able to employ thousands and provide the means for mass production that made us the victors of war and peace. Barone views their torch as being carried forward by men like Bill Gates, Jack Welch, Fred Smith, and Sam Walton. Barone makes use of cultural works to justify his thesis and includes films like "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit," novels like Sister Carrie and infamous dementations like Charles Reich's The Greening of America.
The author stresses that there are no firm boundaries between the hard and the soft. Schools may be bastions of softness but within them are islands of sinew. High school graduates immediately encounter Hard America when they enter the military or the private sector (perhaps earlier should they work at McDonalds or Wal-Mart before age 18).
There is a parasitical relationship between the solid and the downy aspects of our culture. It is only by the grace and skill of Hard America that Soft America can survive: "Soft America lives off the productivity, creativity, and competence of Hard America, and we have the luxury of keeping parts of our society Soft only if we keep enough of it hard." Without a robust military, there would be no way to preserve the freedom and laxity that is Soft America.
Barone dedicated this work to the memory of Senator Moynihan and it is almost a certainty that he would have been pleased by the following description of the effects of excessive softness upon black Americans:
"The Softening of criminal justice, welfare, racial quotas and preferences, and education- had the effect of confining most blacks to Soft America. They were left unprotected against crime, deterred from forming stable families, deincentivized the will to achieve. The advocates of Softening hated the idea of imposing middle-class mores on black Americans, but middle-class mores are necessary for achievement in Hard America, and underclass behavior makes such achievement impossible."
The field of public education is one in which Softness has triumphed and the author believes that this situation will not change until parents force the issue. For many professionals in our schools, the Chaise lounge chairs of pulpous America massages them forever. Only external forces will coerce them into changing their ways or methodologies.
This reviewer has personally witnessed several attempts of individuals to "Speak Truth to Squishiness" by bringing rigor into their classrooms and then observed the predicable punishments that were meted out to them in response.
Shortly after I finished reading the text I told a teacher about it and she said, "Give me that book now! I need it." The basis for her interest may have stemmed from her name appearing on a school wide memo ranking our teachers based on who passed the most students. Her name was on the bottom. I recall her coming up to me in the hallway and wondering if I knew of a way she could have passed a student who missed 70 out of 92 days of instruction. I had no answer then and I have no answer now.
Another educator told me of an alternative school that got around the dilemma of what to do with students who do not meet even diluted academic requirements. They issue a no grades whatsoever policy that precludes all descriptors (including "Pass" or "Fail"). He is currently being considered for the Principalship of this institution and wanted to know what I thought about their anti-grading scheme. I told him it was insane. He agreed but noted that the salary was 70 grand a year. I advised that he not mention the policy at all during his interview and then quickly abandon it once his contract was signed. We will see whether or not he has the strength to do so.
Unfortunately, although it is not as clear cut as the two examples I cite, most children do grow up in Soft America. It is a land in which they are molly-coddled and excuses are made for their every need and whimper. Many adults are more concerned with injecting them with self-esteem rather than buoying them up with knowledge. Who would have ever thought that the word "facts" would have the negative connotations it has today in educational circles? Children are shielded from the Bizzaro world of Hard America until they graduate and then are thrown into the cauldron of competition.
I think Michael Barone has done America a great service by writing this book and I encourage everyone to read it. There's absolutely nothing wonkish about it. The issues are global and should appeal to most citizens- even if it makes the pens of a few bureaucrats run dry.
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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on June 10, 2005
This is a small, short book, about 200 pages. It is highly readable, flows well, and stays away from heavy language. Barone is smart and doesn't need to prove it with his vocabulary.

Barone initiates the discussion by asking a simple question "How does a country which produces such a large amount of statistically inferior teenagers create such capable adults?" His answer is that our youth are brought up in "soft" systems, like education, but are quickly thrown into the "hard" world of our brand of capitalism.

Barone goes through several examples of how our systems have turned harder over the years, and how that hardness has served to make America more competitive and prosperous than our European counterparts, and more prospersous than we were before.

He points to a couple of main trends. The first is the transformation in the 50s and 60s to a more math and science based education system (althought this has changed in the last 20 years). The second is deregulation in business. He argued before the deregulation movement, big business was almost governmental in their approach to the markets and competitiveness, and they fought to maintain the status quo of an uncompetitve marketplace and lifetime employment. After the deregulation movement, businesses had to grow leaner in their business practices to survive competition from both internal and external forces, and he argues this "hardening" is what is chiefly responsible for our prosperity over the past 25 years.

His overall premise is that "hard" and "soft" America are constantly competing against eachother, but we need both to survive. None of us want to live in a country with no safety nets, but those safety nets have to be paid for by "hard" America, and it ultimately falls on "hard" America to provide the luxuries of "soft" America.

Overall this is a fast moving, enjoyable book which will give you alot to think about and both agree and disagree with. The author does not allow his political leanings to influence his conclusions and is intellectually honest throughout the work. My only complaint is that he doesn't delve into the trends with a lot of evidence and hard numbers to "prove" what he is saying, but this is still a very worthwhile read.
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22 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on May 12, 2004
I can't believe how badly the previous reviewer missed the boat. Barone's analysis in "Hard America, Soft America" is brilliant. He provides amazing insight into what's going on in this country. And this is not just some political book, as that reviewer implied. It makes you realize that so many of our strengths--and weaknesses--as a country are connected. Barone looks at everything from our schools to our economy to our legal system to our military. Take a step back from the day-to-say political disputes and really look at what's happening: that's what Barone does here. You really have to read "Hard America, Soft America".
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24 of 27 people found the following review helpful
on September 2, 2004
I had a manager who use to often comment that the right perspective could be worth as much as 20 IQ points. How you see a problem affects your ability to solve it. Even the smartest people in the world have trouble solving problems if they see the problems from a bad perspective.

Michael Brone's perspective on trends and problems in American society may be worth 20 IQ points. He looks at many areas in America and breaks them down into "Hard" or "Soft". For the purposes of the book "Hard" is where there is competition and accountability; people suffer or reap the consequences of their actions. "Soft" is when people are protected from competition and not held accountable; they are coddled.

The book explores changes in Education, Big Business, Government, Big Unions, Crime, Military, and other areas. One of the interesting points made in the book is that there is constant change. For example Big Business was soft 50 years ago and has grown harder; however, Education has only grown softer over the last 50 years. Michael Barone shows the consequences of what happens when an area is hard or soft. While he acknowledges there are reasons for softness, Michael Barone clearly believes that it is best for all parts of society to have some degree of hardness.

The book is well written and the material is well presented. It is a quick read; the main part of the book is only 162 pages. I would have liked it to be longer. It was very thought provoking and gave me a number of ideas to think about. I found it worth reading, and felt it was a good investment of my time.

The approach of looking at issues in terms of Hard or Soft does provide some good insights. Michael Barone has provided a unique perspective on life in America over the last hundred years. If you want to improve your understanding of many of the important modern issues, this is a good book to read.
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14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
Michael Barone is an articulate, perceptive and knowledgeable observer of American politics, and his diagnosis of modern sociopolitical issues is basically correct, it rings true. Hard America Soft America includes an excellent second-level analysis of how our society has arrived at its current condition, for better or worse, by moving along a spectrum of soft social policies and hard. (I say second-level as this book explores its themes carefully and comprehensively, in much greater depth than a magazine, but without the extensive annotation in an academic treatise or history.)

Now you can interpret hard and soft several ways, often simultaneously, and Barone is sensitive to that. Note that Steven Stolder, Amazon's critic is rather insensitive, and betrays a liberal bias by taking pot-shots at Barone's thesis, hardly attempting to explain his argument - don't let that deter you! No, Barone knows American history is full of extremes cases of hardness and softness, times where the national character was jeopardized by a failure to maintain balance. Barone is not preaching to the choir here, he is reaching out to all of us, trying to put history in a useful light that illuminates what has been right and what is wrong, into areas where most level-headed citizens will find common ground. He uses recognizable cases and icons from American culture to illustrate his points, starting with the Theodore Dreiser's "Sister Carrie" and the grim reality of turn-of-the-century New York, where each person was on his own, and a young woman had a choice of falling into saving hands or assuming "the cosmopolitan standard of virtue and become worse." Much of 20th century history, as Barone presents it, has been a march to bring us into a warmer and softer world where consequences for failure weren't so drastic. Government programs grew and proliferated, claiming a new reality where life should be secure and risks unnecessary. Barone then brings us to Saul Bellow's "Mr. Sammler's Planet," a 1970's New York where crime is all around and radical causes are indulged: "The labor of Puritanism was now ending. The dark satanic mills changing into light satanic mills."

In this way, Barone describes American society as vacillating, spiraling, and some-times fine-tuning between hard and soft extremes. But the gift of this book is its inter-weaving of the hard/soft theme with the spectrum of political issues we face today. He realizes that without the soft experiences we have been through, we would not now be in a position to make the necessary hard reforms for a better society. His best chapters address the progressive role of deregulation in industries such as transportation and communications, wringing huge costs out of the economy, and the damages done by soft-minded welfare policies that rewarded fatherlessness, promoted disorder and ruined entire neighborhoods. Regardless what Mr. Stolder thinks, Barone is not out to defend corporate collusion or excess, but he does impart what history has taught us, that free markets, personal freedom and social responsibility are inextricably tied to each other. Call it compassionate conservativism if you want, but Barone's arguments for strengthening America with harder policies, in light of our recent experience with softness, are rock solid. They should defy most liberals' notion of conservative philosophy, and at least get them thinking about these cases and where adjustments to the current political debate are long overdue.
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on October 19, 2004
It's amazing what a simple mental framework can do to help one make sense of the world. Michael Barone has come up with a particularly powerful one: Hard America/Soft America.

He examines the world from the perspective of accountability. Who is accountable and who is less so because of "coddling" institutions and bureaucracies.

He attacks welfarism and slackness in all its forms -- from soft-hearted education to old-style industry regulation.

Fundamentally, the issue revolves around incentives. We want people and institutions to work hard, study, save, plan for the future, and be creative. Excessive regulation, protectionism, and taxation can reduce the incentives that drive these behaviours in all sectors of life.

Yes, the author clearly leans right but his approach is not unbalanced by this. He lambasts post-war Big Business as being excessively coddled until people like Teddy Kennedy (!) and Michael Milken came to the rescue. Kennedy for helping to introduce competition to the transportation industries and Milken for raising the capital for the new emerging competitors.

Moreover, I would guess that the author would agree that CEOs are still excessively insulated from the market by things like securities regulations. It's still too hard to launch a takeover of inefficient companies with excessively lavish executive pay packages.

It would be a less catchy title but maybe "Accountable America, Unaccountable America" is more fitting to describe the essence of this book -- and the power of the framework.

I guarantee you'll be looking through this framework as you interact with people and institutions in your daily life.

Very recommended!
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon October 9, 2004
Barone begins the book by contrasting the number of incompetent 18 year-old Americans with the number of remarkably competent 30 year-olds. Why do such shallow adolescents become such productive citizens? The answer lies in the hard reality of the American economy that insists that we get tough. That reality argues Barone makes us the most productive nation in the world.

But why are they so incompetent at 18? Because the education system in this country caters to whims, social experiments and self-esteem, but it doesn't force teenagers to confront the hardness of the real world. It's not until these kids reach the workforce that they are compelled to be serious.

In Europe it's almost the opposite. Their schools are tough and their children outperform ours, but those kids are dumped into a welfare state economy that coddles them the rest of their lives. Very few 30 years-old Europeans can compete with their American contemporaries.

American kids that do work harder when they are younger wind up in the most elite colleges. The irony is that they don't always appreciate how the hard road prepared them for greater success. Many of the ones that enter public service push for a softer America in the form of welfare, unemployment and government regulations.

Barone traces the two Americas back to World War II when big government teamed up with big labor and big business to run the war machine. Those economies of scale were supposed to make America soft yet productive. It looked efficient and we certainly won the war, but that model showed its flaws the in later years.

By the 1970s, auto manufacturers for instance were paying higher and higher union wages and American cars began to be overpriced compared to the new Japanese imports. It led to a crisis of what fashionable economic planners thought about production. All three of the big automakers were on the brink of collapse at one point or the other. They had been afraid to innovate suddenly they were forced to.

In addition, half of the top 100 industrial firms in 1974 were bankrupt or bought out by 2000 and yet the U.S. economy grew because hard realities were back. European economies, on the other hand, haven't grown that much in the last 20 years. Even economies like Japan that once scared us terribly failed to unseat us as the economic leaders.

These are just a few of the examples that Barones cites. And Barone does concede that America has been better off for certain kinds of softness, and many people who promote softness do it for the best of reasons. But Americans are better served with a steady dose of hardness.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
"Welfare dependency, like crime, approximately tripled in the ten years between 1965 & 1975 and remained at high levels until well into the 1990s." "We tried to provide more for the poor and produced more poor," instead, as "[w]elfare dependency and crime built on each other." "The great mass of well-meaning Americans who wanted a Softer response to crime and welfare dependency had in fact increased and perpetuated misery." In particular, the post-war economic boom in America (as well in Europe), Barone argues, made us susceptible to complacency, in imagining "...that the problem of maintaining low-inflation economic growth indefinitely had been solved. The important question, therefore, was not production of wealth but distribution of wealth;" instilling doubts on the idea that the Hard aspects of competition and accountability actually are the foundation and are the necessary requisite for growth, wealth creation, and alleviating poverty. "At the opening of the 20th century, American life seemed too Hard, and the nation used some of the prosperity that was the product of a Hard economy to make life Softer. At midcentury, it seemed that everything was fated to get even Softer, and many things did. The Big Unit private sector was laced with Softness, the country (spurred by the success of the civil rights movement) was turning toward Softness in criminal justice and welfare dependency, and the Hardening of education in response to Sputnik turned out to be only temporary;" as academic requirements were abandoned, absenteeism increasingly tolerated. "Grade inflation and social promotion became commonplace," as a result. It had happened before too. "[W]ith rising enrollment of black and hispanic students in the 1970s and 1980s, teachers lowered expectations and reduced requirements, as they had with the rising enrollment of the children of immigrants in the 1920s and 1930s." Conclusion: Coddling doesn't help the folks who need to learn to compete in a capitalist economy. That's the central point of this book; "that Soft America lives off Hard America, that while we act reasonably in keeping parts of American life Soft, we depend for our prosperity and our advancement and our existance on the parts of America that are Hard." "All of these efforts to Soften life for black Americans, and for Americans in general, were misguided. For blacks in particular, the supposed solutions offered only exacerbated problems. The problem blacks faced was not that American society was too Hard for them, that they suffered from too much competition and were being held too accountable. The problem was that they were shut out of Hard America altogether, unable to reap the rewards available in a Hard system for those who achieve. The Softening of American society that started in the mid-1960s---the Softening of criminal justice, welfare, racial quotas and preferences, and education---had the effect of confining most blacks to Soft America." "The advocates of Softening hated the idea of imposing middle-class mores on black Americans, but middle-class mores are necessary for achievement in Hard America, and underclass behavior makes such achievement impossible."

Big business (General Motors, US Steel, et al) had likewise been coddled for far too long. Have not American automakers been producing far higher quality vehicles since the American auto market's opening to foreign competition? That's not the only example Barone offers, either. Deregulation of financial markets has permitted America to become a stock and mutual fund-holding society. "The deregulation of transportation, "likewise, " made a Soft industry substancially Harder, and it squeezed enormous costs out of the American economy. Case in point: "Shipping of parts just-in-time for assembly in manufacturing, impossible under the old regulatory regimes, was now possible." To boot, look what the telecommunications revolution of recent times has done for business. Add these to the 32% drop in crime between 1993 & 2000 thanks to the (much copied since) policy of Rudy Guliani in making people accountable for their actions. Likewise, the welfare rolls have cratered since recipients have been subjected to increasing levels of accountability. Surprise, surprise---though it ought not be a surprise to see confirmed the axiom that "Hard disipline produces good performance."

Far too many have predicted America's downfall even as America's ever rapidly adapting economy evolves. Western Europe, the perennial favorite to ecclipse America, however, remains a Soft welfare state "with high pensions and early retirement, with little flexibility and therefore low growth and high unemployement." It's interesting to note that Europe and America are rather opposite when it comes to issues of competition and accountability---the requisites for a Hard economy and strong growth. "[M]ost Americans up to the age of eighteen live mostly in Soft America [thanks to "the stubborn resistance to Hardening America's schools"], just as most Americans after the age of eighteen live in Hard America. This is the opposite of the situation in most of Europe, where high schools are Hard, to the point that students' performance usually determines how well they will do in the rest of their lives, and where life after high school is Soft, with generous welfare benefits, short work hours, long vacations, early retirement, and generous state pensions." Saddled with such, Europe is not about to ecclipse many growing economies anytime soon. In fact, dynamic countries in Asia (look at South Korea, for instance, now the 11th largest economy in the world) are likely to ecclipse individual European countries before Europe begins to challenge the USA...all because vigilence against Softening exists. "For many years," Barone states herein, "I have thought it one of the peculiar features of our country that we seem to produce incompetent eighteen-year-olds but remarkably competent thirty-year-olds." If only, now, America's schools can be subjected to the same accountability as other legs of America's economy have been emboldened and revitalized by. (06Oct) Cheers
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on January 12, 2008
This was a very enjoyable and interesting read from Michael Barone. The premise, that competition, goals, training and punishment for the lack of the same, are preferable to coddling. He lays out the case quite well, wondering from fiction to hard fact in building the foundation for his premise. Unfortunately, it's a very short book. While it is very well referenced (reading the references suggest a lot more good reading too), a number of facts are tossed out without supporting evidence. While I do believe, for example, that most generals in 1972 were against removing the draft, a little more information supporting that fact, like where it came from, would add heft to the argument. As it is, you're required to take it on face value.
Despite nagging little questions like that, it really is a wonderful read.
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on August 31, 2004
Everyone who is an observer and thinker in America today processes at lot of data. Mister Barone's concept Hard America . . . Soft America gives one an organizer for processing bits and pieces of information, and his book helps immensely in doing this, plus it gives one more data.

His point that the hard and soft are fluid and continually changing is well taken.

The notion that Soft America hitches a ride on the back of Hard America should set many bells ringing.

Great book! Get it, and have a feast.

Tom in Ohio
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