Warning: My post today may be like a confusing tennis match, back and forth between economics and poetry, my blood pressure rising perilously and being brought back to the level. But if you can't be dragged kicking and screaming into a discussion on economics, just scroll past those parts and take in the poetry breaks. They are the real meat, anyway.
The Perils of Economic Realism
Not for the world would I give up reading serious nonfiction, but sometimes the difficulty is as much -- or more -- in the effect of the reading on my nerves, shall we say, as in comprehending the ideas. For instance, recently I’ve been reading a book that sends my blood pressure soaring. It was published in 2012, and I can only imagine what the author, Hedrick Smith, would say if he were writing Who Stole the American Dream today. What do YOU think is responsible for the enormous and widening chasm between the growing pool of Americans in poverty and the hyper-rich at the top of the heap? Is it simply the result of technological growth and “progress,” the “Invisible Hand” of classical economics at work? Do differences in education across socioeconomic strata account for the gap? How about financial irresponsibility at the bottom and deep wisdom at the apex of the social pyramid?
Hedrick Smith believes it’s none of the above. He points to 1978 as the turning point, for it was then, he says, that large corporations across America joined forces and began their own very interested political activism, pouring money into campaigns and subsequently, with their successes, reversing the growth of the middle class seen in the previous three decades. A secondary cause, in Hedrick’s view, was a new corporate ethos. No longer were business and workers seen as having common interests. Now a CEO was focused (and continues to focus) almost exclusively on short-term gains for shareholders. In the glorification of predatory capitalism, ruthlessness is admired as strength, and it pays off in CEO pay, bonuses, and “golden parachutes.”
It makes sense that a CEO would be compensated at a higher rate than a worker on the line. Of course. The boss gets paid the most. Who would argue? From 1978 to 2013, however, inflation-adjusted compensation for CEOs increased 937 percent, double the gains in the stock market for the same period and in marked contrast to wages, which gained only 10.2 percent. Contrast this to 1965, when the CEO to worker pay ratio stood at 20:1.
The standard argument for colossal CEO compensation packages is that a CEO is responsible for the growth and success of his or her (usually his) corporation. Nonsense, says Hedrick Smith. First of all, they receive the same compensation whether they succeed or fail to enhance the price of stock. Second, compensation packages are awarded by boards generally composed of other CEOs and former CEOs. Third, every company wants to look good, and if their CEO’s pay is below average, they believe their company image will suffer, so for corporate image’s sake a CEO must be richly rewarded. Cutting jobs, closing plants, shipping those jobs and facilities overseas where costs are lower – all cut costs in the short term and fuel the vicious cycle of increased unemployment and poverty at the bottom of the pyramid at the same time that the apex ascends ever higher.
Take a Break for Poetry!
But I can only read a few pages at a time and take some sketchy notes before I need a break. It is just so discouraging, the power of money to pound everyone else into the ground! I spent Sunday like an invalid, relaxing with a couple of totally “fluffy” novels (between yard work sessions) but began the new week stronger, with poems and essays of Philip Levine, Detroit native and U.S. poet laureate in 2011. Oh, heaven, this Michigan voice! I stretch out on the front porch after supper with The Last Shift and read and breathe. And it is enough.
Nose Back to the Grindstone
Okay, but what about tax cuts for the wealthy? What do you make of the claim that such tax cuts will translate into business investment and new startups, creating jobs and lifting all boats? Experience, history, and numerous economic studies fail to support the claim. More money left in the pockets of the rich does not trickle down. Hedrick cites analysts who agree that “high concentrations of wealth correlate with poor economic performance in the long run,” and he writes of the years “2009 to 2012 as evidence that offering low tax rates to promote investment did not work.”
Even former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan was moved to comment in 2011 that Corporate America was sitting on nearly $2 trillion in idle capital. Greenspan asserted that the reluctance of business leaders to spend on new plants and equipment and on hiring more workers “accounted for almost all of the rise in unemployment” from 2007 to 2011.
Go back and re-read that quote above, after reminding yourself that Alan Greenspan was the darling economist of Ayn Rand, hardly a friend to taxes on wealth. There is a radio announcement these days for a firm specializing in “wealth management.” The firm promises to keep and grow your family wealth, and whenever I hear it, I think of the old ads for Stop-Leak. Know what I mean? Why would the wealthy want their fortunes trickling down?
A Poet’s Life
Time for another cooling-down period. Reading an entire volume of Philip Levine’s poetry, cover to cover, I knew I would be coming back to it in quiet moments and savoring more slowly the individual poems, but for now, my busy season of the year heating up faster than expected (and my blood pressure soaring from that economics reading), I turn to Levine’s memoir essays, My Lost Poets: A Life in Poetry. The first line of the title essay, for me, instantly stops the rush of time. “I composed my first poems in the dark.” Isn’t that wonderful? That sentence is a poem. I smile and breathe and continue.
The poet-to-be was fourteen years old, a Detroit boy, son of immigrants, and he did not yet know poetry, but it had already found him.
In truth I never thought of these early compositions as poems: I never thought of them as anything but what they were: secret little speeches addressed to the moon when the moon was visible and when the moon was not visible to all those parts of creation that crowded around and above me as well as those parts that eluded me, the parts I had no name for, no notion of except for the fact they were listening.
What Levine writes of his first attempts at writing poetry, without having a name to give to his “speeches addressed to the moon,” instantly made me think of another Michigan poet, Diane Seuss. She too – and this was years ago, long before My Lost Poets would be published – said that she didn’t know, when young, that the pieces she was writing were poems. She had no name for them, either. It’s a different way of coming to poetry, very different from growing up in a home filled with serious literature and wanting to do what the writers in those books did.
A high school teacher introduced Philip Levine to “Arms and the Boy,” by Wilfrid Owen and loaned him a collection of Owen’s work.
I could lie and say those poems changed my attitude toward and my understanding of the importance of poetry. No, what it changed was my attitude toward myself.
And isn’t that a great and important gift to receive from poetry, a gift from a poet who had more to give than his own reflection?
At the first poetry reading young Philip Levine attended, in Webster Hall at Wayne University [not yet called Wayne State], he was bowled over by the first line read by a fellow student, Bernard Strempek. Strempek was one of Levine’s “lost poets” in that he died young, leaving only “enough poetry for one tiny, posthumous collection of satiric, hard-edged poems....”The line that so dazzled Levine on that first reading, “When in a mirror love redeems my eyes,” did not appear in the posthumous volume and may “live now only in this essay.” Stop and think what that means: a young, aspiring poet reads his work to a small audience, and another young, aspiring poet is so struck by the first line that he never forgets it, and later, in an essay, he shares the line with the world, crediting the friend of his youth, now deceased, whose name we would not otherwise know.
Shakespeare wrote, “So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.” How much more fitting for a poet than a graveyard tombstone, to be immortalized in the written word!
Gathering Up My Courage Again...
The picture of a CEO sending manufacturing jobs overseas (while his own personal wealth skyrockets) is already a somewhat old-fashioned figure, because today’s American economy is not all that focused on making anything. Financial markets are the big thing now, finance overtaking manufacturing in the late 1980s, its profits accounting for 46 percent of total U.S. corporate profits in 2005. And this making of money is built on – can you guess? Debt. There are huge profits to be made by servicing debt, as we are all becoming more and more aware. Glass-Steagall (the Banking Act of 1933, inspired by the Crash of 1929) was repealed in 1999. We all know what happened in 2008. Now Congress is poised to repeal the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010. It seems our memories grow ever shorter as time goes on....
Better Late Than Never to Meet a Poet
My husband knew poet Philip Levine slightly. I wish I’d known him. From what little I’ve read, he sounds like a wonderful guy. A Michigan poet, Detroit native, poet laureate (2011), and David knew – how could I have missed reading him for so long, only to “discover” him now, after his death?
It’s all right. Many a reader is unknown to a poet whose works the reader loves, and many a time it is just that, the time, when a poet’s work enters one’s life that matters deeply. And poetry, my friends, is the real world, too. The money runs out, the poets and the financiers die, but the poems live on.