This line, from the song “American Pie” by Don McLean , instantly popped into my head when I sat down to read the morning papers on Monday, December 5, 2016. A Google search for “Bad News on the Doorstep” will produce numerous references to the crash of a charter plane near Clear Lake, Iowa that took the lives of Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, J.P. Richardson (“The Big Bopper”) and the pilot, Roger Peterson, on February 3, 1959. Don McLean was a 14-year-old living in New York at the time, and I was a 15-year-old budding musician growing up in nearby South Dakota. No musician then into folk or popular music has ever forgotten that awful day.
I had sung that song many times, and I was alone at the table, so I picked up the first verse from that line and sang:
“Bad news on the doorstep/ I couldn’t take one more step.
“I can’t remember if I cried/ When I read about his widowed bride,
“But something touched me deep inside/ The day the music died.”
When I got to my computer, my Google search turned up a recent post on the blog Burning Platform (7/19/2016, here), which provided this composite of the “American Pie” record sleeve along with photos of the three musicians:
Also posted was this this photograph of the remains of the crash, a photo that was found on the front pages of many newspapers the next day:
The author of the post, a man named Jim Quinn, discussed this event and the life of Don McClean in the context of explaining his “Turnings” perspective on recent American history, from the “High” phase of the 1950s through the “Awakening” period (the Vietnam era) and the “Unraveling” (beginning with the Reagan Administration) right through to the current “Crisis” period. As many bloggers do, he went on to discuss the accelerating rise in the national debt. (Jim, if you happen to find this post, I’ll explain below that this happened despite, rather than because of, anything the Obama Administration did.)
Whatever opinion we may have of the “Turnings” perspective on our history, there is no doubt that the current period is one of deep crisis: It has been a growing crisis, simmering on the back burner since 1980 and growing exponentially since the stock market crashed in 2008. Sitting at the breakfast table, not yet aware of Jim Quinn and his blog, I was simply dismayed by all the “bad news on the doorstep” contained in my newspapers. My overriding impression of bad news keeps getting worse all the time, and at an accelerating pace.
People don’t like bad news, and we tend to deal with it in counterproductive ways: Most of us tend to “shoot the messenger” when it arrives. It’s all too easy, moreover, to fool ourselves, morphing bad news into good news. We tend to remain poorly informed about things that are truly important, and it certainly hasn’t helped that the level of educational achievement in this country has slipped drastically throughout this period. Our inadequate understanding of important issues has led to a growing cynicism at all levels of society — and that has led to increasingly poorer political judgment. No sane person in all probability is entirely indifferent to his or her personal fate, or for that matter, to the fate of the world. Indeed, such an indifference could be considered a reasonable definition of insanity in today’s circumstances. No, most of us easily pass that sanity test, but collectively we’re just poorly informed.
Our mainstream media cultivates and aggravates that problem. They feed us what they think our lazy ears want to hear, then poll us for our reactions, in an endless self-destructive feedback loop. News media have spent far more time and money over the past few weeks talking and thinking about which top college football teams should play in the national championship series, for example, than they have spent while covering the entire presidential campaign cycle addressing burning concerns over the state of our economy or the amount of damage growing inequality has caused here and around the world.
My favorite newspaper editor, the Albany Times Union’s Rex Smith, weighed in on the adequacy of the media a few days ago, arguing that at least his newspaper is concerned with reporting “truth” (“A victory lap leaves truth in the pack,” Times Union, 12/3/2016, here):
Instead of graciously basking in the glow of victory, [Donald Trump’s] speech Thursday night in Cincinnati reprised the belligerent style and themes of his campaign rallies – taunting protesters, evoking partisans to chant “Lock her up” at the mention of Clinton and repeatedly attacking what he called “the nasty, dishonest press.” * * *
How dishonest of the media to assume that the president-elect meant for his words to be taken as truthful. We should have understood that the facts he cited weren’t factual, and not grasping that was “nasty.” Big league. This presents a huge challenge to journalists, most of whom consider journalism to be mission-driven – that mission being truth-telling.
It’s not just that it will be hard for the reporters who cover the new president to square the loose regard for facts that [former Trump campaign manager Corey] Lewandowski describes with our craft’s high reverence for them. No, here’s what’s more troubling than that: The election just past made it clear that citizens don’t care much about facts, either.
I think Rex Smith overstates his case, frankly: Climate change denial is a graphic example of the declining regard for facts and science in our society, but that trend seems clearly to be more related to the growing strength of faith-based ideologies than to indifference. The Times Union — as our society demands (“one nation, under God”) — has fully honored the constitutionally required respect for religion, and thus failed to consistently challenge faith-based ideas as less worthy of credibility when ideological beliefs conflict with scientifically verified facts.
There is another fundamental problem, moreover, that has gone virtually unnoticed — our blind reverence for capitalism. Very rich people have been far more focused on taking our money than we have been on creating and preserving a society and laws that allow us to hang on to it. The deck is stacked in favor of wealth, and no mainstream newspaper or TV news program has been willing or able to face that reality squarely and honestly.
No newspaper is able, and no mainstream newspaper in America tries nearly hard enough, to overcome the many biases in our society that favor wealth. They’re trying to make money too, of course, and the feedback loop works best. I think the Times Union is better than The New York Times in this respect, but the fact remains that it is reporting “soft” truth, extensively fettered to the ideological preferences of our society. So it’s not that citizens don’t care about facts, because most of us do: But “hard” truth is becoming ever harder to come by, and despite their good intentions, the best journalists are complicit in our failure to get what we need. And the interests of wealth don’t want us to get very much of the information we really need. If Rex Smith frankly acknowledged the role of the very wealthy people who own most media outlets in preserving the foggy haze that obscures hard truth, I suspect, he might well be putting his own job at risk.
In many respects, unfortunately, the future is quite bleak: As the saying goes, the truth hurts. America is therefore afflicted with an extreme case of myopia. We have buried our collective “head” deep in the sand. That’s a real shame, but it’s completely understandable: The more helpless we feel about our ability to effect needed change, either personally or collectively, the more we want to run and hide. But now we are learning how our myopia has hurt us: It has allowed the Trojan Horse of authoritarianism inside the gate. What will we do now? Most of us, like Rex Smith, will react defensively, maintaining that we’re doing the best we can.
Thoughts like these were racing through my mind, and bringing me down, as I sat at the breakfast table singing the refrain:
“By, by Miss American pie/ Drove my Chevy to the levy but the levy was dry.
“Them good old boys were drinking whisky and rye/ Singing this will be the day that I die,
“This will be the day that I die…”
On the morning of December 5, there was much bad news on the doorstep:
(1) Both the TU (here) and the Times (here) reported on a decision by the Army Corps of Engineers to stop construction on the Dakota Access pipeline to explore alternative routes to the site under construction beneath Lake Oahe, a Missouri River reservoir. Good news for the environment, right? The AP report in the TU had some bad news, however: The company constructing the project, Energy Transfer Partners, “said it was unwilling to reroute the project.” Members of the Lakota Sioux tribe “remained cautious,” because: “We don’t know what Trump is going to do.”
The Times went into more detail, pointing out: “Construction of the route a half-mile from the Standing Rock Sioux reservation has become a global flash point for environmental and indigenous activism.” But “it was unclear how durable the government’s decision would be.” The underlying bad news is related to hard, scientific truth: Tragically, corporations who want to harvest and burn every last morsel of fossil fuels, with minimal responsibility for any of the environmental costs, continue to gain government approval. What will be the future of environmental protection under climate change denialist Donald Trump, who has promised to repeal major EPA environmental regulations and Obama’s climate action plan, and even once proposed the termination of the EPA?
(2) There was bad news in the TU in the form of a letter to the editor (here) from Dr. Robert Ostrander, President of the New York State of Academy of Family Physicians, pointing to the insurance industry’s opposition to a New York law that would regulate “step therapy,” a process which denies “access to medications the health plan thinks are too expensive.” Step therapy requires patients to “first try cheaper drugs and fail to improve.”
Dr. Ostrander argued that health plans are simply protecting their financial interests: “Health plans have no objectivity. They are businesses motivated by containing costs. That’s wrong and it needs to stop.” He’s right, and this is just one example of the incalculable harm done by a health care system that promotes the desire for profits over health, and that actually profits from poor health. I was reminded of the truly bad news: the continuing lack of universal Medicare, and the GOP’s renewed determination to unravel even the small gains accomplished by the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”);
(3) There was also Paul Krugman’s “The Art of the Scam” (here), which began with recognizing how much Donald Trump has been allowed to get away with: the unprecedented refusal to reveal his tax returns, and punishing Hillary Clinton for her financial transparency while “revealing nothing about how he makes money.” The traditional transparency of the budget process will vanish, he predicted, and “there are strong indications that the Trump administration will … simply refuse to offer any explanation of how his proposals are supposed to add up.”
This drift toward secrecy and anarchy is really scary. In the case of healthcare, the GOP has vowed to repeal Obamacare but, Krugman pointed out, never articulated an alternative: “There will, of course, be no replacement.” This kind of scam is “all very Trumpian,” he argued, and so obvious that “you might think that this would be impossible.” Unless, of course, what we are witnessing is the first stage of an attempted government lockdown, perhaps an attempt to engineer the privatization of the entire federal government in a massive exercise of Naomi Klein’s “shock doctrine.” Far-fetched? The United States is not Chile, of course, but we’ll see how far this goes;
(4) Meanwhile, the Times reported (here), that an anti-establishment vote on a constitutional amendment in Italy has forced the resignation of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. “Mr. Renzi’s defeat, and the instability that his resignation is likely to cause, raise the prospect of punishment in the markets, but also a caretaker government” under the Italian president. “Mr. Renzi’s defeat came hours after voters in Austria … chose Alexander Van der Bellen, the former leader of the small Green Party, over Norbert Hofer of the far-right Freedom Party.” The prospect in 2017 is for E.U. founding members France, Germany, and potentially Italy “all going to the polls with strong Euro-skeptic and populist candidates in the running.” Most of us find it hard to follow European affairs very closely. But after Brexit, economic anarchy in Europe has become a very scary prospect for the global economy. And we need to remember the underlying bad news — a populist revolt here just backfired badly;
(5) And there was “A Warning for Americans From a Member of Pussy Riot” in the Times (here), with the byline “Beware of creeping authoritarianism, a punk rocker warns.” Nadya Tolokonnikova, a member of the activist art collective Pussy Riot, earned a two-year prison sentence at home in Russia in 2012 for a “guerrilla performance at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow.” Interviewed in Miami, she warned, in light of what’s going on here: “It’s important to remember that, for example, in Russia, for the first year of when Vladimir Putin came to power, everybody was thinking that it will be O.K.,” but Russian oligarchs who helped engineer Putin’s rise to power at the end of 1999 didn’t appreciate the threat he posed to them until they were arrested, forced into exile, or forced to give up their businesses.
“Of course” she acknowledged, according to the article, “the United States has checks, balances and traditions that presumably preclude anything like that happening” here. Really? More bad news: Somehow, after this last election it doesn’t feel like our traditional checks and balances have been even close to adequate – and it’s disquieting that a few days ago Corey Lewandowski said that New York Times Editor Dean Baquet “should be in jail” for publishing parts of Donald Trump’s tax returns, while Trump himself encourages talk of throwing Hillary Clinton in jail;
(6) Meanwhile, the economic news just keeps getting worse. We have been aware for several years of the rapidly growing student loan crisis, with outstanding college loans totaling well over $1 trillion. But now we are learning that a great many college students cannot even afford food and shelter while they are still in school. In a December 4 Times Op-ed (here) , the authors reported (on behalf of the Wisconsin HOPE Lab) that a survey of more than 4,300 students at ten community colleges in seven states found that one in five students reported going hungry because of a lack of money in the last 30 days. Thirteen percent had experienced a form of homelessness in the last year.
Similarly, the TU reported on December 3 (here) the results of a “Hunger on Campus” study, a survey by four campus-based organizations of 3,765 students this past spring (released in October), which found that “48 percent had experienced some form of food insecurity in the past 30 days.” Of those, 22 percent had experienced extreme food insecurity, 44% were forced to cut back on the size of a meal or cut back entirely due to the lack of money” and “35% were hungry but didn’t eat due to lack of money for food.” I have been reporting for several years that the bottom 90% of the U.S. population is in a depression, and these are depression-quality statistics;
(7) Cities and towns around the country have also been in a state of budget crisis for many years. The December 5 editorial in the TU reported on a fiscal time bomb that is about to explode in the City of Troy;
(8) And the TU editorial on the following day reported that “New York taxpayers currently give up to $420 million a year in tax credits for the film industry,” subsidizing this extremely lucrative industry. This is a part of the much bigger, continuous bad news that is constantly worsening: the growth of income and wealth inequality in the United States. State and national subsidies, like the infamous coal, oil and natural gas subsidies find their way into the coffers of the affluent and their large corporations.
* * * * *
Oh, and Jim Quinn: Therein lies the explanation for the national debt I promised at the top of this post to provide. The national debt now totals more than $19 trillion, nearly $60,000 for every man woman and child in the country. It continues to rise, exponentially. This scandalous situation exists entirely because of GOP tax breaks for the very wealthiest among us, which began with the “Reagan Revolution” in 1980. The top 1% have increased their financial wealth by even more: A conservative estimate of the increase in top 1% wealth over the same period is $23 trillion, and it appears more likely to be as much as or more than $25 trillion. No one knows for sure. A lot of income that is not reported in the U.S. turns into unreported financial wealth.
Our society has created far too much money, and severely misallocated it. But it appears that the increase in top 1% wealth since 1980 exceeds the $19 trillion of national debt incurred to finance lower taxes at the top over that period by more than $6 trillion. That $6 trillion amounts to nearly $19,000 for every man, woman, and child in the United States. Where did that additional wealth come from? Ordinary profits from the ordinary operation of the economy.
In a nutshell, the main reason our economy is in steady and increasingly rapid decline is that our system of income and wealth taxation in this country has not been sufficiently progressive to prevent the rapid rise of top 1% (especially top 0.1%) income and wealth. And because the portion of the money supply available within the bottom 99% of incomes is steadily declining, a smaller proportion is spent on consumption, and therefore growing inequality reduces the overall rate of economic (income and financial wealth) growth. Hence, there must be a great many more people than just those who can at least try to attend college that are going hungry every day. When we apply to income distribution the age-old Quantity Theory of Money, this result is shown to be tautological.
The Trump plan to lower tax rates for all big corporations and all very wealthy people, in an orgy of trickle-down madness, will dangerously aggravate this very serious problem. It would gut our economy in the four years of his administration.
How can I make such preposterous claims? If this is true, why isn’t the entire economics profession rising up en masse to protest Trump’s proposals? Excellent questions: My fate has been to study inequality from the bottom up for the past six years, and the history of economics as well. I have reported my findings in a book we self-published in May 2016 on Amazon Kindle called Reinventing Economics: The Failure of Capitalism and the Economics of Inequality. Other economists are catching up, but they haven’t had the time I’ve had in the last few years to give this matter their undivided attention. And GOP spear carriers like Paul Ryan hold to the trickle-down line tenaciously, because it works for them, and they have fooled nearly everyone else.
On the morning of December 5, there was indeed much bad news on the doorstep and, tragically, that situation won’t change any time soon. Why me? I ask myself that question every day. The task ahead for me is to write more articles, and a much shorter book that someone will publish. An article appeared in The New York Times of December 7 (now yesterday) by Patricia Cohen, entitled “A Bigger Economic Pie, But a Smaller Slice for Half of the U.S.” (here). I’ll review that bad news in a follow-up post.
Yesterday I bought a Christmas gift certificate at a local grocery store for a needy family in my town, to be distributed by the local YMCA, and doing that made me feel good. It is always more satisfying to give than to receive in our culture, for we are appreciated most of all for our generosity. Generosity and cooperation, I believe, are firmly rooted in human psychology. Greed is a perverse anomaly, contrary to human nature because it is socially dysfunctional. We see proof of that in the early childhood development of our children and grandchildren. The great story The Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens provides literary proof as well, by graphically emphasizing how greed, commercialization and predatory marketing spoil the Christmas spirit.
To put it simply, I suppose, what is so disturbing to me about all the “bad news on the doorstep” over the last few days, indeed over the last few years, is the evidence that the growth of extreme economic predation in our society has gotten out of hand. Unrestrained market capitalism and extreme inequality are, quite simply, contrary to natural human instincts. Now we are learning why: In their extreme, these conditions threaten our survival. I have revised this paragraph several times, and for now I’ll stick with these sentiments. Despite the call of the season, I do not expect to find myself in a festive mood.
Everyone reading this post has my best wishes for the holidays, and for the best of luck in the coming year.
JMH – 12/7/2016 (ed. 12/8/2016)