October 27, 2013

But Prosperity For Whom?

Se Necesitan Bar Maids (Barmaids Needed) 
sign seen on Roosevelt Avenue in 
Photograph courtesy Pak So and Anna Tan

Excerpts below from Inequality Is a Choice, an op-ed by economist Joseph E. Stiglitz published in the October 13, 2013 edition of The New York Times:

The United States provides a particularly grim example for the world. And because, in so many ways, America often "leads the world," if others follow America's example, it does not portend well for the future.

. . . . . . 

Last year, the top 1 percent of Americans took home 22 percent of the nation's income; the top 0.1 percent, 11 percent. Ninety-five percent of all income gains since 2009 have gone to the top 1 percent. Recently released census figures show that median income in America hasn't budged in almost a quarter-century. The typical American man makes less than he did 45 years ago (after adjusting for inflation); men who graduated from high school but don't have four-year college degrees make almost 40 percent less than they did four decades ago.

American inequality began its upswing 30 years ago, along with tax decreases for the rich and the easing of regulations on the financial sector. That's no coincidence. It has worsened as we have under-invested in our infrastructure, education and health care systems, and social safety nets. Rising inequality reinforces itself by corroding our political system and our democratic governance.

And Europe seems all too eager to follow America's bad example. The embrace of austerity, from Britain to Germany, is leading to high unemployment, falling wages and increasing inequality. Officials like Angela Merkel, the newly re-elected German chancellor, and Mario Draghi, president of the European Central Bank, argue that Europe's problems are a result of a bloated welfare spending. But that line of thinking has only taken Europe into recession (and even depression). That things may have bottomed out - that the recession may be "officially" over - is little comfort to the 27 million out of a job in the E.U. On both sides of the Atlantic, the austerity fanatics say, march on: these are the bitter pills that we need to take to achieve prosperity. But prosperity for whom?

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Inequality and poverty among children are a special moral disgrace. They flout right-wing suggestions that poverty is a result of laziness and poor choices; children can't choose their parents. In America, nearly one in four children lives in poverty; in Spain and Greece, about one in six; in Australia, Britain and Canada, more than one in 10. None of this is inevitable. Some countries have made the choice to create more equitable economies: South Korea, where a half-century ago just one in 10 people attained a college degree, today has one of the world's highest university completion rates.

For these reasons, I see us entering a world divided not just between the haves and the have-nots, but also between those countries that do nothing about it, and those that do. Some countries will be successful in creating shared prosperity - the only kind of prosperity that I believe is truly sustainable. Others will let inequality run amok. In these divided societies, the rich will hunker in gated communities, almost completely separated from the poor, whose lives will be almost unfathomable to them, and vice versa. I've visited societies that seem to have chosen this path. They are not places in which most of us would want to live, whether in their cloistered enclaves or their desperate shantytowns.

October 6, 2013

Here's To Cowboys And All They Stand For

Here's to Cowboys and All They Stand For, c.1980
Photograph by Nathan Lyons
From the series Riding First Class on the Titanic

Excerpt from Our Democracy Is at Stake, an op-ed by Thomas L. Friedman published in the October 1, 2013 edition of The New York Times:

"This time is different.  What is at stake in this government shutdown forced by a radical Tea Party minority is nothing less than the principle upon which our democracy is based: majority rule.  President Obama must not give in to this hostage taking - not just because Obamacare is at stake, but because the future of how we govern ourselves is at stake.

What we're seeing here is how three structural changes that have been building in American politics have now, together, reached a tipping point - creating a world in which a small minority in Congress can not only hold up their own party but the whole government.  And this is the really scary part: The lawmakers doing this can do so with high confidence that they personally will not be politically punished, and may, in fact, be rewarded. When extremists feel that insulated from playing by the traditional rules of our system, if we do not defend those rules - namely majority rule and the fact that if you don't like a policy passed by Congress, signed by the president and affirmed by the Supreme Court then you have to go out and win an election to overturn it; you can't just put a fiscal gun to the country's head - then our democracy is imperiled.

This danger was neatly captured by Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank, when he wrote on Tuesday about the 11th-hour debate in Congress to avert the shutdown.  Noting a shameful statement by Speaker John Boehner, Milbank wrote: "Democrats howled about 'extortion' and 'hostage taking,' which Boehner seemed to confirm when he came to the floor and offered: "All the Senate has to do is say 'yes,' and the government is funded tomorrow.' It was the legislative equivalent of saying, 'Give me the money and nobody gets hurt.' "

Excerpts below from What's the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America by Thomas Frank, first published 2004 by Henry Holt and Co.:

... The high priests of conservatism like to comfort themselves by insisting that it is the free market, that wise and benevolent god, that has ordained all the economic measures they have pressed on America and the world over the last few decades.  But in truth it is the carefully cultivated derangement of places like Kansas that has propelled their movement along.  It is culture war that gets the goods.

From the air-conditioned heights of a suburban office complex this may look like a new age of reason, with the Web sites singing each to each, with a mall down the way that every week has miraculously anticipated our subtly shifting tastes, with a global economy whose rich rewards just keep flowing, and with a long parade of rust-free Infinitis purring down the streets of beautifully manicured planned communities.  But on closer inspection the country seems more like a panorama of madness and delusion worthy of Hieronymous Bosch: of sturdy blue-collar patriots reciting the Pledge while they strangle their own life chances; of small farmers proudly voting themselves off the land; of devoted family men carefully seeing to it that their children will never be able to afford college or proper health care; of working-class guys in midwestern cities cheering as they deliver up a landslide for a candidate whose policies will end their way of life, will transform their region into a "rust belt," will strike people like them blows from which they will never recover.

. . . . . . . . 

Viewed from Mission Hills, this is a social order that delivers quaint slate roofs, copper gutters, and gurgling fountains in elegant traffic islands; viewed from Garden City, it is an order that brings injury and infection and death by a hundred forms of degradation; rusting playgrounds for the kids, shabby decaying schools, a lifetime of productiveness gone in a few decades, and depleted groundwater, too.  The anthropologists caution us in their sober way about a recipe for "growth" that blandly accepts a permanent impoverished class, but the people of Mission Hills are unfazed.  They may be too polite to say it aloud, but they know that poverty rocks.  Poverty is profitable.  Poverty makes stocks go up and labor come down.

. . . . . . . .  

Let us pause for a moment to ponder this all-American dysfunction.  A state is spectacularly ill served by the Reagan-Bush stampede of deregulation, privatization, and laissez-faire.  It sees its countryside depopulated, its towns disintegrate, its cities stagnate - and its wealthy enclaves sparkle, behind their remote-controlled security gates.  The state erupts in revolt, making headlines around the world with its bold defiance of convention.  But what do its rebels demand?  More of the very measures that have brought ruination on them and their neighbors in the first place.

This is not just the mystery of Kansas; this is the mystery of America, the historical shift that has made it all possible.

. . . . . . . . 

This situation may be paradoxical, but it is also universal.  For decades Americans have experienced a populist uprising that only benefits the people it is supposed to be targeting.  In Kansas we merely see an extreme version of this mysterious situation.  The angry workers, mighty in their numbers, are marching irresistibly against the arrogant.  They are laughing at the dainty affectations of the Leawood toffs.  They are massing at the gates of Mission Hills, hoisting the black flag, and while the millionaires tremble in their mansions, they are bellowing out their terrifying demands.  "We are here," they scream, "to cut your taxes."

. . . . . . . . 

This makes sense when we recall that the great goal of the backlash is to nurture a cultural class war, and the first step in doing so, as we have seen, is to deny the economic basis of social class.  After all, you can hardly deride liberals as society's "elite" or present the GOP as the party of the common man if you acknowledge the existence of the corporate world - the power that creates the nation's real elite, that dominates its real class system, and that wields the Republican Party as its personal political sidearm.

The erasure of the economic is a necessary precondition for most of the basic backlash ideas.  It is only possible to think that the news is slanted to the left, for example, if you don't take into account who owns the news organizations and if you never turn your critical powers on that section of the media devoted to business news.  The university campus can only be imagined as a place dominated by leftists if you never consider economics departments or business schools.  You can believe that conservatives are powerless victims only if you exclude conservatism's basic historical constituency, the business community, from your analysis.  Likewise, you can only believe that George W. Bush is a man of the people if you have screened out his family's economic status.  Most important, it is possible to understand popular culture as the product of liberalism only if you have blinded yourself to the most fundamental of economic realities, namely, that the networks and movie studios and advertising agencies and publishing houses and record labels are, in fact, commercial enterprises.

. . . . . . . . 

... As we have seen, conservatives grandstand eloquently on cultural issues but almost never achieve real-world results.  What they're after is cultural turmoil, which serves mainly to solidify their base.

. . . . . . . .

The Kansas conservatives, it seems to me, can be divided into two basic groups.  On one side are the true believers, the average folks who have been driven into right-wing politics by what they see as the tyranny of the lawyers, the America-haters at Harvard, the professional politicians in Washington, or the eviction of God from public space.  These kinds of Con will throw themselves under the wheels of an abortion doctor's car; they will go door-to-door and spend their life savings for their causes; they will agitate, educate, and organize with a conviction that anyone who believes in democracy has to admire.

On the other side are the opportunists: professional politicians and lawyers and Harvard men who have discovered in the great right-wing groundswell an easy shortcut to realizing their ambitions.  Many of them once aspired to join - maybe even did join - the state's moderate Republican insider club.  Rising up that way, however, would take years, maybe a lifetime, when by mouthing some easily memorized God-talk and changing their position on abortion - as Brownback and other leading Cons have done - they could instantly have a movement at their back, complete with superdedicated campaign workers they wouldn't have to pay and a national network of pundits and think tanks and talk-show hosts ready to plug them in.

Kansa's bright young Republicans know which way the wind is blowing.  The old Mod machine, they can tell, is tired and aging and clearly out of step with the national trend to the right.  Bob Dole and Nancy Kassebaum are long gone, while Brownback, Tiahrt, and company promise to be with us for decades to come.  The state's smart young lawyers these days all become Con men, as do its Harvard grads and its Rhodes scholars.

. . . . . . . . 

... The fever-dream of martyrdom that Kansas follows today has every bit as much power as John Brown's dream of justice and human fraternity.  And even if the state must sacrifice it all - its cities and its industry, its farms and its small towns, all its thoughts and all its doings - the brilliance of the mirage will not fade.  Kansas is ready to lead us singing into the apocalypse.  It invites us all to join in, to lay down our lives so that others might cash out at the top; to renounce forever our middle-American prosperity in pursuit of a crimson fantasy of middle-American righteousness.