Some time back I wrote a piece called “Back to Square One.” In that essay I laid out the basic premise that if there are limited resources and that if one group has most of them, the only way anyone else will get any at all is if we find a way to create more resources or the group with the most gives some up. I’m hardly the first person to make that observation.
There I was speaking about the population growth projections for the next 35 years and the world as a whole. The same reasoning applies to this country and to this time.
Assuming that the pie really isn’t going to get any bigger in the near future, the real question becomes, “what’s the best way to share the resources to everyone’s satisfaction?” And in the emotional firestorm which that question engenders we see the corollary question, “Why should we share resources?”
These questions assume of course that some sort of inequity exists that requires action. It should be clear by now across the entire political spectrum that there is an economic inequity of staggering proportions between the poorest and the richest individuals in our country. Various reasons can be put forth for this “income gap,” but it clearly exists. It’s not only unfortunate; it’s dangerous.
There is also a social inequality that has become increasingly evident (again).
But do these economic and social inequities require that action be taken? Is it, perhaps, better to let sleeping dogs lie and continue to go about business as usual, hoping that what hasn’t worked in the past will suddenly work in the future?
The problem with sleeping dogs is that they always wake up.
Even a cursory study of world history will show that when economic and social injustice reach a critical point, those who feel disadvantaged will revolt.
But this is America, and that can’t happen here!
I hear that continually from both sides of the political spectrum. And it’s nonsense. We became America because we were willing to revolt! And we love that about ourselves. It’s part of the American mythos. We fought one of the bloodiest wars ever in 1864 because many states were willing to revolt to protect their economic well-being when the North took away their cheap labor force. The last of those battle flags just came down.
So, yes it can happen here.
And thanks to our revolutionary history we have allowed our citizens to stay armed specifically so that they can revolt again if they feel the need to. And many of them are very, very armed and feel that it is their constitutional right to use those arms to protect their “way of life,” much like the south did.
The French Revolution was fought with pitchforks in the streets of Paris. What do you honestly think is going to happen if things get out of control in America today?
And who do you think will suffer the most in such an eventuality? It won’t be the armed, right-wing militias with their stockpiles of ammo. They are just waiting for the poor and the minorities to start something so they can go into action. And there are going to be a great many people caught in the middle. The property damage alone across the major cities will erase any meager economic growth seen there in recent years.
Aside from the very real threat to our society from allowing inequality to reach a critical level just from a survival point of view, there are also ethical questions to be answered.
Are we as a country ethically content to allow so many of our citizens to be have-nots when we could easily better their situation? Are we as a country willing to stand by and watch many of our citizens treated as less than equals by our police and our criminal justice system? Do we stand by silently when one faction works diligently to take away the ability of others to exercise their right to vote?
Ethics is just religion without mentioning God. If you identify as a Christian then your answers to the above questions are prescribed for you. If you do not, your answers may come only after some consideration.
It would seem clear to me that from a moral, ethical, and survival perspective we need to take action and do it soon.
But what do we do?
The obvious answer is to reduce the income inequality and the social injustice. We need to do it in a highly visible way and we need to do it soon.
On the other hand it isn’t so clear how to go about that.
There are almost as many answers as there are people, but there are some clear alternatives we can discuss.
The quickest and most effective solution to the income inequality problem is to somehow redistribute some of the existing wealth while we look for ways to increase the resources.
“Hell, no you don’t! We do NOT redistribute anything in America. We earned everything fair and square and by the sweat of our brow and you will take it away from us only over our cold, dead bodies.”
You hear this argument from two groups of people: those who have most of the resources and those who have convinced each other that someday they may have a great many of those resources.
Frankly, I understand the point of view of the first of these groups. If they really did haul themselves up from nothing on the strength of their boot straps, they are to be admired. Relatively few actually did that, however. More often than not their grandfather or great grandfather may have done that back when the economy was booming and these guys just had good investment brokers for their inherited money. The world of their grandfathers is not the world of today.
I’m baffled by the second group, and it seems to be the larger of the two. On the one hand they seem to be expressing a traditional belief in the “American Dream,” and on the other they seem to vote against their own interests most of the time because of that. Books have been written about this phenomenon. They have a great deal of respect for success, defined as getting ahead financially, no matter how you do it so long as it’s legal. Or sorta legal.
Both of these groups tend to identify as Republican.
There is a strong belief among them that the poor deserve to be poor. They are poor because they haven’t worked hard enough. They didn’t take advantage of the educational system. They had children out of wedlock. The father ran off. They are scamming the system because they don’t want to work. They are freeloaders. They are lazy. It’s their fault, not our fault, so why should you take our money to help them?
First, because if you don’t they will eventually get sick of their situation because they don’t see it as their fault. They will revolt and riot, and lots of people are going to die. Think of it this way; you’re not so much helping them out as you are paying for an insurance policy to keep your ass from getting shot off.
But that’s blackmail! No, it’s blackmail if they say it. It’s good governing when you realize it.
Secondly, you have an ethical, moral, and religious obligation to help those less fortunate than you. It is impossible to pull yourself up by your boot straps when you have no boots. A great many people have never had boots. Lots of people these days had to sell theirs for food a long time ago.
There may also be ways to improve their financial equity with the rest of the population without simply “giving” money away. You can redistribute wealth by taking money from one group and giving it to another, or you can do it by raising wages, creating jobs, and improving health care and education.
The opposition of both of these groups to the resolution of social injustices is considerably more nuanced and shared with a large number of people outside those groups. Bigotry is spawned out of fear and it crosses political boundaries, but as the current Republican presidential candidates have made clear, fear of those who are not “us” runs very close to the surface there.
But redistribution of wealth is welfare! We’re Americans! We believe in capitalism. We don’t do that. People should work for everything they have just like we did. We didn’t kill off nearly every native American on the continent just so we could give our money to lay-about blacks and white trash! Let them earn their own way!
There are two types of earners in this country today: those that make money by manual labor and skill, and those who make money by investing money they already have in order to make more. There are those who get ahead by working extra hours and extra jobs and those who get ahead by being fired and taking a multi-million dollar golden parachute to go away quietly without raising a fuss. There are those who earn their living by taking over other companies and then shutting them down, putting people out of work, and those who earn their living building houses, roads, and small businesses. This division is crucial to understanding what is going on in the country’s economy and in its politics.
At one time these lines were more clearly drawn than they are today. Today you may be a blue collar construction worker with your entire pension invested in the stock market.
At one time there were a great many more people in this country who earned their living in the blue collar world. Many of them looked up to the white collar world with respect. They saw success there and they aspired to that, but as the white collar world sucked more and more of the life out of them, their respect turned to distrust.
The poor and disadvantaged in this country obviously cannot earn a living investing their money. They are poor. They must have jobs to earn their way and those jobs must pay a living wage. They must have the education to be able to perform those jobs. All of these things have been in short supply.
The first group – those who work hard earning a living with their hands and heads – no longer see the second group as such valuable members of society as they once did. They see them as the ones that caused the last recession. They see them as the ones making 300 times what they do and still trying to make more at their expense.
And the second group, the investment class, tend now to look down on those who work with their hands. They are the infamous 1%.
Everyone needs someone to blame for their problems.
Republicans tend to blame government. Government is bad, big government is worse. Everyone has a story about how government – at some level – screwed them over. If only big government would stay out of things, all would be well.
“In 1964, just 29 percent of voters believed government was run by a few big interests looking out for themselves. Now, 79 percent of Americans believe that, according to Gallup.
“The erosion of public trust has been steep in recent years. In 2006, 59 percent of Americans felt government corruption was widespread. Now, 81 percent feel that way.” – Robert Reich
So is it the idea of government that people are upset with, or is it the people we now have in government that are the problem?
Democrats tend to blame big business, corporations, and Wall Street. It wasn’t government that failed in 2008. It was the banks. It was the Wall Street fat cats and greedy investors. Yes, government has problems, but it is corporate money that’s poisoning it.
“For thirty-five years, most Americans haven’t seen any gain in their incomes, adjusted for inflation, although the economy is twice as large as it was 35 years ago. Almost all the gains went to the richest 1 percent. In the “recovery” that began in 2009, all the economic gains went to the top, and the median family lost ground.”
The people who are losing everything blame everyone. The people who had homes and who now have no homes don’t really care whose fault it was. They’ll blame the banks because the banks foreclosed on them. They’ll blame Wall Street because they heard Wall Street controlled the banks. They’ll blame the government because the government didn’t keep it from happening. And they don’t give a damn about the fine points of any of this. The people who had jobs and couldn’t find another and now don’t even bother to look for them anymore don’t care whose fault it is.
And the attitude is contagious. Those who have lost less are sympathetic to those who have lost more, and it doesn’t matter whose fault it really is.
They don’t have the time or the education or the energy to parse out this little bit of blame or that little bit of blame. They are angry at everyone and all they can see is that things have stopped working. Blame the congress; blame the system; blame Wall Street. It’s all part and parcel of the same thing. But they are constantly being pushed to choose sides.
Black communities are starting to publicly reject the myth that segregation is over and that racism is a thing of the past. Now they are starting to insist that black lives matter as never before since the 60’s. There is a new, in-your-face activism developing, and the faces they are in aren’t happy about it. Technology now brings the reality of racial inequity into both black and white people’s homes on the nightly news as never before. How many more blacks killed by white police officers or nut-job white supremacists will it take before that segment of the population loses restraint?
The country is this close to a primal scream.
Into all of this walk two men who seem to defy common logic on the surface.
One is a blowhard billionaire with a classic case of narcissism, and the other is a grumpy, self-proclaimed socialist from Vermont. And both of these men who couldn’t be more different are getting way more attention from the American electorate than anyone might have thought they could.
And they are getting that attention because they are not business-as-usual politicians. Neither one of them is taking money from the usual donors. They are not in the Koch’s pocket; they are not hedging their bets, they don’t say what’s necessary to be elected. And both of them are saying things that people have been waiting for someone to say.
One of them simply says, “Look at me. I am successful. I’m a winner. I’m what you would like to be. No one gives me shit. I do what I want to do and I say what I want to say and if people object, fuck them. I even told Fox News to go screw itself and my ratings went up! I’m rich; I’m powerful; I’m your hero and you know it, America has gone to crap and I can make America great again. You don’t need to know how. Shut up.”
The other one says, “We cannot have a country where the 1% control the government and the economy, where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer and the rest of the world surpasses us in every important aspect of life. We need to stand up to the billionaires and show them that people are stronger than money. We need a political revolution and you need to be a part of that. If you will do that, we can show the billionaires who is boss and make your lives better. I have a plan and it’s available for everyone to read.”
Both of these men are speaking directly to deeply dissatisfied portions of the population. Their messages couldn’t be more different, but they are doing more than just striking a chord. The result is that they are shaping the heart of the conversation this country is going to have in the future, not the expected, usual suspects.
The media and the pundits claim neither of these candidates has a chance of getting their party’s nomination. They are outliers. Does anyone really believe that Donald Trump can build a wall across the US-Mexico Border? (Does anyone have any idea what that would cost?) Does anyone really believe that Bernie Sanders can get Citizen’s United reversed or offer free college education for everyone?
But does anyone even care?
People are looking at both of these men and saying, “If this man were president, things would change. Things would have to change.” Never mind how they would change. They would change. And that’s what people want. It’s no longer a few people who are fed up. Now it’s most people who are fed up.
I wouldn’t count either one of these men out. So long as they stay in the race, their supporters will keep them in the race.
It’s going to be the year of the outliers.
Your Humble Servant,
Roger A. Shipley, The Willowbrook Curmudgeon