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on February 27, 2007
I disliked Michael Barone's Hard America, Soft America, which is sad really, because Michael Barone is one this nation's better political commentators. His knowledge of the American political landscape is encyclopedic, as evidenced by his annual Almanac of American Politics (a sort of dungeon master's guide for political science nerds like me), and from his appearances on Fox News we know he's not a rabble-rousing showman, but rather intellectual in manner. More George Will than Ann Coulter.

Which is probably why I found Hard America, Soft America so disappointing. Barone's encyclopedic mind is apparent in full force here, but it serves an incredibly simplistic thesis. Hard America, Soft America asks, "why does America continue to produce incompetent 18-year-olds but remarkably competent 30-year-olds?" The answer is the dichotomy between the Soft world of education and the Hard world of business ("Hard" and "Soft" are always capitalized). Soft worlds are worlds free of competition and accountability, where failure is tolerated, understood, and dealt with in a compassionate manner. Education theories are the best example of a Softness in America today. Hard worlds are worlds of accountability, punishment for wrongdoing, risk and reward; the world of the entrepreneur. Barone shows how law enforcement, big business, and the military went from Soft to Hard over the past generation, and hopes that education will do the same.

So this book is about another book about "two Americas"- conservative and liberal, red and blue, Hard and Soft. Barone is smart enough to recognize that both Hard and Soft environments are necessary for the country to survive (which I suppose puts him above most of his colleagues), but the whole thing is rather simplistic and, for my money, the labels "Hard" and "Soft" have too much of a David Brooks-like cuteness to them (I think Brooks would have come up with better labels than Hard and Soft though. "Bobos" is rather clever). In the end, Hard America, Soft America is book of pop sociology from a guy who is capable of far more.
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on January 3, 2014
I personally think the author is right with most of his conjectures, but the book is more of a long essay with anecdotal evidence than it is a real test of a scientific hypothesis.
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on September 30, 2008
The basic theory of this book is as follows: When government actions are taken to make life easy or "soft" for general public then America suffers, if it is made soft for a particular group, then that group suffers in respect to everybody else.

Take a look at the current (9/2008) economic crisis. What is the root cause? Bad loans to unqualified home seekers. Why did this happen? Simple, Bad government regulation, not deregulation as some would have you think.

The community reinvestment act (along with record low interest rates) essentially guarantees loans to unqualified individuals who ultimately cannot pay, hence we have 700 billion dollars in worthless mortgages.

This is a prime example of soft America, by using regulations to give these individuals something in an instant which used to take years of hard work to achieve, we have created this crisis.

Look no further than the headlines of late September 2008 for proof that Barone's theory is right on.

The problem with this book is that it is boring and takes a while to get the point. I didn't particularly enjoy reading it, but I got a lot out of it. Yep, it is one of those books.
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on March 22, 2013
Although intended to jolt us out of complacency, Hard/Soft is just a scare tactic designed to make us into tools for the projection of power across the globe. Ease and comfort have always been attacked in the literature of our culture. But now, the facts meant to shame us are propaganda. I hope this book's advice will be forgotten, as people just relax and let 'America the world power' be transformed into America the realistic.

I am not afraid of young Chinese men, just realistic. If young Chinese boys make it to us man-to-man, we would be EASY EASY pushovers. They have been hardened, and trained to dominate, since grade school - and not just in the physical, but the mental, too. And I am certainly not willing to fight for freedom. Science is also just too hard, for me, and I like to watch movies and TV. I'm sure most Americans are just like me. We cannot stay dominant - we just cannot.

Instead of a futile struggle , why not look with wonder the possibilities that exist in China setting us comfortably and gently back into our own borders? That way, nobody has to get hurt. If we try to re-assert ourselves, militarily, our future could be a much harder fall.

China has never designed to take over other countries. So, I do not see why they would want to force their way in to our borders. My god, we are too much of a mess for them to do that sensibly. Too much chaos and discord.

History is relegating us to the past. The future power belongs to the machine states. The USA has NEVER been made of hard people. There is nothing we can do.
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on October 25, 2005
This book shows the dichotomy that exists in modern-day America between the cutthroat environment that supposedly exists in the private sector, and the easy-does-it culture fostered within the public sphere of schools, government agencies, etc... The book makes the case that America's youth are basically coddled K-12, and end up playing catch-up during and after college when working in the free-market culture of the private sector.

These conclusions have been elaborated on before in other publications, and are only true to a certain degree. For example, the author gives examples of how Americans working in the private sector excel and achieve like citizens of no other country. The author forgets to mention that nearly all the successful industries in this country, especially those that have gone to spawn copycats in other countries, were and are all supported and protected by government largess. For example, automobiles would only be rich men's toys today if it were not for all those roads and parking lots built by taxpayers. Another example, US agriculture would not have survived the Great Depression and become the world's leader in food produce if not for the introduction of farm subsidies, government-funded agricultural research, government-operated satellites and weather stations to monitor the weather, and other government programs that directly or indirectly help farmers. These and other established, successful private industries would be nowhere without some "coddling" from US taxpayers.

Even if we dismiss the previous points, I believe the author has only shown half the picture; specifically, the author does not fully examine the question of why "coddling" occurs in schools and students are not prepared for the competition of the "real world". The answer to this question connects the dichotomy so well illustrated by the author. Specifically, American adults are so busy surviving in the private sector that they have less time and effort to raise their kids to be good competitors themselves. For example, the character traits that makes for successful businesses: willingness of employees to relocate, works long hours, toeing the company line, etc..., are exactly the worse traits to follow when trying to raise kids well.
Raising kids well means living in stable communities with low turnover - this means minimal relocation of employees by businesses.
Raising kids well means spending time with them, and not spending long hours at work.
Raising kids well means teaching them to stand up for what they believe in, not what their peers (boss, coworkers, etc...) want them to do.

This then is what the author has totally missed out on in this book; an explanation of how the dichotomy between private sphere hard-nosed competetion, and public sphere cushion jobs came about. Because of this omission, this book is merely commentary and observation, and lacks insightful thought.
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on September 20, 2004
My brother bought this for me to see what my thoughts were. Given the reviews so far on this book, there is no need to rehash what has already been said. I am not familiar with Michael Barone nor his political leanings. I found that he tried to straddle the fence throughout the piece, which I found refreshing. He criticized both left and right, and praised both as well. Barone does tend to point a finger at liberals more so, but overall it appears he was trying to be 'fair and balanced'. His incorporation of Dewey into the discussion regarding education and the movement toward inclusiveness was necessary, yet, I wonder if the man has spent much time reading Dewey. Without addressing the social backdrop of what Dewey was facing, how can he say what was soft and hard? He ignores the pressures in the workforce for higher pay; how this effected gender differences in the workforce; and also how this effected the life of a child. I wondered while reading Barone if maybe he was suggesting that we should return to Victorian values and beat children. After all, if we want to talk 'tough love', when you spare the rod, you spoil the child. Yet, Barone does not address such historical leanings.

I found it interesting also that Barone refers to a few sociologists to support his thesis. Frankly, all this told me is that Barone must have either majored in sociology or took a sociology class in the late 50s or 60s. The references do little to support his historical arguments. If one is going to refer to Reisman's "The Lonely Crowd," might one also want to look up later research which questions Reisman's thesis, such as Aveni's "Not so Lonely Crowd?" And in attacking the softness aspect of inclusiveness, might one also address issues of confrontation such as Charles Ellwood standing up to the KKK in the 1920s for equal rights as they apply to education? Of course, Barone does mention how civil rights activists are struggling through a hard fight. But it does not fit well with his thesis, so I am guessing he does not want to talk about it, or maybe he simply does not know. I hope it is the latter.

Barone also does not mention the 'Red Scare', nor the Eugenics movement, nor Social Darwinism, ala Herbert Spencer all of which influenced our educational system. All revolved around issues of 'us versus them'. Look at the forces influencing immigration policies; mental health conclusions; and criminal definitions. Does he realize how difficult it was for many immigrants or children of immigrants to get into college? Does he realize how cases such as Cumming versus Richmond County effected African Americans in education. This may be a nice backdrop to discuss the teaching or lack thereof of languages within the educational system until the late 1950s. But again, there is no mention of this.

As we move into the late 20th century, Barone talks about the 200% increase in spending on welfare, yet unfortunately does not tell the reader what welfare is. Asking several people what welfare is, their responses all revolved around programs for the poor. This unfortunately I believe is what most Americans will believe. But during the period Barone is refering to, funding to the poor decreased by 50%. Monies to older adults; subsidies to farmers/ranchers; and monies to Fortune 500 companies increased, all of which could be considered welfare, but Barone does not tell the reader this. So this leaves the reader with the view that we are giving money to the poor in larger amounts as the budget problems became worse. This is not what happened. When things get tough, we cut funding to the poor first.

I also wondered how so easily Barone could say that President Reagan's tax cut in his first year of office led to economic growth through the late 90s. Could it also have been the tax increases that happened through the Reagan, Bush, and Clinton administrations? There is no discussion as to why his statement is true. And why talk about the 1996 welfare reform bill and its alleged successes without talking about independent research that has suggested that the bulk of those that went off welfare roles was due to the economy creating good jobs in the areas where these poor individuals lived?

And if one is going to say that the current President Bush is 'hard' because of his 'accountability' regarding education, why not address what is really going on in education? Maybe talk about the inequities in our school systems. Does he know that schools don't have money for books, computers, libraries etc? Oh, well, some schools do. Maybe it is harder to succeed when one does not have all the new technologies in school. Maybe that is hard. If that were the case, it would probably be valid to state that most African Americans, Native Americans, and Hispanics have it the best from 0-18 because they do not get coddled in the classroom. In fact, if Barone would look a little deeper, he would find these groups have it the toughest in schools and life. So, wouldn't they be the strongest now?

The problem with the book is that he takes little time to define and develop his thesis. He jumps all over the map and displays what is often ailing American society, that is, we find journalists with a little information telling Americans what is going on. Unfortunately, Barone's literature review is weak. Citing book after book, including racist Charles Murray, does not provide valid information. Books are easy to publish. The review process is weak. Why not take the time to do a literature review on the same subject of material from peer reviewed journals in academia? I honestly think Barone would reach different conclusions, or more likely, would be able to support his thesis with facts, instead of poorly researched opinions.

In all, I liked the idea of what Barone is trying to do. However, this book lacks the depth of what is needed for such an important topic. For the average person on the street, they will not be familiar specifically with whom Barone cites. For those of us who do, this is just another example of what is wrong with 21st century American journalism.
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on November 15, 2004
As sweeping generalities go, this book ranks high in its attempt to use ambiguities as a replacement for specifics. In essence the book argues for the pre-eminence and necessity of being "hard" in order for America to be great. Michael Barone, former editor of U.S. News and World Report bounces around from topic to topic, settling on various issues long enough to throw out simple analyses that justifies the importance of being hard in the face of being "soft." The reader may interject the terms "conservative" for "hard" and "liberal" for "soft." I disagree with his generalities: the issue is two-fold when determining the best policy. The first issue is to find balance between the opposition. Few ideologies taken to an extreme are valuable. The Confucian ideal of finding the value in the middle of two ideas at odds with one another is valuable in an increasingly polarized world. The second issue is to actually go out on a limb and suggest that a specific ideological approach has value in certain situations; as these fluid situations change so must our ideologies. Nothing that exists in stasis, even religion, will survive without adaptation and change.
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on December 2, 2005
Intellectually the book is drivel, a high-school level history of the United States wherein Barone gets to label things as either Soft or Hard(he actually capitalizes the adjectives. Hard he likes (the GI Bill, FHA mortgages), Soft he don't (Welfare, Social Security, most modern education.). It is short, an hour should get you through it. You might want to start at the end because it is so repetitive in its approach you won't get past the 60's otherwise. I jumped to the end and my impression is things turn out well. Things are going well in Iraq (because the army is now Hard, unlike the Vietnam era Softies), and so on.

The blurbs in my library copy indicate that Barone is considered some type of intellectual by the right. For this reason it is worth checking out to see how little ability is required to achieve that status. I had the same reaction a few years ago reading a book by Thomas Sowell ("This is one of their leading thinkers?????"). Some reviewers praise Barone's balanced view (he doesn't foam at the mouth a la, say, Ann Coulter, but there is no mistaking his selectivity or willingness to assert without evidence that which will make his audience happy and sell this little book.
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on May 18, 2004
Barone' ideogical biases are causing him to overlook the realities of who is really being coddled the most. If he wants to find the people who are most coddled, he needs to look at the private sector.
Take, for example, the case of the corporate CEOs who get their multimillion dollar bonuses whether profits are up or down, whose income relative to their workers keeps getting bigger and bigger, and, if they do get fired, get rich golden parachutes that leave them rich for life. Contrast that with ordinary Americans, who if their job is sent abroad are lucky to get a few month's severance pay and inadequate job training so that they end up with a job that pays less and has fewer benefits.
Another of the most coddled groups are people that are rich,not because they earned it, like Steve Jobs, but, rather becauese they inherited it, like Steve Forbes. If one really does not want coddling, the inheritance tax needs to be increased so that one can only become rich by one's own effort, and not without effort.
The author undoubtedly makes valid points in a number of areas, but his obvious right-wing bias keeps him from seeing who is really being coddled.
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on May 11, 2004
Barone, no matter how rational and intellectualized has again
made a right or left, good or bad and therefore extremely oversimplified the real discussion and history at hand. Neocons will use it as a saintly reference affirming their cherished opinions. The rest of us left, right, up, down will remain skeptical. Not worth the money-you can get it on any website.
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