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Saturday, October 8, 2011

The 1% Needs to Keep Americans Demoralized

I’ve complained before that the Conservative vision of America is one of deep pessimism, that Conservatives are forever arguing that America simply no longer can afford to maintain its infrastructure, or improve its health insurance industry or its education system, or really do anything to improve at all.  And then earlier this week Republican congressman Cliff Stearns (FL) flat out told National Public Radio that:

“[The United States] can’t compete with China to make solar panels and wind turbines” . . . .  Stearns [went on to say that] . . . . where solar is concerned, it makes more sense to invest in research and development on a technology where the U.S. still has a chance of winning.  (emphasis added)

Did you get that?  An American congressman is telling the American people that when it comes to developing the new, cutting-edge technology that can lead us to a brighter and greener future we might as well pack it up and go home because America already has lost that game.  This Republican congressman is telling us that America is and always will be, at most, second-best when it comes to this advanced technology.

But in a sick and extremely cynical way, it makes sense to me that a GOP congressman would make this kind of a statement.  Because it seems to me that Conservative apologists for the 1% have decided that their real constituents – the extremely wealthy – have a vested interest in keeping the American people as pessimistic and demoralized about their future as possible.

For decades now the United States has been increasingly unwilling to invest in its own economy.  And I don’t just mean the country hasn’t been investing in its infrastructure or in its education system or what have you, I mean that the country has refused to invest in and broaden the nation’s economy by sharing its growing prosperity with the American people in general.  To the greatest extent possible, the top 1% has attempted to keep as much of those economic gains for themselves alone.

At times their refusal to share America’s wealth with the bottom 99% of the population has been quite literal.  According to Don Peck, author of Pinched:  How the Great Recession Has Narrowed Our Futures and What We Can Do About It, from 2002 until 2007 two out of every three dollars in income growth in the United States was funneled to the top 1% of the country, while we remaining 99% got to scrabble over that last dollar.

But that statistic is just a particularly extreme example of a long trend of wealth concentration in the U.S.  According to this paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research, for decades "median real wage and salary income [in America] barely grew at all . . . because half of the income gains went to the top 10 percent of the income distribution, leaving little left over for the bottom 90 percent.”
  
To get a real sense of how much and for how long working Americans’ compensation has remained flat, take a look at this graph measuring, in a variety of ways, the change in Average Hourly Earnings for Production and Nonsupervisory Workers:

The graph was constructed using data taken from a Federal Reserve articleEven the most forgiving measurement (the one at the bottom) finds that from 1975 until 2005 the American worker’s real hourly earnings (wages plus benefits) increased by only 16%.  Taking into effect the compounding nature of interest, this means that each year the American worker could expect to see his or her real hourly income (i.e., discounting for inflation) go up by only about 00.475%.  To put it another way, if you started off in Year 1 earning $10.00/hour in total compensation, and in Year 2 your hourly compensation was increased to $10 and five pennies . . . then you got a bigger raise then you should have expected for an American worker.

Now imagine exactly this level of income “growth” continuing uninterruptedly for 30 years.

* * *

Of course, some substitute for actual income had to be provided to working- and middle-class Americans to disguise the fact that all the growth in America’s economy was being funneled to the few people at the very tippy-top of America’s economic pyramid.  And that substitute, essentially, was cheap credit.

The chart below shows America’s Outstanding Household Debt, over time.


(H/t Seeking Alpha.)

As the chart shows, total consumer debt really began to take off beginning in the mid- to late-70’s, just at the time average wages and income began flattening out.  The provision of this cheap and easy credit helped cover up that even though our economic pie was getting bigger and bigger, the slice that the vast majority of us were getting didn't change.  If average Americans have been able to enjoy a higher standard of living over the past 30-odd years, we were able to do so only because we were encouraged to take on greater and greater debt to finance that higher standard.


But now our credit has dried up, the middle-class has been hollowed out, and America is falling apart.  Ordinary Americans are looking around themselves and wondering what happened and – really – isn’t there anyone to blame for all this?  (Why yes . . . yes there is.)

But the greedhead 1% who decided 30-odd years ago that it was in their best interest not to re-invest America’s earnings in its economy and its people, but instead to grab for themselves alone as much of America’s wealth as they could, while they could, have professional apologists – we know them as Conservatives.  And these apologists now find it in their patrons’ interests to try and convince the rest of us that if we have anything – anything at all – left at this point to call our own then we should consider ourselves lucky. 

Conservatives think that if they can just convince Americans to reduce our expectations to the level level possible then maybe we won’t realize that we’ve been getting thoroughly screwed by the greedhead 1% whom the Conservatives serve.

And so . . .

They’ll Sneer at the Idea Any American Might Actually Be Poor or Hungry

You may be aware of this infamous article recently published by the rightwing think-tank Heritage Foundation in which the authors basically argued that there are no poor people in America because even those considered to be living “in poverty” have standard appliances like air conditioners, stoves, washing machines and coffee makers.  If you haven’t already seen it, I strongly urge you to click here and watch Jon Stewart eviscerate the article’s reasoning.  (For a more serious, but much less awesome rebuttal, you can click on this.)

But that is just one example of Conservatives’ unrelenting efforts to persuade us that – facts, statistics, census data and your own personal experience to the contrary be damned – no one in America is really poor or hungry and even the least of us really has nothing to complain about.  One of their latest and more picayune such efforts is this article by National Review Online’s Julie Gunlock (what an absolutely tragic name for a rightwinger!) grumbling about the new Sesame Street character “Lily.” 

In case you haven’t heard, Sesame Street is introducing Lily to address the issue of poverty and food insecurity in America from a child’s point of view – and Gunlock explains why this makes her hopping mad:  “In fact, Lily’s lucky to be ‘poor’ in this country.  Sesame Street would be wiser to educate America’s children about the real poor and hungry – the 98 percent of the world population who live outside the United States.”

Which means, according to Gunlock's statistic, the world now contains about 15 billion people (which is more than twice the 6.8 billion estimated by the World Bank).  Furthermore, if Gunlock is to be believed (hint:  she isn’t), all 14.7 billion of the people residing outside the United States are poor and hungry – but no American is. 

Of course, Gunlock is wrong about everyone outside our borders being poor and hungry (I know this for a fact ‘cause I’ve done a bit of traveling and, also, I once watched European Vacation).  And she herself acknowledges that it isn’t even true that no American ever goes hungry by stating in her very next sentence that “94.3 percent of American households are able to put enough food on the table every day to feed their families” . . . .  which, of course, means that 5.7 percent of American households are not

According to census data, Gunlock's own claim means that at least 6.545 million American households don’t get enough food.  And if we only count households with children (32.3 million) and we assume only one child per household, we are still looking at 1.84 million children who regularly go hungry in the United States.

But while her arguments are specious, the point Gunlock is trying to put across is crystal clear:  no matter how bad you have it as an American, no matter if you are one of the millions of people who cannot always feed your family, you should still count yourself lucky because all those billions of people who aren’t Americans have it much worse - apparently just by definition.  And above all, you should never question whether anything is wrong with the American economic system even if your children sometimes don’t have enough to eat.  The proper standard by which to judge your well-being is that of the very, very worst off of the world’s population.

To the Conservative apologists for the greedhead 1%, just because you don’t have any food doesn't mean you are allowed to claim that your family is poor and hungry -- not unless your children's bellies are actually distended and flies are hovering around their eyeballs.

Don’t Forget How Much You Owe To the Job-Creating 1%

Of course, the most important meme that the Conservative apologists for the 1% have been pushing lately is the idea that their greedhead bosses are the ones who create jobs in this country.  I’ve mentioned elsewhere just how pernicious this meme is; in fact, the quick and easy two-word term “job creator” serves a couple of different but equally useful purposes for the 1%. 

Primarily, it functions as an implicit argument against asking the uber-wealthy to contribute anything more to or take anything less from the economy.  Surely – goes the apologists’ argument – we don’t want to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs?  Aren’t these people already doing “God’s work” (to quote Goldman Sachs’s former CEO Lloyd Blankfein) by creating jobs?  Mightn’t we not therefore even revere the 1% as “holy”?  (Don’t laugh; according to a study from Baylor University some Conservatives actually might do that.)

Secondarily, but just as importantly, the phrase teaches the rest of us – again – to be grateful for the bare minimum we might expect as working Americans:  employment.  Not well-paying employment, not secure employment, not respected employment . . . just having a job, any job is today supposed to be considered a blessing and it is, of course, the “job creators” who have seen fit to bless the rest of us.

I am self-employed, but nearly all my friends work for corporations or companies with fairly large work forces.  Since the economic collapse their talk increasingly is of layoffs and cutbacks.  Annual raises are nominal at best and – to a one – each tells me that the pervasive mood among employees is “at least we’re lucky to have jobs.”

No, no they’re not.  A McJob that doesn’t pay you well enough to feed your family, to make your rent or mortgage payment, to put aside a little bit for retirement or the kids’ college fund is not something anyone should consider themselves “lucky” to have in America.  Nobody who has to spend a lifetime working long hours for little pay and no benefits should be forced to also consider themselves “lucky” in this, our country, which we are constantly being told is the richest and greatest in the world. 

But that is the ground down, defeatist attitude Conservative apologists are now trying to instill in us.  The last thing their rich paymasters wish to hear is that we might demand a fairer share in our country's wealth.

* * *

Remember the phrase Bush the Dumber used to deploy when talking about America’s education system?  Well the “soft bigotry of low expectations” is precisely what Conservatives are trying right now to inculcate in working- and middle-class Americans on behalf of their 1% greedhead patrons.

The sooner America wakes to the fact that they’re just trying to continue the same hosing they’ve been giving us for the past three decades, the sooner we demand that they stop telling us what America can’t do, the sooner a majority of us begin directing our righteous ire at the very, very few who have been taking so very, very much from so very, very many of us . . . the better off we will all be and the quicker our country will find its way forward again.

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