No sooner had America: What Went Wrong? been published than it became part of the debate that is raging between liberals and conservatives over the economic legacy of the 1980s. That was probably inevitable, given the book's subject matter and the timing. But, important as the debate may be, it tends to obscure what I think is the real lesson of the book -- a lesson that lies not in its pages but in the story behind its rise to the top of the best-seller lists.

America: What Went Wrong? grew out of a nine-part series by two reporters for the Philadelphia Inquirer, James Steele and Donald Barlett, who had spent two years analyzing changes that took place in the U.S. economy during the '80s. Their articles examined such issues as tax policy, trends in executive compensation, the effect of the unlimited corporate tax deductions for debt, and patterns in job loss and creation -- not exactly subjects with mass-market appeal. And yet the Inquirer was flooded with requests for copies of the series, ultimately selling 400,000 reprints. (The previous best-selling reprint had sold 55,000 copies.) In addition, more than 50 newspapers published some part of the series, and the two reporters received an estimated 20,000 letters from readers before the book even appeared.

Whatever you think of the book's analysis and conclusions, it would be a big mistake to ignore the significance of this overwhelming public response. The lesson is that people, lots of people, are hungry for serious economic analysis and desperate for economic education. It's about time they began to get it.