Universal Translator

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The 99%: We’re Not Even Livestock

So Rush Limbaugh is pulling another stupid human trick, this time assaulting the very idea that schools might want to feed poor children.  What I find revealing is his stated rationale for challenging the notion that it might be a good idea to give poor children food:  “If you feed them, if you feed the children, three square meals a day during the school year, how can you expect them to feed themselves in the summer?”  It’s as though he were describing baby black bears in Yosemite National Park who might not learn to forage properly if tourists keep giving away their pic-a-nic baskets.

The thing is . . . I have become more and more convinced that this attitude isn’t too far off from how the political and economic elite really do see the rest of us.  I used to think they view the millions of Americans who are the 99% as akin to crops or livestock, something to be harvested or culled for money when the need arose.  But I no longer believe that analogy holds.  After all, ranchers actually do have to spend money and tend to their cattle, farmers actually do have to water and care for their crops.  But the 1% and the public servants who toil on their behalf no longer bother to ensure we have minimal care.

Instead, I think it is more accurate to say that the 1% now conceive of the hundreds of millions of Americans who together make up the largest economy in the world as a kind of natural wildlife that should be left free to forage on its own, but which they are at perfect liberty to trap, skin, slaughter and eat as they please, their exploitation restrained only by the dimmest of understandings that enough of us must be allowed to survive so that our next generation can be trapped, skinned, slaughtered and eaten in turn.

And, indeed, it’s fairly easy to understand why they’d see us that way.

Everyone is familiar with the Citizens United decision, which last year proclaimed that the First Amendment prohibits the government from restricting political broadcasts sponsored by unions or corporations.  But Citizens United is only the latest high-profile case in a string of decisions stretching back decades in which the Supreme Court has equated free speech with the spending of money. 

And while an increasingly conservative Court has been on this path for a while, I would suggest that the Citizens United decision could not have been handed down any earlier than it was.  Sure, the Court may have wanted to hand it down earlier, it may even have believed for years that equating money with speech is the proper way to understand the First Amendment, but had it issued this ruling any sooner it would have defeated its ultimate purpose, which is to undermine our representative democracy by handing outsized political power to their fellow elite.

[O]nly a day or two after the decision was handed down I was listening to a discussion about it on NPR that included either current Republican frontrunner Newt Gingrich, or Karl Rove, or Grover Norquist (all three are easily confused in my long-term memory; I think it’s the Hitchcockian profile they share).  Whichever GOP flack it was, he defended the decision, arguing that it “leveled the playing field” by making more political speech available to everyone, and harped on the fact that unions had just as much unfettered right to run political ads as do corporations (e.g., management).


[But u]nion membership – public and private – in the United States is now at a 70-year low.  Back in the mid-50s, fully 35% of the American workforce was unionized.  Thirty years ago, 20% of all American workers still belonged to a union. . . .  Today, only 6.9% of America’s private labor workforce is unionized.

Do you really think the Roberts Court would have issued Citizens United back in the ‘50s, when labor unions actually had the muscle to stand up to corporate management [on behalf of average American workers]?  Do you think the Roberts Court would have done so even thirty years ago, when labor unions might at least still have put up a decent fight?  Of course not.  But today?  Now that thirty plus years of successively gutting the labor movement has shrunk the unions until they can be kicked around with impunity?  Oh, sure, now it’s no problem for the increasingly conservative Supreme Court to issue a ruling that “levels the playing field” by letting unions and management “compete in the arena of ideas.”

Now that management is Hulk Hogan and labor is Woody Allen, now it’s okay to get government out of the way, level the playing field, and “have a fair fight.”  And may the best man win.  (Wink wink, nudge nudge.)

Competing in the arena of ideas is a fine notion, when that competition is fair.  But ever since the Supreme Court started equating the exercise of speech with the spending of money, the competition to control the national narrative and thereby control the minds of our policy makers has been overwhelmingly tilted in favor of the wealthy.

For a more visceral understanding of the kind of outsized power the 1% wield over our political discourse, few articles provide more immediate impact than Kossack Mark Sumner’s diary last month titled “Fiscal Inequality:  Godzilla vs. Ants.”  There, Sumner supplied this fantastic visual representation of the way individual wealth is distributed in the United States:

As Sumner wrote, “[t]hat’s what America really looks like.  That’s how it looks to elected officials who scramble for campaign cash.  Oh, they know you’re down there. . . .  But mostly everything you say just fades into a faint whine, drowned out by the basso profundo rumble of the 1%.”

But don’t just take Sumner’s word for it.  Take Princeton political scientist Larry Bartels’s word for it.  After studying the voting behavior of US Senators, Bartels confirmed that the vast majority of Americans effectively have no representation in that chamber:

[Senators] respond far more to the desires of high-income groups than to anyone else.  By itself, that’s not a surprise.  He also found that Republicans don’t respond at all to the desires of voters with modest incomes.  Maybe that’s not a surprise, either.  But this should be:  Bartels found that Democratic senators don’t respond to the desires of these voters, either.  At all.  (emphasis in the original)

This is something profound.  We are accustomed to thinking of our representative democracy as a place where ideas and the tension of competing economic/social interests play out against each other and get resolved.  But Bartels’s research suggests that our Junior High Social Studies understanding of how our government works is not just naive, but now is fundamentally wrong.

In the Senate, at least, the vast majority of Americans – those of us who do not belong to the 1% or at least to the top 10% -- effectively have no representation.  None whatsoever.  It is not that we are constantly losing political contests to the economic elite as those contests play out in the hallowed halls of Congress, it is that we don’t even get to field a team

* * *

But all of this does explain one thing:  how it is our government can blithely continue enacting terrible economic policies in the face of the worst economic collapse in 70 plus years.  It is not just that our politicians no longer hear our voices, neither does anybody else.  The punditry, the media, the nation’s decision makers and debate-setters . . . they too have been captured by the economic elite.  Hell!  By any normal person’s understanding, they are the economic elite.

Liberals sometimes make fun of (okay . . . I make fun of) conservatives’ epistemic closure and their inability to take in facts that contradict their worldview.  But that almost certainly is also the case with The Powers That Be responsible for setting public policy and defining the acceptable parameters of our national debate.  And what is the only thing these people hear, what is the only message they repeat back to one another all day, every day?

The wealthy are the job creators.  Economic prosperity flows from the top down.  That economy is the best that taxes the least.  Government spending on poor people is wasted money.  Government spending on the middle-class is wasted money.  Government spending is wasted money.  The unfettered, unregulated free market will make everybody rich.  Profit equals efficiency, wealth equals virtue.  The unemployed are lazy, the poor are sinners, the powerless are parasites, YOU’RE THE BEST, YOU’RE THE BEST, YOU’RE THE BEST . . .

And on, and on, and on.

Against this unthinking, unremitting, unbroken economic Muzak is it any wonder that public policy is now crafted with only the wealthy in mind?  The thinking seems to be that so long as government takes care of the very rich and leaves the rest of us free to run about as Nature intended, foraging and grubbing for food, reliable infrastructure and health care, the country will magically prosper.  It makes no sense, but of course the only people who have found a way to bring that to anybody’s attention are busy getting arrested and pepper sprayed for doing so.  Because of course the 1% absolutely hate the Occupy movement and anybody else who has the temerity to disrupt that soothing, soothing Muzak.

Truthfully, right now if the government were to start thinking of the American people as livestock, as an asset they had to take care of so that their feudal  lords could keep reaping the profit we provide, we’d actually be better off.  Perhaps Jonathan Schwarz over at A Tiny Revolution best described our current situation a few years ago:

INSANE BILLIONAIRES:   Let’s kill everyone and take their money!

SANE BILLIONAIRES:       I like the way you think.  I really do.  But if we keep everyone alive, and working for us, we’ll make even more money, in the long term.


I long ago gave up thinking that the 1% will ever really understand that the rest of us are Real People just like them.  The way things are going, I now sometimes think the best for which we can hope is that some day soon they wake up to the fact it really is in their interest not to just kill us all off so they can wear our skins.

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