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Saturday, July 22, 2017

I'll Stop After This One--Promise!

I’ve gone on for a while now (with a little break on Monday) about Hedrick Smith’s Who Stole the American Dream? because I think the book is important. Updates in events of the past five years are pretty clear on everyone’s radar, I think, so almost everything in this 2012 book continues to be relevant today. Part I and Part II of my musings can be found in previous posts. Also, I would have posted something very different today but am having a problem with the interface between laptop and photo card reader.

Anyway -- the point of reading this book is not to become depressed or hopeless, however; let me make that clear, please. The point is to understand – and then to see what we can do – because if we don’t realize where we got lost, how can we hope to find the road again?

...Money in politics is an old story. 

What's new is that it now the only story. 

- Bill Moyers, "The Soul of Democracy," in Moyers on America: A Journalist and His Times (2005)

It isn’t only class and income range in America that lost its middle: the middle ground has also dropped out of our politics, resulting in a nationally elected legislature terrified of bipartisanship. Consort with “the enemy,” and you may be purged from your party! Moreover, the two divides – the wealth gap and the disappearance of political moderates – have more in common than the words “missing middle.”
Political scientists have documented a link between polarized politics and rising economic inequality. The ever-increasing wealth gap and ever-sharpening partisan divisions go hand in hand. Over the past century, the two trends have moved up and down together.
Correlation does not establish causation, especially of a simple, unidirectional sort, but this particular correlation has a meaningful feel about it, from whatever side you look and however you seek to explain the link. And it got me to thinking about other changes we’ve seen in American society in the same decades. What about the disappearance of civility? Is this a metaphorical middle ground (between, say, street fights and ballroom dancing) that has gone missing? Is its disappearance merely coincidental? Or do we over-generalize about incivility, imagining it worse than it is, based on a small sample of bad actors? Are we not really as nasty to one another as it sometimes seems?

I’ve mentioned earlier (maybe more than once) that I had to keep putting this book aside because I found myself getting too upset to continue reading. “The Rise of the Radical Right” chapter was a continuation of my on-and-off reading mode. Newt Gingrich not only urged Republicans to...
“...nationalize the elections, mobilize the hatred for Congress nationally, and intensify it, and make Congress look so bad to people that they will think, ‘Anyone is better than what we’ve got now.’”
More than strategizing, he approached partisan conflict with revolutionary fervor:
In Gingrich’s mind, the conflict was literally to be a civil war. “This war has to be fought with a scale and a duration and a savagery that is only true of civil wars,” Gingrich caustically declared in 1988.

Peacetime politics fought with “savagery” but not just savagery -- “a savagery that is only true of civil wars”? Strange, isn’t it? How little civility is involved in a civil war?

The partisan divide occurred no more as a natural populist evolution than was the wealth gap shaped by an impersonal, invisible hand. Both were carefully orchestrated from the beginning by individuals and groups of Americans with names. Hedrick Smith’s book is not an invented story. He has not concocted a “conspiracy theory.” Facts, statements, memoranda, bills, dates, etc. are there for historians willing to dig for them.

I’m going to skip Smith’s sections on U.S. military spending and the costs of what he calls “imperial overreach,” not because it isn’t important – it is, vitally – but because the topic would be overreach on my part, even with Smith having covered it so well. I do, however, want to deal further with the issue of taxes. Bill Clinton, Smith tells us, wanted a tax increase in 1993, his first year in office, to cover at least part of the Reagan-Bush budget deficit he inherited. That increase created a budget surplus, the first in years, and stimulated the economic growth of that decade. But Gingrich et al. didn’t like it. They were ideologically opposed to tax increases.

And precisely this, I want to say, is one of the things I find most maddening about today’s immoderate, purist, ideology-driven Republicans. A very influential Republican here in my own county told me once, with an impatient shake of the head and dismissive wave of the hand, that she could never get interested in economics. I was flabbergasted. How can we let politics so fundamentally affecting our national economy and the economic lives of every American be directed by people who don’t care about outcomes, who care only that their ideology reigns supreme?

Well, of course, they care about more than ideology. Revisit that Bill Moyers quote at the beginning of today’s post. Every day’s news seems to bring to light yet another revolving door between government and the private sector, the same people getting rich by laws and policies they and their cronies made. Why, for example, were those responsible for the 2008 Wall Street crash not brought to justice? What was with those little slaps on the hand and tiny fines? Read here to get one pretty convincing answer.

As for the Tea Party, Smith argues that it only looks like a populist movement.
The Tea Party looked like a populist movement, but when its profile emerged, it was not a movement of average Americans. The 18 percent who identified themselves in polls as Tea Party followers were predominantly white, male, older, more college-educated, and better off economically than typical Americans, and 63 percent chose Fox News as their primary news source. They were far to the right of average Americans, identifying themselves as “very conservative” and always or usually voting Republican. Some 92 percent wanted smaller government (vs. 50 percent of Americans overall); 73 percent said they would favor cutting domestic programs, including Social Security, Medicare, education, and defense; and while most Americans (by 50 to 42 percent) favored government spending to create jobs, Tea Party supporters were 5 to 1 against that policy. They cared far less about jobs than cutting government and the deficit.
Cutting government programs, I hardly need say, goes hand-in-glove with tax cuts. And yet, Smith says, for all the outrage over taxes, taxes from 2009 to 2012 (the year this book was published) “were already at their lowest level in sixty years—since 1950” and the U.S. “has the third lowest overall tax rates of the twenty-eight most advanced economies in the world.”

Here’s an example of the kind of propaganda used to keep wealth from trickling down, through the government, to programs that might serve the common good. The estate tax. Heard of it? What does it mean to you? Republicans re-named it the “death tax” and campaigned hard against it, giving the general impression that family-accumulated wealth would be stolen at death rather than transferred to heirs.

The truth about the “death tax”? It used to be that only estates of $1 million fell under the estate tax. Then President Bush called for phasing it out altogether and also passed tax cuts for the middle class (the non-millionaires), which President Obama wanted to continue, But in order to get Congress to agree to extending the Bush tax cuts for the middle class, Republicans insisted that Obama raise the exemption on the estate tax to $10 million for couples and cap that at 35 percent. Middle-class voters scared that a “death tax” would impoverish their heirs were hoodwinked.

We’ve all been hoodwinked, over and over, in so many ways. The wealth gap has been the deliberate result of partisan politics favoring predatory capitalism at the expense of ordinary Americans. The same is true of much of the job loss that has come with it and contributed to it; the privatization of so many government services that exacerbate and widen the wealth gap; and deregulation that takes away protection for consumers and workers alike. You think these people on your side? Not unless you’re a billionaire. And then it’s unlikely you’d be reading Books in Northport.

Okay, that’s it. I’ll be back next time with a lighter topic. But really. This stuff is important. In fact, I'm beginning to think that the current President is more of a distraction than anything else. It's the selling of Congressional seats, on a national market, to the biggest spender that needs to stop so that government can once again be responsible to the American people.

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