Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, July 05, 2010

234 years later . . .

Where do we find ourselves? What is essential about this moment in the story of the United States?

Looking back on my own views for the past 15 years or so, I discover that they haven't really changed. The presumption of endlessly more prosperity, that each generation would surpass its parents in opportunity and plenty, was at the heart of the political culture. And it was doomed to bitter disappointment.

This piece by Ravi Somaiya in Newsweek, for all its corporate media tentativeness (and its weird conflation of atheists with right wing extremists calling for armed insurrection), does make an essentially correct point: the essential complaint of the resurgent right, embodied in the Tea Partiers, is that they, the deserving, are being taxed to subsidize the unnamed undeserving. Since Newsweek isn't allowed to name them, I will. The Tea Partiers believe they are being taxed to support lazy, shiftless negroes and unclean foreigners. This belief comforts them because it explains why they don't have what they expected and know they deserve.

As Yglesias notes, however, the United States today has a lower employment/population ratio, and lower household income, than it did in 1999. And for nearly two decades before that, household income managed to hold steady only because more household members worked. Now that employment has stagnated along with wages, families are worse off than they have been for most adults' entire working lives.

The cold truth is that this is not going to change in the foreseeable future. The days when people could achieve a comfortable middle class existence on the income of a single person bolting cars together are never coming back. Many of the jobs lost in the Great Recession are gone forever, and others will never pay as well. Professionals who have been laid off and rehired as contractors, with lower pay and no benefits, will never get their former status back.

The U.S. Empire is bleeding the country, not only of its economic life force, but of its vision. We cannot maintain our enviable way of life by military domination of distant lands. We need to make drastic changes in the organization of our economic and social lives. The aggrieved middle classes have been sold a fundamentally false diagnosis of their troubles, of course. Their taxes are being squandered in ways that do not benefit them, but they are being handed, not to the undeserving poor, but to the undeserving wealthy. Even so, their biggest problem is not taxation, not by a long sight. The tax burden in the United States is actually low by international comparison, and even with a tax cut -- which in fact Obama has already given them -- the U.S. middle class would keep losing ground.

The only way our population can thrive in the post-industrial, and ultimately post-petroleum era, is by creating new categories of public goods and services and reorganizing our economic life for equity and sustainability. But we are having entirely the wrong discussion. Until that changes, we have no hope.

1 comment:

kathy a. said...

you're right. there are huge sets of policy decisions over decades that have contributed to the problem, and they are driven by the desire of the wealthy and powerful few to have more more more more for themselves, and/or to mold public opinion in ways conforming to the not-objectively-justifiable views of a few. and these have been sold as something else, something benefitting ordinary people -- using divide and conquer tactics and/or fear.

corporations exist to make profits. many have succeeded beyond belief with a combination of lowered taxation, deregulation, shipping jobs overseas, diminishing the ability of citizens to sue for redress, union-busting, lobbying and campaign donations, attack ads, misinformation, and generally fostering a climate where management gets obscenely wealthy no matter what.

the talking points of the powerful are never "we wanna get richer." they are always couched differently, in ways to appeal to the less fortunate by preying on their fears.

remember when rose bird and 2 other justices of the cal. supreme court were run out on a rail during what would ordinarily be a routine confirmation election? that campaign was financed by corporate interests who thought the court was too hostile to business profits. but the talking points were crime and the death penalty -- that court was framed as a bunch of crazy liberals who wanted people killed in their homes.