Essays on Inequality I – Facing a Stark Reality

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Liberty cannot be preserved without general knowledge among the people.  —  John Adams

The political situation in America right now (August of 2011) is utterly surreal, stranger to me than anything I have witnessed in my nearly 67 years.  Reality and fantasy compete glibly, but inarticulately and superficially,  for the attention of befuddled minds, merging on a battleground of ideas where common sense and utter nonsense have become barely distinguishable.

The U.S. is in the greatest economic trouble in my lifetime (since  WWII).  Incomes and benefits continue to decline, and underemployment (unemployment plus inadequate part-time employment) exceeds 16%. [1]  Meanwhile, an entire political party advocates doubling down on the policies that actually created this crisis, as if they are not harmful and will somehow have opposite effects now.  The leading candidates for the Republican nomination for the presidency all marginalize science, favoring religious explanations for phenomena, and ideology over analysis for policy. [2]

These days, paying close attention is essential.  I sense that America, in August of 2011, is approaching a major turning point.  Both sides in the escalating class warfare are gearing up, and battle lines are being drawn.  What happens in the next few months may largely decide the fate of America:  Either democracy, freedom and prosperity will begin a long, slow convalescence, and ultimately survive, or the economy will continue to decline until it crashes and burns, while quality education, public well-being, and economic opportunity evaporate and corporate plutocracy completes its ascension to authoritarian control over America and around the globe.  It’s not just the economy that’s at stake: So is our environment, culture, and psychological and moral welfare.

It is a troublesome fact – an inconvenient truth – that less than one percent of the American population is destroying the economy and the livelihoods of the other 99%.  In a functional democracy, they would not have a chance, but this tiny sliver of the population has captured most of the wealth and the means to continue to increase its share.  They literally have “money to burn,” and the massive excess of their incomes and wealth enables them to control governments and the local and national economies, and through media control to shape public perceptions in their favor.  Although this has been going on for several decades, it’s been a stark reality, difficult to face.

For those who have been unaware of or opted not to face the realities of growing inequality, the very idea that our beloved “land of the free and the home of the brave” could be in such serious trouble may seem inconceivable.  However, the proof is becoming more and more difficult to ignore.  The barrage of reports on failures of the major institutional systems, both public and private, upon which over 99% of us depend are increasing sharply.  For millions of Americans, basic survival has become the top priority.  The deterioration of 2011 could and should awaken our collective consciousness enough to enable a successful grass-roots campaign to save American democracy and, deservedly, revive freedom and opportunity for all Americans.

My intention here is to explain why this nation is failing its people economically and discuss how we can turn things back around, regaining some measure of America’s former prosperity while adjusting for the challenges of the future.  I intend to show that the American economic decline can be “easily” (though not rapidly) turned around if America finds the political will to do it.

A New Awakening

Finding the political will is the hard part, and the bottom 99% faces some tough odds in that respect.  But what gives me hope, here in August of 2011, is a new political awakening that appears to be taking place this year.  Millions of people are waking up to the truth, and getting angry as their awareness grows.  Political change may be coming at last, as disenchantment grows with the priorities embedded in our state and federal governments’ policies.  Polls increasingly show that the majority is tired of the enormous costs of war, of pampering the rich and subsidizing corporations, and of watching unemployment and poverty grow while the nation’s infrastructure crumbles and affordable education and adequate health care evaporate.  As will be discussed – and this is an important development – some wealthy people are also beginning to see the dangers for themselves in this continuous decline, and are beginning to ask for higher taxes on their incomes.

In the last couple of months, as economic conditions worsen here and around the world, many more bloggers and economists are speaking out with a growing sense of urgency,  and not without reason: the deteriorating economic situation is becoming critical.  Robert Reich, for example, in anticipation of Labor Day, sends this message:

Not only are 25 million unemployed or underemployed, but American companies continue to cut wages and benefits. The median wage is still dropping, adjusted for inflation. * * * All told, it’s been the worst decade for American workers in a century. According to Commerce Department data, private-sector wage gains over the last decade have even lagged behind wage gains during the decade of the Great Depression (4 percent over the last ten years, adjusted for inflation, versus 5 percent from 1929 to 1939).

Big American corporations are making more money, and creating more jobs, outside the United States than in it. If corporations are people, as the Supreme Court’s twisted logic now insists, most of the big ones headquartered here are rapidly losing their American identity.  CEO pay, meanwhile, has soared. The median value of salaries, bonuses and long-term incentive awards for CEOs at 350 big American companies surged 11 percent last year to $9.3 million (according to a study of proxy statements conducted for The Wall Street Journal by the management consultancy Hay Group.). Bonuses have surged 19.7 percent. * * *

Perhaps there would still be something to celebrate on Labor Day if government was coming to the rescue. But Washington is paralyzed, the President seems unwilling or unable to take on labor-bashing Republicans, and several Republican governors are mounting direct assaults on organized labor (see Indiana, Ohio, Maine, and Wisconsin, for example).  So let’s bag the picnics and parades this Labor Day. American workers should march in protest. They’re getting the worst deal they’ve had since before Labor Day was invented – and the economy is suffering as a result. [3]

Political activism is on the rise.  A majority of Americans want government to take effective action to create jobs and help the economy recover.  Ordinary citizens are increasingly and adamantly confronting their elected representatives. [4]  Thousands of Americans, recently catalyzed by the budget negotiations and the unprecedented Tea Party/Republican threat to force a default on the national debt, are organizing to challenge conventional “wisdom” and develop a rational, purposeful agenda for America. [5]

Meanwhile, another natural disaster has occurred and Americans (especially in the badly flooded Northeast) must now try to rebuild and recover from billions of dollars of storm damage caused by Hurricane/Tropical Storm Irene.  This major additional blow to a struggling economy finds Americans all over the ideological map on the role of FEMA, and  the very idea of government’s participation in disaster relief. [6]

In short, the pitched battle that has been building for several decades between two vastly different visions of what America should be, and how and if government should serve and protect its citizens and the common welfare, is reaching a fever pitch. There is no better time to put the facts and the options in perspective, and speak frankly about them.

But take fair warning: Although we’ll be discussing politics here, this will not be a “political” discussion, in my view, any more than discussing evolution would be a  “religious” discussion.  This is a fact-based inquiry, and as such it won’t be useful to characterize any idea as “liberal” or “conservative” or located anywhere else on a political spectrum. [7]  Doing so adds no useful information, and usually introduces biases that color judgments and create mistakes.  In this blog, we shy away from characterization (as argument) altogether.

Hence, I will leave it to others to argue about whether avoiding a depression or preserving democracy are “liberal” or “conservative” goals, but we gladly affirm that they are our goals for America and, I suspect, they are goals that the vast majority of Americans endorse as well.  [8]

Warning number two:  In discussing what I think needs to be done, and how it can be accomplished, I will not estimate the odds of failure or success, and I will avoid pessimism.  I am fully aware that the political odds against achieving these goals look steep to many right now, and that some have given up hope.  For example, the compassionate Chris Hedges has apparently become supremely pessimistic lately, concluding: “The corporate coup is over. We have lost. The trolls have won. We have to face our banishment.” [9]

Avoiding Pessimism

I prefer, however, Hedges’ citation in a recent book to his mentor, Noam Chomsky, who is quoted as saying this:

I try to encourage people to think for themselves, to question standard assumptions.  Don’t take assumptions for granted.  Begin by taking a skeptical attitude toward anything that is conventional wisdom.  Make it justify itself.  It usually can’t.  Be willing to ask questions about what is taken for granted.  Try to think things through for yourself.  There is plenty of information.  [10]

According to psychologist Bruce E. Levine, we need three things to create a real people’s movement:

Transforming the United States into something closer to a democracy requires: (1) knowledge of how we are getting screwed; (2) pragmatic tactics, strategies, and solutions; and (3) the ‘energy to do battle.’

The majority of Americans oppose the corporatocracy (rule by giant corporations, the extremely wealthy élite, and corporate-collaborator government officials); however, many of us have given up hope that this tyranny can be defeated. Among those of us who continue to be politically engaged, many focus on only one of the requirements—knowledge of how we are getting screwed. And this singular focus can result in helplessness. It is the two other requirements that can empower, energize, and activate Team Democracy— a team that is currently at the bottom of the standings in the American Political League. [11] 

There are challenges at every step.  I’m working on the first requirement, knowledge, but I emphasize the importance of the second two:  While we’re identifying what we want and need for America, we should be simultaneously investigating what we’re up against and figure out how to get the job done.  Workable action plans (like the “Contract for the American Dream”) become essential, and we must avoid – indeed banish – pessimism. We’re 99% of the population, after all, and so long as we live in a democracy, that’s significant.

And besides, it’s the only game in town.

JMH – 8/31/11 (rev. 9/6/11)


[1] Unemployed face tough competition: underemployed, by Christopher Leonard,  Associated Press, The Daily Caller, September 4, 2011.

[2] Rick Perry to Boy: No One Knows How Old the Earth Is (Video) By Friday, August 19, 2011

[3] Labor Day We Need Protest Marches Rather Than Parades, by Robert Reich, TruthOut, August 26, 2011. (Emphasis added.)

[4] In my area, U.S. Representative Chris Gibson (New York’s 20th Congressional District) is increasingly challenged at town meetings to justify his pledge never to raise taxes on corporations and the wealthy.

[5] A good recent example is the American Dream Movement, as discussed in this blog.  The efforts in house meetings all across the country resulted in a “Contract for the American Dream.”  The contract’s  “10 Critical Steps to Get Our Economy Back on Track” are sensible proposals, soundly based in economic reality.

[6] Here are a couple of recent articles offered by Google discussing: (1) House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s (R-Va.) statement earlier this week that he believed any additional funding to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA’s) disaster response budget should be taken from other government programs. (Lawmaker Rips Cantor’s FEMA statement as “abhorrent”); and (2) FEMA’s shortage of funds and it’s consequent reduced response (FEMA, to pay for Irene damage, delays funds for rebuilding in tornado-ravaged areas).  These are examples, not intended to advance any particular views here.  At this point I would say only that there seems to be a widely-held view that the federal government has a legitimate role in disaster response, and that America needs a rational (non-ideological) debate on defining its proper role and ensuring that it is efficiently met.

[7] See my partner Skip Christensen’s post,  The Dangerous Illusion of “Liberal” and “Conservative”.

[8] I have pointed out in  “Not What Reagan Wanted” that not only was Reagan fervently pro-democracy, but he also definitely wanted to avoid another depression: “No one who lived through the Great Depression can ever look upon an unemployed person with anything but compassion. To me, there is no greater tragedy than a breadwinner willing to work, with a job skill but unable to find a market for that job skill.” (1976); and “I can remember one bleak night in the thirties when my father learned on Christmas Eve that he’d lost his job. To be young in my generation was to feel that your future had been mortgaged out from under you, and that’s a tragic mistake we must never allow our leaders to make again.” (1981) (Emphasis added.)

[9] “The Election March of the Trolls”,  by Chris Hedges, Op-Ed, August 30, 2011.  The fascinating blog chain posted below his article offers little relief, although some bloggers are demanding proof of our imminent demise.

[10] “Death of the Liberal Class,” by Chris Hedges, Nation Books, 2010, p. 37.

[11] “Three Things That Must Happen for Us to Rise Up and Defeat the Corporatocracy,” by Bruce E. Levine, Alternet Op-Ed, August 26, 2011.

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3 Responses to Essays on Inequality I – Facing a Stark Reality

  1. Charles Beebe says:

    Mike, given your “befuddled minds” comment, and given Bruce Levine’s three steps all require thoughtful processing, do YOU believe that we as a society have the capacity to transform ourselves? I cling to the hope that we do, but am challenged by how easily we Americans are manipulated (Fox News is the most watched cable news channel…really?). Like you, sometimes the only thing that keeps me going is the alternative: losing faith means the trolls have won. I simply refuse to be that demoralized.

    • IFKaramazov says:

      I’ll second that. Sometimes I just want to stop reading my news feeds or the various books I pick up on related topics, shut up, and ignore the empire’s collapse. But at the same time, I feel somewhat ashamed at the idea of just giving in. As Yeats wrote, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” I don’t want that to be true. Whatever does happens, I want to be able to say that I at least spoke against it. That, in my own way, I resisted.

    • Thanks to IFKaramazov and Charles Beebe! Skip and I agree with both of you: we want to be able to say we did what we can, at the end of the day, and it also helps us stay positive. As to whether society can transform itself, I think you’ll be interested in Skip’s upcoming post on religion in government. For us, the question is how many people are emotionally and psychologically capable of thinking their way out of the sound-bite syndrome and getting active. I think an aroused majority could do it. We need more anger and less fear, but more than that widespread exposure of the falsehoods that are used to take us down. As we reach the point of no return, it’s interesting to see millionaires and billionaires and domestic consumer corps like Starbucks coming out for higher taxes on their incomes: So there’s a reality-based GOP backlash starting up against the ultra-right. So I think it can happen, but it will be a close call. I’m helping organize letter-writing groups: writing to the paper is something we can all easily do, and we can flood the editorial departments with the right messages. There must be many thousands more like us who want to do what they can, but still feel intimidated. I think there’s a tipping point coming, hopefully soon!

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