Saturday, January 10, 2015

Not the Country I Grew Up In

© Charles D. Hayes 

Now in my eighth decade, I find that my confidence in America’s future no longer resembles the enthusiasm I grew up experiencing in the 1940s and ’50s. My first job in 1956 was a paper route delivering the Dallas Morning News. My district manager’s name was John Galt. He was an affable man who seemed to work hard, but he was not without faults that were obvious, even to a teenager. The very next year, Ayn Rand would publish Atlas Shrugged, featuring a flawless fictional capitalist character also named John Galt. I didn’t get the irony until years later.

More than two decades would pass before I read Atlas Shrugged, but one thing became immediately clear when I did: there are no such persons with the virtue Rand attributed to John Galt, her ideal man. There are, however, plenty of wannabes, and America is increasingly a greed-based plutocracy that reeks of the ethos of selfishness, while the growing disparity between the super-rich and the middle class is rapidly becoming grotesque.

In the first three years after the 2008 economic downturn, 95 percent of income went to the top one percent of the population, while the gap today between executive compensation and the hourly pay of blue-collar workers makes a mockery of the very idea of fairness. The current state of inequality brings to mind an observation by former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis: “We can have a democratic society or we can have great concentrated wealth in the hands of a few. We cannot have both.”

In the 1950s, income tax rates were extraordinarily high, over 90 percent, but few people actually paid the top rates. Business owners avoided the high tax rate by reinvesting heavily in their enterprises. America’s high wages and rapidly growing middle class were the envy of the world. Working for one company and receiving a gold watch upon retirement was accepted as being doable if that was your goal. Career expectations for people willing to apply themselves and work hard were wildly optimistic.     

America was making huge infrastructural investments in the 1950s with an interstate highway system, rural electrification, the GI Bill, and the FHA for home mortgages. There was an explosive increase in affordable housing and a boom in manufacturing. In the arena of science and engineering we were on the threshold of going to the moon.

At the same time, though, our society in the ’40s and ’50s was sexist and overtly racist. We saw segregated housing, residential redlining, and egregiously unfair employment opportunities for women and minorities. Voting rights for minorities were threatened by poll taxes and excessive difficulties in registering.

In those days, we were not commonly aware of a psychologically devious self-deception at work in our own minds, and we failed to take into account the fact we see mostly what we want to see and what we expect to see. We didn’t understand the psychological dynamics of bias. We thought what we were experiencing was straight-up reality. Sadly, even now, many people still don’t get it.

In the decades since that time, lifespans have increased and medical miracles are now taken for granted. We have Dick Tracy communication abilities and are one click away from more information than was ever thought possible. Technologies make our lives easier than our ancestors could have dreamed.

And yet, today, the expectation of long-term employment is history. Unions are dying off. Good-paying factory jobs are going the way of the buffalo. There is a resurgent threat to voting rights in what we now call red states. Working conditions have improved, but women and minorities still do not receive equal treatment in employment.

Automation is decimating the job market. Low-wage jobs are growing like weeds, and taxpayers are having to supplement wages for workers in some of the biggest and most profitable companies in America. It’s not unusual for people to juggle several part-time jobs because they can’t find full-time employment, while major employers are allowed to set reduced hours specifically to avoid paying additional benefits for full-time workers.

Productivity is going up as wages stagnate or go down. Individuals making $10,000 an hour are crying crocodile tears because working people are asking for $10 per hour. Corporate executives whine incessantly about America having high tax rates, even though most corporations pay nothing close to the maximum rate because of loopholes legislated by paid lobbyists. Many create headquarters in a foreign county to escape taxes altogether.

A cracker-box house in many of our big cites will cost from $700k to over $1 million, while a 30-year mortgage is a bigger risk than ever before. Even among families with health insurance, a serious disease will likely bankrupt most because of the necessary copay. Homelessness is a growth enterprise, as are tent-shack encampments, itinerant shelters, food pantries, soup kitchens, gated communities, and private security companies.

The financial sector is increasingly parasitic. Whereas it used to specialize in lending money for startups, it now just siphons off the investment cream with supercomputers. Ideologues cheer them on as if they have something to do with the idiotic notion of excellence. The credit card industry is increasingly predatory, while the payday loan industry could teach the mob a thing or two.

Our infrastructure is crumbling. Regardless of the fact that we are nearly $3 trillion behind in required maintenance, those on the extreme right of the GOP are looking for ways to lower taxes. This, in my view, makes these folks the biggest something-for-nothing crowd ever.

Meanwhile, even though the basic social employment contract has been gutted, voices on the Right still whine about a deficit of moral virtue, as if all people have to do is just start acting responsible. They seem to think if that were to happen, then tomorrow the old jobs would be back and everything would be just fine. Not so. They won’t admit that the playing field has changed beyond recognition.

For a fraction of what we spend on a bloated military, college education could be free and we could have a social safety net that, instead of being punitive, could actually reward initiative. But to do such things remains beyond our reach with so many of our citizens living in mortal fear that some poor fool is going to get something at their expense.

All the while, corporate executives are hauling off money by the wheelbarrow load with a thumb up for success. Wannabes genuflect in approval as they dream of getting their own wheelbarrow load and joining the club.

The economic statistics over the past half-century tell the story of what has happened to America in a clinical sense, but if you want to get a personal feel for the troubling conditions we find ourselves in, Bob Herbert’s Losing Our Way is a brilliant account in terms of the human cost of growing inequality.       

To me, the most disturbing aspect of this whole scenario is that it took me so long to see this hypocrisy and pretention for what they amount to, namely tribalism. We’re witnessing tribalism on steroids as groups try to prove their superiority over everyone else. Because of what they believe is stellar behavior, they deem their kind to be worthy while others aren’t. It’s that simple.

Reversing our escalating inequality, however, is anything but simple. Instead of paying attention to the politics that directly affect their lives, millions of our citizens cling to clich├ęd versions of an American Dream mythology that have been sold short by Wall Street interests.

The people with the power to rig the system own the politicians of both parties and the major media sources that influence the general public. The richest one percent now own almost half of the world’s wealth, and their rate of ownership increases annually.  

To wrest power away from those who have spent the last three decades purchasing favorable legislation and who have now been given the ability to buy elections by none other than the United States Supreme Court, at times seems impossible. Let’s hope it’s not too late to recreate a more equitable society.

Both liberals and conservatives are likely to agree that the economic trajectory we are currently on is not sustainable and that rising inequality shows no signs of abating. The shame of the matter is that while solutions may not be simple, all it would take to solve most of our economic problems is for people on all sides of the political divide to care more about solutions than whose side gets credit.

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