Why We Can't Have Nice Things
I won’t spend too much time on the train wreck that is the 2016 election. Between despicable candidates, deplorable surrogates, disgusting supporters, and derelict media – it seems we’ve the campaign of a nation in a drunken stupor. People are voting at all-time lows for an historically unpopular congress. In response – and upon apparent suicide missions - our two major parties each (with dwindling membership) appear to be on the verge of nominating the most-disliked presidential candidates in US history.
What any election does, though, is offer a snap-shot of a moment in time.
Two of the three remaining presidential campaigns are succeeding with the message that the American Dream has been lost and can only be restored with drastic political change. The third runs as caretaker of the status quo.
Now, the establishment is inherently opposed to unrest. We are meant to be amused and distracted by the picayune. Ridiculous and perpetual conspiracies and scandals. Social conservatives fight losing battles against social justice warriors. Hippies and environmentalists fight losing battles against defense contractors and energy companies. Rich folks manipulate poor whites to blame the powerless for their woes. So long as we stay in our lanes, and keep giving in to social pressure to buy the latest this-and-that – those in power tussle our hair every four years while offering a false choice, and things roll right all.
Twenty-sixteen is the exception which proves the rule. Party elites and mega-donors understand both Trump and Bernie to be different animals. Trump as the unmanageable wildcard who could incite nuclear war. And Bernie as the radical curmudgeon who would overturn their apple cart.
Particularly humorous, to me, have been the contortions and distortions of partisan acolytes amongst the commentariat. Relentless and merciless attacks to the bitter end have exposed the visceral revulsion establishment “liberals” feel toward Bernie for being an actual, authentic uncorrupted, progressive populist.
Unemployment is down, wages are (slightly) up, the stock market has doubled, and the deficit halved under Barack Obama. More Americans have health insurance; marriage equality in 50 states; you’re even getting your way on weed. Everything is awesome! Trump supporters are only mad because we have a black president and a browning country. Why would progressives be upset? Entitled. Impatient. Naïve. Tut-tut.
While the establishment may fervently deny as much, we are witnessing populist uprisings on both the political right and left (this following the Tea Party revolution & Occupy). Trump supporters scream about criminal illegals immigrating en masse to steal our jobs and rape our daughters, and wail about welfare moochers driving up taxes and the national debt. While white resentment is an ugly manifestation, they are crudely communicating a common frustration with wage stagnation, wealth inequity, and social immobility. They just point their fingers in the wrong directions.
Our grandparents – with a single income - owned homes and had pensions and sent kids to college who could expect to be better off than their parents if they worked hard.
Guaranteed basic income used to be on the table (and will be again, once our jobs are given to robots). Nowadays, we are labeled entitled and branded as radical if we don’t think the cost of an education or medical emergency should condemn a family to a lifetime of debilitating debt. Morality alone should dictate these things, besides the economic benefit of people being free to spend on goods and services at local businesses. While most of us don’t have time to familiarize ourselves with the specifics of what happened and why, we know that something happened to get us here.
First is to understand how we reached our great heights in the first place. We attained our wealth by using slave labor to work land stolen in genocide. Then robber barons put children to work in mines, and squeezed workers to their breaking points while amassing vast wealth, before reckless financial institutions brought the world economy to its knees.
Our response to the Great Depression was FDR and the New Deal. Forty years of economic stability was achieved by building a barrier between everyday depositor funds, and the casino-style gambling of Wall Street speculators with Glass-Steagal. (Until financial deregulation by Clinton and Dubya set in motion the Great Recession.) Social Security was implemented in order to drastically reduce poverty among the elderly. The FHA was introduced to facilitate home ownership (redlining is a subject for another day). Labor rights were strengthened and federal minimum wage was established to close the gap between workers and CEOs. The WPA and CWA provided millions of temporary jobs constructing parks and bridges and the like. There were job-training programs for veterans and the unemployed. In-state college tuition was next-to-nothing…
All of which was easily affordable. Our top tax rate was 94% (and we still had super-rich people with more money than they could spend) while the unemployment rate was 2% (considered full-employment). Hitler was defeated; we built the interstate highway system; and walked on the moon.
With LBJ’s Great Society came Medicare & Medicaid (for the elderly and the poor), along with the Civil Rights Act & Voting Rights Act. (My personal observation is that once blacks started realizing the full benefit of citizenship, we immediately went about scaling those benefits back.)
Nixon appointed Chief Justice Lewis Powell, and the Supreme Court ruled that money is speech and corporations are people – essentially legalizing political bribery. This was the seminal moment in the invisible coup which replaced our representative democracy with an oligarchic plutocracy. Within a few years, an entertainer was placed into office in order to slash the taxes on the wealthiest - upending 40 years of economic growth and stability.
Since then, the thirty-five year trickle-down Reaganomics experiment has essentially destroyed the American Dream. Our corporate overlords and billionaire ruling class have purchased our representatives at auction, redistributed middle class wealth to the wealthy, and shifted the tax burden onto the middle and working classes while gutting government programs which facilitated opportunity and kept the Dream within reach.
The top individual rate went from 94% to 28% (now 38%). Corporations used to pay 30% of all taxes – they now represent roughly 10% of tax revenue. Capital gains and carried interest loopholes means people who make money off of stocks are taxed at a much lower rate than income from actual labor. A handful of farms collect 90% of farm subsidies. Tax inversions allow “American” corporations to change their address to Bermuda and avoid paying US taxes. We let corporations write off the expenses associated with outsourcing our jobs to foreign countries. We subsidize oil companies – the most profitable in the history of the world. We subsidize with food stamps and welfare the low wages of our largest employers. We burn money with senseless waste in healthcare and military spending (payoff for the legal bribes).
We can easily afford to restore and improve upon the American Dream. All it requires it the will to go about doing it. Unfortunately, we’ve been brainwashed. We’ve been convinced that voting once every four years will suffice. We’ve been convinced that rest and mental well-being are signs of weakness while stress and overexertion are virtues. We’ve been convinced that wealthy stay-at-home moms are virtuous, but poor ones are shameful. We’ve been convinced that unions are bad for workers. We’ve been convinced that higher wages equal fewer jobs. We’ve been convinced that the stock market and the national debt mean something to regular people. We’ve been convinced that we can’t have basic things which other countries easily afford. We’ve been convinced that nothing can be done.
We’ve tried working longer hours. We sent both spouses to work. We’ve drowned ourselves in credit card debt, housing, vehicle, and finally student loan debt. Our productivity keeps increasing and increasing, yet wages have stagnated for nearly forty years – those profits are going somewhere! During the recovery, literally all of the economic gains have gone to the top 1%. CEO pay has exploded, while the odds of rags-to-riches have dwindled to near-zero.
Since we all consider ourselves to be future-millionaires who will one day be able to take advantage, we don’t mind if the rules are skewed a bit toward the wealthy – but we have a sense of general fairness and we all want our kids to have a better opportunity that we.
Unfortunately, we don’t want it badly enough. The reason that healthcare, education, and labor rights in European (especially Scandinavian) countries is so vastly superior, is because they’ve the will to make it happen. We are too afraid that in a land of rugged individualism, someone will simply take our spot if we stand up and speak out.
I was in a union. I got into a car accident and woke up in the hospital. It cost me (my car, and) a $25 co-pay. The union contract ran out, workers weren’t willing to strike – suddenly union negotiators had no leverage and settled for healthcare premiums on HMO/PPO plans which were hundreds of dollars per month for an individual. Same union, a few years later at a different business – dental and vision cost extra.
There is a recipe for meaningful change. That which we desire calls for protest, civil disobedience, and dedication. It won’t be easy. Workers’ rights to organize and strike have been gutted. When people do strike, they not only risk their livelihoods, but are berated by society for their annoyance. When protesters are frustrated enough to stand up, our constitutional rights to do so are suddenly rescinded on public and private property - and militarized skull-crushing law- enforcement deployed. They are infiltrated and monitored by spy agencies. Public opinion of protesters is set against them if the flow of traffic is at all affected (big city news anchors just love to complain about first-world traffic problems).
Our media has been bought by the same corporate overlords who’ve bought our government officials. As with many things, we used to be better. Walter Cronkite was beloved for his honesty and for emoting empathy in times of great despair. Anderson Cooper has been promoted through the ranks because he values subjectivity & neutrality over objectivity & fact-based reporting. Our corporate media now promulgates rank dishonestly in exchange for access to perpetually dishonest mascots of corporate greed.
We used to understand the airwaves to be our own. A natural resource. A collective utility. We afforded media organizations the opportunity to broadcast on our airwaves free of charge – but in exchange, we had demands. An hour of prime-time had to be devoted to news. Relevant topics had to be covered – and truthfully, no BS. And no monopolies: a person or group could control a single form of major media in a given market – no more. Then CBS managed to turn a profit with 60 Minutes, enticing others to strive for the same, rendering publicly held media organizations down to if-it-bleeds-it-leads ratings whores. (Scores of companies operated our media a few decades whence. Now, thanks deregulation by Reagan on behalf of corporate greed, six multinational media conglomerates control 90% of American media – from TV & movies to books, newspapers, and magazines.)
They are lying to us. They won’t tell us why our elections are suddenly so expensive, why that money is so easy to come by, and where most of it ends up. Let alone how to fix it.
First thing is to fix our government so we can fix the economy. The Supreme Court says money is speech and corporations are people so bribery is legal. They overrule any law passed by congress and signed by any president. You could wait for someone to die, and for a relevant case to work its way through, hoping no one else dies to swing the court back. Or we can overrule the SCOTUS by amending the US Constitution. Congress got elected by winning a rigged game – no sense in changing the rules to a corrupt game they thrive in. Or, the states can call for a convention on a given amendment themselves (states have to ratify any amendment, regardless of origin). While members of congress are generally corrupt, state legislators are real people with real jobs who happen to be part-time government employees. They have personal political views, but they don’t want a fat campaign check going against them, and they don’t like having to beg strangers for money. They just need to know what we want, and that we are serious.
Once we pass a 28th Amendment banning money in politics, we have representatives who work for us instead of their monied political donors. No longer will they owe favors to oil companies who want tax subsidies and to pollute our environment at no cost; or pharmaceutical companies who don’t want to negotiate prescription drug prices; or defense contractors who want perpetual war; or wealthy billionaires who want to hoard all of their fortunes.
They will owe us, the people, because they will be indebted to the voters, and not their sponsors. If we want to get rid of the electoral college, or caucuses, or super-delegates, or gerrymandering, or provisional ballots. If we want a voting holiday, or jungle primaries, or term limits, or opt-out voter registration, or compulsory voting, or a none of the above ballot option… We can fix our elections if our elected officials are correctly incentivized.
We can institute and reinstate programs which help regular folks. Free college so our young aren’t saddled with debt from the get go. Job training programs for people who want to change professions. Childcare so single parents can go to school and/or work. Universal basic income so they don’t have to. Preschool so poor kids have an even playing field. Universal healthcare so people aren’t bankrupted from medical costs; and creative & driven artists & entrepreneurs aren’t tied down to shoddy jobs just because they are human beings who inevitably get sick/hurt.
There is so much to be done that will be beneficial, not only to individual Americans, but to our nation as a whole. We need to send an army of people to work on our crumbling roads and bridges. We have lead pipes (and paint) which need to ripped out and replaced. We have buildings which need to be retrofitted to be more energy efficient. We need a smart national power grid; we need to bury the power cables; we need solar, wind, hydroelectricity. We have pollution in seas, lakes, factory-adjacent streams, and urban waterways that need be cleaned. We need to prepare coastal cities for sea-rise (or prepare for relocation). We need high speed railways. We need fiber-optic internet.
We need to have regular people taking home enough money to have disposable income they can spend on goods and services at local businesses who will hire more workers who earn enough money to have disposable income they can spend...
We need to be upset. We need not bicker over the trivial. We need not be distracted with false comfort. We need the strength to be uncomfortable in the pursuit of change. We need the courage to unleash our potential. Because all that stands between us and another great American century is the will to make it happen.