The American Left Awakens: As The Middle Class Goes, So Goes The Political Middle
It could be said that a democracy’s chosen economic model lives and dies by the prosperity of the majority. A thriving middle class has been the key stabilizing factor in American politics for generations. As such, systematic change in the United States has traditionally come slowly and incrementally.
But after a decade of zero job growth, while millions more Americans have continued to enter the labor market, they have witnessed unemployment rates rise and become fixed at levels rarely seen before. They have watched their wages drop, their cost of living rise (due in large part to high energy prices, high education costs, and runaway health care costs), and correspondingly, their quality of life erode.
The middle class is gradually disappearing from the U.S. landscape, and the ‘American dream’ is transforming into a fiction in the minds of millions.
This dream is based on an implicit agreement between the establishment and the masses, and is crucial for America’s brand of hyper-Capitalism to remain a viable economic model. It goes something like this:
If Americans work hard, and invest in a decent education, at worst they should expect a comfortable middle class existence, with prospects for future upward mobility based on merit and perseverance.
As long as this dream is deemed achievable in the minds of the majority, the political status-quo remains all-but a certainty. But the moment people stop believing it, the calls for serious systematic change begin to bubble up to the surface. And this is when the political middle dissipates.
Many economists hold that the dream actually vanished many years ago, but the establishment extended exorbitant lines of credit to Americans, which allowed them to enjoy a mirage of prosperity. In other words, a once prosperous nation on the decline became transformed into a debtor nation. But in doing so, the ‘American dream’ lived on in the minds of millions.
All it took was the massive financial meltdown of 2008, brought on by years of deregulation in the financial and mortgage industries, to pull the curtain wide open on the American dream. The collapse of the U.S. banking industry — which exposed a band of corrupted, highly-leveraged casinos masquerading as banks — rudely awakened Americans to their true state of affairs.
Twelve trillion dollars in ‘perceived’ wealth, mostly in home values, vanished into thin air. Many of those lucky enough to remain employed, found themselves under water with their mortgages. No longer able to sustain their middle class lifestyles with easy credit, consumer spending continued to dry up, and the economy spiraled even further into the doldrums.
The rationale George W. Bush and Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson used to sell the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) to the American public was that if taxpayers bailed out these banks, they would in turn ‘loosen’ the credit markets by lending again to businesses and consumers, which would help to stimulate investment and demand.
Instead, the banks did just about everything, BUT resume lending. Having received amazing terms from the government, they invested in no-risk, interest-bearing Treasuries — to profit off the spreads and transaction fees. They paid themselves billions of dollars in the form of bonuses. In addition, these ‘Too Big to Fail’ banks used taxpayer money to buy-out struggling competitor banks, thereby growing even bigger.
Neither TARP, nor the $16 trillion in secret Fed loans to banks (both here and abroad), loosened the credit markets. Nor did they help millions of struggling Americans to stay in their bank-foreclosed homes. What the bail-outs accomplished was to send a powerful message to Wall Street: as long as these institutions remained ‘Too Big To Fail’ they could continue to take obscene risks, because the government could be counted on to cover their losses.
The effort was branded by most to be a colossal failure — a massive transfer of wealth from the ninety-nine percent to the one percent.
As the status-quo became untenable, many Americans began to abandon the political middle — once a seemingly ‘mainstream’ place to be — and split towards each end of the political spectrum.
Exiled from government, Republicans recast themselves as Tea Partiers — an ‘AstroTurfed movement’ that blamed ‘government’ for all the country’s woes. In particular, they blamed the new Democratic-controlled government, who’d been elected to clean up their mess. These right-wingers embraced pure unadulterated corporatocracy as the solution to problems created, ironically enough, by deregulated banks and corporations.
Democratic constituents felt relieved, having ushered Barack Obama into the White House on a populist progressive ‘CHANGE’ platform, along with Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. The Left continued to place its faith in democracy — i.e. the ‘ballot box’ — as the appropriate venue for delivering change.
But once sworn in, Obama’s call for ‘Change’ insidiously shifted to a new call for ‘Bipartisanship’. He proceeded to prioritize ‘harmony’ between two diametrically-opposed parties over championing the progressive promises that got him elected.
Of course, this new ‘priority’ was merely a cover for appeasing the entrenched corporate interests. His largely-symbolic legislative victories were so watered down and corporate-friendly that they were routinely castigated by the Left. His advisers would complain bitterly how no one outside the White House would give Obama his due-credit for his ‘achievements’.
He governed like a pre-Tea Party Republican as he broke promise after promise. He proposed cuts to social security, Medicare, and Medicaid. He pushed the Bush-signed, NAFTA-like (job-exporting) trade deals which Congressional Democrats had defeated years before, and he even pressured Congressional Democrats to extend Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest 2%. In doing so, he grossly underestimated the populist angst that had swept him into office.
Obama’s duplicity led many of his once-energized supporters to conclude that America’s entire political process was something of a sham — that they’d once again been had.
And so they gave up waiting around for the Democratic Party to walk their talk, and took to the streets themselves in masses. On September 17, Occupy Wall Street began peacefully protesting in downtown Manhattan, and it has since spread like a forest fire into a nation-wide movement.
This huge, non-partisan, populist ground-swell blasts the Washington establishment for systematically exploiting and subjugating ninety-nine percent of Americans to appease the wealthy and powerful one-percent. The protesters demand an end to the corrupt and insidious relationship between government and corporations which perverts the very fabric of democracy.
“My biggest fear was that the Obama presidency was going to lead this generation of young people into political cynicism and political apathy,” Klein says. “But instead, they are going to where the power is. They are realizing the change is not coming in Washington because politicians are so controlled by corporate interest, and that that is the fundamental crisis in this country.”
It would appear the power-elite’s greed, corruption, and hubris has finally awakened a sleeping populist giant in the American people. And the longer the Democratic Party continues to promote policies right of center, the more those left-of-center will continue to detach from the party and the entire democratic process.
A new Washington Post/Bloomberg News Poll reveals that 44% of Democrats don’t believe the economy would get any worse should President Obama lose in 2012 to a Republican. Blue Texan from Firedoglake sums up this startling revelation:
“Let that sink in for a minute. The economy will be the number one issue in 2012 — and nearly half of the President’s own party doesn’t think it matters if he’s re-elected.”
Clearly, today’s definition of the political middle — which is where Obama loyalists contend he governs — has come to represent the painful and untenable status-quo to traditional Democratic supporters.
“Job Creators” & “Investors”: The Disconnect Between Republican Policies & Economic Stimulus
The Republican Party’s latest economic policy proposals are nothing short of pure unadulterated neo-liberalism — the radical merciless ideology foisted upon the world by economist Milton Freedman. Recent events throughout the country have been playing out like a chapter straight out of Naomi Klein’s hugely important bestseller, The Shock Doctrine.
First the tax cuts for the wealthiest 2%, then the calls for deregulation, union-busting, and privatization; followed by — surprise! — severe austerity measures. These policies, if fully enacted, will accomplish little more than transferring trillions of dollars to the wealthiest individuals and corporations, and in doing so crushing the lives of average Americans.
Any ‘trickle down’ effects yielded from extending Bush tax cuts for the wealthy — which added nearly a trillion dollars to our national debt — would have been negligible at best. But they will literally be jack-hammered to oblivion if followed by the Republican-proposed Draconian measures.
Their calls for deep spending cuts in the public sector (both at Federal and State levels) will translate into whittling away all safety nets for America’s elderly and most vulnerable, while issuing pink slips for teachers, cops, firemen, postal employees, librarians, etc.
Instead of paying teachers to educate our children, and cops to fight crime, taxpayers will instead be writing their unemployment checks. That is, until Republicans can finally figure out a way to terminate unemployment insurance as well. Meanwhile, our national infrastructure continues to crumble beneath our feet.
And their proposals do absolutely nothing to stimulate the economy. Unless you believe that sacking public workers will magically reduce unemployment, and somehow stimulate consumer demand (the driver for economic expansion).
Rather than subjecting lower and middle-income Americans to severe austerity measures, our economy would be best served by doing the very opposite. Policies that help to improve the financial bottom-line for struggling Americans guarantees an economic spark, if only because these Americans have little choice, but to spend every last dollar they make on necessities (i.e. they put ALL of it right back into the economy).
Unlike lower and middle-income Americans, the wealthy have the luxury to hoard each and every penny netted from their tax cuts. And few of them will be enticed to invest in a recessionary environment where risks are abnormally high.
How many millionaires are out stimulating the economy right now by purchasing third or fourth homes here in the U.S., when economists are now forecasting a double dip in home prices? How many are considering starting up new businesses, dependent upon consumer spending, when consumer bankruptcies just hit a 5-year high?
For wealthy individuals who do choose to invest, many will wisely target foreign companies, foreign mutual funds, foreign real estate, and multinationals who do business where economies are still growing. In other words, the ‘trickle-down’ part of Republican economic policies will actually occur in China, India, and elsewhere.
The supply-side ideology is based upon a faulty and outdated model that conveniently ignores competition for investment dollars overseas, and is largely dependent upon exaggerating the discretionary spending behavior of the wealthy.
As for corporate tax laws, two-thirds of all U.S. corporations dodged paying a single penny in taxes between 1998 and 2005. And how did these corporations repay the favor? By shifting their labor investments overseas, to countries where the cost of labor is extremely low, and where few if any environmental protection laws exist.
Cisco just released their international salary report showing that the average annual salary of their technical professionals in India ($14,508) is just 1/4 of what their American counterparts make ($62,993). And yet their Indian employees work 56 hours per week, on average — that’s 25% more hours than their American counterparts (45 hrs).
To rub some serious salt into the wounds, the Wall Street Journal recently reported that U.S. corporations (not even including Wall Street Banks) were sitting on close to $2 trillion in cash — the highest corporate cash reserves in over 50 years! — and still refuse to hire in the United States:
Rather than pouring their money into building plants or hiring workers, nonfinancial companies in the U.S. were sitting on $1.93 trillion in cash and other liquid assets at the end of September, up from $1.8 trillion at the end of June, the Federal Reserve said Thursday. Cash accounted for 7.4% of the companies’ total assets—the largest share since 1959.
The cash buildup shows the deep caution many companies feel about investing in expansion while the economic recovery remains painfully slow and high unemployment and battered household finances continue to limit consumers’ ability to spend.
Yet, Republicans contend we must deregulate our industries further to help corporations cut their costs — at the expense of the environment and consumer protections — and desist from demanding they pay their fair share in taxes — all so that they will have the money they need to “create jobs”.
NO informed American — outside of wealthy individuals and corporate profiteers — could possibly support the Republican Party’s economic policies.
Which begs the question: how does a political party, which serves only the interests of its wealthiest contributors, continue to successfully legislate policies that work against the very interests of the American people?
Since their ideology is unsupported by the facts, they hire “word doctors” who coin misleading phrases to be repeated over and over again. Phrases that are both simplistic and somehow ‘intuitive’ to a non-discerning public.
This has remained their tried and true method for selling destructive economic policies to the American people. Take Frank Luntz, probably the most famous of all conservative “word doctors”. He coined the phrase “government takeover of healthcare”, which became the talking point for the Republican Party during the health care reform debate. It helped spur the Tea Party into storming Democratic town hall meetings during that period — terrified that “Marxists” were coming after their Medicare.
Their current economic play-script is inundated with two phrases: “job creators” and “investors” — to be used in place of “corporations” and “wealthy individuals”. These phrases — more or less the equivalents of “fair and balanced” being used to describe Fox News ‘reporting’ — are now the cornerstone of the entire Republican economic policy narrative.
Take Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), the Chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Virtually every sentence that comes out of his mouth includes the phrase “job creators”. Check out his Twitter account and count the tweets where he reiterates the phrase “job creators”. In fact, he created a website called AmericanJobCreators.com where he asks “job creators” to tell him what kinds of consumer protection regulations he should dismantle on their behalf.
The guy is a corporate lobbyist’s wet dream.
And our obsequious President — instead of showing leadership on this issue and dismantling this fictitious narrative — first capitulated on extending Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest 2%, then capitulated to Issa back in January on the argument that deregulation helps create jobs. In doing so, he legitimized what he knows to be untrue, making it next to impossible for his party to now push for MORE regulation and RAISE taxes on wealthy corporations and individuals without immediately being branded as hostile to “job creators”.
The Conservative Party in Canada, having noticed the success their Republican counterparts across the border were having with this “job creators” phrase, quickly employed it as their own anti-tax slogan.
But make no mistake about it. Our current economic plight was created by:
- Bush’s deregulatory policies leading to a financial meltdown, and the ensuing AIG and TARP bailouts.
- Bush’s misleading us into unnecessary & expensive wars.
- Bush’s granting the wealthiest 2% nearly $3 trillion in tax cuts over the last decade.
- Two-thirds of all corporations having evaded paying a single penny in taxes from their trillions in profits over the last decade.
- Corporations having moved our higher paying jobs overseas to low-cost labor countries.
It is not due to a lack of investing capital by cash-hoarding, tax-evading corporations and the wealthiest 2% (the so called “job creators”) — which remains the Republican rationale for cutting taxes and deregulation.
Yet, somehow the lives of the rich and powerful keep getting easier — more comfortable — while the burden for the reckless calamity they unleashed on this country slowly, but surely — thanks to a combination of an emboldened right-wing and a compliant, timid President — gets shifted onto the backs of the American people in the form of harsh austerity measures.
Milton Friedman’s legacy continues to haunt us.