Were the Soviet wheat deal, the Arab oil embargo, the cycle of food and other shortages actually manipulated to make the American consumer pay higher prices? The answer here is essentially yes, but this sweeping socio-economic profile of post-boom America may make you wish you hadn't asked. The ""oil crisis,"" for example, is blamed here, not on the Arabs, but on an organized corporate drive to cut independents out of the market and force the government to forget all that nonsense about reduced depletion allowances and ecology. However Aronowitz, who has solid credentials as an undogmatic, labor-oriented radical, digs behind the crisis mentality and reminds us that prosperity -- the utopia of processed cheese and three car families -- has depended on low cost food and other essentials produced by agribusiness, the ""seven sisters"" of petroleum and the multinational corporations. Now foreign markets are shrinking, the potential for domestic expansion is drying up, and Vietnam didn't help the dollar either. Aronowitz' real question -- whether the American working man, ""not. . . trained in the expectation of hardship,"" will accept ""that which is ordinary for many European counterparts"" -- has no definitive answer. But what he sees is not encouraging -- a cynical, but disorganized public, a liberal establishment trapped by its obsolete ""pluralist mythology,"" bureaucratic and largely co-opted unions. Some isolated observations, such as the suggestion that ""crime in the streets"" is a myth geared to drive us to accept authoritarian controls, will not convince anyone who doesn't see it that way already. And the book might well have been made easier for the non-specialist to read. But on the whole this is a well substantiated, impressively sharp synthesis, reinforcing what many already guess: The big picture is a wasteland indeed.