Unplugging to Reality, Part II

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In this unreal world, it has been relatively easy for the media to shape ideas and ideology by providing (and withholding) news and analysis in ways favoring the interests of the wealthy people and the mega-corporations that control most of our impressions.  A cherished image of American life, that we are all in this together, is no longer anything but pure fantasy, yet we cling to it with “the audacity of hope.”

That myth has now been thoroughly shattered by several decades of economic globalization and rising inequality.  It has been decades since economic conflict in America has been about finding fair compromises between the interests of providers and consumers, employers and employees, or corporations and the environment.   Enforcement of anti-trust laws has been abandoned, and government regulation of business has been substantially marginalized.

Yet news reports and political discussions drone on disturbingly as if that myth were real, as if economic news applies equally, and in the same way to everyone, rich and poor alike.  This obfuscation permits a false sense of normalcy in which the differences between “conservatives” and “liberals” are presented as merely differences in ideological preference about the role of government and the mechanics of welfare distributions.  We are asked to believe that both sides offer competing, equally credible choices in a shared quest for economic recovery and American prosperity.

The “Economic Matrix”

Nothing could be further from the truth.  There is no shared quest for the prosperity or basic well-being of non-wealthy Americans.  Unplugged from this fantasy, we see a stark and foreboding economic world in which corporations and radical billionaires, like the attack machines in “The Matrix,” bear down on their human victims.   While their corporations control American consumers, the rich get obscenely richer, and they remove their spoils from the American economy.  Consider this assessment from Thom Hartmann:

“As major corporations are dominating our consumer markets and destroying local economies, they are also doing everything in their power to avoid paying their fair share of the taxes, on the one hand, and to get local and state governments to subsidize their operations on the other.

“A Forbes magazine report in April 2010 showed the extent of the scandal and how major U.S. – based multinationals have used an array of complicated tax loopholes and accounting methods to evade paying income taxes in the United States and instead move their tax responsibilities to offshore tax havens. * * *

“The fact that multi-nationals avoid paying taxes in the United States and even move assets overseas to do so is a clear sign of their loyalty – or rather their lack thereof – to their host country.  Another such sign is that even within the United States these companies suck up more tax revenues than they contribute.” [1]

Unfortunately for the financial bottom 99% of Americans, this summary is accurate.  And as inequality relentlessly grows, the mainstream media doggedly evade discussions of inequality, ignoring the option of taxing the rich.  For Republicans, as House Majority Leader John Boehner famously and repeatedly emphasizes, higher taxes for rich people are “off the table,” yet increasing economic repression cannot otherwise be avoided.   In this new, “unplugged” video, Inequality.org  graphically blows away the unreality inherent in the media’s misleading and obsolete image of American prosperity.  This video is a real eye-opener; the numbers and their implications are staggering.

There are effectively two American economies now, one globalized, financial economy for the very rich (roughly the top 1%) and one for everybody else (roughly the bottom 99%).  The fact that the economy (GDP) [2] is growing slowly at, say, 1.5%/year, explains little about what is really going on.  We learn nothing about how the increase in value is distributed.  The harsh truth for the bottom 98-99% is that nearly all increases in American wealth over the last 30 years have gone to the top 1-2%.  The bottom 90% has seen its real incomes actually decline over the last 30 years.

If the stock market is doing well, that sounds like good news, but with more than one-half of all financial wealth owned by the top 1%, such news is essentially irrelevant to nearly all Americans.  Yet we live with the illusion that we somehow participate in the economy of the rich.

Jobs and Unemployment

Consider the recent news that the American automobile industry is on the mend.  This sounds like good news, but it’s not good news for everyone.  Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich observed on a June 1 morning MSNBC news program that Detroit’s recovery is due in part to the falling dollar and in part to the fact that auto workers are getting about half the pay their predecessors once got, along with lower benefits.  Across the nation, he observed, just as the declining middle class badly needs to increase its savings, its incomes are declining and the value of its major source of wealth – homes – has fallen about 33% since 2006.

Meanwhile, the recession goes on and unemployment remains rampant.  Robert Reich reports:

“[The] ranks [of the unemployed] are filled with women who had been public employees, single mothers, minorities, young people trying to enter the labor force, and middle-aged men who have been out of work for longer than six months. * ** Women who had been teachers, public health professionals and social workers have been hit hard. These jobs continue to be slashed by state and local governments. Public schools alone accounted for nearly 40% of the nation’s total public sector job losses in the last year. From March 2010 to March 2011, women lost 214,000 public sector jobs, compared with a loss of 115,000 public jobs by men.

“Unmarried mothers are having a particularly difficult time getting back jobs because their work was heavily concentrated in the retail, restaurant and hotel sectors. Many of these jobs disappeared when consumers reduced their discretionary spending, and they won’t come back in force until consumers start spending more again.

“According to a new report by the California Budget Project, the recession erased more than half the jobs single mothers in California had gained from 1992 to 2002. The result has been a drop in the share of unmarried mothers in jobs, from 69.2% in 2007 to 58.8% in 2010. Unmarried mothers who still have jobs are working fewer hours per week than before.

“Blacks also continue to be hard hit. Their unemployment rate here in California reached 20% this past March, up 5% from a year ago. That’s more than double their rate before the downturn. Some of this is because of the comparatively low education levels of many blacks, and their weak connections to the labor market. Some is due to employer discrimination. Blacks were among the last hired before the recession and therefore among the first to be let go in the downturn. That means they’ll be among the last hired as the economy recovers.

“Many young people who have never been in the job market are unable to land a first job. Employers with a pick of applicants see no reason to hire someone without a track record, particularly those without much education. Unemployment among high school dropouts is hovering around 30%. Even recent college graduates are having a much harder time than usual finding a job. Many are settling for jobs that don’t ordinarily require college degrees, which pushes those with less education even further back in the line.

“Older workers who have lost their jobs are at the greatest risk of continued unemployment. Employers assume they aren’t as qualified or reliable as those who are younger and have been working more recently. According to research by the Urban Institute, once you’re laid off, your chance of finding another job within a year is 36% if you’re under the age of 34. But your odds drop the older you get.  If you’re jobless and in your 50s, your chance of landing another job within the year is only 24%. Over 62, you’ve got only an 18% chance.” [3]

In the fantasy world of politics, Republicans say Democrats are preventing job creation.  But they have fought hard to destroy public sector jobs through spending cuts.  Their clients, as they know, are in charge of creating private sector jobs, but corporations significantly export jobs and as Robert Reich noted (and Republican politicians are increasingly forced to occasionally admit), unless Americans have more money to spend, people will not be hired, as there will be no increases in demand for goods and services for them to meet.  Republicans make few claims to job creation, do not have a job plan, and don’t want one: Actual recovery is against their interests, for as the economy worsens the President’s popularity falls, and as Mitch McConnell has candidly admitted, defeating Obama in 2012 is their top priority.  Meanwhile, more and more Americans are settling for poverty level jobs while their standard of living plummets and America becomes a third-world country.

Unplugged, we can begin to realize how bleak things have really become:

“America is sinking under trillions in debt it can never repay and stays afloat by frantically selling about $2 billion in Treasury bonds a day to the Chinese. It saw 2.8 million people lose their homes in 2009 to foreclosure or bank repossessions – nearly 8,000 people a day – and stands idle as they are joined by another 2.4 million people this year. * * * Its infrastructure is crumbling. Deficits are pushing individual states to bankruptcy and forcing the closure of everything from schools to parks. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which have squandered trillions of dollars, appear endless. There are 50 million Americans in real poverty and tens of millions of Americans in a category called ‘near poverty.’ One in eight Americans – and one in four children – depend on food stamps to eat. And yet, in the midst of it all, we continue to be a country consumed by happy talk and happy thoughts. We continue to embrace the illusion of inevitable progress, personal success and rising prosperity. Reality is not considered an impediment to desire.

“When a culture lives within an illusion it perpetuates a state of permanent infantilism or childishness. As the gap widens between the illusion and reality, as we suddenly grasp that it is our home being foreclosed or our job that is not coming back, we react like children. We scream and yell for a savior, someone who promises us revenge, moral renewal and new glory. It is not a new story. A furious and sustained backlash by a betrayed and angry populace, one unprepared intellectually, emotionally and psychologically for collapse, will sweep aside the Democrats and most of the Republicans and will usher America into a new dark age.” [4]

To those plugged into the Economic Matrix, Hedges’ rhetoric seems clearly exaggerated, sensationalistic, and even petulant: How could such perceptions be grounded in factual reality?  We are used to thinking of the United States as the greatest, most exceptional country in the world, and it is difficult for patriotic Americans to imagine, much less face, the prospect of our beloved country fading to “third world” status.  When we check the facts, however, we learn that this is exactly what has been happening. It is painful to watch images of economic normalcy and American exceptionalism evaporate before our eyes.  But we must keep our eyes wide open.

Trinity: “I know why you’re here, Neo. I know what you’ve been doing… why you hardly sleep, why you live alone and why, night after night, you sit by your computer. * * * It’s the question that drives us, Neo. It’s the question that brought you here. You know the question, just as I did.”
Neo: “What is the Matrix?”
Trinity: “The answer is out there, Neo, and it’s looking for you, and it will find you if you want it to.”

JMH –  6/27/2011

____

[1] Thom Hartmann, “Rebooting the American Dream,” supra, p. 57

[2] “Gross domestic product (GDP) refers to the market value of all final goods and services produced within a country in a given period.”  Wikipedia.com

[3] Robert Reich, “Job losses are hitting those without a voice,” June 6, 2011.  Tallahassee.com

[4] Chris Hedges, “American Psychosis,” supra. (Emphasis added.)

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