Friday, September 14, 2007

More People Receptive to "Two Americas" Narrative?

The Pew Research Center released an interesting poll, yesterday -- using terms that seem to resonate somewhat with John Edwards's "Two Americas" campaign theme. According to Pew, in 1988 (almost 20 years ago, when Bush 41 took over from Ronald Reagan), 71% of people polled rejected the notion that the United States was divided into "haves" and "have nots," while just 26% saw a divided nation.

Today, according to Pew, "Americans are split evenly on the two-class question, with as many saying the country is divided along economic lines as say this is not the case (48% each)." Further, "the number of Americans who see themselves among the "have-nots" of society has doubled over the past two decades, from 17% in 1988 to 34% today. In 1988, far more Americans said that, if they had to choose, they probably were among the "haves" (59%) than the "have-nots" (17%). Today, this gap is far narrower (45% "haves" vs. 34% "have-nots")."

In the time from 1990 to 2007, U.S. population has increased 21.78% from 248,709,873 to 302,873,594 (and counting) (incidentally, even if each and every one of those extra individuals were from a foreign country, and in this country illegally -- which demonstrably is not true -- the recent anger we have heard about, via some media sources, about immigration, would appear to be based more on subjective perception than fact). In the time from 1990 to 2006, the Gross Domestic Product of the United States (measured in 2000 dollars) grew 59.15% from 7,112.5 $Bn in 1990, to 11,319.4 $Bn in 2006.

Sometimes, perceptions (as reported in opinion polls) are dramatically divorced from reality -- as for instance, a claim from the Department of Justice some years ago that increased spending on incarceration was justified, not based on any actual increase in crime (indeed, crime was declining dramatically), but instead based on a popular (and wrong) perception that the crime rate was exploding.

So, is the Pew poll just reflecting a common mis-perception, while the real numbers show that people are actually better-off than they were 17 years ago (with a good chunk of that "better off" attributable to the admirable economic expansion between 1992 and 2000)? Or are the people polled by Pew starting to tune in to a trend that is considerably more real?

In my view, George Carlin, in his "big club, and you ain't in it" monologue, was largely right (2:30 to 6:25 on the video) about putting the real issue in perspective, in a manner rather more blunt and considerably less delicate than the Pew Center. Carlin is hardly the canary in the coal mine -- some intellectuals and writers have been saying the same things for quite some time, while publishing statistics about (among other things) how executive compensation is obscene, and how ordinary workers' wages have stagnated (or worse). But, unlike intellectuals (and people like me who sometimes use big words), Carlin is good at making his point in a way that everyone can understand.

In a similar vein, in about the middle of the 1987 - 2007 period, Susan Faludi, in her book Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man (
William Morrow & Co. 1999), admirably pointed out how the post-WWII "deal" struck between the elite of the "haves" (the small percent of a percent Carlin calls "the owners"), and the broad middle class, had been, in effect, called off by America's elites. Faludi (undoubtedly -- to digress for a moment into pointless name-calling -- still likely to be called a "feminazi" by Mr. Limbaugh, on behalf of disgruntled and angry white ditto-heads, everywhere) had previously written a book concerning "the undeclared war on American women" (but, note the conspicuous absence of an identification of who had initiated said war, without making a formal declaration). Her book "Stiffed" reflected a rather remarkable change of attitude (though not a departure from the view that most women are oppressed), based on spending a lot of time with American men who were not the elite decision-makers of American business and government. Turns out that ordinary men were experiencing a lot of the same oppression as American women, and that both had (and have) a common oppressor.

Of course, there is no grand conspiracy to oppress the "little guy," to wage "war" against women, or to increase (rather than narrow) the gap between rich and poor. At least, there's none that I know of. But, at the same time, social and economic policies can (and do) have predictable consequences for society as a whole. And some people (the current administration, most notably) seem Hell-bent on imposing bad policies on the rest of us, in the apparently faith-based belief that, sooner or later, if the guvvament just sticks to the program of economic and civil-liberties fundamentalism, things really will turn out for the best (or, the Rapture will arrive, which is the same thing). Of course, these "insider" fundamentalists privately have a good laugh about the "outsider" fundamentalists -- the Bible-beaters all across the American South, who've been duped, repeatedly, into voting for their own exploitation by leaders who (in a way familiar to anyone who has read both The Prince and Leo Strauss) are much better at seeming to be pious, than at actually being pious and faithful to Christian belief. Recalling how Lee Atwater (the mentor both for Karl Rove and for Roger Ailes of Fox News) was known for reading The Prince not less often than once a year, I suppose the following passage from Republican scripture (i.e., Chapter XVIII of the Book of Machiavelli), is more than a little revealing:

"Therefore it is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them. And I shall dare to say this also, that to have them and always to observe them is injurious, and that to appear to have them is useful; to appear merciful, faithful, humane, religious, upright, and to be so, but with a mind so framed that should you require not to be so, you may be able and know how to change to the opposite. . . .

"For this reason a prince ought to take care that he never lets anything slip from his lips that is not replete with the above-named five qualities, that he may appear to him who sees and hears him altogether merciful, faithful, humane, upright, and religious. There is nothing more necessary to appear to have than this last quality, inasmuch as men judge generally more by the eye than by the hand, because it belongs to everybody to see you, to few to come in touch with you. Every one sees what you appear to be, few really know what you are . . . ."

Returning, then, to the "two Americas," Michael Moore, in his recent (and excellent) movie, "Sicko," helpfully poses the question to middle-class Americans (the audience watching his movie) of how likely they are to be to challenge the status quo, knowing how easy it is suddenly to wind up without employer-sponsored health coverage. In virtually the same breath, he also mentions student loans -- a topic about which I have much to write in the future. What really put things into perspective, for me, on the subject of student loans, was sitting in the offices of a Park Avenue law firm with some lawyers whose whole job was to protect the tobacco industry from paying compensation to the victims of deceptive advertising, junk science, manipulation of nicotine levels in products to control addiction, and other rather rather extraordinary behaviors of corporate executives and employees (including paid health professionals with medical degrees), in pursuit of profit. I was not even told about the tobacco aspect of the position, until after I showed up for the interview. The pay for such a position is quite attractive to a young lawyer facing tens of thousands of dollars in student debt; and the hours are *much* better than for most big-firm lawyers. What is not to love about such a job? But I digress. Needless to say, I chose conscience over compensation.

The way in which exploitative social institutions (the tobacco industry, to name just one) and public policies (student loans, American healthcare), can evolve and metastasize into something horrendous, through the ordinary and incremental working of the free market and democratic institutions of government (and, of course, of the market and government working together) fascinates me, and brings me to two more recent, and very interesting, books.

The first has been published, but is not due to for general release until next week. I'm looking forward to it (as, apparently, is Miguel de Icaza). Naomi Klein, of The Nation, is about to release The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (Metropolitan Books 2007). From what I gather from advance reviews and a short film that reminds me rather too much of the trailer for Godfrey Reggio's Naquoyquatsi, Klein's book appears to be about how ideas can have profound (and, perhaps, unintended) consequences.

In another post, I'll write about the influence of a movement of academic political thinkers, such as Leo Strauss and Harvey Mansfield on contemporary politics (blogger Glenn Greenwald has touched upon the rather astonishing influence of Strauss and Mansfield, in recent posts).

Naomi Klein focuses on another academic whose work is much-treasured by right-wing think tanks, and often followed like gospel by disciples in government and industry -- Milton Friedman. Friedman, it is no secret, has been to neo-liberals in Economics departments (where the next generation of middle-managers for the global empire are identified, tapped and groomed) what Strauss, Mansfield, and others (and their favorite authors -- Machiavelli and Plato), have been to Political Science / Political Philosophy departments (where promising students often are encouraged, as I once was, to sign on with The Federalist Society promptly upon entering law school, lest those crazy law professors fill your head with ideas that movement conservatives consider anathema) for several decades.

Needless to say, Friedman's ideas have been hugely influential. And it seems to me those ideas have been hugely influential, at least in part, precisely because they tended (and still tend) to validate the pre-existing social, political, and economic preferences of some very powerful people who already had (and have) considerable influence in American society. Little wonder that so much money has been poured into making sure that well-expressed ideas like Friedman's (and Hayeck's, and others'), that happened (and happen) to validate the pre-existing prejudices of the influential, were, and continue to be, taught and propagated far and wide.

In an interesting turn of events, hundreds of young "true believers" -- raised through college on a healthy (ahem.) intellectual diet of Milton Friedman, and Leo Strauss and Ayn Rand, and the Holy Bible -- were (as described in Bob Woodward's book State of Denial, among other sources) handed the opportunity recently to re-make an entire country (Iraq) in the image of the deregulated, privatized, free-market utopia of which they (or at least their leaders, mentors and professors) have long dreamed -- with as little criticism or oversight from, and opposition by, American progressives, as might ever be conceivable. And what an unmitigated disaster they managed to create in so short a time! It perhaps came as at least as much of a surprise, to the young cadre of conservative / neo-liberal "true believers" in the CPA, that exposure of the Iraquis to the wisdom of Milton Friedman did not produce the desired result, as it came as a surprise to Spanish conquistadors that native Americans did not instantly grasp the "good news" in the Holy Bible, and convert the instant they heard it.

Klein will, needless to say, hardly be the first person to document (or at least to start documenting) the actual consequences, through U.S. policy in country after country throughout the world (including here in the U.S. itself), of the schools of thought that became ascendant during the Bush 43 administration (even more so than during the period from 1980-88, or 1968-76 -- during which periods, not co-incidentally, Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld, and the Bush family also played important and prominent roles in government).

Among the recent books pointing out the profoundly un-democratic things the U.S. has accomplished, while allegedly "promoting democracy" around the world, is Confessions of an Economic Hit Man (Plume 2004), by John Perkins. In it, Perkins chronicles his personal role in helping U.S. engineering and construction companies (and the government with which these companies are closely intertwined) expand and reinforce the U.S. global empire by pursuing the same pattern of exploitation in country after country -- Iran, Indonesia, Equador, Panama, Chile, and the list goes on. The most interesting aspect of the story is that Perkins claims that he knew exactly what he was doing (thus implying that his "bosses" knew exactly what *they* were doing, too), while he was doing it. Of course, Perkins's "confession" rings a little hollow, today, in light of the reasonably comfortable lifestyle he is able to enjoy as a result of his knowing participation in exploitation and empire -- and he certainly does not seem to be interested in giving it all back, out of guilt for what he personally (and, he says, knowingly) did.

Perkins also is not as good a scholar as he is a story-teller about his own experience. His story starts, largely, with the 1953 CIA-mounted coup in Iran -- which Perkins claims was essentially the first in a pattern of interventions throughout the period following World War II, up through the early 1980s (when Perkins got out of the empire business). A somewhat more thorough historian might look back several years to Panama, during the first Roosevelt administration (and the odd relationship of the U.S. with the inimitable Philippe Bunau-Varilla), as well as the U.S. actions throughout Central America during Woodrow Wilson's administration, as a better starting-point for the story of America's persistent pattern of imperial behavior. Then again, someone truly thorough would certainly push the story right back into the colonial period, as does James Lowen, in Lies My Teacher Told Me (Touchstone, 1995) -- which is about to be issued in an updated version this month.

As an interesting aside, while we touch on Panama, Iran, and the name Roosevelt, it is no secret that Kermit Roosevelt, grandson of Theodore Roosevelt (the President when the Panama Canal was built -- and the unexpected beneficiary of some rather interesting and conveniently-timed accidents, such as the assassination of President McKinley or the explosion of the Maine in Havana harbor) happened to be the American assigned to orchestrate the coup in which the Shah of Iran replaced his father as leader of his country. The Shah's reign lasted from 1953 until 1979, and would not be fair to characterize as "democratic." Rather, it had much more in common with such U.S. "allies" such as Indonesia (under Suharto), Chile (under Pinochet), Guatemala (Garcia and others), Haiti (under Duvalier), and a list that goes on and on. Our latest is Musharraf, in Pakistan.

The second-most-interesting aspect of Perkins's book is his explanation about how the Saudi Oil Crisis in 1973 changed everything, from the standpoint of (what Perkins calls) the "economic hit men" and their bosses. The Saudi embargo was unexpected, and helped American political and business leaders understand quickly how much power over us the Saudis actually had (and were, apparently, willing to wield). The ultimate response of the U.S., however, was to begin work, very rapidly, to turn Saudi Arabia into a U.S. client state, through vast infrastructure projects, as had been done before by the U.S., in many other (debtor) nations. The Saudi case was different, however, according to Perkins, in the sense that the Saudis were able to finance the spending with oil revenue, rather than debt, and also due to the scale of what Perkins claims his company called "The Saudi-Arabian Money-Laundering Affair."

Something changed, in America, it seems to me, about the time of (or not long after) the grand deal struck between our national leaders, and the Saudi Royal Family -- that enabled U.S. economic and political interests to have confidence that America would never experience another "oil shock" like 1973, again -- ever.

At some point, somebody started pulling up the ladder. Some say it was 1980, but that is probably just the most dramatic inflection-point of a trend that was already underway.

At some point, the post-WWII "deal" -- between elites and the middle class, in America -- changed, and social-mobility numbers started changing as well (still, there is some degree of social mobility in America, but mobility is considerably less dynamic than it was in the period from the 1930s to the 1970s). The gap between the "haves" and the "have-nots" started widening -- in ways that, today, seem rather alarming. And, peculiarly, country whose GDP, from 1988 to 2007, was rising at twice the rate its population was rising -- somehow has had difficulty finding the resources, through the tax system, of addressing basic needs like infrastructure (though seemingly limitless funds can be found for offensive weapons systems).

The U.S. not only seems, today, to have difficulty finding the tax resources (as it could in the 1950s to build the Interstate highway system, to finance low-interest home loans, and to fund the GI Bill) to bother to maintain its infrastructure, to educate all its children adequately, and to make sure that everyone (not just the "haves") would have access to decent health care -- but has experienced (at least perceived) fiscal difficulty of this sort, for quite some time. Then again, I suppose it must not be forgotten that, with a slightly different level and distribution of taxation, the United States as recently as 1998-2000 ran a surplus, and was able to manage record-breaking levels of economic growth.

Some of the trends seen in the U.S. in recent years (from 1980 - 1992, and for the past eight years, at least) -- in particular, widening inequality and pronounced social injustice issues, not to mention the corruption of political elites -- Perkins points out in "Economic Hit Man," inevitably (not "almost inevitably," but *inevitably*) accompanied U.S. and World Bank "economic development" loans and investments in these countries. I expect that Klein also will document, country-after-country, how U.S. policies have increased (rather than reduced) poverty, have reduced civil liberties (at the hands of dictators like Pinochet, Suharto, or the Shah of Iran), have resulted in widespread environmental damage, and has enriched and benefited, principally, a small and corrupt global elite.

There's just one point that I think Perkins didn't quite drive home: At some point (and it is purely speculation on my part to say, perhaps, it was 1973 or shortly thereafter), somebody (or, perhaps a lot of somebodies, entirely independent from one another) got the bright idea that the United States -- and its population -- was not necessarily different, as a matter of principle, from any of the other "client" countries (and their populations) that multinationals, with the help of the U.S. government, were exploiting.

The point that needs to be made (at least to U.S. voters) is not just a point about what the U.S. has enabled its companies to do to other countries' populations (what Perkins describes, in this regard alone, is shameful enough). The point that really ought to hit home (and I'll speculate that Klein may actually get around to this) is: And, now, they're doing it to us, here, too.

The U.S. isn't just an imperial exploiter of other countries; the same techniques of exploitation have been turned loose on our own population, too.

So as to avoid the same criticism that I leveled at Klein (who is it, precisely, who "undeclared" "the" war on women?), I'll do my best to try to identify the "they," who are doing it to "us." "They" is not a single integrated and unified cabal, pursuing a common and well-organized plan but rather "they" vary project-by-project, and policy-by-policy. "They," like the rest of us, do things largely on an ad-hoc basis. The "they" who are removing mountaintops in West Virginia, in order to fuel coal-burning power plants, are not necessarily the same "they" who engage in predatory lending, and who managed to get draconian changes in the bankruptcy laws passed through Congress. Still another "they" consists of people like Richard Mellon Scaife, who -- so appreciative of the personal benefits of a large inheritance -- financed an aggressive and protracted campaign to ensure that the inheritors of concentrated wealth (people who we might describe, using Phil Gramm's colorful description, as "ridin' in the wagon," from birth), are not required (like the rest of us -- those "pullin' the wagon") to pay their fare share of what it takes to keep society running smoothly and well. Scaife's personal subset of "they," presumably includes Grover Norquist and others who enjoyed being handsomely paid to promote some really kooky ideas. "They" includes government contractors, like Halliburton and defense contractors, who have turned the national government into a reverse-Robin-Hood rip-off scheme, in which average Americans, who receive most of their income in the form of payroll checks, are taxed disproportionately in order to funnel a truly staggering amount of government largess into the pockets of relatively few, very wealthy, people. Some of those same captains of the government contracts industry (the same people who helped elect Bush 43 as President), will oddly applaud when "their" kind of politician rants against income re-distribution, or mouths platitudes about how "the guvvament should not be picking winners and losers." Evidently, "they're" only opposed to the guvvament "picking winners and losers," when the government's activity happens to involve something other than awarding lucrative defense and construction contracts to them.

Some of "them" seem to keep turning up in the halls of power, from administration to administration. Dick Nixon was far from the only Eisenhower administration official to return to the Executive branch in 1968. The Reagan and Bush 41 administrations from 1980-92, were populated quite heavily with people (Cheney, Weinberger, Schultz, Bush 41, Rumsfeld) who had served their country in the Nixon and Ford administrations. Since Bush 43 took power, names have shown up on the roster (like John Poindexter) that would lead one to marvel at the chutzpah of the current administration and its penchant to resurrect crooks (but they're loyal crooks) from past administrations.

"They" are not completely unified -- and often disagree on points both minor and, sometimes, even major. But, it seems to me, the thing that most unites "them" is a system of shared beliefs, many of which they learned in high school and college -- the set of ideas (perhaps best exemplified by Milton Friedman)
exemplified by low taxes (Always lower taxes!), race-to-the-bottom trade liberalization (Always lower prices! at Wal-Mart, with the help of Chinese labor and environmental practices), repeal of the so-called "death tax" (even though the estate tax was championed by Theodore Roosevelt, and some of the richest people in America -- such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffett -- strongly urge that large estates *should* be taxed), and "the free market" as a panacea for whatever ails your society. Of course, not everyone who clings to these free-market economic (and Straussian political) ideas, actually belongs to the "them" club. Many of the people on Fox News or the radio -- the ones with veins bulging out of their foreheads whenever the dominant orthodoxy is questioned (let alone openly challenged) -- are not really driving the train. They're just helping shovel coal into the locomotive. They're just followers who are either: (1) not astute enough to know any better, or (2) (more likely, it seems), too well-compensated and too good at what they do to stop doing what they are doing.

Seems to me that if the Bolivians can send a message -- loud and clear -- both to Washington and to Bechtel (Enron, for a time, also
was pitching the privatization of water systems) about the unconscionable exploitation of U.S. "client states," then Americans -- given access to adequate information, and through communities in which they realize (like other persecuted minority -- or are they actually majority? -- viewpoints are coming to realize) that their beliefs and concerns are commonly-shared -- ought to be able to insist on meaningful change. Just because the mass media tends to be uncritical of the dominant orthodoxy (or critical only in the shallowest sense), does not mean that the truth cannot start at least filtering out. For the first time in a long time, large numbers of Americans seem to be waking up and asking some of the right questions.

The recent Pew poll, it seems to me, reflects -- more than anything -- the success of non-traditional media (the Web, blogs, etc.), in starting to overcome so-called "mainstream" orthodoxies that have, until quite recently, been difficult to challenge in the same sense that one has difficulty shouting over a nearby jet engine.

And what about the much-touted desire, discussed on television for "unity . . . like we had in September, 2001?" Well, presumably, there are two ways to achieve "unity" between the "two Americas" -- the first is for the few and the many to "unite" behind the agenda of the many; the other is the one that Bush seems to insist upon -- that "unity" is only possible if everyone else "unites" behind his agenda (even if it is only good for less than 1% of the country and bad for everyone else). Why, exactly, is it, that every time the topic of unity comes up on television, it is always framed as whether the rest of America will "unite" with Bush's America -- and stop dissenting from "their" policies. Isn't the real question, when it comes to "unity" whether "they" will stop waging an undeclared class war, and join the rest of us -- in one America (and, one hopes, a better world as a whole) by redirecting resources to do good for everyone?

1 comment:

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